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Book Review

 

Sumathi Ramaswamy, The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. xvii + 384. $21.95 (paper).

 
      Sumathi Ramaswamy's The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories, is an investigation of the "labors of loss" surrounding the fabled land of Lemuria. Proponents of Lemuria believe that this continent sank beneath the waves somewhere between Africa and India or, perhaps, in the south Pacific, or off California coast, or in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Who or what populated this lost continent is the subject of much disagreement and debate among those who believe in it. Philipe Lutley Sclater first proposed that this continent, which he dubbed "Lemuria," in the 1860s, once linked Africa, including Madagascar, to India, as an explanation for why the Lemurs of Madagascar and their cousins in India existed so far apart. Since then, several "constituencies" for Lemuria seized upon his idea and turned it to their own ends. Ramaswamy explains how each of these constituencies Western scientists, Western occultists and New Age practitioners, and Tamil nationalists in turn used Lemuria as part of a "labor of loss" that met different cultural needs. Ramaswamy borrows the concept of "labors of loss" from Georges Bataille and Michel de Certeau, and by it she means the ways in which the efforts to identify, claim, and define something that has been lost in this case a lost continent and/or its civilization allows the imagination to construct "memories" of the past that are central to identity in the present and perhaps to a better future. 1
    Since the mid-century, the science of plate tectonics has replaced theories of lost continents to explain patterns of biological dispersal. Such theories were commonplace before 1950, commanding a particularly strong following among late 19th century scientists. Although some envisioned Lemuria as the birthplace of the human race, most were much more conservative in their labors of loss and placed Lemuria in the distant mists of time many millennia before humans appeared on earth. By the same token, there was no consensus of scientific opinion over the size or even the precise location of Lemuria. In the maps scientists drew up to visualize the continent and its relationship to the world's existing landmasses, Lemuria ranged from a mere land-bridge linking Africa and/or Madagascar with India, sometimes snaking in unusual configurations following the island chains of the Indian Ocean, to vast continents extending across much of the Southern Hemisphere, sometimes even abutting California. Some argued that Lemuria was the true "cradle of the human race." 2
    Theories of lost continents were highly popular as well among the occultists who flourished during the nineteenth century, and occult leaders soon placed Lemuria next to the better-known Atlantis as home to a lost civilization that was the true origin of human beings and human culture. Theosophists, for example, envisioned Lemuria as the continent where the earliest "root races" of humanity flourished. The twentieth-century heirs of the occultists, the New Age spiritualists, still perform the labors of loss to construct, sustain, and embellish the memory of Lemuria. The fruits of their efforts can be accessed easily through the internet. 3
     Ramaswamy is primarily a historian of India, however, and the heart of this work is her examination of Tamil labors of loss related to Lemuria, which the Tamils appropriated as Kumarikkantam, the ancient homeland of the Tamil people and Tamil civilization. Lemuria, whose existence Western scientists studying the Indian Ocean advanced for ends completely unrelated to Tamil cultural purposes or needs, appeared at exactly the moment when Tamil intellectuals were seeking to nourish pride in Tamil language, history and culture in the face of British colonization and centuries of struggle with domination from the north of India. Lemuria was well-suited to serve this purpose precisely because it was the brainchild of Western scientists, whose methodology and epistemology were becoming the dominant means of constructing and validating "knowledge" about the natural world and, increasingly, the human past. Because Western scientists were extremely vague about Lemuria's size, location, nature, and natural habitats, the continent could be "remembered" as an ancient Tamil homeland, hearth of a vast and highly-developed civilization, and even the source from which ancient humans populated the earth. In fact, the Tamils were confined to the southern end of the Indian peninsula and struggled to establish a Tamil state during the early years of Indian independence and nationhood. Precisely because it was lost and could not be recovered, Lemuria became a vehicle by which Tamils could assert for their language and culture an antiquity and equality, even superiority against rival claimants for territorial and cultural preeminence in India. Indeed, Tamils could remember Lemuria without calling into question their loyalty to modern India. This is why Lemuria still figures prominently in Tamil official histories and is taught in Tamil schools and universities. 4
     At the same time, however, Ramaswamy contends that the "terror of history" and the "tyranny of the physical sciences" have always placed limits on the "labors of loss" surrounding Lemuria. Far more than the occult and New Age proponents of the lost continent, Tamils feel it necessary to ground their memory of Lemuria in the material world and in scientific epistemology. If Lemuria cannot be shown to have been "real" and authentic in the physical as well as the spiritual sense then, they fear, it will lose its power as a means to resist representations of Tamil history and culture created elsewhere in India and the world. This felt need for scientific legitimacy, she concludes, has strangely impoverished Tamil "labors of loss", which have suffered from a failure of imagination, an inability to conceive a truly wondrous Tamil utopia that could become a model for a reformed Tamil society in modern India.   5
     The Lost Land of Lemuria is a fascinating book that I would recommend highly to world historians, although I would not recommend it as an assignment except in an advanced class senior undergraduates or graduate students. Its importance lies in the way Ramaswamy confronts the constructed nature of all historical knowledge. Western historical epistemology and methodology can reinforce Western dominance, removing from the hands of colonized peoples the power to control their own history. Ramaswamy recovers alternatives to Western ways of remembering the past. 6
     These are issues that make Western and Western-trained scholars profoundly uncomfortable, not the least because they suggest that the Western search for historical "truth" does not always create the history that people in other cultures desire or need. World historians in particular need to grapple with these issues, even if they in the end continue to opt for modern, rather than "off-modern," history. Far more than historians who study a single culture, especially their own, world historians are interlopers, like the Western colonial scientists of the nineteenth century, ranging far and wide and attempting to decipher, or construct, the pasts of others. As a result, cultural communication and clashes over the very nature of history itself, and to whom history belongs, are inevitable. Moreover, despite the ascendance of Western historical epistemology, Ramaswamy is quite correct that historians can learn a great deal from "labors of loss" and alternative ways of constructing historical memory.   7
Gayle K. Brunelle
California State University, Fullerton

 
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