Sumathi Ramaswamy. The Lost Land of Lemuria. Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories. xv + 334 pp. illus., figs., index. California: University of California Press, 2004. $21.95 (paper).
The world has many mythic places: the Garden of Eden Atlantis, El Dorado. Opinion about these places usually breaks down into two camps. Believers defend them as real, lost to the modern world through acts of natural or divinely-induced catastrophe. Skeptics see them as fantasies, the labors of a blinkered imagination. Missing from this debate over real or fantasy is the cultural function of lost worlds in human society. For Ramaswamy, this is the starting point for her project. “What is a lost place? What symbolic capital does a lost place command that an available place does not?” (3) Her case study is Lemuria, a lost continent that some believed stretched over large parts of the Indian Ocean. The story of Lemuria begins in 1864, when British zoologist Philip Sclater published an essay, “The Mammals of Madagascar” in the Quarterly Journal of Science.
Sclater observed several similarities between the species of Madagascar and India, particularly in the distribution of lemurs. To Sclater, this suggested that Madagascar and India were once part of the same continent, a place he playfully called “Lemuria.” Scientists such as Thomas Huxley, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Ernst Haeckel seriously debated the existence of Lemuria, an idea made plausible by catastrophist theories of geology and biogeographical evidence in the field. Yet support for Lemuria waned as Alfred Wegener’s continental drift theory gained support in the twentieth century. Wegener provided an alternate, compelling explanation for the biogeographical similarities between Madagascar and India: these regions had once been connected and then drifted apart millions of years ago. But while support for Lemuria petered out among scientists, it lived on in two communities which Ramaswamy dubs “eccentric and off-modern”: Western occultists and Tamil devotees in southern India. For occult organizations such as the Theosophical Society and its twentieth century New Age offshoots, Lemuria offered a way of anchoring the idea of lost continents, central to their creation stories of the world, to the work of respected scientists. For Tamil devotees, the lost continent of Lemuria lent credibility to the idea of an ancestral Tamil homeland, Kumarinatu, that they believed was destroyed by the sea. In each of these cases, the story of Lemuria’s destruction was a creative act, one that required “labors of loss.”
This is an impressive work. While Ramaswamy is not the first scholar to attempt a cultural analysis of mythic places, the scope and depth of her analysis raise the bar for scholars who follow. Not only does she demonstrate how Lemuria (and by extension other mythic worlds) gain their power by appearing in the modern world as “lost,” she also shows how the role of Lemuria evolves in three very different communities. That Ramaswamy is at ease discussing biogeography, New Age philosophy, and the texts of Tamil devotion shows her great flexibility and synthetic powers as a scholar. Unfortunately, few readers will be able to make it through the thicket of Ramaswamy’s prose to complete The Lost Land of Lemuria. Written in the language of post-colonial critique, it is at times too comfortable with showing that processes are complicated and contradictory. To offer one example:
Labors of loss around Lemuria occupy the vortex of the dialectic constituted by the opposing pulls of the will to disenchant and the rush to re-enchant. Modernity’s discontents are thus both disabling and enabling for the preoccupations of loss around this vanished land. (10)
Lemuria is also a place that burgeons with hyphens. It is a land of place-worlds and life-worlds, inhabited by the non-modern, off-modern, and the counter-disenchanted. While “loss” is a central concept for this book, the term rains down on the reader relentlessly, in chapter titles (all except one), subheadings, and on almost every page. What is most upsetting here is not that The Lost Land of Lemuria is difficult to read. It is that the language will keep it from audiences who should be reading it. Ramaswamy tells us how important it is to give voice to groups who are marginalized by the Western paradigms of science and history, but she has written a book that – significant as it is- will only be discussed within the ramparts of the academy.
Thanks to University of Chicago Press for permission to re-print this review. It first appealed in the journal Isis December 2006, 97 (4): 775-776.