Monday, August 10, 2009

Beckwith II: Empires of the Silk Road: Lev Gumilev and Bertrand Russel

Continuing to chew through Empires of the Silk Road (prvious post on the subject here)

Reading Beckwith, I definitely have some thoughts to share (or, at the very least, to note for myself); however, I must stress -- let's say, as a disclaimer -- that those are naïve views; not necessarily in the sense of youthful inexperience, but in the sense of coming from someone who doesn't and can't, through lack of knowledge, distinguish what is commonplace in modern Orientalism from what is peculiar to Beckwith. I might then be repeating what everybody knows, or trying to force an open door, or replying to ideas that have nothing to do with what Beckwith really meant. The authors overwhelming scholarship, amazing depth of knowledge and erudition commands great respect. What I write about the book is written for the fun of writing it, no more, no less.

The above being said, reading Beckwith gives me a strong sentiment of awe mixed with a definite déjà vu. Beckwith's knowledge and ability for synthesis is definitely awe-inspiring. However, the whole work, from the start, reminded me of something. First of all, of course, as already mentioned in the previous post on the subject, it reminded me of Lev Gumilev. In more than one way, in fact -- more on this later. After that -- Spengler, of course.

The more I read, the more it feels like being presented backwards. Someone -- who happened to be an orientalist -- has an axe to grind with all things modern. Especially modern art. Believes he is living in the last age of civilization (at least the civilization he likes). Then works this idée fixe of his back to the depth of his professional knowledge and emerges with a historical theory of everything -- a theory that only confirms his initial feelings of times out of joint. He then proceeds to write a book that starts far afield and deep in subject matter -- only to bring the reader to the author's original bias as a logical conclusion. Lev Gumilev was, I believe, of this mould. Beckwith appears to fit it even better.

Another thing that seems sadly familiar is the way it all comes back to the cult of warrior hero. Such cults are not necessarily limited to historians or authors of historical literature (Isaac Babel admired the warrior-heroes of the Russian Civil war that he participated in, his intoxication with violence being nearly total). This infatuation with violent freedom seems to be always aesthetic at core. It is all about the modern world, or the world created by sedentary, cleptocratic, urban culture being ugly, and that of the free and violent warrior being beautiful. As Bertrand Russel wrote when describing the romantics, they admire the tigers, not the sheep, and want to set the tiger free to admire the mighty leaps of the beast.

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