Thursday, August 20, 2009

Beckwith III: Empires of the Silk Road

(previous posts on the subject here and here)

Finally finished "Empires of the Silk Road". I must say that the epilogue has pleasantly surprised me. I think it deserves to be published separately (was it perhaps intended to be published separately and only included in the book due to some vagary of the publishing process?)

Overall, I am very glad I have read the book and the epilogue. It will definitely forever change my way of reading "conventional" history centred on urban civilizations, and forever change the way I will be thinking about nomads. Beckwith, in fact, promotes the view that "pure" nomads are fiction; the Central Eurasian cultures were, according to him, always complex, with the nomads being just one link of a complicated chain of interaction between agriculturalists, merchants and pastoralists.

There are, however, things that seem less evident. First of all, the whole idea of a "cultural complex", when traced over cultures spanning continents and millennia, seems a little arbitrary. Someone tracing recurrent cultural similarities reliably must, of course, be on to something. But this something could be telling more about the author than about the subject of the study. This is, again, akin to what Lev Gumilev used to call "passionary" people and cultures (пассионарность, пассионарии). Gumilev could have been on to something when observing that historical change comes in waves. But his definition of "passionary" is such that only Gumilev himself was able to say if it applied to any particular culture, person or period or not.

"Central European cultural Complex" could be something of this sort. I am just being naïvely suspicious here, it could be a well-established term in the field for all I know.

If we are saying that peoples that had similar customs as regards a ruler's bodyguard and similar elements of folklore belong to the same cultural complex and must have deeper similarities, are we being a bit arbitrary? All people eat and drink -- is it cultural? All rulers -- modern ones included -- have a bodyguard of some sort; tales of a prince overthrowing an unlawful ruler are necessarily common, because most political collisions in a tribal society or a monarchy are about someone ousting the "bad" chieftain, prince or king (the victor is always the rightful ruler, of course). This means that -- at least as far as a non-specialist can see -- there is a possibility of being arbitrary and always finding a similarity when one is required to prove a point. There are similarities that are not meaningful at all: both Henry VIII and Ivan IV had many wives and had some former ones executed or imprisoned; both kings were pious, learned and had some theological ambitions; is it significant culturally, or is it similar circumstances producing similar personalities? Again, I am no specialist; Beckwith is one. But it is this part seems most suspicious to me -- if it says more about myself than it does about Beckwith, I have no idea.

Then there is his moral and aesthetic approach: Central Eurasians as poor victims of evil Modernism. Modernism, for Beckwith, seems to be the root of all evil and the biggest injustice in history. I beg to differ. The biggest injustice in history, for me, is the fact that for millennia history was like a history of a prison camp -- and written by the guards, too. We only know of warriors, sometimes eclipsed by the shamans. To caricature Beckwith, then, one might say that he seems to disapprove of Stravinsky more than of Tamerlane. Not only does his moralistic approach seem to interfere with his study. It also seems to be very wrong fundamentally.

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