BECKWITH: BARBARIANS AND MODERNISM.

I’ve finished Beckwith (see my earlier posts: 1, 2, 3), so it’s time for the summing up. Since I’m going to have some strongly negative things to say, I’ll reiterate that despite its faults the book is more than worth your while; the author’s rethinking of not only Central Asian history but just about everything we think of as “world history” is convincing and important, and I hope the book has the influence it deserves.
Furthermore, the epilogue, “The Barbarians,” would make a superb little booklet on its own, and sums up the essence of what he’s trying to convey throughout the book. He thoroughly demolishes “the widely held theory of the ‘needy nomads,’ according to which steppe-zone Central Eurasians did not themselves produce enough of the necessities of life and depended on the agricultural products, textiles, and other goods of their peripheral neighbors, whose wealth they coveted. When the Central Eurasians could not obtain what they needed or desired by trading their animals and other goods with the ‘advanced’ peripheral empires… the Central Eurasians invaded to take them by force.” He demonstrates that the Central Eurasians were no more violent than the “civilized” states with whom they sometimes fought, that what they desired above all else was trade (which requires peace), and that it was generally the peripheral states that attacked the Central Eurasians in an effort to expand their own territory and impose their own power, which they believed should be universal. He provides this powerful quote from Sophia-Karin Psarras (“Han and Xiongnu: A Reexamination of Cultural and Political Relations”): “I have found that the Xiongnu merit the attention paid them since the Han, not because of any threat they posed to China, but because they were China’s equal. It is this equality which constituted the supposed menace to China.” Everyone who wants to discuss world history should read and assimilate what he has to say, and hopefully the entire concept of “barbarian” will eventually make its way to the dustbin of history where it belongs.
Alas, I must report on the last two chapters, which are devoted almost entirely to a denunciation of “Modernism,” by which he means pretty much everything bad that’s happened since the nineteenth century. (For him, postmodernism is a subset of Modernism, a sort of rebranding.) This passage will give an idea of the depth of analysis involved: “Modern poets stripped poetry of its elite status in relation to prose: free verse, a thinly disguised form of prose that anyone could write and was therefore accessible to anyone, replaced poetry. Painting called for little training or aesthetic taste (and, indeed, Modernism explicitly demanded its suppression); it required only the ability to splash paint on a canvas. In painting, poetry, and music, among other high arts, traditional forms were rejected and there was unrelenting pressure to abandon any new forms that arose to replace the old ones. The result was literally the loss of the meaning of Art and even Beauty…” Yes, he capitalizes Art and Beauty, and yes, he sounds exactly like the clichéd guy complaining that his six-year-old daughter can paint better than that.
Now, I don’t begrudge anyone their prejudices, and there’s no reason a specialist in medieval Eurasian history should have any expertise in, or sophisticated response to, modern poetry, music, and art. He’s welcome to bend the ear of the patrons of his neighborhood bar about such things, and he’d doubtless find sympathetic listeners. But it boggles my mind that he considers it relevant, let alone vital, to a history of Eurasia (which he claims “suffered the most of any region of the world from the devastation of Modernism”), and it further astonishes me that his publishers didn’t make him cut all that stuff (and replace it with the further details he could surely supply about the topics and periods in which he is genuinely expert). As it is, I can only suggest that readers skip chapters 11 and 12 and head straight to the brilliant Epilogue.


One minor complaint I can’t resist making: he has a cavalier attitude about nomenclature that occasionally creates real problems. It’s quirky that he insists on calling the Battle of Talas “the battle of Atlakh, near Talas” (saying in a footnote that “It is popularly known as the Battle of Talas”—well, then, that’s its name, no?) and a bit odd that he chooses to use “czar” rather than “tsar,” but what the heck; it’s extremely puzzling that he calls the Battle of Manzikert the Battle of Mantzikert (the accepted quirky nomenclature is to use Malazgirt, the Armenian name; what good is that extra -t-?); and it’s truly bizarre that he insists on calling the country south of Russia “Ukraina” (adding in a footnote “Also Ukraine”). But using Salmanasar (a French form) on page 41 and Shalmaneser (the normal English form) on page 61 for the same Assyrian name is pretty unforgivable.
Addendum. Even more unforgivable is the error on page 148, where he calls the Uighurs’ eighth-century capital “Khanbalik” (Khanbaliq is actually the thirteenth-century Mongol name for the city that became Beijing) rather than the correct Ordubalik or Ordu-Baliq, which was just north of the later Mongol capital Karakorum in northern Mongolia. To make matters worse, he doesn’t show it on the map or give any indication of its location in the text. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

Comments

  1. “Don’t, Sir, accustom yourself to using big words for little matters. It would not be terrible, though I were to be detained some time here.” –Sam. Johnson

  2. Well, nuts. I was going to put a date on when everything started going downhill, but junbgzi put it far more succinctly than I could. So I’ll just say it all started going downhill at the second comment. I hope Sisyphus chimes in and pushes the thread back uphill again.

  3. Ah, LH, Beckwith is clearly a man after my own hyper-conservative heart ! Berg, Webern, Cage – just noise …
    [I'd appreciate if someone could explain what the junbgzi type interventions are designed to do. The straightforward bots are, well, straightforward, but this ?]

  4. dearieme says:

    Why do you describe his tastes in the Arts as “prejudices”?

  5. jamessal says:

    Why do you describe his tastes in the Arts as “prejudices”?
    Because the judgments of people who dismiss entire artistic movements in books of a separate subject deserve a slightly pejorative label.

  6. I’m reading Beckwith slowly– and I’m persuaded that the Central Eurasian elite was neither poor nor particularly belligerent. But if the Eurasian societies were richer and more sedentary at the top than we thought, doesn’t that suggest that the rest of the population was poorer? The way of the world in those days, after all, was Malthusian.
    As for Chapters 11 and 12, I guess I’ll just skim the cranky bits. It’s interesting that the preface explicitly disavows world-historical crankiness– maybe I should have regarded that as ominous, rather than reassuring.
    My major gripe with the book at this point is the complete lack of maps and illustrations. This seems just plain peculiar, given the role of geography and the lack of literary sources. But I suppose the Beckwith Cultural Complex has its own way of doing things.

  7. Because the judgments of people who dismiss entire artistic movements in books of a separate subject deserve a slightly pejorative label.
    So if one devotes a book specifically to rubbishing entire artistic movements, rational discussion may ensue ?

  8. Not just Cage, but Stravinsky. Not just Pollack, but Picasso. Not just Pound, but Eliot, Yeats, D. H. Lawrence. Stalin, Pol Pot, CPN(M), the MSM. It’s one damn wide brush.

  9. My major gripe with the book at this point is the complete lack of maps and illustrations.
    Does your copy not have the endpaper maps, Premodern Eurasia in the front and Modern in the back? They’re quite good; I’m picky about maps and consult them at every turn, and I only noticed one mistake (the modern map has “Ling-chou” for what should be Lan-chou). It would be nice if there were more, but I think it’s a good minimum. (I personally don’t care about illustrations.)

  10. Why do you describe his tastes in the Arts as “prejudices”?
    Because that’s what they are. Preferring one artist to another is taste; dismissing an entire century is prejudice.

  11. I’ve got the endpaper maps– and they’re certainly useful. I suppose I’m just visually oriented and can’t shake the sense that there ought to be a more elaborate graphical counterpart to the verbal narrative.

  12. John Emerson says:

    So far I’m on the other side of the “needy barbarian” controversy, which I think is identifiable with Denis Sinor. The new view strikes me as a bit tendentious and partly inspired by nationalist or other advocacy. The steppe peoples were better fed per capita, but their production was lacking in variety, specialized products, luxuries, and variety. Because of their mobility they were militarily on a par with the sedentary world militarily, but not economically. Whenever the sedentary world military-political order slackened, on way or another the Turks, Mongols, etc. filed the gap. At times it seems as though the (e.g.) Turks on the border were an on-call backup government,
    In our world conquerors and soldiers are less honored than they were even a century ago, so emphasizing the military qualities of, e.g., the Mongols seems critical. Genghis Khan could be put at the head of a list of world-makers including Caesar, Alexander, Charlemagne, and so on, but we no longer honor men of that type. From an international relations point of view, which is automatically bloody minded, GK was a positive force in breaking down barriers to trade.
    Likewise, it’s more or less in the nature of The State to go to war with its neighbors, whoever they are. During the earliest era the sedentary world did plunder the steppe, for example with Shang dynasty slaving expeditions, but from the development of cavalry warfare ca. 800 BC until somewhere around 1400 AD the direction of attack was usually from the steppe to the sedentary.
    What I think is that because of the economic imbalance / military parity of the two distinct zones (one mostly sedentary, the other mostly pastoral with some oasis agriculture), the relationship between the two zones tended to be mostly military. But add to this that long-distance intercivilizational trade did travel through the “barbarian” zone, so the steppe peoples also had a major importance as enablers or disruptors of trade.
    Did Beckwith make anything of the similarities between the medieval European nobility and the steppe nobility? Aspects of the way of life (hawk, horse, and hound) were identical, and there was a chain of transmission via the Huns, and via Alans in Roman service settled in Brittany and the British Isles, None of the Teutons were nomads per se, but it strikes me that their leadership picked of aspects of the nomad way of life.

  13. “so emphasizing the military qualities of, e.g., the Mongols seems negativistic ”

  14. Taste is as much a can of worms as prejudice, though. There are a lot of artists I wouldn’t go near not because of my taste — not because I prefer gold squiggles to pink squares — but because I’m not interested in their ideas, for fairly rational reasons.
    Although there are plenty of books about ‘The Modern Movement’, it’s an anachronistic title. Modernism is way too big and pervasive to be a movement — you might as well think of the 20th Century or the Renaissance as movements.
    Postmodernism was a movement of sorts: a reaction to the failures of Modernism. If Beckwith thinks they’re all part of the same thing, he ought to also accept the irony that postmodernism has been subsumed by Modernism. Modernism is way beyond being replaced.

  15. John Emerson says:

    “Postmodernism” is parasitical on modernism. I had originally hoped that it would be an escape from modernism, but there doesn’t seem to have been any reassessment or rehabilitation of non- and pre-moderns. Instead they’re just saying “Modernism destroyed everything else, and now we’ve destroyed modernism.”
    I like modernism fine in itself, but not as a triumphant historical stage sweeping all before it.

  16. Well there are post.modernists who say that modernism is just another style, like everything else. On one level it’s true, but modernism is a lot like lung cancer: you can get rid of it for a while but it usually comes back with a vengeance. A nicer simile would be modernism is like a perennial bush, winter seems to kill it off, but the flowers return in spring — take your pick.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Yes, he capitalizes Art and Beauty

    Hmmm. How about a philosophical discussion? Is the German convention of capitalizing all nouns an advantage, because it makes such silliness impossible, or a disadvantage, because it makes such silliness invisible?

  18. An advantage. Let’s just try and forget it. Poor old grumpy medievalist.

  19. dearieme says:

    Hold on, on a language blog of all places surely “prejudice” has to carry some connotation of pre-judging. To say “I’ve never drunk Guinness because I know I wouldn’t like it” is an expression of prejudice. To say “I’ve tried it and I can’t stand that Black Protestant Porter” is a matter of taste. Taste expressed robustly, no doubt, but taste it certainly is.

  20. I just don’t see writing off an entire form of art as taste. Before I moved to NYC I “hated disco” and “hated rap”; if I heard a bar of either I would make a moue of distaste and mutter something negative to my companion. That was prejudice. In NYC I learned to hear and appreciate both, so that now there are some of each that I like and much else that I don’t; I acquired taste.

  21. John Emerson says:

    Tha Hat was seduced by Tha Bling.
    *sob*

  22. How could you have “acquired” taste unless your same critical faculties didn’t exist when exposed to the “bad” disco or rap? Do you acquire a taste for cigars only from the moment you smoke an expensive brand? Can you be “prejudiced” against cigars only because you smoked a lousy one? You heard something, before your conversion, which you found distasteful. Can’t see how that entails any prejudicial thinking. No need for self-flagellation at the expense of reasoned artistic assessment, expressly judgemental by it’s exigent nature. Happy to learn NYC is the place for tasteful disco or rap!

  23. ‘Tasteful’ is a funny word that (since the ’60s?) has come to have almost solely negative connotations, though it’s still not quite the same as its opposite, ‘tasteless’. So now it’s possible to be tastelessly tasteful.

  24. … and, indeed, ‘tastefully tasteless’.
    ‘Tastelessly tasteful’ would include the ballroom dancing programmes shown one after the other on the BBC World Service television. Whereas ‘tastefully tasteless’ is the prurient Big Brother reality shows.

  25. Dearie, if you write off modernism you’re writing it off in all its forms, from Ulysses to Thonet bentwood chairs. That’s not a judgment of taste, but it is absurdly prejudiced.

  26. …like chewing unpalatable rap lyrics with your mouth closed.

  27. Modern poets stripped poetry of its elite status in relation to prose: free verse, a thinly disguised form of prose that anyone could write and was therefore accessible to anyone, replaced poetry. Painting called for little training or aesthetic taste (and, indeed, Modernism explicitly demanded its suppression); it required only the ability to splash paint on a canvas.
    This strikes me as completely backwards. Free verse is actually less accessible to the common man – almost anyone can make up rhyming couplets, and in the 19th century almost anyone did – it takes far more training and diligence to write or judge good free verse. I thought the standard criticism of modernism is that high art became too rarefied and elitist – can you really “get” Picasso or Duchamp if you don’t know the traditions they were reacting to? Aren’t Schoenberg and Webern just too esoteric if you haven’t had extensive musical training? Beckwith sounds as if he’s just emerged from a cave he entered in 1927.

  28. John Emerson says:

    Let’s not reject troglodytes out of hand, Vanya.Beckwith did wonderful things in his cave.

  29. Although Beckwith’s ignorance is shocking, I suspect laypeople’s lapses in general knowledge are even greater in the natural sciences.

  30. “it takes far more training and diligence to write or judge good free verse” – how easy it is, in the academic halls of Brobdingnag, to base-jump from the shoulders of Gyants!

  31. I wonder if this book in any way influenced by or otherwise related to works of Gumilev, as the quote above about “the widely held theory of the ‘needy nomads’” pretty much describes the essense of several of his books (I’m not sure how well they are known outside Russia).

  32. jamessal says:

    I suspect laypeople’s lapses in general knowledge are even greater in the natural sciences.
    Tell me about it. I just started reading Annals of the Former World — John McPhee’s collected geology books (and a good a bargain at $13.60) — and though I was ninety percent sure I knew what country rock was, I googled it anyway. Turns out, it’s a genre of music.

  33. Thanks for mentioning the McPhee book, Jamessal. I’ve not seen it, and I’ve never read him, though I tell myself I should when I see his other works. I’ve already ordered it from my regional library.
    I would add a comment about Modernism, but I fear I would put both my left feet in my mouth (does anyone recall the Greek word for that?). For me the Modern Age began ca. 1500; in England the first people to call themselves modern were the Elizabethans. I feel that the last word on the cultural history of the last 500 years is From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun. Astonishingly, he wrote it in his nineties.

  34. John Emerson says:

    I have one of Gumilev’s books (the one with the things translated “trefoils”) and find it interesting but extremely frustrating. There’s not much documentation and all of it was in Russian. There’s a ton of important Russian scholarship on the topic, but I can only read it translated.
    Khazanov speaks very ill of Gumilev.

  35. Iakon: For me the Modern Age began ca. 1500; in England the first people to call themselves modern were the Elizabethans.
    That’s interesting. Where, and what did they mean by it?
    In architecture, the first signs of Modernism are said to begin around the mid-Eighteenth Century, but these things are changeable. I think it’s only in the past thirty years or so that the Baroque style has been accepted as a part of the Renaissance. There was a good deal of agonizing in the late ’70s and early ’80s about whether the Museum of Modern Art in NY should change its name and function to ‘Museum of Contemporary Art’.

  36. Sorry, AJP, but I can’t enlighten your any further on the Elizabethans calling themselves modern. It’s been in my head since the survey of English lit. course ’62-’63, or maybe the highschool ditto ’57-’58.

  37. John Emerson says:

    Wiki dates the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns to 1690 in France, whereas Liz’s reign ended in 1603. But presumably the idea of modernity was well-established by the time Ancient v. Modern became a cliche.

  38. OED s.v. modern:
    1. Being in existence at this time; current, present. Freq. applied (sometimes as postmodifier) to the current holder or incumbent of an office or position, esp. a reigning monarch. Obs.
      Quot. c1485 perh. belongs to sense A. 2.
    c1485 (1456) G. HAY Bk. Law of Armys 250 Gif a man proponis [etc.].. he suld suere.. yat jt is sa suthely, be alde doctouris. Bot be the opynioun of the doctouris oure maisteris modernis.. he suld say he traistis fermly jt be sa. a1525 (?a1513) W. DUNBAR Ballat of Our Lady in Poems 83 Hodiern, modern, sempitern, Angelicall regyne. 1555 in J. Stuart Extracts Council Reg. Aberdeen I. 285 The next parliament, to be haldin.. in name of our maist gracious quene moderne. [...]
    2. a. Of or relating to the present and recent times, as opposed to the remote past; of, relating to, or originating in the current age or period.
      Often contrasted with ancient and hence in historical contexts taken as applying either to the entire period following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, or (when medieval began to be used to signify a distinct period) to the time subsequent to the Middle Ages.
    1585 T. WASHINGTON tr. N. de Nicolay Nauigations Turkie I. xv. 16 b, The writings of the auncient and moderne Geographers and Historiographers. 1589 G. PUTTENHAM Arte Eng. Poesie II. ii. 54 [It] is a dittie of it self, and no staffe, yet some moderne writers haue vsed it but very seldome. 1656 EARL OF MONMOUTH tr. T. Boccalini Ragguagli di Parnasso II. xxviii. 269 The women of this modern age, had as much need of amendment, as had the men. [...]
    “Modernism” only goes back to 1737 (SWIFT Let. to Pope 23 July in Lett. Dr. Swift 252 The corruption of English by those Scribblers who send us over their trash in Prose and Verse, with abominable curtailings and quaint modernisms).

  39. By my reading, the book’s somewhat Burkean take on the origins of the evils of Modernism is that some potentially noble ideas of the Enlightenment went all wrong in the hands of commoners. The French Revolution, obviously; and then things just got worse as industrialization and urbanization moved power from landed gentry to city rabble. Continuing through to today, as I said, with the Western Media’s encouragement of democracy in Nepal.
    In early 1948, the Boston Institute of Modern Art did rename itself the Institute of Contemporary Art (and remains the ICA today). At the time, the President of the Board of Trustees, Nelson Aldrich, and the Director, James Plaut, issued a proclamation, declaring modern art, “a cult of bewilderment” (snippet from Newsweek; or see Appendix II to this JSTOR paper).
    Per the OED, the first use of the term “modern art” in our sense was, perhaps unsurprisingly, someone complaining about it.
    Continuing that (potentially unreliable) investigation from the use of the word itself, the first use of modern in explicit contrast to ancient, given in the OED’s 1585 quotation copied by LH above, is right out of the French of 1576. So maybe it came from the Continent. However, a quick search online finds a similar expression (well, okay, as a noun) in Henry VIII’s 1532 A Glasse of the Truthe (EEBO; modernized).

  40. > Alas, I must report on the last two chapters, which are devoted almost
    > entirely to a denunciation of “Modernism,” by which he means pretty much
    > everything bad that’s happened since the nineteenth century… Yes, he
    > capitalizes Art and Beauty, and yes, he sounds exactly like the clichéd
    > guy complaining that his six-year-old daughter can paint better than
    > that.
    >
    Well, that one has an axe to grind doesn’t mean he can’t have a bee in his bonnet…

  41. You’d think the OED would have something about Modernism and Modern in the context of writing and the visual and performing arts. They’re using it to mean ‘contemporary’, but nothing else, and Swift was using it for ‘neologism’.
    I’m sure Fuseli was using ‘modern’ to mean ‘contemporary’; though I’m equally sure he would, as well, have hated ‘Modern Art’.

  42. You’d think the OED would have something about Modernism and Modern in the context of writing and the visual and performing arts.
    Well, of course they do—the article was revised only two months ago—but we were talking about whether the word was used in Queen Elizabeth’s time, so this much later sense wasn’t relevant. Here’s the start of that part of the entry:
    Of, relating to, or designating a current or recent movement or trend in art, architecture, etc., characterized by a departure from or a repudiation of accepted or traditional styles and values. Freq. in modern art. Also: designating or relating to work produced by such a movement; = MODERNIST adj. Cf. ABSTRACT adj. 4d.
    1820 H. FUSELI Lect. Painting II. iv. 6 The Phantasiae of the ancients, which modern art,.. in what is called Fancy-Pictures, has.. debased. 1895 R. MUTHER Hist. Mod. Painting I. 10 Because this distinction between the eclectic and the personal, the derived and the independent, has not yet been carried out with sufficient strictness.. it has hitherto.. been found so difficult to discover the distinctive style of modern art. 1927 C. BELL Landmarks 19th-Cent. Painting 5 Géricault and then Delacroix were the new influences in France; in England the innovator was Constable. From these points of departure you can trace the whole glorious history of modern art. [...]

  43. marie-lucie says:

    “Museum of Modern Art” implies an attitude as well as a temporal restriction. “Museum of Contemporary Art” seems to refer only to the current time period. In theory, wouldn’t a museum with this title have to constantly renew (as opposed to just increase) its collections and get rid of anything produced before a particular date?

  44. There isn’t much consistency, really. The closest thing I can think of is the big auction houses, who divide things up into Impressionist, Modern, Post-War and Contemporary and then pair them in their big sales. But even that is mostly chronological (19th, early 20th, 45-70, post-70), rather than stylistic, their goal being to move consignments through quickly and not connoisseurship. Furthermore, if an artist is well known for one period, their work from another may end up in the “wrong” sale.
    Boston’s ICA didn’t have a permanent collection until 2006. (We don’t have a word like Kunsthalle, do we?)

  45. In theory, wouldn’t a museum with this title (ICA) have to constantly renew
    That depends to some extent on the theory. The reason that MOMA in NY had its identity crisis was that when it started the Museum’s founders saw Modernism as something that would continue to be synonymous with ‘contemporary’, and it wasn’t until the late ’60s that some significant people started to doubt that.
    Nowadays, of course nothing could be further from the European modernism of Picasso or the Bauhaus, or from the subsequent US modernism of Abstract Expressionism, than today’s contemporary art, drawing as it does so much on the work of Duchamp — who renounced “retinal art” (painting) before WW1.
    I cannot imagine a museum today calling itself a ‘Museum of Modern Art’. ‘Contemporary’ is the accepted term and in LA, while the MOCA was being built, there was the very successful ‘Temporary Contemporary’.

  46. I cannot imagine a museum today calling itself a ‘Museum of Modern Art’.
    I guess, to be fair, it took ten years to agree to build Mudam and then ten more years to actually build it.

  47. From Wiki: The building was designed by… I. M. Pei, The Museum’s collections… include works by … Alvar Aalto, Marina Abramovic, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Pierre Bismuth, Sophie Calle, Hussein Chalayan, Claude Closky, James Coleman, Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Mark Dean, Stan Douglas, Jan Fabre, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Roland Fischer, Günther Förg, Gilbert & George, Nan Goldin, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Hirschhorn, Fabrice Hybert, William Kentridge, Mark Lewis,[disambiguation needed] Richard Long, Michel Majerus, Christian Marclay, Martin Margiela, Steve McQueen, Bruce Nauman, Shirin Neshat, Albert Oehlen, Blinky Palermo, Philippe Parreno, Grayson Perry, Fiona Rae, Pipilotti Rist, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Scheibitz, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, Thomas Struth, Wolfgang Tillmans, Cy Twombly and Kara Walker.
    Well, I suppose Alvar Aalto and Cy Twombly are modernists…

  48. J.W. Brewer says:

    Has anyone else read Beckwith’s book Phoronyms? (I just realized it might be, and then confirmed that it was, the same guy.) I got halfway through it last year but then got stuck & distracted and then it was due back to the library. I found it interesting, a bit eccentric (especially in his need to make up his own technical terms as went), and so full of hardcore linguistics-geekery as to make it quite surprising that the author had a command of any other field of scholarship whatsoever.

  49. Phoronyms: Classifiers, Class Nouns, and the Pseudopartitive Construction. Key Phrases: pseudopartitive construction, three fruit banana, classifier anaphora, American English, Krisadawan Hongladarom, Universal Grammar … List Price: $70.95.
    a bit eccentric (especially in his need to make up his own technical terms as went)
    Yeah, that’s annoying. There are enough technical terms to learn without each author making up a new batch.

  50. John Emerson says:

    Dobson’s several books “on classical Chinese” in its various stages all used unique terminology. I figured out most of it.
    I found Dobson’s books useful for the many examples, but wonder what actual linguists thought.

  51. jamessal says:

    Thanks for mentioning the McPhee book, Jamessal.
    You’re welcome! He writes beautifully — let me know if you start reading it!

  52. I liked the so-called “classical Chinese swearwords”, but I wasn’t convinced by the pizza joke.

  53. I have only just got hold of Empires of the Silk Road and have only read about 30 pages. Already in the Preface Beckwith holds forth on the evils of Modernism (which holds that “the old must always, unceasingly, be replaced by the new”) and Postmodernism (which considers “all judgments to be relative”). Beckwith sees Postmodernism as giving rise to the view that: “History is only opinion. Therefore, no valid judgments can be made.”
    I believe that Beckwith is talking of the kind of historical writing that prevents one from calling a spade a spade; instead one must talk of the “negotiated reality of the subjective spatial perception that, within the modern narrative discourse of feminist and subaltern viewpoints, a physical object conventionally identified as a “spade” does indeed possesses spade-like qualities, with the caveat that ‘spadeness’ is a construct of restricted historical validity principally drawing its power from a time-bound and partially idealised class structure having its locus entirely within the premodern sociological terrain — one in which there is a fundamental division between the wielders of temporal and spiritual authority, to whom ‘spadeness’ is a symbol of the transformative powers of the productive processes that they figuratively control and overlook, and the disempowered, for whom ‘spadeness’ symbolises their subordinate status as much as it does the purposive properties of a physical tool.” I find it very difficult to write this kind of prose, but some people are most adept at it. In the end, when you strip away the jargon, it is difficult to find any kind of meaningful or substantive message in this kind of historical analysis.
    So whatever one’s feelings about Beckwith’s blanket condemnation of Modernism, I do sympathise with his allergy to postmodern thought as applied to history. At least Beckwith writes clearly and to the point. In a book I am reading, I recently came across the following: “I discuss how the modern discourse of race and nation altered and then reformulated the imperial alterity of Chinese/barbarian, firmly binding the new scientific categories of frontier, minority nationals, and Han nationality to a hierarchy of competing race-states striving to protect their territorial integrity”. Confronted with this, I find my eyes glazing over, my mind going blank, and my spirit yearning for substantive fare to replace the abstract and elliptical word games of the postmodern historian. So, long live Beckwith! Even if his views lead him to dismiss the Kandinsky’s and Eliots of the previous century, it is worth it if it results in a clear-eyed presentation of history.

  54. I sympathize with Beckwith’s dislike of that kind of (po-mo /Continental) prose style, as do most people — eyes glazing over, etc. It’s always such a HUGE giveaway, though, when people like Beckwith bring it up, because you know that it’s the style and its associations they’ve really got a problem with, rather than the actual work itself. To me that compromises any clear-eyed presentation by Beckwith.

  55. Besides, it’s not that style in particular he’s objecting to, and he refers to postmodernism only glancingly. For him, it’s just a sideshow of modernism—excuse me, Modernism—which is what he hates with a blazing passion. Pound was a Modernist, Mao was a Modernist, he despises them equally as far as I can tell.

  56. I must admit I’m a bit unsure about that capital M. Sometimes I use one, sometimes I don’t.

  57. I went back and read the whole Beckwith series. I must say it is indeed vintage Language Hat material with great excursions to and fro.
    The discussion about Beckwith’s aesthetic pronouncements brings to mind Heidegger’s similarly prejudiced but much more extensive adventures in the meaning of Art. Briefly, it’s been (in Heidegger’s view) downhill ever since the Greeks, who were the only ones to understand beauty and truth.
    @LH Yeah, that’s annoying. There are enough technical terms to learn without each author making up a new batch. How is this reconciled with your admiration of Hodgson’s (in my view irritating)similar neologisms?

  58. I guess with Hodgson I was so thrilled by his (to me) new and exciting way of viewing world history I was willing to absorb some new vocabulary, and frankly I think “Islamicate” (to take one example) is a much-needed word that should have caught on—it would have improved discourse about the parts of the world to which it applies. “Islamic” applies directly to religion, so when we see or say it we think of religion (and, if we are that way inclined, “fundamentalism”). A word is needed for cultures influenced by Islam the way Western Europe has been influenced by Christianity (even though most Europeans are now secular); Hodgson provided one, and I think it’s a good one. But nobody uses it.

  59. Also, thanks for taking the time to read the whole series; I put a lot of work into it, and it’s nice to get feedback!

  60. John Cowan says:

    It seems to me that there are two possible arguments against free verse. One is Beckwith’s, that it’s so easy anyone can do it, and therefore it is not worth doing (somehow, no one raises this objection to, say, walking and talking). The other (to which I wander perilously close) is that it is so difficult to do well that almost no one has, but unfortunately many people try.

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