In “Milk Bottles” Sherwood Anderson, possibly writing on an unbearably hot summer night in Chicago, speaks in the voice of a writer much like Anderson. (Many of Anderson’s main characters are writers, often described by non-writers). Writing on an unbearably hot summer night in Chicago, Anderson’s narrator, “goes off his head”. He quits writing to take a walk, and on his walk meets another writer — an advertising man who wants to be a serious writer. (As an advertising man this second writer is even more like Anderson, though in other ways he might be a bit more like the ex-realist romance writer Hamlin Garland). The second writer reads him what he himself thought was a great piece about Chicago writer that he had just written, but it’s really just wishful, dreamy romantic boosterism, though the narrator doesn’t tell him so.
It turns out, however, that before he had written the crappy piece, the second writer had written a much better piece about Chicago, bitter and realistic, but that since he had attributed its negative tone to the transient bad mood induced a day spent writing advertising copy (a successful day businesswise , but a horrible day otherwise), he had discarded the piece.
This advertising copy for condensed milk. We do not see the piece that had been thrown away, but we do know sour milk played a part in it. And all through Anderson’s own story sour milk keeps showing up — four times in nine pages. This is not unrealistic — on hot afternoons in Chicago before the coming of refrigeration, sour is what milk did — but four times is a lot.
But why is gratuitous sour milk symbolism so universally condemned? Why should authors try to fool readers by slipping the symbols in artfully? Why not just slam them in there and dare the readers to do something about it? Anderson’s narrator starts off by admitting to having gone almost nuts. Maybe the gratuitous symbolism is just a part of that, part of the characterization. The way the story is written we can’t even really be sure which of the three authors is responsible — the narrator, the author he tells about, or Anderson himself. By the end none of the three seemed really capable of keeping track of things and probably none of them could remember who was who.
Many of Anderson’s first person narrators are inarticulate, and there’s reason to believe that Anderson was bit inarticulate too. Faced with an inarticulate passage, we can never be sure whether Anderson had brilliantly succeeded in portraying the character’s inarticulation, the way Nabokov would, or whether the symbiosis between his own inarticulation and the character’s inarticulation allowed Anderson to find optimal inarticulation the ideal place where the two curves crossed — the very opposite of Flaubert’s cogent and perspicacious presentation of the confusion and incomprehension of his hapless, dumfounded subjects.
Anderson was poorly educated and not well read. His secret was that he had no censor, and while one thing this meant was that like Freudians and liberationists he wrote a lot about sex, it wasn’t the same thing at all. Freudians and liberationists still have the censor — they just adjust its settings and produce genteel, depressing smut. Anderson wrote about awkward and embarrassing things of all kinds, not just sex, and he didn’t write about dramatic maudit awkwardness but about boring, ordinary awkward people. Like Schnitzler, perhaps, Anderson was writing about Freud’s raw data, but without putting a Freudian analysis on it.
Anderson was much like the people he wrote about. At least since Henry James people in the biz have been assuring us that authenticity and sincerity are irrelevant to literary merit, but are they actually a detriment? It seems to me that when Flaubert or the Goncourts or Zola studied up on like zoo animals in order to write about ehm, people with whom they would never dream of socializing, regardless of how masterfully they wrote, something important was lost.
Anderson is generally regarded as proto-: proto-Hemingway, proto-Faulkner, proto- Southern Gothic. He could just as well be regarded as proto-Holden Caulfield or proto-noir or proto-absurdist, but why not take him for what he is? The Hemingway comparison is especially unjust, because one of Anderson’s great accomplishments was to succeed in writing non-edifying fiction, not merely because Hemingway was shitty to Anderson, but because what Hemingway ended up doing was write a new kind of edifying fiction, less genteel than the previous version but still glorifying his tragic, nobly damaged protagonists.
In real life, Anderson didn’t believe in the American Dream, but he lived three versions of it. First the rags-to-riches story when he became a paint manufacturer after a white trash upbringing, second the forget-about-success-and-throw-it-all-way escape-from-conventionality story when he left everything and never looked back, and finally the still-active advertising-man-writes-serious-literature story. Everyone since has just been replaying these cliches.
Here’s a weirdness sample, from a different book. The married narrator is thinking of his fantasy girl, Natalie. He is fully aware that he is being absurd, but the censor is off:
Down in the office he had thought of her body as a house within which she lived. Why could not more than one person live within such a house?….There was the thought about Natalie being a house kept clean and sweet for living, a house into which one might go gladly and joyfully.
Could he, a washing machine manufacturer of a Wisconsin town, stop on the street a college professor and say, “I want to know, Mr. College Professor, if your house is clean and sweet for living so that people may come and live in it and, if it is so, I want you to tell me how you went about it to cleanse your house”.
The notion was absurd. It made one laugh to even think of any such thing. There would have to be new figures of speech, a new way of looking at things. For one thing people would have to be more truly aware of themselves than they had ever been before.”
The History of the Caucasian Albanians by Movses Dasxuranci (a.k.a. Moses Kałankatuaçi; tr. C.J.F. Dowsett,Oxford, 1961)
Written in Armenian around 1000 A.D., this book relates the history from about 600 A.D. of a vanished people who spoke an exotic and now-extinct language. It’s not quite as exotic as that, however — the Albanians were very closely associated with the Armenians, and the book is basically a version of early Armenian history.
This isn’t the most obscure book I’ve ever looked at. That would probably be Cosmas Indicopleustes’ Cosmography, a sixth-century Greek work which purports to show that the Earth is oblong rather than spherical.1 Neither book is a lot of fun in the strict sense of the word, but if you poke around Movses’ book, you will be transported to post-Roman, pre-Muslim world which is Christian but neither Western nor exotically Eastern – a world in which almost everything seems to have been put into the wrong pigeonhole.
So “Albania” in this book does not mean the Albania of today, but instead the present-day Azerbaijan. The Romans were careless about names, putting Albanias, Iberias (once the name of Caucasian Georgia), Galicias, and Gauls here, there and everywhere — Galicias and Gauls were located in in Turkey, France, Wales, Poland, Belgium and Spain.
But history did take its revenge. For Movses the “Romans” are the Byzantine Greeks in Constantinople — despised Chalcedonian heretics like today’s Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians. It’s the Albanians, Armenians and (up to a certain point) Georgians who are “Orthodox” — meaning Monophysite.2 The Western Europe of the Dark Ages, and the Pope, are not even factors here – Movses’ chronicle begins two centuries before Charlemagne, at a time when many Franks were still pagan and the pagan Anglo-Saxons were just getting settled in Britain. (But while there are no Catholics as we know them in this book, there is a Catholikos – a high-ranking Monophysite churchman).
Because of their enmity to the Romans (Greeks), at the beginning of the book the Albanians and Armenians are usually allied to the Persians, who were still Zoroastrian or “Magians”. Soon enough, however, the Persians were overwhelmed by the Arab Muslims, who are called Tajiks — a word which now refers to Central Asians of Persian language and culture, notably (but not only) in Tajikistan. (The word “Arab”, in turn, almost always refers to nomad bandits or Bedouins in Gibbs’ translation of Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta himself was a Berber, though he wrote in Arabic, but this is probably not the reason he used the term thie way he did — only recently, under the influence of Western nationalism, have the Arabic-speaking peoples begun to call themselves “Arabs”, rather than simply identifying themselves by religion and place of birth or residence.)
Foreign cultures appear in Movses’ book in a marvelously garbled form. Muhammed was a “diabolical and ferocious archer who dwelt in the desert. One day Satan, assuming the shape of a wild deer, led him to meet a false Arian hermit by the name of Bahira….. Bahira began to teach him from the Old and New Testaments after the manner of Arius, who held that the Son of God was a created thing, and commanded him to tell the barbarous Tajiks what he had learned from him, his foul teacher…. The gullible and erring Tajik tribe summoned a great assembly, went into the arid, demon-haunted desert, and welcomed the diabolically inspired Muhammed into their midst.” Muhammed is also revealed to be an adulterous lecher, a very old trope indeed.
Elsewhere Movses tells a garbled story merging the Iliad and the Aeneid: there are 2,000 Trojan horses instead of one, and the story ends with the founding of Rome by descendants of returning Greeks who had been blown off-course to Italy, and stranded there when the captive Trojan women burned their ships. (Movses also seems to accept the Iliad as a holy book of the Christian Romans / Greeks, on a par with the Bible.)
The most interesting parts of this book are probably the tactful descriptions of the pagans – the devil-worshiping “thumb-cutters” and the Turkish Khazars. The Khazars: “bestial, gold-loving tribes of hairy men…. an ugly, insolent, broadfaced, eyelashless mob in the shape of women with flowing hair….demented in their satanically deluded tree-worshipping errors in accordance with their northern dull-witted stupidity, addicted to their fictitious and deceptive religion….There we observed them on their couches like rows of heavily laden camels. Each had a bowl full of the flesh of unclean animals, and dishes containing salt water into which they dipped their food, and brimming silver cups and beakers chased with gold which had been taken from the plunder from Tiflis. They also had drinking horns and gourd-shaped utensils from which they lapped their broth and similar greasy, congealed, unwashed abominations. Two or three of them to one cup, they greedily and bestially poured neat wine into their insatiable bellies which had the appearance of bloated goatskins….. Possessing completely anarchical minds, they stumble into every sort of error, beating drums and whistling over corpses, inflicting bloody sabre and dagger cuts on their cheeks and limbs, and engaging naked in sword fights – oh hellish sight! – at the graves, man against man and troop against troop, all stripped for battle….. They danced their dances with obscene acts, sunk in benighted filth and deprived of the sight of the light of the creator…. They were also incontinent sexually, and in accordance with their heathen, barbarous customs they married their father’s wife, shared one wife between two brothers, and married several women.”
In defiance of the retreating Khazar qagan, at one point the Georgians “fetched a huge pumpkin upon which they drew an image of the king of the Honk’, a cubit broad and a cubit long. In place of his eyelashes which no one could see they drew a jot; the region of his beard they left ignominiously naked, and they made the nostrils a span wide with a number of hairs under them in the form of a mustache so that all might recognize him. This they brought and placed upon the wall opposite them, and showing it to the armies, they called out ‘Behold the Emperor, your King! Turn and worship him for it is Jebu Qagan!'” (But this terrible insult only made the Huns’ revenge that much fiercer in the following year.)
As for the thumb-cutters (seemingly an indigenous Caucasian pagan cult): “The devil appears in human form and orders three ceremonies to be held, each one comprising three men; these are not to be wounded or slain, but while still alive are to have the skin and thumb of the right hand removed and drawn with the skin over the chest to the little finger of the left hand; the little finger is then to be cut and broken off inside the skin. The same is to be done with the feet while the victim is still alive, and then he is to be slain and flayed, arranged and placed in a basket. When the time for the wicked service arrives, a folding iron chair is set up, the feet of which are in the shape of human feet, and which many of us saw brought here. A valuable garment is placed on this chair, and when the devil comes, he dons this garment, sits in the chair, and taking a weapon, he examines the skin of the man together with the fingers….. A saddled and harnessed horse is held ready, and mounting the horse, he gallops it to a standstill; then he becomes invisible and disappears. This he repeats every year.”
Eventually, the Khazars (also called Huns, or “Honk'” in Armenian) were converted to Christianity. The thumb-cutters were killed after an unsuccessful attempt at reforming them. Later still the Khazars were to make quite a stir by converting again, to Judaism this time.3
Those who have enjoyed the stories of the thumb-cutters and the Khazars will probably also enjoy Ibn Fadlan’s ninth-century description of a Rus’ human sacrifice and orgy among the Volga Bulgars. The Rus’ were ancestors of the Russians but were probably mostly Scandinavian at the time when Ibn Fadlan observed them. (Marius Canard, Miscellanea Orientalia, Variorum, 1973, XI: “La relation de la voyage d’Ibn Fadlan chez les Bulgares de la Volga.”)
1 “The Deity accordingly having founded the earth, which is oblong, upon its own stability, bound together the extremities of the heaven with the extremities of the earth, making the nether extremities of the heaven rest upon the four extremities of the earth, while on high he formed it into a most lofty vault overspanning the length of the earth. Along the breadth again of the earth he built a wall from the nethermost extremities of the heaven upwards to the summit, and having enclosed the place, made a house, as one might call it, of enormous size, like an oblong vaulted vapour-bath. For, saith the Prophet Isaiah (xlix, 22): He who established heaven as a vault. With regard, moreover, to the glueing together of the heaven and the earth, we find this written in Job: He has inclined heaven to earth, and it has been poured out as the dust of the earth. I have welded it as a square block of stone.”
|Contemporary Bible literalists have enormous problems with the firmament which separates the waters above the earth from the waters below the earth. Evolution isn’t the only thing they have to worry about.
2 The “Rom” or “Rum” have variously been Greeks, Turks, Crusaders, Romanians, and Gypsies over the centuries, and as the capital of the Empire or as the center of Christendom, “Rome” has minimally been sited at Ravenna, Constantinople, Aachen/Aix, Salerno, Avignon, Moscow, Paris, and Vienna. During the modern colonial period “India” was also found everywhere: in India, Ethiopia, the Caribbean Americas, and Southeast Asia. (Guinea / Ghana / Guiana is another wandering colonial place name.)
The bird we call the “turkey” is often given a foreign geographical designation, being called “dinde” (or some equivalent meaning “bird of India”) in many languages (including Turkish); “peru” in Brazil (and in India, from the Portuguese); “bird of Egypt” in Macedonian; “Dutch bird” in Malaysia; some derivative of “bird from Calicut” (India) in Dutch and in the Scandinavian languages; and “bird of India”, “bird of Ethiopia” or “bird of Rum” in Arabic dialects . (Note that Rome shows up again: “Rum” = “Rome” = “Turkey”).
And there is another turkey-like bird called a “Guinea fowl” which was occasionally mistaken for the turkey during the early days. http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/7/7-174.html
The list of words in the modern Romanian language derived from the word “Rome” is quite a motley one. (Note that “Rumanian” and “Romanian” have entirely different meanings):
“Rom”: Gypsy; rum.
(Andrei Bantaş. Dicţionar Român-Englez, Teora, Bucareşti, 1995.)
3 Frankly, I’m not really sure that the Khazars and the Huns are the same people in this work, though they certainly seem to be in what I’ve read so far.
On the Jewish Khazars, see:
UNITED STATES v. KUNG CHEN FUR CORP.
United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.
February 27, 1951.
Siegel, Mandell & Davidson, Lane, Young & Fox and Brooks & Brooks, Lane & Wallace and John D. Rode, all of New York City, associate counsel for appellee.
Before GARRETT, Chief Judge, and JACKSON, O’CONNELL, JOHNSON, and WORLEY, Associate Judges.
GARRETT, Chief Judge.
This is an appeal from the judgement of the United States Customs Court, First Division, C. D. 1203, 24 Cust.Ct.___, entered in conformity with the decision of the majority, Mollison, J. dissenting, sustaining importer’s protests claiming free entry for plates of kid skins imported from China and entered, under the Tariff Act of 1930, at the port of New York in February 1935.
Two protests, Nos. 811174-G and 909743-G, are involved. The merchandise being similar and the protests substantially identical, the cases were consolidated for trial and disposed of by the Customs Court in a single opinion and judgment.
The merchandise was classified by the Collector of Customs under paragraph 1519(a) of the Tariff Act of 1930, 19 U.S. C.A. § 1001, par. 1519(a), which reads: “Par. 1519(a) Dressed furs and dressed fur skins (except silver or black fox), and plates, mats, linings, strips, and crosses of dressed dog, goat, or kid skins, 25 per centum ad valorem; all the foregoing, if dyed, 30 per centum ad valorem.”
Alert for bandits, his trusty rifle always by his side, Susan Sontag’s birth father Jack Rosenblatt spent years in Siberia , Mongolia and Manchuria among the Evenki, Yukagir, and Yakuts, exchanging glass beads for sable, wolf, fox, squirrel, kid, and dog skins and sending them on camelback to the coast. But when he died in Tientsin in 1939, his efforts had come to nothing, and all he left his fatherless five year old daughter was this law suit. Memories of this latter-day Natty Bumppo would always haunt her dreams.
Sex Life of the Nineteenth Century: An Autobiographical Approach to the History of Western Civilization
(Includes “Why Did Henry James Kill Daisy Miller?” and
“Could Friedrich Nietzsche have Married Jane Austen?”)
“The Sex Life of the Nineteenth Century: An Autobiographical Approach to the History of Western Civilization” is looking for its audience. In this apparently random assemblage of egregious code-switching, extravagant whimsy, pedantic smut, and tidbits of obscure trivia, an argument of uncertain affiliation and insidious intent reveals the dark side of truth, love, and seriousness. A perfect book for the right person.
emersonj at gmail dot com.
The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,
“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast!”
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,
There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
a voice fell, like a falling star,
Henry Wadworth Longfellow
I would like to have [first editions of] Mademoiselle Maupin and Lélia. To me these books are very strange; they are analyses of Insatiability, the intellectual malady of our times.
Edmond de Goncourt, Journal, April 24, 1871
The time will come — I firmly believe this — when every young person will not resolve to stick a pistol in his mouth if he can’t become a leading light of the century.
George Sand, Horace.
The romantics used Idealist and Platonist terminology to express their boundless desire and their endless striving for the impossible and elusive ideal (e.g. the Ideal Woman or die Blaue Blume, which once discovered would fade and die, because no longer virgin or no longer ideal). Of course, this Platonism was not much like the old Platonism — it was the product of the liberation of desire which followed from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the dissolution of the estates. Anyone could now wish for anything, but few could get what they reached for. The magic of the market did its work, and the object of desire kept moving just beyond your grasp and had usually been devalued by the time you got it anyway. Everything that is solid melts in air / with usura hath no man a house of good stone, etc., etc.
In the United States das Blaue Blume was located in the frontier West and romantic idealism expressed itself in geographical expansion, with similarly disillusioning outcomes. In his autobiography the realist novelist Hamlin Garland shows how his own father had been all but destroyed (and his beloved uncle destroyed) by the failure of their mad idealistic pursuit of perfect homesteads, always further west (first in Wisconsin, and then in Minnesota, Iowa, and finally South Dakota, with the uncle losing hope in Washington) until with the son finally persuades the aged romantic not to move on to even worse land in Montana:
My heart filled with bitterness and rebellion, bitterness against the pioneering madness which had scattered our family…. Doesn’t this whole migration of the Garlands and the McClintocks seem like madness?….”Father”, I bluntly said “you’ve been chasing a will-o’-the-wisp. For fifty years you’ve always been moving westwards, and always you have gone from certainty to uncertainty, from a comfortable home to a shanty.”
Hamlin Garland, Son of the Middle Border
Garland especially notes the destructive impact of frontier life on women. With idealism it is always the actual non-ideal woman who represents the mundane, the actual, and the imperfect, and she is the one who bears the brunt:
Ella to some degree doubted whether the life they were all living was worth while. “We make the best of it”, she said “but none of us are living up to our dreams.”
Garland. p. 291
And for the romantic love objects it was much the same:
Sylvie heaved a sigh. “My friend,” she said “one has to accept things; life doesn’t always turn out the way you want”.
Nerval, “Sylvie”, p. 163
Westward the course of Empire takes its way:
The road smokes beneath you, the bridges rumble, everything falls back and is left behind. What is the meaning of this horrific movement? Where are you racing to? Answer! — There is no answer. Everything on earth flies by, and looking askance, other nations and states step aside to make way.
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
I’ve been reading about Ben Hecht recently. He’s almost forgotten, but he scripted some great movies (Scarface, Front Page, Barbary Coast, Wuthering Heights, Monkey Business) and, because he was a complete master of Hollywood cliches, script-doctored a lot more (Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, His Girl Friday, Roman Holiday, Angels with Dirty Faces).
Before Hollywood Hecht had been a Serious Author who wrote novels meant to be decadent on the European pattern, and before that he had been a newspaperman. His reporter’s cynicism was equal to Mencken’s, and all in all he thought that film was a debased, stupid medium.
And that’s why he was so great! When he finally decided to switch teams and prostitute himself, his sharp awareness of the trite, cliche-ridden crappiness of film meant that he already knew the business. A sharp mind + cynicism + decadence + a complete contempt for the mass + a mercenary attitude = a genius awareness of what is commercially viable.
Hecht was not the only decadent in Hollywood, of course. Mercenary European decadents flocked to Hollywood by the boatload. Hollywood’s sophisticated, decadent mixture of puritanism and prurience, with happy endings often tacked on to the end, is one of the wonders of world culture.
Movies are all about storylines. What are Hecht’s own storylines? I can find five — three of them movie cliches, two of them not.
1. Immigrants come to the US, struggle, do pretty well, and their American-born son fights his way to the top. Hecht’s is in the Jewish category of this story, with parents in the garment trade and so on.
2. Young guy goes to the big city to make his fortune, the boss likes his looks, he has tough mentors but proves himself, and he fights his way to the top in a dirty business. (Can be merged with #1 or run freestanding).
3. Tough, cynical writer sells out, goes to Hollywood, big success, living large, wild and crazy, easy come, easy go. But in his heart he doesn’t feel good about it.(Combined with one or both of the others or run freestanding).
4. Chicago (and the whole Midwest) used to be the armpit of the universe and a cultural desert, but suddenly it’s a literary center. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, The Little Review, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, young Ernest Hemingway, young Kenneth Rexroth. (Not yet a movie cliche.)
5. Ten or twenty years late, American bumpkins decide they want be decadent: Ben Hecht, James Gibbons Huneker, James Branch Cabell . They publish novels no one reads, with H. L. Mencken cheering them on, and then mostly go on to other things. (Not yet a movie cliche).
Ben Hecht, A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, Bibliobazaar, 2006 (1923).
Ben Hecht. A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, Google Books.
Ben Hecht, Fantazius Mallare, Frugoli and Taylor, 2001 (1922).
William MacAdams, Ben Hecht: A Biography, Barricade Books reprint, 1990.
The received opinion is that with the appearance of three comets, a planetary conjunction, a nova, and the signifying garfish and herring all in the same year, the seventeenth century Rosicrucians (allied with the Teutonic Knights and the Sword Brothers, working in conjunction with the British poets Spenser and Sidney and the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler) relied on occult alchemical, astrological, numerological, Pythagorean and Kabbalistic readings of the book of Enoch, the Gothic runes, Ethiopian, Coptic, Syriac, Greek and Hebrew prophesies, and the biblical books of Ezekiel, Ezra, Daniel, and Revelation (all interpreted in terms of Joachim de Fiore’s three-stage millennial prophecy and the Sabéans’ — not Sabaeans’ — seven-stage millennial prophecy) in order to predict the appearance of the Lion of the North: an English, Scottish, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Brandenburger, or Wittenburger Prince or King who would save Christendom from the Papist Whore of Satan and bring on the Third Elijah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the millennium.
But it wasn’t as simple as that.
(Guest post by by Greg Afinogenov.
Greg Afinogenov is a PhD candidate in Russian history at Harvard University. He is currently working on his dissertation on intelligence and Russo-Qing relations in the eighteenth century. His essays have appeared in the London Review of Books, and online in n+1, Bookforum, and other venues.
“Fascism” is a word that’s getting thrown around a lot in the postcommunist world these days. Moscow accuses the Maidan protesters of being fascists, and many of them certainly are. Tim Snyder accuses Moscow of being fascist, and in many ways it certainly looks that way. Fascists are on Russian YouTube torturing gay people and in the Hungarian government defending the Nazis. The challenge of the far right is shaping up to be one of Eastern Europe’s defining twenty-first century struggles (for a change).
But I don’t want this post to be about fascism. The word summons up a lot of things, many of them superficial—the black-red flags in the streets of Kyiv—and many of them quaint historical anachronisms, like admiration for Hitler and Hugo Boss uniforms. In Russia, the reality is that the organized far right is a sideshow to what is really going on, and it’s impossible to think about it properly as long as we keep thinking of politics as a slippery slope that may or may not lead to an approximation of a concrete regime that existed in mid-20th century Germany. After all, Russian neo-Nazis have always seemed to be a losing proposition as a mass-political phenomenon: by crudely using the symbolism and trappings of a regime that almost all Russians think their country heroic for having destroyed, they’ve forgone the support of their core target population. (more…)
It seems then that the Nomads, in so far as they remain pure Nomads, are really a “people without a history” after all. Their eruptions out of the Desert into the Sown, like the eruptions of a Vesuvius or an Etna, are the mechanical resolutions of vast but inanimate physical forces.
Toynbee, p. 452.
To explain the great invasions we must look for the cause in the life of these peoples itself, in that history which is supposed not to exist.
Lattimore, p. 248, citing Fox’s Genghis Khan, 1936.
Although most of the above direct migration records have not given descriptions of the causes of the migration except those of the migrations caused by war losses….”
Fang / Liu, p. 163.
Anyone with even a moderate interest in world history will usually know of the various theories holding that nomad invasions are a function of weather and climate – most commonly, that droughts cause desperate nomads to pour into the civilized world. This kind of theory was popularized by Toynbee’s Study Of History (vol. 3, 2nd ed. , 1935) and first developed in Huntington’s 1907 Pulse of Asia. These theories were never empirically well-supported, and they also had serious conceptual deficiencies, but they were taken very seriously for a considerable period and have proven to be surprisingly resilient; they motivate research even today.
On the one hand, I believe that these theories have received much more attention than they have deserved, and are symptomatic of pathologies of method and approach; on the other, it may be that we finally now are on the point of having enough facts to seriously test them (though I doubt that what comes out of the new researches will much resemble the earlier theories).
After discussing the climatic explanation itself, I will speculate about the motivations for these explanations: primarily the modern historian’s desire to provide scientific-seeming deterministic, causal, reductionist explanations; and secondarily, civilization’s need to dehumanize its nomadic enemies.
HUNTINGTON AND TOYNBEE
According to Toynbee, the nomads do not act, but only react. Nomadism itself is “a response to the searching challenge of dessication” (p. 8), and all the recorded eruptions of nomads….
…. are not, as a matter of fact, the spontaneous expressions of the Nomads’ human initiative, but are all produced mechanically by the action upon the Nomads of either one or the other of two alternative external forces: either a pull exerted by one of the sedentary societies in the neighborhood of the Steppes, or else a push exerted by the climate of the Steppes themselves (p. 396. It must be noted that the “pull” of the wealthier cultures is not a mechanical cause like climate or weather, but a motive, and that it is also the motive for most civilized wars).
The “push” is dessication. Toynbee quotes Huntington as follows:
In the deserts, the Nomads increase in number, and their flocks attain great proportions. The crest of a climatic wave is reached. …. [but if there is a reduction of rainfall ] soon he comes into conflict with his fellow Nomads, for all move to the best pasturage and the most permanent waters…. The weaker party is driven out, and begins to wander in search of new pastures and springs. Conflict follows conflict. At length the tribes which have been driven forth grow desperate. Impelled by despair, they pour forth in wild hordes upon the nations round about (p. 435).
Furthermore, Huntington had claimed that these climate changes were global and occurred in a regular cycle, and Toynbee followed him, claiming that
…. our table of Nomad eruptions is beginning to reveal a regular pattern of movements which are periodical in Time and uniform in Space over the whole extent of the Steppes from the Atlantic coast of the Sahara to the Great Wall of China…. if we think of explaining our six-hundred-year cycle of Nomad eruption as the effect of a climatic push and not of a human pull, we shall find that our hypothesis is reconcilable to the climatic theories of at least one modern school of climatologists. This school, whose most eminent representative is Dr. Ellsworth Huntington, believes that there is a periodic shift of the successive climatic zones that encircle the globe latitudinally, so that the arid subtropical zone…. is oscillating all the time, with a regular periodicity, between two extreme geographic positions” (p. 430; see also p. 437, p. 440).
The outcome is a grandiose theory that sees, between 2025 BC and 2175 AD (sic), neatly repeating 600 year cycles of nomad invasions from from Morocco to Manchuria. In 1928 Owen Lattimore wrote sympathetically of Huntington’s thesis (p. 62), but he was much more skeptical in 1938 (p. 243):
By piling one assumption on another it is possible to tabulate a history of successive migrations in a manner that looks astonishingly accurate and convincing. It is well to remember that the results that look so solid are based largely not only on a chain of speculative causes and assumed effects, buy often on original details which are much too fragmentary to carry so solid a superstructure.
While no one advocates the Huntington-Toynbee thesis in its pure form any more, I am not really beating a dead horse. Toynbee was a giant in the field, and I suspect that the frequent, seemingly obligatory references to the possibility of climatic causation whenever the steppe is discussed, perfunctory though they often are, are monuments to his past influence, and attempts to revive some adapted version of this theory are, in my opinion, unnecessarily common. And as is often the case, regardless of this theory’s status among specialists, it still thrives among generalists and popular writers.
MORE RECENT CLIMATIC THEORIES
I have examined seven recent versions of the climate thesis (Meyer, Lamb, Jenkins, Jacoby, Buell, Atwell, and Fang / Liu). Three of them (Jacoby, Jenkins, and Fang / Liu) actually include data. However, Jacoby’s and Jenkins’ data disagree, and Jacoby’s data seem better:
In conclusion it is, ex hypothesis, my contention that a major climatic downturn did much to encourage an end to the infighting and vendettas among the Mongol clans and make possible their reorganization under Chinggis’ military authority (Jenkins, p. 226).
Jenkins’ hypothesis that unusual cold continued during Genghis Khan’s actual reign (1206-1228) is not supported by modern tree-ring paleoclimate studies for northern Mongolia after the very early 1200s…. Genghis Khan’s consolidation and expansion of empire coincided with a period of increased growth (warmer) (Jacoby, p. 55).
The Fang and Liu paper is more promising: it shows that the climate during the Tang dynasty, when China was united and dominant over the steppe, to have been warm and wet, whereas the preceding and following periods of Chinese disunity and nomad power were colder and drier — i.e., during the pre-Tang era when the Toba and the Turks were powerful, and during the post-Tang period of Uighur, Khitan, Jurchen, Tangut, and Mongol rule). However, these data, taken as such, tell us nothing about the later Uighur-Khitan-Jurchen-Mongol succession during a fairly uniform cool period, when the later nomad groups conquered the earlier nomad states, and in point of fact, the Uighur ascendancy began during the warm period. Nonetheless, it is an interesting result, and should be followed up.
Besides being weak in empirical support, climate-causation theories are also often confused about the mechanism. The original Huntington – Toynbee theory combined demographics and climate change: population increased during a period of good climate, and then a climate change for the worse sent desperate nomads into the sedentary world. (This theory is a strange composite, because demographics during any period could create population pressure even without climate change, though climate change could enhance this effect and trigger outbursts). Of the authors listed, Lamb speculates about this “trigger” theory for the Mongol invasions, with a climate downturn at the end of a prosperous period leading to population pressure, steppe disunity and warfare:
The pastures were in better than usual shape [but there is a] suspicion that some more sudden event connected with the cooling triggered it off (pp. 184-5)….. The Mongol homelands in central Asia seem to have been thriving and overpopulated (p. 317) ….
Jenkins, however, holds that deteriorating climatic conditions had the opposite effect, forcing steppe unity under Genghis Khan and leading to an enormous outburst of steppe aggression:
It can hardly be doubted that the cause of these huge displacements of whole populations must be sought in climatic changes (p. 219, citing Lattimore from 1928).
….a major climatic downturn did much to encourage an end to the infighting and vendettas among the Mongol clans and make possible their reorganization under Chinggis’ military authority (p. 226)
Atwell, on the other hand, holds that declining climate conditions weakened the sedentary world and made it vulnerable to attack:
Of interest here is the fact that virtually everywhere that the Mongols attacked during this brief period recently had experiences, or was just then experiencing, significant economic problems caused, at least in part, by “anomalous” climatic conditions. The extent to which the Mongol homeland itself was being affected by these same anomalies remains to be studied…. (p. 45)
Finally, Buell (2003, pp. 19-21 and 197) proposes a version of Hudson’s note in Toynbee (also endorsed by Lattimore): improving weather conditions led to sedentary encroachment on grazing lands and made the whole border area into a conflict zone.
But after a century we still don’t have what we would hope for, and what would seem essential for a theory of this type: two correlated time series (one of climatic conditions and one of nomad movements) together with a specific theory explaining the correlations. All we are left with is McGovern’s satirical composite theory – “It got cold / hot / wet / dry and they died / flourished / migrated / multiplied / intensified” – and Ladurie’s question: “But what is one to conclude from such contradictory and unprovable speculations?” (both cited in Meyer, p. 289).
In her Prehistory of the Silk Road (Pennsylvania, 2007, pp.13-14) E.E. Kuzmina surveyed the literature on the climatic theories of steppe history for the several millennia preceding the nomadic era. She concluded as follows: “Unfortunately we do not have conclusive evidence for the climatic and geographical changes in the Eurasian Steppe and the contiguous areas during the Holocene….” She mentions a long series of unresolved questions: a.) discrepancies of as much as two thousand years in conclusions about periods of expansion of the Caspian Sea; b.) conclusions about change vs. lack of change in the Central Asian climate between the sixth and the third millennium B.C.; c.) disagreements about whether the arid steppe landscape emerged around 3000 B.C. or was much more ancient than that; d.) disagreements about whether the boundary of the steppe and the forest-steppe to the North were stable or shifting; e.) discrepancies ranging from several centuries to millennia about the absolute chronology of the Atlantic and Sub-boreal epochs; and f.) disagreements about the time period within which warming occurred within the Sub-boreal epoch.
It is possible that these problems raised by Kuzmina raised have been resolved, just as it is possible that the questions I have raised have been or sometime will be answered. However, it is clear enough that when she wrote the book Kuzmina (not herself a climatologist) did not feel that that discipline had given her usable answers.
If one climatic explanation is the opposite of another can simply mean that one theory is good and the other bad, but one is left with a lingering suspicion that the hypothesis that important historical events of a certain kind are the result of changes in climate is an autonomous enforced paradigm entirely impervious to the demand for evidence.
A NON-CLIMATIC THEORY OF NOMAD INVASIONS
Nomad invasions / migrations are not mysterious and puzzling events, and climatic explanations of nomad behavior need to be integrated with what is already known. Historians’ generalized discussions of nomad movements frequently confuse several different kinds of event: actual invasions with the goal of conquest, e.g. the Mongol invasions; more or less organized frontier raiding intended to extract plunder and tribute (e.g., the Xiongnu in China); migrations within the steppe, e.g. the Yuehzhi migrations after their defeat by the Xiongnu, or the Torgut migrations from China to the lower Volga and back; and finally, the flights of small groups to the sedentary world, where they are sometimes accepted as subjects and sometimes slaughtered as invaders. The lines between these categories are not always clear and the category a given movement ends up in can be quite fortuitous, but in many cases the differences are clear enough to make a single-cause explanation doubtful. Military defeat on the steppe is the primary push, and the primary pull is the enormous wealth differential between the steppe world and the sedentary world — the result of the denser sedentary population, the more diversified sedentary economy, the peasant’s relative helplessness in the face of violence, which facilitates the collection of taxes and rents and the accumulation of concentrations of wealth and steep social hierarchies. Neither of these requires a climatic explanation, and the pull of sedentary wealth is is always there regardless of climate.
Given this general explanation of steppe military activities, what is the significance of the climatic factor? First of all, as Lattimore explained, the steppe / sown line is defined to a great extent by climate: areas too dry for crops can still provide excellent pasture. At the same time, climate is not the sole factor drawing that line, since some potential croplands end up reverting to pasture simply because of military pressure from nomads during periods of disorder. But it at least can be said that long- and medium-term climate changes sometimes move the steppe / sown line in one direction or the other, thereby changing the military relationships in various ways — for example, as suggested by Buell.
Second, in the near-subsistence economies of the past, even one or two years of drought or other disaster could cause an economic crisis. This is true both in the pastoral and in the sedentary areas, but it happens more quickly in pastoral areas since pastoralists are not able to store much food except on the hoof. This is the “trigger” explanation which, however, can only be used to explain a specific movement following a sudden dramatic change during the brief period of one or two years, or even just a single spring and summer; the general long-term trends do not trigger anything. And the drought has to be bad enough to motivate movement, but not bad enough to cripple the group in question.
Third, the density of population and military strength both of the steppe world and of the sedentary world are substantially dependent on climate, with warm wet weather making both worlds more prosperous and stronger. The military consequences of this are uncertain, however. They were probably greatest when good conditions in one of the two worlds was accompanied by bad conditions in the other, but most climatic theories so far have assumed general climate change, without specifying variation between different areas.
Fourth, the specific motivational effects of either good or bad conditions on the steppe peoples are uncertain. By and large, nomads went to war when their ponies were fat, and the major, successful nomad military campaigns (the ones which have forced historians to think about this topic) do not at all fit Huntington’s model of desperate tribes pouring forth in wild hordes” The trigger explanation might fit some of the migrations within the steppe or some of the flights of defeated peoples taking refuge in the sedentary world. But even these cases, military defeat is always the proximate cause.
Finally, while unity or disunity on the two sides of the line is the major factor deciding which side gets to play “divide and conquer”, and which side will emerge victorious, neither Huntington’s theory (that declining weather conditions cause disunity) nor Jenkins’ opposing theory (that declining conditions make unity possible) is convincing.
The climatic theory of the nomad invasions was developed during the era of high positivism, when ambitious determinist-reductionist theories, often cyclic, were uncritically welcomed; in the extreme cases the goal of these theories was to describe all human behavior in terms of external causes, leaving no place for any human agency at all. Often these theories were also shaped by grand geopolitical theories of the rise and fall of empires and European dreams of world dominance — stories that had to be simple and vivid in order to be effective. And a final strand was the age-old civilized suspicion that there was something uncanny, unnatural, mysterious, and inhuman about the nomads and their triumphs. At a certain point some version of the climatic theory became a required, obbligato part of any discussion of nomad history, always good for a speculative paragraph and requiring at least a nod even from skeptics.
At the same time, however, this discussion may now be entering a new era, when the theory can actually be tested against data and refined or rejected accordingly. If the data keep coming in, at some point it should be possible to produce a nuanced case-by-case history of the two millennia of nomad incursions within which the role of climate change and weather variations can be plainly seen, in some cases driving desperate refugees from the steppe to become either bandits and raiders or mercenary defenders of civilization depending on their reception, and in other cases allowing the nomads to build up enormous, well-fed armies capable to sweeping all before them. But it seems highly unlikely that these new histories will include grand universal theories of the Huntington-Toynbee type, which seem to me so weakly grounded that they should just be forgotten.
A recently-published study seems to be a good example of the kind of limited, fact-based study that I’ve called for. It is based on actual climate data about a specific period, and it correlates this data with a specific event. And while it speaks rather vaguely of a new climate regime as “the key which made possible” the rise of the Mongol Empire, whereas the earlier regime had “contributed to” weakness and disunity, the mechanisms in question are clear enough. As they theorize, before 1190 low rainfall caused military weakness, whereas after 1211 heavy rainfall led to military strength. Thus climate, without being “the cause” of the Mongol rise, might have inhibited it during the earlier period while enabling it aduring the later period. In particular, they make the valid point (also made by others) that under drought conditions steppe peoples come close to mere subsistence and thus lack the kind of surplus that makes foreign adventures possible.
More specifically, there was a drought 1180-1190, normal weather (apparently) 1190-1211, and very wet weather 1211-1226. The drought supposedly contributed to Mongol disunity, but some degree of disunity was more the rule than the exception on the steppe, and in any case the eastern Mongols after 1190 were reasonably well unified under the rule of Temujin’s patron Ong Khan. After about 1196 Genghis Khan increased in strength and eventually displaced the aging Ong Khan and became the ruler of most of his ulus, adding newly-conquered peoples until 1206 when he unified the eastern steppe and was proclaimed Genghis Khan. He spent the next 12 years adding Manchuria, Xixia, and the western steppe to his ulus, beginning his raids on Jin China in 1211(at the very beginning of the wet period). In 1218 he attacked Khwarizm (today’s Uzbekistan and neighboring areas), which fell with remarkable ease, and after that on the Mongols went from success to success for about 60 years.
It is possible that the weakness and disunity of the steppe before 1190 can be partly attributed to drought, Genghis Khan’s unification of the eastern steppe in 1206 may have been helped along by normal conditions, but it was the outcome of a series of purposive actions and contingent events and there was certainly no necessity to it. But it is true that the added military strength after 1211 certainly would have been advantageous.
From 1180 to 1190, Central Mongolia experienced an intense drought that probably contributed to the political instability of that time. Established patterns of leadership were disrupted, and the region saw continuous warfare. “The worsening dry conditions…would have been an important contributing factor in the collapse of the established order and emergence of a centralized leadership under [Genghis] Khan,” the researchers write.
In 1211, Central Mongolia then entered its most unusual period in the millennium-long record: a 15-year stretch that was warm and, more importantly, incredibly wet. Those conditions would have provided a surplus of grass for both the horses for the Mongol army—each trooper would bring three to five horses so that he always had a fresh ride—and the livestock that followed the army to keep the warriors fed.
(Original source of Smithsonian article: Pluvials, droughts, the Mongol Empire, and modern Mongolia: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)
The Retreat of the Elephants
In Mark Elvin’s book The Retreat of the Elephants there is what I believe to be an unnecessary pro forma reference to the climatic thesis. As part of his explanation of the disappearance of elephants from China, we read this:
What were the causes of this disaster (from the elephant’s point of view)? In part it was likely to have been the cooling of the climate, as referring back to the last column in Table 1 in the previous chapter will suggest. Elephants do not resist cold well (p. 9)….
Climatic change must have been a factor in their long and eventually fatal southward retreat…. (p. 32)
But Elvin also gives four other causes: the elephant-hunts of the nobility and the king, private commercial ivory-hunting, habitat destruction by agriculturalists, and hunting by farmers protecting their crops. Furthermore, the climate data he gives are not convincing. His Map 2 (”The Retreat of the Elephants”, p. 10) shows the constant retreat of the elephants from 5000 BC onward, and there is little correlation with the climate conditions shown in his Table 1 (“Time-marks in Chinese environmental history”, p. 6). The largest single retreat was between 580 A.D. and 1050 A.D., but according to the Fang / Liu article, cited by Elvin, as well as the Jacoby article I have referenced above, that was was a warm period.
With regard to the disappearance of the very last elephants in SW China around 1400, Elvin (2006, p. 117) cites a paper by Robert Marks (1998, p. 46). “In the case of the forest elephant of Lingnan in South China, its disappearance around 1400 can be explained by either hunting, climatic change, or habitat destruction”. However, while Marks acknowledges the possiblity of a climatic explanation, he does not commit himself to it, and in fact he leans toward the theory that the human factor is most important. In any case, Marks is only writing about the last three centuries of a 2000 year process.
Thus, between 900 BC and 1100 AD at least, and probably all the way until the elephants’ final disappearance in 1400 AD, it seems to be the case that the various sorts of human pressure were an adequate explanation for the retreat of the elephants, and that in the absence of much more data there is little real reason also to speak of climate at all.
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