... and then there are history books that don't age. A lifetime's passion, humanist scholarship, a flair for writing: I don't care if this one's dated... and then there are history books that don't age. A lifetime's passion, humanist scholarship, a flair for writing: I don't care if this one's dated. You don't even miss pictures with such an evocative hand at the pen. ...more
A university set text for me. Good, plain information. I worry about its age (amendments 2004); obviously people are better off with her newly-editedA university set text for me. Good, plain information. I worry about its age (amendments 2004); obviously people are better off with her newly-edited The Sumerian World. It was for a unit on ancient art, which is odd because my one complaint was about the art -- don't let the cover persuade you there is any: only line drawings, and furthermore, I didn't like her discussions of art. Too ready to dismiss pieces as 'provincial' or crude when there's a hell of a lot more to them. I gather her strength is archaeology. ...more
I skipped the first chapters on definition of terms and went straight to the content in situ. Fabulous book. This art historian seems to have broughtI skipped the first chapters on definition of terms and went straight to the content in situ. Fabulous book. This art historian seems to have brought to Near Eastern art a depth and sensitivity of treatment that the Classical world, with centuries of study advantage, has enjoyed; let's catch up. I must chase her other work. ...more
Extra star because every sentence is cadenced. Extra star for wit, of course, plus a touch of postmodernity. The title comes of Ernest's argument (was iExtra star because every sentence is cadenced. Extra star for wit, of course, plus a touch of postmodernity. The title comes of Ernest's argument (was it Ernest or the other chap with the suitable name? - it was Gilbert) a) that artists are critics: without the critical function they do not want to improve on or change the art that went before. This is perfectly true; b) critics are creative: often a modern novel or painting is a dreary affair, yet can kickstart the critic on a creative ramble of his own -- that may have little to do with the artwork; nevertheless such behaviour in the critic ought to be encouraged. This also is perfectly true. So, five stars for being quite sensible to boot....more
It is a good thing that two major contributors to Mongol-era scholarship – Ruth W. Dunnell and Michal Biran – have produced handy biographies of ChingIt is a good thing that two major contributors to Mongol-era scholarship – Ruth W. Dunnell and Michal Biran – have produced handy biographies of Chinggis Khan – handy for student use, as this one is intended: neither seem distributed more widely, although Biran and Dunnell are certainly the most informed and trustworthy of Chinggis biographers, and both are readable (made to be readable by students). Student-use books on the Mongols seem to be in a healthy state: George Lane turns them out, on the side from his forefront academic books.
It pains me that outside of set texts for courses, I suppose, people are more likely to pick up a mass-marketed biography. I’ll try not to be heavy-handed on this, but can I just say: take these excerpts from 2014-15 bios for the popular market –
In Europe, the Romans left vast amounts of hardware — roads, building, aqueducts, stadia — but they also rewrote Europe’s software: language, art, literature, law ... Alexander flashed across the skies of history like a comet, yet he left a lasting light. The British were in India for 200 years and the cultures are still interfused... the Romans, the Greeks and the British had something to say... The Mongols didn’t. – John Man, The Mongol Empire
(I haven’t recovered from that last sentence. I have a lot to say about it, too much for this venue)
While the Mongols’ military achievements were stupendous, they were otherwise totally parasitic. They were unoriginal, founded no new religions, produced no worthwhile cultural artefacts, developed no new crops or technologies (though they transmitted existing ones), created no worthwhile painting, pottery, architecture or literature and did not even bake bread; they essentially relied on the captive craftsmen and experts for everything. – Frank McLynn, Genghis Khan
You see that these guys are judging against the world’s sedentary empires? These nomads did not even bake bread – a pathetic performance from them. I bet the Greeks didn’t even make ayrag, though the Scythians were there to teach them.
Whereas Ruth Dunnell says this:
Thus, in our global understanding, the historical identity of Eurasia’s nomads has advanced from ‘natural catastrophes’ to facilitators of intercultural or interregional exchange… Understanding how and why all of this happened requires deeper explanations, ones which may show that nomads did not simply ‘facilitate’ exchange between sedentary peoples by transporting goods across inhospitable terrain, but indeed created and shaped the very terms of exchange in the course of building states, for example, to solve their own internal historical dilemmas.
Ruth Dunnell also says, endearingly, in her author’s preface: It also reflects my belief that the history of those peoples, Eurasian steppe nomads and Mongols among them, operated according to principles that we are only beginning to understand, and that the more we try to uncover their dynamics, the better we will understand our own histories.
The above quote examples the strength of Dunnell’s book, too: it is aimed at World History courses, and that world-historical setting does nothing but profit Mongol study – the best way to meet the Mongols these days is through World History texts or websites or courses (= hope for the future). Dunnell explains that the world history approach has changed how we look at Mongols (i.e. we no longer look for and see the lack of monuments and other sedentary-empire signifiers from this nomad people – we look at communications and exchange and see what sedentary empires have not prepared us to understand). The series in which this is an entry, world biography (interesting list of other entries), the individual as interpreter of his/her times, points to another strength: the historical issues that his life throws up or expresses. In short, context, contextual analysis, is the strength of this biography.
Its weakness? For me, Chinggis the person. It is not as if we don’t have raw material on Chinggis the person – we have The Secret History of the Mongols, but this has not been exploited to its full value and is not here. Such is my conviction, anyway. It doesn’t help, for me, that she uses the Igor de Rachewiltz translation as ‘authoritative’: I find his translation over-interpretive (not literal enough) and the interpretations rough and ready. That may be blasphemy in Mongol studies but I can’t help it. Our raw sources on Chinggis remain underutilized – that isn’t a blasphemy but can be asserted as a truth. I don’t feel the sources (the Secret History, specifically) are as sensitively used, either here or in IdR’s extensive commentary, as they might be, to yield us a picture of Chinggis; but the background work hasn’t been done, to support such books as this; I hope it’s the next thing to take off in Mongol studies. ...more
This writer on Thuc isn't for me; I found his interpretations influenced by his views on the present day (and I differ from his politics). But then itThis writer on Thuc isn't for me; I found his interpretations influenced by his views on the present day (and I differ from his politics). But then it bugs me that Thuc is enlisted in our world affairs the way he is. ...more
2.5 I haven’t read any Guy Gavriel Kay – he’s been on my interest list – until his two China books. Underwhelmed with them, when I had quite high expec2.5 I haven’t read any Guy Gavriel Kay – he’s been on my interest list – until his two China books. Underwhelmed with them, when I had quite high expectations of Kay, I take into account a number of reviews from fans who feel he does not live up to himself in these, that they lack in character or have become self-important. I did not find the people in these books deeply-drawn or engaging, and his portentous tone drove me up the wall. Observations along the lines of: ‘Sometimes that happens’, ‘Some days are important’ – I don’t know an excuse for these fatuities even once, and there must be a hundred. What I expected from him was a profound meditation on Tang and Song history, in fantasy guise, but I don’t feel he delivered.
Part of my problem was an unreality that crept in – that he doesn’t maintain a realism, so that I cease to believe. It struck me that this happens when he takes on the plot or style of the early Chinese novels, obviously sources – Outlaws of the Marsh notably paid tribute to. I’ve seen the same in other China novels: The Ten Thousand Things: A Novel on Yuan/Ming, the Southern Swallow series, beginning with The Academician, on Northern/Southern Song (exactly the events Kay treats) – bandits who step out of these comedy-adventure tales, with superhero stunts and over-perfect plots, instead of bandits made realistic. Nothing wrong with that per se, and these pre-modern classics are fantastic sources. But throughout both of Kay’s novels I found frustrating his teetering between history and fantasy; my suspension of belief collapsed over and over, and I had to drag myself up again after these spills, to limp tentatively on. That was my experience of reading. In a related note, as I read this I began to bang my head against the wall about its want of high seriousness. I thought back to Southern Swallow’s version which, in spite of both comedy and fantasy, hit notes of high seriousness, whatever I mean by that.
I complained in my review of Under Heaven that – although I want to love his blend of fantasy-history, his use of fantasy to discuss history – it turns out, I felt he doctors history; he’s not obliged to treat whatever happened, and when he doesn’t care for what happened he uses his licence to change and invent. Wait on: don’t straight historical novels do this too? Yes, probably. His chosen focus in this novel on the Song is military unpreparedness. His historical lessons have to do with military unpreparedness. I’ll echo another knowledgeable review, to say that perhaps he doesn’t tell us much about Song achievements; yes, they tried and failed to be Tang, but they did amazing things of their own. (A fabulous, approachable read on Song China: The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China). Kay’s internalisation of the chauvinism of the Chinese record was slightly less evident in this one than in Under Heaven, or in simpler language, his barbarians were not as abysmal, though still crude, their cultures ignored. I can pardon this in a good book: I pardon Southern Swallow for cruded-down Jurchen. I’m still trying to figure out the case of The Ten Thousand Things, because it’s first-person, and the first person’s anti-foreign chauvinism is accurate and typical… I didn’t see the novel ever distance itself, though. Our hero in River of Stars is so committed to the slogan of winning back from the barbarians ‘our rivers and our mountains’ that he has it tattooed. This is his motivation through the novel, but it’s not a slogan I can get misty-eyed about, given the chauvinism involved (and the historical circumstances which nobody wants me to go into, let alone the present-day applications of this thinking) – so, for me, this set up a resistance to Kay’s novel. I do not pretend to be an impartial observer. I am interested in the northern societies of the Jurchen (here the Altai) and the Khitan (here the Xiaolu. In an irony, he names his China after them – Kitai – as did Marco Polo with Cathay; this kept me confused throughout). ...more
Oppositely to another reviewer, I've only read the 19thC essays not the Soviet -- though I look forward to Shostakovich later.
In short time I have coOppositely to another reviewer, I've only read the 19thC essays not the Soviet -- though I look forward to Shostakovich later.
In short time I have come to admire Richard Taruskin for sense, wit and insight, for intellectual grasp, width of attainment and humour. He is at his peak on Russians. He starts with an essay on their historiography, for Russian composers have suffered from the isolation factor and been exoticised as a result -- he won't have any of that. Taruskin's views on Tchaikovsky and Mussorsgky, just for two, are simply not to be missed.
I'm musically challenged ('I know what I like...' I like Russians as a matter of fact) but can read these as culture study, interpretation of art, and skip over the technical portions. If I read more Taruskin of course I'll get more educated. ...more
There are wars on in the field of Tchaikovsky biography. If you’re thinking about a Tchaikovsky biography, if you’re deciding which, I cannot too highThere are wars on in the field of Tchaikovsky biography. If you’re thinking about a Tchaikovsky biography, if you’re deciding which, I cannot too highly recommend Richard Taruskin’s review-article ‘Pathetic Symphonist: Chaikovsky, Russia, Sexuality, and the Study of Music’. It was published in New Republic or is collected in On Russian Music. Failing that, you can read a shorter explanation of the state of affairs at the Times Literary Supplement online: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/a.... ‘Pathetic Symphonist’ explains the whole history of how and why we came to mythologise Tchaikovsky as a tortured soul, guilty about his sexuality and suicidal at the end.
I grew up with that Tchaikovsky, and I’ve had to farewell him. He made my heart bleed with the gloomy charm of Romantic tragic lives. But I am not sorry to learn that he never gave his homosexuality other than a neutral value; that he operated quite well in his time and place, had a lot of company, had numerous physical relationships and warm emotional relationships, a few of which coincided; that he did not commit suicide; that the Court of Honour by old schoolmates now highly-placed, or even a suicide order from the Tsar (Roman-style), is absurd for the social realities, both crazy legends. Tchaikovsky lived safely enough as an open secret and the Tsar had declined to prosecute in worse homosexual scandals in high government places. Nor is it in the least likely that his letter-friend and sponsor Nadezhda von Meck abandoned him when his sexuality was made known to her, as in Ken Russell’s film (which can still be enjoyed as a lurid metaphor) The Music Lovers.
The end of their story, however, is genuinely sad, a tragedy indeed in real life. It seems, when she was old and ill, her family insisted she cease to sponsor Tchaikovsky and then intercepted letters between them; each thought the other had changed towards them, had reneged on their friendship. Poznansky calls their 13-year connection ‘arguably one of the most extraordinary unions between a man and a woman known to modern history’, so it is terribly sad that both went to their deaths hurt by an estrangement that they were left to assume was the other’s wish.
There are other sad stories in here, and vivid lives other than Tchaikovsky’s. I read this like a study in manners, like a novel. As an additional, this book is well worth putting on shelves for gay history, because Poznansky uncovers so much of the social life of the times. In 19thC Russian writings I’ve found cause to wonder how homosexuality was viewed (what does Dostoyevsky mean with his lesbian interlude in Netochka Nezvanova? What was the social context for his behaviour towards a gay prisoner in The House of the Dead?) – but after reading about the Tchaikovsky-biography wars, I sincerely believe that the research hasn’t been done and the only way to answer my questions was probably to stumble on this book. Tchaikovsky is a case in point: when the Soviets refused to talk about his sexuality and kept his archive shut, while on the other hand Britishers who dealt with his life were by their own admission uncomfortable with homosexuality (David Brown: see Taruskin’s article) – then how is research to be done? Poznansky is utterly cheerful about his sexuality, or anybody else’s for that matter, and this is a great virtue since, sad to say, we have never achieved openmindedness in Tchaikovsky biography before. The image of the tortured soul, who wasn’t very active on that front, is how stuffy Britishers (I am British, I can say that) deal with an admired musician whose sexuality they think – not he – a flaw, that must have been hard to live with.
What I did gather from these pages – and this is not something Poznansky makes explicit – is that Tchaikovsky suffered from a lack of knowledge about sexuality. He knew heaps about sex, don’t worry about that. But he misunderstood himself disastrously in his famously disastrous marriage; and although homosexuality itself was always ‘neutral’ to him (Poznansky’s term), he went through misgivings, and what read as muffled understandings without any help in the form of available knowledge or discussion, about his and his brother Modest’s influence on the young.
Poznansky ends his pages with this, and I cannot disagree:
Rarely do we encounter a genius in art who fully lived a genuinely interesting life parallel to his creativity, yet historically significant and engaging in itself. Tchaikovsky is one of these… Fact is often more richly intriguing and satisfying [than fictions]… Whatever Tchaikovsky’s sins and confusions, however great his music, the life he led in itself is a generous achievement worth telling for its own sake.
This is a document-based biography, and documents (in spite of those closed archives) are in profusion. It is, I think, the most enjoyable biography I have read; challenged only by the early volumes of Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky biography. My four stars, rather than five, are for a certain dissatisfaction… a feeling that there is more work to do. But Poznansky has done further work since this publication; I trust him on Tchaikovsky and I want to get my hands on what else he has written....more
I have two main reasons for my harsh allotment of one star – a rating to be read as a ‘cannot recommend’ from me; not exactly ‘I hated it’, although II have two main reasons for my harsh allotment of one star – a rating to be read as a ‘cannot recommend’ from me; not exactly ‘I hated it’, although I did become emotional on going through 8-10 newspaper reviews: these were written by book critics, not experts or fans of Mongol history, and they had nothing to judge by except their general impressions of the Mongols, impressions which the book, more or less, confirmed. Only one I saw, in the Asian Review of Books, asked a few of the right questions.
My first reason is that it pays little attention to what David Morgan has called ‘the cultural turn’ in Mongol scholarship of the last twenty years (he reported on this in: Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change). Even though McLynn has the begetter of the cultural turn, Thomas Allsen, in his extensive bibliography, this area, that is spoken of as a revolution in how we look at Mongols, doesn’t figure in his assessment of them in conclusion, and I feel that assessment is severely afflicted by its absence.
My second reason is that he comes to opinions about things and presents them as if they are matters of fact. I’ll use an example that did the circuit of the web, one he cites in interviews: that the Taoist master Qiu Chuji was a fraudster and Temujin, late in life, his gullible victim. That Qiu Chuji was a fraud is an opinion (you can find an alternate opinion in Wang Ping’s 2013 movie, An End to Killing or Kingdom of Conquerors – decent movie and even educational, to offset McLynn). The guy is known for his frankness in the face of Genghis Khan, for dropping the bad news that he doesn’t have or know of a magic elixir, and contrary to rumour he is not 300 years old. Let’s not hear about gullible Mongols, either, because it’s a few of Temujin’s more educated Chinese advisers who recommended Qiu Chuji to him. That leads me to the observation that this Taoist adept behaved and believed no differently to others, and to call him a big fraud is to tarnish the lot of them, isn’t it? I think we need to accept more the strangenesses of medieval religions. Addendum: on Mongol religion he says, ‘shamanism was a classic instance of the mystifying and obfuscating role of religion’, which is rather judgemental too.
On the personality of Genghis, he is very negative; probably as negative a description as I’ve read. I admit that doesn’t endear the book to me, but as long as people understand they are reading opinion… The book is told as story, and at every turn he has to make decisions and judgements on the material. I wish this process were more transparent to the reader – that it was written with less certainty, that there were alternate views on offer. ...more
Fascinating way to write autobiography. It was wonderful, lifelike. The impoverished young French girl is aware of her position of strength vis-a-visFascinating way to write autobiography. It was wonderful, lifelike. The impoverished young French girl is aware of her position of strength vis-a-vis the rich Chinese lover. Why? I suspect she'd tell you, because she's going to be a writer. (Such a one as Marguerite Duras). Still, brilliant.
I can't find my copy but I identified with this girl; at the same time her environs reminded me of Dostoyevsky's Petersburg, only in inner-city AustraI can't find my copy but I identified with this girl; at the same time her environs reminded me of Dostoyevsky's Petersburg, only in inner-city Australia: students in rundown accommodation, the out-of-work and street people. Made an impression. I hope I haven't lost mine; there isn't even a cover image here... ...more
On a ‘contempt for the human’ in Western ideas, that infiltrates every area of thought because it is in our Greek underpinnings.
The Judeo-Christian trOn a ‘contempt for the human’ in Western ideas, that infiltrates every area of thought because it is in our Greek underpinnings.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is often blamed for our negativity towards the species, and I’ve often wondered sadly (yet with hope) what we’d be without the concept of Original Sin, in our heads’ history. But I’ve also been sick of ancient Greeks and their vaunted influence. I’m sorry – Sahlins is here asked to write in pamphlet-style, so I’ll write a pamphlet-style review. Sahlins traces the condemnation of a thing called ‘human nature’ from the dog-eat-dog politics of Thucydides (hang on. Dogs don’t actually eat dogs; nor do wolves behave in the manner ascribed to them in our age-old metaphors; and peoples who keep company with wolves don't see them as we do, either. This is part of his argument.) – through Original Sin, uninterrupted in our wicked-by-nature theories in sociobiology and the selfish gene; along the way he follows our politics as the perceived need to keep a lid on people, self-interest being our only motivation.
But the nature/culture split upon which these thousands of years are predicated is a thing of the West, not of the Rest. The majority of humankind do not see a war of tooth and nail between nature and culture, whether culture is the one corrupt and primitive nature innocent (Rousseau) or whether culture tames the ferocious beast that is man (Hobbes).
In most other societies, beasts aren’t ferocious and neither is humankind, and the very notion of an unsocialised person, a pre-social state, is non-existent – because culture always was. Before homo sapiens. Even in animals.
This is an anthropologist’s take on the negative view of the human, and its resultant cynicism, that runs through the Western intellectual tradition.
Like I say, it’s a pamphlet series, where intellectuals are let loose to rant on the state of their disciplines. He takes them up on that and this can be quite humorous, at least if you’re in sympathy with his views.
I am, and only reserve a star because I found the Greek part a slog, and I have no background in the American founding fathers (there’s a large section on John Adams); and probably because I didn’t need to be convinced of much in here. I see the consequences everywhere I turn, though, and to read this was a health-giving draught for my existential condition.
Brilliant. He should make this available again. It's from 1997, but it's well-written (witty, as the Mongolian Studies blurb promises), incisively thoBrilliant. He should make this available again. It's from 1997, but it's well-written (witty, as the Mongolian Studies blurb promises), incisively thought-out, and I've read nothing quite like it. Besides, unfortunately, although he must be happy with the upturn since his date, you don't escape this amount of fucked-upness so quickly. ...more
Heard of this as a historian experimenting with fiction to tell history. However, he doesn't enter into mentalities; it's distanced and uses few creatHeard of this as a historian experimenting with fiction to tell history. However, he doesn't enter into mentalities; it's distanced and uses few creative tools....more
I did binge-read or gallop through this and I'll come back to it; but I know how to rate it. Quite original, and well worth inclusion in your books onI did binge-read or gallop through this and I'll come back to it; but I know how to rate it. Quite original, and well worth inclusion in your books on the Greek construction of the barbarian.
I'll note that he seems to have a coordinated idea of Iranian cultural motifs as misunderstood in Greek sources -- where he got his concepts I don't know, but I think he grasped them himself.
Takes a dim view of both Aeschylus' Persians and poor old Herodotus. ...more
Swoon. Again, she weights her first sentence perfectly as poetry. Last time shadow puppets (Combustion Hour), this time paper cut-outs, legends from bSwoon. Again, she weights her first sentence perfectly as poetry. Last time shadow puppets (Combustion Hour), this time paper cut-outs, legends from books. Both, the ephemeral life of effigies. This less sad, because not from the effigies' perspective. ...more