Joseph's Reviews > Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present

Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher I. Beckwith
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really liked it

I can’t remember what led me to this book. I often read history, but not generally sweeping histories like this, which generally sacrifice depth for breadth. All I know is that I picked it up and found myself hooked from the Preface on. Beckwith has a magisterial command of his material and moves easily from bird’s-eye to ground-level views without losing track of the broader story. He also offers up, here and there, amazing comments on the languages used in the cultures he’s discussing, which I, as a poet, find fascinating. I only hope I can do the book justice in the following comments.

Empires of the Silk Road follows the rise, development, and decline of the land-based network that at its height linked the Far East (Japan, China, Korea), Central Asia (from Tibet and India to Turkey), and Europe in the world’s first step toward globalized trade. This robust system thrived until an expansion of the ancient Mediterranean coastal trading system was expanded by Western Europeans into the “regular open-sea trade between Europe and South, Southeast, and East Asia” known as the Littoral System. Over time the Littoral System outperformed the Silk Road and spurred all kinds of technological developments that led to what some historians refer to as The Rise of the West. Beckwith traces this story all the way back to “the Indo-European diaspora”—mass migrations of proto-Indo-European speakers out of Central Asia, which began about 4,000 years ago. These migrations brought a new technology (the war chariot) and a new political idea (the comitatus) that proved crucial to the development of the Silk Road and its empires.

The war chariot and its effects alone are fascinating, but after all it was merely a technological innovation destined to be supplanted by other innovations. The comitatus as a political paradiagm, on the other hand, has proved more durable.

Essentially, the comitatus was a band of loyal warriors devoted to a single heroic lord, who compensated them through wealth, power, and social status. Members of a comitatus swore a blood oath that committed them to fight and die for their lord. If the lord died before his core comitatus members, they would commit ritual suicide and be buried with him in full battle regalia in order to fight on their lord’s behalf in the next world; sometimes, especially when a comitatus numbered in the hundreds, some less committed members would refuse suicide and end up being executed by the lord’s successor. This model shaped political structures across ancient Europe; the western, central, and eastern steppes; the Arabian peninsula; India, Tibet, China, Mongolia; and even down into Southeast Asia. In other words, the Eurasian Culture Complex united cultures that today seem neatly divided between West and East. The comitatus paradigm affected them all.

In fact, although beyond the scope of Beckwith’s book, clearly the comitatus is with us today. It exists in popular mythology (King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, for example), religion (Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, the Sahabah who supported the Prophet Muhammed), and in connection with any number of criminal organizations (the Japanese Yakuza, the Sicilian Mafia,). Even the bodyguards protecting members of the One Percent and the soldiers of fortune fielded by Academi (the former Blackwater) follow the comitatus model. Of course, these are my associations, not Beckwith’s!

As we follow Beckwith through the development of the Littoral System and its withering impact on the Silk Road, we also see that the roots of colonialism’s brutality reach all the way back to the rise of the Eurasian empires. With the advent of world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and their various subsets—Eurasian empires began adopting particular religions: Buddhism in Tibet and China; Christianity in Europe; Islam in Central Eurasia, the Arabian Peninsula, and much of North Africa. These choices had the effect of unifying each Empire from the ground up and projecting the glorious afterlife promised by the comitatus paradigm onto all the people in a given empire.

One outcome of this shift was the creation of our modern notion of “barbarians.” Eurocentric historians, sons and daughters of the Littoral System, have long portrayed Central Eurasians as “fierce and cruel natural warriors” whose “nomads’ life-style left them poor, because their production was insufficient for their needs.” As a result, Central Eurasians “robbed the rich peripheral agricultural peoples to get what they needed and wanted.” What Beckwith demonstrates, in wonderful detail, is that every element of this portrait is wrong. The “barbarians” were (and are) no more naturally warlike than other peoples; they were certainly not poor (in fact, they were generally much better off than their agriculturalist neighbors), their trading skills being more than sufficient to provide for their needs. (One startling fact supporting this view is that the Great Wall of China was expanded under the Ming Dynasty not to keep “barbarians” out but to keep the poverty-stricken agriculturalists of that area in.) In establishing the Littoral System, the colonialist West initiated war after brutal war while driving the native populations of their colonies into miserable poverty. Only by blaming their victims’ “barbarity” could the European kingdoms and nation states excuse their own.

Eloquent as Beckwith is in his defense of the cultures that developed from the Central Eurasian Complex, when he gets to the modern period his argument collapses, as often happens when historians try to account for a contemporary condition. The condition Beckwith critiques—attacks would be a better word—is what he calls “Modernism.” His argument hinges on the following definition: “The core idea of Modernism is simple, and seems harmless enough by itself: what is modern—new and fashionable—is better than what it replaces.” This attitude wasn’t a problem, he writes, “as long as classicism (or the idea that what is old is better than what is new) still acted as a counterweight.... But the classical and aristocratic became identified became identified with each other in opposition to the modern and nonaristocratic, along with the spread of industrialization and urbanization, when nonaristocratic people doing modern industrial, urban things came to dominate Europe, North America, and eventually much of the rest of Eurasia.” The whiff of elitism here is unmistakable, along with nostalgia for the comforts of the political structures destroyed in the last century’s two great wars and the eruptions that Beckwith calls “radical Modernist revolutions.”

Once he has identified Modernism with revolutions, Beckwith proceeds to trash Modernism in the arts—specifically music (Stravinsky, Webern, rock-’n’-roll), painting (Picasso and Pollack), and literature, especially the poetry of Pound and Eliot. Most heinous of all, in Beckwith’s view, is that Modernism—“not so much a philosophy or movement as a total world-view”—begat Postmodernism, a form of “hyper-Modernism” that he believes has destroyed all traditional intellectual values. He is especially distressed that Modernism has spread to Central Eurasia. “In [post-WWII] Europe,” he writes, “Paris is still characterized by its beautiful old traditional architecture, and the libraries and museums are full. [..] In Central Eurasia, by contrast, only a few famous monuments were not destroyed, and only a tiny percentage of the once vast number of old books was preserved. By the end of the twentieth century, the evil done in the name of Modernism and ‘progress’ left Central Eurasians bereft of much of their past.”

By “the evil done in the name of Modernism” Beckwith means primarily Stalin and Mao, although he cites the Iranian revolution’s deposition of the Shah and other similar events as well. For some reason, even though the book’s index has a “Modernism, in Germany” entry, the text it refers to never explicitly links Hitler with Modernism. This failure doesn’t indicate fascist sympathies; instead, it shows Beckwith glossing over a flaw in his argument about Modernism. Unlike the “all things new,” future-oriented totalitarianism of Stalin and Mao, Hitler’s revolution was a backward-looking fantasy, a pathological attempt to recreate the past. In fact, its was the clearly Modernist Weimar Republic Hitler had to crush in order to attempt his reestablishment of the Third Reich. Why would Beckwith, every inch the honest scholar, dodge this issue? My guess is that he does not want to admit that the Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were perhaps the last gasp of the ancient Central Eurasian Complex paradigm: each was a “lord” served by a suicidal comitatus; each used his “lordly” status to build an empire, just as every Central Eurasian warlord had attempted to do since the beginning of the proto-Indo-European diaspora. If Beckwith were to acknowledge the persistence of the comitatus idea, he might see Modernism for what it is: a visceral and intellectual reaction to the collapse of the paradigm which for 4,000 years had grounded the psycho-spiritual lives of people within the Central Eurasian Culture Complex.

I will admit that Beckwith’s critique of Modernism is persuasive in parts, and I haven’t given it the attention it deserves. In any case, his remedy—a call for “artists, musicians, and poets ... to focus their minds on the creation of a new high art tradition”—hearkens to the utterly discredited hierarchies rooted in the lord/comitatus paradigm. This paradigm consists now of nothing but vestiges. Modernism recognizes this, though some Modernists lament while others celebrate. Eliot and Pound, at whom Beckwith sneers more than once, are among the lamenters, looking to the past for their values, enamored of fascism (Pound in particular found inspiration in the 15th century poet and warlord Sigismundo Malatesta, whose image he loonily projected upon the strutting pagliaccio Benito Mussolini), and devoted nevertheless to “the new” in verse; among the celebratory Modernists were Walt Whitman (yes, I would argue for Whitman as the first English language Modernist), William Carlos Williams, and e. e. cummings. What a shame it would be to throw out all these poets and their fellows in music and visual art, all in the name of “Make It Old!”

Now, I will say that Beckwith is right that no one has yet figured out how to critique Modernism from the outside. That needs to happen. And yes, the stranglehold that Modernism’s bastard child, Postmodernism, has developed in the Academy needs to be broken. In fact, in his Introduction Beckwith mounts a succinct, powerful attack on Postmodernism that he can’t seem to match in his attacks on Modernism:
History is only opinion. Therefore, no valid judgments can be made. We cannot know what happened or why, but can only guess at the modern motivations for the modern “construction of identity” of a nation, the nationalistic polemics of anti-intellectuals and nonscholars, and so on. All manuscripts are equally valuable, so it is a waste of time to edit them—or worse, they are said to be important mainly for the information they reveal about their scribes and their cultural milieux, so producing critical editions of them eliminates this valuable information. Besides, we cannot know what any author really intended to say anyway, so there is no point in even trying to find out what he or she actually wrote. Art is whatever anyone claims to be art. No ranking of it is possible. There is no good art or bad art; all is only opinion. Therefore it is impossible, formally, to improve art; one can only change it. Unfortunately, obligatory constant change, and the elimination of all criteria, necessarily equals or produces stasis: no real change. The same applies to politics, in which the Modern “democratic” system allows only superficial change and thus produces stasis. Because no valid judgments can be made by humans—all human judgments are opinions only—all data must be equal. (As a consequence, Postmodernists’ judgment about the invalidity of judgments must also be invalid, but the idea of criticizing Postmodernist dogma does not seem to be popular among them.) In accordance with the Postmodernist view, there is only a choice between religious belief in whatever one is told (i.e., suspension of disbelief) or total skepticism (suspension of both belief and disbelief). In both cases, the result, if followed resolutely to the logical extreme, is cessation of thought, or at least elimination of even the possibility of critical thought. If the vast majority of people, who are capable only of the former choice (total belief), are joined by intellectuals and artists, all agreeing to abandon reason, the result will be an age of credulity, repression, and terror that will put all earlier ones to shame.
All this, I think, is undeniable, and does not at all understate what’s at stake. On the other hand, while Postmodernism is indeed dangerous, it is nothing like the hyper-Islamism of Al-Qaeda, the hyper-Christianism of the Christian Identity movement, the hyper-Judaism of Kahane Chai, or the hyper-New Ageism of Aum Shinrikyo—none of which can be described as “rooted in Modernism.” But the truth is, Postmodernism excuses these bizarre and deadly hyper-groups when it pretends that reason isn’t preferable to unreason and that all values are equal.

Ultimately, Empires of the Silk Road is brilliant history because of Beckwith’s commitment to reason, his openness to evidence, and his profound respect for the cultures he studies. I think that someday this book is bound to be recognized as a classic.
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July 12, 2013 – Shelved

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