Saturday, April 3, 2010

Book Selections: Are Goths to the Right of Genghis Khan? Book Selections of the Month (April 2010): History of the Goths by Herwig Wolfram and Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Look closely at some old thing thought to be more cohesive and coherent than our divisive modern age and you usually find that the old thing, too, was complex, messy, and populated by mutts.

Take the Goths, who, far from being some ancient, insular race of ur-Europeans, were essentially a polyglot mess of overlapping and poorly-defined armies united as a people only in the sense — and so long as — they were willing to fight under a single general. Two millennia ago, basically, if you were outside the Roman Empire and slightly to the north — and willing to fight — you were a Goth, no matter how shifting your tribal boundaries and ambiguous your genetic lineage.

It’s interesting that the term has to this very day retained a certain “outcast” or “outsider” meaning, even as its relationship to the insiders has altered drastically. So, for instance, as the Roman Empire became more Catholic, “Goth” carried the connotation of insufficiently Christian (and indeed, the Goths were often a hodgepodge of semi-Christians and pagans) — they were the ones building barbarous stone structures to the north while Italy had delicate cathedrals. By the time the English began referring to “gothic novels,” by contrast, the implication was that the things that went on in Continental settings such as cathedrals and castles were, if anything, too Catholic — and thus mystical — by comparison with rational, mostly-Protestant England.

Then, the sorts of things that went on in those novels — attacks by Eastern European undead men with fangs and the like — became the inspiration for our own Siouxsie Sioux-era goths, who enjoy looking like blasphemers and outcasts but are more fond of Catholic-like imagery (crucifixes, ankhs serving as obvious substitutes for crucifixes, etc.) than just about anyone else in modern pop culture (maybe some, hankering for an Easter-substitute will join me at 10am on the western steps of Bryant Park tomorrow or 11am on the steps of the Brooklyn College library facing the green to hear my rendition of Ayn Rand’s “Faith and Force” speech — and we should have at least a couple Catholics to boot).

As I’ve recounted before, my punk singer friend Tibbie X had a thriving business in her youth selling blasphemously-altered crucifixes to goths, thriving enough to warrant a visit from a nosy lawyer for the Church of Satan who wanted to make sure she wasn’t using their official Sigil of Baphomet goat-in-pentagram symbol without permission.

In any case, the combination of pagan vitality and un-Christian decadence among the Goths inspired me to read the following description of them (as they were seen by their Roman historian contemporaries) as part of my intro comments at last month’s Debate at Lolita Bar on the question “Is Christianity for Wimps?” — taken from Herwig Wolfram’s History of the Goths (a 1980 book I can’t really recommend to non-academics, since it is admirably thorough but ends up being rather listlike, almost a recitation of the Goth phonebook or almanac, aside from rare passages like this):

They remain outside the civilized world. They are barbarians; their language does not sound human, more like stammering and mere noise. The barbarians also speak diverse languages all at once or side by side, for in their eyes language is no criterion of tribal membership. Under the assault of their horrible songs the classical meter of the ancient poet goes to pieces. Their religion is superstition…If a storm approaches, they fear the heavens are collapsing, give up any advantage they may have on the battlefield, and flee. At the same time, they are dominated by a horrible death wish; they actually look forward to dying. Even their women take part in battle. Barbarians are driven by evil spirits; “they are possessed by demons” who drive them on to the most terrible acts…Their lust for gold is immense, their love of drink boundless. Barbarians are without restraint…They are blonde and tall, if dirty and given to strange customs of personal hygiene. They grease their hair with butter and do not mind its rancid smell…The reproductive energy of the barbarians is inexhaustible. The northern climate of their native land, with its long winter nights, favors their fantastic urge to procreate.

And these characters displaced the Roman Empire.


Ascending from nomadic barbarism and constant warfare to imperial domination several centuries later were the Mongols, who’d long been divided into constantly warring or raiding bands — without even a written language — until united under one warrior who’d begun as a homeless, dog-fearing socially-outcast young boy but gradually rose to dominate what is now Mongolia and then, when he could have rested on his laurels in middle age, went out to conquer most of the known world — leaving the Mongols ruling an area larger than North America — stretching from Beijing in the east to the very outskirts of Vienna and Constantinople in the west.

The description of Genghis Khan’s astonishing achievements in Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (a much more engaging read than the Goths book) almost makes Khan sound like a primitive, idealized version of the first neoconservative — conquering the world (occasionally having a rival’s spine broken or enemy soldiers dumped en masse into moats, etc.) but then ruling it in a religiously-tolerant, rationalistic way based on rule of law and the protection of global trade routes. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the book was first published in 2004, the year of George W. Bush’s reelection and not long after modern Mongolia started citing the Gingrich Revolution as an inspiration during its own move away from communism.

Weatherford writes:

On every level and from any perspective, the scale and scope of Genghis Khan’s accomplishment challenge the limits of imagination and tax the resources of scholarly explanation.

As Genghis Khan’s cavalry charged across the thirteenth century, he redrew the boundaries of the world. His architecture was not in stone but in nations. Unsatisfied with the vast number of little kingdoms, Genghis Khan consolidated smaller countries into larger ones. In Eastern Europe, the Mongols united a dozen Slavic principalities and cities into one large Russian state. In eastern Asia, over a span of three generations, they created the country of China by weaving together the remnants of the Sung dynasty in the south with the lands of the Jurched in Manchuria, Tibet in the west, the Tangut Kingdom adjacent to the Gobi, and the Uighur lands of eastern Turkistan. As the Mongols expanded their rule, they created countries such as Korea and India that have survived to modern times in approximately the same borders fashioned by their Mongol conquerors.

Occasionally, some tribe would be foolish enough not to ally with Genghis Khan and would incur his wrath, such as the Jurkin, who in the early days once failed to show up with troops they’d promised to send to his aid. I assume this is where we get the expression “Jurkin him around.”

And while I’m making stupid puns, I can’t help noticing that a reviewer of the book on made a typo that ends up describing Genghis Khan as forcing people of diverse religions to “live in harmy,” which sounds more damaging than intended.

Seriously, though, Genghis Khan was on the cover of Dave Eggers’ tragically short-lived humor magazine Might in the late 90s as their “Man of the Millennium.” (Had Might not been canceled, they were also scheduled to print my article about evil clowns in pop culture — I think it ended up in an even shorter-lived libertarian youth mag, The Exchange, if memory serves, and I think they even reprinted the pencil drawing I sent them of an evil clown — complete with the visible logo of the hotel stationery on which I drew it.) It may have been a comedy magazine, but I think Might made the right choice.

1 comment:

Todd Seavey said...

[...] the other hand, one need look no farther than my April and August Book Selection entries, about Genghis Khan and the British Empire, respectively, to see [...]