Chinggis reception

One day — and I aim to be still alive for the event — there’ll be published a Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Chinggis Khan, to match the Reception of Alexander the Great I just saw announced (Table of Contents).

It must have 800 pages, like the Alexander. I was disappointed enough when Cambridge’s History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age came out at half the spine-width of one of its History of China volumes. Obviously my sin is envy.

I have slowly become as interested in Chinggis reception as in the history itself. Not only our reception today — his portrayal in popular and academic mediums; the study of that portrayal, its whys and wherefores, its habits and its tropes — but the history of reception. His portrayal, say, in 18th-century France and England, which is a high point (I dipped into this in my post Genghis Englishhed in the Eighteenth Century). His reception by Roger Bacon in the English 13th century, and in turn the use of Bacon and Mongols in John Cowper Powys’s 1956 novel The Brazen Head. His reception in biographies, like the one by Ralph Fox which I collected to see how a British communist in 1936 explains the Mongol conquests. (What for? Believe it or not, it sheds light on how we do. We are positioned too.) A year or two ago I outlined a vast research project on the reception of Turks and Mongols in Byzantine and Persian historians of the 11th to 13th centuries, and how the shapes they made of history might persist in centuries afterwards. And I’d love to fulfil that project, as far as I am equipped to… except my first task is the piece of reception I am writing myself: my novel.

One part of Chinggis reception that does attract attention is in modern-day China. The ‘Who owns Chinggis’ thing would be a controversial chapter in this prospective book.

No history is told straight. It is always received. And what Chinggis has been made to represent in different times and places, fascinates me. Reception history fascinates me: I collect those I find analogous, such as Emma Bridges on ‘imagining’ Xerxes and the Persian Wars. Because again, I want to see a similar for Chinggis and Mongols.

 

 

Misogyny is a Greek Word

I wrote a comedy. It has Scythians, and lots of mashed-up quotes. Beware: political topicality.

 

Misogyny is a Greek Word

A comedy in one act
by Bryn Hammond

Like trucks the Scythian wagons pull to a stop in a circle, and women climb down from the driver’s seats.

The trader said:

On my business trips into Scythia I deal exclusively with women. Cash transactions, foreign commerce: these are in the wives’ charge. Classified as household, by extension, I think, from spoils – which, if not on four feet, go straight into the women’s hands. They drive the only repositories, you see. Because of this – at least if you ask a trader, or ordinary folk who know them through exchange, and not important men of politics and war – Scythian women have always been the interface of contact. Towns don’t scare them. The women look much more outward than the men. They are more conversable.

To my frank exasperation, Greeks not on the ground describe society in terms of what the men do. That’s a habit that ignores both my needs and the average marketgoer’s. I have listened to scrolls by experts who briefly treat the Scythians’ home wagons as if they follow the basic principles of Greek houses, and pay them no further attention, which means they can give no adequate account of the Scythian economy. I am a humble trader, no great shakes in my city, and often feel myself inside a cloak of invisibility. But my advice to you, friend, is don’t look past the women as if they were not there. We Greeks have a blind spot. Unless we fantasise of Amazons…

The home wagons, in most months of the year, you’ll find a women’s town. Imagine you leave your wife to run the household and go off for a three-months’ jaunt – to catch wild horses in the mountains, or join the king’s great hunt, or on campaign. Except the household is on wheels, and she can trundle for a thousand miles uninterrupted, unimpeded. That way stretch the steppes of Asia, and none of us know where they end. Nomads do: they have laughed heartily when I tell our geographers’ tales about the monster races whom we say live just beyond the Scythians – those with anatomy of humankind and beasts, or body parts dislocated and distorted. In exchange for my tales I try to elicit from them report of what lies beyond. A great-grandmother answered me succinctly. She said, ‘more of us, and more of you.’ No monsters, then. But other Greeks.

When I am in a town of women, with no Scythian man to talk to, I simply forget they are of the wrong sex, and behave with the courtesy I would towards a foreign citizen. In Scythian terms, women have participatory citizen status; just accept it. I cannot transact with the men, and I became accustomed to them years ago. It isn’t hard to forget what sex they are. Women’s work? To make and maintain those wagons, for a start. As well as business.

Look, here are the husbands, here are the Scythian men, come afterwards on horse. Cautious and suspicious. They hang back in a circle of uncertain hooves, while already the women swing towards our gates. Unarmed. Let not your fellow citizens be afraid of Amazons. These are prosperous ladies come for commerce and amusement. Offer your hospitality, in turn, as I have found the women’s wagons jolly and hospitable places for a guest. And entirely decent, to save you the inevitable inquiry. We are neighbours about this Black Sea, and Zeus loves the hospitable, as does the Scythians’ great Sky Father. – I must not mention him without our Mother Earth: it is unholy to acknowledge one, omit the other.

Chorus of citizens:

What monstrous regiment of women enter at our gates? These cart-makers have physiques fit to hire as labour, but ladies? A lady has some delicacy, some elegance I recognise, although she be not Greek. Hands the size of shovels; her feet sprawl like a camel’s. I have never seen a woman walk like that. I think her hips are the axle of her cart. This is not athleticism, but rather ignorance of human motion – the opposite, in fact, of our sports. They walk rawly, as if never taught. I cannot even describe the way they walk.

Scorched by the sun, scoured by the wind, whatever beauty they once claimed stripped away by weather. These women who have never been indoors – never seen the inside of a house, only their primitive huts on wheels. Not our idea of housewives, or respectability. She drives her own house where she wishes, in company of wives. As our playwright said, ‘Let husbands not allow their wives the company of women: every trouble starts when women natter.’

Coarse faces, devoid of femininity. Aphrodite does not know these women. The interplay that happens when a woman meets a man – you notice it in its absence. The address of a woman to a man is remembered when a so-called woman talks to you without it. These are not women, certainly, by the standards of civilized men.

The historian wrote:

A barbarian is womanish in that, in common with women, he is a creature of lusts and urges he must gratify, of greed and inability to subdue his desires or to temper his emotions. Both possess the spontaneity of beasts. Rational self-control, the virtue of a man – an individual man’s self-government which enables men in co-operation to construct a civilized society, is unknown to barbarians, impossible to women.

A nomad is the ultimate barbarian. With no fixed address, with no habit of hard work, he finds easy to extort from others what he fails to produce himself. Restlessly he prowls his wastelands, stares across our frontier, forever envious of luxuries we have and he has not. He lives in hives like bees, unseen until he swarms, and then he cuts a swathe through us like locusts. His horde as quickly come and gone as a flock of birds, he is impossible to catch but swoops out of the blue and vanishes. His steppe is as vast as sea or sky, one is lost in it. His instinct is the wolves’, and while he has a human face, his heart is animal. He has been a pest in every age of history, and every society likens him unto destructive insects.

Chorus of citizens:

See the Scythian women at the market. We have fishwives of our own, but these are worse. They laugh to each other harshly with the voice of crows and gulls. Their fingers ruin everything they touch. Watch them eat: she tears the flesh like a bacchant. No-one taught her table manners. I would rather sit down with my slaves than dine with them.

These milk-drinkers desire our food, since culinary skill is quite beyond them. They have no patience to grow things slowly and with toil, but scavenge from the civilized with threats and violence. Nomads do nothing to earn their keep. They have no valid place in the world but are sent to plague us.

Where does the fur end and the fat begin? They swathe themselves in hides and hair, in felt and skins, until I can’t distinguish what is animal about them and what human. Greeks dress with a pride in human limbs, but these hide their bodies as if to disguise their sex or species.

I cannot eat beside them. The pungency of body odour puts me off my food. Now garlic and fish sauce, the usual offence, seem mild next to these women’s reek. If my wife stank like that I’d ask my goat into the room to perfume her.

I hear they let the clothes disintegrate upon them, as if they were holy garments that mustn’t be removed.

I hear they cannot wash, because of superstitions. I’d say we have olfactory evidence.

The sight of them disgusts, the smell revolts our better class of patron. Our good Greeks leave them to it, and desert the market.

The poet wrote:

Harpies – the name means Spoilers, Snatchers – are half-woman and half-bird. They have a human countenance, but clawed hands and vulture’s wings, and wasted, famished faces, ever hungry. They shriek and emit a fetid odour, such that no man can stand to let them close but must retreat. Storm Wind and Swift Flier, sisters foul, swoop in upon a feast laid out, despoil the tables. Now the whole horrid flock join in and rip apart the joints of meat. They attack the food like vultures, and what they do not seize they leave defiled with an obscene discharge from their under-vents. Everything they touch is left in filth. They persecute pious men with these visitations. Sometimes they steal people and fly off with them, into what evil fate none knows.

The trader said:

Yes, they accost citizens in the street. Scythian women do not wait to be spoken to. They laugh, yes, if laughter is a crime. I find the women merry to a fault. Whose fault, might be a matter of whose humour first runs short. In this case, it is the gentleman. Well, they mean no harm.

And now – they are tired of gentlemen only in the streets. I hear them wonder where the women are. Apart from public women, for if one thing strikes them silent, I have noticed, it is the painted faces of town pornai. I cannot tell whether they are scandalised or puzzled. It’s not a question I can ask. – Oh, my friend, that is an insult to them, although a common story. Trust me, I have myself smeared my face with fats, in the weather that they have; and found it most emollient, and saved my skin. I do not mean ‘saved my skin’ as a woman says it, I mean I saved my skin from falling off my face. I did not ape our pornai when I resorted to it, nor mistook sheep’s grease for a cosmetic. Apology accepted.

But what? They have broken into a residence, while we converse. Up goes the cry. They assume a hospitality, if they receive it not.

The proprietor complained:

They tried to steal my women. They tried to tempt my wife outdoors. My daughters, in a flutter, have forgotten how to hear their father’s voice. It is intoxication to them, this visit from the Scythians: I say we shut the gates next time.

Citizens: Sooth yourself, patriarch, for the women have withdrawn, almost with an apologetic air. They have ceased to disturb your peace.

The proprietor: That’s very well, but I warn you, they’d have kidnapped my females had I not chased them from the premises.

The trader said:

To be fair, there is frequently a tiny leak of population after the Scythians have been. Not necessarily debtors, either. I have seen where they end up. There are more ex-Greeks in Scythian clothes than Greeks care to believe. One does not defect from civilization, obviously. A Greek does not change his skin for a barbarian’s – that would be monstrous. Well, well, we never mention it.

Ah, see, they have called a cross-sexed shaman to make peace. The shaman comes among them and the women settle down like startled birds or like wild animals at music. A shaman means harmony to them. They act as the diplomats of daily life. Not an arbiter in office, much more familiar, everybody’s friend, and they heal the ordinary hurts. I suppose it is a simple logical extension to think one who is both sexes can see both sides to a dispute. I’m not assured this person is best chosen to calm the master of the house.

No, its organs are concealed. You can identify a cross-sexed shaman by the way they ornament themselves. Distinctively, yet each one different, as if they start from scratch. There are not enough of them to set a fashion. They are rare birds, feted like the arrival of a phoenix. There are never enough of them. And then the kings want their services, which the community resents.

You are uneasy? You might see them in a better light if you were close. Few who spend the time with them, I think, reject that these beings have a grace. My, the citizens sound upset – this is an unexpected guest. Citizens screech.

They cross sexes, that is the point. Shamans – to explain to you as has been explained to me – leap the gaps in the world: between human and animal, between the living and the dead, between the sexes too. In Scythia, what you take for a freak is likely to be sacred. A sacred communication across species, sexes, states. How far these concepts are from our own cults of physical perfection and the body. The steppe is a spiritual landscape and its people so, and in their ideas fixity is an evil, although the fate of most, while to change one’s shape makes visible the unity of spirit underneath. Physical anomaly becomes a wonder and a sign. They worship monstrosity? It is a charge I have heard before. Perhaps they are the opposite of Spartans, who weed out imperfect infants and destroy them.

Look into your own heart. Do you not, yourself, feel a sense of escape in the presence of this creature? She-he lifts the veil from our falsities.

I laugh – I’m sorry. I just heard a woman call out the shaman’s name. Conjunction of the Stars. It isn’t as pretty in my Greek. Conjunction of the Stars. A name for a living divinity. It can’t be easy to live and function in the exalted space they allot to the self-same creatures we throw sticks and stones at or make limericks about.

Yes, I take the Scythians’ side. Zeus loves the stranger, but his example never seems to be enough to convince us on the earth.

The historian wrote:

This odd tribe of men-women, whom Scythians revere, drink potions of the urine of pregnant mares to feminise themselves. They have a counterpart in women-men who take concoctions from certain liquids stallions secrete.

The trader said:

I never heard talk of potions, or what type. There is much slander in historians.

Here’s a lucky interruption: the Scythian husbands pluck up courage to enter town. Of course, on horses. The shaggy horses stand so low, they are scarcely a nuisance in the streets and can’t possibly intimidate. Yet they have a legendary energy.

Why are the men timorous? I do not think timid is the word, but their behaviour is not ours. Consider the effect of marriage customs. Your Greek ideal is to marry when he is thirty, she thirteen. Whereas a Scythian, if he is upper crust, seeks to marry up: to a wife up a rank, up a notch in nobility, and he expects to marry up in age. They can turn us on our heads: a youth might be wooed by his aunt’s friend and coeval, while a girl can wrest permission to be single until thirty, because her eligibility accumulates. I suspect this is where your myths arise, tribes where a maid must slay an enemy before she weds. Who can say? Scythia is a vast place, as differentiated as the cities of the Greeks.

The historian wrote:

A popular tale, agreed to by Scythians themselves, is that they did disservice to a goddess once, who in her vengeance struck their race with the female affliction. Our medical writers have attributed their constitution to the air and water, cold and heavy, so that in Scythia men have a sluggish sex urge and a flabby body. But I believe the explanation is a simpler one, still physiological rather than religious: that their testes suffer damage from being every day on horseback since childhood. Injury is exacerbated by the constriction of trousers, which keep the male parts musty and enclosed. Whichever is the true cause, sexual organs in a Scythian man seldom achieve healthy growth, and cannot flourish like a Greek’s in his sensible loose skirt. A Greek does not grind his testes against a horse’s back from dawn to dusk. This is why we keep our manhood, and the Scythians lose theirs.

Chorus of citizens:

These unfeminine women, these effeminate men. The Scythians have crushed their testicles, clinging to their animals like shabby Centaurs. They rarely have intercourse. They are not real men.

A Scythian is not frightening close-to. A Scythian in the wild is no different than our Scythian slaves at home, slow-witted and easily bamboozled. We laugh at him in our comedies. If you are not afraid of your slave, gentlemen, I exhort you to scorn these Scythians too.

These unfeminine women, these effeminate men. I miss the theatre in my home town, I miss the climate. Here I live next door to savages and look out on a waste. These unfeminine women, these effeminate men.

The trader said:

Scythian women seem content with the performance of their men. They don’t display a particular interest in stray Greeks.

The blogger typed:

Contemporary man lives an emasculated life. He has forgotten what he used to be. The modern West, sad to say, makes war on masculinity, and we are in the front lines of a fight for male existence. Our enemy pretends biology doesn’t matter, but you can tell they don’t believe this, because their stealth attack is biological. Female hormones infiltrate food on the shelves, leak into the water. Hormones have reduced the modern man to mock-women, tame and brainwashed by feminism’s lies.

Real men are under siege. Look back for strength – back to Ancient Greece when men were men. The three hundred Spartans who beat off an effeminate slave army from Asia. Take heart from the past – red-blooded barbarians who didn’t apologise for the instincts of a man. Cultural Marxism obliterates this from the record, in cooperation with the academic arm of modern feminism. The Greeks invented everything of worth, but ‘Western Civ’ is near-despised in universities today. Don’t be put off: take Classics classes. Occupy the university, and insist they teach the truth. Not every professor is a leftist; we have committed men.

Feminists and their allies try to neuter us. Unless you nurse your testosterone, you’ll become a monster too. Nothing is not monstrous in the future that they want. There is estrogen in the water. Beware.

 

Against Walls in Asian Review of Books

I am honoured to be reviewed by novelist Dmitry Kosyrev in the Asian Review of Books.

‘I happen to know this world: I’ve been to Mongolia three times and, recently, in Russia’s Altai, which is about the same. I know that Bryn Hammond did a miracle of transporting the reader there, but I’ve no idea how she did it (that’s a real compliment from one writer to another). That’s a wolf’s world, whatever it means, a world of strange talk in strange places; it’s in fact another planet.’

“Against Walls” by Bryn Hammond

‘Based on’

A Bastard Art, part 1 of 4

‘Based on’ is a debased tag, signifying nothing. ‘Based on a true story’, etc. When I had my first inklings of a novel taken from the Secret History of the Mongols, I rejected the phrase ‘based on’. But what was I doing instead, what words can I use instead? Maybe a ‘version’: that sounds as if it is the same material cast into a different format, from 13th-century ‘epic chronicle’ to 21st-century novel. I searched for the right words, and I searched for examples, to help me articulate that which I desired to do. I didn’t want to write a ‘based on’, and for a while was at a loss for examples to follow. I needed those that re-tell a text, not just (and not necessarily) those that tell history in fiction.

My ideal was to imitate the Secret History’s features: not simply its events but its interests, its sensibilities, its storytelling tactics; to have the Secret History an artistic presence in my work. To this end, I’d treat it as true and sacrosanct in spite of its truth values being contested. In this ‘epic chronicle’ I see resistance to epic even as it draws on epic’s methods. Oral epic was prevalent when and where it was composed, straight history less so, although not unknown. It still tries to tell the truth, outrageously at times. But I found just as valuable its information on the way Mongols imagined their own story, what they told themselves, true or not. I cared about history, but I cared about the Secret History more. I was devoted to a text.

On the other hand, I didn’t feel prepared to forgo the freedoms I was used to in fiction of ‘pure imagination’. I didn’t know whether I belonged in historical fiction; its main template was at once too loose and too strict. Too strict, because I wanted to be in the equation. The Secret History spoke to me, and my need to hear wasn’t merely historical inquiry. It had things of great moment to tell me. In chase of these truths, I didn’t mean to describe only the past, nor renounce a writer’s right to talk about what matters most to me. I want elbow room, in fact I want to be a king of infinite space. The point was that I would interact with the Secret History, not efface myself. If these aims were contradictory, I didn’t worry too much: I believe in contradiction as a machine that can grind up incompatibles and make them work together.

To think about originality and inherited story, I turned to medieval romance. The Matter of Britain or the Arthur cycle, as popular now as ever in Arthurian novels; also, before they were swamped by Arthur, the Matter of Thebes, the Matter of Troy, from antiquity. The Carolingian cycle joined them, and these were the great story resources for romancers. People took up the Matter, retold old tales. But they were not afraid to be original about it. Back when I was in discovery of them (I hope this is behind us) I heard the line that medievals ‘did not prize originality as we do’. To say Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried von Strassburg were unoriginal in what they did with the Matter is a horribly modern mistake. We have lost the art of that common ‘Matter’; it’s make up your own plot, nowadays, and keep your hands off other people’s. Medievals held the story in common, and interpretation, exegesis, gloss were the order of the day. They wrote by their own lights, although they recycled plot. When you have a pool of writers dabbling in the Matter, perhaps you don’t feel a pressure to write the definitive version. You feel free to write your version. Isn’t idiosyncrasy encouraged? I liked the enrichment of the soil on these commons where everybody grew their own thing. I liked the knowledge of a world beyond your contribution, maintained by dead hands before you and left to future hands after you are gone. A great confused garden, joint work, where you can wander and never be bored. That sense of a commons which I found in medieval story gave me permission, somehow, to create my own patch and not be anxious about its idiosyncrasies. There was no one way to tell a story, there was no right and wrong. How unlike himself Lancelot was, yet I followed him from text to text, saintly Lancelot, bad Lancelot, indifferent Lancelot – I didn’t tire of Lancelots, when young. I know I don’t want ownership: I want to read six hundred novels about Temujin, Jamuqa and Borte, as I can on Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. None of them remotely the same. Yay individuality.

An heir, in my mind, to medieval romance is the world of fanfiction. Here too is a Matter in common, known as canon. As Chrétien, Gottfried and Wolfram wrote in the ‘universe’ of Arthur, science fiction fans write in the universe of Star Trek or Blake’s 7. I was acquainted with fanfiction that won’t change a word of canon but goes places the base material never went. Like medieval story, fanfiction is accused of unoriginality – still today, this time. But unoriginality is what I searched for at this stage, to put in opposition to a ‘based on’. That idea of canon: that nothing in the text can be altered, It Happened as on screen, and you have to find ways to write around it – to write with and not against. This is very much stricter than a typical ‘based on’ historical novel. Yet the inventiveness in fanfiction is a lesson to the original creators, cramped by their television screens. I need not fear for invention when I say the Secret History is to be my canon. I am in the position of a fan, with commitment to a text. I didn’t want to change things ‘to make a good story’. If it’s in the Secret History, it happened as the Secret History says, whether convenient for me or not.

Neither of my models were historical in the first place. Medieval ‘Matters’ had a semblance of history or were pretend histories; fanfiction grew from another fiction. That suited. I’m writing a version of the Secret History, not questioning which portions are historical and which are not. Mine was a text-to-text affair. Like fans with canon, I had a story already told, and this was unusual for historical fiction. Even if a historical novel won’t step outside the record, the record isn’t told at story-level, whereas my source (and this is why it isn’t accepted as ‘the record’) does storify, if not in the detail of science fiction television. History, by other hands, has been made into a story (in case you wonder, there is very little record outside the Secret History for the bulk of its contents). Even in periods when you have letters and diaries to work from, I don’t suppose you have a story already told. I felt nearest to those who rewrite the Iliad, with two ‘except’ clauses: that the Secret History is a set of sketches next to Homer; and that it does align itself more with history than with epic – eyewitness history, events the tellers have lived through.

What else did fanfiction teach me? Love. Unashamed love: there is not enough love for one’s material. A critical eye? Yes, but we have scarcely begun to understand the Secret History, and to understand you have to love. Criticise afterwards. Love first. I didn’t want to rip events out of the Secret History like edibles from a carcass but to hear its music, in the parts and in the whole. Perhaps I learnt to listen to my material, to listen as if my life were at stake (because fiction has that effect), desperate to catch nuance, to see the possibilities in what is said, from that ultra-close examination of what happened on the television screen. Source criticism? It starts with the ability to look and listen with the devout attention of a fan. I believe in love as a first step. Scepticism as a first step is fatal. I learnt to love my text through fanfiction. Then there is the love directed at your work. I’ll forever be inspired by fans who write for love and not for profit – by the deep conviction found in that freedom from the profit motive. Fans write because they care, and this ethos encourages original work, bold work that doesn’t have to answer to a market. They have been the unacknowledged legislators, because some fan innovations have gone mainstream.

Originality was such a fetish with me, I’d never have given up the free invention of SFF for historical with its restrictions, if not for two things. First, the Secret History was better than a story of my own invention. It’s a story novelists want to sink their teeth into, a classic story: Temujin’s conflicts with those he most loved or trusted; the ins and outs of these friendships/rivalries over time – twenty years of saga on the steppe, before he stood with its united peoples as Tchingis Khan at forty (-odd; there is a range of dates for his birth). Yes, the Secret History is short, but it is the psychological conflicts and not the physical combats that are lavishly told. Obviously the story was appreciated in its own day for the same reasons that make it dream material for a novelist. A people’s memory of unification has its idealism of high-minded common effort, and this contrasts with the off-steppe conquests that came of unity: here is scope for a tragedy. I’d never met a story that shoved the Arthur cycle aside, to claim equivalence with that love-and-conflict classic, with its tragic trajectory. I grew up on Arthur, as you can tell, and to me, the Secret History’s story was similar, different, and equal – but not so often told in English. Why invent?

Second, I saw a unique chance, a piece of luck, one that doesn’t come twice in a writer’s life. Every writer has her territory: those concerns and questions that preoccupy her as a writer, that she tackles again and again. The story in the Secret History leant itself to mine. Since at this time I was in my thirties, mine had been existent for upwards of fifteen years – I knew what I write about, but I knew restlessly, because I hadn’t managed to say it well. The Secret History came along to help me. Wolfram and Gottfried mapped their preoccupations onto the Matter, to make it ‘about’ what they were urged to write. In them I took comfort, for they did not efface themselves; indeed romance authors were known to walk into the story and account for what they did with it in first person (or fake third). I mapped onto this matter. Me, entire with my writer’s territory, onto the text as it stood. We were a match. We were a marriage made in heaven. At every point I spotted opportunities to write what I had been eager to write, to explore where I had explored before, but with its help this time. It was half-familiar and half-strange, it was a lucky chance and a challenge, it was everything I always wanted to write, it was above and beyond my ability. The week I met this story was the most exciting of my life. I felt I had only lived to offer it my services. A cooperative venture came into view.

There is an alchemy when fans give of themselves to a canon. They call them ‘transformative works’ these days; that is right, because both are transformed. There is an originality that comes from devotion, and fan writers understood this: if you put in your heart and soul, and marry them to the material, inevitably you are both changed in the result. From my time in science fiction fandom I was not afraid to be ‘unoriginal’. I did not think a waste of time to write in a universe not of my own invention. I’m aware fan work – transformative work – attracts scorn from those unacquainted with its originality, or who underestimate the derivativeness of most art. But from my time in science fiction fandom I knew there is an alchemy in interaction. Alchemy means the output is unlike either ingredient, a thing of a different order, a quality achieved that neither ingredient seems to promise. Temujin met an alchemist, Perpetual Spring, whose Taoist sect practiced an ‘internal alchemy’, transmutation within the body, that once had been an operation with chemicals and crucibles outside. That’s a nice metaphor for what I have attempted to say about fiction, and failed. Metaphors are better, because they are interactional: you can finish them off for me.

With these encouragements I took up the Matter of the Steppe, and commenced my fanfiction on the Secret History.

Next: The happy accident. A Bastard Art, part 2 of 4

Under new sails

 

 

 

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The sister art of anthropology

Another quick post. I am moved to share this New Year’s statement about What Anthropology Is. Why? As a novelist, seeking to give my readers a lived experience of a culture strange to them (let’s be ‘participant observers’ together), whose main aim, often, is to make the unfamiliar seem familiar, reasonable, and, yes, right: and so to expand our knowledge of ways of being human, our sense of possibilities for the species…  pardon me, but to this historical novelist, anthropology, above other disciplines, I feel to be my sister art. So much of this post is applicable. A novelist about the past cannot do better than contemplate the goals and ethics of anthropology.

Living Anthropologically: What is anthropology? 

Antrosio, Jason. 2017. “What is Anthropology? Critical Inquiry into the Conditions and Potentials of Human Life.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/what-is-anthropology-2017-human-life/. Posted 12 November 2017. Revised 4 January 2018.

Resources on Race and Medieval Studies

The Mongol khan meets envoys. From Rashid al-Din’s world history.

2017 was a year of urgent attention paid to race and medieval studies, with resources made for general use as well as for teachers and researchers.

I followed these projects on Twitter, which has turned out a great venue for medievalists: news, crowdsourced efforts and scholarly engagement with the public.

There is now available a bibliography, facilitated by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski.
It has sections on ‘Academic publications’ and ‘Blog posts and journalism’.
Link to PDF:

Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography

Over 2017, The Public Medievalist website curated a series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages. This series extended to forty posts by contributors. It is written to reach the general public, and is a great place to start on race issues. Here’s the final post of the year, from where you can browse through the subjects covered:

Race, Racism and the Middle Ages: Looking Back, Looking Forward

For those interested in medieval Mongols, it is exciting to have these resources and a new focus on race — as ‘race’ was then, and in the way we study the past today.

Humani Nihil

The moral of my story, and/or the method of my writing – it is both – from the start has been, that the 13th-century Mongols were ordinary human beings. People like you and me, in spite of my dedication to writing cultural difference. It’s rude even to say so in blunt terms: of course they were human beings, of course they were people. However, when it comes to the famous massacres, this axiom is not often the way we operate. The massacres, with the off-steppe conquests, I didn’t have to face as a writer until book Three, now underway. They were always ahead of me, and my preparation was to bring these people as close as possible to us (to me the writer and to you, the reader) – with a blind faith in the dictum of Terence:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, and think nothing human alien to me.

I was not going to ‘other’ them before the conquests that we know of. I was going to do the contrary, and test out that Terence adage, in which I have believed devoutly.

That Terence adage is beloved of humanists and those who study the humanities: I see blog posts on it in these difficult times, by the above. I remember the English/History teacher who instilled it in me. Around the same time, Dostoyevsky was teaching me the same precept (Dostoyevsky? I’ll explain with this piece on his ‘radical empathy’, a phrase rather similar: Dostoyevky’s Empathy by Laurie Sheck, in the Paris Review). My teenage writing consisted of extravagant statements of this position – I tried to write great criminals from the inside (Dostoyevsky did).

And I end up, ripened as a writer and thirty years away from teenaged, with Genghis Khan. Who, before I researched greatly, was a big bogeyman, wasn’t he? And after research, he still committed those massacres. I have made you like and admire him, if you are with me thus far. We feel close to him. We’re in it together.

Over my life I have established rules for fiction. Or, I had them as teenager and they haven’t changed a jot; I can hope they have matured. Here’s a rule – probably The rule, I don’t have a big collection.

Rule One: Never write down. You can write up (still involve yourself, or risk unrealism). Never write a figure you feel is beneath you. Involve yourself, and if you can’t… your figure on the page isn’t a human being. Don’t decide to exhibit what you dislike in the world, in rationalist fashion, with tweezers and a scalpel. To be fair, in fiction, you have to be your victim; you can vivisect yourself, but nobody else, nobody whom you push to a distance. You can’t be fair that way, you can’t be true, you can’t write human beings.

That is my writing creed: there is no excuse for half-sympathy. If you have a villain, you must be that villain. It’s my (personal: I don’t say every other writer has to apply it) philosophy – no, I’d better stick with ‘creed’. Which is better than ‘rule’ too, since it’s mine and I allow that others think differently.

What if I’m writing about the worst person on the planet?

I don’t know. I’d say you need gigantic skills for that. Because your task remains the same. It sounds traumatic to me, who am not up to this. I have bitten off enough, haven’t I?

I have chosen Temujin, whom I like and admire and who committed massacres.

If you read a few heavyweight dudes on war such as John Keegan (A History of Warfare) and Azar Gat (War in Human Civilization), they are left sprawling about steppe warfare and make cultural explanations from a distance – speculating about why aliens do what they do. I am dissatisfied with these books, where I am not annoyed. Culture is important – too important for non-experts to offer general statements without in-depth cultural exploration. From memory (I need to refresh my memory on Gat) both hang an understanding on what is a popular ‘explanation’: the Mongols massacred the way they butchered animals. Inured to blood because they lived by heavy livestock and the hunt. This line, wherever I read it, assumes that the anthropology is the same as for a butcher in Yorkshire. It isn’t: if you say this, you must study Mongols and animals. Exhibit: Natasha Fijn, Living With Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia [Cambridge UP, 2011]:

‘Mongolian herders have a different perspective and attitude towards their herd animals compared with most views espoused in Western discourse… Mongolian herders’ attitude towards their herd animals is based on an animist perspective of the world, in which other beings are considered as persons… These belief practices are quite different from monotheistic beliefs that are based on the Old Testament.’ [19, 35, 47]

Everything about interaction with animals is unJudeo-Christian, Fijn explains.

Christopher Beckwith in Empires of the Silk Road [Princeton UP, 2009] has done much to un-other the steppe ‘barbarian’ on war. To him, the notion that the steppe way of life fitted them for war is a nonsense (why aren’t travelers’, anthropologists’ steppe populations bellicose, more bloody than the settled?). As a matter of fact I don’t go along with him altogether, but it is still a bravura performance of un-Othering.

One clarification. Genocide, a 20th-century word, has been applied to Mongol massacres, but (I thank God) in error or loose language, for genocide means to try to extinguish an ethnicity, a religious group or a race, and Mongol wars were never about ethnic cleansing. I don’t know how I’d have the heart to write about them if they were, but I have set myself sufficient challenges.

It is perhaps enough that I take Bo’orchu to the massacres in Turkestan.

My Bo’orchu, if you’ve met him, exemplifies the adjective ‘decent’. He has already, in emergency, practised a style of warfare that shocks a reverend old war chief, versed in traditional methods.

Because Tchingis Khan was an innovator in war. He was not a cultural machine who behaved as a steppe nomad is wont to do, when confronted with a city. He thought outside the square, and shocked his own.

My Bo’orchu has already reeled in horror at the sight of the Naiman army, then his enemy, in a corpse-pit on a scale he has never seen. We’ll have to find out how he feels when the corpses are more strange to him, in Turkestan.

I have spent my first two books, quite deliberately, making 13th-century Mongols as familiar as possible, Mongols ‘at home’, without insertion of escape factors for later on in the story (such as, ‘steppe culture was cruel. Life was cheap to them’). These excuses do not reconcile with views of the Mongols at home. And so they are every bit Terence’s homo sum: there is no way for you or I to think of them as Other, not by now. They have ethics, faith, humanity and everything we have. We can’t be let off the hook, I the writer or any readers out there.

I still have no idea how Bo’orchu is going to travel in Turkestan, to be honest in this blog. We’re not there yet. I have drafted in Temujin’s psychology, until the end. It might change. But Bo’orchu I suppose is my every-person, likeable and well-intentioned, not overly religious for his times and no great genius. I love him dearly, and, well, I’ll be there.

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Image: an illustration to Juvaini, who recorded the massacres.

The School of Death and Chaos

In late Jurchen China, as the Jin dynasty slowly lost its war with the Mongols, a school of poetry came into existence, coalesced among intellectuals in Pien where the court, and cultural figures, retreated for the last few years. It’s called the School of Death and Chaos. Alternate translations: Death and Disorder, Loss and Chaos. Yuan Haowen, who was captured with the city in 1233, was its chief poet. In the week between the Mongols’ seizure into custody of the entire Jin court and his own removal as a prisoner, he wandered the empty royal chambers (as he was allowed) and wrote a suite, ‘In the Farcical Style’. There isn’t much of farce about these poems, beyond the savage irony of that title and the employment of an unusual measure, for serious verse.

Stephen H. West: ‘[Yuan Haowen’s poems] are seen by traditional and modern critics alike as some of the finest examples of historical poems ever written and are extolled for the way in which they carefully trace and lament the decline and subsequent extinction of the Jin.’ The above-mentioned cycle of fifteen ‘introduce the master tropes that will govern his poetry over the next two years: the cold seas of political chaos and the flowing rivers of cultural dissolution’. Everything was at stake in the view of Yuan Haowen: ‘…by the imagery of dissolution and exodus, he suggests a return to a precivilized state… the dispersal of Chinese civilization’. [1]

J.I. Crump: ‘Much poetry written during this period is called sang-luan verse, or “poetry of death and destruction,” and sang-luan verse in many ways is a far more accurate measure of the emotional battering the Chinese underwent at the hands of the Mongols than any amount of historical documentation.’ [2]

It’s a tragedy of Jin that this century-old foreign dynasty was finding its own distinctive voice, its unique arts, as the Mongols struck, and inspired unexpected loyalty in its last fight. I’m a fan of Jin China; being both short-lived and foreign, it hasn’t had much glory in the history books. Those books, too, disagree, by wide margins, on how much fight Jin put up against the Mongols. My answer: Jin put up enormous fight, and the loyalty of Han and non-Han – old chauvinism, often, set aside – was of great inconvenience to Temujin.

When Song China in the south went to war against Jin in the north, on the eve of its Mongol troubles – Song thought to exploit a difficult situation for Jin, that hadn’t used its once-frightening war machinery in years, that was meant to be crippled by floods and famine – Song sent out agitation for the native Chinese population to rise against the foreign rule. For Han officers to mutiny and kill Jurchen officers.

It didn’t happen. Jin discovered they had a unity that nobody knew for sure was there, until Song tested them. This is bad news for my Temujin. And that war machinery, which Song hoped had rusted in their forty-year peace? Functions pretty well.

Another tragedy of Jin: some historians say the dynasty didn’t come to terms with the Mongols the way a traditional Chinese dynasty might be expected to; they refused to pay the Mongols off, which perpetuated the war. That is, the fact they were foreigners and didn’t act to script led to confusion and unusual destructiveness. My story’s a little different to this. But the achievements of late Jin, as a culture and as a society, are found, are recognised, even as they are engulfed. And that is tragic.

I’m going to have to antedate the School of Death and Chaos, give them a slightly early start, because I end when Temujin ends and he’s not around for the win over Jin’s fallback capital at Pien. Artistic license: no way am I missing out on the Death and Chaos School. As an arts person, I notice that the story can be told through the fate of the arts, and isn’t well-told without. There are, of course, other tales. In enclaves of Chinese who had made peace with the Mongols under local leadership, zaju drama was hatched, even while the war went on, from a fusion of cultures, as creative people gathered to these safety areas too.

A week back I nearly disqualified myself from writing book three, as I watched Aleppo on Twitter and told myself, I haven’t been in an Aleppo. How do I have the nerve? Past couple of days, end-of-year existential angst hits and I feel, past two years, everything I hold dear is under threat. My only enemy is on the loose. And my mind reverts to the Death and Chaos School, which I was fascinated by as I’ve always been fascinated by ruin, but which I did not foresee I’d feel so close to.

Writers are vultures.

 

1 ‘Chilly Seas and East-Flowing Rivers: Yuan Haowen’s Poems of Death and Disorder, 1233-35’ in China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History, eds. Hoyt Cleveland Tillman and Stephen H. West, State University of New York Press, 1995.

2 Chinese Theater in the Days of Kublai Khan, University of Arizona Press, 1980.

Image  A.Y. Jackson, A Copse, Evening, 1918, from the Commons.

Racism again

Last year I wrote a post where I used the word racism of the state of affairs in Mongol studies. A year ago (but doesn’t a lot happen in a year, these days?) that felt almost daring, actually, because very few seemed to be addressing it, or calling it out, as I said. The skimpy bibliography I attached to the post was the most I knew of to point to.

Racism: In a history book near you

It was a crude post, because I don’t have the analytic tools on this subject of racism. But boy, have I been bothered by its obvious presence in Mongol history-writing.

Now a PhD candidate, Sierra Lomuto, has written a post that is being much shared, on ‘the utter lack of racial consciousness in our field of Medieval Studies’.

White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies

It’s a welcome post, and what excites me is that Lomuto says she is working on Mongols and race: ‘As a mixed-race Asian woman working on histories of racial structures in medieval European-Mongol relations, this lacuna in Medieval Studies is not news to me. I regularly read adjectives like “uncultured” and “barbaric” to describe Mongols in books published within the last decade. I still see “Oriental” used uncritically to refer to Asian peoples.’

I hope she publishes soon. I hope she or others address racism in the historiography on Mongols.