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Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road (2009) (ii)

The decline of Central Eurasia has been going on for some centuries, but the explanation Christopher Beckwith offers for what he sees as its cultural destruction in the twentieth century is the influence of modernism and its political consequences. ‘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.’ He finds this attitude to have been widespread: ‘it was necessary for [Picasso and Stravinsky] to change, to be different from the others, even from their earlier selves, in order to remain modern and thus sell their output.’  This may be a little harsh, but it is true that we have recently come to live in a world in which constant change for the better is expected. When I replaced a mobile phone after four years of service it seemed that there had been several intervening generations of technology; my computer cannot perform operations that more recent models can; people have come to expect that medical research will find cures for diseases currently untreatable. I’m not sure that people who take such things for granted understand just how new the expectation of continual progress is (were there intimations of it in the scientific revolution?), and it is easy to see how people who adhere to such a view, and perhaps more particularly members of traditional cultures who come to adhere to it, may have little sympathy with such cultures.

But quite apart from its impact on Central Eurasia, Beckwith holds that modernism is not a good idea. Just occasionally I wonder whether the enemy has been fully understood (the work of T. S. Eliot, surely an elitist, is seen as representing ‘the triumph of populism’) or fairly described (‘some Asian writers, led by the journalist Edward Said…’; Said’s work has come in for serious criticism recently, and I suspect that that of Robert Irwin may be more cogent than that of Bernard Lewis that mentioned here.) Such views are certainly worth thinking about, but the stridency with which they are expressed can be off-putting, and ultimately whatever judgment one may come to about modernism is irrelevant to the weight it carries in Beckwith’s historical argument.

Beckwith’s study can be placed against recent re-evaluations of the place of China in world history. But it is easy to see that the current rise of China simply re-establishes the standing vis-a-vis the rest of the world it formerly enjoyed. Making the case for Central Eurasia is far more difficult, and Beckwith’s success in turning a what has long seemed a marginal zone into a centre is a great achievement. He offers a new paradigm that that makes us see the world in a different way.