Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea”

I have been working my way through Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea” since I arrived in Georgia. It’s taken me months, mostly due to laziness but partially because Ascherson has the ability to present multiple ideas in a single sentence, each one branching off into a new area of interest that warrants further research ( i.e. youtube and google  searches).

The book begins in the Crimea and tends to move clockwise (with stops in Russia, Abkhazia, and Turkey) but also jumps both geographically and chronologically, discussing the ancient Greek colonies on the Danube and Herodotus’ writings, Polish writers in the Crimea and Turkey before the Russian Revolution, Tatar Mongols and their effects on the genealogy of the peoples of the Black Sea. Its baffling the variety of topics covered in each chapter so I won’t discuss them all- I just want to discuss my favorite topics and post a few links to related articles and videos.

Earlier on, Ascherson discusses Barbarism and this concept’s origins in the works of ancient Greek writers. He writes:” The term ‘Barbarian’ began as an onomatopoeic Greek word about foreign language: the ‘bar-bar babble’ sound of an incomprehensible tongue. ”  He goes on to explain that while the term was initially used in the Illiad  but hadn’t yet obtained a cultural and political meaning. The term was used in reference to the unknown, the others.  The term began to take on a new meaning doing the time of the Persian Wars:

“but in the 5th century BC Athens, above all the Athenian tragedians, constructed a single barbarian world, squeezing people as distinct as the Scythian nomads and Mesopotamian city-dwellers into a single new species, and opposed it to the image of a single and united Hellenic world. All that the Athenian ideology found alien and repulsive was now transferred from the ‘monster’ to the ‘barbarian’….and from this new species were born other oppositions. It was not only the Scythian whose aporia was barbaric in contrast to Greek and European qualities of freedom and settledness. It was the Persian of Asian whose servility, luxuriousness, and cowardice were barbaric in contrast to Greek and European qualities of freedom, self-restraint, and valor.”

The discourse of Barbarianism seeped into the plays and other writings of numerous Greek writers. It was apparently difficult to cram such a diverse number of “non-greeks” into one category but this particular problem was overcome:

“The Scythians and other northe’rn peoples, for example, were supposed to be wild, hard and ferocious, while Persians were perceived as effeminate and undermined by easy living. Never mind! By swerving between two extremes, barbarians were only showing how far away they were from the Greek Ideal of mosotes (measuredness), or from the Greek ethic of nothing-in-excess.”

While this ideology was maintained (and arguably still exists in much of the Western world), the romanticism of the ‘Barbarian’ (and the discovery of Greek/Barbarin hybrids) began to seep into the writings of Greeks who were either banished to outlying colonies of the empire, or those who willing explored these outskirts and catologuged thier interactions. The Stoic Philosopher Dio Chrysotom (I’ve linked the name to his “ecomium on Hair” ) visited the Greek colony of Olbia (in present day Ukraine) in 95 AD and catalogued much of what he saw (a rarity at this point in history).Dio was visiting the city at a time when the ties between the Graeco-Roman world has not been severed but had been gradually fraying. The citizens seemed to be half Scythian and half Hellenic. They wore Scythian clothes and most spoke horrible, outdated Greek. Ascherson describes one of Dio’s interactions with one of the Olbians:

” He (Dio) met a handsome lad on horseback called Callistratus and started a conversation. Callistrus was a real museum piece. He was wearing ‘Barbarian’ trousers and a cape, but on seeing Do he hopped off his horse and covered his arms, observing the old Greek rule that it was bad manners to show bare arms in public. Like the other Olbains, he turned out to know Homer by heart and to be immensely proud of it, however poor his spoken Greek was. But Dio was even more fascinated to discover that Callistratus was gay. At the age of Eighteen, he was already famous in the city for his courage in battle, for his interest in philospy and for his beauty, ‘and he had many lovers’. Dio read this not as some fact about sexual orientation, but as a wonderful survival from a lost age. Here, in the time of the Roman Empire, flourished still the ancient Greek veneration for homosexual love as the supreme intellectual and spiritual experience. the Olbians supposed that in the world beyond the sea homosexuality was still the height of fashion”

I especially enjoyed this excerpt because of what it illustrates about cultural hybrid-isms  and the strange ripple effect that comes as a result of larger empires abandoning or losing territory or their control over a population. I’ve read of other instances of the same phenomena, in another book that took me even longer to read (about 6 months). In Rebecca West’s gargantuan book of Yugoslavian travel writing “Black Lamb Grey Falcon,” she describes a scene in which the representatives of Ataturk’s new government in Turkey come to Bosnia to meet with Muslims living in the former Ottoman Empire. Citizens of the town come to the train station dressed in their traditional attire, wearing their Fez and other Eastern dress, and are shocked when the representatives appear, dressed in button down shirts and Western attire–a trend encouraged by Ataturk. Both of these illustrate the way history lingers and transforms in different environments, creating something ultimately new and distinct, but forged from the old and what was once commonplace. It’s a concept I’d like to explore more in the field of ethnomusicology, examining the music of border regions or searching for Ottoman influences in places like Bulgaria and Serbia, or Persian influence on the music of Armenia and Georgia.

I know very little about Polish history and was surprised to find that, even though its shares no borders with it, much of its political and literary history has ties to the Black Sea. Mickiewicz , Poland’s greatest poet, was sent into exile at the age of twenty-four. Odessa is supposedly where he “let himself go,” visiting brothels and describing himself in his poems “as a ‘pasha’ with a harem.” He also had a love affair Karolin Sobanska, a Russian informer and collaborator, who was the wife of the man who essentially served as his parole officer, Jan Witt. It is also where he also wrote his “Crimean Sonnets” of which there are eighteen.  These poems are still widely known and quoted in Poland.

Ascherson also discusses the Sarmatians.  It is an extremely strange, backwards, and contradictory example of class ism. In the sixteenth century, Polish writers started to claim that the Polish people were actually descendants of a tribe Indo-Iranian pastoral nomads called the Sarmatians. Supposedly this was for political reasons, allowing the Polish nation to lay claim to lands to the East.

“But then, in the next hundred years, the Sarmatian myth took an extraordinary, freakish twist of its own……..In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Polish nobility came to believe that it was they – not the Polish population at large- who were the exclusive descendants of the Sarmatians. ”

This helped to create a kind of caste system in which peasants were believed to be a ancestors of the Sarmatian’s slaves. This ideology also helped promote new forms of fashion:

” The style was also, and famously, about dress and decoration. Here, all of the ironies of Sarmatism were concentrated. By the early eighteenth century, the Polish-Sarmatian noble was a startling, unmistakable figure. He shaved his skull, cultivated long, dropping mustaches and wore a long kontusz caftan held in over his paunch by a sash. His sword would be a curved scimitar, its hilt probably encrusted with gold and jewels. In short, he looked like a Turk – or possibly a Turkified Tatar…..This  neo-Sarmatian outfit was actually the clothing of Poland’s enemies, the oriental gear of Turk and Tatar warriors appropriated by those who boasted that they were the bastion of Catholic and European Christianity against the pagans.”

Ascherson also travels to eastern Turkey, to an area populated by the Lazi people. They are not turkish; The Lazi speak a language that is in some ways similar to Mingrelian and falls into the Kartvelian language group. The Lazi language is at some risk of extinction, partially due to the fact that is had no written alphabet up until the German Scholar Wolfgang Feurstien began sending textbooks with an alphabet he had helped create using his previous linguistic research in the area and with help from Lazi people living in Germany. This attempt to catalog and encourage the usage of this language got him in trouble with the Turkish government. The editor of a Lazuri journal in Istanbul was arrested after its first issue was published. Ascherson details the complexities of being a Lazi and having the option of multiple identities Turkish, Lazi, or some combination of the two. He also talks briefly about a language called Ubykh, which is now extinct. The last speaker of Ubykh, Tevfik Esenc, died in 1992. Dr. George Hewitt, the Caucasian Languages professor at London University, is quoted briefly discussing the need to catalog and encourage the use of all of the smaller Kartvelian languages:

“I regard myself as immensely privileged to have met and worked with Tevfik Esenc, in 1974, and ever since I have not deviated from the belief that it behooves all of us with an interest in the languages of the Caucasus to do all we can to prevent any of the rest suffering the same fate as Ubykh, whether by language-death through accidental or deliberate neglect of by the threat of physical annihilation….”

I found a short documentary called ” Son Sesler” which means “last sounds” in Turkish. It footage of interviews with the last speaker of Ubykh.

There is also this short video of a french linguist describing his lessons with Tevfik Esenc- 2:00 into it he discusses the variety of consonances, of which Ubykh has 84.

And these three topics are a small portion of Neal Ascherson’s book. I could write more but this post is too long already. If read it this far, thanks, I appreciate it.

– Ben

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1 Comment

Filed under Books, history, Travel

One response to “Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea”

  1. Fusica

    Very fascinating reads Ben! Thanks and good luck with this project.

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