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Thursday, July 9, 2009


the 8-track tape player still works

Sometimes it's uncanny how one unassociated thing following another can be like parts 1&2 of the same thing. In 1970, just graduated from college, I felt the impulse so many do for some light reading I don't have to take a test on. I picked up a paperback of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. About the time Portnoy is a kid watching his mother in the kitchen pull guts out of a chicken she was preparing for supper, I knew this was not light reading, and it wasn''t. It turned out to be stories of people caught up in the NYC rat race going all out, swept by the current with all the other millions.

Next book I picked up was Saul Bellow's novel Mr Sammler's Planet. Another Jew in America story, but this time it was like looking at the stream of people being swept along, sitting on the bank of the stream, watching in the detached way of a concentration camp survivor. In Portnoy I saw the contemporary New Yorker swept with the stream, and in Mr Sammler, the old-world intellectual detached from the stream by surviving his own death, sitting on the bank watching the stream go by.

A few months ago I came upon Wolf Totem by Jaing Rong, a look at Mongolian nomad life in the last years of that tradition, and the relationship the people of Mongolia had with the wolf. An old man of the Mongols knew wolves and shared much knowledge of them. The old man explained that Genghis Khan, the great military stragetist who never lost a battle, learned his tactics in warfare studying wolves.

At the same time I'm reading History of China by JAG Roberts. A page and a half was devoted to Genghis Khan. I wanted to know more. I found a copy of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, a well-written history of Genghis Khan's period in Mongolia, by Jack Weatherford. Found two films from netflix, one I believe called Genghis Khan, a Japanese made film with Japanese actors and Japanese clothes and Japanese language. I read subtitles in English. It was the story of his birth and growing up all the way to the moment he became the great Khan. A good film, but another one I like better called Mongol, made by a European gathering of filmmakers, with Mongolian actors and in the Mongolian language, on location. Both told the same story, the story from the Secret History of the Mongols, of Temujin growing into a man.

I realized in today's reading that a film of the medieval period in Russia, Andrei Rublev, a b&w film by Andrei Tarkovsky, tells the story of a Tatar (Mongol) conquest of a walled city, getting in by an open gate. This particular incident occurred under the reign of Ogodei Khan, son of Genghis Khan. The Mongols were undefeatable and ruthless to the point of killing everyone in a city, burning down the city, destroying all the farms around it and returning the whole area to grass of the steppes for grazing by the thousands horses involved in the conquests.

In Wolf Totem I learned in detail strategies wolves use to attack a herd of gazelles or a herd of horses, complex strategies. One of the battle strategies Genghis Khan used was to send a small number in, a few hundred, to stir up a battle, then retreat when they're outnumbered, full speed. The pursuers chase them believing they have the day. Their horses didn't have the endurance of the Mongol horses, their bows couldn't shoot arrows as far as the bows of the mongols. When the pursuers and their horses faded from exhaustion, the Mongols turned and ran back through them, chopping them up all the way back to the city. Others came in from different directions and they killed everybody, looted, burned everything and left. They sent caravans of gold, pearls, ivory, carpets, etc., back to Mongolia. Using what he'd learned from wolves, Genghis Khan conquered all the way to Europe and set the course of the Silk Road for taking loot back to Mongolia.

Weatherford, author of Genghis Khan, did not know about the connection with wolves in his writing. Rong in Wolf Totem learned of it from a man of the old ways who carried the tradition in his knowledge. By coincidence, I learned about the importance of the Mongolian Wolf to Genghis Khan before reading a history of the period that doesn't take into account the knowledge gained from studying wolves. Now, I can get back into the History of China with the Mongolian conquest in near future, having a multi-faceted look at the place and time with fair understanding.

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