A cinematic poem celebrating the human relation to the eternal. Not a word is spoken, but every person alive in the twenty-four countries this was filmed in would understand it. It’s about Us on Earth Now. It’s the first truly sacred film I’ve seen (best viewed in DVD on as large a screen as possible). Next time they send a disc into space to be viewed by aliens, this is the disc they should send.
We badly need more “wide history” as developed in this remarkable work by John Man. Rather than go linear, Man goes wide with a view of dispersed cultures interacting at one time–in this case in the year 1000. He shows what’s happening during this “year” in each region of the planet (say, Tibet, Oceania, South America) and how events then resonate across the globe. The first millennium was the first era when most of the world was settled, and the first time immigration and travel created a robust communication network. Globalism, it turns out, was a medieval event. The picture I got from this book of diagrams was of a world far more sophisticated in its reach and depth then I knew.
It is often said that the year 1000 has no ‘real’ importance, that it acquires significance only from its zeroes, from our determination to read significance into birthdays and big numbers. Far from it: the time has a real historical significance, rooted in the way human society developed, from scattered diversity to today’s ‘one world.’
The significance is this: by pure coincidence, the year 1000, or thereabouts, marked the first time in human history that it was possible to pass an object, or a message, right around the world.
This is very different from history as written in Europe, China or the Islamic world, where the story of the past is in large measure rooted in human character–history as narrative. In the American drama, this element is missing. This section of the Atlas, like other sections on nonliterate cultures, necessarily has a wide focus. There are few incidents, few individuals–in all of North America around 1000 there was no native American whose name has survived.
India: Fleeting Power, Enduring Glory
The Chola dynasty sprang from the rice-rich plain of the River Kaceri, today’s Tamil Nadu. They had ruled here as minor chieftains for 800 years when, in the middle of the 9th century, they emerged as heads of a small independent state.
One doesn’t read this; one falls into it, like an experience. Printed in lavish color in large format, this two-volume celebration of contemporary ritual in Africa is shocking in its lushness. It seems to explode with possibilities–of what ritual and ceremony could be, of how many different ways there are to find meaning in life. It also presents the best argument for why Africa should not be written off: it has difference, and difference is the engine behind innovation. Although expensive, this box set is cheaper than a rocket ship to another galaxy–which is the only other thing I can imagine having similar effect of this work.
Two remarkable women, who first started photographing the jewelry of Africa, developed these books over decades of fieldwork. Some of their work has been published in National Geographic and their other books. Beside eye-popping photos, there is outstanding text on what is pictured. This is spectacle with intelligence. To offset the pricey cost of this magnum opus, their publisher has recently issued a paperback selection called Passages: Photographs in Africa, which presents highlights from Ceremonies. But this abridgement has only one-tenth the 850 images in Ceremonies, and I feel it misses the point of the larger work: glorious, extravagant diversity.
Wearing costumes fashioned from hibiscus fibers and cowerie shells, and with coconut shells as breasts, dancers on stilts rest before performing. Their teetering dance and flapping arm movements imitate a long-legged water bird, but it is also mischievously said that their antics mimic their neighbors, the tall, pointy-breasted Fulani women.
Katjambia summons all her powers to draw the lion spirit out of the woman. Her eyes roll back and she enters a trance, absorbing the evil force into her own body. Forced into Katjambia’s body, the lion spirit remains so powerful that she is unable to expel it no matter how she tries. Barely able to speak, she whispers that she must retreat to her family village to call on the help of ancestral spirits contained in the sacred fire.
Another grand video survey of the African continent worth tracking down. Created by National Geographic, this ambitious series deals with the vastness of Africa by following eight contemporary Africans in their ordinary lives and ordinary dreams. One is a Tulerag camel boy, another is a soccer-playing fisherman, and another is a female gold miner. Each vignette is a one-hour mini-story compressing a year or so at a different corner of Africa, and each story is able to connect you to Africa now. Taken together, they deliver as honest a portrait of a continent as one could hope to get in a 9-hour feast.
Most of what you read about what happened in the past is written by someone who read what someone else read about it. Here is a diverse collection of short first-hand, eyewitness accounts of what proved later to be important events. Vivid, uncensored, naked testimony from someone there at the time. Make up your own mind. (more…)
The premise of this first reality-TV program is brilliant. Take an ordinary middle class family of the year 2000 and make them live for 6 months like an ordinary middle class family of the year 1900. The London-based producers succeed in this transformation by getting every detail of Victorian domestic life exactly right and complete. The volunteer family is plunked down in a different era as if by time machine, and there is no escape. No shampoo, either. The edited 6-hour result is deep, instructive, and totally riveting, Kids who hate history are mesmerized by it. Because it is so visual and visceral, it changed the discussion of chores and gender roles in our household. Better than 100 essays, this video series reveals the notion of progress. It is now my favorite history “book.”
The success of 1900 House spawned Frontier House, a parallel experiment that transfers the conceit to the edge of Montana in 1893 during homesteading days. It ups the challenge by requiring the participants to build their homesteads and raise all their own food while sticking to period tools and the lifestyle of pioneers. The three families who settle in a beautiful valley need to stockpile enough food, shelter and firewood to last a Montanan winter. Instead of cooperating, they compete against each other, making this remarkable 6 hours series into what Survivor should have been – an authentic test of surviving. There is probably no greater persuader of women’s inequality than this pair of films. The guys loved being pioneers, while the women and girls were imprisoned by it.
Both series come with books you can forget. The documentaries on the other hand are memorable and entertaining works that would be fantastic in any classroom, and ones that I would require every child in 21st century America to view. If I had to choose only one to see, I’d go with Frontier House. There’s more going on, more intra-personal weirdness, more learning and more failures. Best would be witnessing both, as the London Victorian house closer reflects what the majority back then experienced. These are the nearest things yet to a time machine.
Mark McCrum and Matthew Sturgis
1999, 192 pages
Available from Amazon
Larry Gonick, the over-educated cartoonist, continues his series of book-length comic-strips that illustrate ancient history. This new 300-page installment covers the rise of Arabia and the role of “Orientals” in crafting the culture we have today. In Gonick’s hands history is a hoot, and very much about ideas. I particularly savor this latest volume because by moving the center of the universe somewhere east of Europe — delving into Islam, Africa and East Asia — Gonick’s cartoons can remedy the ignorance and arrogance of the west. Laugh your way to enlightenment!
Most reports about Africa emphasize one of two well-worn themes: a) Africa’s awesome natural environment, or b) its titillating variety of tribal life. This 6-hour video series illuminates a third, refreshing, little-seen dimension: African civilizations. Harvard professor Skip Gates narrates his very personal investigations into the overlooked black civilizations that blossomed on the African continent. Sometimes Gates is a little too full of himself, but other times his intensely idiosyncratic road show works perfectly in conveying the magic of ancient civilizations few Westerns are aware of. This video series is oddly better than any book about this overlooked subject — perhaps because the film succeeds in reflecting the tremendous oral and visual nature of these cultures. I had my mind changed.
This textbook is the best one-volume survey of earlier civilizations I’ve found. It supplies a couple of overview chapters and then summarizes every ancient civilization in Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Americas in fair detail. I relish its planetary perspective. (more…)
Bill Gibson turned me onto this one. This festive, juvenile, over-the-top magazine is your one-stop shop for Asia Pop Culture. Asia as in India, China and California — you know, the future. Pop culture as in Filipino urban superstitions, Japanese vending machine food, Chinese tattoos, Korean dating booths, Thai Scrabble champions, thumb tribes, Viet rock and roll, and all things anime. It’s so fast-forward that it is outrunning Wired by a decade.