Wednesday, October 24, 2018
William Ranney, Washington at the Battle of Princeton
Some months ago my friend John Raimo, a young historian and an indefatigable bookman, sent me an engaging new work by the German historian Ulrich Raulff: Farewell to the Horse. This is one of those brilliant essays in the “new” history in which once fundamental aspects of material culture are studied as well from artistic and cultural angles that first surprise and then delight a reader. Raulff’s subject is the “compact” between Western culture and the horse roughly in the period between Napoleon and the early decades of the twentieth century. The horse was everywhere, and everywhere indispensable. The horse provided nearly all transportation. Dung-covered city streets were clogged with every kind of horse-drawn conveyance. Work horses supplied agricultural labor and commercial haulage on a huge scale. As for warfare, the French Imperial army perhaps traveled on its stomach, but the grub to feed it was hauled by horse, along with heavy artillery pieces and all the other engines of death. World War I, which killed about seventeen million human beings, killed also about seven million horses. And then, not quite instantly but with astonishing speed, the millennial compact vanished beneath the triumph of the internal combustion engine. This huge, epochal change—still not complete at the time of my own birth—no longer even enters the contemporary American consciousness. But he horse might return one day as we choke on petroleum fumes.
Even a vanished cultural symbiosis does leave its memories. Quite by chance, shortly after reading Raulff, I needed to dip into Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie (1595). I had forgotten, if I ever noticed, that it begins with some “horse talk”. Sidney and his friend Wotton, while at the imperial court of Maximilian II, determined to study the equestrian arts under the tutelage of the famous Italian stable master, Gian Carlo Pugliano. Pugliano claimed that “no earthly thing bred such wonder to a Prince, as to be a good horseman. Skill in government was but a Pedanteria, in comparison, then would he adde certain praises by telling what a peerless beast the horse was, the onely serviceable Courtier without flattery, the beast of most bewtie, faithfulnesse, courage, and such more, that if I had not been a peece of a Logician before I came to him, I think he would have perswaded me to have wished my self a horse.” Of course Sidney was not the only major figure in English literature to be tempted toward extreme hippophilia. Remember poor Gulliver when banished from the isle of the Houyhnhnms.
Then, too, I have also begun toying with notes for a new essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a fourteenth-century poem that examines the ambiguities of late medieval chivalry with great subtlety. To talk about chivalry is to talk about horses—as the word for “knight” in most European languages makes clear: chevalier, caballero, cavaliere, cavaleiro, Ritter. The most important thing about a chevalier? C’est le cheval! Amusing, yes, but also terrifying. Imagine yourself among foot soldiers in the field being charged at full gallop by a one-ton equine killing machine in which the power of murderous human dexterity was united to steaming animal flesh. We know from accounts of the Conquest of Mexico that the bravest of Indian warriors—themselves unflinching murderers—fled in terror from this previously unknown hybrid horror. Memories of the aristocratic bond between steed and rider survived in the horsiness of the fox-hunting gentry of rural England, and its adolescent sentimentality is the stuff of such literary perennials as Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka.
I wonder whether we could not now persuade Raulff to write a sequel called Farewell to the Cow. This suggestion, only half facetious, arises from, first, my own early life experience among herds of Herefords, but more directly from reading one of the chapters in Rysznard Kapuscinski’s amazing African memoirs, The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life—to which I shall shortly return. Raulff’s book is fascinating about the iconography of the horse in its relation to political ideology and cultural myth. Naturally he touches upon the history of the American West, especially as reflected in Hollywood “horse operas”. Raulff has lots of things to say about cowboys, but he leaves unmentioned one of the most interesting things: they spend their lives in the saddle, but we call them cowboys, not horseboys. Why is that? I am a great believer in the history part of word history. What do we see in the word cattle? Well, we are invited to see chattels, moveable possessions, the fundamental material elements of primitive human wealth. Likewise we are invited to see in the phrase “head of cattle” the Latin caput (head) the “capital” that gives its name to economic “capitalism”.
Getting back to Rysznard Kapuscinski (1932-2007): he was a brilliant Polish journalist who spent forty years, more or less, trampling throughout the African continent as its disparate nations were emerging from European colonialism to a mainly chaotic and often tragic independence in the later twentieth century. His Shadow of the Sun (1998) is unlike any other “travel” book I have read. He went all over Africa, and in a couple of dozen shortish chapters he displays a magnificent humanistic sympathy for a dizzying diversity of individual Africans and the extraordinary physical and cultural conditions in which they live. Most of the essays in the book could be fairly described as “impressionistic,” but one alone aspires to objective history. It is called “A Lecture on Rwanda,” and it brought me as close as I am ever likely to come to “understanding” the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s—an orgy of “ethnic cleansing” in which at least half a million men women and children were hacked, bludgeoned, stabbed, crushed, and incinerated to death by their neighbors and fellow Rwandans. The old colonial powers hardly helped; but Kapuscinski persuades me that the genocide was, eventually, mainly about cows.
The historical scene Kapuscinski invokes was not unlike that of Anglo-Norman England. You had in medieval Rwanda a tribal society in which a small aristocratic group (Tutsis) lorded it over a large population of agricultural serfs (Hutus). Both were part of the Banyarwanda nation, speaking the same language. But the Tutsis were cattlemen, the Hutus dirt farmers. “The greatest, and really sole wealth [of the Tutsis] was cattle: the zebu cows, a breed characterized by long, beautiful, swordlike horns. These cows were never killed—they were sacred, immutable.” The Tutsi king’s personal herd was enormous. The great annual ceremony was a parade of cows. “A million of them would pass before the monarch. This lasted hours. The animals raised clouds of dust that hung over the kingdom for a long time.” Open ground squandered on cattle grazing could not be tilled for crops, and the Tutsi demands for expanding grazing grounds was insatiable. Free range cattle are a most inefficient means of delivering dietary protein. Free range cattle raised for symbolic wealth accumulation demonstrate “savage capitalism” in embryo. By the mid-twentieth century there was a huge population in Rwanda trying to live on far too little land. By then the ancient zebu herds might be more racial memory than reality, but they were a very powerful memory.
“That is how the Rwandan drama is engendered,” writes Kapuscinski, “the tragedy of the Banyarwanda nation, born of an almost Israeli-Palestinian inability to reconcile the interests of two social groups laying claim to the same scrap of land, too small and confined to accommodate them both. Within this drama is spawned the temptation, at first weak and vague, but with the passing of years ever more clear and insistent, of the Endlosung—a final solution.”