30 April 2010

'The Light of Thy Virtues Has Shone in the World'—St Macarius of Corinth

Today, 17 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Macarius (Notaras) (1731-1805), Bishop of Corinth. In the words of Constantine Cavarnos, ‘St Macarios was not only a great reformer of the Church, an inspirer, enlightener, helper and spiritual guide of men, but also a great ascetic, who strove to perfect himself and attain union with God.’ [1] Chrestos Yannaras refers to him as an example of ‘a conscious Hellenic presence’ which ‘from time to time across the centuries . . . shines through, linking Gregory Palamas to the present day.’ [2] Furthermore, Yannaras concludes his study of the history of modern Greek theology by referring to St Macarius as one of a series of ‘signposts . . . pointing to the real Hellenism, the historical embodiment of the Church’s Gospel.’ [3] Finally, Basil Skouteris writes:

In the person of St Macarius, we have a combination of many qualities: his saintliness, his innate wisdom, the support of the ancient tradition, and the ability as a speaker and a writer. His social activity, his philanthropy and spirit of renewal are certainly something wondrous. [4]

I posted at great length on the life of St Macarius last year (here), including first and foremost his rôle in the editing and publication of the Philokalia and Evergetinos, so I won’t try to rehash all of the details today. But I did find Skouteris’s description one aspect of his life on Chios rather interesting. Skouteris tells us:

At that stage of life we see St Macarius as he is about to create a circle of intellectuals around him, who were distinguished for their austere lives. Some were from Chios and some from other areas. Among them first and foremost was Athanasius of Paros with whom he had a close relationship and together they tried to repel the later innovations that entered the Church. They strove for the return to the traditions of the Ancient Church. There were others who demanded those things also: (a) Neiolos Calognomus, a native of Chios and a monk of Mt Athos, who was a close friend and fellow ascetic of Macarius. To Calognomus is attributed the building of St George at Resta wereNicephorus of Chios stayed after St George’s death, who was his student; (b) Joseph of Agrapha at Phournas, who followed Niphon from Mt Athos to Samos, Icaria, and Patmos, where he met Macarius and followed him to Chios; Joseph was an archimandrite, an intellectual and a writer for the Great Church; he composed a liturgical service to the Righteous Newmartyr Nicholas; for a while he was a teacher at the School of Chios; Nicephorus was also a teacher of that school as was Dorotheus Proios under Athanasius of Paros; (c) Meletius of Nicomedia, another Chiote and native of Prousa; (d) Joseph of Rhodes, a preacher, and author of many sacred poems. [5]

I note this passage because one of the things that fascinates me most about St Macarius is the extent to which he devoted his life to inspiring, encouraging, and guiding others. It also interested me that while Skouteris described this circle as ‘intellectuals’, they are also characterised by the austerity of their lives and their commitment to ‘the traditions of the Ancient Church’. It strikes me that the Church in America could really use such a circle in our own day, but while intellectuals and even traditionalists surely abound, I’m afraid austerity might be rather harder to come by!

I conclude with two things from Cavarnos’s wonderful book on St Macarius: a passage from the Saint’s New Martyrologium, and a hymn from the Akolouthia for the Saint by Nicephorus the Chian.

Now the Christians of the present age hear from Church histories the martyrdoms, the tortures that were endured by the Demetrioses, the Georges, the James’s, and in a word by all the other exceedingly brave old Martyrs—those who lived between the time of Christ and that of Constantine the Great; and they have to believe all these things as true, as a duty in matters of simple faith, which, according to Paul, ‘is a confirmation of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1). But the antiquity of the period, the long time that has intervened from then to the present, can cause in some, if not unbelief, at least some doubt or hesitation. One may, that is, wonder how men, who by nature are weak and timid, endured so many and frightful tortures. But these new Martyrs of Christ, having acted boldly on the scene of the world, uproot from the hearts of Christians all doubt and hesitation, and implant or renew in them unhesitating faith in the old Martyrs. Just as new food strengthens all those bodies that are weak from starvation, and just as new rain causes trees that are dried from drought to bloom again so these new Martyrs strengthen and renew the weak, withered and old faith of present-day Christians. [6]

Finally, as Cavarnos writes, ‘Among the many hymns chanted in his honor, contained in the service by Nikephoros the Chian, is the following characteristic one’:

The voice of the Lord in the Gospels has found fulfillment in thee, as it found in the holy Ascetics and Hierarchs of old, O holy Father, Hierarch Macrios. For the light of thy virtues has shone in the world after the manner of the sun, O admirable one; and the heavenly Father, together with the Son and the Spirit—the Holy Trinity, our God—is glorified by all. [7]

[1] Constantine Cavarnos, tr. & ed., St Macarios of Corinth, augmented ed., Vol. 2 of Modern Orthodox Saints (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1993), p. 39.

[2] Chrestos Yannaras, Orthodoxy & the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, tr. Fr Peter Chamberas & Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2006), p. 252.

[3] Ibid., p. 308.

[4] Basil Skouteris, ‘Macarius Notaras & his Movement of Reform’, tr. Leo Papadopoulos, Orthodox Life, 54.4 (July—August 2004), p. 44.

[5] Ibid., p. 36.

[6] Cavarnos, pp. 87-8.

[7] Ibid., p. 41.

29 April 2010

Scholarly Coincidence

Having just read a terrible edition of the Maude translation of Tolstoy’s Confession, a few weeks ago I was on Amazon looking for a better one. One of the first that came up was that published by Norton, translated by one David Patterson. Curious about the translator, I looked at the close-up view of the back cover and saw:

David Patterson is professor of English at Oklahoma State University and translator of Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon, also published by Norton. He has provided an introduction, notes, and bibliography for this edition.

Intrigued to find him in my home state, I Googled Patterson’s name to learn more. I found a faculty page, and it turned out that he is now at the University of Memphis (home of the Ochlophobist), where he currently holds the Bornblum Chair of Excellence in Judaic Studies. At that point, noting the conjunction of the name ‘Patterson’ (not terribly Jewish-sounding), the former residence in Oklahoma, and the man’s picture, a bizarre coincidence suggested itself to me, and a quick e-mail to Patterson himself confirmed my suspicions—I had dated his daughter briefly in high school! I recalled that she had told me her father had converted to Judaism (the daughter was Roman Catholic), and that he taught or did some kind of scholarly work somewhere. Plus, I could see the likeness between them in his picture.

Astonished at the coincidence, I ordered his translation of Tolstoy, and I have to say I was a little disappointed. I haven't yet read and cannot comment on the translation per se, but I had expected more from a Norton publication—a longer introduction, more and longer notes, and maybe a longer or even annotated bibliography. In light of what I’d been reading in Leonard Stanton and Fr Georges Florovsky, not to mention the Confession itself, I thought the conclusion of the introduction a bit weak:

Finally, it may be asked whether Tolstoy ever actually found the meaning of life or the truth he sought. Whatever is said in this regard, it is clear the he continued his search until his death in 1910: his was a life characterized as much by seeking as by finding. Indeed, the meaning he was striving for reveals itself more in the search than in the discovery, and asking the question of life is more vital than answering it. For it is by raising the question that the spirit engages in its struggle for voice, a struggle that finds its expression in works such as the Confession. [1]

Finally, I was astonished to see the following wildly inaccurate note on Tolstoy’s reference to St John Chrysostom: ‘John Chrysostom (1594-1646) was a Franciscan spiritual leader and writer from France.’ [2] St Chrysostom a Franciscan? In 17th-c. France?!

Well, since then, Patterson has reared his head two further times. Earlier this week when I was working on my apparently little-read Bakhtin posts, I reread for the first time in probably at least ten years the introduction to Ruth Coates’s Christianity in Bakhtin and discovered the following:

There is one monograph, Patterson’s Literature & Spirit: Essays on Bakhtin & his Contemporaries (1988), which, as its title suggests, takes Bakhtin’s spiritual dimension seriously. But the book is a comparative, not an expository, study; thus Bakhtin’s spirituality is assumed rather than laid bare, irrtating the reader (such as David Shepherd . . .) who is not sympathetic to a religious reading of Bakhtin. Patterson proceeds from the, regrettably, unexamined assumption that ‘operating from a generally religious and distinctively Christian viewpoint, Bakhtin embraces the Johannine concept of the word [3] and regards the dialogical dimensions of literature as a revelation of spirit’ . . . . He goes on to draw Bakhtin’s ideas into a ‘dialogue’ with those of Foucault, Berdyaev, Gide, Lacan, Levinas and Heidegger. Various concepts from these thinkers come together in Patterson’s imagination to suggest rich possibilities for interaction. His book is more a meditation than a scholarly work, as the flyleaf suggests, but even as a meditation it is imperilled by Patterson’s difficult, one feels bound to say contorted, style, which is unfortunate, since the comparisons he undertakes surely bear much promise and because, it seems to me, there really is a spiritual core to Bakhtin which deserves to be taken seriously and to gain wider recognition among his readership. At least in the West this ground has not been broken, but a different kind of study to Patterson’s is needed before his book can even begin to be, if not accepted, then at least meaningfully criticised. [4]

As if this was not enough, while doing some research with my pupil for periodical literature on Tolstoy yesterday, one search yielded an old article from the Harvard Theological Review entitled, ‘The Movement of Faith as Revealed in Tolstoy’s Confession’, written by, yes, David Patterson. The article is something of a religious-philosophical analysis of the Confession. I found Patterson’s interpretation of Tolstoy’s encounter with death in terms of Kierkegaard’s ‘sickness unto death’ very enlightening and helpful, and I thought he had some very good, insightful comments about Tolstoy’s references to the relationship between the finite and the infinite.

But the article is written from a rather ambiguous perspective. For the most part Patterson seems to accept the accuracy and perhaps even the inevitability of Tolstoy’s spiritual struggles—both the renunciations and affirmations. I was pleased to see that he questioned Tolstoy’s interpretation and consequent dismissal of Ecclesiastes and Buddhism (while strangely leaving the same treatment of Socrates and Schopenhauer unquestioned). I was even more delighted to read Patterson’s statement, ‘Unlike a character in a novel who in the end is no longer troubled by the aim of life, since he now has a ready answer fixed in his soul, Tolstoi continued to attempt to clarify that aim after he had been converted, if indeed one may speak of conversion in this connection at all.’ [5]

But when commenting on Tolstoy’s rejection of Orthodoxy, Patterson seems to be well out of his area of expertise, and entirely gives up questioning Tolstoy’s own judgements about the matter (indeed, Patterson calls in Jung and Jaspers in an ineffectual attempt to support the Russian novelist). But he says nothing that has not been dealt with to one degree or another by nearly every Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century. Take this passage for instance:

Like the sculptor who tried to capture a god in stone, the doctrine [of ‘the Church’] tries to take hold of the passion [i.e., ‘faith’] in traps that are not of its essence. In passing itself off as a statement of eternal truth the doctrine falls prey to a contented complacency, and the Church becomes more concerned with the external affairs of the world and the world’s acceptance of doctrine than with the internal life of the single individual. [6]

I do not see how a scholar with any acquaintance with Orthodox theology could say this with a straight face. A study of the Optina Elders, of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky)—whose Moral Idea of the Main Dogmas of the Faith is explicitly addressed to Tolstoy’s followers—, or of Fr Georges Florovsky (see the excerpt I posted here, for instance, or his astute comments on Tolstoy himself) would, I believe, have made him think twice about these statements. Even the Paris émigrés and the old-school St Vladimir’s theologians could have set him straight here. [7]

The conclusion to the article struck me as a fancier, expanded version of the final paragraph of the introduction to Confession, one where Patterson asserts more strongly what was simply weak in the introduction. He writes:

Again, truth found is no truth, and an answer formulated to the question of life, be it yes or no, reflects a misunderstanding of the question. The life that reveals itself in the seeking is more vital than the finding, and the asking of the question in all its passion is more vital than the answering of it; the lamentation weighs heavier than the understanding. [8]

It seems to me that this is a cop-out. For the modern man who does not wish to commit himself to a particular path, it is nothing more than a self-justifying temptation to glorify the refusal to commit. The adventure of Orthodoxy is indeed ‘the dynamic of becoming’, and not ‘the stasis of outcome’. [9] As St Gregory of Nyssa has written, ‘Since, then, those who know what is good by nature desire participation in it, and since this good has no limit, the participant’s desire itself necessarily has no stopping place but stretches out with the limitless.’ [10]

[1] David Patterson, ‘Introduction’, Confession, by Leo Tolstoy (NY: Norton, 1996), pp. 8-9.

[2] Tolstoy, p. 83.

[3] It is interesting to note that Alexandar Mihailovic, who deals with Bakhtin’s concept of the word at length and is particularly concerned with its connections to the fourth Gospel never even mentions Patterson. See Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1997).

[4] Ruth Coates, Christianity in Bakhtin: God & the Exiled Author, (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1998), p. 12.

[5] David Patterson, ‘The Movement of Faith as Revealed in Tolstoi’s Confession’, Harvard Theological Review 71.3-4 (1978), p. 242.

[6] Ibid., pp. 239-40.

[7] He would have benefitted too, from the first chapter of Leonard Stanton’s book, even with its problems, but the latter was published two decades after Patterson’s article. See especially The Optina Pustyn Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination: Iconic Vision in Works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, & Others (NY: Peter Lang, 1995), pp. 7-19.

[8] Patterson, ‘Movement’, p. 243.

[9] Ibid., p. 232.

[10] St Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, tr. Abraham J. Malherbe & Everett Ferguson (NY: Paulist, 1978), p. 31.

28 April 2010

Gerasims & Lions: Tolstoy & the Prologue

A recent comment by the Ochlophobist on this post at Ora et Labora suggested the idea of a few of us Orthodox bloggers concurrently reading the new rendition of War & Peace by my favourite translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Incidentally, I would like to invite any interested readers to join us. The plan is to begin reading the book the first week of May. We’ll work on ideas for how to go about facilitating discussion soon.)

As a first step in actually carrying out the plan, I went last week to Oklahoma City’s only locally owned new bookstore, Full Circle, to purchase the volume. Well, sitting right next to it was a hardcover volume in a beautiful dust-jacket of the same translators’ rendition of The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other [late] Stories. Naturally, I could not resist the temptation, and particularly since I was due to reread ‘Death of Ivan Ilyich’ in time for my tutoring session last Friday.

Which brings me to the main subject of this post. In the middle of my tutorial on Friday, I was discussing a passage of ‘Ivan Ilyich’ with my pupil that makes reference to Ivan Ilyich’s servant, Gerasim. Ivan is, of course, in terrible pain from an ultimately fatal illness, and Gerasim seems to be the only person who understands and wants to help alleviate his pain. Ivan often asks him to sit where he can place his feet on Gerasim’s shoulders, which affords him a little relief. Ultimately, it is his exposure to Gerasim that convinces Ivan that he has lived his life all wrong:

His moral sufferings consisted in the fact that, looking at Gerasim's sleepy, good-natured, high-cheekboned face that night, it had suddenly occurred to him: And what if my whole life, my conscious life, has indeed been ‘not right’? [1]

While discussing this passage, I realised incidentally that my pupil might not be aware of Russian naming conventions, and I began to explain that in the Orthodox Church, the first names are always those of Saints. I even noted in a general way that occasionally, Russian writers will deliberately choose for their charactres the names of Saints that have some relevance or symbolic significance. Then it dawned on me—we had a perfect example right before us!

According to his own testimony, ‘the Martyrology and the Prologues’ were for a time Tolstoy’s ‘favorite reading’ which ‘revealed to me the meaning of life’. [2] The main ‘St Gerasim’ on the Church’s calendar is St Gerasimus of the Jordan, whom Tolstoy would have read about in these sources, and the most famous story about St Gerasimus concerns his compassion to a certain lion. Here is the brief account in the Prologue from Ochrid:

He once saw a great lion which was roaring with pain, having a thorn in its paw. Gerasim came near to it, crossed himself and pulled the thorn out. The lion was so tame that it followed the elder to the monastery and remained there until the latter’s death. When the elder died, the lion also succumbed to illness after him and died. [3]

It seems to me that there is a clear parallel between Gerasim’s act of mercy in alleviating the suffering of Ivan Ilyich, and that of St Gerasimus in alleviating the suffering of the lion. Furthermore, while the biographical details of Ivan Ilyich’s life are very different from those of his creator, his consciousness of death and existential angst over his mortality remind one of Tolstoy’s Confession. It may have been a further inducement to choose the name ‘Gerasim’ for the servant since Tolstoy’s own Christian name means ‘lion’. [4]

I have posted the account of St Gerasimus and the lion in full from the primary source—St John Moschus’s Spiritual Meadow—in this post of last year for the Saint. Western pilgrims of course confused the name ‘Gerasimos’ with ‘Ieronymos’, who had also lived in Palestine for a time, and thus in the West the lion is associated with St Jerome. [5]

[1] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Knopf, 2009), p. 88.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, Confession, tr. David Patterson (NY: Norton, 1996), p. 83.

[3] St Nicholas (Velimirovi), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, tr. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 245.

[4] I suppose one could also make a case for some sort of connection between the lion’s wailing on the death of St Gerasimus and Ivan’s wailing before his own death, but it would take some real working out.

[5] See Derwas Chitty, The Desert a City (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995), p. 90.

27 April 2010

Mikhail Bakhtin: The Thinker

Continued from this post.

Bakhtin’s thinking is by no means systematic, and it is difficult to know where to begin an overview. But there are certain themes and emphases with which he was clearly preoccupied and which recur throughout his work. If I remember correctly, the article through which I was first introduced to Bakhtin—by Alan Jacobs in Books & Culture—presented these themes in part through a focus on some of Bakhtin’s unique terminology. Similarly, when I bought my first translated edition of some of Bakhtin’s work—The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist—I discovered, and spent a good deal of time studying, the glossary in the back. Holquist introduces it by saying, ‘Bakhtin’s technical vocabulary presents certain difficulties; while he does not use jargon, he does invest everyday words with special content. . . . [H]ere we collect and summarize the terms most central to his theory.’ [1] I will not post all of those given by Holquist, but only those that I personally found most interesting. I will also add to those I take from Holquist two further themes with which Bakhtin is commonly associated.

Authoritative discourse [avtoritetnoe slovo]
This is privileged language that approaches us from without; it is distanced, taboo, and permits no play with its framing context (Sacred Writ, for example). We recite it. It has great power over us, but only while in power; if ever dethroned it immediately
becomes a dead thing, a relic. Opposed to it is internally-persuasive discourse [vnutrenne-ubeditel’noe slovo], which is more akin to retelling a text in one’s own words, with one’s own accents, gestures, modifications. Human coming-to-consciousness, in Bakhtin’s view, is a constant struggle between these two types of discourse: an attempt to assimilate more into one’s own system, and the simultaneous freeing of one’s own discourse from the authoritative word, or from pervious earlier persuasive words that have ceased to mean. [2]

Canonization [kanonizacija]
canonic quality [kanoničnost]
The tendency in every form to harden its generic skeleton and elevate the existing norms to a model that resists change. At the end of ‘Discourse in the Novel’ [pp. 417ff.] Bakhtin discusses a special difficulty in novel theory, how to read properly the rapid transforming process of canonization and of re-accentuation. Canonization is that process that blurs heteroglossia, that is, that facilitates a naïve, single-voiced reading. It is no accident that the novel—that heteroglot genre—has no canon; it is, however, like all artistic genres subject to the pressures of canonization, which on a primitive level is merely the compulsion to repeat. [3]

Chronotope [xronotop]
Literally, ‘time-space’. A unit of analysis for studying texts according to the ration and nature of the temporal and spatial categories represented. The distinctiveness of this concept as opposed to most other uses of time and space in literary analysis lies in the fact that neither category is privileged; they are utterly interdependent. The chronotope is an optic for reading texts as x-rays of the forces at work in the culture system from which they spring. [4]

Completed—finished, closed-off, finalized [zaveršen]
and its noun zaveršennost’ [completedness, finalization]
its antonym nezaveršennost’ [inconclusiveness, openendedness]
This implies not just completed, but capable of definitive finalization. Dialogue, for example, can be zaveršen (as in a dynamic dialogue)—it can be laid out in all its speaking parts, framed by an opening and a close. A dialogized word, on the other hand, can never be zaveršeno: the resonance of oscillation of possible meanings within it is not only not resolved, but must increase in complexity as it continues to live. Epic time is zaveršeno; novel-time, the present oriented toward the future, is always nezaveršeno. [5]

Dialogism [dialogizm]
Dialogism is the characteristic epistemological mode of a world dominated by heteroglossia. Everything means, is understood, as a part of a greater whole—there is a constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others. Which will affect the other, how it will do so and in what degree is what is actually settled at the moment of utterance. This dialogic imperative, mandated by the pre-existence of the language world relative to any of its current inhabitants, insures that there can be no actual monologue. One may, like a primitive tribe that knows only its own limits, be deluded into thinking there is one language, or one may, as grammarians, certain political figures and normative framers of ‘literary languages’ do, seek in a sophisticated way to achieve a unitary language. In both cases the unitariness is relative to the overpowering force of heteroglossia, and thus dialogism. [6]

Dialogue [dialog]
dialogizing [dialogujuščij]
dialogized [dialogizovannij]
Dialogue and its various processes are central to Bakhtin’s theory, and it is precisely as verbal process (participial modifiers) that their force is most accurately sensed. A word, discourse, language or culture undergoes ‘dialogization’ when it becomes relativized, de-privileged, aware of competing definitions for the same things. Undialogized language is authoritative or absolute.

Dialogue may be external (between two different people) or internal (between an earlier and a later self). . . . [7]

Discourse, word [slovo]
The Russian word slovo covers much more territory than its English equivalent, signifying both an individual word and a method of using words [cf. the Greek logos] that presumes a type of authority. Thus the title of our final essay, ‘Discourse in the Novel’, might also have been rendered ‘The Word in the Novel’. We have opted for the broader term, because what interests Bakhtin is the sort of talk novelistic environments make possible, and how this type of talking threatens other more closed systems. Bakhtin at times uses discourse as it is sometimes used in the West—as a way to refer to the subdivisions determined by social and ideological differences within a single language (i.e. the discourse of American plumbers vs. that of American academics). But it is more often than not his more diffuse way of insisting on the primacy of speech, utterance, all in praesentia aspects of language. [8]

Heteroglossia [raznorečie, raznorečivost’]
The basic condition governing the operation of meaning in any utterance. It is that which insures the primacy of context over text. At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions—social, historical, meteorological, physiological—that will insure that a word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot in that they are functions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve. Heteroglossia is as close a conceptualization as is possible of that locus where centripetal and centrifugal forces collide; as such, it is that which a systematic linguistics must always suppress. [9]

Polyglossia [mnogojazyčie]
The simultaneous presence of two or more national languages interacting within a single cultural system (Bakhtin’s two historical models are ancient Rome [Greek and Latin] and the Renaissance [Latin and the vernacular languages]). [10]

Voice [golos, -glas]
This is the speaking personality, the speaking consciousness. A voice always has a will or desire behind it, its own timbre and overtones. Single-voiced discourse [edinogolosnoe slovo] is the dream of poets; double-voiced discourse [dvugolosnoe slovo] the realm of the novel. At several points Bakhtin illustrates the difference between these categories by moving language-units from one plane to the other—for example, shifting a trope from the plane of poetry to the plane of prose [pp. 327ff.]: both poetic and prose tropes are ambiguous [in Russian, dvusmyslennyj, literally ‘double-meaninged’] but a poetic trope, while meaning more than one thing, is always only single-voiced. Prose tropes by contrast always contain more than one voice, and are therefore dialogized. [11]

Two further themes might be added to these. First, in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin introduces the notion of ‘polyphony’ in discourse—‘A plurality of independent and unmerged voices [heteroglossia] and consciousnesses’. He associates this unique realisation of the potential of the novel, and indeed, of the very nature of language and discourse, with Dostoevsky above all, observing that ‘a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels’. [12] In Joe Barnhart’s words, Bakhtin ‘viewed Fyodor Dostoevsky as the exemplar of the polyphonic novel’. [13] It is an approach that, as Rowan Williams has rightly noted, has caused critical work on Dostoevsky to become ‘in general far more sophisticated’. [14]

Second, in his study of Rabelais, Bakhtin introduced the theme of carnival. In the words of Clark & Holquist, ‘Carnival is a minimally ritualized antiritual, a festive celebration of the other, the gaps and holes in all the mappings of the world laid out in systematic theologies, legal codes, normative poetics, and class hierarchies. . . . [It is] a kind of existential heteroglossia.’ [15] According to Bakhtin:

During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part. . . . [16]

. . .

Thus carnival is the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter. It is a festive life. . . . [17]

Orthodox will be interested to know that there have been a number of books published which treat Bakhtin’s thought from an explicitly religious perspective. In The Illuminating Icon, Fr Anthony Ugolnik approaches him as ‘an example of a Christian working through a secular idiom’, [18] and notes, ‘In the literary and philosophical tradition of Russian lay theology, Bakhtin managed to transmit many Eastern Christian presumptions into his Soviet environment.’ [19] Alexandar Mihailovic’s Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse analyses the relationship between Bakhtin’s thought and the terminology of the Œcumenical Councils, concluding, ‘In his christological chronotope of corporeal words Bakhtin attempts to integrate ethical and political thought with theology, which had been marginalized into a peripheral culture, one foreign to a country declared by its political leaders to be the examplar of “Developed” socialism.’ [20] Ruth Coates’s Christianity in Bakhtin: God & the Exiled Author looks at ‘Bakhtin’s demonstrable philosophical engagement with such central Christian concepts as creation, fall, and incarnation’, [21] self-consciously insisting on something like a ‘mere Christianity’ rather than finding anything distinctively Orthodox about him. [22] But then, in the article ‘Bakhtin & Hesychasm’, which I have already mentioned (here and here), Coates does begin to look at Bakhtin’s relation to certain Orthodox distinctives—particularly the essence/energies distinction, hesychastic prayer, and the rôle of the body in Orthodox anthropology. Leonard Stanton uses an idea introduced in Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the ‘penetrated word’, closely related to ‘internally-persuasive discourse’, as a way to interpret the function of apophthegmata in the Lives of the Optina Elders. [23] Finally, Walter Reed’s Dialogues of the Word: The Bible as Literature According to Bakhtin uses Bakhtin’s thought as a hermeneutic appratus for a literary-critical reading of Scripture, focusing particularly on Job and Revelation. [24] But these are of course only the studies with which I am familiar and of which I possess copies.

In my opinion, many of the themes defined or referred to above have obvious connections with Orthodoxy, while others require a bit more unpacking to be seen in relation to an Orthodox worldview. One which I believe is particularly elusive is carnival. In context, Bakhtin’s extolling of carnival is often explicitly anticlerical and irreverent (much like Rabelais himself). So it might be instructive to consider at some length what Fr Ugolnik has done with this theme:

The most productive insights are often the most unexpected. Western visitors who encounter the Russian Orthodox liturgy perceive it according to a romanticized body of expectations: beautiful and solemn, [25] it seems expressive of a profound seriousness and melancholy. Yet to be steeped in liturgy as a medium for the Word is to see as well its playful restlessness, its constant shifts in frame of reference. Bakhtin . . . developed the notion of ‘carnival’, a concept now widely used in anthropology and literature. ‘Carnival’ is that dialogic form by which rigid, tyrannical hierarchies become mirrored, distorted, and overthrown. And liturgy can indeed be seen as ‘carnival’. Liturgy is, in effect, a celebration of the gospel whereby we partake in a divine carnival, a divine irony whereby we overthrow the kingdom of this world.

. . .

‘We are fools for Christ’s sake’ (1 Cor. 4:10). Tyranny cannot bear to be mocked; the folly of the gospel, then, will enrage the powerful but delight the poor in spirit. Bakhtin’s sensitivity to ‘carnival’ springs from his own Christian tradition. Russian Orthodoxy is replete with icons and services celebrating a certain kind of saint, the ‘holy fool’, the fool for Christ’s sake. The crazed, beautiful domes of St Basil’s on Red Square celebrate, in their riot of color and form, just such a sainted clown. Early Russian czars, by tradition, included in their retinue a fool who mocked the pretense of the worldly prince. Similarly, Russian literature is filled with the same kind of character, a character who in his or her ‘folly’ forces an encounter between reality and pretense.

. . . The holy fool refuses to accept the structures by which the world forms judgments. He reminds the people of God that the structures by which the princes of this world prevail are less than ‘transitory’—they are signs of liberation in God, showing us in the narrowness and cramped insistence of worldly power what God will never be. The gospel’s clown is, like the monk or nun, ‘apophatic’—that is, he or she shows us not what God is, but rather what God is not. The holy fool mimics the standard by which the cross is seen as ‘tragic’, for the gospel is the very antithesis of tragedy.

Liturgy in its structure is the very archetype of divine carnival. In proclaiming God’s
kingdom, it alters the way in which we see this world and forces us into perpetual re-evaluation. Intellectual tyranny and worldly power take themselves seriously. The gospel mocks that seriousness. Liturgical celebration of the gospel brings Christians together in community, where in a structure of ‘dialogue’ they recreate the terms by which they interpret this world. In liturgical structure we see a majestic celebration of what Bakhtin calls alterity, of the ‘otherness’ of God. In liturgy the Christian overthrows the kingdom of this world and celebrates the kingdom of the Trinity. It is the social and religious structure within which the poor are enriched, the meek made courageous, the oppressed made into monarchs. Thus it is hardly an empty ‘cultic’ celebration, an ‘opera’ that is removed from the terms of the lived world. It is indeed in its nature a ‘subversion’ of the structures of tyranny. It demands that we see this flawed and blasted world anew, as renewed in Christ; that we sinners stand as the redeemed. Liturgy does not ‘announce’, in monologue, the Good News. Liturgy dialogically ‘celebrates’ the gospel; it enacts the plan of God. [26]

I realise I have quoted more writing about Bakhtin than I have of Bakhtin. I by no means wish to discourage the intelligent reader from simply picking up one of his books and diving in (I think the Dostoevsky book and The Dialogic Imagination particularly suitable for this purpose). But it’s hard to know exactly what to quote with a thinker like Bakhtin. In this situation, I have chosen a passage from ‘Author & Hero in Aesthetic Activity’ which seems particularly apropos for a blog like Logismoi: a brief consideration of hagiography.

We cannot deal with this form in detail, for this would exceed the bounds of our theme. The vita of a saint is accomplished immediately in God’s world. Every moment of the vita is imaged as possessing validity precisely in God’s world; the vita of a saint is a life that has significance in God.

This significant life in God must be invested in traditional forms; the author’s sense of reverence leaves no room for individual initiative, for individual choice of expression: the author renounces himself here, renounces his own individually answerable activity. . . .

Thus, the unity of the transgredient moments of a saint is not the individual unity of an author who actively utilizes his position outside the saint; the author’s position outside the saint is assumed and maintained in humility—it is a position which renounces all initiative (since, in fact, there are no essentially transgredient moments for accomplishing a consummation) and which falls back upon forms consecrated by tradition. . . . [H]agiography, just like icon painting, avoids any transgredient moments which delimit a human being and render him overly concrete, because they invariably diminish authoritativeness. What must be excluded is . . . anything concrete in a person’s appearance, anything concrete in his life . . . . That is, anything that reinforces a given person’s determinateness in being (the typical and characteristic, and even biographical concreteness) and thus reduces the authoritativeness of that person (the life of a saint proceeds from the very outset in eternity, as it were). . . .

A symbolic tradition in the treatment of the vita is also possible. (The problem of imaging a miracle and the supreme religious event; here the humble renunciation of adequacy and individuality and submission to strict tradition are especially important.) Where the task is to image and express a valid achievement of ultimate meaning, humility to the point of submission to traditional conventionality is indispensable . . . . Thus, renunciation of his position outside the saint as constituting an essential position and humbling himself to the point of submission to pure traditionality (medieval ‘realism’) are highly characteristic of the author of a saint’s life (cf. the idea of blago-obrazie in Dostoevsky). [27]

In the spirit of nezaveršennost’, I will not say ‘finally’, or ‘in conclusion’, but despite Bakhtin’s promotion of prosaics as a opposed to poetics, I will offer in the spirit of carnival the few nuggets Mihailovic has translated of what he calls ‘the nadir in sentimentality’ among Bakhtin-worshippers:

Perhaps the nadir in sentimentality was reached in a 1989 poem dedicated to Bakhtin that has the critic sitting at ‘his desk like Noah on his ark’, where he ‘guffaws with Rabelais until midnight, and sobs with Dostoevsky til the morning’ and ‘dreams of one thing only: that in every word there should be more good.’ A voice says to the poet, ‘There are no prophets in our fatherland,’ to which he replies, ‘But how one yearns for a prophet!’ [28]

[1] Michael Holquist, ‘Glossary’, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas, 1998), p. 423.

[2] Ibid., pp. 424-5.

[3] Ibid., p. 425.

[4] Ibid., pp. 425-6.

[5] Ibid., p. 426.

[6] Ibid., p. 426.

[7] Ibid., pp. 426-7.

[8] Ibid., p. 427.

[9] Ibid., p. 428.

[10] Ibid., p. 431.

[11] Ibid., p. 434.

[12] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, tr. Caryl Emerson, Vol. 8 in Theory & History of Literature (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1984), p. 6.

[13] Joe E. Barnhart, ‘Introduction—Hearing Voices’, Dostoevsky’s Polyphonic Talent, ed. Joe Barnhart (Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2005), p. ix.

[14] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, & Fiction (Waco, TX: Baylor U, 2008), p. 4.

[15] Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1984), pp. 300-1.

[16] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais & His World, tr. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington, IN: Indiana U, 1984), p. 7.

[17] Ibid., p. 8.

[18] Fr Anthony Ugolnik, The Illuminating Icon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 158-9.

[19] Ibid., p. 160.

[20] Alexandar Mihailovic, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1997), p. 234. Incidentally, Mihailovic also ends with a typical plea for ecumenism in the spirit of Fedotov and Fr Alexander Men. Yes, I know, it’s a bit annoying.

[21] Ruth Coates, ‘Bakhtin & Hesychasm’, Religion & Literature 37.3 (Autumn 2005), p. 60.

[22] Ruth Coates, Christianity in Bakhtin: God & the Exiled Author (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1998), p. 22.

[23] Leonard Stanton, The Optina Pustyn Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination: Iconic Vision in Works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, & Others (NY: Peter Lang, 1995), p. 159.

[24] Reed proceeds from the belief that Bakhtin’s ‘own adherence to Christianity seems to have been persistent’, and that there exists a ‘striking relevance of Bakhtin’s philosophy and aesthetics of dialogue to the peculiarly polyform nature of the Bible’ (Walter L. Reed, Dialogues of the Word: The Bible as Literature According to Bakhtin [NY: Oxford U, 1993], p. 14).

[25] It is interesting to note, in light of C.S. Lewis’s discussion of the notion of solemnity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that it is not nearly so opposed to the spirit of ‘carnival’ as the word is in modern usage. See this post.

[26] Fr Ugolnik, pp. 170-1.

[27] Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Author & Hero in Aesthetic Activity’, Art & Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist & Vadim Liapunov, tr. & notes by Vadim Liapunov, supp. tr. Kenneth Brostrom (Austin: U of Texas, 1995), pp. 185-6.

[28] Mihailovic, p. 3.

26 April 2010

Mikhail Bakhtin: The Man

Although I am early for his birthday and late for the anniversary of his repose, recent comments have led me to a decision to write a post or two on the Russian philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975). According to Alexandar Mihailovic, ‘In both Russia and the West, Bakhtin has become a revered figure, an almost mythic sage whose gnomic utterances have been pored over with a talmudic zeal.’ [1] Yet many Orthodox Christians, even intellectuals with an interest not only in theology but in literature and philosophy, remain unfamiliar with him. This despite the fact that, as Mihailovic argues, ‘Bakhtin’s own dialogue with the philosophical legacy of Orthodoxy’ is ‘instrumental in shaping the spirit of dialogism that almost all scholars agree is the enduring idea of his work.’ [2] I shall offer first an overview of his life, taken from Tzvetan Todorov’s brief but rigourous study, and then discuss very briefly his relationship to Orthodoxy, biographical and intellectual. I shall reserve a real discussion of Bakhtin’s thought for a second post. First, Todorov:

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was born in 1895 in Orel, in an impoverished aristocratic family; his father was a bank clerk. He spent his childhood in Orel, and his adolescence in Vilnius and Odessa. He studied philology at the University of Odessa and later in Petrograd, graduating in 1918. He taught elementary school, first in the small provincial town of Nevel’ (1918-1920), and then, after 1920, in Vitebsk, where he was married in 1921. In Nevel’, a first circle of friends was formed; it included Valerian Nikolaevich Voloshinov . . . , a poet and musicologist; Lev Vasilievich Pumpian’ski . . ., a philosopher and literary scholar; the pianist M.B. Yudina . . . ; the poet B.N. Zubakin . . . ; and the philosopher Matvei Isaevich Kagan . . . . The last-named began to play the role of initiator; he had just returned from Germany, where he had studied philosophy in Leipzig, Berlin, and Marburg; he was a disciple of Hermann Cohen, and had attended Cassirer’s lectures. Kagan organized an initial informal group that took on the name of ‘Kantian Seminar’. In addition to this private activity, the members of the circle participated in public debates and gave formal talks. . . .

After Bakhtin’s move (and Kagan’s departure, first for Petrograd and the[n] Orel), the circle reformed in Vitebsk, with Voloshinov and Pumpian’ski as well as some new additions: the critic Pavel Nikolaevich Medvedev . . . ; the musicologist I.I> Sollertinski; the painter Marc Chagall belongs to the same milieu. Bakhtin taught literature and aesthetics. Afflicted since 1921 with a chronic osteomyelitis that eventually required the amputation of a leg in 1938, Bakhtin returned to Petrograd in 1924 where he took up again with his friends Voloshinov, Pumpian’ski, and Medvedev. A third circle was formed; it included this time the poet N. Klinev; the novelist K. Vaginov; the Indic scholar M. Tubianski; the musicologist I. Tubianski; and the biologist and historian of science I. Kanaev. The ‘Kantian Seminar’ resumed its activities. Bakhtin supported himself from odd jobs. In 1929 he published a book: The Problems of Dostoevsky’s Work; it is known that an early version, probably quite different from the published one, had been completed as early as 1922. In the same year, 1929, Bakhtin was arrested, for reasons that remain unknown but were most likely related to his ties with Orthodox Christianity. It was indeed for such a reason that his friend Pumpian’ski was arrested in 1928; in 1926, writing to Kagan, who lived then in Moscow, he described the meetings of the circle thus: ‘All these years, and especially this one, we have kept busy dealing with theology. . . .’. Bakhtin was condemned to five years in a concentration camp to be spent in Solovki; for health reasons, however, his sentence was commuted to exile in Kazakhstan. From 1930 on he worked at clerical jobs in various institutions in the small town of Kustanaj on the border of Siberia and Kazakhstan. In 1936 he was given an appointment to the Teachers’ College at Saransk. In 1937, he settled in Kimr, some hundred kilometers from Moscow, where he taught Russian and German in the local secondary school. Occasionally, he participated in the workings of the Literary Institute of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He returned to Saransk Teachers’ College in 1945 and remained there until his retirement in 1961. His book on Dostoevsky, somewhat enlarged was republished in 1963. The book on Rabelais, actually a thesis completed in 1940 but defended, with many a difficulty, in 1946, finally appeared in 1965. His health declining, Bakhtin settled in Moscow in 1969. The last years of his life were spent in a retirement home in Klimovsk near Moscow. He died in March 1975, at the age of eighty; his funeral followed Orthodox rites. [3]

Concerning Bakhtin’s published works, a brief note explaining one much-debated question is in order. In the 1970s a close follower stated that Bakhtin was the real author of a number of works of the 1920s which had been published under the names of his friends Voloshinov and Medvedev. I won’t go into all of the details, but suffice to say that there is reason to believe there may be some truth to this, but the matter is very complex and likely cannot be resolved conclusively. When citing these works, Todorov proposed a convention to express the openness of the question: using the name under which they were published followed by a slash and Bakhtin’s name. [4] I like this a great deal, and used it myself in my big paper on Dostoevsky years ago.

Todorov mentions the probability of Bakhtin’s having been arrested for ‘his ties to Orthodox Christianity’, and there are some interesting connections to be noted here. Although he left off open religious activities and statements after his arrest, Bakhtin was associated during the early years after the Revolution with some of the circles of religious intellectuals that were active at that time. In their intellectual biography of Bakhtin, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist note his connection to, though not necessarily membership in, such groups as Voskresenie (one of the leaders of which was George Fedotov), the Brotherhood of St Sophia, and Volfila. [5] But it is interesting to note that Bakhtin was actually charged, though it was later dropped, with being a member of the Brotherhood of St Seraphim of Sarov. [6] This Brotherhood was influenced by Fr Pavel Florensky, founded by Sergei Askoldov, a good friend of the New Martyr Fr Theodore Andreyev, and included among its members Ivan Mikhailovich Andreyev, who later taught at Jordanville. [7] Most of these men were also members of the Catacomb Church under the New Martyr Metropolitan Joseph of Leningrad, which bravely resisted Sergianism.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that Clark and Holquist are largely correct when they write that ‘Bakhtin was never a conventional Russian Orthodox in the sense of conforming to an organized religion’, but rather ‘a religious intellectual from the Orthodox tradition’. [8] He was very much along the lines of Solovyov and the latter's heirs in the Paris emigration. Clark and Holquist compare Bakhtin’s views to those of Fedotov and Fr Florensky, though he is found to be even less Orthodox than they are, and on the other hand they engage in an odd description of the limits of Bakhtin’s reverence for the ‘patron Saint’ of liberal Russian religious philosophers—St Seraphim of Sarov. As Fedotov once wrote, ‘[For this] generation of the Orthodox Renaissance, the last before the Revolution . . . St Seraphim was the prophet of the expected revelation of the Holy Spirit and the forerunner of the new form of spirituality which should succeed merely ascetical monasticism’. [9] Thus, according to Ruth Coates, Bakhtin ‘would refer to Seraphim as his “heavenly protector”’. [10]

Another brief point of dispute is Bakhtin’s relationship to Marxism. Fr Anthony Ugolnik writes that conversations with Bakhtin's ‘colleagues and contemporaries . . . revealed that to the end of his life Bakhtin was a confirmed socialist’. [11] But on the other hand, Mihailovic quotes acquaintances of Bakhtin as saying that he was ‘always categorically opposed to Marxism’ and that, in his own words, ‘I am not a Marxist [and] was never interested in Marxism in the slightest’. [12] In an analogue to the issue of Christianity and Orthodoxy in Bakhtin, critics dispute the importance of Marxism to his work.

Continued here.

[1] Alexandar Mihailovic, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1997), p. 1.

[2] Ibid., p. 16.

[3] Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, tr. Wlad Godzich, Vol. 13 of Theory & History of Literature (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1984), pp. 3-5.

[4] Ibid., p. 11.

[5] Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1984), pp. 120-42.

[6] Ibid., p. 142.

[7] On these connections, besides Clark & Holquist, see Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), ‘Ivan Michailovich Andreyev: True Orthodox Convert from the Russian Intelligentsia’, Orthodox Apologetic Theology, by I.M. Andreyev, tr. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995), pp. 20-8. Unfortunately, however, Fr Seraphim was probably unaware of Bakhtin and makes no mention of him.

[8] Clark & Holquist, p. 120.

[9] George P. Fedotov, ed., A Treasury of Russian Spirituality (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1988), p. 146. I have noted before the very perceptive comments on this statement in Ruth Coates’s fascinating article, ‘Bakhtin & Hesychasm’:

Fedotov’s description of the reception of Seraphim by the religious intelligentsia rings true, and betrays the arrogance and ignorance of that generation: so far from being the forerunner of a new form of spirituality, Seraphim was in his time the latest representative of an ancient tradition of Eastern Christian spirituality, a practising hesychast whose spiritual authority as a starets, or elder, derived from his direct mystical knowledge of God through prayer, as opposed to his position in the institutional Church’s hierarchy. Moreover, so far from succeeding ascetical monasticism, Seraphim was a hieromonk . . . who maintained close links with the monastery to which he was attached, in keeping with the hesychasts of old, and who continued to take part in the sacramental life of the Church. (Ruth Coates, ‘Bakhtin & Hesychasm’, Religion & Literature 37.3 [Autumn 2005], pp. 61-2.)

[10] Ibid., p. 60.

[11]Fr Anthony Ugolnik, The Illuminating Icon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 159.

[12] Mihailovic, p. 3.

25 April 2010

Sidney & Lewis on Cœli enarrant

C.S. Lewis once wrote of that Psalm numbered 19 in the Authorised Version and 18 in the Septuagint, ‘I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.’ (Indeed, Michael Ward sees the Chronicles of Narnia almost as a kind of interpretation of this Psalm.) It’s one that I admit I have not contemplated much, in part because like so many others it is so familiar. So I thought it would be worthwhile to post Sir Philip Sidney’s metred translation, in hopes that the unfamiliar wording might cause us to chew on this Psalm a bit more.

Psalm 19: Cœli enarrant

The heavenly frame sets forth the fame
Of him that only thunders;
The firmament, so strangely bent,
Shows his handworking wonders.
Day unto day doth it display,
Their course doth it acknowledge,
And night to night succeeding right
In darkness teach clear knowledge.
There is no speech, no language which
Is so of skill bereaved,
But of the skies the teaching cries
They have heard and conceived.
There be no eyen but read the line
From so fair book proceeding,
Their words be set in letters great
For everybody’s reading.
Is not he blind that doth not find
The tabernacle builded
There by His Grace for sun’s fair face
In beams of beauty gilded?
Who forth doth come, like a bridegroom,
From out his veiling places,
As glad is he, as giants be
To run their mighty races.
His race is even from ends of heaven;
About that vault he goeth;
There be no realms hid from his beams;
His heat to all he throweth.
O law of His, how perfect ’tis
The very soul amending;
God’s witness sure for aye doth dure
To simplest wisdom lending.
God’s dooms be right, and cheer the sprite,
All His commandments being
So purely wise it gives the eyes
Both light and force of seeing.
Of Him the fear doth cleanness bear
And so endures forever,
His judgments be self verity,
They are unrighteous never.
Then what man would so soon seek gold
Or glittering golden money?
By them is past in sweetest taste,
Honey or comb of honey.
By them is made Thy servants’ trade
Most circumspectly guarded,
And who doth frame to keep the same
Shall fully be rewarded.
Who is the man that ever can
His faults know and acknowledge?
O Lord, cleanse me from faults that be
Most secret from all knowledge.
Thy servant keep, lest in him creep
Presumtuous sins’ offenses;
Let them not have me for their slave
Nor reign upon my senses.
So shall my sprite be still upright
In thought and conversation,
So shall I bide well purified
From much abomination.
So let words sprung from my weak tongue
And my heart’s meditation,
My saving might, Lord, in Thy sight,
Receive good acceptation!

Here then are Lewis’s ‘reflections’ on this Psalm:

The actual words supply no logical connection between the first and second movements. In this way its technique resembles that of the most modern poetry. A modern poet would pass with similar abruptness from one theme to another and leave you to find out the connecting link for yourself. But then he would possibly be doing this quite deliberately; he might have, though he chose to conceal, a perfectly clear and conscious link in his own mind which he could express to you in logical prose if he wanted to. I doubt if the ancient poet was like that. I think he felt, effortlessly a nd without reflecting on it, so close a connection, indeed (for his imagination) such an identity, between his first theme and his second that he passed from the one to the other wihtout realising that he had made any transition. First he thinks of the sky; how, day after day, the pageantry we see there shows us the splendour of its Creator. Then he thinks of the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, theunimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west. Finally, of its heat; not of course the mild heats of our climate but the cloudless, blinding, tyrannous rays hammering the hills, searching every cranny. The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is ‘there is nothing hid from the heat thereof’. It pierces everywhere with its strong, clear ardour. Then at once, in verse 7 he is talking of something else which hardly seems to him something else because it is so like the all-piercing, all-detecting sunshine. The Law is ‘undefiled’, the Law gives light, it is clean and everlasting, it is ‘sweet’. No one can improve on this and nothing can more fully admit us to the old Jewish feeling about the Law; luminous, severe, disinfectant, exultant. One hardly needs to add that this poet is wholly free from self-righteousness and the last section is concerned with his ‘secret faults’. As he has felt the sun, perhaps in the desert, searching him out in everynook of shake where he attemptedto hide from it, so he feels the Law searching out all the hiding-places of his soul.

24 April 2010

'The Servant of God / Hero Hardy'—St Guthlac of Crowland

Today, 11 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Guthlac (c. 673-714), Hermit of Crowland. I first learned of St Guthlac through Fr Andrew Phillips, who writes of ‘Guthlac, another desert-father in spirit, who lived in the marshes and lonely fenlands of Lincolnshire, and fought a great war against that ancient foe of mankind, that Old Dragon, the Adversary, and who “spoke with the angels of the heavenly mysteries”, from whose mouth there came forth “a fragrance like unto the scent of the sweetest flowers” and whose passing away was marked by the appearance of “a fiery tower, reaching from the earth to the height of heaven, turning the light of the sun itself to paleness”’ (here). Here is the account of St Guthlac’s life in the Oxford Dictionary of Saints:

Guthlac (c. 673-714), hermit of Crowland (Lincs.). Of royal blood from the Mercian tribe of Guthlacingas, he became a soldier (C.S.P. called him robustus depraedator) from the age of fifteen, but after nine successful years gave up warfare to be a monk at Repton, a double monastery where some Mercian kings were buried, rule by Abbess Ælfirth. He was rather unpopular at first because of his total abstinence from intoxicating drink; later he was better appreciated. In about 701 he moved on to the solitary life at Crowland on a site accessible only by boat. Here his life resembled the regime of the Desert Fathers; annoyances included attacks by Britons who had taken refuge in the Fens, and violent temptations by devils; consolations were visions of angels and of his patron Bartholomew the Apostle. After fifteen years as a hermit, he knew that his death was near. Edburga, abbess of Repton, sent him a shroud and a leaden coffin. His sister Pega, an anchoress at Peakirk, came to his burial with his disciples Cissa, Bettelin, Egbert, and Tatwin, who occupied cells near by. A year later the grave was opened and the body found incorrupt. The Guthlac cult began, centred on his shrine at Crowland, to which Pega had given his psalter and scourge. [1] It soon became popular, with Wiglaf, king of Mercia (827-40), and Ceolnoth, archbishop of Canterbury (who was cured of ague by the saint in 851), among its devotees. The feast soon spread through Mercia to Westminster, St Albans, and Durham and eventually became general.

. . . The cult flourished also in the 12th century. His relics were translated in 1136 in the abbey church built on the site of his cell and the shrine was embellished with gold, silver, and jewels. Yet another translation took place in 1196. [2]

St Guthlac’s Life was recorded in Latin prose, as well as in Old English prose and verse. His various hagiographers early noted the the likeness of St Guthlac’s struggles with those of St Anthony the Great, and often recorded them in nearly identical terms. Here is a passage from the Old English poem, Guthlac B:

Oft were the fens by foul fiends haunted;
Hordes of demons, dark and menacing,
Swarmed round the spot where the saint of God,
Dauntless of courage, kept his abode.
Filled was the air with uproar confused;
Riotous battle-din raised in the wilderness
The fiendish rout, bereft of all beauty,
Sundered from joy. But the servant of God,
Hero hardy, the hellish rabble
Boldly defied. They fled for a space,
Not long the delay; the loathly guests,
The trouble-smiths, quickly the turmoil renewed
With yelpings loud and long-drawn yells.
At times they would bellow like beasts of prey,
Or howl in troops; at times they would change
Into human form, the fierce man-haters,
With deafening clamor, or don the shape
Of creeping serpents, those spirits accurst,
Spewing venom, the vile deceivers.
Yet Guthlac ever on guard they found;
Watchful and wary, he waited in patience,
Though the thronging demon-bands threatened to slay him. [3]

The reference to St Guthlac’s ‘watchfulness’ is a reminder of the hesychastic nature of his struggles. Similarly, although considered a characteristic of the ‘folk psychology’ of the Anglo-Saxons and not as a universal part of the Christian ascetic lexicon, [4] it has been noted that the Old English poems on St Guthlac are explicitly concerned with what we as Orthodox can only call the Saint’s noetic activity. Antonina Harbus writes:

The narrative of Guthlac A is predicated on the ideas that the mental life is at the heart of spiritual existence, and is the site of grace and therefore of commerce with the divine. . . . In the model of faith offered in this poetic saint’s life and also in its narrative presentation, conscious mental focus on the divine is the major priority. [5]

But surely 7th- and 8th-c. English monks could have got this from St Cassian, who in Institutes 8.X speaks of how ‘the mind (that is, the nous or reason) . . . surveys all the thoughts and judgments of the heart’. [6] Unfamiliarity with the terms and theory of Christian ascetic theology has apparently even led to some outright confusion on the part of scholars of Old English hagiography whose focus is so exclusively philological. As Thomas Hill notes:

There has been some debate recently about whether the Guthlac A poet believed Guthlac was troubled by ‘real’ demons or whether the demons are in effect emblems of Guthlac’s inner conflicts. This debate seems to me misguided. I know of no early medieval Christian authority who doubted the existence and malign influence of demons, but at the same time patristic and early medieval Christians were profoundly aware that it is precisely our own inner conflicts which render us vulnerable to such forces. [7]

I myself was inspired by the Old English vernacular poems on St Guthlac’s Life, and produced my own—mercifully brief—alliterative poem several years ago. I entitled it ‘Osbeorh’, and the final revision I recorded was done on 3 April 2004 (pardon me that I can’t reproduce the characteristic caesuras):

In wilderness wild, in woods and bogs,
In deserts and fens, undredged their murks,
Those seeking virtue venture unsought,
Daring to fight the dragon in gloom;
Our foe most fearsome, the fens a-haunting,
A host he calls the hero to fell.
The dwimmer of beasts display themselves,
Framing and fashioning fiends accursed.
Battles untold in barrow are fought,
Prepared of old for pagan dead,
Hewn out of hillock, a harrowing den,
Dwelling in darkness, his deeds unknown,
A sea of mists concealing the Holy,
A stout heart might stagger, stooped under hardship.
But habit and cowl, when crossed with the rood,
Will slip from the fingers of fiendish ghosts.
Thus many a year the Mercy he delves
In chapel of green o’ergrown with soft tufts,
Till lit with light, such letters he finds
To spell with glory the God-words he heard,
Outstripping the science of senses and grammar,
Till songs of the Saint were sung by our people—
Chants now forgotten, though godly and pure,
Of sanctity’s sleep in silence now dreamed,
Long promised by prophets who passed on of old.

In conclusion, here is a troparion for St Guthlac from the canon at Matins in the Service to All Saints of Britain in Moss’s Saints of England’s Golden Age:

Thy tears in the wilderness brought forth fruit an hundredfold, O Holy Father Guthlac, and by the weapon of thy prayers thou didst conquer demons and receive from Heaven the Grace to heal the diseases of those who honour thee. [8]

[1] David Farmer notes that the scourge ‘was not for self-flagellation but for use as a defensive and offensive weapon against diabolical attacks’ (The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], pp. 239-40). The incident is depicted in the image at the top taken from the late 12th-c. Harleian Roll Y.6 at the British Museum, usually called the ‘Guthlac Roll’.

[2] Ibid., p. 239.

[3] J. Duncan Spaeth, Old English Poetry: Translations into Alliterative Verse with Introductions & Notes (Princeton: Princeton U, 1922), pp. 107-8 (here).

[4] Antonina Harbus, The Life of the Mind in Old English Poetry (NY: Rodopi, 2002), p. 3 (here).

[5] Ibid., p. 107 (here).

[6] St John Cassian, The Institutes, tr. Boniface Ramsey, OP (NY: Newman, 2000), p. 198.

[7] Thomas D. Hill, ‘The Middle Way: Idel-Wuldor & Egesa in the Old English Guthlac A’, The Review of English Studies XXX.118 (1979), p. 182 (here).

[8] Vladimir Moss, Saints of England’s Golden Age: A Collection of the Lives of Holy Men & Women Who Flourished in Orthodox Christian Britain (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1997), p. 242.

23 April 2010

'Gentles, Do Not Reprehend'—William Shakespeare

Today, 23 April, is the birthday of the great Bard and chief poet of the English language, William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Already in the late 18th century, Samuel Johnson was writing of Shakespeare, ‘The poet of whose works I have undertaken the revision may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration.’ [1] Harold Bloom observes that, together with Dante, Shakespeare is ‘the center of the Canon’, and later in the same essay, ‘Shakespeare is the Canon.’ [2] C.S. Lewis once wrote in passing of Henry V’s ‘pep talks’ that they ‘were about as good as Shakespeare could make them, which means they were about as good as that kind of thing can be.’ [3] Here is the account of Shakespeare’s life in Willard Farnham’s Pelican edition of Hamlet, edited somewhat for greater brevity:

William Shakespeare was christened in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, April 26, 1564. His birth is traditionally assigned to April 23. He was the eldest of four boys and two girls who survivedinfancy in the family of John Shakespeare, glover and trader of Henley Street, and his wife Mary Arden, daughter of a small landowner of Wilmcote. In 1568 John was elected Bailiff (equivalent to Mayor) of Stratford, having already filled the minor municipal offices. The town maintained for the sons of the burgesses a free school, taught by a university graduate and offering preparation in Latin sufficient for
university entrance; its early registers are lost, but there can be little doubt that Shakespeare received the formal part of his education in this school.

On November 27, 1582, a license was issued for the marriage of William Shakespeare (aged eighteen) and Ann Hathaway (aged twenty-six), and on May 26, 1583, their child Susanna was christed in Holy Trinity Church. The inference that the marriage was forced upon the youth is natural but not inevitable; betrothal was legally binding at the time, and was sometimes regarded as conferring conjugal rights. Two additional children of the marriage, the twins Hamnet and Judith, were christened on Febraury 2, 1585. Meanwhile the prosperity of the elder Shakespeares had declined, and William was impelled to seek a career outside Stratford.

The tradition that he spent some time as a country teacher is old but unverifiable. Because of the absence of records his early twenties are called the ‘lost years’, and only one thing about them is certain—that at least some of these years were spent in winning a place in the acting profession. He may have begun as a provincial trouper, but by 1592 he was established in London and prominent enough to be attacked. . . .

The plague closed the London theatres for many months in 1592-94, denying the actors their livelihood. To this period belong Shakespeare’s two narrative poems, Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. No doubt the poet was rewarded with a gift of money as usual in such cases, but he did no further dedicated and we have no reliable information on whether Southampton, or anyone else, became his regular patron. His sonnets, first mentioned in 1598 and published without his consent in 1609, are intimate without being explicitly autobiographical. . . . The true distinction of the sonnets, at least of those not purely conventional, rests in the universality of the thoughts and moods they express, and in their poignancy and beauty.

In 1594 was formed the theatrical company known until 1603 as the Lord Chamberlain’s men, thereafter as the King’s men. Its original membership included, besides Shakespeare, the beloved clown Will Kempe and the famous actor Richard Burbage. The company acted in various London theatres and even toured the provinces, but it is chiefly associated in our minds with the Globe Theatre built on the south bank of the Thames in 1599. Shakespeare was an actor and joint owner of this company (and its Globe) through the remainder of his creative years. His plays, written at the average rate of two a year, together with Burbage’s acting won it its place of leadership among the London companies.

Individual plays began to appear in print, in editions both honest and piratical, and the publishers became increasingly aware of the value of Shakespeare’s name on the title pages. . . . In the second half of his writing career, history plays gave place to the great tragedies; and farces and light comedies gave place to the problem plays and symbolic romances. In 1623, seven years after his death, his former fellow-actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, cooperated with a group of London Printers in bringing out his plays in collected form. The volume is generally known as the First Folio.

Shakespeare had never severed his relations with Stratford. His wife and children may sometimes have shared his London lodgings, but their home was Stratford. His son Hamnet was buried there in 1596, and his daughters Susanna and Judith were married there in 1607 and 1616 respectively. . . . His considerable earnings in London, as actor-sharer, part owner of the Globe and playwright, were invested chiefly in Stratford property. In 1597 he purchased for 60 lbs New Place, one of the two most imposing residences in the town. A number of other business transactions, as well as minor episodes in his career, have left documentary records. By 1611 he was in a position to retire, and he seems gradually to have withdrawn from theatrical activity in order to live in Stratford. In March, 1616, he made a will, leaving token bequests to Burbage, Heminge, and Condell, but the bulk of his estate to his family. The most famous feature of the will, the bequest of the second-best bed to his wife, reveals nothing about Shakespeare’s marriage; the quaintness of the provision seems
commonplace to those familiar with ancient testaments. Shakespeare died April 23, 1616, and was buried in the Stratford church where he had been christened. Within seven years a monument was erected to his memory on the north wall of the chancel. Its portrait bust and the Droeshout engraving on the title page of the First Folio provide the only likenesses with an established claim to authenticity. . . . [4]

The canonicity that Bloom emphasises is rooted in what is widely recognised as Shakespeare’s universality. Bloom writes, ‘Students and friends have described for me Shakespeare as they have seen him in Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Indonesian, and Italian, and the general report has been that the audiences were as one in finding that Shakespeare represented them upon the stage.’ [5] In the words of Mark Van Doren, whose course on Shakespeare at Columbia Thomas Merton once wrote ‘was the best course I ever had at college’: [6]

He had too much poetry, and—the same thing for him—too much sense, to be the slave of fashions in human being. He is typical of any world that can be understood, and he is the kind of story-teller who can be judged by the most general standards that we have. The ‘Poetics’ of Aristotle will explain him more readily than the unique literature of his age will explain him. It is difficult enough for such literature to explain itself; nor does Shakespeare seem to call for explanations beyond those which a whole heart and a free mind abundantly supply. [7]

For Van Doren, in addition to being temporal and cultural Shakespeare’s universality is also cosmic. ‘Shakespeare, starting with the world no man has made, and never indeed abandoning it, made many worlds within it’, and as he writes of the world of Midsummer Night’s Dream, it ‘is as big and as real as any world we know.’ [8] But also, Shakespeare does not ‘work without a full comprehension of the thing he is working at; of the probability that other and contrary things are of equal importance’. [9] As Van Doren states in his autobiography, ‘There is no subject like Shakespeare. It embraces the world.’ [10]

It certainly embraces the English language. Indeed, Shakespeare might almost be said to bear the same relationship to English that Homer once did to Greek. It is common knowledge that he actually introduced new words and expressions into our tongue, and that many of his lines have entered into common parlance even among those who have never read nor seen a single play. As an English-speaker I find Shakespeare’s words lodged very deeply in my psyche, whether I have read them on the page, heard them in stage or screen adaptations, read or heard them in the context of other works, or, most primally of all, simply picked them up from the culture around me. I think probably one of the snippets of Shakespeare to which I was exposed earliest was Puck’s closing monologue from Midsummer Night’s Dream, as performed by Robert Sean Leonard’s charactre in the film Dead Poets Society:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. [11]

Most recently I have become enamoured of the Epilogue of what is currently my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free. [12]

Although I would love to write in more depth about his work, I don’t wish to make this post over long, so I’ll have to make it point to explore the Bard a bit more in future posts. In the meantime, I feel I shouldn’t avoid saying something on the subject of Shakespeare and Christian faith. T.S. Eliot noted back in 1927:

There are, of course, a number of other current interpretations of Shakespeare: that is, of the conscious opinions of Shakespeare: interpretations of category, so to speak: which make him either a Tory journalist or a Liberal journalist, or a Socialist journalist (though Mr Shaw has done something to warn off his co-religionists from claiming Shakespeare, or from finding anything uplifting in his work); we have also a Protestant Shakespeare, and a sceptical Shakespeare, and some case may be made out for an Anglo-Catholic, or even a Papist Shakespeare. [13]

Robert Miola, of Loyola College, MD, has written a helpful overview of the religious issue for First Things (here), where he emphasises the evidence that Shakespeare may have been Roman Catholic, but refuses to consider the matter closed. I am intrigued by this. I can’t help but feel, however, that the Protestant/Catholic squabble over who gets to claim him is all rather a moot point. While I am open to the view, quoted by Rowland Cotterill from Stanley Cavell’s Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare, that ‘Religion is Shakespeare’s pervasive, hence invisible, business’, [14] and merely would like to see more evidence for it, [15] in the meantime I tend to find myself in agreement with George Santayana that Shakespeare ‘is remarkable among the greater poets for being without a philosophy and without a religion.’ [16] Santayana certainly finds this somewhat odd, especially in light of the usual claims, mentioned above, for Shakespeare’s universality. He points out that if archaeologists of some future age or distant planet were to try to discern ‘the truest portrait and best memorial of man’ through ‘a conscientious study’ of Shakespeare, they ‘would misconceive our life in one important respect. They would hardly understand that man had had a religion.’ [17]

Interestingly, too, while I cannot condemn Shakespeare for this quite so strongly, I find myself curiously close to the judgement of Tolstoy (whom I can hardly help mentioning at this point!). As Bloom points out, he was the ‘most distinguished resenter of Shakespeare’, [18] believing that the Bard aimed ‘merely at the recreation and amusement of the spectators’, while ‘the teaching of life should be sought for in other sources’. [19] Even C.S. Lewis notes, ‘In all Shakespeare’s works the conception of good really operative—whatever the characters may say—seems to be purely worldly.’ [20]

In conclusion, however, I shall offer the one sonnet which Santayana suggests is a ‘doubtful exception’ to the rule that they ‘are not Christian’: [21]


Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Fooled by these rebel powers that thee array, [22]
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then. [23]

[1] Samuel Johnson, ‘Preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare’, Samuel Johnson, ed. Donald Greene (Oxford: Oxford U, 1990), p. 420.

[2] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books & School of the Ages (NY: Riverhead, 1995), pp. 43, 47.

[3] C.S. Lewis, ‘Private Bates’, Present Concerns, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harvest, 1986), p. 46.

[4] Willard Farnham, ed., Hamlet Prince of Denmark, by William Shakespeare (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), pp. 7-11.

[5] Bloom, p. 49.

[6] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (Garden City, NY: Garden City Books, 1951), p. 180. Keep in mind that Merton had attended Cambridge and Columbia at a time when there were some great men at both universities.

[7] Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953), p. xii.

[8] Ibid., pp. xii, 63.

[9] Ibid., p. 67.

[10] Mark Van Doren, The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren (NY: Harcourt, 1958), p. 186.

[11] The Annotated Shakespeare, Vol. 1, ed. A.L. Rowse (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1978), p. 277.

[12] The Annotated Shakespeare, Vol. III, ed. A.L. Rowse (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1978), p. 907.

[13] T.S. Eliot, ‘Shakespeare & the Stoicism of Seneca’, Selected Essays (London: Faber, 1949), p. 127.

[14] Rowland Cotterill, ‘Shakespeare & Christianity’, The Discerning Reader: Christian Perspectives on Literature & Theory, ed. David Barratt, Roger Pooley, & Leland Ryken (Leicester, UK: Apollos, 1995), p. 174. Despite Harold Bloom’s assertion that Macbeth, for instance, does not ‘yield to Christianization’ (p. 48), I actually found Leland Ryken’s attempt at such a Christianisation in Triumphs of the Imagination: Literature in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979), pp. 128-45, to be halfway persuasive.

Nevertheless, at the moment I certainly wish to go no further than Charles Williams: ‘It has been said that Shakespeare expressed supernatural values in natural terms; it is as far as we ought to go’ (‘Two Brief Essays on Shakespearean Topics’, The Image of the City & Other Essays, ed. Anne Ridler (London: Oxford U, 1970), p. 39.

[15] Indeed, it is intriguing enough to me that I would very much like to get my hands on a copy of Cavell’s book.

[16] George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry & Religion (NY: Harper, 1957), p. 163.

[17] Ibid., p. 147. Of course, part of the reason I am interested in Cavell’s book is that Santayana’s words might well be said too of Lord of the Rings, while Cavell’s words remind me a good deal of what Tolkien himself did say about his magnum opus.

[18] Bloom, p. 53.

[19] Qtd. in ibid., p. 54.

[20] C.S. Lewis, ‘Christianity & Culture’, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1996), p. 184.

[21] Santayana, p. 151.

[22] ‘Fooled by’ being the first reading suggested by Rowse, as well as that followed by Santayana (p. 151).

[23] The Annotated Shakespeare, Vol. II, ed. A.L. Rowse (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1978), pp. 788-9.

22 April 2010

Two Takes on Tolstoy's Excommunication

Much of the drama of the story told in my last two posts (here and here) hinges on the fact that Tolstoy had been very publicly excommunicated by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. The situation is almost humourously referenced in the great writer’s words to the Optina guestmaster, Fr Michael, ‘Perhaps it’s not possible for me [to enter the monastery]; I’m Tolstoy.’ [1]

The story of the excommunication has been told in a ridiculously over-the-top, Dan Brown-fashion by W. Bruce Lincoln in his survey of Russian artistic life, Between Heaven & Hell. First, Lincoln indulges in a dramatic build-up, describing Tolstoy’s ‘prophetic’ denunciations of Church and state and suggesting, ‘Only his immense public stature at home and abroad restrained the authorities from acting against him, but, as the 1880s shaded into the 1890s, no one knew how long Russia’s high churchmen and statesmen could be held in check.’ [2] Then, he portrays the serial publication of Resurrection as a titillating call to rebellion heard with enthusiasm by the entire world, who sensed ‘the stirrings of a titanic confrontation between prophet and Emperor.’ Despite being thoroughly censored, Lincoln tells us, ‘Resurrection remained an intensely powerful work—and one that stirred bitter feelings among the men who led the government and Church it criticized.’ [3] Finally, Lincoln suggests, the sword of Damocles came crashing down on Tolstoy’s head:

On February 24, 1901, the Holy Synod, which had governed the Russian Orthodox Church since the days of Peter the Great, ordered an edict to be posted in every church in the Empire. ‘God has permitted a new false teacher to appear [in the person of] Count Lev Tolstoi,’ the document began. Amonger his many sins, it explained, Tolstoi had tried to destroy the true faith in the minds and hearts of the faithful. He had preached the overthrow of Orthodox dogmas, denied the Holy Trinity, and questioned the virginity of Mary. He had rejected all the sacraments and derided the Holy Eucharist. Therefore, the document concluded, ‘the Church does not beckon [sic] him as its member and cannot so reckon him until he repents and resumes his communion with her.’ In St Petersburg Ilia Repin’s famous portrait of the barefoot ‘Tolstoi at Prayer’ became a national icon and the focus of large demonstrations as the telegraph flashed the news around the world. Most of all, as repressive acts of Church and State so often do, Tolstoi’s excommunication enlarged the forum from which he spoke. The eyes of the world were on Russia, and the seventy-two-year-old author of Resurrection had every intention of rising to the occasion. [4]

Lincoln then quotes Tolstoy’s reply, which despite its high-flown rhetoric and hubristic attempt at fashioning a personal ‘creed’, amounts to no more than a defiant affirmation that the Holy Synod had done the right thing. Lincoln cannot deny that all of the things Tolstoy was excommunicated for were true. Furthermore, it is hard to take Tolstoy seriously, as Lincoln tacitly appears to do, when he says he had ‘escaped’ the Church with much ‘suffering’. [5] The earlier Confession makes his escape sound rather painless, in my opinion.

By way of contrast, consider the evaluation of the same events in Prince Dmitri S. Mirsky’s classic, A History of Russian Literature. After detailing Tolstoy’s activities in attracting disciples, encouraging the shirking of military duty, and agitating on behalf of ‘certain sects of Christian communists and anarchists’, [6] Mirsky concludes:

But Tolstoy himself was unmolested by the government. Only in 1901 the Synod excommunicated him. This act, widely but very unjudiciously resented both at home and abroad, merely registered a matter of common knowledge—that Tolstoy had ceased to be an Orthodox Churchman. [7]

Prince Mirsky is the voice of reason here. [8] Is it an act of ‘repression’ to deny Holy Communion to a man who has denounced and mocked the practice of Holy Communion, or to declare outside the Church a man who applauds himself for having escaped the Church?

[1] Tatiana V. Torstensen, Elder Sebastian of Optina, ed. Vera Koroleva, tr. David Koubek (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1999), p. 78.

[2] W. Bruce Lincoln, Between Heaven & Hell: The Story of a Thousand Years of Artistic Life in Russia (NY: Viking, 1998), p. 184.

[3] Ibid., p. 184.

[4] Ibid., pp. 184-5.

[5] Ibid., p. 185.

[6] Prince Dmitri Svyatopolk Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900, ed. Francis J. Whitfield (NY: Vintage, 1958), pp. 323-4.

[7] Ibid., p. 324.

[8] Incidentally, a reading of Prince Mirsky also places in a comic light Lincoln’s portrayal of the composition of Resurrection as a heroic literary event. Prince Mirsky points out that the novel ‘was written, strange to say, for money’ to fund the Dukhobors, that its ‘moral idea . . . is not organically infused into the fabric’, that its greatest strengths are ‘the minor realistic details he condemned so severely in What is Art?’, and that it contains a ‘gratuitous and [aesthetically] unnecessary’ satire of an Orthodox Church service which ‘can scarcely be qualified otherwise than as a grave lapse from good taste’ (ibid., pp. 319-20). Prince Mirsky concludes that it is ‘Tolstoy at his worst’ (p. 320).

21 April 2010

St Sebastian of Optina on Tolstoy's Last Days, Part 2

Continued from this post.

After his departure from Optina on 29 October 1910, Tolstoy’s next stop was the women’s monastery at Shamordino, which was under the guidance of the Optina Elders and where his sister, Mother Maria, lived. According to Stanton, upon arrival Tolstoy immediately spoke to his sister about his inability to continue living at Yasnaya Polyana and his wife’s suicide attempt. Mother Maria seems to have sympathised with this, concluding that his wife was an unbalanced person. Then, according to Stanton, Tolstoy related ‘his intention to rent a small cottage near Shamordino where he could settle into a life of quiet contemplation until the end of his days’. Apparently he had been thinking about doing something like this prior to the flight as well, having written to ‘a peasant admirer’ just five days earlier asking for help finding a ‘small cottage’ in his village. [1] Stanton speculates that Tolstoy may have been trying to get away from both his wife and his ‘followers’, both of whom were vieing for control over him and his wealth. Stanton writes:

Tolstoy’s letters and diaries reveal occasional impatience with the ‘Tolstoyans’ and in particular with the idea of Tolstoyan colonies. Could the prospect of a simple life in the shadow of Shamordino’s and Optina’s walls have held forth the hope of liberation from the clutches of both of the camps that competed for his love and allegiance? [2]

The evidence is inconclusive, though Stanton is not persuaded that Tolstoy was seeking reconciliation with the Church at this time.

But the idea of staying at Shamordino was abandoned when Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra, a zealous disciple, arrived, ‘bringing news that raised her father’s fear that he would be pursued by his wife and possibly the police’. On the morning of 31 October, they boarded a train south, debarking that afternoon when Tolstoy became sick with fever. For an entire week, Alexandra and the other ‘Tolstoyans’ prevented anyone, including Tolstoy’s wife, from seeing him. St Barsanuphius, the skete superior at Optina, was among those who arrived (on 5 November), only to be denied access. According to Stanton:

Most commentators have portrayed Elder Varsanofii as an emissary of the Holy Synod, commissioned to receive Tolstoy back into the Church on his deathbed. This view has not been documented by any telegrams or letters from the Holy Synod to Optina. Elder Varsanofii, who died in 1912, did not leave any verifiable confirmation or denial of the Synod’s having entrusted him with any duties at Astapovo. Still, the preponderance of circumstantial evidence indicates that Varsanofii’s presence at Astapovo came to assume at least a semi-official character, whatever his original stimulus to go to Tolstoy might have been. [3]

But then Stanton continues:

It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that Varsanofii went to Astapovo in a pastoral role, rather than as a representative of the Holy Synod. Tolstoy, it could be argued, had made an overture to the Church in having visited Optina just several days past—and this without any prompting by the Synod. Nor is it difficult to entertain the possibility that someone at Astapovo, or even Mariia Nikolaevna at Shamordino, might have sent a message to Optina requesting an elder be sent. The Tolstoyans at Astapovo, and Aleksandra in particular, were genuinely concerned to shelter Tolstoy from any conversations he might have found stressful or unpleasant; that is why his wife and sons were barred until the last few minutes before his death. Moreover, the Tolstoyans clearly had an interest in preventing any reconciliation between their hero and the Orthodox Church, and they made sure that Tolstoy had no chance to give Varsanofii either a deathbed testimony of conversion or even a word of repentance. Finally, after the dust of the events had settled, it would also be in the interest of the more cynical of the Tolstoyans to obscure, if possible, the true nature of Varsanofii’s visit to Tolstoy at Astapovo, if his mission was truly pastoral. [4]

Now, apart from the debatability of the notion that St Barsanuphius was either sent by the Synod, or came out of pastoral concern, but both could not have been true simultaneously, this account is still rather incomplete. True, Stanton adds a lengthy endnote mentioning the views on the matter of Prof. Ivan M. Kontsevich, who, in Optina Pustyn’ i eia vremia, offers testimony from a couple of other sources that St Barsanuphius had been summoned by a telegram from Astapovo [presumably sent by Tolstoy himself] requesting an Elder, and that a report that the Elder was sent by the Holy Synod had been deliberately falsified. Concerning Kontsevich’s account, Stanton writes:

Although Kontsevich’s coloration of his reprise of the events at Astapovo is highly speculative, it is not altogether implausible. It is consisten with the minority view that Tolstoy’s appearance at Optina in October 1910 resulted from more than an accidental decision made in the haste of his flight. [5]

But let us now consider St Sebastian’s testimony, which because of their separation by the Iron Curtain, even Kontsevich would not likely have known. St Sebastian takes up the story after Tolstoy’s departure from Optina:

Later there was a message to the Elder [Joseph] from Tolstoy’s sister, the Nun Maria, that he had left her from Shamordino. Then from the Astapovo railroad station a telegram arrived for us concerning the illness of Leo Nikolaevich in which, in his name, the Elder was asked to come to him. Fr Barsanuphius immediately left, but those who surrounded Tolstoy would not let him see Leo Nikolaevich. Fr Barsanuphius passed a letter in to his daughter Alexandra.

He wrote to her that ‘it was, in fact, the will of your father that I come.’ All the same, they didn’t let him in. Nor would they allow Tolstoy’s wife Sofia Andreyevna. She had come in her own train-carriage and lived at the station in it. This was a very difficult experience for Fr Barsanuphius; he returned nearly ill and always became upset when he recalled it. And he said, ‘Though he was a lion [alluding to Tolstoy’s Christian name], yet he could not break the chains. It’s a pity, a great pity.’ Elder Joseph also felt deeply sorry for him.

Fr Barsanuphius said that it was not true that someone had sent him. ‘It was solely because of the desire of Leo Nikolaevich himself that I went to Astapovo,’ he affirmed. [6]

Although Mother Maria did not think Tolstoy had gone to Optina with the intention of returning to the Church, this does not mean that he didn’t either change his mind when finally facing the prospect of death, or at least desire something short of full reconciliation—perhaps even just some kind of prayer or reassurance. it seems to me that if Ss Barsanuphius and Sebastian say that there was a telegram from Astapovo, then they are to be believed over those who had motives, including mercenary ones, to lie about the issue. Prof. Kontsevich reports the testimony of Sergei Morevich, a ‘buffet attendant at Astapovo’. As Morevich apparently told it, ‘The fact of Tolstoy’s having visited Optina Pustyn and the summoning of the elder was like a bomb exploding in the Tolstoyan circle, which couldn’t withstand the blow and fell to pieces.’ [7]

[1] Leonard Stanton, The Optina Pustyn Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination: Iconic Vision in Works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, & Others (NY: Peter Lang, 1995), p. 211.

[2] Ibid., p. 213.

[3] Ibid., pp. 213-4.

[4] Ibid., p. 214.

[5] Ibid., p. 227, n. 23.

[6] Tatiana V. Torstensen, Elder Sebastian of Optina, ed. Vera Koroleva, tr. David Koubek (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1999), pp. 79-80.

[7] Stanton, p. 227, n. 23.