06 June 2012

Papadiamandis's 'All Too Human Habits'

My apologies for the lengthy hiatus. Now that we’ve got a new wi-fi router at home, I’m hoping I’ll be able to start posting once or twice a week over the summer. My first order of business is to fulfill a promise I made here, and offer a brief post on the renowned Greek writer, Alexandros Papadiamandis.

Amid the rising current interest in Papadiamandis among Anglophone readers—particularly converts to Orthodoxy—which began with the publication of The Boundless Garden, I recalled something I came across some time ago that doesn’t seem to come up much in what I’ve seen about the Skiathan in English or in Greek (the latter being mostly a few brief essays by my graduate advisor, Anestis Keselopoulos [1]). In the short ‘Biographical Note’ prefacing The Boundless Garden, I note the following observation: ‘He relieved the incredible strain he subjected himself to by frequenting wine shops and chain-smoking but these all too human habits did not prevent him from regularly attending church services in which he acted as chanter and beadle.’ [2]

Now, it’s odd that ‘frequenting wine shops and chain-smoking’ might be thought to ‘prevent him from regularly attending church’, but contrast the relatively tame wording and tone of this statement with some comments from George Pappageotes’s The Story of Modern Greek Literature that I came across years ago:

Although he was better off now, he continued to dress in old clothes and frequent the taverns in the poor districts of Athens. There is an anecdote of a banker who took him for a beggar. His drinking companion of this period was the monk Nephon who had come from Agion Oros.

After the death of his friend, Nephon, he had become a solitary drinker. His brother’s death in 1904, his sickness and his alcoholism made him more unsociable than before. [3]

Perhaps Pappageotes is exaggerating, perhaps he’s repeating gossip, or perhaps he’s engaging in the kind of psychological diagnoses biographers seem to enjoy and hasn’t really understood Papadiamandis. It doesn’t really matter.

My point is that while I am perfectly willing to accept that drunkard or not Papadiamandis was not only a great writer but also a fairly saintly man (the ‘alcoholism’ label notwithstanding, Pappageotes even entitles his chapter on the Skiathan, ‘The Lay Monk’), I have a sneaking suspicion that many American Christians—including Orthodox converts—will be troubled by this. I can’t help but recall various comments or even tones of voice in which I’ve heard it implied, among a certain crowd, that if a body can’t ‘get their life together’ there must be something deficient in a body’s Christianity. I think it’s pretty clear that whatever the truth is about Papadiamandis’s ‘alcoholism’, he certainly never ‘got his life together’. If that makes certain people uncomfortable, I find it comforting. I’m not sure that I’ll ever entirely have my own life together.

All of this reminds me of my favourite passage from Brideshead Revisited, which came as something of a revelation when I first read it and has come to my aid on a number of occasions since. When the protagonist, Charles Ryder, learns from his old friend Sebastian’s young sister that her brother is an alcoholic living in a monastery in North Africa (he is a ‘lay brother’, much like Papadiamandis the ‘Lay Monk’!), we read the following exchange:

‘Poor Sebastian!’ I said. ‘It’s too pitiful. How will it end?’

‘I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He’ll live on, half in, half out of the community, a familiar figure pottering round with his broom and his bunch of keys. He’ll be a great favourite with the old fathers, something of a joke to the novices. Everyone will know about his drinking; he’ll disappear for two or three days every month or so, and they’ll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, “Old Sebastian’s on the spree again,” and then he’ll come back disheveled and shamefaced and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. He’ll probably have little hiding places about the garden where he keeps a bottle and takes a swig now and then on the sly….If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Hope of their student days, and remember him in their masses. He’ll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he’ll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he’s expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.’

I thought of the joyful youth with the Teddy-bear under the flowering chestnuts. ‘It’s not what one would have foretold,’ I said. ‘I suppose he doesn’t suffer?’

‘Oh, yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he is—no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him….’ [4]

The atheist Ryder feels keenly that Sebastian’s is a ‘wasted life’, and regrets his friend’s not being able to ‘get it together’. The pious Cordelia, however, thinks that any life that brings one closer to God’s grace is not wasted at all, whatever loss of material success, loss of dignity, or even real suffering one may undergo on this earth.

The irony is that many American Christians seem closer to Ryder’s attitude than to Cordelia’s. ‘God has a plan for me’ we think, and of course He does, but God’s plan is for our salvation, which may or may not include marriage, children, a nice job, etc. Whether or not our problems are as socially stigmatized as Sebastian’s, it is more than likely that the majority of us will continue to struggle with the same sordid sins right up till our dying day. We shall have need to recall a saying of Abbas Sisoes:

A brother asked Abbas Sisoes, ‘What shall I do, abba, for I have fallen?’ The old man said to him, ‘Get up again.’ The brother said, ‘I have got up again, but I have fallen again.’ The old man said, ‘Get up again and again.’ So then the brother said, ‘How many times?’ The old man said, ‘Until you are taken up either in virtue or in sin. For a man presents himself to judgement in the state in which he is found.’ [5]

If we recall this for ourselves, and if we don’t think harshly or, God forbid, pityingly or patronisingly about others’ attempts to ‘get up again’, perhaps we too will be fortunate enough to hear the words Marmeladov expects:

‘…And when He has finished with everyone, then He will say unto us, too, “You, too, come forth!” He will say. “Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!” And we will all come forth, without being ashamed, and stand there….And the wise and the reasonable [and perhaps, the respectable?] will say unto Him, “Lord, why do you receive such as these?” And He will say, “I receive them, my wise and reasonable ones, forasmuch as not one of them considered himself worthy of this things…”...' [6]

Addendum: For all those interested in more about Papadiamandis, I recommend following the blog Papa-Pantelis Blessing the Whorehouse (the title is based on one of the Skiathan writer’s short stories: ‘The Whorehouse’). There’s also this old post that I did back in 2009.

[1] These are contained in a collection of his papers on literary figures: Anestis Keselopoulos, Apo ton Papadiamandi ston Pentziki (Thessaloniki: To Palimpsiston, 2003), pp. 15-163. Dr Keselopoulos is of course most well known outside of Greece for his full-length monograph on Papadiamandis, recently translated by my good friend, Herman Middleton: Greece’s Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamandis (Protecting Veil 2011).

[2] Kamperidis, Fr Lambros, & Denise Harvey, ‘Biographical Note’, The Boundless Garden, by Alexandros Papadiamandis, ed. Fr Lambros Kamperidis & Denise Harvey (Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2007), p. xi.

[3] Pappageotes, George C., The Story of Modern Greek Literature: From the 10th Century to the Present (NY: Athens, 1972), pp. 169-70.

[4] Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1945), pp. 308-9.

[5] This saying is Sisoes 38 in the Gerontikon, Benedicta Ward, tr., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), pp. 219-20; Hypothesis 1.D5 in the Evergetinos, The Evergetinos, A Complete Text: Book I, ed. & tr. Archbishop Chrysostomos, Bishop Auxentios, et al. (Etna, CA: Center for Traditonalist Orthodox Studies, 2008), p. 6. I have taken the above translation from Ward.

[6] Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Crime & Punishment, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Knopf, 1993), p. 23.


John said...


aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, John! Just some thoughts I had...

John said...

Excellent post! Pappadiamandis is always good, and I appreciate the tie-in to BR. The danger for us is that I think we instinctively react in the same manner as Ryder did, with all our foolish notions about "success."

love the girls said...

"The irony is that many American Catholics (sic) seem closer to Ryder’s attitude than to Cordelia’s."

Unfortunate, but true.

KK Icons said...

Do you remember when Elder Porphyry blessed the whorehouse? I haven't read Papadiamantis's works, but he was in church with some saints, wasn't he? He didn't judge them. Having been raised by a mean drunk, I forget there were repentant ones, too. Among both types there are loved ones, that people make excuses for, and cover for. Those kinds of people that waste way too much of their lives in a bar, but still manage to create something, like Dostoevsky, who nailed an Orthodox saint in a novel (I would love to find others) are pretty hard on themselves, deep down. I hope it isn't an excuse for anyone to be the artist in the bar, as they are absent and leave the rest of us who love them a gap we have to cover somehow. It could happen to any of us artists. It's a hard life. It tends to be part of the mystique for some young artists, almost a cultural expectation of the crazy artist who can't fit in, and who is in such pain that he turns to drink. Walker Percy mentioned a difficulty in fitting back into life, "reentry," from the transcendence of writing novels, that caused some artists, such as Faulkner, to turn to drink. Walker Percy-- walked. Even my grandpa met him in the neighborhood on his walks, and thought he was a great guy.

Aaron Taylor said...

KK> Know, I don't remember that in Elder Porphyry. I'd have to look through the book.

Yes, Papadiamandis chanted in the church where St Nicholas Planas served in Athens. I don't recall other Saints at that parish, but the Skiathan certainly knew his share of them, known or unknown.

Aaron Taylor said...

I just found a post relevant to this topic, which Fr Milovan reposted from John Sanidopoulos: http://frmilovan.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/the-alcoholic-monk/

A great Elder Paisios story!