04 July 2012

Unexpected Communists in Books

The John Masefield collection I acquired Saturday at the McKay bookshop in Tennessee features a delightful little preface by the poet himself. Among other things, Masefield tells an interesting anecdote about one of his early influences, Pre-Raphaelite poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909): 

...Afterwards, while I was still playing with words and measures, I met with the work of A.C. Swinburne. Like most young writers of ath time I at once succumbed to his talent. He could do easily and supremely all those tricks with words and measures which the young craftsman longed to be able to perform. In my enthusiasm for him I paid pilgrimages to Putney and watched outside ‘The Pines’ until the little figure of the Master appeared and went trotting up the hill. 
I never spoke with him. A few years later, when he had ceased to seem the miraculous Master of the art, it was my fortune for many days together to sit at the same table with him in the reading-room of the British Museum. He was then very old, frail, and deaf. The magnificent head was all that remained of the prophet and seer; the rest was a little shrunken stalk. The late Mr Watts-Dunton [critic and poet who rescued Swinburne from alcoholism] used to bring him there, see him to his chair, and order his books for him; he would then bellow in his ear that he would return at one o’clock and take him out to lunch. This message had to be repeated several times before the old man could grasp it, and by that time the reading-room was aroused. Grave heads from every table turned to watch. Presently, after Mr Watts-Dunton had gone, Swinburne would turn to his books. I know not what they were, but imagine that they were of a merry impropriety, for the old man used to roar with laughter over them and, being deaf, never knew what disturbance he was causing. An Anglican Bishop and an Abbot of the Roman Church haunted the same table, and from time to time in that room a little, smiling, erect, cynical man, with a face which none could forget, would pass. This was Lenin, then studying, I believe, the psychology of revolution. [1] 
The collection of personalities at the British Museum at any given time is positively staggering. One wonders who the Bishop and Abbot might have been. But the big surprise of course was Lenin. Not that I’d never heard of him visiting London or the library (on which visits there is an interesting article here), but simply because Masefield and Swinburne, especially when followed swiftly by clerics bearing mediaeval titles, don’t naturally lead one to expect the next figure to be the leader of the Russian Revolution.

But this was not my only encounter with communism this week. Looking through Fr John Romanides’s Patristic Theology during the work on my last post, I came across once again the Greek theologian’s interesting comments about communism there. In a lecture entitled ‘Metaphysics & Empiricism’, he writes:

Today all the Marxists who live in Greece are empiricists. Of course, they do not realize this, because Greek ideological Marxists are not familiar with the Marxist family tree like their counterparts in Europe and America are. Overe here they just mechanically memorize their lessons in Marxism like a Jehovah’s Witness would. 

I think it is a real tragedy—and I am not talking about a tragedy fo Aeschylus, but about something shameful [Trans. note—‘Here, Father John is making a play on the words Aischylos and aischos.’]—that there are not any intellectually compelling Marxists in Greece. OF course, their absence is a windfall for the police, the political Right, and Modern Greek theologians, but it is a misfortune for the pursuit of the truth. Marxism started out with principles taken from experience and ended up where it ended up. From a scholarly point of view, Marxism and Patristic theology share the same foundation, so that if Marxists and Patristic theologians would come together, they would be able to communicate with each other. 

Although it is true that Marxism came into conflict with religion, we need to ask ourselves, with what kind of religion did it come into conflict? It did not come into conflict with revelation, but with religion that is identified with metaphysics.... [2] 
Make of that what you will. Although they have much nostalgia for Byzantium, in my experience, Greeks seem to remember so strongly the tyranny of the Turkish Yoke, followed by the tyranny of the German kings imposed on the country after the Revolution in 1832, followed later by the Military Junta in 1967-1974, that even devoutly Orthodox Greeks are much more sympathetic to leftist politics than their counterparts have been in, say, Russia.

It is of course ironic, though I do not plan it this way, that I have posted this on the Fourth of July. On one level, there are those who would argue that communism is unpatriotic, and they are probably right. But on another level, there is the fact that today Americans are celebrating a Revolution. True, the American Revolution was not as radical as those traditionally advocated by communism, but still I fancy I see some irony in the fact that many who would condemn communist revolution will nevertheless celebrate a violent rebellion against a traditional government in order to end oppression and set up a new and experimental form of government.

[1] John Masefield, ‘Preface’, Poems (NY: Macmillan, 1941), pp. v-vi.

[2] Protopresbyter John S. Romanides, Patristic Theology: The University Lectures of Fr John Romanides, tr. Hieromonk Alexios (Trader), ed. Monk Damaskinos Agioreitis (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain, 2008), pp. 178-9.


Andrew said...


interesting thoughts. The only nit I want to pick is one phrase in the last sentence. The Americans were not, i would argue, rebelling against "a traditional government" but one which was itself abandoning the traditions that the colonists had come to live by. The radical, it can be argued, was George III and his parliament.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thanks for the comment, Andrew. I wasn't sure if anyone would even bother with this one!

I think you might be right to say that the King was abandoning certain traditions, but I think it's still true in essence to describe the British government as a 'traditional' one. In other words, the institution of the British monarchy was one that dated back--whatever quarrels one might raise about the accession of the Tudor dynasty or William of Orange--essentially to the Norman Conquest. The American Revolution, rightly or wrongly, was a rebellion against a government that had been in place for 700 years, replacing it with a government that, however much it looked back, say, to Greco-Roman traditions, was essentially a 'new-fangled' thing.

I think most Americans, at least, would see it that way and would say that that was a good thing. I doubt many but a few cranky paleo-conservatives, traditionalists, and other such oddballs (among I count you and I) would even be interested in describing American life in terms of 'tradition' rather than in terms of 'innovation'. ;-)

Aaron Taylor said...

That should be 'among whom I count you and I'. Actually, it should probably be 'you and myself'!

janotec said...

What an intriguing meeting: Swinburne and Lenin ... especially at a moment when Swinburne had become a lot more amenable to respectable sensibilities than he was before. Would Lenin have liked the guy who wrote the Sapphics?

Anyhow, Fr. Romanides (whom I admire greatly) was never afraid to say sibboleth when everyone else says shibboleth.

Aaron Taylor said...

Fr Jonathan> I don't know enough about either Swinburne or Lenin to say for certain, but I would have thought that while Lenin had no love for bourgeois respectability, he would have thought the young, 'shocking' Swinburne to have been a decadent bourgeois, made no less so by his pose of rebellion and bohemianism. The real revolutionaries seemed to have an intensity and almost an asceticism that would have seen Swinburne's poetry as a dissipation of his strength and resources when there were proletarian masses to be saved.

You are quite right about Fr Romanides. Whatever criticisms of him you want to make, he cared nothing for academic or ecclesiastical opinion, eh? I was just reading an article of last year from Fr Nicholas Loudovikos, where he writes of his former teacher:

'What was remarkable in Romanides was, in my view, his proposal for an empirical ascetic envolvement to theology, aiming at bridging the gap between living Orthodox spiritual life and academic theology. I think that, as far as this is concerned, his oeuvre will remain as a sort of living prophetic heritage for the next generations.'

However, Fr Nicholas also criticises him for 'his "spiritual" method, which left aside not only the sacraments but also such things as human thought and culture'.

Aaron Taylor said...

Apropos of the cordial disagreement between Andrew and myself above, I just read this article: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/repository/was-there-an-american-revolution/

I thought it was pretty well argued, and if I read it correctly, it seems to support my characterisation of the American Revolution.

Aaron Taylor said...

Of course, I should point out that the author of the above article is also concerned to acknowledge and explain the differences between the American Revolution and other upheavals that have gone by that name.