18 January 2009

Like a Pelican in the Wilderness

Back when I lived in Greece and had more leisure time than even I knew what to do with, I started keeping a ‘Bibliotheca’ in imitation of St Photios the Great. Of course, while his was a ‘beautiful and rich volume’ in the words of Bl Justin of Chelje (‘The Life of St Photios’, trans. Ronald Wertz, On the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, by St Photios the Great [Studion, 1983], p. 36), mine is a poor thing, mainly written to increase my own sense of accomplishment upon completing books. It has occurred to me, however, that a few of the resulting reviews might, with some revision, constitute suitable material for blog posts. Keep in mind, though, dear reader, that they were written for a very different purpose, and thus exemplify a very different approach to discussing books, than has become customary for me on this blog.

My reviews cover an extremely wide range of subjects and genres, and because of this extreme diversity it took some hard pondering to select the first one to revise and post. For this reason I’d like to ask that anyone who happens to read this—and particularly my more dedicated readers, those familiar with my strengths and weaknesses—please take a moment to comment with your own suggestions for the sort of books you’d most like to see me review.

So without further ado, I give you my review of Like a Pelican in the Wilderness: Reflections on the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, by Stelios Ramfos, trans. Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 2000), slightly revised for public consumption. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that to do real justice to it and at the same time not lose readers for the length of my post, this will have to be a two-parter!

First of all, it has to be said that I despise the design of this book’s cover. The black and white photo of the Coptic bas-relief of a ‘Bearded Saint’ is nice, and definitely apropos, however, the orange frame which surrounds it and the title font combine to make this one of the ugliest Orthodox books I’ve seen (although it is surpassed by nearly the entire Light & Life catalogue).

Fortunately, the inside, both in looks and content, is much better. It is a published version of twenty-three lectures on the Gerontikon (the Alphabetical ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’) given by Ramfos at Psychikon College in Athens, translated and abridged by the Anglican scholar, Norman Russell. Most of the lectures deal with themes, i.e., ‘the cell’, ‘ascetic praxis’, ‘obedience’, and ‘silence’; however, Ramfos concentrates intermittently on specific figures from the Gerontikon, such as St Anthony the Great or St Arsenios.

Partly because I wanted to have it to use for quoting the book in the context of my Greek academic writing, and partly because I was fascinated and, indeed, enchanted with its hefty size and seriously scholarly-looking design (complete with uncut pages), I purchased the original Greek edition (Πελεκάνοι Ερημικοί—Ξενάγησι στο Γεροντικόν [Athens: Armos, 1994]) at the delightful ‘Armos’ bookshop near Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. (I can’t find an image of it online, but here is an image of the identically designed and intriguingly entitled Μεταφυσική του Κάλλους, also by Ramfos.) In the course of comparing the two to find a particular passage I was looking for, I discovered, for the first time, what had been plainly proclaimed on the title page of the English edition: it was abridged. The following chapters are missing altogether from Russell’s translation:

Το μέτρον και το έσχατον
Η ασκητική εποποιία
Φόβος Θεού
Ψυχολογία και Χάρις

Two chapters—‘Η αγία αγάπη’ and ‘Η τρισήλιος ανθρωπότης’—seem to have been abridged and collated into one new chapter, ‘Love and the New Humanity’. Unfortunately, I have not had time to determine exactly what all is missing from those chapters. I should add, too, that while I am no expert at Modern Greek, even still Ramfos’s prose strikes me as unusually difficult and complicated. Maybe if I’d had a few more years in Thessaloniki it would be much easier!

Well, that’s it for now! Having now covered a few of the preliminaries, I will delve a bit more into the actual content of the book in part two of this post.


Anonymous said...


I eagerly await part two of this review. Thus far, I am in substantial agreement with you re: Ramfos' vocabulary?/style?- Whatever it is, there are portions of this book that I find to be frankly impenetrable. I was not quite ready to chalk it up to the translator's fault, as it seems that Norman Russell's translations are usually pretty clear. Which brings me to perhaps an unrelated concern, but one which I thought perhaps you might be able to shed some light on, and that is the influence of late modern/'post-modern'/'continental' philosophical discourse in Greek academia, particularly with reference to theology. It seems to a moron such as myself as though every (Western) philosopher following in the wake of Hegel attempted to outdo the other in precisely this capacity- to rarify the discourse to such an extent that all but the true initiates- even those with a moderate grasp of conventional motifs in western thought- are left in the cold. I notice, for instance, Ramfos' admitted indebtedness to Max Scheler, Levinas, and Ricoeur , and I am left wondering if perhaps this may explain a great deal of the obscurity of the language?
- I guess I just find it a little strange- I wouldn't go so far as to say out of place- in a book about the desert fathers, and hence the asceticism of the Church, but Iacking the context/ audience of these lectures I guess I'm probably missing something.
The same way I find it strange to find references to Martin Heidegger in Met. Hierotheos' works- I just find myself asking: 'is this relevant to the topic at hand? or-again- am I missing something?'

Forgive my rambling. Any insights would be welcome. In Christ, Symeon

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, I'm no expert on this topic, but I'd certainly say Ramfos's prose (and that of one or two other Greek writers I've come across) has been influenced by that of Continental philosophy. But even when a clearer style is preserved, as, I believe, it is for example by George Mantzarides, there is perhaps a greater tendency than American Orthodox would expect for a writer to refer to and dialogue with Continental philosophers. My impression is that it's usually because that's the context they've worked in as grad students (many of them seem to do some sort of grad school in France or Germany), and because that's the sort of discourse going on around them in the university in Greece.

Of course, Ramfos is a slightly different case because he's not a theologian at all, but a philosopher, and while I don't know anything about Psychikon College, I surmise on the general basis of his tone that he's addressing an audience, not of pious Orthodox or theology students, but of intellectual, philosophy-types who've also been heavily influenced by the Continental stuff. I don't think this bothered me TOO much in the English edition of Ramfos because I was really accustomed to reading such things as an undergraduate (whether or not I understood them!), and Ricoeur (not to mention Derrida) makes Ramfos seem pretty simple. Also, it helps that Ramfos is constantly grounded in the apophthegmata themselves. There's always some concrete, real-world illustration to fall back on even if you don't get the author's po-mo-speak!

It does become a real problem in the Greek, however, because my vocabulary is often woefully inadequate. This, coupled with the tortured syntax of some of the more 'Continental'-type prose, makes for some very tough reading. Of course, those whose Modern Greek is better than mine will probably just say, 'What's he whining about?!'