27 June 2009

The Mystery & Meaning of the Battle of Kosovo

It is unfortunate that the traditional understanding of the Battle of Kosovo among the Serbs and the whole cult of St Lazar (expressed in the Kosovo poem quoted in my earlier post) has today come under attack in the irreligious, liberal West. It is commonly described as a sort of ‘national myth’ supposedly used to somehow justify militant nationalism and even genocide (of which the Serbs are supposed to be inveterate perpetrators). Of course, there is no denying that Romantic nationalism—which was to have its ugliest flower in Nazism—has more or less effected all of the European nations, and has thus come to play a rôle in many Serbs’ memory of their nation’s past. But it is surely obvious that such nationalism is in direct contradiction to the lessons of Kosovo itself! In his ‘Life of the Holy and Great Martyr Tsar Lazar of Serbia’ (The Mystery and Meaning of the Battle of Kosovo: Selected Writings of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich and Archimandrite Justin Popovich, trans. Fr Todor Mika and Fr Stevan Scott, Vol. 3 in A Treasury of Serbian Orthodox Spirituality [Grayslake, IL: Free Serbian Orthodox Diocese of the USA and Canada, 1989], pp. 1-44), Fr Justin (Popović) of Chelje writes:

Saint Sava’s ideal and plan for his whole nation was: ‘Give up everything for Christ, but Christ for nothing.’ No one has ever realized this ideal and plan to such a full extent as the holy and great martyr, Tsar Lazar. He brought it about for his whole nation when he decided in favor of the Heavenly Kingdom and offered up himself as a sacrifice on the field of Kosovo, together with the whole Serbian people. He did this from the purely evangelic reasons recorded in our folk epic: ‘The earthly kingdom lasts only for a brief time, / But the heavenly kingdom always and forever.’ (p. 2)

Although he interprets the poems’ view of things in terms of a rather pagan tragedy as opposed to the ‘Evangel’, Charles Simic perceptively observes in his Preface to the Kosovo Cycle, ‘In the eyes of the universe, the poems tell us, the most cherished tribal ambitions are nothing. Even the idea of statehood is tragic.’ Furthermore, for all of the problems with the lessons she draws from the Battle of Kosovo, Dame Rebecca West staunchly defends the simple ‘nationalism’ of the Serb peasants in a moving passage of her classic travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia (NY: Viking, 1943). When two little boys speak to her of ‘the glorious ancient Serbian Empire, of its shameful destruction by the Turks at Kossovo, of the agonizing captivity that lasted five centuries, of the liberation offered through courage by the Serbian people, and the founding of Yugoslavia, that should be as glorious as ancient Serbia’, and begin to sing a song about Vidovdan, she writes:

The little boys looked noble and devout as they recited. Here was the nationalism which the intellectuals of my age agreed to consider a vice and the origin of the world’s misfortunes. I cannot imagine why. . . . There is not the smallest reason for confounding nationalism, which is the desire of a people to be itself, with imperialism, which is the desire of a people to prevent other peoples from being themselves. (p. 842-3)

But even if one holds, as I do, that the Romantic movement in a sense ‘contaminated’ the natural, traditional ‘nationalisms’ of Europe, how can one possibly find such a contamination in the Kosovo Cycle itself? The kingdoms of this world fall and pass away, but the Heavenly Kingdom is eternal (a point Fr Milovan Katanić has touched on in a recent post). What could be less ‘nationalistic’ than that?

HT to Fr Milovan for this awesome icon!


Anonymous said...

Aaron, Just about to leave a comment and then see I've been quoted at the end of your post. Good posts by the way.

In a more perfect world one would think the Battle of Kosovo would be viewed as the world's first war on terror.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you, Father! It's very affirming to be appreciated by a Serb when one writes on Kosovo.

It was indeed a war on terror, and it's ridiculous that even the Neocons don't see it that way.

Mel said...

Brilliant and beautiful. Thank you for that!

Aaron Taylor said...

Thank you for your kind words. I pray you had a blessed Vidovdan this year!

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.