28 July 2010

Auctoritas in Hugh's Didascalicon

Per Joseph Patterson’s recommendation, I bought (for less than $6!) and am now reading Ivan Illich’s fascinating In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. Though I am already nearly finished, I couldn’t resist the urge to go back to the very first chapter for a brief post. There, Illich discusses the first sentence of the Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor: Omnium expetendorum prima est sapientia, in qua perfecti boni forma consisti. In Jerome Taylor’s translation, which Illich calls ‘a masterpiece’, this is rendered, ‘Of all things to be sought, the first is that Wisdom in which the Form of the Perfect Good stands fixed.’ [1]

First, Illich points out, ‘By connecting wisdom with “the form of the perfect good”, [Hugh] signifies that he accepts the meaning of Varro’s definition [of the good], but as it was received and changed and handed on by Augustine.’ [2] But of course, the statement itself comes most immediately from Boethius, ‘who subtly but significantly modified Augustine’. [3] So in De consolatione philosophiæ III.10 we read, Omnium igitur expetendorum summa atque causa bonum est, [4] which Illich quotes as, ‘Of all things to be sought the first and the reason why all others [sic] things are pursued is the Good . . .’ [5]

But the most interesting bit to me was at the end of this section on the opening sentence, where Illich introduces the mediæval idea of auctoritas. He writes:

For the contemporary reader the incipit was immediately recognized as an auctoritas, a sentence worthy of repetition. When Cerimon the Lord of Ephesus in Shakespeare’s Pericles ‘by turning o’er authorities’ has ‘built such strong renown as time shall ne’er decay’ (Pericles, act 3, sc. 2, lines 33, 48), he does not say that he had subverted established power, nor that he had consulted weighty authors, but that reflecting on a number of authoritative sentences he had established his reputation of mighty wisdom. Authorities, in this now obsolete sense, are sentences which created precedents and defined reality. When Hugh picks this auctoritas as his keynote, he does not appeal to Boethius for his prestige. The sentence states an obvious truth precisely because it had been disembedded from the discourse of this or that particular author; it had become a free-floating statement. As such a verbal institution, the auctoritas quoted by Hugh became an exemplary testimony to untouchable tradition. [6]

It may not be that they disagree entirely, but I find Illich’s focus on the notion of auctoritas a significant difference from C.S. Lewis’s references to the notion of the auctour in The Discarded Image. Lewis speaks of ‘the overwhelmingly bookish or clerkly character of medieval culture’, calling the Middle Ages ‘the age of authorities’, and noting, ‘Every writer, if he possibly can, bases himself on an earlier writer, follows an auctour: preferably a Latin one.’ [7] Lewis in this passage certainly seems to be speaking of ‘weighty authors’ and not ‘authoritative sentences’, and certainly, as an illustration of the ‘bookish or clerkly character of medieval culture’, it is far from Illich indeed. A significant part of the latter’s thesis is that what he calls ‘the new clerical culture’ was a rather late development (mid-1100’s) and it seems that the shift of focus from words to their authors could be part of that development. [8] Perhaps when Lewis speaks of ‘medieval culture’ he really means, or is speaking more truly of, late mediæval culture.

But at any rate, I find the idea of ‘authoritative sentences’ serving as ‘exemplary testimony to untouchable tradition’ a fascinating one which seems to demonstrate the continuity of the earlier part of the Western Middle Ages with the culture of the Desert Fathers (as described, for instance, in Douglas Burton-Christie’s The Word in the Desert).

[1] Jerome Taylor, tr., The Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts (NY: Columbia, 1991), p. 46.

[2] Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996), p. 9.

[3] Illich, p. 12.

[4] Boethius, Tractates, The Consolation of Philosophy, tr. H.F. Stewart, E.K. Rand, & S.J. Tester (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 2003), p. 282.

[5] Illich, p. 12.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), p. 5.

[8] Illich, p. 84.

25 July 2010

Newman on the Saints

Logismoi has long been a particularly hagiocentric blog, and the figure of the Saint in the Tradition of the Church, in scholarship, and in literature at the centre of my concerns. Thus, I offer a brief selection on the Saints from the great John Henry Newman as a short little Sunday post:

The Saints are the glad and complete specimens of the new creation which our Lord brought into the moral world, and as ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’ as Creator, [1] so are the Saints the proper and true evidence of the God of Christianity, and tell out into all lands the power and grace of Him who made them. [2] What the existence of the Church itself is to the learned and philosophical, such are the Saints to the multitude. They are the popular evidence of Christianity, and the most complete and logical evidence while the most popular. It requires time and learning, the powers of attention and logical consecutiveness, and comprehensiveness, to survey the Church of all ages and places as one, and to recognize it, as to the intellect, it is, and must be distinctly recognized, as the work of God alone; to most of us it is the separate portions and in one sense incomplete of this great phenomenon which turn our minds to Catholicism; but in the life of a Saint, we have a microcosm, or whole work of God, a perfect work from beginning to end, yet one which may be bound between two boards, and mastered by the most unlearned. The exhibition of a person, his thoughts, his words, his acts, his trials, his fortunes, his beginnings, his growth, his end, have a charm to every one, and when he is a Saint they have a Divine influence and persuasion, a power of exercising and eliciting the latent elements of Divine grace in individual readers, as no other reading can claim. [3]

I’m not entirely certain of the implications of Newman’s observation, ‘What the existence of the Church itself is to the learned and philosophical, such are the Saints to the multitude’, though he seems to be trying to explain it in the next couple of sentences. But I thought this a good description of the power of the Saints’ Lives. It is not for nothing that Newman was considered ‘the most eminent religious thinker in the British Isles’ of his time. [4]

[1] Psalm 18:1 (LXX).

[2] It is interesting to note that verse 5 of Psalm 18 (LXX), to which Newman alludes in the last part of this sentence, is used as a Prokeimenon text on the feasts of certain Saints in the Orthodox Church.

[3] Vincent Ferrer Blehl, ed., The Essential Newman (NY: New American Library, 1963), pp. 334-5.

[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity & Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen, 1992-1993) (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1993), p. 5.

23 July 2010

'The Largest & Most Lightsome Jewel'—St Benedict of Nursia

Today, 11 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Benedict of Nursia (480-547), Father of Western Monasticism. (See the opening paragraph of this post for an explanation of the date.) In the words of Frederick Artz, ‘Benedict is by no means the founder of monasticism, but he is its great legislator and is easily the most important figure in the monasticism of the West.’ [1] Alban Butler writes:

Being chosen by God, like another Moses, to conduct faithful souls into the true promised land, the kingdom of heaven, he was enriched with eminent supernatural gifts, even those of miracles and prophecy. He seemed like another Eliseus, endued by God with an extraordinary power, commanding all nature, and, like the ancient prophets, foreseeing future events. [2]

Finally, according to Basil Hume, OSB, ‘St Benedict, like all great saints of every age and culture, can still speak to us today, for his life and teaching are an illustration and an expression of the principles and doctrines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ [3]

I have posted extensively on St Benedict before (see the ‘St Benedict’ label at the bottom of this post or on the sidebar), including a two-part post based on St Gregory the Great’s famous Vita last year (here and here). Consequently, some of my best material has already been used. But I will go ahead and post one or two things here owing to the importance of this feastday for me and my parish. First, here is the account of St Benedict’s life in the Prologue:

Born in Nursia in Italy in 480, of rich and eminent parents, he did not persevere long with his schooling, for he realised himself that he could, through book-learning, lose ‘the great understanding of my soul’. And he left school ‘an untaught sage and an understanding ignoramus’. He fled to a monastery where a monk, Romanus, gave him the habit, after which he withdrew to a craggy mountain, where he lived for more than three years in a cave in great struggles with his soul. Romanus brought him bread and dropped it over the wall of the crag on a rope to the mouth of the cave. When he became known in the neighbourhood, he, to flee the praise of men, moved away from that cave. He was very brutal with himself. Once, when an impure rage of fleshly lust fell on him, he stripped bare and rolled among nettles and thorns until he had driven out of himself every thought of a woman. God endowed him with many spiritual gifts: insight, healing and the driving out of evil spirits, the raising of the dead and the ability to appear to others from a distance in a dream or vision. He once discerned that he had been given a glass of poisoned wine. He made the sign of the Cross over the glass and it broke into pieces. He founded twelve monasteries, each having twelve monks at first. He later compiled the specifically ‘Benedictine’ rule, which is today followed in the Roman Church. On the sixth day before his death he commanded that his grave, already prepared as the saint had foreseen that his end was near, should be opened. He gathered all the monks together, gave them counsel and gave his soul to the Lord whom he had faithfully served in poverty and purity. His sister, Scholastica, lived in a women’s monastery, where, guided by her brother and herself practising great asceticism, she came to great spiritual perfection. When St Benedict set his soul free, two monks, one on the road and one at prayer in a distant cell, had at the same moment the same vision: a path from earth to heaven, curtained with precious cloth and illuminated at the sides by ranks of people. At the top of that path stood a man of indescribable beauty and light, who told them that the
path was prepared for Benedict, the beloved of God. After that vision, the two brethren discovered that their beloved abbot had gone from this world. He died peacefully in about 550 and went to the eternal Kingdom of Christ the King. [4]

Of course, much of St Benedict’s enduring importance is tied up with the Rule he bequeathed to the Church. In the words of St Gregory the Great, Dialogues II.36, ‘However I would not wish it to be unknown to you that the man of God who became famous in the world by so many miracles was also very well-known for his words of doctrine. For he wrote a rule for monks, remarkable for its discretion [5] and elegant in its language.’ [6] Charles Williams has aptly summarised the wisdom of St Benedict’s Rule in his unique ecclesiastical history, The Descent of the Dove:

He modified the extreme austerities [of Eastern monasticism]; he reconciled even the monk to a life in time; he discouraged fantasies; he taught peace. He pledged his brethren to remain in the abbey of their situations, and he pledged the half-saveage emulation of individual eccentricity to the decent obedience of holy order. He too taught the rule of co-inherence after a particular manner; the brethren were to know none but Christ in each other and in all. The Rule spread; it met and overcame the harsher Rule of Columban, and the most dedicated of lives rooted themselves in localities and quiet. It was the frontier of Christendom which held most stable through all the terrible centuries. [7]

Similarly, Christopher Dawson writes, ‘Thus, in an age of insecurity and disorder and barbarism, the Benedictine Rule embodied an ideal of spiritual order and disciplined moral activity which made the monastery an oasis of peace in the world of war.’ [8] It is for this reason that philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre has famously observed of our own day, ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict’ (see my thoughts on this comment in this post). [9]

Finally, it is interesting to note that St Benedict has had the good fortune to appear in one of the greatest works of imaginative literature of all time—Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante describes him as ‘the largest and most lightsome jewel’ of the sphere of Saturn, and the Saint begins addressing the Pilgrim as follows:

. . . ‘If you could see the flame
of charity we burn in, as I do,
you’d have expressed your thoughts and felt no shame.

I would not have your pilgrimage be slow:
that waiting may not hold you from the goal,
I’ll reply to the thought you’ve guarded so.

That mountain with Cassino on its spur
was thronged with worshipers in pagan time,
people disposed to evil and deceived

By cheating gods. I am he, first to climb
that peak to bring His name who brought the earth
the truth that raises us to the sublime;

With radiant grace so far above my worth,
I drew each of the villages around
from the impious cult that had seduced

The whole world. All these other flames were bound
in contemplation, kindled by the heat
engendering the flowers and holy fruit:

Romualdus and Macarius are here,
and my good brothers who, within the close,
held their hearts steadfast where they held their feet.’ [10]

[1] Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey, AD 200-1500, 3rd rev. ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980), p. 185.

[2] Qtd. in Henry Wadsworth Longellow, tr., The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Paradiso (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, n.d.), p. 302, n. 40.

[3] Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB, In Praise of Benedict: 480-1980 AD (Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1981), p. 78. Hume adds, ‘There are, as we know, ancient spiritual values of fundamental importance which are always new and always contemporary in any age.’

[4] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, tr. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1985), pp. 283-4.

[5] It is interesting to note that concerning the word discretio, rendered here by its English derivative, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé has suggested that ‘discernment’ might be a better translation. Based on St Gregory’s reference to RB 58 in his Commentary on Kings, de Vogüé believes that this famous recommendation of the Rule in Dialogues II ‘is less concerned with the moderation of the Rule—as it is usually understood—than with its rigor’ (St Gregory the Great, The Life of St Benedict, tr. Hilary Costello & Eoin de Bhaldraithe, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé (Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993), p. 177).

[6] St Gregory, p. 174.

[7] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 91.

[8] Christopher Dawson, Religion & the Rise of Western Culture (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh, 1948-1949) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958), p. 48.

[9] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1984), p. 263.

[10] Dante Alighieri, Paradise, tr. & ed. Anthony Esolen, illust. Gustave Doré (NY: Modern Library, 2007), p. 237.

17 July 2010

Review of a St Elisabeth Biography

Today, 5 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the New Martyr Elisabeth of Russia. In honour of St Elisabeth, patron of my daughter as well as my mother (and likely, many, many other convert women as well!), I thought I would post a little review—written years ago in a reader’s journal I used to keep—of a secular biography of the New Martyr: Hugo Mager’s Elizabeth: Grand Duchess of Russia (NY: Carroll & Graf, 1999). I have made one or two minor editorial changes, and added page references where I could still find them.

The first problem I have is the author’s utter ignorance of Orthodoxy. After repeated remarks about the ‘rottenness’ of the relics of St Seraphim of ‘Sarovo’ [sic], Mager concludes that this ‘should have barred him from sainthood’; [1] but a brief look into the glorification of saints in the Orthodox Church would have shown that incorrupt remains are not required by any means. He claims that all startsy (which he translates imprecisely as ‘holy men’) are ‘semiliterate, eternal wanderer[s]’; some of them ‘fastened chains to their legs as a sign of asceticism’, or ‘claimed to possess powers of healing’. [2] He gives a dramatic description of some schema-monks without apparently realising what they are. He consistently uses imprecise, western language to describe Orthodox things: ‘High Mass’, ‘Te Deum’, ‘Monsignor’. He repeatedly refers to the Roman Catholic ‘saint’ Elisabeth of Hungary, an ancestor of the New Martyr, as ‘St Elizabeth’ without noting that she was not Orthodox (a legitimate ‘bar to sainthood’ in the Orthodox Church). [3] He mentions ‘the monastery at Mount Athos’, apparently unaware that there are twenty. [4]

More importantly, the ignorance of Orthodoxy in particular seems to be aligned to a deeper ignorance of and lack of interest in what it means to be a believer, period. The spiritual life seems to him to consist mostly of consolations, feelings and sentiments, except where it’s expressed in charitable works—which, to his credit, he covers admirably. But the account of St Elisabeth’s life in the Ss Martha and Mary Convent is given short schrift in favour of a sensationalistic and historically questionable account of the fall of the autocracy. Even clothes, jewelry, and balls are given more attention than spiritual things.

But even from a secular perspective the book leaves something to be desired. First of all, there are quite a few typographical and grammatical mistakes (he spells podvignodvig’!). Then, there’s the historiography. Although it doesn’t give any credentials, the jacket refers to the author as ‘historian Hugo Mager’, and indeed, the appendix (‘Documentary Evidence of the Last Journey & Death of Grand Duchess Elizabeth & the Removal of Her Remains to Beijing’) shows him to be pretty good at doing historical scholarship when he wants to be. [5] But the rest of the book makes matter of fact assertions about the nature and motivations of various people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions about which—having read other accounts—I sometimes felt rather dubious. At the very least, how can Mager claim to know some of the things he does? He does not provide extensive reasoning or documentation behind much of it, probably because he intended the book as a popular biography and not a work of scholarly historiography. But some of the more extraordinary claims (like the allegation of Grand Duke Sergei Nikolaievich’s homosexuality, or perhaps more importantly, the ‘cool’ sexual relations which provide the basis for the allegation) could have done with a good deal more well-documented evidence (although sexuality might have been left entirely unmentioned in any case). In numerous cases, it is clear to someone a little bit acquainted with the subject that much of what is presented is founded on more or less unreliable testimony, including, in at least one or two places, that of witnesses whom Mager himself has discredited. Furthermore, serious scholars of the Revolution would disagree with the central rôle he assigns to Rasputin in the story. The latter certainly didn’t help matters, but didn’t Vladimir Lenin have at least something to do with it, not to mention well nigh irresistable historical forces?

Another problem is the author’s obvious biases: for Britain and liberal politics, against Pobedonostsev, Grand Duke Sergei Nikolaievich, the Russian peasants, the Tsaritsa-Martyr Alexandra, and certainly Rasputin (who, despite the testimony of multiple witnesses, is made to seem closer to the Tsaritsa-Martyr than anyone else she knows). One friend of the Tsaritsa-Martyr’s who was an admirer of Rasputin is consistently referred to as ‘plain and unintelligent’, and even ‘fat’, whenever she figures into the narrative. [6] The author’s opinions on politics are constantly interjected. Whenever someone becomes drunk, it is said to be in ‘typical Russian fashion’. He always describes the Tsar-Martyr—in typical biographer fashion—as ‘weak’ and ‘indecisive’.

But most annoying, I think, is Mager’s apparent determination to play up a dramatic contrast between the New Martyr Elisabeth and her sister, the Tsaritsa-Martyr Alexandra. St Elisabeth is presented as the warm, saintly, reasonable sister who does everything she can to save Russia, St Alexandra as the cold, self-centered, hysterical sister who does everything she can to ruin it. The author seems quite satisfied—often basing himself on the testimony of witnesses he himself elsewhere calls unreliable—to pronounce their relationship as being at distressing odds and ending in complete coldness.

There are good things to be said about the book. The author certainly reveres St Elisabeth. He also appears to respect Christianity, monarchy and, to some extent, Ss Nicholas and Alexandra. Passages like the note contrasting the ‘repression’ of Tsar Alexander III’s reign with that of communism—concluding, ‘Compared with its Soviet successor, Alexander III’s empire was a remarkably free country’—are really nice. [7] But Mager’s politics, his preoccupation with Grand Duke Sergei’s sexuality (about which he himself acknowledges that there is ‘no firm evidence’), [8] his ignorance of Orthodoxy and superficial notions of spirituality, and his exaggerrated antinomy between the two saintly sisters are all very annoying, and detract greatly from an interesting story. More importantly, Mager clearly lacks the experience and insight to do any kind of justice to the spiritual life of a great Saint. His Victorian psychologising is a poor substitute, not compensated for, in the end, by his attention to detail in presenting an in-depth story.

Those who want to read about St Elisabeth should stick with the Life by Lubov Millar, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: New Martyr of the Communist Yoke (Richfield Springs, NY: Nikodemos, 1991), only venturing toward Mager’s book for superficial and extraneous details about things like the Hessian grand duchy or Queen Victoria. Those interested in St Alexandra should never open Mager’s book, but stick with A Gathered Radiance: The Life of Alexandra Romanov, Russia’s Last Empress (Chico, CA: Valaam Society of America, 1992), by Mother Nectaria (McLees).

Addendum: Mary Mansur has just informed me that Nikodemos has recently published a new, expanded edition of Millar's biography of St Elisabeth, featuring all new materials. It can be ordered for $26.95 + $4 s&h. Just send a check to Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society, PO Box 383, Richfield Springs, NY 13439-0383.

[1] Hugo Mager, Elizabeth: Grand Duchess of Russia (NY: Carroll & Graf, 1999), p. 200.

[2] Ibid., p. 226. True startsy, or ‘elders’, of course, may well be educated, are rarely wanderers, would never display an external ‘sign of asceticism’, and would never claim to ‘possess powers of healing’.

[3] Ibid., pp. 19-20, 240.

[4] Ibid., p. 227.

[5] Ibid., pp. 343-9.

[6] Ibid., pp. 235, 255, 277.

[7] Ibid., p. 80. The final paragraph of this lengthy note deserves to be quoted in full:

However, these enormous powers [of the tsarist political police] were used with remarkable leniency. During Alexander [III]’s repressive reign only four thousand persons, out of a population of nearly a hundred million, were detained or interrogated in connection with political offenses; only forty-four, all assassins or potential assassins, were executed for political crimes. The right to travel abroad and property rights, even those of expatriate revolutionaries, were scrupulously respected. The vast majority of criminals were tried fairly, by jury. Censorship was little more than a nuisance: between 1867 and 1894 only 158 books, not including Marx’s Capital, were forbidden to circulate in Russia. Compared with its Soviet successor, Alexander III’s empire was a remarkably free country.

[8] Ibid., p. 74.

14 July 2010

Disenchantment with Modernity: Tolkien, Lovecraft, & G.H. Dorr, Ph.D.

At the Mythopoeic Society conference I attended last weekend, the Inklings—and it seemed Tolkien especially—were naturally first and foremost in the attendees’ thoughts, writings, and conversation. But at least once or twice, perhaps largely at my instigation, the name of H.P. Lovecraft was also mentioned. In a paper I heard on the to me previously unknown works of our Author Guest of Honour, Tim Powers, a plot description at one point reminded me slightly of Lovecraft’s masterpiece, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. When I ventured later to ask the author himself about this, receiving confirmation of the accuracy of my ‘Lovecraft antennae’, I also asked his opinion whether Powers thought that Charles Williams might have been able to convert the notorious atheist Lovecraft to Christianity. An affirmative reply led to more discussion later in the evening.

At any rate, all of this is merely to preface an extraordinary discovery I made just today. Amy Sturgis, whose name I thought I recalled coming across at MythCon and who edited the book Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy & Faith in the World of C.S. Lewis, published by The Mythopoeic Press, has a fascinating article on her website entitled, ‘The New Shoggoth Chic: Why H.P. Lovecraft Now?’. [1] Although it does not mention him in the title, Tolkien is also a major subject of the article, which is essentially a comparison and contrasting of the two authors.

To get to the point, the most interesting point of comparison to me was the basically anti-modern posture they shared. Sturgis writes:

Modernity, that nebulous and abstract force of the dawning 20th century, meant various things to Lovecraft and Tolkien at different times in their lives. One thing remained constant: both were against it. To Lovecraft, modernity primarily meant entropy, the gradual decay of time-honored habits, traditions, and even people into confusion and decrepitude. . . . His racial and nationalistic assumptions fueled his disgust with the way in which industrialization and urbanization threw unlike people together in the most squalid conditions, ensuring (to his mind at least) that their most negative traits would come to the fore. He found an example of his worst fears realized when he lived, for a short time only, in New York City.

On this subject, Sturgis then quotes the semi-autobiographical story ‘He’:

But success and happiness were not to be. Garish daylight showed only squalor and alienage and the noxious elephantiasis of climbing, spreading stone where the moon had hinted of loveliness and elder magic; and the throngs of people that seethed through the flumelike streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes, shrewd strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes around them, who could never mean aught to a blue-eyed man of the old folk, with the love of fair green lanes and white New England village steeples in his heart. [2]

Sturgis then comments:

Though charged with what we today would call racism and xenophobia, Lovecraft’s description implies more than simple fear or dislike of the Other: these others are overcrowded, literally ‘teeming’, unattached to their setting or community, isolated and atomistic, uncommunicative and ‘hardened’. Lovecraft contrasted such scenes with his native Providence, Rhode Island, where generations remained in the same place and were known by their family name and traits, and where the community as a whole tended to share what Augustine called ‘loved things held in common’. [3] Lovecraft feared a humanity cut adrift from such grounding tradition and identity, left vulnerable to outside forces of superior power and unwholesome design.

For Tolkien, modernity primarily meant technology—‘The Machine’, as he called it—and its triumph at the expense of nature. Where Lovecraft idealized his hometown of Providence, Tolkien revered the English countryside, and believed the growth of cities and factories to be a direct threat to its survival. By creating the fictional Shire and the Hobbits who populate it, Tolkien praised the rural values of decentralization, artisanship, stability, and familiarity over the urban qualities of centralization, mass production, disposability, and anonymity.

Sturgis then quotes ‘On Fairy-Stories’, calling it ‘as anti-modern’ as Lovecraft:

Not long ago—incredible though it may seem—I heard a clerk at Oxenford declare that he ‘welcomed’ the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into ‘contact with real life.’ He may have meant that the way men were living in the twentieth century was increasing in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences, without actual offensive action (practical and intellectual). I fear he did not. [4]

Sturgis continues:

Both authors’ anti-modernism, as well as other intellectual ideas and personal traits, led them to feel out of place in a world of tremendous change and upheaval, economic depression and world war. For his part, H.P. Lovecraft felt himself to be an old man in a young man’s body, and, to use his words from ‘The Outsider’, ‘a stranger in this century’. Tolkien’s similar certainty that he was not at home came as much from his religious perspective as his disgust with all things ‘progressive’. . . .

. . .

It would be a mistake to assume that the two men were similar only in their dislikes and disappointments. Although they looked to the future with no little trepidation, they looked to the past with real fascination and affection. Lovecraft and Tolkien shared a fervent kind of antiquarianism. Lovecraft’s self-confessed ‘love of the ancient and permanent’ can best be seen in his absorption with and knowledge of early American architecture, which he used to great effect in his precise and evocative descriptions. . . . Tolkien nurtured his own love of ancient texts and national epics from Beowulf and the Kalevala to the Icelandic Eddas and family sagas. He studied the original languages of the stories and incorporated ingredients of the tales into his own work. . . .

In short, both Lovecraft and Tolkien were on a quest for something permanent, meaningful, and binding in a changing modern world, fueled by a desire for identity and community in a time in which they felt displaced and marginalized, and a thirst for structure and civilization in the face of what they saw as entropy and barbarism. Paradoxically, these concerns, while isolating each author to a certain degree, also made Lovecraft and Tolkien exemplars of their age, men of remarkable insight and sensitivity who articulated the concerns of an entire era with unusual eloquence and urgency.

Reading these comments today, I am also curiously reminded of Tom Hanks’s charactre in the Coen Brothers remake of The Ladykillers: the Southern dandy, Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. One evening, Dorr’s black landlady, Mrs Munson, says to him, ‘You are a readin’ fool, aren’t you, Mr Dorr?’ Dorr responds:

Yes, I must confess I often find myself more at home in these ancient volumes than I do in the hustle-bustle of the modern world. To me, paradoxically, the literature of the so-called ‘dead tongues’ holds more currency than this morning’s newspaper. In these books, in these volumes, there is the accumulated wisdom of mankind which succours me when the day is hard and the night lonely and long.

Things take a closer turn toward the Lovecraftian when Mrs Munson remarks, ‘Wisdom of mankind, huh? What about the wisdom of the Lord?’, and Dorr replies:

Oh yes, the ‘Good Book’, hm? I have found reward in its pages. But to me there are other ‘good books’ as well: heavy volumes of antiquity, freighted with the insights of man’s glorious age. And then, of course, I just love love love the works of Mr Edgard Allan Poe.

Mrs Munson says, ‘Oh, I know who he was—kinda spooky!’ But Dorr laughs and ‘corrects’ her, in words reminiscent of Lovecraft’s ‘Randolph Carter’ stories: ‘No, my, no, no! Not of this world, it is true. He lived in a dream, an ancient dream.’ Dorr then quotes the first two stanzas of ‘To Helen’:

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome. [5]

Somewhat alarmed at Dorr’s enraptured delivery of these lines, Mrs Munson asks, ‘Who was Helen? Some kind of whore of Babylon?’ To which, slightly angered, Dorr replies, ‘One does not know who Helen was! But I picture her as very very . . . extremely . . . pale.’

[1] Originally published in Apex Science Fiction & Horror Digest, 1.4 (December 2005).

[2] H.P. Lovecraft, ‘He’, The Tomb & Other Tales (NY: Del Rey, 1987), pp. 58-9. I was astonished how much this last line reminded me of Tolkien!

[3] St Augustine, de civ. Dei XIX, 24; cf. The City of God, tr. Marcus Dods (NY: Modern Library, 1950), p. 706: ‘But if we discard this definition of a people, and, assuming another, say that a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love, then, in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love.’

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, The Tolkien Reader (NY: Ballantine, 1966), pp. 80-1.

[5] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘To Helen’, The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (NY: Modern Library, 1965), p. 1017.

12 July 2010

Why Read Njegoš?

I have mentioned Petar II Petrović-Njegoš a number of times at Logismoi already, primarily in connection with the paper I was preparing to present at the Mythopoeic Society conference in Dallas on Saturday (a presentation which was poorly attended but nevertheless received positive comments from those who did attend). As Michael Petrovitch has observed, at first glance Njegoš seems ‘suited to one of those dull dissertations about obscure figures whom some apprentice scholar is always grateful to dig up for the price of a doctorate’, but he was an ‘extraordinary ruler and poet of an extraordinary country’. [1] Just to dispel any lingering suspicions among fellow Orthodox, however, that Njegoš’s work is merely an obscure academic subject, I thought I would post a few comments on him from Serbian theologians. It was they, after all, who convinced me actually to read his work in the first place. First, here in full is the brief foreword to Clarence Manning’s translation of The Rays of Microcosm by St Nicholas (Velimirović):

The Prince Bishop of Montenegro Petar II Petrovich Negosh (1813-1851) is the greatest Serbian poet. His drama ‘The Mountain Wreath’ has been translated into many European languages. There are three German translations. The best English translation is by Dr James Wiles. Negosh’s deepest and most spiritual creation ‘The Rays of Microcosm’ (Lucha Mikrokosma), however, appears now for the first time in English thanks to Professor Dr Clarence Manning of Columbia University in New York.

The theme of this poem is the same as that of Dante’s ‘Divina Comedia’, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, and Klopstock’s ‘Messias’. All these three great poets are Westerners, whereas Negosh with a similar work stands alone for the Eastern Europe [sic]. We do not think that all his thoughts in this poem are dogmatically in harmony with the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, as for instance the pre-existence of Adam as the one [sic] of the great and leading angels, but poetry is poetry. The privilege of a poet consists in the freedom to add to the common reasoning his imagination which gives more life and color to the accepted facts. Negosh’s vision of the enormity of the created Universe in height, depth, width, and length; of many suns and galaxies of stars, ruled by various angelic hosts, is very striking. It reminds the reader of the Mount Palomar’s giant telescope, and the quite modern astronomic discoveries. There is no telescope which can beat the spirit and imagination of a great poet.

The spiritual value of this work, as the reader will see for himself, is beyond doubt great and unusual. It is all spirit, religion, and dramatic victory of God over Satan.

The language of Negosh is lapidary and charged with ideas and arcanas. Yet, Professor Manning succeeded to translate it well; not in each case literally though, but on the whole clear and well done in a choice English. [2] We hope that ‘The Rays of Microcosm’ will help the English speaking people toward a deeper insight into the soul and heart of the Serbian people, always suffering for Christ and never feeling defeated. [3]

Second, and following in the spirit of St Nicholas’s comments, Fr Daniel Rogich has included Njegoš alongside St Nicholas himself under the category of ‘soul-profiting reading’, that is, ‘works that do not directly deal with the spiritual life but that “enlarge” the heart and refine the soul”’. [4]

Finally, in a lecture in which he treats at length Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bishop Athanasius (Jevtić) writes:

Our Serbian poet, Bishop Njegosh, in his poem Rays of the Microcosm, which is to some extent similar to John Milton’s poem mentioned earlier, partially succumbed to the influence of Milton and other philosophers and poets who similarly viewed and interpreted the fate of man and mankind predominantly in a theological-cosmological manner. However, in the last part of Rays of the Microcosm, Njegosh, an Orthodox bishop and a man with Church experience through which he observed both the Bible and its pronouncements about man, made a radical turn toward the eschatological Messiah, Christ Incarnate and Resurrected, Who in terms of Milton’s logic regarding justice, unexpectedly enters into human history and saves man personally through Himself, thus changing man’s established fate, which until then was harsh and inescapable because of sin. [5]

[1] Michael B. Petrovitch, ‘Introduction’, Njegoš: Poet, Prince, Bishop, by Milovan Djilas, tr. Michael B. Petrovitch (NY: Harcourt, 1966), p. xiii.

[2] Although St Nicholas commends Manning’s translation, a double review by Ante Kadić convinced me to read the Savić-Rebac translation of The Ray instead. See Ante Kadić, rev. of The Rays of Microcosm, tr. Clarence A. Manning, & The Ray of the Microcosm, tr. Anica Savić-Rebac, American Slavic & East European Review 18.1 (Feb. 1959), pp. 129-33.

[3] St Nicholas (Velimirović), ‘Foreword’, The Rays of the Microcosm, by Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, tr. Clarence A. Manning (Munich 1953), pp. 7-8.

[4] Fr Daniel Rogich, ‘Introduction’, Serbian Patericon: Saints of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Vol. 1, illust. Lillian Tintor (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), p. 23. This is a widely varied category. It is worth noting that Fr Rogich also includes—

ecclesiastical writers such as St Ignatius Brianchaninov, St Theophan the Recluse, St John of Kronstadt, the epistology of the Optina Elders, Theophan of Poltava, and writers of Mt Athos such as the Russian Seraphim the Hagiorite (his letters), or secular writers of world literature who contributed to the formation of the Orthodox way of life as opposed to the anti-Christian growth of secular values of the modern man of the post-French Revolution: Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, Leskov and Gogol. (p. 23)

[5] Bishop Athanasius (Yevtich), ‘The Holy Fathers & the Holy Scriptures’, tr. Sr Michaela, Christ: The Alpha & Omega, ed. St Herman of Alaska Monastery (Alhambra, CA: Western American Diocese, 2007), pp. 28-9.

08 July 2010

Some Confusion about Njegoš's Angelology

Although there is much in it that is insightful, in an interesting article entitled ‘The Dark Side in Milton & Njegoš’, Roland Clark makes some odd comments. First of all, he writes, ‘As is typical of Orthodox angelology, [Petar II Petrović] Njegoš [in his poem, The Ray of the Microcosm] relies completely upon Michael and Gabriel, who were equal in rank to Satan before his fall, to act as the opposites of Satan, rather than placing Christ himself in this rôle.’ So, he seems to be suggesting that this aspect of Njegoš’s angelology is Orthodox, right?

But then in the very next sentence, Clark writes, ‘This is a defining feature of Bogomilism, one of the many traditions that appear to have influenced Njegoš.’ [1] Really? So the very angelology that he has just told us is Orthodox, is also ‘a defining feature’ of a dualistic heresy? How can that be?

I’m also a bit annoyed because right after the word ‘fall’ in the first sentence, he has a footnote citing Njegoš and then suggesting, ‘For more on this convention in Orthodox angelology see Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (London, 1980), p. 154.’ [2] So, naturally, I pull out my copy of Mango to see if he does indeed support the apparent meaning of the first sentence that the angelology Clark has described is Orthodox. But the only passage I find on p. 154 of that book that is at all relevant reads:

As for the archangels, only two, namely Michael and Gabriel, had a firm place in popular devotion; the others, including Raphiel and Uriel, appear mostly in prayers and incantations of an occult character. St Michael was the commander-in-chief, the archistrategos, of the celestial host, and had several cult centres in Asia Minor, the most famous being at Chonai (Colossai) in Phrygia, where he was believed to have split a rock and diverted the course of a torrent. [3]

I found this disappointingly impertinent. Perhaps the article we are led to by the footnote to the sentence suggesting Bogomilism in Njegoš’s angelology [4] would be more helpful, but unfortunately, I do not have a copy. It is by Zdenko Zlatar, is entitled ‘Archangel Michael & the Dragon: Slavic Apocrypha, Bogomilism, & Dualist Cosmology in the Medieval Balkans’, and is found in Encyclopedia moderna 2 (38), 1992, p. 267.

Although I don’t really need answers to these questions beforehand, tomorrow I leave for Dallas to present my little paper on cosmological conflict in Njegoš at the Mythopoeic Society conference, MythCon 41. On the off-chance that there will be any blog readers at MythCon, please try to find me. I also plan to attend Divine Liturgy at St Nicholas ROCOR parish in McKinney, TX, on Sunday.

[1] Roland Clark, ‘The Dark Side in Milton & Njegoš’, Sydney Studies in Religion 6.1 (2004), p. 107. It can be found online here.

[2] Ibid., p. 107, n. 4.

[3] Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (London: Phoenix Giant, 1994), p. 154.

[4] Clark, p. 107, n. 5.

02 July 2010

The Nihilism of Victor Shklovsky: Bakhtin & Defamiliarisation

A few weeks ago the grad student I’m tutoring for her thesis on Tolstoy came across a 2004 issue of Philosophy & Literature which contained an article that greatly interested me—‘Verbal Medium & Narrative Art in Homer & the Bible’, by Robert S. Kawashima of NYU. Already on the second page, Kawashima makes a reference that has become very familiar to me while reading critical work on Tolstoy when he mentions ‘Victor Shklovsky’s definition of art as “defamiliarization”’. [1] Matthew Reed has written about this concept in his posts on War & Peace (here, here, and here), even linking to a pdf of Shklovsky in the second post, and Shklovsky’s ‘defamiliarisation’ is an oft-utilised tool in critical analysis of Tolstoy. Most critics, however, seem to treat it merely as one device among many and to speak as though this is how Shklovsky treated it as well. Liza Knapp, for instance, in her contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, makes a remark about ‘the Formalist Shklovsky, who viewed ostranenie [defamiliarisation] merely as a device’. [2]

I first heard of Russian Formalism back in college when I started studying Bakhtin, but I never really gave it much attention, either in its own right or as a foil for some of Bakhtin’s ideas. Thus, having grown accustomed to passing references to Shklovsky and defamiliarization in the context of Tolstoy criticism, I at first thought nothing of Knapp’s comment about defamiliarisation being ‘merely’ a ‘device’ for Shklovsky. But Kawashima presents quite a bit more of the context for this idea. The latter writes:

Shklovsky, in his programmatic essay, ‘Art as Technique’, proposes a definition of art based, not on any given specific ‘device’, but on an underlying technique he calls ‘defamiliarization’: ‘The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.’ In fact, art not only defamiliarizes concrete objects of perception, but artistic form itself: ‘By violating the form, [Sterne] forces us to attend to it; and, for him, this awareness of the form through its violation constitutes the content of the novel.’ He thus defines literature self-referentially as the manipulation of literary form, so that form itself becomes the object of renewed aesthetic perception. Over against Shklovsky’s theory of art stands [Walter] Benjamin’s account of the storyteller’s craft. This craft is based not on innovation, but on the conservation of tradition. The greatness of a story lies not in its originality, but in its seamless derivation ‘from the speech of the many nameless storytellers’, from ‘that slow piling one on top of the other of thin, transparent layers which constitutes the most appropriate picture of the way in which the perfect narrative is revealed through the layers of a variety of retellings.’ [3]

A bit further on, Kawashima continues his account of Shklovsky’s thought:

Shklovsky’s understanding of genuine experience is premised on a certain peculiarly modern ideal, namely, a life full of the promise of unending change. In his view, habit, and we might add, tradition, is non-experience, analogous indeed to oblivion—‘such [habitual] lives are as if they had never been.’ [4]

I won’t go into the details of Shklovsky’s rôle in Kawashima’s article, except to say that the latter makes the odd argument that the Bible lines up more with Shklovsky and Homer with Benjamin. For me the important thing was that this overturned any complacency I had about the use of Shklovsky in Tolstoy criticism—clearly, while defamiliarisation might be a handy analytical device, it was far, far more than that for the Formalists themselves. It was something very close in spirit to Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence’, and indeed, in the chapter on Tolstoy in Bloom’s The Western Canon, the Yale critic writes:

I have argued throughout this book that originality, in the sense of strangeness, is a quality that, more than any other, makes a work canonical. Tolstoy’s strangeness is itself strange, because it so paradoxically seems not strange at all at first. You always hear Tolstoy’s voice acting as the narrator, and that voice is direct, rational, confident, and benign. Victor Shklovsky, a major modern Russian critic, noted that ‘the most common strategy in Tolstoy is one of refusing to recognize an object, of describing it as if it were seen for the first time.’ [5]

Now troubled by what I was learning of the Formalist position, I recalled that Bakhtin and his circle had been their outspoken critics, and I turned next to discover what those critics had had to say. I began with Clark’s and Holquist’s biography, Mikhail Bakhtin, Chapter 8, ‘The Formalists’. Clark & Holquist find the most important Bakhtinian responses to Formalism in a 1924 article by Bakhtin entitled ‘The Problem of Content, Material & Form in Verbal Artistic Creation’ and a 1928 book published by Pavel Medvedev entitled The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, while Voloshinov/Bakhtin’s [6] Marxism & the Philosophy of Language and Bakhtin’s book on Dostoevsky ‘would lay out the linguistic basis for a historical poetics to counter that of the formalists’. [7] In the interests of keeping this post manageable and of focusing on the now ‘familiar’ idea of ‘defamiliarisation’, I will try to limit my exposition of Clark & Holquist and the works they mention to passages that relate directly to defamiliarisation.

First, concerning the ‘Problem of Content’ article, Clark & Holquist note that Bakhtin shared the criticism from the right ‘that the Formalists’ ingenious interpretations of particular works [such as Tolstoy’s] lacked a theoretical base in a full-blown aesthetics’, as well as that from the left ‘that the Formalists ignored social and political factors in their work’. [8] Clark & Holquist write:

Bakhtin here introduces an important concept, the aesthetic object, which according to him is the real subject of criticism. The aesthetic object is not completely coincidental with the external, material form but is nevertheless inseparable from it. . . . The aesthetic object is present as a totality of the values conveyed by the material form when combined with the other values, such as political or religious, that come into play in any specific act of perceiving the object. [9]

Thus, I find two—extremely difficult—passages in ‘Problem’ that touch on defamiliarisation. The first does not name the idea, but shows how an example of it is explained in terms of the ‘aesthetic object’, in this case, Pushkin’s use of the Church Slavonic form grad instead of gorod (‘city’) in his poem, ‘Remembrance’: [10]

The artist (and the contemplator) has to do, moreover, precisely with ‘the city’ as expressed by the Church Slavonic form of the word (grad): the connotation of the Church Slavonic form relates to the ethical-aesthetic value of the city, giving great significance to that value, and it becomes the characterization of a concrete value and as such enters into the aesthetic object, i.e., it is not the linguistic form that enters into the aesthetic object but its axiological significance (psychological aesthetics would say ‘the emotional-volitional moment corresponding to that form’). [11]

The second, more difficult, passage eventually names the concept of defamiliarisation. Bakhtin is explaining his understanding of ‘the primary function of form in relation to content—that of isolation or detachment’ for artistic embodiment of some particular aspect of something or of some moment in time. [12] Then he writes:

The so-called defamiliarization [ostranenie] of the Formalists is fundamentally the function of isolation that is not very clearly expressed methodologically and is incorrectly referred in most cases to the material [i.e., the diction]: what is defamiliarized is the word by way of destroying its habitual place in a semantic series. Sometimes, however, defamiliarization is related to the object as well, but is understood in a crudely psychologistic way—as the removal of the object, the value, and the event from the necessary cognitive and ethical series. [13]

I must admit, although I believe I’ve understood it, this passage was a struggle. Imagine, then, my relief when I turned to the selections from Medvedev/Bakhtin’s Formal Method and found the much less abstract ‘The Nihilistic Slant of Formalism’. Here are the highlights:

The formalists do not so much find something new in the word as expose and do away with the old.

The basic formalist concepts of this period—transrational language [zaum], ‘making it strange’ [ostranenie], device, material—are completely infused with this tendency.

. . .

The negative aspect of ‘making it strange’ [ostranenie] is just as strong as that of transrational language. Its original definition, far from emphasizing the enrichment of the word with new and positive constructive meaning, simply emphasizes the negation of the old meaning. The novelty and strangeness of the word and the object it designates originates here, in the loss of its previous meaning . . . .

In early formalism the concept of ‘deautomatization of the word’ was closely connected with ‘making it strange’. [14]

The negative tone is also dominant in this concept: deautomatization is primarily understood as abstraction from semantic context.

. . .

Thus the formalists attained their ‘discoveries’ in a rather unique way: by subtracting various essential aspects from the word and other elements of the artistic work. The new constructive meaning appears as the result of these purely negative acts of subtraction and elimination.

It goes without saying that the word without meaning looks new, looks different than the meaningful word. Certainly the idea with no pretentions to truth looks different than the normal idea which strives toward cognition.

But, of course, such subtraction cannot gain anything positive, new, or profitable.

This negative, nihilistic slant of formalism shows the tendency common to all nihilism to add nothing to reality, but, on the contrary, to diminish, impoverish, and emasculate it, and by doing so attain a new and original impression of reality. [15]

In their discussion of Formal Method, Clark & Holquist focus on Medvedev/Bakhtin’s objections to the Formalist distinction between ‘poetic’ and ‘practical language’, the latter being marked by transparency and the former by strangeness. They point out that Formal Method ‘is highly critical of the unspoken assumptions behind the separation of language into poetic and practical divisions, especially as defined by the Formalists’, and is especially concerned with the illogic of using defamiliarisation not only ‘as a means for getting at the essence of literature’ but ‘as the engine of literary evolution as well’. [16] Among other arguments, Formal Method ‘charges that the Formalists failed to evolve a convincing account of literary dynamics because there was no place in their scheme for anything new in poetry itself’, since poetry had to wait on practical language to develop something new so that the poets could defamiliarise it. At this point, Clark & Holquist quote a line from Shklovsky that Formal Method cites at much greater length: [17] ‘[Poetic speech] is purposely created to deautomatize perception . . . thus, we arrive at the definition of poetry as speech that is braked (zatormozennyj, distorted.’ Thus, in their words, ‘poetry depends for its effects on nonpoetic language, much as a parasite depends on its host. . . . Surely there is more to the complexity of poetic language than sheer “difference from”.’ [18]

Clark & Holquist relate this critique to Bakhtin’s larger theory of language when they write:

Bakhtin sees literary language as part of and as subject to the same conditions as other divisions of natural language, unlike the Formalists, who saw poetic speech as different in its fundamentals from other forms of language. Since Bakhtin perceives literature as part of the normal processes of language, he sees literary evolution as occurring very slowly, for the history of linguistic changes is always very conservative and drawn out. . . . The Formalist idea that the old generation’s forms soon become habitual and need to be deformed in order that art may once again be perceived in the next generation is seen by Bakhtin as betraying a desire to negate the past. History becomes reduced to a constant present or a permanent contemporaneity. [19]

Finally, Clark & Holquist situate Bakhtin’s critique of Formalist defamiliarisation to the very dialogic nature of Bakhtin’s thought:

[Bakhtin] always sought for connections between different people, texts, ideologies, and languages, not for cut-offs between their differences. This dialogic understanding of how different idea systems relate to each other underlies Bakhtin’s critique of the Formalist theory of deautomatization. That theory was based on the principle of either/or, mutual exclusion rather than communication between different texts. [20]

After mulling all of this over, I am now surprised that so many critics—especially, as I say, Tolstoy critics—are able to cite Shklovsky so cavalierly. I myself am resolved never to mention Shklovsky, Formalism, or defamiliarisation without at once adding a vigourous caveat.

[1] Robert S. Kawashima, ‘Verbal Medium & Narrative Art in Homer & the Bible’, Philosophy & Literature 28.1 (April 2004), p. 104.

[2] Liza Knapp, ‘The Development of Style and Theme in Tolstoy’, The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, ed. Donna Tussing Orwin (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), p. 164.

[3] Kawashima, pp. 104-5.

[4] Ibid., p. 106.

[5] Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books & School of the Ages (NY: Riverhead, 1995), p. 313.

[6] A brief note on this naming convention 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, Tzetan 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. I like this a great deal, and intend to use it myself. Clark and Holquist, however, consistently refer to Bakhtin alone as the author of these works.

I find the convention especially important in the case of Medvedev, who was arrested in 1938 and shot by the Soviet authorities for not being sufficiently Communist in his writings. As Todorov writes, ‘In such a context I would be most loath to deny him the even partial authorship of works for which he died’ (Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, tr. Wlad Godzich [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994], p. 10).

[7] Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1984), p. 194.

[8] Ibid., pp. 188, 189.

[9] Ibid., p. 189.

[10] See Sir Dimitri Obolensky, ed. & tr., The Heritage of Russian Verse (Bloomington, IN: Indiana U, 1976), p. 98.

[11] Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Supplement: The Problem of Content, Material, & Form in Verbal Art’, tr. Kenneth Bostrom, Art & Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays, ed. Michael Holquist & Vadim Liapunov (Austin, TX: U of Texas, 1995), p. 299.

[12] Ibid., p. 306.

[13] Ibid., p. 307.

[14] Despite the acknowledgement of a connection, I’m a bit puzzled by the distinction here. Clark & Holquist actually translate ostranenie as ‘deautomatization’, claiming that it is ‘sometimes translated as “making it strange”’ (p. 191).

[15] From Mikhail Bakhtin & Pavel Medvedev, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, tr. A.J. Wehrle (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1978); in Pam Morris, ed., The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov (London: Arnold, 1994), pp. 138-9.

[16] Clark & Holquist, p. 191.

[17] Bakhtin/Medvedev, p. 147.

[18] Clark & Holquist, p. 193.

[19] Ibid., p. 194.

[20] Ibid., p. 196. This last point is particularly dear to my heart. Although I myself am all for acknowledging important differences between ‘different idea systems’—see my controversial post on St Justin’s critique of ecumenism here, or, on the literary side, this one on Tolstoy and Homer—I like Bakhtin am more commonly preoccupied with looking for connections between things.