Modernity laid bare I: ‘the history of a man’s soul’

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Have we been duped by modernity? Was the rise of Christianity in its first age an easier project than its restoration or rejuvenation in the modern age may be? In an age when technical and scientific knowledge has such a capacity to bamboozle humanity with the idea of irreversible progress, can the light of faith ever again penetrate this darkness?

Yes, it can. And how it might do so, how it will do so, is the preoccupation and theme of a Russian historian and novelist whose book, Laurus, is taking the literary world by storm.

Already a best-seller in its country of origin where it was published in 2013, this novel by Evegeny Vodolazkin, has now been translated into English. Its first edition has been sold out and a new printing – my local bookshop tells me – will not be available in Europe until May. Laurus has already been translated into more than twenty languages worldwide. It became a literary sensation when published in Russia and won its two major literary awards in that year. This, Vodolazkin’s second novel (though his debut in English), captures religious fervour in fifteenth-century Russia, tracking the life of a healer and “holy fool” it is described by some as a postmodern synthesis of Bildungsroman, travelogue, hagiography and love story.

Set in the late Middle Ages, its protagonist, Arseny, born in 1440, was raised near the Kirillov Monastery, about three hundred miles north of Moscow. He becomes a renowned medicine man, faith healer, and prophet who “pelted demons with stones and conversed with angels.” He makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He takes on new names, depending on how he will next serve God. The people venerate his humble spirituality. In Laurus, its New Yorker reviewer tells us, Vodolazkin aims directly at the heart of the Russian religious experience. He may, but he does much more than that.

It is truly astounding that just a few decades after Russia’s emergence from the bitter wilderness of soviet atheism, a voice and a spirit like this can speak to us with such authority, spiritual sensibility and wisdom. It surely shows us that mankind, even caught in the grip of atheistic modernity, is redeemable.

Rod Dreher says of this novel that it makes you want to enter into contemplative prayer after reading from its pages. “It induces an awareness of the radical enchantment of the world, and of the grandeur of the soul’s journey through this life toward God. It is so strange and mystical and … well, to call a novel ‘holy’ is too much, but Laurus conjures on every page an awareness of holiness that is without precedence in my experience as a reader.”

He fears that by saying that, he will make the novel sound pious and devotional. It is not. “This is an earthy novel, filled with the sounds, smells, violence, superstition, and fanaticism of the Middle Ages. The achievement of Vodolazkin, who is a medieval historian by vocation, is to make this faraway world come vividly to life, and to saturate it with mystical Orthodox Christianity, such that even the leaves of the trees are enchanted.”

So taken was Dreher by this novel when he read it, that he contacted the 51 year-old author by telephone at his home in St. Petersburg in early November, and spent nearly two hours in conversation.

In his account of that conversation the first surprise comes in their first exchange about the geo-political problems which seem to be preoccupying the people of their respective countries just now. Dreher, an American, asked the Russian, “Do you believe that problems of the modern world can be solved by political means?” the answer was polite but clear – almost to the point of not being polite:

“I don’t do politics. If a journalist asks me for my political views, I answer normally that I have no political views. As a Christian, I deal with each event separately, and I try to judge it from a Christian point of view, of right and wrong.

“I have a theory – well, theory sounds too serious, but I have an idea. Each phenomenon has different dimensions or, better, levels, and the political level is not the highest one. I am certain that the reasons of social events lie in the human soul. It is a concrete soul, where grows aggression, and this aggression echoes with the aggression in other souls.”

Vodolazkin has what we would probably call, borrowing from his own terminology, a personalist view of history.

“I suppose nobody believes that Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s death in Sarajevo is the reason for the First World War. Everything was ready for the explosion; the assassination was the spark. Or, consider the Russian Revolution, in 1917. Normally, history books tell us that it was a very difficult situation in Russia – there was hunger, starvation, and so forth. But we had much more difficult situations than that [before] in Russia, and did not have a revolution.

“The reason of these events is the united energy of individuals.  … We have to work with individual human beings, and their souls. My position is one of Christian personalism. The main thing we can do to fight this evil is to pray… To do something politically is not so effective. Politics is a result of the situation we have in our souls.”

For him, after the Providence of God, culture is the real catalyst for change. Except for what he describes as “the gathering of the Holy Spirit”, culture is for him the second most important work that we can do. He cites one of his teachers, the historian and scholar, Dmitri Sergeyevich Likhachov, who wrote that the main thing that justifies the existence of a nation is its culture.

Laurus is an exploration of the human condition in our own time but looked at with the wisdom of the people of another time. In truth, It reveals the deep humanism of the Middle Ages. For Vodolazkin this age was much more humanistic than modernity.

“The massacres we have seen in the 20th century, no one in the Middle Ages could have imagined. Despite what you might have heard, a human life was estimated very highly in the Middle Ages. When they say that humanism appeared only in modernity, it is not true.”

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A humanism which reached for heaven

He explains how it was a special kind of humanism. The humanism of modernity sees the human being as the measure of all things, but medieval people were convinced that this measure was given by God. It’s an essential difference. Echoing his great compatriot Alexander Solzynitsyn’s critique of the Renaissance, and the subsequent moves to put man at the centre of the universe in the Enlightenment, he says that  in modernity the human being is at the top of the hierarchy. In the Middle Ages, at the top of the hierarchy was God. “In our post-Christian society, God very often is not present in our life at all.”

In a seminar in London last Autumn Vodolazkin described Laurus in this way: “To quote Lermontov,” he said, “it is ‘the history of a man’s soul’.” The book’s subtitle is, intriguingly, “a non-historical novel”. He is quick to dissociate himself from historical fiction. It is ultimately “a book about absence,” he said, “a book about modernity”. “There are two ways to write about modernity: the first is by writing about the things we have; the second, by writing about those things we no longer have.”

(End of Part I)

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