Modernity laid bare II: the beetle on the road to Munich



Evegeny Vodolazkin was born and raised in the Soviet era. For him studying the Medieval history and literature was a way to escape from the gulag that was Societ Russia, a kind of emmigraton. Medieval history was the only piece of reality where the Soviet mentality was absent in the 1980s when he was growing up.

His parents were agnostics and he was not baptized as a child. It was a period of my personal paganism, he says. “As a child, I asked someone, some unknown person, to help me, please. When I was 16 I was baptized. A movement inside me led me to that point. Where did it come from? When I was 14 or 15, I discovered death”. Little children, he says, know that death exists, but they don’t believe it concerns them. They think that a death is a personal misunderstanding, or something that happens to this particular person who died. At that moment he says he experienced a terrible fear – not that he would die and cease to be, but rather that everything is pointless without God.

In the Soviet Union in those years after his conversion it was prohibited for young people to visit church. Doing so constituted a huge risk and would be regularly punished by expulsion from university. He was undeterred by this and describes it as his secret life. He felt like one of the early Christians.

He is intrigued by the response to Laurus. Some critics have described it as a postmodern novel. He disputes this because for him postmodernism is just a game that plays with quoting literature of the past, but has no grounding in anything real.

He sees a new literature now being born. It has, he says, many, many features of the Middle Ages in its structure. Modernity he thinks, quoting Nikolai Berdyaev, the great Russian religious and political philosopher, is in its end days as a cultural epoch.

Berdyaev says people in the Middle Ages were not so individualistic as people in modernity. Modernity developed our appreciation of individuality and that in itself was not a bad thing. But now, we are entering a time when our appreciation another set of values is growing, values which are ultimately more important than individuality.

For Vodolazkin it is now time to think about the destination, and not just about the journey. This is a central theme in Laurus. If the way leads nowhere, it is meaningless. He recalls a film released in Russia during the perestroika period. It was called Repentance, by the Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze . It’s a movie about the destruction wrought by the Soviet past. The last scene of the film shows a woman baking a cake at the window. An old woman passing on the street stops and asks if this way leads to the church. The woman in the house says no, this road does not lead to the church. And the old woman replies, “What good is a road if it doesn’t lead to a church?”

So a road as such is nothing, Vodolazkin argues. It is really the endless way of Alexander the Great, whose great conquests were aimless. “I thought about mankind as a little curious beetle that I once saw on the big road from Berlin to Munich. This beetle was marching along the highway, and it seemed to him that he knows everything about this way. But if he would ask the main questions, ‘Where does this road begin, and where does it go?’, he can’t answer. He knew neither what is Berlin, nor Munich. This is how we are today”.

He sees us as essentially duped by technical and scientific knowledge. This leads us to believe that we can solve every problem in life, he says. That for him is a great illusion. Technology has not solved the problem of death, and it will never solve this problem. The illusion is that everything is clear and known to us. Medieval people, 100 percent of them believed in God – were they really so stupid in comparison to us? he asks.

Laurus reveals in a powerful way how, for medieval people, God was the most important thing about life. It shows as well that the second most important thing was Time. While in terms of years spent on this earth, medieval people lived rather short lives, in other terms life was very, very long, because they lived with their minds in eternity. For them life did not end when their time on earth ended. Their days on earth were part of a greater whole. “Every day is an eternity in the church, and all that surrounded these people. Eternity made time very long, and very interesting.  Their life was very long because they had as part of daily life this vertical connection, the connection to the divine realm, a connection that most of us in modernity have lost.”

He is puzzled by the fact that liberals and conservatives both liked his book. “I tried to say with it that there is another way to live: the way of the saints. It is not an easy way to walk, but maybe we can walk alongside it”. He says he is not trying to teach people in his book. His only purpose is to show us what this other way looks like.

With a little note of doubt as to whether people will understand what he s really saying, he thinks that maybe it was easier to see the truth about things in the first ages of Christianity than it is now in our post-Christian culture. “Nobody knew about Christianity back then. These people, these first Christians, brought the fire of a new faith, of a new religion. Now everyone thinks they know everything.

This is a book of great complexity, with archaic flourishes which sometimes baffle the reader but are all part of the meaning of the whole. According to one reviewer, “Laurus cannot be faulted for its ambition or for its poignant humanity. It is a profound, sometimes challenging, meditation on faith, love and life’s mysteries.”

The late Umberto Eco

But while the book itself is one phenomenon, the other is Evegeny Vodolazkin himself. It is not a little ironic that he should make his appearance in our culture at the juncture in time when another – to whom he has been compared – should have left us. Umberto Eco preoccupied himself with many of the things with which Vodolazkin does – but came to very contrary conclusions. Eco remained with the beetle on the road to Munich. Vodolazkin transcended the road and helps us see both the origin and the destination of everything that gives that road its purpose.  The New Yorker reviewer said that Vodolazkin aims directly at the heart of the Russian religious experience. He does, but he does much more than that. He goes to the heart of the hunger for religion in every soul.


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