A brilliant Russian author and scholar argues that we are finally re-entering a world that is introspective, communal, and spiritually focused
Euguene Vodolazkin is one of the most promising, brilliant contemporary Russian authors. His book Laurus (2012) caused a sensation in Russia and, since its translation into English, has received glowing reviews internationally. The book, which explores the path of a holy fool, and engages intimately with both modern thinking and ancient Christian texts, is both technically brilliant and spiritually enlightening.
He is also a prominent scholar of medieval Russian literature and a cultural thinker. He has long been arguing that the consumerist, shallow culture of modern times is slowly giving way to an older model of society and thinking: one more introspective, communal and spiritual. Here is his manifesto of sorts:
The past is returning. Any return assumes a preceding departure. Perhaps, though, the past never left, and its absence will turn out to have been an illusion. Certain traits embedded in genes don’t manifest themselves for some time. That doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared, though; they’re simply waiting for the right moment to emerge. That moment—the moment we are at now—could be called a return.
Naturally enough, the idea of a return of the past isn’t new. Antiquity asserted the cyclical nature of time. Christian civilization rejected that circle, offering the spiral as a model. Yes, events repeat, but on another level, under other conditions. This understanding of the world was expressed by early Christian thinkers who saw Christ as a new Adam and the Virgin Mary as a new Eve. There are a great many such pairs: Melchizedek and Christ, the twelve tribes and the twelve disciples, Israel and the Church.
At the very moment when the past’s departure seems irrevocable, the spiral twists and the return gets its rolling start. We recognize old traits in new occurrences. The spiral can be likened to the DNA helix. Today the helix is turning yet again, and we see emerging from modernity a new Middle Ages.
Nikolai Berdyaev predicted this return in 1923 in The End of Our Time. He described the modern age, which is “colorful and individualistic,” as nearing its end, being replaced by an epoch that is much closer to the “profound and collective” Middle Ages. He saw that a revolution was beginning. (“Revolution begins internally, before it is exposed on the outside.”) Umberto Eco saw it as well, and announced that “our era can be defined as a new Middle Ages.” So what do “the Middle Ages” really mean to us in the present day?
Today, “medieval” is a swear word hurled at anyone we want to accuse of cruelty and ignorance, and so the return of the medieval is a possibility that fills us with dread. This attitude involves a serious misapprehension, but I will not attempt to correct it here. Rather, I will invite the reader into the medieval world, which is admittedly rather quirky. I will do so in terms of the written word, because as a scholar of literature and a writer (an ichthyologist and a fish), my exploration of the medieval and the modern must proceed through an examination of texts. I am not a philosopher capable of taking in the whole, but a philologist concerned with particulars. Even from this limited perspective, we can see that medieval culture constituted a system that was well-constructed and logical in its own way. If it had not been, it could not have worked successfully over the course of many centuries. The duration of the system’s existence speaks to its high stability and fruitfulness.
Medieval writings are fragmentary in structure, a literature of cut and paste, or “cento.” To borrow Nikolai Leskov’s vivid expression, they are like “the patchwork quilts of city women from Orel,” sewn up from scraps of fabrics a seamstress once worked with. What does that mean?
Texts were not so much composed as compiled in the Middle Ages. New texts contained, almost consisted of, fragments of preceding ones. Rather than retell an event, a compiler would just reuse the text from a previous account. The Primary Chronicle, the first Russian chronicle, tells of the death of the “accursed” prince Svyatopolk. In describing the prince, the chronicler combines two fragments from George Hamartolos’s Byzantine Chronicle: One is about the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the other is about Herod. Why did the chronicler borrow those particular fragments? The answer is simple. The prince’s escape and death in a foreign land led the chronicler to the idea of using the text about Antiochus, whose death was similar. The fragment about Herod was chosen because the epithet for Herod was “accursed” and so was that for prince Svyatopolk.
In a similar way, hagiographers would include in their texts fragments from other saints’ lives. These fragments were most often borrowed from the lives of saints with the same name. Some parts of the life story of the saint Kirill Novoezersky thus use text from the life of the saint Kirill Belozersky. Such borrowing might seem criminal to the modern mind. How could one person’s biography be supplemented with fragments from someone else’s? A medieval person saw the matter differently. If two saints had the same name—and names aren’t accidental!—then why shouldn’t their fates resemble one another? And why not draw on the one to illuminate the other?
Medieval texts are like Lego sets. They can be taken apart, reconfigured, and combined. This flexibility seems to pose many dangers. What becomes of causation? Extraneous insertions cannot help but ruin the logical procession of events, we think. There is no logic or strict sequence in the representation of actions. The Primary Chronicle in 1067 and 1069 depicts Prince Izyaslav as a villain, using corresponding stylistic devices. In 1073, that very same Izyaslav is described as a victim, this time using hagiographical shadings. As it happens, one particularity of medieval texts is the near absence of what we would consider cause and effect. In these accounts, unlike in contemporary histories, one event doesn’t lead to another. Any new event is in some sense a new beginning. Whereas contemporary historical narration takes as its basic structural unit the event, medieval historical narratives take as their basic structural unit a chronological period: a year in Russian chronicles or a reign in Byzantine ones. One event does not beget another; year follows year or reign follows reign.
History of this sort does not need cause and effect. There is no cause-and-effect connection even in hagiography, where events are the structural units. Lives of saints consist of small storylines strung one after another along a time-based axis. With rare exceptions, they do not cause one another. Chronology is the foundation of the composition here, too. In both genres, the cause of events is found in the realm of the providential. Take the following example: Ivan scolds Petr. Feeling offended, Petr strikes Ivan. Everything here seems clear from the perspective of contemporary notions of cause-and-effect connections. A medieval person would look at the matter differently, though: Ivan insulted God by offending Petr, thus God punished Ivan through Petr’s hand. In the contemporary interpretation of this incident, the connections are pragmatic and horizontal, but they are providential and vertical in the medieval understanding. Neither cause and effect nor even a strict sense of chronology hindered the medieval scribe when he set out to construct a new text.
The impression may form that a chaos of Brownian motion reigns in the world of medieval texts, but that’s not the case at all. There are certain regular patterns. Which works were preserved unchanged when the text was rewritten? (In scholarship, this is called textual stability.) The answer has to do with religion. The stability of a medieval text depended in large part on its closeness to the Holy Scripture, the primary book in the Middle Ages. The Holy Scripture—the text of texts, standing at the center of spiritual life—had a special fate. Any new manuscript copy of the Holy Scripture was produced by drawing on not one, but two or more manuscripts. The scribe looked after the integrity of the holy text by comparing manuscripts, and correcting possible errors and deviations from the canonical text. At the other end of the spectrum—the end with maximal distance from the sacred—one can see that the texts changed significantly when reproduced. Manuscript copies of Digenes Akritas, a secular Byzantine heroic epic that was translated into Rus, exhibit a very high degree of variation.
To one degree or another, the Holy Scripture set the tone for the majority of medieval compilations. All the loose ends of fragmentary texts found their unity in Scripture. Biblical quotations were natural in any context. The Bible is almost always present, since any medieval text was, no matter what its style, to some degree a continuation or concretization of the Holy Scripture. Characteristic of the priority given to the sacred is an excerpt from The Primary Chronicle that describes the Russian attack on Constantinople that occurred before Russia had adopted Christianity. Borrowed from the Byzantine Chronicle of George Hamartolos, this passage describes the attack with utter disapproval. This passage (and it is important) draws an analogy to pagan attacks on Israel in the Old Testament. In quoting the Byzantine chronicler, the Russian annalist does not make even the slightest attempt to edit a narrative that is unflattering to Russians: A Russian Christian looks at Russian pagans with the exact same disapproval as does a Byzantine Christian. Sacred history trumps national identity.
What mattered most in these texts was not so much who said something but what was said. This was the reason for the rise of “strange speeches” in medieval texts. Villains call themselves villains, people of another faith call themselves faithless, and pagan sorcerers quote the Psalter at length. Because these figures say correct things, no one questions the naturalness of the texts coming from their mouths.
Authorship was unimportant. The name of an ordinary scribe mattered little. What mattered was the text itself and its correspondence (or lack thereof) to truth. The medieval author felt more like a transmitter than an author. This is why medieval writings are, generally, anonymous. The absence of pretensions to authorship made “plagiarism” natural in the Middle Ages. There were exceptions, however. The Church Fathers were certainly significant. Others who had a spiritual or social right to do so signed their work: Kirill Turovsky, archpriest Avvakum, or, say, Ivan the Terrible.
Despite the availability of multiple drafts and versions, as a rule the text in the modern age has a canonical variant determined by the author. In the medieval text, though, each copy is its own version to some degree, just as each copyist is a coauthor to some degree. These medieval versions don’t possess rights of exclusivity, and a new version doesn’t cancel out the old. They exist in parallel. This is because a medieval text is, fundamentally, incomplete. The chronicles, which were continued by many generations of annalists, are a vivid example of this trait. For the Middle Ages, texts were dynamic systems with blurred borders and structure.
Now let’s have a look at things from the perspective of medieval readers. They didn’t “get sick of” their texts, as we do with our own, which can quickly go out of style. Medieval works possessed a longevity that’s inconceivable for an age in which ideas are bound up with innovation and the succession of styles. After being put into circulation, medieval works generally remained there and continued to be copied. Works with thousand-year differences in age could cohabit peacefully within one compilation. The absence of the idea of progress and the retrospective focus of the medieval mind deprived “fresh” texts of an advantage. On the contrary, the advantage went to anything that bore the sheen of the primordial. The medieval reader was pleased to encounter familiar fragments in a new text. Déjà vu was a merit rather than a sin. It was repetition of the indisputable.
The medieval reader read all texts as nonfiction, as “what happened in reality.” Reality was not just what had been but also what should have been. Ancient Russian hagiography offers examples of the medieval habit of equating what should be with what was. The life story of the northern Russian wilderness-dweller Nikodim Kozheozersky tells of how this saint, as is customary for hermits, ate only wild plants, an assertion that is not hindered even when the hagiographer announces in the next sentence that he also cultivated turnips for his diet. So, on the one hand, much of what fell within the realm of the “real” would be considered fiction today. On the other hand, anything declared to be invented was completely ruled out. Medieval writing did not recognize what was invented (it was a sin) in any form.
All of these particularities reflect a non-artistic perception of the written word. The concept of artistry in its fullest form is characteristic only of the modern mindset. It is inseparable from the modern idea of progress, under which some artistic achievements are replacing others. An ingenious writer bears the culture forward toward new truths, rather than a humble scribe recalling it to old ones. Despite the presence of elements of artistry—repetition, wordplay, and the like—the aesthetic qualities of medieval texts were not dwelled upon.
In speaking about literature today, it is common to invoke the philosophy and poetics of postmodernism. Whatever else that term means, the poetics of postmodernism and the poetics of the Middle Ages have much in common. This can be seen first in the fragmentary character of the contemporary text. In the postmodern version, this usually does not involve the actual repurposing of passages from preceding works, as it did in medieval texts. More commonly, allusion, quotation, retelling, and the like are used in a new form of compilation. One special type is the stylistic quotation: We find vivid examples of this in the work of my countryman Vladimir Sorokin. His texts encompass nearly all of Russian literature, from the Middle Ages to the classics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He recreates medieval texts, in an imagined form, in Day of the Oprichnik; the style of Ivan Goncharov in Novel (also known as Roman); and the styles of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Andrei Platonov, Vladimir Nabokov, and Boris Pasternak in Blue Lard.
Nothing within postmodernism’s framework impedes textual borrowing. In a certain sense, the postmodern way of thinking frees the text from the burden of being private property, returning it to what Karl Krumbacher called the “literary communism” of the Middle Ages. According to a more classically modern outlook, textual borrowing without reference to the source is plagiarism. This mindset hampered the reception of the work of Mikhail Shishkin, a popular contemporary Russian prose writer. Critics with traditional leanings refused to embrace Shishkin’s borrowings and repurposings. The most negative critical reaction came about because of his use of a fragment from writer Vera Panova’s reminiscences in his novel Maidenhair, which was misunderstood as plagiarism.
In the Middle Ages, quotations circled back to the Holy Scripture, directly or indirectly. Today, the role of super-book is fulfilled to a certain extent by the literary canon as a whole. A quotation becomes a sort of sign, an indicator of belonging to the tradition. Contemporary authors create their texts from literary quotations, in the same way that the medieval hagiographer Epiphanius the Wise weaves biblical quotations into lives of saints.
Despite its rather gloomy shadings, Roland Barthes’s statement about the “death of the author” in postmodern literature is another herald of the medieval’s return. Though the postmodern author, unlike his medieval counterpart, doesn’t refuse to sign the text (and receives, or should receive, royalties), there is a weakening of the authorial element that asserted itself for so long in the modern age. Through his borrowings, the author is to some extent an editor, and expects to be edited in turn. Thanks in part to the internet, a medieval openness and perpetual revisability—something book printing removed during the modern age—has returned to texts.
Strictly speaking, what was invented in modern literature was not really invented. For the most part, it too was a variation on reality. The events the authors thought up were, simultaneously, real. After all, authorial experience has to be based on something. Let’s put it this way: These are events that occurred in another place and another time, that were then transferred to the pages of the literary work. This was reality, structured differently. Reality broken down to its elements and reconfigured—in other words, a conditional reality, or what is conditioned to be considered reality.
As it happens, many current texts seek to reflect unconditional reality. The decision of the Nobel Committee to award the 2015 prize in literature to Svetlana Alexievich, a Russian-language author from Belarus, is symptomatic. Alexievich’s books are seen by many as issue-based journalism and documentary, rather than as art and literature. This is yet another point in their similarity with the Middle Ages, when texts settled smoothly into the nonfiction category. On the one hand, we see a drive toward nonfiction and “new realism,” and on the other, postmodernism’s surreal element. Both reflect a devaluation of the fictive but realistic “reality” offered by modern literature. Once again literature is becoming heterogeneous and, in a certain sense, limitless, as in the Middle Ages. The boundary between fiction and nonfiction, and literature and non-literature, is becoming shaky and plays an ever smaller role in our imaginations.
As in the Middle Ages, the world itself is becoming a text, though the texts vary in these two cases. The medieval world was a text written by God that excluded the ill-considered and the accidental. The Holy Scripture, which gave meaning to the signs that were generously scattered in daily life, was this world’s key. Now the world is a text that has any number of individual meanings that can be documented. Think of the blogger who describes, minute by minute, a day that has passed.
The modern age required, to one degree or another, a repudiation of previous works and previous poetics. The self-image of modern literature rested on an idea of progress that presumed the exchange of one style for another. In the Middle Ages, which did not know the idea of progress, either in public life or in aesthetics, the old and the new were not opposed: New texts incorporated old texts. We see the same sort of symbiosis in postmodern literature, which makes precursor texts a part of itself rather than rejecting them.
The progressive type of thinking that predominated throughout the modern age no longer feels like the only possible way to think. The sense of the end of history has been expressed, both in the extraordinary popularity of dystopias, as well as, paradoxically, in liberal philosophy that does not lack utopian traits (Francis Fukuyama). They are incompatible with the modern age’s progressive perception of the world. This is the most obvious trait that our new epoch shares with the Middle Ages. Any time in the Middle Ages was imagined as a potential last time. Even if periodic expectations of the end of the world are set aside, it was not an accepted thing during the Middle Ages to speak about the future, and certainly not about any sort of bright future. Once again today, the sense of an ending is all around us.
Children often turn out to resemble their grandmothers and grandfathers rather than their parents. The modern age developed an individual element in literature. It distinguished between and isolated texts, authors, and readers. Texts acquired borders, authors acquired individual styles, and readers acquired books from the segments of the market that fit their interests. Today’s phase in cultural development proves, however, that this state of affairs is not the last word. At no point since the Middle Ages has literature so closely resembled medieval writing. It seems that we are entering a time very much in keeping with the Middle Ages, as if in rhyme with it.
To examine the similarity between contemporary life and the Middle Ages, I turned to literary material, since that’s what’s closest to me. Yet literature is only a partial manifestation of a nation’s or culture’s spiritual state. Nikolai Berdyaev divides epochs into days and nights. Days include antiquity and the modern age. They’re colorful and magnificent, and they go down in history as moments of explosive display. The night epochs—such as the Middle Ages—are outwardly muted but profounder than those of the day. It is during the sleep of night that what has been perceived during the day can be assimilated. A night epoch allows for insight into the essence of things and for concentrating strength. We are now entering such a time.
As far as naming the coming epoch, it might be called, with a dose of humor, the Epoch of Renaissance, since it is reviving some qualities of the Middle Ages. Alas, it seems that the name is taken. In my view, the coming epoch’s intent attention to metaphysics, its intent attention not just to the surface reality but to what might lie beyond it, gives cause for calling it the Epoch of Concentration.
Each epoch resolves certain problems. What issues stand before the Epoch of Concentration? I’ll name two, though they’re actually one twofold issue: excessive individualization and the secularization of life. In the modern age, the individual required recognition. Faith required lack of faith so that the believer would have a choice and so that faith wouldn’t be a mere everyday habit. This train gathered speed but didn’t stop. It kept moving even after reaching its station. It now seems to have gone pretty far beyond its destination. The cult of the individual now places us outside divine and human community. The harmony in which a person once found himself with God during the Middle Ages has been destroyed, and God no longer stands at the center of the human consciousness.
The humanism of the modern age takes that the human being is the measure of all things. The same could be said of the Middle Ages, with one correction: The person is the measure of all things, if it is understood that the measure was given by God. Humanism becomes inhuman without that correction. As the rights set down for the individual multiply, a turn is inevitably coming for a right to cross the street against a red light. Because our concept of rights is anti-humane at its core, it activates the mechanism for self-destruction. The right to suicide turns out to be our most exemplary liberty.
If the West is able to move beyond its geopolitical disagreements with Russia and take a good look at the conservative project that’s taking shape in Russia now, it will see one possible future for our common European civilization. Today as ever—contrary to progressive conceits—it is possible for a society to recognize a place for religion and uphold traditional notions of marriage and family. Yet Russia’s attempt to do this will fail if a harsh dictatorship of the majority arises. This would destabilize society no less than, say, the dictatorship of the minority that we can observe at times in the West. If it becomes clear that this is a dynamic, self-regulating system capable of reacting to shifts as they arise, the project can be considered successful.
Be that as it may, social changes in Russia go hand in hand with literary changes, and we can consider them a single process. In that regard, I’m pleased to note that the practice of reading has changed somewhat in Russia in recent years. People haven’t begun reading more but they’ve begun reading, one might say, better: sales of thrillers, romance novels, and fantasy have declined as demand for serious literature has grown.
In conclusion, permit me to mention my own work. I have in mind my novel Laurus, which describes the life of a saint and is written according to the rules of medieval poetics. Translated and sold in around two dozen countries, Laurus is most popular in Russia and . . . the United States. I credit half of this success to Lisa Hayden’s excellent translation. The other half can be explained—yes, yes!—by the similarity of Russia and the U.S.
I came to love the U.S. last year when I visited for the first time: I suddenly realized how alike we are. Perhaps this is the reason for our misunderstandings, since the harshest confrontations involve similarity. These sorts of things, however—and here we can recall the rather complex history of relationships between European countries—have most often ended in mutual understanding, again, thanks to similarities. The fundamental values of our common Christian history that developed over the centuries connect us, although some of these have been forgotten. Will we manage to return to them in what would be, needless to say, a new phase? Perhaps the Epoch of Concentration will give an answer to the question. Everything depends on the degree of concentration.
Eugene Vodolazkin is the author of Laurus. This essay was translated from the Russian by Lisa C. Hayden.
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