27 May 2020

Anaǵa aparar jol: Sataev and Spielberg schmaltz


Ilyas Ersenbaev (Ádil Ahmetov) in Anaǵa aparar jol

If there was one aspect of the film Réketır that I didn’t particularly like, it was the title sequence. The story of Saıan’s descent into crime simply didn’t need all the sepia-soaked baby pics and school graduation shots and establishing montage of his youth growing up in the late Soviet Union. It also simply didn’t need the dramatic autobiographical narration with Saıan ponderously wondering about where it all went wrong in his life. Likewise, the propagandistic pæan to Nursultan Nazarbaev’s autocracy and how it established and preserved the great Kazakh nation at the end of Jaýjúrek myń bala was over-the-top and unnecessary, and came close to cheapening rather than glorifying the victorious self-sacrifice of the hero Sartaı. The dastanic format itself should have carried all the patriotic weight it needed to. If there’s one thing that an independent art-film director like Dárejan Ómirbaev or Ardak Ámirqulov could teach a big-shot state-funded blockbuster director like Aqan Sataev, it’s the value of restraint: the idea that in some cases, less can actually be more.

Unfortunately, with 2016’s Anaǵa aparar jol [Eng. The Road to Mother], we do not get restraint. Or such silly notions as subtlety. In fact, reviewing this film, I take back most of my – in retrospect, fairly trifling – criticisms of Ámirqulov’s Qosh bol, Gúlsary!. By comparison with this film, Gúlsary was the very model of literary and cinematic œconomy. I can easily forgive that film for the venial sins of being a trifle overdrawn, and of having production values on par with a made-for-TV Masterpiece adaptation of classic literature. At least Ámirqulov is aware enough of the value of cinematic language to be able to show us what he’s talking about with the emasculation of Homo sovieticus under an uncaring bureaucracy. And Ámirqulov nowhere feels the need to beat us over the head with his point.

The story itself is touching and heartfelt. It’s the tale of a boy, Ilyas Ersenbaev (Ádil Ahmetov), born on the steppe into a nomadic family, who has to survive the ravages of the Civil War, forced sedentarisation, famines and political purges which took such a heavy toll on all the Kazakh people. His goal in life is to return to his mother Maryam (Altynaı Nógerbek), from whom he was separated at a young age, and his childhood friend Úmit (Arujan Jazılbekova). The road to mother is not an easy one for him; he has to navigate the Soviet orphanage system, military academy and the Eastern Front of the Great Patriotic War, and finally the gulag. And because of the political sensitivity of his family background – he had both Red and White kinsmen growing up – he and his mother are both forced to take on different surnames, which makes locating each other more difficult, even though neither one of them gives up.

This is a simple, eloquent and moving story which should be able to carry its own weight. I say should be, because in the cases where the actors are able to shine out from underneath Sataev’s ham-fisted and clumsy direction, there are actually glimmers of it doing so. All of the leads have been clearly well-cast, and the genuine human moments of interaction that happen between them are all sweet and poignant. In a single fleeting moment at a train station we can easily believe that the long-separated Ilyas and Úmit have fallen for each other. The problem is that neither Sataev, nor screenwriter Timur Jaqsylyqov, actually trust the actors – nay, even the main characters – to convey the story to us. At the very moments which should be left to carry their own emotional weight, instead we have a narrator Morgan Freemaning over us in theatrically-guttural Kazakh: ‘At this moment, Ilyas felt the pangs of loneliness upon his heart,’ or ‘Ilyas did not let his losses embitter him, for he was filled with hope and love’. This gets in the way of the storytelling rather than pushing it forward.

Sataev also doesn’t seem to trust the audience to draw elementary queues from the cinematic language he gives us. To give one example: in one scene early in the film, a ten-year-old Ilyas points out to Úmit a dandelion that’s sprouted up between the cracks of the stones in a well, and admires its tenacity. Later, an adult Ilyas in solitary confinement in the gulag uses the handle of his spoon to scratch a detailed drawing of a dandelion in the wall of his cell. Sataev could have left it there and made his point perfectly well – that is what Ómirbaev would have done. But he has to actually replay that scene in flashback from the beginning of the film. You know, just in case we forgot.

There are other places where Anaǵa aparar jol sort of asks its audience to suspend its critical faculties. Early on in the film, a gang of White bandits, including Ilyas’s uncle, arrive in Ilyas’s village, steal the cattle and horses, shoot his father and then kidnap him from his mother. Then we are later expected, as per the musical flourishes, dialogue and framing, to feel sorry for Ilyas’s kidnappers and see them as paragons of virtue. I can’t help but think of this entire sequence as a missed opportunity, and also one that works against Sataev’s didactic purposes. How much more powerful would this sequence have been if the writers had elected – instead of essentially telling us which brother to root for – to explore in greater depth how the Revolution frayed the traditional bonds that bound families and brothers together! Indeed, this becomes a theme later, with the village Party chief and his son Joldas falling out with each other, and the son turning into something of a monster.

The dastanic notes of this film are again somewhat noteworthy, albeit appropriately modernised from a film like Jaýjúrek myń bala. Ilyas’s birth in a snowstorm, his early childhood struggles, his kidnapping, his righteous defence of the weak even in the orphanage, his heroism in war – actually all point to a frame of reference in the figure of the dastanic batyr. There is also the foil to the batyr in Joldas. Ilyas is a nomad: both literally and figuratively – he is generous, hospitable, pious, honest and upright. The apparatchik Joldas, however, is a traitor-Kazakh who has forgotten his nomadic roots. Having been spoilt by his father, he becomes an unfaithful husband and an abusive drunk who uses threats and bribes to get what he wants.

It is also the prayerful, traditional Hanafî Islâmic faith of both mother and son that is seen to save them. This is also a common theme in Sataev’s movies, and it shows up repeatedly here. Ilyas is shown to be a good Muslim as well as a patriotic Kazakh: giving alms, praying to God, fasting – even starving in the gulag. The pilgrimage he makes, though, is not to Mecca, though he does make it as far as Constantinople. The true pilgrimage he makes is reflected in the title of the film itself.

Anaǵa aparar jol could easily have ended ten minutes before it actually did. A satisfactory concluding sequence is then followed up with an utterly needless and frivolous coda wherein the narrator is revealed to be Ilyas’s son, a teacher who is telling his family’s story to a classroom of Kazakh high school students. In a light blue painted classroom in front of a classroom-sized political map of an independent Kazakhstan and a big old portrait of Nursultan Nazarbaev, of course. The film then pans away from the classroom to the building exterior with the Kazakhstani flag waving in front of the Alatau, just in case you missed all the patriotic symbolism in the title sequence! I’ll say it outright: this punchline comes very close to ruining the damn film. It’s one thing to make an indictment of Stalinism for its brutality and lack of all right human feeling – and that’s one of the things that Anaǵa aparar jol does remarkably well – and elevate a drama of human survival in its place. But Sataev just can’t stop himself from slathering on the sort of cheap nationalism you’d expect from, say, Wolf Warrior 2.

This is a real shame, because sandwiched between the clumsy narration and the soppy score there is a real portrait of fundamental decency and quiet human endurance, on the part of Ilyas and his separated family. This is framed against, and in despite of, the dehumanising brutalisations – physical, psychological, even sexual – of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The most touching points in the movie are when Ilyas is allowed, onscreen, to stand up for a friend of his in the orphanage, to give food to some beggars who have lost their homes in the German advance, to help a fellow gulag prisoner to his feet during a forced march despite rifle-whippings and bites from the guard dogs. There is a stirring drama of the human spirit in here somewhere, and that’s a testament to the sort of storytelling Sataev could have done. But what we get instead with Anaǵa aparar jol is a turgid, tedious, schmaltzy, syrupy mess. A significant part of the problem, I think, is that even though Sataev wants desperately to make real Kazakh film, he can’t help but look to the West, to Hollywood, for inspiration – and ultimately for approval and validation. The stylistic trappings of the movie don’t so much whisper ‘aspiring Spielberg’ as shout it from the rooftop of the zavod. All that having been said, there’s still enough good in here – good acting and good history both – to make it worth seeing once.

24 May 2020

Killer: a cab driver’s life in interesting times


Marat (Talgat Asetov) in Killer

If there’s one English phrase that makes every Asian studies major and every China hand wince, it’s this: May you live in interesting times. Unfortunately, it belongs to a considerable collection of pseudo-Confucian aphorisms and ancient Chinese proverbs of dubious origin, which have accumulated in Western languages over the decades and centuries as something of a relic of chinoiserie: attributing wisdoms both earthy and mystical to a mistily-distant exotic oriental antiquity. Unfortunately, despite even the heroic attempts by Russian Orthodox missionary churchmen to demystify China to their countrymen, it seems even post-Soviet artists have picked up a few of our bad old Jesuitical Western habits.

Sorry to go on a mini-rant, there, but my recent watch of Dárejan Ómirbaev’s 1998 film Killer [in Kazakh, Shilge; in French, Tueur à gages] brought it to mind. This orientalist cliché in its Russian form, ‘Не дай вам Бог жить в эпоху перемен’, serves as the film’s tagline. Even if this mudrost’ is incorrectly attributed, the point of the film is well made, and that point is nothing at all like the misty exoticism the tagline might otherwise imply. It also places Ómirbaev in a kind of spiritual kinship with modern Chinese indie filmmakers like Jia Zhangke. Here, Ómirbaev poignantly takes on the same concerns and themes that drive films like Shıza and Réketır, but he does so in a much darker and more understated way.

The story is straightforward. Ómirbaev details the unfortunate life of a cab driver, Marat (Talgat Asetov – who had a supporting role in Kaırat), who is forced into crime when he accidentally rear-ends a Mercedes and finds himself out of money to pay back the other driver. Events spiral out of control from there. His sister gets cheated out of her savings by fake investors, so his family can’t help him out. He has to borrow money from a loan shark. Marat gets beaten up by the Mercedes owner’s hirelings. He loses his job when his employer commits suicide. He tries to buy a new car, but it promptly gets stolen. His newborn son contracts an early childhood illness which demands expensive therapy. As he gets deeper and deeper into debt, his situation looking increasingly hopeless, the loan shark offers him a way out that involves taking a life.

Killer is uncompromisingly bleak from start to finish. The otherwise dingy palette is dominated by dark blues and dark reds. There is little of Kazakhstan’s natural beauty to be seen (unless it’s out the window of a moving car); instead, we are thrown into a world of decaying Soviet concrete apartments, garages and bars, illuminated where appropriate by fluorescent lights. There are hints early on in the film that drive home the destructive callousness of shock therapy and gangster capitalism that Ómirbaev tries to convey. The mathematics professor Marat works for, Berik Qaraqululy Qasımov, complains that there is no room for proper science in a society where everything is commercialised and where everyone is thrown into insecurity and chaos – and he later commits suicide in his office. ‘Don’t think about tomorrow,’ says the bartender Oleg, as he persuades Marat to borrow money from the loan shark Erjan Shakenovich at an interest rate of 1% per day. Everything is for sale under capitalism: honour, pride, and in the end even basic human morality. Just as in Shıza and Réketır, boxing is taken as the preferred cinematic metaphor for the brutal, cutthroat competition that pits the weak against the strong: though here, it’s portrayed on television screens.

The hopelessness of ordinary Kazakh life under this œconomic anarchy is signalled in several ways. First of all, in a lengthy scene at the beginning of the film, the professor Marat works for can’t find his way out of the studio where he’s giving an interview: in a maze of nondescript hallways, he has to ask for help twice to find his way out. It’s also interesting that Marat’s wife Aijan (Roksana Abuova) takes an almost completely passive rôle in the film. Marat’s family provides him motivation, but they have no place in the cutthroat world outside, and Marat himself is powerless to protect them from it.

In a scene that’s typical Ómirbaev, one of the minor characters recites a lengthy excerpt from Kafka. (I can forgive him for this, because the tension and tight pacing of the film, with Marat being hounded and stalked through his labyrinthine environs like the prey of an unseen predator, shows us that Ómirbaev really gets Kafka.) Of course, it wouldn’t be an Ómirbaev movie, either, if the main character didn’t lose a fight and get beaten up, as happens to Marat off-screen when he tries to stop the thieves who steal his car. Ómirbaev also gives us repeated dream sequences: in Marat’s dreams he goes up to a rooftop, looking to throw himself off. In fact, the only real expression of hope comes from a journalist who is reading a newspaper by the riverside. He remarks to Marat on the differences between Kazakhstan, with its brutal winters, and countries with warmer climates that have no need for warm clothes or oil for heat – but he also says that spring is beautiful, and it’s worth weathering brutal winters for. Of course, this journalist promptly gets shot to death in front of his toddler son, because he had written a scathing piece about some well-connected businessmen’s plans to privatise a factory.

In addition to being the most unsparing of Ómirbaev’s films, Killer is also the most direct. In Killer Dárejan Ómirbaev shows himself to be an expert at listening for what Canadian conservative philosopher George Grant called ‘intimations of deprival’. The brooding pathos of Marat, and the despair of his academic employer, ruthlessly reflects an insecurity that was felt by millions across the former Soviet states in the wake of shock therapy. And the prominent placement of Pepsi and Coca-Cola logos throughout the film shows us exactly whom Ómirbaev believes is to blame. It’s telling that the teenage daughter of the loan shark is seen exactly once, reciting English lessons from a Walkman: later, her father is shown telling her over the phone to study and get a degree overseas so she can stay in America – because why would she want to come back?

Yet despite the film’s squarely anti-capitalist stance, and despite Berik Qasımov’s yearnings for the stability of the Soviet welfare state and employment policies, Ómirbaev shows very little sympathy for Soviet nostalgia. The closest he comes, in fact, is a scene in Oleg’s bar where go-go dancers do a striptease with Soviet naval suits, accompanied by an English song with the refrain ‘These are good times!’ Even there, the nostalgia is framed in an ironic way, as though the only way to celebrate the ‘good times’ happening now is to remember when Soviet times might have been better. The imagery of the Soviet legacy is turned into an instrument for cheap titillation. Like everything else, nostalgia is a commodity for sale.

This brings me back to the faux-classical Chinese mudrost’ that sets the tone for the film. Despite its grimness, Killer bears less resemblance to other post-Soviet Kazakhstani gangster movies than it does to the spare, quiet desperation of the movies of Jia Zhangke, like 2000’s Platform and 2002’s Unknown Pleasures. Both directors are deeply sensitive to the losses – in terms of human dignity and moral direction – that have been incurred by their respective nations’ transitions to capitalism and sexual licence. Both directors hint that the freedom promised by the unleashing of market forces upon people’s personal and work lives is, in fact, another form of imprisonment.

Ómirbaev continues in the traditions of the Kazakh New Wave, here. All the actors are drama school students or amateurs. And Ómirbaev continues to make subtle hat-tips to Igla in particular. Of Ómirbaev’s films, I would have to say that even though Kardiogramma features more impressive art direction, and even though Stýdent makes a clearer and more subtle use of its literary footholds, I think Killer is so far my favourite of his. Here Ómirbaev’s minimalist tendencies are tastefully restrained, and he expresses himself with an admirable œconomy of language and visuals. The result is a film that is crisp, precise and riveting. It features an immediately relatable protagonist, whose descent into crime is shown with a subtlety such that, even though the audience is rightly appalled by Marat’s criminal action, and even though we are not surprised at his abrupt end, we can’t help but sympathise with his reasons.

22 May 2020

The class politics of Eastern Catholicism, part 2: ‘Strange, worldly motives’ in Florence


Procession of the Magi, painting by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459)
notably depicting Lorenzo, Piero and Cosimo de’ Medici

Continued from Part 1:

The Avignon Schism and the subsequent Conciliar Controversy in the Western Church was another aggravating factor within the West that led directly up to the attempts at Uniatism. The power and prestige of the Papacy had been damaged by many decades of cæsaropapist subjection to the French Crown beginning in 1309, followed by a political schism prompted by the death of Pope Gregory XI in 1377 and the issue of his succession.

Many middle-class churchmen, particularly local bishops and parish clergy, viewing the decades-long political schism between Pope in Rome and Antipope in Avignon, came to an ecclesiastical conclusion that an Œcumenical Council was needed to finally decide the question of the Papal residence and the powers of the Pope. Several attempts by these conciliarists to bring the schism to an end and bolster – in their view – the moral legitimacy of the Church were made: in 1409 at Pisa; in 1414 at Constance; at 1423 in Pavia; at 1424 in Siena; and finally in 1431 at Basel at the end of the Hussite Wars. Tellingly, the dissidium of ‘the Bohemians’ (i.e., the largely working-class followers of Jan Hus) and the Orthodox Christian doctrine of ‘the Greeks’ were mentioned in the same breath at the Council of Basel – something which caused the envoys of the Emperor deep offence.

The Council of Florence was actually the penultimate stage in the culmination of a longer process that began with the Council of Basel in 1431. Now, I do not want to rehash any more than necessary the proceedings of the Council of Florence itself, because other authorities do that elsewhere. In terms of the doctrines discussed, including the content and theology of the Nicene Creed, the position of the Papacy and the substance of communion, I do not have anything much to add except to say that I am in full agreement with the expositions of Saint Mark Eugenikos. Though doctrine and ecclesiology are inescapable when discussing Church councils like this one, here I try to confine myself to an analysis the dynamics of class at the Councils of Basel, Ferrara and Florence.


The Council of Basel, illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicles

The impetus for Pope Eugene IV in calling for a counter-Council to Basel – first at Ferrara and then at Florence – was to shore up the political influence, prestige and moral legitimacy of the Papacy in an absolute sense, and to reinforce the very idea of Papal supremacy over the Councils. In terms of class politics, the two papal parties in Avignon and Rome represented the class interests of the feudal nobility of France and England respectively – and they behaved like it. The popes (and later antipopes) in Avignon in particular were extravagantly corrupt and lax in their personal morals. Conciliarism represented the petit bourgeois republican political dimension of disaffection with the Papacy in the cities and focussed on outward structural reform, much as they pushed for political reform within the increasingly-oligarchical city-states they lived in – though by the end the conciliarist cause had been effectively coöpted by Emperor Sigismund. The working-class laypeople in rural areas had little to do with either of these ecclesiastical parties. They did not abandon the Church, however. Instead they embraced a revitalised cultus of recent saints like Catherine of Siena. This ‘lay piety’ movement was deceptively apolitical, particularly since Catherine of Siena herself was something of a rabble-rouser and urged far more radical, pro-poor reforms of the Church than the conciliarists were prepared to countenance.

The Council of Ferrara, and then the Council of Florence which was its continuation, therefore represented a confluence of material interests between the nobility and the haute bourgeoisie on the part of the Western parties. Even at Basel there seems to have been some unseemly politicking and disputation between the cities as to where the Council would be hosted. A pro-Papal minority at Basel led by Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini opted for Florence at the vote on 7 May 1437 – and then bore off the conciliar seal and affixed it to their decision under cover of darkness. This is important to note because Eastern Orthodox sources on the Council of Florence often ascribe conspiratorial motives to the Western party at the Council, while Catholic and Anglican sources tend toward an insufferable highfalutin idealism that overlooks entirely the material interests of those who called the Council in the first place.

That the first conscious attempt at Uniatism was centred on one of the big four, therefore, should not be seen as a happy accident. Nor should it be a surprise that it aligned neatly with that city-state’s interests in financial expansion and exploitation. It seems unthinkable to discuss the so-called Council of Florence without also discussing the man who brought it there: Cosimo de’ Medici, the richest banker in Europe. It was in fact de’ Medici, through his agents Roberto Martelli at Basel in 1436 and Ambrogio Traversari at Ferrara in 1437, who introduced the idea to the Pope’s party of moving the Council to Florence.


Lithograph of Ambrogio Traversari

Although Orthodox Church historian Ivan Ostroumov explicitly mentions de’ Medici ’s rôle in arranging the robber-council’s presence at Florence, other accounts, particularly Catholic ones, fail to mention de’ Medici at all. Personally, I don’t ascribe any malice in this; it’s more likely that such elisions proceed from a profound sense of embarrassment. Even so, wounded embarrassment is a fierce thing, and I am aware as I set forth in this account that I will be accused of vulgar Marxism, of materialism, of conspiratorial thought, in exploring the ‘strange, worldly motives’ among the Latin and Greek clergy who assented to Union – so be it; the facts are what they are.

It cannot be disputed that material considerations prompted the transition of the Council from Ferrara to Florence. After all, de’ Medici offered to advance the Pope 40,000 gold ducats on living arrangements for the Imperial household and the Greek bishops in his city. It should be noted that the Greek bishops themselves were far from insensitive to the material compulsions that induced them to agree to the results of the Council. Bribery and other forms of soft coercion were used by the advocates of the Union to win over truculent Greek bishops. Bishop Syropoulos, who attended the Council, was at pains to point out that he had never accepted money for his signature – a firm indication that financial gain was indeed a ready inducement to some of the signatories. Indeed, when the Council was sitting at Ferrara, the Pope withheld the Greek bishops’ promised stipends when they failed to agree with him, and made allowances when they agreed… but at Ferrara they only got as far as discussing the right of the Western Church to make insertions to the Symbol of Faith (not the substance of the filioque clause). After the council moved to Florence, the bribes and threats became more blatant still. Here is Church historian Ivan Ostroumov on the subject, in the translation by Fr Basil Popoff:
At the same time, the Emperor with great difficulty persuaded the Pope to allow the Greeks money for their maintenance, instead of the daily rations of food they were receiving like beggars, quite contrary to the agreements made in the treaty. Generally speaking, the Greeks made constant complaints about this during the whole time of the Counicl session in Ferrara and Florence. The Pope found this the best way of making the Greeks obedient. For whenever the Greeks refused to comply with any of his wishes, he immediately stopped their pay, so that many of the Bishops were obliged to sell their clothes. But as soon as the Greeks agreed to his proposals, their wages were immediately given out as a sort of reward for their obedience. As long as the Greeks disputed about the Council seats, no money was given them. But when the disputes were ended, their monthly allowance was paid out.
As we can see, from the start, the Council of Florence was not by any means a selfless noble-minded project to reunite Christendom. The motives on the Eastern side were, unfortunately, crystal-clear, and their ‘pitiable state’ is laid out and well attested across multiple primary sources, including the writings of the Eastern Roman Emperors themselves. Military and political weakness through protracted warfare with the Ottomans, as well as substantial public debt to the Venetians (!), forced Emperors Manouēl II and Iōannēs VIII Palaiologos to seek aid from the better-armed states of the West – though the Western Empire, which was at that time concluding its crusade against the Hussites, could not oblige the Eastern Empire.

The motives on the Western side have always been cast in a bit muddier terms. It’s clear, however, that the placement of the Council in the northern mercantile states of Italy, rather than in Constantinople, was no accident but instead a central and ideologically-motivated demand of the Western Church under Eugene. So the fact that de’ Medici figured so prominently in the last stage of the proceedings is worth exploring. Cosimo de’ Medici always had an eye on how an East-West reconciliation could be exploited for gain, which is why he had the entire council moved from Ferrara to Florence at his own expense. The financial prospects which would accrue to his coffers from trade concessions from Constantinople for Florence were high on the list of motivating factors. As GF Young, the largely-sympathetic historian of the de’ Medici family, points out:
The Emperor John Paleologus, following the example of his father and grandfather, proposed making a personal visit to the West to solicit help against the Turks to save Constantinople, which must otherwise fall. The Pope invited him, together with the Patriarch and bishops of the Eastern Church, to a conference, holding out hopes of such aid if the breach between the Churches of the East and West could be healed…

The Emperor John Paleologus and his retinue, together with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Joseph, and a numerous body of bishops and theologians, sailed from Constantinople, and in due time arrived at Venice. The Emperor was received with great pomp by Doge Francesco Foscari, and entertained at Venice for a month; after which he proceeded to Ferrara, where Pope Eugenius having also arrived, the Council began its sittings (5th January 1438).

Cosimo, in that task which had been mentioned of gradually bringing foreign nations to recognise in him the motive power of the Florentine state, and also gradually convincing his countrymen that their interests were best served by leaving foreign affairs to him, had had to exercise much patience. He had a matter to effect which necessarily moved but slowly, and during the first few years he had been forced to be content with a very partial control, and often been obliged to acquiesce in action which he was as yet without the power to direct as he would wish. But by the end of the year 1438 he was beginning to have this power, foreign affairs being more and more left to him to manage in his own way. And now he took the first independent step, one which had very important results to Florence. He proceeded to Ferrara, where the Council between the Eastern and Western Churches had been sitting for nearly a year, and so used his influence with Pope Eugenius IV that he got the Council transferred to Florence; whereby he obtained for his city increased political influence, and brought to it much added trade.
[emphasis mine]


Cosimo de’ Medici

This passage has the benefit of highlighting some of the political contours, at least among the Western cohort, within which the Council of Florence took place. Once this is established, then the proceedings of the Council begin to make much more sense. On the face of it, as the power struggle between the conciliarists at Basel and the Papal party at Ferrara and Florence makes clear, a lot of the internal struggle of the Catholic clergy had to do with attacking or protecting the sovereign authority of the Pope. But finical considerations overshadowed even these ideological-ecclesiological ones. Thus, the class dynamics become bitterly ironic. Despite their sympathy with bourgeois republicanism, the conciliarists’ biggest supporter at Basel was in fact the Western Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg. And despite his insistence on royal grandeur and previous support from the Kings of England, Pope Eugene found the most material support in Ferrara and Florence from de’ Medici, who represented one of the ‘Big Four’ Italian merchant republics. Both Sigismund and de’ Medici had political agendas of their own.

As far as the Greeks were concerned, even those who signed the treaty that concluded the Council at Florence, Ostroumov laconically puts it: ‘The conclusion of peace was a joyful event for one party only—the victors.’ The various material carrots and sticks that had been used on them by the Papal party had evidently left a bad taste in many Greek mouths, including many of them whose signatures were ultimately found on the concluding document. That of Saint Mark Eugenikos was not among them. Ostroumov goes on: ‘The Latins acceded to nothing; the Greeks were more or less obliged to accede to them in everything. The victorious party did not even try to soothe the sad feelings of their new brethren. The pride of the self-willed conqueror evinced itself in all his intercourse with the newly reconciled party.

On the Greek side: the most notable personalities among the Greek deputies to Florence were Mark Eugenikos, the saintly Bishop of Ephesus; Basil Bēssariōn of Trebizond, the Metropolitan of Nicæa; and Joseph II, the Patriarch of Constantinople. Mark became famous within Orthodoxy for being the only member of the Greek delegation to reject the conclusions of the Council of Florence, and he is as such regarded as a ‘Pillar of Orthodoxy’ in our Church. Both Mark and Basil were highly-educated and belonged to senatorial families. Both of them were monks based in Constantinople. Both of them studied under the great Platonic philosopher George Gemistos, who was also at the Council of Florence. Both of them deeply valued certain strands in Western Scholastic thought. Although their upbringings were similar, though, Mark and Basil still represented two very different styles of thought, two very different intellectual tendencies, and ultimately two very different class interests within the Eastern Empire.

Even though Basil was tonsured as a monk, he spent only one year as a monk and later an abbot in Constantinople prior to his elevation to the metropolis of Nicæa. It becomes clear from his subsequent career in both Greece and Italy that he is far more comfortable hobnobbing with the esteemed, the wealthy and the great among the lords spiritual and temporal, than he is with keeping the monastic disciplines. He was a key figure in ‘Renaissance humanism’, which is to say, that he carefully cultivated the patronage of people like de’ Medici and Louis XI of France. Thus, although he was originally sceptical of the Council of Florence, as he began to understand the opportunities for fame and career advancement that the Council provided him, he turned into the biggest supporter of Union between the Churches on the Latins’ terms. As Ostroumov put it: ‘No! it was no love of truth, but other objects in view, that prevailed upon [Bēssariōn] to side with the Latins; and most likely a wish to afford [the Emperor] John pleasure, and a hope of honours from the Roman court.


Saint Mark (Eugenikos) of Ephesos

Mark, on the other hand, was practically raised in the Church and was a monk through-and-through, long before he became a bishop. His concerns are almost entirely monastic. The personality that comes through in the accounts of his activity at Florence show a man who is deeply invested in the exploration of theological questions to the point that he doesn’t care if he trod on the toes of Popes or Cardinals, or Dominican friars like Giovanni di Montenero, or even his own fellow Greek bishops! He was actually originally in favour of the Union, but running up against the egos of Montenero and others in the sittings at Florence, he came to the realisation that a common truth was not to be found there. When he returned home, also, his polemical works could be considered almost ‘populist’ in flavour, as pointed out by his contemporary Andrew of Rhodes. He had no objections, on the whole, to speaking with and directing his writings to the ‘common man’ in Constantinople or Ephesos. As Ostroumov puts it: ‘Mark’s words and influence had a great effect both on the plain, and on the learned, inclining them to the defence of Orthodoxy.

In the end, I have to wonder what might have been, if the effort to unite the Churches had been based, not on the diplomatic proceedings of the proud and the mighty, but instead building on the lay piety of the Catholic devotees of the Dominican Saint Catherine of Siena on one side, and the parallel quasi-monastic religious expressions of the common folk of Byzantium on the other. If anything, the enthusiasm of Saint Mark Eugenikos for certain Western saints going into the Council – particularly the Benedictines – shows that there could well have been some grounds for discourse on a higher common denominator between the Orthodox monastics and the lay piety movement in Spain and elsewhere. As Berdyaev would say, perhaps there is still common ground. But if the Council of Florence is any indication, the technique of forcing a top-down Unia quickly displays a haute bourgeois class character which is inimical to the religious expressions and aspirations of the masses, in both East and West.

21 May 2020

Holy Hieromartyr Christophoros, Patriarch of Antioch


Saint Christophoros of Antioch
القدّيس خريسطوفورس الأنطاكي

Today, the twenty-first of May, is not only the feast-day of Saint Helen of Constantinople, but also that of a great Patriarch of Antioch, Christophoros, who lived and reposed in the tenth century. This great and holy hierarch was Iraqi-born, in the city of Baghdad. His Orthodox Christian parents named him ‘Îsâ (the Arabic version of ‘Joshua’ or ‘Jesus’), and gave him a fine education in the liberal arts and in classical Arabic. So skilled was he in this literary language of the Qur’ân, excelling in his calligraphy and in his oratory skill, that he became a prime candidate for advancement in the secretarial profession employed by the Islâmic rulers of the time. The young ‘Îsâ sought advancement in the court of Sayf ad-Dawlah, the Emir of Aleppo, who was known to be a generous and tasteful patron of literature: indeed, the Sayf ad-Dawlah was well known for his patronage of the great Shî‘a poet al-Mutanabbî. Young ‘Îsâ impressed the Sayf enough, it seems, that he was quickly promoted, and made secretary to one of the Sayf’s retainers, the Emir of Shayzar (in the modern-day Hama Governorate).

The canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Antioch had been, for a long time, politically divided between lands owing allegiance to Constantinople and lands owing allegiance to Ctesiphon. This is attested as far back as the fourth century in the life of Saint ’Afrâm. As such, the Antiochian Church often had to play a delicate balancing act between the government of Byzantium, on the one hand, and those of Sâsânian Persia and the successive Islâmic Caliphates on the other. Since the conquest of Persian Ctesiphon by the Muslims, the Orthodox hierarchs in charge of the Iranian and Central Asian ‘East’ of the Antiochian Patriarchate – known as the Catholicosate of Romagyris – had been forced to flee Ctesiphon for the town of aš-Šâš [Ar. الشاش, Ch. Zheshi 赭时], which is now Toshkent [Тошкент] in Uzbekistan.

The Orthodox community was again further divided between a large population of Orthodox Romans residing in Arabic-speaking Baghdad, and the administrative functions of that church which were all located in the Central Asian aš-Šâš. This issue came to a head in the late 950s. When the Catholicos of aš-Šâš died in 958, the representatives of the Catholicosate of Romagyris sent a delegation to Antioch to ask that a successor-bishop be consecrated. And the Baghdadis saw their chance to plead their case to the Patriarch to move the Catholicosate from aš-Šâš to Baghdad, the better to serve its parishioners. For this task, the Baghdadis nominated the well-spoken and politically-connected ‘Îsâ.

‘Îsâ arrived in Antioch in 959, only to find that the Patriarch of Antioch, Agapios I, had reposed in the Lord. There were now two successions that needed to be settled. According to the ancient traditions of the Antiochian Church, the new Patriarch was to be elected by the Orthodox clergy and by the people of Antioch. Several names were put forward; one of them was the name of the Baghdadi ‘Îsâ himself. Under examination, the people of Antioch found ‘Îsâ to be not only well-educated, but also wise beyond his years, kind, charitable and steadfast in the defence of Orthodox doctrine. They decided to make him their new Patriarch, and applied to the Sayf ad-Dawlah to approve his appointment. Sayf al-Dawlah already being well-disposed to ‘Îsâ, he granted the appointment without delay. ‘Îsâ, who had lived a well-off sæcular life, was quickly tonsured a monk and given the monastic name Kharîstûfûrus, or Christophoros, and thereafter anointed as Patriarch of Antioch.

As Patriarch, it appears that ‘Îsâ, now Christophoros, did not take his new duties lightly. Though he had lived a sæcular life in a state of relatively luxury, he took to his new monastic discipline with fervor, keeping the offices of prayer beginning before dawn and the vigils every Saturday, adopting a vegetarian diet, and never eating during the day. He also showed himself to be a fair-minded judge of disputes, including the one that occasioned his coming to Antioch. Instead of favouring his own party, the Baghdadis, in that dispute, he appointed two men to the office of Catholicos: an Aleppine named Nemaje was sent to Baghdad; and an Antiochian named Eutychios was sent to aš-Šâš.

Christophoros was a dedicated and zealous internal reformer of the Church. He reinvigorated the clergy by appointing new blood to sees and parishes long left empty. And he also stamped out the practices of simony and corruption among the clergy and hierarchs. He also managed to convince his friend and former employer Sayf ad-Dawlah to reduce the jizyah tax on Orthodox Christian households under his sway, so that poor families would not be œconomically-pressured into converting to Islâm. In addition to this, Patriarch Christophoros arranged it with Sayf ad-Dawlah so that the Patriarchate could pay the jizyah on behalf of poor families who were unable to pay. In this way, the Orthodox Christian communities under Christophoros’s patriarchal omophor were never financially pressured to convert to Islâm.

Christophoros also established two patriarchal schools in Antioch: one small seminary school for training priests who hailed from wealthy families, and another larger school for the general and priestly education of children of poor families, which was subsidised from the coffers of the smaller seminary. Christophoros took it upon himself personally to look after the poor children, and often helped them in other ways using his own personal resources and those of the Church. For these reasons Christophoros was often called the ‘new Saint Nicholas’ of the Church of Antioch.

Patriarch Christophoros was generous and kindly to the poor, but he would not allow one whit of laxity among the clergy. One of his priests – a well-connected and wealthy one who served as a physician in the household of the Sayf – committed a minor indiscretion and was told to do a small penance when he confessed it to the Patriarch. However, this priest then complained to the Sayf, asking him to command Patriarch Christophoros to grant him absolution without penance. Sayf ad-Dawlah then summoned Patriarch Christophoros before him and asked him to do this, but the Patriarch refused. Shocked at this flat refusal, Sayf ad-Dawlah asked him why he would not do what he was commanded to do. The Patriarch replied to him: ‘We obey you in all other things, and we cannot disobey you. But as regards that which our religion forbids, we are prepared to go to prison and even to be beheaded by the sword.

Patriarch Christophoros then explained to the Sayf, that although the fault committed by this priest was a small one and could lightly be forgiven, it was not permitted for a Christian to confess his sins to and receive absolution from a Muslim, not even a mighty prince – and to do this was a grave sin which could not be lightly forgiven. At this, the thwarted Sayf became angry and told Patriarch Christophoros: ‘Take care of your head! Even if it rests in the lap of Sayf ad-Dawlah, know that I can still take it off!’ But Saint Christophoros was not moved by this threat.

By the late 960s, the political scenario in the ‘Abbâsid Caliphate somewhat resembled the Warring States period in Chinese history. A largely powerless Caliph governed in Baghdad, and his vassals swore to him nominal loyalty. But in practice they were largely left to their own devices to rule their own small states. They squabbled between themselves, and the borders of the Islâmic domain were subject to invasion from outside. The Eastern Roman Empire under Emperor Nikēphoros II Phōkas began retaking its former territories, beginning with Cilicia and Taurus in Asia Minor, and the island of Cyprus. The Roman tactics of scorched-earth warfare against the ‘Abbâsids created a crisis of œconomic refugees who poured into Syria and Palestine, so that the lands of Sayf ad-Dawlah were besieged by the innocent and the dispossessed.

In addition, the Sayf’s health was beginning to flag. Hoping to take advantage of both the Sayf’s ill health and the refugee crisis in the city, some of the Sayf’s retainers began to plot to take control of Antioch for themselves. Patriarch Christophoros, wanting nothing to do with this treachery yet jealous that the Christian community not be tainted with the suspicion of it, fled Antioch to the monastery of Saint Simeon Stylites outside Aleppo. When one of the monks criticised him for abandoning his flock, Patriarch Christophoros answered him merely: ‘You do not know what I know.’

Patriarch Christophoros was to suffer for his political loyalty to Sayf ad-Dawlah, and his desirousness that the Christians of Antioch remain free of suspicion and not be considered a fifth column for Roman interests. (The traditions of thoughtful civic patriotism and post-colonial and non-aligned Orthodoxy therefore have strong precedents in churchmen like Saint Christophoros!) The retainers who plotted against their Emir began to plot also against Patriarch Christophoros’s life. Knowing full well what awaited him, Patriarch Christophoros accepted the plotters’ invitation to a feast on the twenty-second of May, 967. The plotters were quick to make their move, and they martyred Saint Christophoros with a javelin into the chest. The body of the victorious martyr who defended the Body of Christ, was then thrown – like that of Saint Hesychios over six centuries before – into the Nahr al-‘Âsi, from which it was retrieved eight days later by Orthodox Christians. His body was interred first at a monastery outside Antioch, but it was later translated into the House of Saint Peter.

The Life of Saint Christophoros of Antioch was written down by one of his disciples, ’Ibrâhîm ibn Yûhannâ, who was also responsible for translating the writings of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus from Greek into Arabic. It is a testament both to Saint Christophoros’s scholarly acumen and to his care and commitment to teaching his pupils, that his spiritual children carried on a great number of translation projects, enriching greatly the Arabic intellectual heritage of the Church of Antioch. Holy hieromartyr Christophoros, caring teacher and friend to the poor, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Hieromartyr Christophoros of Antioch, Tone 4:

Thy Martyr, O Lord, in his courageous contest for Thee
Received the prize of the crowns of incorruption
And life from Thee, our immortal God.
For since he possessed Thy strength,
He cast down the tyrants and wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption.
O Christ God, by his prayers, save our souls, since Thou art merciful.


Church of Saint Peter, Antioch

16 May 2020

Stýdent: a Kazakh retelling of Crime and Punishment


Nurlan Baısatov as the student in Stýdent

Dárejan Ómirbaev turns his sights on classical Russian literature in his 2012 film Stýdent [Student], a modernised adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. The setting, of course, shifts from 19th-century Saint Petersburg to 21st-century Almaty. Dostoevsky’s Raskol’nikov becomes a nameless Kaırat-esque university student: emaciated, bespectacled, dressing in windbreakers and t-shirts that always seem to fit him too loosely, given to stares burning with seething repressed emotions. This representation of Raskol’nikov, it sometimes seems, is tailored to suit Ómirbaev’s preferred minimalistic style – practically no music, very little dialogue, incredibly heavy context and emotional subtext. But despite Ómirbaev tending to ‘write himself in’ to the novel in this way – something about which I have decidedly mixed feelings – many of the questions Dostoevsky explores in his original novel make the transition remarkably well. Ómirbaev brings Dostoevsky’s religious psychology to bear on a post-Soviet reality, and questions of capitalism versus socialism and materialism versus spirituality, in ways that make a certain degree of intuitive sense, and which follow the spirit of the novel closely, but not slavishly.

Our student (Nurlan Baısatov) starts out working as a camera operator on the set of a film directed by ‘Torebaev’ (Dárejan Ómirbaev in something of a self-deprecating cameo), who is then accosted by a student journalist (Ol’ga Korotko) who begins asking him if he’s ashamed of shooting ‘empty and shallow’ films that don’t engage serious problems. Meanwhile, one of the crew spills some tea on the lap of his leading lady (Ásel Saǵatova). The diva calls her big-shot banker boyfriend, who pulls up in an SUV with a couple of toughs, who drag the crewman into the bathroom and proceed to beat him to a bloody pulp while our student looks on in shock. This has ramifications for the student, who quits the film crew in disgust. Because he quit his job, he can’t make rent and is forced to make money in other ways.

After this opening scene, the main plot follows the beats of Dostoevsky’s novel incredibly faithfully – with a few twists. Instead of an axe, the student pawns his grandfather’s war medal for an old pistol and a magazine with three bullets. Instead of a pawnbroker, the student murders a callous magazin clerk who refuses to extend a credit line to an elderly pensioner – along with a woman who also happens to come into the store to shop. In this version of the story, Marmeladov is transmogrified into an elderly poet (Edige Bolysbaev) who writes verse in Kazakh, and his daughter Saniya is a deaf-mute who does all the housework for her drunk father and her wheelchair-bound mother. The student’s family includes a caring mother, and a younger sister Arujan who goes to med school in Atyrau. The Razumihin of this film adaptation is the student’s leather-rocking classmate Marat, who struggles with him to comprehend the worldview of the university lecturers.

This film has a number of throwbacks and hat-tips to earlier films of the Kazakh New Wave – of which Ómirbaev was himself very much a part, with Kaırat and Kardiogramma. Apart from Ásel Saǵatova (who played Saıan’s girlfriend in Réketır) and Ómirbaev himself, the cast is entirely made up – in good Kazakh New Wave tradition – of theatre-school and film-school students and amateur actors. As in Kaırat, here are often TV sets in the frame, and they are often turned on. But the way they are used is much more a hat-tip to Igla, where they foreshadow some element of the plot, or carry some sort of symbolism which Ómirbaev wants to convey to the viewer. Nature programmes often show predatory animals bringing down their prey, for example. And the greedy convenience store clerk is always seen watching historical footage of American presidents like George HW Bush; just before the student kills him, he’s watching a documentary on the Kennedy assassination!

Stýdent also deliberately frames our student’s inner struggles with ideology, courage and authenticity against a backdrop showcasing the amorality of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet nouveaux riches: a theme deftly introduced by the opening scene with the diva actress who sics her husband’s hired goons on the film crew. In the same scene where the student meets the drunken elderly poet, two security guards are talking about how their employer’s dog eats better meat than they do, and how the daughter drives a hand-assembled German sports car worth $400,000. In another scene, a donkey driver attempts to help a young couple pull their Range Rover out of a ditch – when it takes too long, the young man in a fit of rage gets out of the Range Rover, grabs a golf club and brains the unoffending donkey with it, before getting back in the SUV and driving off. This is juxtaposed against the struggles of practically everyone else struggling to make ends meet. In the university lecture halls, a young female professor preaches to her class, including our student and his classmate Marat, about the failures of socialism and the superiority of the capitalist ‘law of the jungle’ where the strong triumph in ruthless competition, and where the disappearance of the weak is the tragic but necessary price of progress. It is Marat who gives voice to the question of whether this law of the jungle gives those who live under it licence to kill, but we do not hear the professor’s response.

There is another Kazakhstan which is alluded to by the elderly poet, by the student’s own mother and sister, and of course by Saniya. This is the Kazakhstan which has not forgotten its past. There is a strong undercurrent of spirituality here. Unlike in Aqan Sataev’s films, though, the spirituality alluded to in Stýdent is not exclusively Islâmic – although that element is certainly there. The student participates in a Muslim wake for the poet after he is found dead, and in the poet’s living room there’s a big old poster of none other than the great Kazakh poet, moralist and Neoplatonic-Sûfî philosopher Abaı Qunanbaıuly. It makes sense that a Kazakh poet would lionise Abaı and keep his portrait in a place of honour. But in the context of the film the poster of Abaı is placed and used almost in an iconographic sense.

But in the student’s dream sequences, his mother – the voice of conscience – appears to him while he is napping on a bench outside a Russian Orthodox Church, and this seems to be what prompts him to go to Saniya and confess his crime to her. In addition, the voice of this spirituality in this film is placed in the mouth of another university lecturer, an elderly Soviet professor who riffs on Weber and Spengler, and approvingly quotes Laozi 老子 as a source of communitarian spiritual values which are authentically applicable to the ‘harsh steppes’ of Kazakhstan. I don’t believe Dostoevsky would entirely approve of Ómirbaev’s quasi-Perennialist interpretation of his novel, because for him the central question of Crime and Punishment is that of: the ‘law of the jungle’, or Christ. Even so, this reading comes closer to his meaning than many other sæcular understandings of his work.

There are a number of little cinematic flourishes that render this adaptation of Crime and Punishment attractive and even charming – not least of which is the understated intensity of Nurlan Baısatov’s acting. But, I note with a little exasperation, Ómirbaev can’t help leaving his own impress on the adaptation. It wouldn’t be an Ómirbaev film unless: 1.) the protag has multiple dream sequences; 2.) the protag gets beaten up and bloodied in a fight; 3.) the protag’s friend recites a lengthy book passage to him while he listens impassively. Another pet peeve I had with this film: it’s one thing to have a cast that consists mostly of amateurs and students themselves: in fact, this is one thing about Kazakhstani cinema I find refreshing! But it’s quite another thing to shoot the film in such a way that it seems almost amateurish itself. The camera direction’s overuse of mid-distance static takes creates an unintentional source of comedy. And the sound editing seems to privilege atmospherics – in particular the sound of footfalls on concrete – over dialogue.

In all, as a modern adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Stýdent is well worth a watch, despite its Bressonian arthouse idiosyncracies and overall throwback feel. Dostoevsky might not approve of the Perennialist interpretation which downplays the central question of Christ. But he would certainly approve of how Ómirbaev posed the problem of how post-shock therapy hypercapitalist materialism has distorted human moral psychology in ex-Soviet states. In this he has a firm grasp on the contemporary ressourcement in Kazakhstan of not only Dostoevsky, but also Abaı Qunanbaıuly and the tradition of classical Chinese ethical philosophy, as articulated by authors like Orazaly Sábden.

15 May 2020

The class politics of Eastern Catholicism, part 1: Crusades, Black Death and the Big Four


Map of 13th-century Venice

I promised that I would write a post on Western Christian gæopolitics in early modernity, from an Orthodox perspective that takes account of world-systems theory. This blog post quickly sprawled out in three different directions, and I soon realised that to retain coherence and not to try the patience of my readers, I had better split it up into three or four separate blog posts. I also decided that given the ecclesiological nature of the discourse, it would be best posted here rather than on Silk and Chai (even though it overlaps strongly with S&C’s wonted subject matter). This, then, is the first part of that series, where I explore the Crusades and the œconomic opportunities and class rifts that they exposed, particularly among the mercantilist northern Italian city-states: particularly Venice, Genoa, Milan and Florence. The Maronites play a significant rôle here, because they demonstrated, especially to the Venetians, the value of having a local comprador élite class which could serve as agents of extraction for that city-state’s high financial and commercial interests. For a long time, the Western Church did not act on this insight – not, at least, until the financial depression brought about by the bubonic plague and the ecclesial instability brought about by the Western Schism.

To start with: one of the conceits that several of the sui iuris non-Latin rites of the Catholic Church – in particular, the Maronites and the Byzantine Greek Catholics – have about themselves is that they are ‘Orthodox in communion with Rome’. This self-descriptor actually conceals more than it illuminates, which is of course precisely the point. If they were Orthodox Christian, they would be in communion with at least several of the established and visible body of Patriarchal Churches (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Moscow, Belgrade, Sofia, Bucharest, Tbilisi, Justiniana, Athens, Tiranä, Warsaw and Prague) that is generally recognised by that name. The descriptor of ‘Orthodox in communion with Rome’ is meant to conceal as much as possible the actual gæopolitical and œconomic agenda these churches were created to serve, and which they have served throughout their history.

The first attempts at ‘Unia’ were largely political and œconomic instruments of the merchant city-states of Northern Italy as they attempted to break into the mediæval world-system along the Silk Road and the Maritime Route. Subsequent attempts at ‘Unia’ were deployed by the mercantilist powers, and their ultimate aim was to keep the global semi-periphery from escaping the control of the global core. With a few notable exceptions, today they largely continue in that rôle, particularly in gæopolitical flash-points like the Ukraine and Lebanon. Their aim is to constrain the semi-periphery, and prevent any organised alternative to capitalism from forming – particularly in Russia or in China.

It’s first necessary to understand something about Europe’s historical and current place in the world-system. Historically, Europe was a benighted backwater. Most of the world’s trade was happening around and across Asia, over the southern land route and the Indian Ocean maritime route. One broad swathe of trade routes existed between Damascus and Luoyang, and another trade between Zanzibar and Guangzhou. This trade between Byzantium, India, China and later the Arab world created and transferred the majority of the world’s material wealth, and it was carefully and meticulously regulated on both ends. Standing on the sidelines, beyond Byzantium and Damascus, were the doges of the Italian thalassocratic merchant republics and city-states: particularly the ‘big four’ of Venice, Genoa, Milan and Florence. In general, Venice had been content early to sit back and rake in the secondary benefits of trade with Constantinople, but one major motivating factor of the First Crusade had been the desire of Genoa and Pisa to ‘break into’ the trade network with its terminus in the Eastern Mediterranean. As Janet Abu-Lughod puts it:
Appetites whetted and abilities tested by prior sea battles and seeking to expand their horizon from the western basin of the Mediterranean to the eastern, the Genoese enthusiastically answered the call of the Pope for the first foray of that bloody and eventually unsuccessful venture—the conquest of Palestine… It was thus Genoese and Pisan ships that came to the rescue of the French, Flemish and other European knights who had eagerly answered Pope Urban the Second’s call in 1095 for a ‘reconquest’ of the Holy Land from the Muslims…

Venice held back until the operation looked as though it might succeed. Not until ‘1099, after the Frank armies had battered their way into Jerusalem, slaughtering every Muslim in the city and burning all the Jews alive in the main synagogue… did a Venetian fleet of 200 [leave] the Lido port’. It finally arrived in the summer of 1100 just in time to assist in the recapture of Jaffa and other towns. As a reward the Venetians were also allotted one-third of the towns’ land and environs and given special trading concessions in the new Crusader kingdom. Later, Venice received her usual third when the ports of Tyre and Ascalon were taken with her help. Venetians were allowed to form their own quarters and enjoy a position privileged to exploit the commercial opportunities of expanding trade.

This direct entrée to the riches of the East changed the role of the Italian merchant mariner cities from passive to active… The Genoese and to a lesser extent the Venetians had begun the long process of tipping the fulcrum of the world system. By the thirteenth century ‘the centre of gravity [of Europe at least] had definitely moved to the “big four” of northern and central Italy (Venice, Milan, Genoa and Florence) whose powerful merchants had a firm grip on the routes towards the fertile and industrious European hinterland and endeavoured to reach far beyond the declining Islamic façade into the depths of Asia and Africa’.
It would not be entirely accurate to characterise the Crusades between 1100 and 1400 as being a purely predatory enterprise by the volunteer foot soldiers of these merchant republics. As Abu-Lughod makes clear, some Crusaders were authentically and genuinely driven by a pious desire to defend the Christian holy places from Islâmic oppressors. In this, they were motivated by an often stunning degree of idealistic naïveté. However, it is necessary to look at the œconomic motivations of the people who had answered Pope Urban II’s call to Crusade, because many of the high-ranking Crusaders saw it as an opportunity to carve pieces for themselves out of what had once been the Eastern Roman Empire – and certainly the naval city-state powers mentioned above had material stakes in diverting trade towards themselves.

Particularly interesting in the above account is the Venetian and Genoese interest in the coast of Lebanon, and here is where we can begin to see the origins of the Unia – not as a disinterested and pacific desire for Christian unity, but instead as a political stratagem to cultivate and firmly entrench a coterie of native informants and compradors. The Maronites – a religious community tracing its origins to the monastic communities that arose around Saints Mârûn in Syria and ’Ibrâhîm in Lebanon – had firmly and decisively detached themselves for political reasons from Eastern Rome several centuries before. Blessed Theodoret of Kyrrhos notes disapprovingly that the first self-described disciples of Mârûn waged a civil war with other Orthodox Christians over their beloved saint’s body after his repose!


From William of Tyre’s Histoire de Outremer

But what was originally, and might have remained, an intriguing footnote in Byzantine religious history, gained an interesting œconomic and political significance during the Crusades. Although their motives for separating themselves from the Byzantine Orthodox Christians around them had more to do with the politics of holy places than with any sort of doctrinal difference, doctrinal differences between the Maronites and the Orthodox nevertheless accumulated. Despite the warnings of several of their leading churchmen against it, by the 1100s – according to contemporary sources William of Tyre and Jacques de Vitry – the Maronite community had embraced the early-mediæval hæresy of monothelitism: probably on account of the military aid they had received from the al-Jarâjima cavalry from the Taurus mountains who inclined to that belief. Still, when the Frankish, Flemish and Italian Crusaders arrived – exhausted and low on supplies – on the Lebanese coast, they were surprised to discover that they were welcomed warmly by the local urban élites who belonged to this sect. The local Maronite leaders fed the Crusaders, resupplied them, furnished them with guides and interpreters, and even sent a supporting unit of archers with them.

The Maronite Patriarch made the first gesture of unity with Rome in 1182, when he sent a missive to the Pope recognising his supremacy over the Church, recognising the entire body of Roman Catholic doctrine, and establishing formal communion. It appears from the record that the impetus for this first instance of Uniatism – again, undertaken for political reasons with the Maronites being opposed to both Constantinople and the Arab Caliphate – came largely if not entirely from the Maronites themselves. Even so, the political and financial potentials of such alliances were not lost on the Italian doges who observed them. They had seen the value in keeping handy a clique of allied locals, particularly ones in a position of relative military and œconomic dominance.

From the perspective of Venice in particular, indirect imperialism became of great strategic importance over the coming centuries. The Fourth Crusade in particular highlighted both the œconomic benefits of dominating important trade hubs like Constantinople, and the political limits of direct conquest and expansion. Venice was not really concerned with exercising direct political authority, so much as controlling points of distribution of trade goods into Europe. Again, from Abu-Lughod, concerning the Fourth Crusade:
Between July 1203 and April 1204 the ‘Latins’ who had set out to fight the infidels instead besieged their fellow Christians and, when the city was finally entered, set it on fire, plundered its riches, and then piously celebrated Palm Sunday and Easter Day ‘with hearts full of joy for the benefits our Lord and Saviour had bestowed on them’.

The Count of Flanders and Hainaut, Baldwin IX, still in his twenties, was elected Emperor of the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople, his coronation taking place a few weeks later in the great Church of Saint Sophia. The Venetians wanted no high office, they wanted only to expand their merchant empire. They ‘appropriated the best part of the imperial territory’, claiming three-eighths of the city and empire, including all of Crete, from which Venice would direct her spice trade into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries… This, when added to her continuing Egyptian connexion, made Venice the dominant force controlling European access to the spices and silks of Asia.


The siege of Constantinople, 1203

Abu-Lughod then goes on to point out that in the wake of this conquest of Constantinople, Venice entered into a period of marked expansion. Its culture flourished. Private business flourished. Its political system became more efficient. Industrial, naval and transport technologies not so much progressed as leaped explosively forward. Even though Venice was jealous of this new prosperity and wanted to prevent Genoa in particular from benefitting, the other three of the big four Italian mercantile city-states also found themselves on this upward trajectory.

However, with very few exceptions, despite their interest in trade with the Orthodox world (and beyond), and despite the growing body of knowledge that the Crusaders were bringing back from their Muslim contacts in the Levant, the Italian city-states did not pursue a religious-ideological attempt at unifying West and East for the next couple of centuries. This was because such attempts at bringing about political unity between the two halves of Christendom were, from the Italian mercantile perspective, not œconomically necessary. They were doing remarkably well at diversifying, intensifying and expanding their trade networks, and using their presence in various ports around the Eastern Mediterranean to extract wealth and resources, without such a strategy.

A number of events changed that calculus, however. The first and most important of these was the Black Death. The Black Death reached Venice and Genoa through their trade networks, having been imported from Caffa, which had been besieged by Mongols who were carrying the plague. These outbreaks of bubonic plague were utterly disastrous for the merchant republics. As Abu-Lughod notes:
The results were catastrophic.
Something like three-fifths of the inhabitants of Venice died within the next 18 months … Three plague-ridden centuries followed 1348 … In 1500 the population [of Venice] was about the same size as it had been two hundred years earlier.
Genoa suffered a similar fate. By 1350 her population was only about 60 percent of what it had been in 1341 and never did recover fully.


The Black Death hits Venice

Venice and Genoa both went through a ‘Great Depression’ that lasted until the late 1300s. Abu-Lughod tells us that this had an indelible impact on the political culture of the city-states of northern Italy; power became further concentrated among a handful of family patrimonies across all of the Big Four and their mercantile-republican systems became more openly oligarchic in substance if not in structure. In addition, the ‘bandwidth’ of each city-state’s trade network narrowed. Volume of trade decreased, but not as precipitously as the diversity and interconnexion of the trade networks.

The decrease in population across the entire Mediterranean basin meant that the Big Four were increasingly dependent for logistical purposes on local mercantile compradors who served Venetian or Genoese interests from within their native ports. Though it’s unlikely that these big mercantile empires thought of employing a union between the Western and Eastern churches as a stratagem for easier control of local comprador élites, this consideration did sweeten the deal for them when the proposal was made. This, however, will be covered in a subsequent blog post.

Continued in Part 2.

13 May 2020

On ‘weird’ Christianity and its critics


This blog has existed for a long time – through both its Anglo-Catholic and its Orthodox phases – on the edges of the ‘weird’ Christian phenomenon, which was recently highlighted in one op-ed piece written by Tara Isabella Burton for the New York Times. I’m more heavy metal than punk, admittedly, but her characterisation of the countercultural proclivities of the segment of young and disaffected Christendom I belong to hits straight home. It’s somewhat unfortunate that this op-ed is somewhat loose and all over the place, because there is a distinct and eloquent core to it that recognises and speaks directly to the project this blog represents:
The Weird Christian movement, loose and fledgling though it is, isn’t just about its punk-traditionalist aesthetic, a valorization of a half-imagined past. It is at its most potent when it challenges the present, and reimagines the future. Its adherents are, like so many young Americans of all religious persuasions, characterized by their hunger for something more than contemporary American culture can offer, something transcendent, politically meaningful, personally challenging. Like the hipster obsession with “authenticity” that marked the mid-2010s, the rise of Weird Christianity reflects America’s unfulfilled desire for, well, something real.
I say it’s ‘somewhat unfortunate’ that this blog piece is so loosely-structured and free-form, because it opens itself up to a lot of bad-faith criticism, such as some of the criticism it got at the National Catholic Reporter from Jamie Manson – which is, in roughly equal parts: illiterate fact-free griping about Bernie Bros, Dreher-bashing and Katie Kelaidis-style fashion-shaming of women who wear veils.

I do not at all begrudge Manson her bashing of Dreher or even her defence of Pachamama-as-Marian-image – a position on which I am agnostic for Christological reasons, but to which I’m generally sympathetic on account of my antipathy to iconoclasm. But her oblique woke-liberal bellyaching about Bernie Bros (‘socialism — as we've seen in its young, white-male dominated form in the U.S. — does not inherently disassociate anyone from racism, misogyny, homophobia or transphobia’) is simply not based in facts. American socialism is predominantly young and millennial, yes, but it isn’t white-dominated or male-dominated, and it does and has dissociated itself strongly from racism, misogyny and other forms of gender discrimination, particularly after 2016. Manson’s continued use of this ideological fiction fails to indict socialism, but it does say something about her own priorities – that these identity politics issues matter more to her than œconomic inequality.

The veil-shaming crap follows from this somewhat. It’s actually no less perverse and no less purity-policing to tell women that they shouldn’t wear a veil in a church setting, than to tell them that they should. The only difference is that the mainstream norm for appropriately-feminine behaviour has changed. If, as Manson suggests, ‘head coverings were compulsory for centuries because the female body was seen as a threat to men's chastity’, and that this is a moral problem, then it is incumbent on us not to simply leave it there but to inquire why this is a moral problem. The initial, and valid, feminist reaction was against norms which policed the way a woman dresses to meet the psychosexual demands of men in their community. It placed the burden of incapably-restrained male libido unfairly on the women.

But this knife cuts both ways. Now the norm is for women to not cover their heads, anywhere. Katie Kelaidis complains about the resurgence of headscarves in Orthodox churches, at bottom because they make her feel insecure. I would argue that, if we accept it as morally axiomatic that it’s not a woman’s responsibility to restrain men’s libido for them, neither is it a woman’s responsibility to dress a certain way to suit other women’s insecurities. If my defence of veils in church sounds individualistic, that’s because to some extent it is. Call it the oikonomia defence’. Outside a certain set of broad civic boundaries and strictures against lewdness common to most settled cultures past and present, I don’t believe in policing women’s dress.

But on the few occasions where she actually addresses what I take to be the ‘punchline’ of Burton’s piece, Manson misses the point and does so in profound ways that make me wonder if she actually read the piece or if she is just reacting to it. For example, when she says this:
Weird Christians claim to want a faith that is "totally demanding," but they do not seem inclined to do the demanding work of examining the relationship between the exaggerated medieval rituals they fetishize and the barbaric economic and social injustices of the Middle Ages.
I dare not speak for others in the broader ‘weird Christian’ ambit; I’m sure they’re more than capable of speaking up for themselves. But speaking for myself in my own little idiosyncratic corner of the Orthosphere, I happen to be doing exactly this, and I have been doing it for a long time. Even in the places where I tend to vaunt the Middle Ages for various reasons – particularly polities which did away with the death penalty, or banned torture of prisoners, or made it mandatory to feed the poor on public feast-days – I am not blind to the political failings of those times, which were often incurably deep. Being Orthodox, I am an intense critic of the Crusades (especially the fourth one). And being aware of the œconomic consequences of the Norman invasion, I am also intensely critical of feudalism.

Lest one think from the above descriptions that I’m being a chauvinist triumphalist convertodox here, I don’t ignore political failings and faults in our ‘holy lands’ either. Even mediæval Russia, even Kievan Rus’ with its deep-rooted Christian radicalism, was rife with princely backstabbing, and the hyperdox hang-ups of rural Russian priests of this time are more than occasionally embarrassing to read (though they did come in for some censure from their bishops, even back then). On a note of personal self-criticism, I’m well aware that there’s a certain unresolved sexual component to my own straight-Shôta yearning for green and pleasant pastoral idylls of an English and Tory flavour, and I’m doing my best to keep it in view and in check.

So it’s simply wrong – egregiously so – for Manson to allude that being drawn to the ‘smells and bells’ of mediæval ritual automatically demands that you turn off your brain or that we take refuge in ‘kitsch and camp’, particularly given the punchline of Burton’s piece which directly contradicts this point. There are certain aspects of mediævalism which we would do well to reappropriate against the new nationalist right, rather than surrendering them wholesale. A very important one of these is a certain broad sense of civilisational humility, which is missing as much on the ‘woke’ left as it is among the new nationalists.

However – and here I allow myself the conceit that my ‘weird’ Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican brothers and sisters would broadly agree with me – the point of having a prisca theologica is not to take refuge in an idealised and static imagery of the past, but instead to creatively articulate the basis for a transfigured future. That means throwing off the balance of a status quo that has little use anymore for public considerations of Christ. Are we ‘unique’ in that? Dear God, I hope not – I hope Manson’s right about that. But it behooves our critics to note that a genuine transfiguration of society in a more just direction requires a hierarchy of valuesnot of people, but of values – for which Christian antiquity provides a useful guidepost.