23 August 2019

Familial love against the nationalist myth


Saints Peter and Fevronia of Murom: Russian patrons of familial love

The family represented the initial cell of human society. The holy history of the Old Testament shows that the state was not formed at once. The Old Testament people had no state before Joseph’s brothers went to Ægypt.


Christian patriotism may be expressed at the same time with regard to a nation as an ethnic community and as a community of its citizens. The Orthodox Christian is called to love his fatherland, which has a territorial dimension, and his brothers by blood who live everywhere in the world… At the same time, it is contrary to Orthodox ethics to divide nations into the best and the worst and to belittle any ethnic or civic nation. Even more contrary to Orthodoxy are the teachings which put the nation in the place of God or reduce faith to one of the aspects of national self-awareness.


It’s a worthy goal to resist nationalism in its current, explicitly post-Christian form, as the foregoing Christian thinkers in the linked Commonweal article have publicly done. However, to do this effectively, there needs to be a comprehensive, anthropological account of the separate human origins of the nation and of the state. When I say anthropological, I mean one that is accountable to the data regarding human society’s material origins. However, we should know well enough by now that, however much we Christian critics of voluntarism and nominalism may reject the is-ought distinction, mere insistence on facts does not have the persuasive power we need. Mere logos, issued forth by the babbling superego at the end of its tether, clearly no longer suffices. Mere pathos won’t do either, and nationalism is unanswerable on the sole basis of competing winged visions, competing ethea. My suspicion is that logos, pathos, ethos and mythos are all integrally necessary to posit a challenge to the siren call of nationalism. A comprehensive anthropological account of nation and state is therefore, by necessity, theological or at the very least mythological.

The fundamental organising principle of the society is the family, whether we consider that the band or tribe, or the nuclear family. The two forms have the same institutional function and material purpose. Of all human institutions the family, forged from the basic erotic urge and the desire to procreate, is more deeply rooted in our præ-history than any other social institution. Recorded history, on the other hand, gave us three subsidiary institutions: the nation, the state and the market—in that order.

Because state and market are the most ‘recent’ and the most rationalised of the subsidiary institutions, the case that the state precedes or undergirds the market is the easiest to make from a sæcular perspective. Karl Polanyi convincingly argues this case in The Great Transformation, using both œconomic and historical evidence: ‘that the modern market œconomy is a special, historically rooted form of social organisation. It is not a natural, universal system for organising societies, as its champions assert.’ Specifically, Polanyi demonstrates convincingly that market processes are wholly dependent on a juridical-institutional rationalism that can only derive from modern state structures. Because the libertarian / (anarcho-)capitalist political mythology is the most obviously false and most obviously anti-Christian, it’s also the easiest for consistent Christians (as well as sæcular conservatives, sæcular social-democrats and sæcular nationalists) to refute. The necessity of some kind of state control or state intervention in markets is thus indicated.

The gap between the nation and the state is less obvious, and it’s a tragœdy that this is a line that runs as a fault-line within Christendom (also within Islâm, Judaism and even Buddhism), and not just between sæcular and religious accounts of the human condition. I’ve made the argument before that Orthodox Christianity has better and more complete intellectual resources to draw on in distinguishing the nation from the state than the Western Christianities do – in part because of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine legacies of intentionally multi-national political projects. Unfortunately, we don’t use these resources because they have historically been at odds with the (in some cases understandable and just) desires of Orthodox peoples for political self-determination.

Here is where the invaluable witness of governance in post-colonial countries, particularly those in Africa and Asia, comes in. The naked artificiality of colonially-imposed Westphalian state structures and their inability to provide governance aligned to the common good provides the most obvious rebuke to those accounts of social reality which identify the nation with the state. An equal rebuke from the opposite direction involves the success story (however qualified by various social problems, later structural weakness and corruption) of the Qing Empire in building a convincingly multinational modern state. Each case seems to suggest that national belonging precedes efficacious state structures, and moreover that state structures need not map neatly onto tribal or cultural identities. These imperfect but compelling witnesses – furnished forth by the Byzantine state, the Yugoslav state, the Qing state, the Czechoslovak state, even the Russian state and also arguably the sæcular supra-national aspirations of pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism – alluringly suggest a broadly ‘Eastern’ answer to the challenge of the Westphalian order: an answer rooted in an autocratic understanding of the state*.

This leaves us with the third, most troublesome and most intellectually-hoary of our distinctions: that between the family and the nation. Here is where even the witness of scientific materialism and anthropology inevitably fades off into the mists of mythos and we are left with competing incommensurate comprehensive accounts of the good. Ironically, the further away we get into the præ-history of human sociality, the more closely the post-religious liberal / New Atheist (including the 1970s sex-positive post-feminist) mythology of human social origins looks suspiciously similar to the most virulently reactionary blood-and-soil alt-right nationalist mythology.

In both accounts, the family is a distinctly unnatural and unwelcome imposition on the basic reality of the primordial hunter-gatherer band. In the post-religious New Atheist-cum-third-wave feminist account, the family was a structure imposed concurrently with the rise of agrarian settlements, towns and cities. It superimposed itself upon the natural, healthy, primordial equality of men and women and the uninhibited protean sexual liberty which that equality is taken to presuppose. Along with the family came all the great host of social evils of civilisation: patriarchy; hero-worship; sexual division of labour; hoarding of agrarian wealth and so on. The nouvelle nouvelle-droite inversion of this mythology differs in only one respect: the assumption of a primordial equality. The right-wing mythology of human social origins also posits the hunter-gatherer band before the family. But instead of seeing the family as the origin of various inequalities, they see the family as the origin of various forms of effeminacy and weakening of the tribal spirit, the kin affiliation which they take to be the fundamental organising principle of human existence.

It is only when we begin to consider this new nationalism, not as a set of political principles but instead as a mythos rooted in the exaltation of primordial brutality, that we begin to truly comprehend its power and its seductive spiritual drive. It is a mythos, moreover, that is not founded independently of feminism, but precisely as an inversion of feminism predicated on the flight from feeling: a flip-side of the coin, as it were. In place of the Goddess myth which was erected precisely as a pseudo-anthropological attack on Christianity, we have another form of pagan mythologising happening on the same pattern: only priapic-totemic rather than yonic-totemic.

It therefore becomes clear that the problem, the contradiction, regarding nationalism lies at a deeper level than the superstructural problems of policy organisation of the state. They relate to the basic problem of the sexual division of labour. And the oppositional stances taken up by both the post-feminist and the nouvelle nouvelle-droite accounts of præhistory stem from the current relation between sex and œconomic life being profoundly sick and alienating. But we can’t simply pop these duelling mythologies back in the bag, so to speak. At the risk of sounding crypto-Sorelian rather than Marxist, they can be resolved only by appealing to a counter-mythology. Here I appeal to Scripture.

The Scriptural witness, which is not history but a vision of the Liturgical ordering of the cosmos, does however confirm a hierarchical ranking of præhistoric and early-historic human institutions. Of the four, only the family—however rooted it is in our fleshy desires and animal appetites—is prælapsarian. Sex and procreation between men and women is blessed by God as good, prior to the Fall, in the very first chapter of Genesis.

The nation (goy גוי), conceived of as the band or tribe, appears in Scripture only after the Flood in Genesis 10, and it appears on account of the drunken shame of Noah and the behaviour of his sons on beholding it. It is a postlapsarian development. Contrary to those who posit a racist theory of Scripture, this is not a curse only on Ham: it is Noah’s curse on all of his sons that they be thus divided from each other. Note that in the original Hebrew Noah does not bless Shem or Japheth, only God. The term also appears in the promise of God to Abraham, that he would become the father of many nations. But this promise is contingent on his obedience to God, which is lost when he enters Ægypt, and regained only after he proved himself willing to sacrifice Isaac.

The state and its structures – the idea of ‘rule’ or ‘dominion’ (mashal משל) applied in a coercive and legal sense – appears in Scripture only in concert with another sin: the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers into Ægyptian slavery in Genesis 37. It is noteworthy that in subsequent chapters Joseph himself is first a victim, and then a master, of the Ægyptian state! Notice how the ‘rule’ and ‘dominion’ promised by the state corrupts family ties (first Joseph’s brothers to him, and then Potiphar’s wife to her family) even as it legitimates itself by those ties and claims to extend them!

The very first instance of market relations in Scripture appears at the tail end of Genesis, and it appears only because Joseph is managing the affairs of the Ægyptian state: that is to say, he is regulating mercantile affairs. The term trade (karah כרה) appears only in Deuteronomy 2, in the desert concurrently with the Mosaic law, and at that only after (and because) the Hebrews were found worshipping the golden calf and desiring to go back into Ægypt after entering the wilderness. The implication in Deuteronomy is that Moses is issuing laws relating to buying and selling, only because the hearts of the Hebrews have been hardened against the Edomites, and they have fallen away from the early gift-œconomic relations of Abraham and Isaac with the Canaanites. Note well: the idea of regulating markets is issued by the lawgiverthe very icon in Scripture of the just state!! – directly in answer to the wayward and sinful Hebrews’ worship of golden idols!

See how Scripture precisely in its mythopœic account of the human – and the Hebrew – story thus categorically affirms the primacy of family before tribe; tribe before state; state before market. Each progression, each differentiation of social life into ever more complex, highly-determined and rational forms, represents a further falling away from the Edenic purpose of God for man. And yet, we are not called upon to retrogress atavistically: we cannot recreate Eden on our own power. Even after the appearance of Christ, the Mosaic law is still needful for us.

But the logic of familiality, even of erotic desire, is written into the very fabric of Creation and even our cosmology as Christians. We do not worship a priapic hero-god who slew a monstrous Tiamat and created the world from her corpse. We do not worship the stone idols of Willendorf and Dolní Věstonice. More to the point, though: we do not worship a disembodied monad, but instead a God who is in a more-than-metaphorical sense a Father with an Incarnate Son, with a very human Mother. Even though scientific facts are on our side (like the fact that a healthy man of any race and a healthy woman of any other race can naturally produce healthy, viable and fertile offspring), this is ultimately the only way to out-mythologise, to out-narrate, the new nationalism and its nouvelle nouvelle-droite intellectual underpinnings. We gain nothing by reverting to an insistence on the intermediary mythologies – and particularly not Hobbesian and Lockean ones of state and market – that have long since ceased to convince even the converted.

* A word of caution is in order here. When I use the term autocratic, I precisely do not mean what is now vulgarly called totalitarian or authoritarian-populist – a Weberian ideal posited in bad-faith opposition to the democratic or free or liberal rules-based world, with its roots in the broad Machiavellian-Montesquieuian-Gibbonite strain of Whig orientalism. For one thing, this dichotomy is not useful. Since 2003 I have been keenly sensitive to the fact that democracies are capable of – and now routinely do – behave in ways that Arendt would not hesitate to call totalitarian. This is one of the reasons why I still single out Christopher Hitchens, Liu Xiaobo and Václav Havel for particular censure: they were, when they lived, all advocates of democratic totalitarianism insofar as they enabled the wilful distortions of truth by the Bush Administration that led to over 600,000 wrongful deaths in Iraq, and the mainstream acceptability of rendition and torture. By this same token, the autocratic governments I mentioned above were not absolutist or totalitarian by Arendt’s understanding, for the simple reason that the heads of state were not laws unto themselves.

21 August 2019

Hong Kong is an island (and an oligarchy)


I have hesitated a long time before writing or publishing this post. In fact, most of it is roughly two years old, and as old as four, dating back to when I had to go to Canton and Hong Kong on visa-related business to bring my family back here. But certain current events thrusting Hong Kong back into the international spotlight have pushed me to update and complete this piece. To start with, let’s analyse certain gæographical and œcological realities briefly.

Hong Kong imports over 90% of its food – and at that, the vast, vast bulk comes from the mainland, including 94% of the city’s fresh pork, 100% of its fresh beef, 92% of its fresh vegetables and 97% of its freshwater fish. It imports between 70% and 80% by volume of its fresh water from the East River in Guangdong. Hong Kong’s electricity grid is interconnected with that on the mainland, and 23% of its total electricity is supplied directly from the mainland, much of that through the nuclear power plant in Shenzhen. For the remainder of its electricity, Hong Kong relies on coal and natural gas (also significantly imported from the mainland, though also from Indonesia and Singapore), with only 2% of its total consumption originating with renewable sources. In addition, tourism remains a vital œconomic sector for Hong Kong and accounts for five per cent of its GDP and over seven per cent of its employment, and mainland visitors account for nearly 80% of this sector’s custom.

Hong Kong also produces a vast amount of solid waste (to the tune of 6.4 million tonnes a year), has been running out of landfill space for a long time, and outsources the bulk of its recycling to – you guessed it! – the mainland. Hong Kong is notorious for its e-waste production (and the big HK shipping concerns also trade in e-waste from other countries), and much of this e-waste ends up in Guangdong, in poor villages like Guiyu. This is a question I should know a thing or two about – analysing e-waste flows, including destinations for international shipment, was part of my group’s research project on the 2010 Covered Device Recycling Act for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Suffice it to say, Hong Kong as a municipality has basically built itself up, since the late 1970’s, on a finance-led œconomic structure in ways which render it not only almost entirely dependent on the mainland for basic sustenance and support of a high-modern / high-tech / high-rise living standard. That said, Hong Kong happens to have one of the world’s highest urban income gaps, a legacy which significantly predates the 1997 handover (with 1971 being cited as the last year in which income disparity was this high).

So how did this financial-services led local œconomy play itself out? Hong Kong was flooded with wealth, but that wealth was largely in the hands of the same four families (Li, Ho, Hui and Lo). But instead of investing some of that wealth into, say, microchip or biotech or medical services development – all of which would have kept Hong Kong at the vanguard of the Chinese œconomy – instead they chose to sink that wealth back into real estate, fuelling speculation on an already-overpriced housing market. That was the quickest way to earn money, but not the wisest. Now, places like Shanghai and Chongqing are outstripping Hong Kong as preferred places of investment, and Hong Kong is no longer ‘top dog’ in China. That loss of internal status, along with the massive wealth gap, housing crisis and environmental crisis, seem to be what is driving a lot of the anxiety and anger that these middle and upper-middle class young people are experiencing now. It’s leading them to lash out at mainlanders as well as other foreign residents of the city. It strikes me that the defensiveness around the status of the Cantonese language (which is not dead and will never die so long as karaoke is a thing) stems from the same set of anxieties.

Some personal background here. I visited Hong Kong myself in 2005 on a seminar, and again went to the Delta in 2015 on visa-related business. During the first trip, I stayed at Hong Kong Baptist University during the week of 1 July, which coincided with the pro-democracy protests. Even though I was a visiting student, I did get the full tourist treatment. I got handed protest literature. I ate durian-flavoured ice cream. I visited the big malls, the schmancy restaurants (that’s the technical term) featuring dishes from any part of any animal you can think of, the Buddhist temples, the painfully-authentic British-style pubs.

But my strongest impressions of the place were Dickensian. You could see high-flyers driving Lamborghinis, Maseratis or Bentleys around in the nice mall districts, and then turn around to see old people of retirement age picking up litter for change, having no other way to supplement their meagre-to-non-existent pensions. You could go out to sea and visit the places where people rented out rooms on rusty decades-old boats floating on garbage-littered water because they couldn’t afford to live on land – and from the deck you might have a perfect view of the glittering glass-and-steel skyline. (The boat-dwelling practice is actually, in part, one remnant of a cruel Song-era ethnic caste system which was done away with by the Qing Dynasty’s heroic Yongzheng Emperor, only to be reintroduced informally by the British.) The sight of five-star hotels in spitting distance (figuratively speaking) from overcrowded public housing projects still remains somewhat disconcerting to me, and looms quite large in my memory of the place.

The point here, though, is not to bash Hong Kong as a place, or Hongkongers in general as people – the great majority of whom are victims, not perpetrators, of these circumstances. The point is to provide a certain degree of perspective. Hong Kong faces an unfavourable situation, and a broad array of thus-far intractable environmental, social and œconomic problems. The net effect of these problems is to reduce many of the island’s inhabitants to a state of path-dependence on the well-entrenched oligarchical system of rule which goes back over a century. It is this oligarchical system of native tycoons, and the colonial-legacy civil service system which supports it, which currently underwrites the vast majority of Hong Kong’s œconomic and political woes – not Beijing.

It is unclear to me how, if at all, the current protest movement in Hong Kong is liable to change anything for the better about this basic state-of-affairs, particularly when the movement itself tends to be pro-oligarch and pro-big business after the fashion of the Western liberal politics it emulates, or else ressentiment-filled, nativist and xenophobic after the fashion of those same Western countries’ current backlash politics. Does attacking government buildings with black paint and racist anti-Chinese slogans, harassing random old men in airports or kidnapping journalists, beating them up and denying them medical attention, get the great majority of Hongkongers any closer to a semblance of œconomic dignity, fair rents and land prices – or a better and more sustainable environmental model, which would seem to be a prerequisite for any meaningful sort of independence? It’s very telling that these protests, like the 2014 ones, are not driven by the working class, but by the relatively-privileged middle class. Poorer, more conservative neighbourhoods like Yuen Long and North Point have been decidedly unsympathetic to the protests.

It’s quite true that I used to be far more sympathetic to the Umbrella Movement than I am now. And I still hold to the view that Hongkongers – particularly working-class Hongkongers – have very good reason to be upset, about the income inequality and œcological problems in particular! But, at the risk of being one of those pesky Western types who refuses to fall in line behind Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, these current protesters haven’t learned anything from the Umbrella Movement’s failure, and they haven’t addressed the real agents of their island’s immiseration. More than that, much of their resentment against the mainland and mainlanders seems psychologically-driven by a loss of their uniquely-privileged status in the broader Chinese world. Hong Kong is still an island, but no longer uniquely wealthy or glamorous. That’s been a long time in coming. But because it’s not solely Beijing’s fault, it’s a lot harder to protest against.

16 August 2019

Platform: a ground-eye view of uneven development


Recently I watched Platform 《站台》, the third of Jia Zhangke’s 贾樟柯 full-length films. Following a group of young musicians from the death of Mao through the era of ‘reform and opening up’ and into the reign of Jiang Zemin, it offers us an unvarnished, unfiltered and unapologetic view from ground-level of how China’s new reforms impacted one rural performance troupe in their everyday lives, as they confront vast Faustian new social forces of birth control and boom-boxes, privatisation and pop music.

The film follows the personal and professional lives of four members of a song-and-dance group in rural Shanxi Province, Cui Mingliang (Wang Hongwei 王宏伟), Yin Ruijian (Zhao Tao 赵涛), Zhang Jun (Liang Jingdong 梁景东) and Zhong Ping (Yang Tianyi 杨天乙) – during China’s transition to a market œconomy and greater degrees of sexual licence. In the beginning, their troupe plays mostly ‘official’ songs, glorifying Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, and they wear the traditional uniforms; however, as the 1980’s go on they start performing covers of pop songs and calling themselves the ‘All-Stars Rock, Breakdance and Electronica Band’ from Shenzhen. The young men grow out their hair and start wearing denim and leather jackets; the young women turn in their Mao suits for spandex. The relationships between the characters are also ambiguous. Mingliang has a painful romantic interest in Ruijian from the start, but Ruijian rejects him – in significant part because her father disapproves of any relationship they might have. On the other hand, Jun and Ping are thoroughly in love, suited to each other – but because they’re not married, their relationship is disapproved by their work group and by the authorities.

First off, let me get this out of the way first: I watched the abridged version of Platform (a 155 minute runtime instead of 195 minutes) and I still found the pacing of the movie to be downright glacial. Long stretches of the movie pass in street scenes or road scenes without any dialogue. In many cases this adds to the emotional tension, as though Jia is trying to press home to us the powerlessness of his main characters before the forces of the age. Cinematographically, Jia Zhangke has a decided liking – very similar to Sergei Dvortsevoi, for instance – for long still takes where the scenery, the architecture or the social surroundings of the main characters are the focus rather than the characters themselves. The actors, who are usually placed off-centre and dwarfed by the masonry and scalloped roofs or the dry dusty hills behind them, drift in and out of view of the camera while we the audience remain sedentary. Much of the decisive action takes place – in a Chekhov-like way – off-camera, and what we are left seeing is the build-up or the aftermath of that action.

Of course, I can understand why Jia made these directorial decisions – both for thematic and for æsthetic reasons. Speaking from experience here – rural Shanxi may be dry and rocky, but it is gorgeous. But the film is not interested solely in the rugged beauty of China’s rural locales; equal if not greater attention is lavished on the elder architecture and the newly wire-lined streets of rural Shanxi towns, as well as on the rickety tarp-covered trucks, paper lamps, dusty-windowed storefronts and other realia of rural Chinese life, which still seems stuck despite the upheavals brought by Western clothes, Cantopop, colour TV, birth control, discotheques, sex education and private markets. The one innovation that the film unambiguously celebrates is infrastructure development, specifically rail: in one scene the singers and dancers run along the new rail line after catching a glimpse of a freight train, laughing and exhilarated.

The other thing is that Jia Zhangke seems to have his finger firmly on the pulse of the time. The attitude of the film and the filmmaker to the entire period of ‘reform and opening up’ is profoundly ambivalent to negative – and that’s in part because we get to see it from a ground-eye view. We have the ‘Red’ songs and slogans get replaced by rainbow flags and praises of the one child policy. The troupe starts listening to Dschinghis Khan and Teresa Teng. The ladies experiment with perms and cigarettes. But we also see Zhong Ping, pregnant and distraught, being hounded by three men (including her boyfriend) to get an abortion while the fate of the Gang of Four and praises to Deng Xiaoping blare over the clinic radio. We see the leader of the troupe sell out his stake and strike out on his own. The band struggles to stay relevant in painful ways – with the two girls at one point doing a modern dance routine on the back of a truck on the side of the road as an uninterested public drives by. Nor are the struggles relegated merely to the youth. Cui Mingliang’s mother and father have a strained marriage – tormented by money problems and poor communication – that neither of them feel they can leave. By the end of Platform, Jun is jaded and miserable, and Ping has dropped out for good without a word to anyone. Ruijian, too, has left the troupe and gone home to Fenyang, taking up a new job in local government – though she gets a slightly happier ending: she kindles up a romance with the still-interested Mingliang.

Zhong Ping – who by the end of the film is MIA – is the one most viscerally affected by these changes. She gets a perm, starts smoking, strikes up a relationship without the approval of her danwei 单位. She tells Zhang Jun she just wants to be his wife. But Jun – who worries about his parents’ disapprobation and simply doesn’t want to commit – breaks down and confesses their still-illicit relationship to the authorities. Ping is the one who suffers the consequences. And yet, when it comes to expressing their grief and anger, Jun and Ping – heart-wrenchingly and awkwardly – find themselves unable to do so in any other language but that of the pop music that they’ve been imbibing all this time. And the two of them drift apart without resolving anything. ‘She’s impossible,’ Ruijian later says of Ping as she lights up a cigarette with Mingliang.

Jia Zhangke seems to have a bit of a reputation as a leftist, but his movies – at least the two that I’ve seen so far, The Pickpocket 《小武》 and Platform – are deeply conservative in their political sensibilities, insofar as they give voice to Grantian intimations of loss. (Of course, the perpendicularity of Chinese politics renders such a position sensible.) Jia romanticises neither the Maoist period nor ‘reform and opening’. But his attention is primarily on the wreckage wrought on human relationships and psychology produced by the unloosed and uneven forces of free markets and sexual ‘liberation’ – which arrive in rural China, it seems, as a package deal. Even though Ruijian and Mingliang are free to marry without her father’s approval and have their state-approved one kid by the end of the film, the collateral damage wrought on the relationships of their friends and family along the way is considerable. The film is a bit too interminable for me to recommend without qualification. But there are flashes of deep and valuable insight into how modern China was shaped over the course of the eighties.

Tuǵan jer: a mild early assertion of Kazakh-ness


Bayan (Murat Ahmadıev) and his grandfather (Elýbaı Ámirzaqov) in Tuǵan jer

Rich Hall says the road movie genre is in large degree determined by the vagaries of the vast landscapes of the American West. Well, if that’s so – and I never doubt that particular film-critic comedian – then Kazakhstan too is particularly well-suited to the spiritual demands of the genre. And Sháken Aımenov’s Tuǵan jer (Zemlya ottsov, Land of the Fathers) is indeed a road movie. More than that, it’s a successful road movie, insofar as it uses the new (WWII-era) railway to illustrate alienation and elements of the Kazakh cultural identity that had been repressed under previous Soviet policies; and that it does so against a changing backdrop moving from the vast Kazakhstani steppes into the Russian heartland.

The film follows a boy, Bayan (Murat Ahmadıev) and his old aqsaqal grandfather (Elýbaı Ámirzaqov), as they journey from the Kazakhstani inland to Leningrad. There they are to reclaim the body of Bayan’s father, the aqsaqal’s son who died fighting the Nazis on the Eastern Front of the Great Patriotic War, and bring him home for a burial in his own homeland. Their transportation is arranged by a voluble and vivacious red-headed Russian named Egor (Viktor Shevtsov) – on one of the cargo cars of a westbound freight train. (It’s never quite clear from the movie whether or not their presence on the train is legal. They do refer to other passengers on other trains as ‘stowaways’.)

On the train, they meet with a Jewish-Russian archæologist (Yuri Pomerantsev) and his pretty daughter Sofia (Tamara Kokova). Egor is instantly smitten with Sofia, who is not quite so impressed by his attempts to hit on her. Meanwhile, Bayan begins talking shop with the old archæologist, much to his traditional grandfather’s chagrin. (The aqsaqal doesn’t want his grandson handling human bones, which is a bit ironic given what they set out to do.) A discussion ensues between the old archæologist and the aqsaqal, pitting the new Soviet all-brotherly progressive mentality against the need for tradition: faith, homeland, roots, patrimony. The aqsaqal’s transgressive behaviour, unlike in an American road film, is that he is very much, and very proudly, backwards by Soviet standards. Speaking as a Jew, I did wince a bit when the old aqsaqal called the archæologist ‘not quite human’, ‘a thorn, a tumbleweed’. But the assertion of his own Kazakh-ness, in an understated defiance of Stalin, was something to cheer.

At the same time, despite his progressive attitude and despite his not belonging to a particular patrimony, we can see that the archæologist himself is in thrall to the past. He and Sofia are searching for a lost ninth-century city, a pursuit which has ‘driven everyone mad’. He has dedicated his life to this pursuit, and as he approaches the end of his life, he realises his chances are few. After he and his daughter find signs of their quarry, they face a fateful choice that may be the archæologist’s last.

Bayan, on the other hand, sees the journey as a rite of passage; an opportunity to prove his manhood. He reveals to Sofia that he never cried when he heard about his father’s death, and he sees that as a source of shame. He also reveals to her that, although he teases the girls in his village in a teenage-boyish way, there’s one girl he likes: an orphan, Mariam, who is four years his elder. He wants to prove his adulthood, not only to his grandfather and not only to earn his adult name, but also to her, so he can pursue her properly as a Kazakh man. (One has to wonder, did Mori Kaoru watch this film before writing Otoyomegatari? Bayan and her precocious hero Qarluq share many of the same qualities, including the need to grow up and to be the object of romantic desire for an older woman.)

The tension between traditional and modern is always present, but in some cases it’s deftly subverted. In one scene we see horse riders – presumably Kazakh – chasing the train, and we are led to expect some kind of daring armed robbery or raid. But it turns out that the lead horse rider is just celebrating the birth of his son. He asks for a possible name for his son from the folks on the train, and Egor exuberantly offers his own. Sofia, on the other hand, suggests Bayan, which the rider likes better. Giving them his traveller’s blessings, he and his posse ride off. It’s a somewhat anticlimactic moment, but it’s also a bit touching.

At a train station where they stop for drinking water, the aqsaqal meets an old Chechen who rides on the train roof to be closer to the sky and to God, and who is going home to the Caucasus to die. Despite not having anyone back home, he still wants to end his life in the land he grew up in. The grandfather appreciates this sentiment, and comes to regard the Chechen as a friend and a kind of sacred charge. However, as Bayan and Egor observe the aqsaqal feeling more and more lost outside his homeland, they start to fear that he’s losing his grip; and when the old man and the Chechen get left behind at a train stop, Bayan’s mission takes a very different turn.

One of the most prominent motifs that runs through this film, literally, is water: the water of rivers, water for drinking and washing, the salt water of tears and spit. At the opening of the film, we see Bayan exuberantly washing in and drinking from a shallow brook in his homeland. But as they make their way west, water becomes harder and harder to reach. It has to be pumped, strained, boiled, even as they cross the immense Volga. At the end, it has to be asked or begged: Bayan is dependent on the hospitality of the Russian villagers of Nosakino, where his father was killed (even though at one point he is mistaken for a Gypsy and attacked by local boys). Bayan also learns to shed tears as he makes his way west: the reality of his father’s death hits home for him when he sees his name on the collective monument erected to the Soviet soldiers who fell at Nosakino.

It’s worth noting that even though Aımenov wants to assert a distinct and traditional Kazakh identity, he does not indulge a narrow or chauvinist view. The wreckage and memory of the war is a constant background presence, a touchstone for many of the characters. The recent shared fight against the fascists as well as the shared experience of having lost loved ones – fathers, husbands, brothers – is shown to be a bonding force for Russian, Kazakh, Jew and Chechen, in ways that ideology cannot be. It’s also a bonding force across generations, even where one of those generations is notable only by its absence. Egor is one of the very few living men of fighting age that we get to see – the rest of his cohort are visibly scarred (with missing arms, for example). But in many senses Egor is the linchpin of the film: he is able to bridge the traditional and the modern; able to bridge the generation gap; even able and willing to bridge the gap between the cultures. In this, he anticipates a late-Soviet or post-Soviet identity that has continued to guide Eastern European and Eurasian politics down to the present. The loss of war stands in the landscape as well, and in the everyday lives of the people along the railway. An old veteran unsuccessfully tries to sell Egor a mouth-organ that had been owned by a German. Nosakino is pitted by the blast craters of German mortars – some of which themselves have been brought back as trophies of war. In one iconic scene, Bayan and his grandfather embrace as a train goes by, in front of a bombed-out building pitted with shrapnel.

The pacing of the film is ambling, and Aımenov’s preference early on in the film for long, slow-pan takes which privilege the rugged, arid, desolately-beautiful natural scenery and the traditional Islâmic architecture somewhat anticipate – both in a visual sense and thematically – an early Jia Zhangke movie (like, say, The Pickpocket 《小武》). Aımenov has a similar sensitivity as Jia to loss, whether cultural or personal, whether as the result of war or of technological progress. The movie is shot in black-and-white, which is an interesting choice, but he doesn’t use it as boldly or as dramatically as Eisenstein. The film is dark – not thematically, just from a lighting perspective, with the exceptions being the scenes in which the scenery of Kazakhstan takes centre stage. Regardless, Tuǵan jer is a remarkably fine film. As an example of an early and mild expression of multivalent ‘national’ belonging in the Soviet Union, it’s also a noteworthy entry in Soviet – and Kazakh – cinema.

15 August 2019

Ivan Groznyi and the birth of Kazakhstani cinema


Nikolai Cherkasov in Ivan Groznyi, pervoi serii

In this series about Kazakhstani cinema that I’ve been doing, from epic revenge sagas to quirky romantic comedies, it may seem a trifle perverse of me to include Ivan Groznyi, Part I, the Soviet film by Sergei Eisenstein. But it is the case, however ironic it might be, that this film, shot and released during the Second World War, would jump-start the entire Kazakhstani film industry, after the Moscow-based film companies had been relocated to Almaty (then Alma-Ata). And, of course, it would be a historical melodrama about that most ruthless and commanding of Moscow’s rulers, the very first of them who threatened the borders of the Kazakh khanate: Ivan IV ‘the Fearsome’, the first of the Russian Tsars. But these truly are the sorts of historical ironies I delight in.

This was, after all, a film shot at the height of the Great Patriotic War, after the film industry along with a number of other Soviet heavy industries had been relocated to the interior to protect them from the advance of Nazi Germany. Qaraǵandy became a hub of industrial activity; Almaty – cultural. Eisenstein’s epic of Ivan takes place against this historical backdrop, and also speaks to that generation and its struggles. Not for nothing does Ivan in Part I face off against the Livonians, the Crimean Khanate and the Hanseatic League as his main external enemies – or regard Queen Elizabeth of England as his primary overseas ally! The parallels between Ivan’s struggle for the salvation of Russia, and that of the leadership during the Great Patriotic War, are drawn perhaps a little too bluntly.

Ivan Groznyi, pervoi serii is not a particularly subtle film. Eisenstein shows a peculiar preference for exaggerated theatrical mannerisms, bold looks, masque-like expressions that remind one of nothing so much as a Chinese kunqu or a Japanese kabuki. (Indeed, Eisenstein was deeply influenced by the Asiatic opera tradition.) He also uses costume and lighting to achieve bold dramatic effects. For example, Ivan’s bride Anastasia Romanovna (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) is portrayed only in white, light colours, metallic fabrics. The evil Efrosinia (Serafima Birman) is usually garbed entirely – or at least from head to shoulders – in black, giving her a menacing and shadowy aspect.

The faces of the characters are lit to an extraordinary degree from beneath, giving us the impression that we are looking up at statues. Or else shadows are deliberately cast upon vast surfaces in the background. Likewise, actors and sets are deliberately framed; long, low-angle shots portray Ivan as larger-than-life – even as they dwell upon his tormented and, to some degree, wholly-human inner life. The result is a film that is imposing, majestic, full of bombast and importance. It’s easy to see how this would be an acquired taste, but from a purely artistic perspective I found it exhilarating – a work of genius.

As for Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov) himself, even in the first part, his mannerisms reflect the ambiguous position that Eisenstein had in mind for him. Stalin apparently approved deeply of the first part of Ivan Groznyi and the way it portrays Tsar Ivan as a hero. This part is indeed there for him. But Eisenstein directs Tsar Ivan, and Cherkasov performs him, in the mode of the Cao Cao of Chinese opera and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. His costuming alternates between bright and dark, as do his facial expressions and aspect. We can already see traces of the ambition and paranoia that come from straining after power, and suspecting everyone around him. To be fair: he had good reason to be paranoid. Every single one of the boyars around him is a scoundrel who wants to see his downfall – including, as it turns out, his close ‘friend’ Prince Andrei Kurbskyi (Mikhail Nazvanov) who has designs on Anastasia.

The main conflict of the story, though, really surrounds the establishment of Russia as a state: the transition from a divided kingdom torn apart between the boyars and their petty squabbles, into a modern power with a regular army. As with controversial Chinese monarchs like Cao Cao or Wu Zetian, portrayals of Russian rulers as divisive as Ivan Groznyi are, by necessity, also political commentaries reflecting contemporary concerns. This portrayal of Ivan IV is no exception. Ivan is shown as a progressive ruler, a visionary; but he is one who must govern by force or the threat of force.

As an Orthodox Christian, I also feel it is necessary to pass some comment on the treatment of the Church in this film. I’m very much not a fan of how the patriarch and the monks in the film are essentially portrayed in the same light as the boyars – materialistic, greedy, self-interested and eager to curry political favour. I can’t argue that this has, on occasion, been the case in the Church – and of course I acknowledge that this exaggeration was part-and-parcel of the entire Soviet ‘case’ against the Church, which naturally this film reflects ideologically. At the same time, I appreciate that the film takes care to get the music of the Orthodox Church correct, and also some of the sacraments and outward life of the Church. Also, Ivan is shown to be a sincere Orthodox believer, someone who truly believes in God and struggles with that belief in the face of his wife’s death. In some ways, despite the operatic theatricality of the moment, the scene where Ivan grieves over his wife’s body is perhaps the most poignant part of an incredibly poignant film.

Speaking of music, this film would not have been complete without Sergei Prokofiev having done the score! Whereas it occasionally seemed in Pervyi eshelon that the artistic merits of the film did not quite match up to the sheer depth of talent shown by the composer of its soundtrack, here the pairing of Prokofiev to the artistic vision of Eisenstein and the historical subject matter aligns perfectly. Prokofiev knows precisely what note to strike to produce the stirring effect, whether that is in the sweeping majesty of the coronation or in the sinister plotting of the boyars.

It’s not controversial at all to say that Ivan Groznyi deserves its place among the all-time classics of cinema. But allow me to step, a bit perversely perhaps, a little into controversial waters here. Ivan Groznyi tells the tale of the first Russian Tsar. It appeals to Russian sensibilities. It plays to Great Russian patriotism. And it indisputably belongs to a pan-Soviet cinematic canon. But it is also very much, materially, a Kazakhstani film. The scenery surrounding the battles and the outdoor procession belonged to the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. The great bulk of Eisenstein’s work on Ivan Groznyi, the set pieces, equipment, institutional support – this was the technical foundation for an Alma-Ata based film industry that would go on to produce Pervyi eshelon in the post-war period, and also the more ‘national’-oriented films of Sháken Aımanov (on whose work, a blog post to follow), Majit Begalin, Abdulla Qarsaqbaev and Sultanahmet Qojyqov. Kazakhstani cinema – particularly that funded by state organs like Kazakhfilm – took, in many senses, Ivan Groznyi as a foundational work. Ermek Shynarbaev’s 1989 Mest’ can be seen to mirror Ivan Groznyi’s emphasis on light and shadow, even if the soft-focus lighting produces an entirely different effect. It also uses many of the same techniques that Eisenstein used in its acting direction, producing an operatic experience. Ardak Ámirqulov’s 1991 Otyrardyń kúıreyi explores, albeit from a very different angle in relation to a very different set of characters to Ivan Groznyi, the psychology of power and those who cling to it – and also cinematographically plays with light and shadow in many of the same ways.

14 August 2019

Mest’: the anger and displacement of Soviet Koreans


The Daoist monk (Oleg Li) and An’s wife (Valentina Te) in Mest’

The Criterion Collection’s restored version of Ermek Shynarbaev’s and Anatoli Gim’s 1989 epic Mest’ (or Revenge) was an interesting watch, to say the least. It’s the tale of a multi-generational grudge held by the Chae family against a wicked, murderous schoolteacher named An, and the quest for revenge which passes from father to son. But a bit surprisingly to me, actually: the film is as much about the displacement, rootlessness and disorientation of the Korean diaspora in the Soviet Union as much as it is about themes of revenge, mercy and divine justice. Despite being a significant piece of Kazakhstani cinema, it is very much so a movie that is made for, about and significantly by Soviet Koreans.

The film begins in the 1600s, with the King of Joseon (Oleg Li) and his courtiers watching a tortoise fight to make its way back to the sea; they muse briefly on the aim and purpose of human life as, in the corridor, the Crown Prince fights with, and is beaten by, a fellow youngster named Sungu. The King, ashamed of his son, appoints the captain of the Palace Guard his son’s mentor and guardian, and threatens to execute him if, by the time he is twenty, the Crown Prince is not able to defeat any warrior in the kingdom. A dozen years pass, and the Crown Prince has become the new King of Joseon, while Sungu (Aleksandr Pan) has become a courtier-poet. The King orders a guard who has deliberately lost to him in a wrestling match to be beaten to death. Sungu objects, but is unable to save the guard – he then leaves the court of Joseon and wanders off toward the west, into the blinding light of the setting sun.

Fast forward two hundred and fifty years. A schoolteacher named An has been thrown out of the Chae household. Crawling into a barn and covering himself with straw to spend the night, he eventually is shown to be making a living teaching writing to local boys and girls. One girl – the daughter of old Chae – slacks off in class; in a rage, An takes a sickle from the barn door and beheads her with it. Old Chae vows revenge – even putting his farm in hock so he can chase An all the way to China – but he has become too old and weak to carry out his revenge. He takes a second wife, a deaf-mute peasant girl, who bears him a son who is also named Sungu (and also played, as an adult, by Aleksandr Pan). Sungu, whose mother loves him but cannot understand him or speak to him, becomes something of a poetic prodigy – but his life is interrupted when his father takes ill, and calls him to his deathbed. Old Chae tells him what happened to his sister, and tells him never to rest until he has taken revenge on An. From then on, Chae Sungu is driven by a single purpose in life: to hunt down the man who murdered his sister, and kill him with the same scythe he used on her.

Mest’ is a highly disturbing and yet profound film; and there’s a lot going on in it such that it’s hard to know where to begin in describing or examining it. The first thing that comes to mind is the omnipresence of fate in the film; the characters seem to be less acting of their own accord, as they are being ‘ruled from afar’, in the words of An’s wife (Valentina Te), whose rôle in the film seems to be half-Cassandra, half-Fate herself. Fate seems to be accompanied by – and indeed signified by – disease in the film: the bloody disease which takes the life of Old Chae; the disease which nearly kills An’s wife; and the disease which ultimately afflicts Chae Sungu himself. There is a sense of despair and powerlessness which hangs over these characters, which is connected to the rootlessness that they all feel. Old Chae’s only offspring by his first wife was murdered; the second one was fated only to avenge the first. An’s wife, who was doomed to die from a young age, has her life saved by a mendicant Daoist monk (also Oleg Li) who informs her that her fate is to marry An and ultimately atone for his sins. And of course Chae Sungu is forced onto his path by family feeling.

There is a deep irony to all of these ‘fates’, particularly given how important family is shown to be to the Koreans even in their exile. Fate is linked to infertility. Of the three of them, Old Chae is the only one who is capable of having children (and even then, these children are either the victims of violence or damned to a cycle of revenge). An’s wife, it is strongly hinted, is rendered infertile by her disease. And Chae Sungu’s disease – which is tied up with his fate and quest for revenge – prevents him, after he moves to Sakhalin from consummating a romantic relationship with the Romanian expat Elza, who explicitly tells Sungu she wants to settle down and have babies.

Speech and poetry are also themes which crop up again and again. We do not hear, for example, old Chae’s daughter utter a single word before she is cursed at and slain by An. Old Chae himself is struck speechless at key points in the narrative – as when he tracks An down to a mine in China and unsuccessfully tries to kill him in the barracks. The second wife he takes, with whom he has Sungu, is a deaf-mute. The only words she utters are either to Sungu or to An’s wife, and at that in a flashback or a dream. And of course, after Sungu is told of his sister’s death and his quest for revenge, he falls silent for an entire year. He is unable to compose any poetry after that, as he tells the Daoist monk. He finds himself almost wholly unable to speak to Elza. He recovers his voice only toward the end, as it seems he is being guided by the ghosts of his father and sister to An’s house, where he plans to deliver his revenge, only to find a development he did not expect.

The tormented, often-powerless Sungu is made to stand in for the Korean diaspora in the Soviet Union. For the most part he carries himself with the righteous and stoic dignity of a youxia – but this is a dignity that is shown to be without a future. In the very end of the film, we are shown Sungu having washed up on a Sakhalin shore, seeing possibly illusory visions of a royal procession of the Kingdom of Joseon from across a shallow inlet. This otherworldly collapsing of time and space is accompanied by the dialogue of two elderly Soviet-Korean sisters harvesting clams along the shore, who talk about their fear of the sea and their desire to escape. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to describe this film as elegiac, though. Even if they’re a displaced people, even if they’re bereft of a ‘place’ of their own, even if they’re bereft of a future and a past, the collapse of space and time in that ending scene seems to imply that they aren’t content to be forgotten.

Cinematographically speaking, Mest’ makes some interesting choices – the treatment of the Joseon court feels slightly claustrophobic (and Shynarbaev himself admitted in one interview that he was largely relying on his co-writer Gim’s knowledge of court customs), but the Korean village and later the Sakhalin coastal landscapes set in the modern time frame are treated with exquisite attention to detail. Visually, the film is arrestingly beautiful. (Hedgehogs are a recurring visual motif. Not sure if a Freudian point is being made there or not.) The soft-focus lighting effects in the film create a ‘glow’ around objects and people, creating a dreamlike quality even to the grim and disturbing sequences like An’s murder of the little girl Chae. The score and some of the special effects add to the eerie and surreal quality, particularly as Chae Sungu’s quest reaches its end.

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Ermek Shynarbaev’s and Anatoli Gim’s film. Even though I can understand why the Criterion Collection added it and even though I can see why it’s a favourite of Martin Scorsese, the story overpromises and ends up in a bizarre, surrealistic cul de sac. For example, without spoiling too much, I still don’t understand what exactly happened to An’s wife. Still, just for the cinematography (and the hedgehogs!), I’m more than happy to recommend it for watching at least once.

13 August 2019

Venerable Wihtberht the Wonderworker, Abbot of Fritzlar and Ohrdruf


Saint Wihtberht of Fritzlar

In the Holy Orthodox Church, the thirteenth of August is the feast day of Saint Wihtberht [also Wigbert or Wictbert] of Fritzlar. Another of the great Old English missionary saints on the Continent, a contemporary and friend of Saint Willibrord and a dutiful helpmeet to Saint Boniface, Abbot Wihtberht was also the master and mentor of the German saints Lul and Sturm who continued the missionary work on the Continent among the Frisians, Saxons and other Teutonic tribes.

Born on the seventh of May around the year 675 to a family of means and honour in the Kingdom of the West Saxons, Wihtberht put aside the sæcular life and its honours early and entered the Benedictine Order. He had from them an enviably broad education, being known, in Bede’s words, for his ‘contempt of worldly things and for his knowledge of doctrine’. He resided for some time at Glastonbury before faring across the sea to Ireland, where he spent most of his monastic life. He befriended the mendicant Saint Ecgberht of Ripon, who began organising the brethren for missions to Frisia and Saxony.

Ecgberht had made most of his preparations to go abroad from Ireland, when he was visited by one of the disciples of Saint Boisil of Melrose. This disciple intimated to Ecgberht that Saint Boisil had appeared to him in a dream, telling him that Ecgberht should not go to the Continent but instead to instruct the monks at Iona. Ecgberht strictly enjoined the brother not to tell anyone else of this dream lest it be a delusion, but Ecgberht secretly feared that it was true. But the brother, the servant of Saint Boisil, kept having the dream – and Boisil upbraided him for being careless in giving his message to Saint Ecgberht.

Again and again, in secret, the brother pleaded with Ecgberht, until at last Ecgberht seemed to give in. But his heart was set upon going to the Continent, and so he lied to the brother with soothing words about his intention to leave for Iona. But God is not mocked. As Ecgberht prepared to set sail from Ireland, a wild storm blew up. The ship that he had laden with their provisions blew over, and the provisions were lost: though all of the holy relics and books were spared. Saint Ecgberht knew that he, like Jonah, was the cause. In his self-will and pride and vainglorious hopes of bringing the Gospel to the unenlightened peoples, he had neglected the word of God to his heart. Saint Ecgberht begged his brothers’ forgiveness, and appointed Wihtberht to lead the mission to the Continent, while he himself humbly accepted that his place was in Iona.

Saint Wihtberht’s first mission to the Frisians was to the infamously-stubborn Redbad King, and that mission ended in failure. Wihtberht was obliged to return to Ireland, and Saint Willibrord was sent in his place, as well as two other priests – named Heawold the Black and Heawold the White – who were martyred by the inhabitants of Saxony as they were celebrating the Liturgy on an altar in the open.

Saint Boniface’s missions among the heathen folk of Old Saxony and Frisia in the early 700s, around the same time as Saint Bede was writing his History of the English Church and People, met with greater success. After he felled Þórr’s Oak at Fritzlar, he had a chapel built from the wood and established a Benedictine house nearby. To serve as abbot in this house, Saint Boniface sent for none other than Wihtberht, who set himself up there. Saint Boniface added to him the newly-righted abbey at Ohrdruf, which was meant for the conversion of the Thuringian flock. Wihtberht ruled these two abbeys with a gentle and mild hand for over a decade, until his declining health obliged him to step down and return rule over them to Saint Boniface.

Concerning himself, Abbot Wihtberht was a stern and regular ascetic – even in his elderly infirmity. He imposed a strict fast upon himself, though he was notably lenient and indulgent toward his brother-monks. His life of steadfast holiness and humility gave him the ability to work wonders for the Thuringian and Saxon folk whom he witnessed to, and also for his brethren. Among his pupils were the abovementioned Lul and Sturm, who unfortunately each fell on either side of a political-ecclesiastical rivalry for much of their earthly lives. He reposed in the Lord, at peace with all his brothers, in the year 747 on the thirteenth of August. Holy Father Wihtberht, wonder-working abbot and gentle missionary, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!