22 May 2018

On Berdyaev and Bloy – a reply to Fr Stephen (Janos)

Elias Crim, my friend and co-editor at Solidarity Hall, forwarded me this kind message from Fr Stephen (Janos) of Berks Co., Pennsylvania, with a request to render it onto the comments section of my previous piece. In fact, with Fr Steve’s permission, I will do that one better, and give it a post-length response of its own here, which I feel it easily warrants! Here is the letter as I received it, in full, with only a few minor formatting changes.
Mr Cooper, Matthew —

What a delight to stumble upon something substantive stated on the Internet “recent” regarding Berdyaev.

It is some number of years since I last read Berdyaev’s
Divine and the Human, and not quite sure what recently vexed you with it. In your comments you seem to jump instead to B’s A. S. Khomyakov 1912 book (2017 English), regarding the Iranstvo/Kushite distinction. Iranstvo actually is the Logos philosophy within perception—being able to perceive XC-God the Word within the very fabric of creation, which seems to be what you are calling for in relation to our empirical world, to also worship the Lord God in the theatre of our world, as a matter as with icons of the symbolism of “real presence”. The Kushite mentality regarding the sacral is totemic magical, howsoever sophisticated, an “hocus-pocus” incantation, where the icon-symbol of the “real presence” becomes rendered into an object, an idol, a bourgeois contentment with idolatry, a Judas-kiss to the Living God.

Yes, there is much paganism within Christianity, a dark paganism assimilated and illumined by Christianity. When in church we prostrate down to holy Mother Earth, were we truly sensitive to the focused reality of the presence of God, we would be loathe to rise up and raise up our eyes to God Our Heavenly Father. But then too as regards this world, XC that “we are in this world but not of this world”. And as Christ proclaims to the Samaritan Woman, “God is spirit, and they that worship must worship in spirit and in truth”...

Khomyakov was a man of many talents across the spectrum, and a good steward of the land, loving it and not treating it as a bank; Khomyakov was the ideological father of the old Slavophilism, and he coined the significant churchly concept of
Sobornost’, tragically nowadays treated as a mere slogan... To your credit, you seem to be one of the so few not only to have obtained the book, but actually to have read it—B’s Khomyakov book!

Yes, to a certain degree Berdyaev is a victim of rationalism, as are we all. This is somewhat apparent in his early work,
Sub specie aeternitatis, in moving on from Marxism to Idealism and then beyond... My impression of struggling one’s way through a chamber thick with the cobwebs of Rationalism, which in its Enlightement forms is a step-child of Thomist Scholasticism. Berdyaev’s push is towards a metaphysical “ontologism” in reaction to ungrounded Neo-Kantian “gnossologism”..

Are you a clairvoyant?? It would seem so, with your mention of Leon Bloy! Berdyaev wrote a masterful 1914 article on L. Bloy, the only work on Bloy in Russian for nearly a century... It very soon will appear in English (next month) in an expanded version of Berdyaev’s 1918
Crisis of Art. Bloy is deserving of much further study as an existentialist figure of note. He is similar to Nietzsche in intensity, but whereas Nietzsche took the high road, L. Bloy took the low road through the muck of life. An irascible fellow, a Catholic, who brought the atheist Maritain to Christ (Maritain’s wife was of Russian Jewish origin, which help explain the strange bond with Berdyaev via Bloy). Bloy’s language is blunt reading, reading him one is initially repulsed, but then appreciative. He is a man obsessed with the Absolute. Bloy’s thought represents an expose of the “metaphysics of bourgeoisness”. He identifies the mark of a Christian as one co-crucified with Christ Crucified, Christ the Poor One. He brings to light the existential motif of “aloneness”, not loneliness but aloneness, of God and the individual man. In Russian art there is a famous image by I. Kramskoy, Christ in the Wilderness (qv.) which vividly captures the stark barrenness and gripped-hand intensity of this Gethsemane premonition. And there is this profoundly incisive saying by Leon Bloy: “Lord Jesus, Thou prayest for those, who crucify Thee, and Thou dost crucify those, who do love Thee!”

I realise it is bad form to promote one’s work on the forum of an other,—for which I implore your indulgence... Thanks!

Fr Steve
Bless, Father Steve! Also – my goodness! It’s a rare pleasure to hear from one of the translators of Berdyaev’s work into English; and I’m sorry that in my initial ignorance I did not recognise your name and its connexion with that of Berdyaev. As my wife’s people say: ‘I have eyes, but couldn’t recognise Mount Tai!’ Again, thank you for the kind words; I’m glad you found something of worth in my previous piece.

Unfortunately – and this is typical of my muddleheadedness – it looks like I skipped around in my thinking and condensed much of the main point I was trying to make, connecting it to other concepts and ideas drawn from elsewhere in Berdyaev’s essays and books. I should, from the start, have drawn examples of what I was responding to directly from The Divine and the Human, rather than glossing Berdyaev’s point about nature and history which I found slightly one-sided, as I did before. Berdyaev makes the same point in several places in The Divine and the Human, but this is one formulation of it:
In the critique of revelation the problem of the relation of revelation to history is of immense importance. Christianity is the revelation of God in history, not in nature. The Bible tells the story of the revelation of God in history. The mystery of Christianity is bound up with the Incarnation of God.
Berdyaev also quotes in these passages the Johannine insight, taken (as you say) from the conversation Christ had with the Samaritan woman, that ‘God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth’; indeed, this passage from John appears in the selfsame paragraph! I thought I understood Berdyaev’s point about ‘magic’, ‘mana’ and ‘religious materialism’, though from your response to me it looks like I overlooked the crucial aspect, which is contained in his use of ‘symbolism’. Reading that passage again, it does look like what he is attacking is precisely this ‘symbolic’ hocus-pocus prestidigitation, the re-reification of matter into something it is not to fool the gullible. Instead of making nature transparent to the Divine as Saint Gregory the Theologian did through his poetry, what the ‘Kushitic’ religions do is to use nature to impose a barrier between the Divine and the communicant. From there, the predictable results were: blood sacrifice; sadism; the beginnings of totalitarian logic. It looks like I missed the opportunity to drive home Berdyaev’s point that there is exactly such a ‘Kushitic’ element, not only in the various nationalist and ideological cults of modern times, but also in the modern bourgeois cults of self-help / self-medication / therapeutic consumerism – and that would have tied the point back nicely into my œcological concerns.

However: my problem with Berdyaev’s formulation, such as it was, was in his use of ‘in history, not in nature’. I felt that to be a false dichotomy. For God to enter into history, ‘in spirit and in truth’ – and this is what so scandalised the Greeks, no? – he had to take on matter, to bring Himself down to the level of mere nature. At that, not to fool us – but instead to redeem us in our totality (and not just our ‘spirits’, not just some abstraction or some disembodied part of us). My worry with Berdyaev was that in severing ‘nature’ from ‘history’ he was edging toward a Gnostic quasi-Cartesian separation of ‘matter’ from ‘mind’, with the salvation of only the latter in view.

Even in my less-charitable reading, though, Berdyaev did not wind up a Gnostic. What kept him away from it was a contemplation of the nature of love. Even the ‘non-human’, even the ‘non-mind’, would be saved because it is beloved of God – and you can’t get to that point without acknowledging at least some of the goodness and personality in matter on which Saint Gregory was insisting. Berdyaev – and this is to his credit; sadly it sounded in my previous writing as though I was dismissing this! – simply would not countenance the loss to æternity of his cat Murya:
My favourite cat has died: they will tell me that this death is not tragic because an animal has no personality. This argument is of no importance to me… What is most important is that my great love for my cat demands, as all love demands, immortality, eternity for the object of its love. I cannot think of the Kingdom of God without a place in it for my Murya.
Regarding Khomyakov… yes! Khomyakov was a true genius of his time. Not only was he a gentle landlord who treated his land with respect and refused to collect corvée duties from his tenants; he was also (contrary to the common perception of Slavophils as obscurantist reactionaries) a polymath and a technological innovator. It is very easy to mischaracterise or caricature the early Slavophils, and I’ve found I’ve had to correct even some of my own misrepresentations of Khomyakov and Kireevsky even as I’ve made them on this blog. I regret to say, though, that I’ve not yet read Berdyaev’s AS Khomyakov, either your English translation or the original. On the other hand, that will be a welcome addition to my reading list! My knowledge of Berdyaev’s treatment of Khomyakov comes instead through his book The Russian Idea. Berdyaev’s treatments of Khomyakov in various writings really only whetted my curiosity, though – I’ve read Riasanovsky and Gleason’s secondary works, and have still got several more on my bookshelf which I haven’t had the chance to crack open yet.

Regarding Bloy, Fr Steve, you have me at a distinct disadvantage. I’ve not yet read a single word by Léon Bloy, and sadly, my only understanding of Bloy’s hold over Berdyaev’s imagination comes from having read his 1917 essay ‘Bourgeoisness and Socialism’ and Peter Maurin’s collection of short quotes from Berdyaev on the ‘bourgeois mind’ for the Catholic Worker. However, from the brief description you’ve given to me of him, it sounds like it would be well worth my time to tackle some of his novels. If Bloy manages to capture, in some of that work, even some of the world-heavy pathos that is evident in Kramskoy’s painting, it would be well worth persisting in it.

Regarding your upcoming translation of Berdyaev’s Crisis of Art, it’s my pleasure to publicise this work as far as it’s in my power, and I eagerly look forward to reading your translation particularly as it pertains to the Berdyaev-Bloy connexion. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for it!

Please pray for me, a sinner!

With warmest regards,

Ivan Kramskoy, Christ in the Wilderness, 1872

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