29 June 2019

Democratic debates as theatre and teen drama


Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris
on the second night of the debates

Honestly, my first thought after watching the Democratic debates was, ‘boy, am I glad I’m not a Democrat anymore’. A sentiment a bit too pharisaical, perhaps, but these debates really are just theatre, and bad theatre at that. For one example: the hosts put forward a ‘question from the audience’ (some poor woman from Oregon) who asked a question about Trump’s negative impact on institutions and norms that was couched in some of the most inane and banal pseudo-centrist language imaginable. That may indeed have been a genuine and authentic question – Lord knows, sadly, there are probably more than a few such well-meaning individuals out there whose language and views have been severely stunted by the intellectual-yet-idiotic patois of the Washington Post and the New York Times – but the fact that the hosts subtly placed that question in the mouths of the ‘audience’, of the ‘common people’, was a deft and deliberate bit of misleading and manipulative framing. In such venues, what questions get asked, how they are framed, and to whom they are addressed are in fact considerations as important as the questions themselves.

The reason Socrates and Plato were precisely so distrustful of statesmen and sophists was that they learned precisely how to make propositions or attitudes about the world sound or look true and genuine without them actually being so. And sadly, our politics – which is in the middle of a transition between two or perhaps all three modes of the politics of the belly – is rife with these sorts of distortions. This is one of the reasons why I tend to respect Senator Sanders and Representative Gabbard more than practically all of the other people on the stage. They have to play-act a little bit because of the artificial venue in which they find themselves; they have to engage in some redirection and manipulation (and there certainly were one or two instances where I found that disappointing and frustrating); but at their best they are trying to turn our heads away from the shadows on the wall.

All the foregoing isn’t to say that the theatrics don’t have a certain value for those who recognise what they are. A candidate’s answer might be rehearsed or it might be an off-the-cuff bit of improv, but it will still reveal certain things about that candidate’s policy priorities and preoccupations and temperament that can be helpful in evaluating them. We got to see twenty different candidates the past two nights. And their performances added a couple of new analytical insights to what we already knew going into the debate.
  1. Law of the Blob. The clear divide between the hawkish and the dovish wings of the party, which had been evident going into the debates, was thrown into sharp relief with the exchange between Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan the first night. Gabbard waited for her moment and took it as soon as it presented itself. The effect was (at least to my eyes) devastating. It came off (as I’m sure the Major intended it) as an exchange between a seasoned Smedley Butler and a chickenhawk with no skin in the game. Questions on both nights revealed which candidates were most active in serving a militarist Blob agenda in addition to Tim Ryan: John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, Julián Castro and Bill de Blasio on the first night; John Hickenlooper, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Michael Bennet and Eric Swalwell on the second night. Unfortunately, it still looks like the only candidates who are solidly against intervention and in favour of a drawdown are Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand.

  2. The generational jihâd. During the second night of the debates in particular, the tactics of Eric Swalwell (and, to a lesser extent, Pete Buttigieg) in going after Joe Biden in particular on climate change and gun control were ageist. To be fair, Biden himself did not enter these debates as an innocent target in the slightest, what with his comments against millennials, and he set himself up perfectly for Swalwell’s ‘pass the torch’ thrust with his demands that younger people get more politically involved. We also saw a couple of candidates who rejected the Swalwellian-Buttigiegian tactic of attacking their elders, and those were Bernie Sanders and Marianne Williamson. The former said the elderly are not the enemy, big corporations and special interests are; the latter argued, entirely reasonably, that youth is no guarantee of having good character, ideas or actions.

  3. Race and civil rights. Issues of police violence and continued issues facing the black community in the United States came up particularly strongly the second night with all three of Buttigieg, Biden and Harris on the stage. Pete Buttigieg had a moment of well-rehearsed vulnerability when he apologised for his failures as mayor of South Bend to effectively integrate the city’s police force or to effectively prevent police violence against a black man, Eric Logan. The effect back home was apparently unconvincing. The city under Buttigieg has had a long litany of unaddressed racial issues which make his apology ring a trifle hollow there.

    Another interesting moment in the debate was when Kamala Harris savaged Joe Biden’s record on civil rights, particularly with regard to his cosy relationship with segregationist colleagues and his personal stance on bussing and school integration. It was expertly done, pulling in a degree of personal pathos and directing it with insistent focus upon the crux of the question: the failure of states and municipalities to act according to the high court’s ruling to integrate. Harris certainly knows how to work a crowd (and, presumably, a jury), and the justice of her appeals against Biden’s record cannot really be denied.

  4. Nerds, jocks, preps and burnouts. It was a little surprising and unnerving to me to see how easily a number of the candidates fit into the Breakfast Club schema of stereotypical high school cliques. Warren, Yang and Buttigieg clearly belong in the ‘nerd’ category; Gabbard, Inslee, Ryan, Booker and Biden are ‘jocks’; Gillibrand, Harris and Swalwell are a little too obviously ‘preps’; and O’Rourke and Williamson, of course, are the ‘burnouts’. This is not a particularly revealing schema with regard to the candidates’ policy positions, but it did seem to come out in terms of how they interacted with each other and how they respond to questions.

    I’ve already remarked above about the Gabbard-Ryan exchange over foreign policy in the first night which occasionally resembled a locker-room tussle, and the Harris-Biden argument over race relations in the second which consisted of Harris bringing down her debate-team prowess to take down a bewildered and relatively-inarticulate opponent. Warren got ample opportunity to show off how smart she was to the moderator, and Yang tried to but was severely limited for time. And Williamson’s answers to questions from the moderator were just plain fun to watch – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Again, this is not a particularly useful schema to use when evaluating any kind of policy. But it would be naïve to think that the personalities of the candidates will not be an issue in the general election.

  5. Hispandering’ is actually a thing. I was not expecting three candidates (Booker, O’Rourke and Castro) to bust out into Spanish on the first night of the debate, without any prompting whatsoever, and Buttigieg on the second. In the case of all of them but Castro, it was a painful exercise in seeing how much or little they remembered from their high school Spanish classes. (The Breakfast Club again seems to be relevant here; the distinctions between a jock like Booker, a burnout like Beto and a nerd like Buttigieg are doubly apparent along this dimension.) I can only imagine how embarrassed and confused my Hispanic and Latino / Latina brothers and sisters must have felt seeing that particularly-gringo display of supposed solidarity. (Actually, I take that back. On Facebook, most of them that I saw were laughing at it.)

  6. Science fiction, not science fact. In addition to his surprisingly hawkish foreign policy stance, Julián Castro’s woker-than-thou anti-biology rant in response to a question on health care was enough to disqualify him, in my view. Castro came off not only as pandering but as entirely unhinged from reality.

  7. Bernie needs to wise up fast to spin and framing. I knew going into this debate precisely where Bernie Sanders and I differ on the subject of abortion. I also knew, however, that Sanders has made a point of supporting pro-life Democrats like Heath Mello in red states and not making abortion an ideological ‘litmus test’ for candidates and political figures he supports. This endears him to me greatly, but not so much to the party-line fundamentalists and zealots. That being the case, of course I should have expected a sophistic hack like Rachel Maddow to direct a question about the repeal of Roe v. Wade at him and frame it in just such a way as to put him on the defensive.

    Bernie needs to understand that this question is meant to divide and distance him from at least one part of his voting base. It’s an unfortunate reality that among the élite class in this country, œconomic progressivism correlates strongly with social libertinism and individual liberationism on questions of drugs, sex and religion. But in rural and poorer areas of the country, as well as (to a diminishing but still significant extent) among blacks and Hispanics, the same œconomic views are held alongside a deep-rooted socio-sexual conservatism. The correct response to this question is that Roe v. Wade is not going to be overturned by this court: the Republicans have a vested interest in keeping abortion an issue; Cavanaugh himself is pro-Roe; and Maddow’s entire premiss is, to use the industry term, bullshit. Instead, Sanders bumbled into the trap of answering the question on its own terms.

  8. Movement and shadow movement. One other thought struck me as I was watching Sanders share a stage with Gillibrand, and that was informed by the Lawrence Goodwyn book on American populism. In that book, he draws a distinction between the genuine movement populists who focussed intensely on the œconomic issues of debt, infrastructure and currency reform; and the ‘shadow-movement’ populists who turned the conversation away from these structural issues and toward a shallower politics of anti-corruption and electing the ‘best people for the job’. Shadow movement populism unfortunately won out in the broader national conversation in the late 1890s, and the results were the failed presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan – who went soft on the big bankers and made his campaign about personality. Despite her strong stances on health care and wealth inequality, Gillibrand outed herself as a Bryan-style shadow movement populist in this debate: firstly, by saying that capitalism is not the problem, greed is; and secondly, by making anti-corruption a key feature of her campaign. Of course corruption is generally not a good thing, but the problem with anti-corruption politics is that it is easily coöpted by any and every political tendency and is not married in the slightest to fair or humane œconomic conditions.
Again, for the most part, the debates don’t actually tell us more about the candidates’ policy positions than we already know. They are slightly – but only slightly – more helpful in ascertaining character, personality and decision-making processes. The divisions among the field – by age, by race, by sex, by education and social clique – tended to be highlighted more than the divisions by policy. The most useful and relevant take-away from the debates is the artificiality of the venue. It is a very carefully-curated ruse, a façade of politics, rather than politics itself. Andrew Yang pointed out that his presence on the stage at the insistence of his small donors was a triumph of democratic will; but the degree to which he was deliberately ignored by the moderators should be equally instructive.

26 June 2019

Sanders, Warren, ‘18 questions’ and the Democratic debates


A couple of crowded stages

The New York Times has been considerably less inane than usual lately, what with an article on modern Russian gæopolitics that was mostly not deliberately misleading (and even, on occasion, even insightful – a low bar, I know, but those are the expectations the Grey Lady sets for the informed reader). But they also published a series of eighteen interview questions with twenty-one different Democratic candidates which was surprisingly illuminating with regard, not only to the policy positions and values of each of the different candidates, but also to their weak spots and general approaches to procedure and problem solving.

The New York Times interview sheet is interesting and illuminating. It is not, however, perfect. Six of the questions (about personal heroes, sleeping habits, relaxation, comfort food, family history, last embarrassment) – a full third of the interview sheet – are softballs: irrelevancies that can be safely ignored by those of us who care about issues and who want to get accountable answers from the candidates on topics of pressing national and international importance. Two more (on gun control and the death penalty) are ‘red meat’ questions that, even though they do speak to important policy areas, essentially determine party loyalty and responsiveness to certain interest groups in the party ‘base’. Three further (international first visits, Supreme Court expansion, crimes of sitting president) are ‘cocktail party’ questions: politics-nerd questions that reveal something of the personality and decision-making process of the candidate, but have little broader relevance to the body politic. That leaves seven questions which I consider salient and pressing. (Surprise, surprise: they all have to do with foreign policy and œconomics!) These are the questions concerning health care; climate change; Israel and human rights; troops in Afghanistan; undocumented immigration; tech monopolies and wealth inequality.

First, full disclosure: even though I’m a third-party man both by temperament and persuasion – and, in fact, because I am such – I have a clear favourite in the race. Despite my fervent and deeply-held disagreements with Sanders on issues of reproductive and cultural politics, I do believe that the direction he portends in American politics may be our last chance to staunch the tide and exorcise the spectre of an inequality- and imperial overreach-fuelled political collapse and bloody revolution-cum-civil war in which I distinctly suspect I will have no friendly party or ‘side’. My motivations for supporting Sanders are, in a word, conservative. (I admit gladly that I also have a decided weakness for a certain Sāmoan servicewoman and representative from Hawai’i, but a bit more on Major Gabbard later.) I therefore have no compunction whatsoever about being ‘objective’ or ‘fair’ or ‘balanced’ – I am none.

The point of interrogating these seven questions and the candidates’ response to them, then, is to acknowledge the strengths of the various candidates and to offer a pro-Sanders strategic angle. It’s also a chance to showcase the significant and qualitative differences between the Sanders campaign and the Warren campaign on foreign policy, œconomics and the climate crisis, as well as talk smack on the main run of the Democratic candidates (and mainstream American liberalism generally – and I’m not going to pretend that’s not fun) and offer thoughts about surprises in the interview questions both pleasant and unpleasant.

Before I get too far into ragging on her international and œconomic views, let me first acknowledge that Warren had some strong and well-thought positions on a number of the important issues. Warren’s pushback against Blob-thinking in Afghanistan and insistence on drawing down our troop levels there were more than welcome. And particularly to be appreciated was her out front-and-centre presence and moral instinct on the question of Silicon Valley monopolies and intrusions of technological megacorporations into every facet of our lives. But on too many of these issues, Warren simply doesn’t bring that same degree of moral imagination, and is caught up in technocratic tinkers and a notional tic that American capitalism is merely off-keel and throwing out incidental errors, rather than functioning exactly as designed and in need of disruption and replacement. This fundamentally-liberal œconomic conviction bleeds over into her foreign-policy priorities and even her approach to climate change.

So let’s get down to the brass tacks.
  1. Health care. Here, there is a clear division. On the one hand, you have the candidates who embrace ‘Medicare for All’ as a tangible and achievable standard, free for the patient at the point of care, modelled on an existing and highly successful state benefit for veterans and the elderly and aspiring to the standard achieved by the various successful health care programmes implemented in the European constitutional monarchies and post-Soviet Eastern and Central European states. These are: Sanders, Gabbard, Gillibrand, Yang and (in a rather pleasant surprise) Castro.

    On the other side, you have everybody else. Some of the candidates – including Warren, Harris, Klobuchar, Booker, Buttigieg and Williamson – borrow the rhetoric of Medicare for All, but dial it way down with weasel-wording around ‘access’, ‘affordability’ and ‘choice’ (including Buttigieg’s smarmy tagline of ‘Medicare for All Who Want It’), or else point to gradualism, ‘public options’ (which, remember, was the Obama-era compromise position that he ended up punting to the Republican senators who predictably killed it and didn’t vote for the final bill anyway) or ‘different paths’, to use Warren’s evasive phrasing. Some of the candidates – like Delaney, Bullock, Moulton and Hickenlooper – are practically indistinguishable from the right-liberal Republican position, insisting that ‘the insurance company stays; and the patient pays’.

  2. Climate change. Every single one of the Democratic candidates thinks climate change is a pressing issue; this is not a surprise. However, clearly some of the candidates have a more reactive approach than others (Inslee being particularly active; and others like Harris being primarily reactive). It’s unfortunate to observe that most of the candidates are reactive in their basic stance on climate change, using Obama- and even Bush-era language to describe the problem rather than the most recent scientific findings and stressing shifts toward renewable energy sources, energy independence and Paris Accords targets which frankly should have happened fifteen years ago. The question of global scope also comes into the question. Sanders, Gabbard and Yang all stress that scope, and underscore the realistic position that any effort against climate change has to be a truly global effort which engages our diplomatic assets rather than merely our technological and commercial ones.

    Others, like Warren, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Bennet and Ryan, have a tack which dually emphasises private-sector investment and American national leadership. This is particularly indicative of the whole approach to both œconomics and foreign policy evinced by these candidates, and the identification of American values with big business-friendly capitalism and an expansive idealistic account of the national interest. But I will get to that a bit more below.

    An unfortunate verbal tic which some of the candidates (I think O’Rourke initiated it, but Gillibrand also uses this language) have is describing the American response to the climate crisis as a ‘moon shot’. I say ‘unfortunate’ because both the rhetorical strategy and the analogy it rides on are reactive. The limitations of the analogy should be obvious: the American space programme was motivated – at least from a public sector standpoint – almost completely by a gæopolitical conflict and competition with the Soviet Union, and specifically to the 1957 launch of Sputnik. Also, America basically abandoned the manned space exploration missions after the Challenger disaster – and more broadly after the collapse of the Soviet Union when it no longer had a challenger to its global hegemony and superpower status. But even the rhetorical strategy of the ‘moon shot’ is flawed, as it attempts to hearken back to past national glory and a fabric of civic engagement, republican spirit and national solidarity (assumed and taken as read by Jack Kennedy) which – if it exists anymore – is badly tattered and fractured. For a ‘moon shot’ to be possible on global warming, this civic solidarity needs to be rebuilt on a surer footing, and that requires serious discussions of wealth inequities and low levels of overall social trust. For obvious reasons, one hopes the effort to undertake action on greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t take place under similar auspices, for similar reasons, and meet a similar fate as the Space Race.

  3. Israel and human rights. Here again, the bulk of the Democratic pack is talking out of both sides of their collective mouths, recycling outdated bromides about a ‘two-state solution’ and finger-wagging to various unconvincing degrees at Netanyahu and Trump while also affirming a special relationship to and alliance with Israel that doesn’t and can’t hold them accountable. Warren is actually rather representative in this regard as she brazenly adopts the Zionist talking point of Israel as in a ‘tough neighbourhood’ and the ‘sole liberal democracy in the region’ (even if you don’t like Syria’s government, uh… Tunisia, madam? Cyprus? Lebanon right next door?). The only correct thing she says is that ‘the current situation is not tenable’, which is, to be quite frank, nerf-tier commentary.

    Sanders, though he adopts a cautious and neutral tone, nonetheless truly is striving after the promise of being a neutral and honest broker between the two parties. It’s an interesting phenomenon that the sole Jew on the stage appears to be the one most willing to consider the Palestinians as people with valid collective sovereignty and security concerns. He actually talks about the plight of the Palestinians as if it matters and as if they deserve to be considered on an equal footing with the Israeli state. (Could his answer have been better? Sure. I didn’t think the ‘entities’ language particularly well-chosen.) It is interesting to see both Swalwell (with direct swipes at Netanyahu and Kushner) and Williamson take steps in this direction as well; and I don’t appreciate that Gabbard needs to be pushed to give a non-canned answer.

  4. Afghanistan. Here is Gabbard’s chance to shine, and she does – with an answer that is bold, direct and filled with moral gravitas. This is very much her issue. Together with Warren and Sanders (and, surprisingly, Gillibrand), she uses the question to issue a broadside against Blob foreign policy and the ‘forever war’ of which our Afghanistan quagmire has been emblematic. Gillibrand in particular wants to take the opportunity to assert the Constitutional privileges of Congress over-against executive branch overreach on questions of war and peace – a rare holdover of her Blue Dog days which I actually appreciate. It is very interesting to see the pressure on a certain contingent of the Democratic presidential candidates to draw down our troop presence: not just Booker but also the Heartland Democrats – O’Rourke, Bullock, Bennet and even Klobuchar – who seem to have gotten the memo that the ‘Forever War’ is a losing issue among their home-field constituencies, and that the principled non-interventionist Dems will use it to hit them where they live. The rest of the Democratic lineup – including, sadly, Yang – hedge or punt on the question.

  5. Immigration. As expected, here is where Castro has some advantage and authenticity, just as Gabbard does on foreign affairs. He speaks with passion, moral urgency and a real sense of love. For the constituencies on the left which genuinely care about this issue, Castro’s message will resonate with particular strength. Full disclosure: this is an issue where I tend to swing to the centre. Immigration is not a straightforward issue, and even though I don’t hold any particular animus against undocumented folks – I understand personally, all too well, how prohibitively difficult our immigration system and process for legal permanent residency is – and even though I am convinced that the border abuses and the camps have to end for merely humanitarian reasons, I still have to take consideration of the possible œconomic and political ramifications the way Hickenlooper does. (Random moment of Zen: I suspect Tim Ryan has been watching too much Pirates of the Caribbean recently.)

  6. Tech monopolies. Here again, unsurprisingly, out in the lead by far on the question of not only actually enforcing anti-trust legislation already on the books but also asking the deep-reaching moral and humanistic questions about our relationship to an out-of-control and unaccountable technological progress, are Gabbard, Sanders and Warren (the last of whom seems to have made this one of her signature issues). The key difference among those in favour of breaking up the tech giants seems to be among those who seem to believe that a lack of competition among businesses is the most salient problem – this is Warren’s stance, along with, say, Klobuchar’s, Williamson’s and Bullock’s – and those like Gabbard and Sanders (and even more moderate Democrats like Buttigieg) who understand the relevant problem as one of real imbalances of power which manifest in invasions of privacy, abrogation of civil liberties, even the arrogation of quasi-governmental authority.

    Even though they come to similar conclusions, there is a Whig logic that seems to undergird the former, and a Tory logic that undergirds the latter. Intriguingly, as our technological landscape renders our œconomy more similar to the olden days of joint-stock corporations with quasi-state powers, the political questions we seem to be asking in how we navigate that landscape are coming around full circle to the seventeenth-century British political divide between the representatives of the modern Silicon Valley gentry and the representatives of the older civil bureaucracy.

  7. Wealth inequality. On Sanders’s signature issue – the sheer fact of the wealth gap, the oligarchy and its effect on the civil fabric – it almost seems in this interview like he’s tired of answering the question. Half a million people on the streets; half the country living paycheck-to-paycheck; huge loopholes and unfair regulations that allow top shareholders and executives of sprawling multinationals to reap tremendous fortunes by exploiting the labour of the poorest people both at home and abroad. Sanders rather litotically intimates that in a tax system and œconomy that operates on the principles of the Gospel of Saint Luke (my interpretation, not his), ‘my guess is… that you’re not going to have very many billionaires left’. Gillibrand is (again, surprisingly) even more straightforward: ‘no one deserves a billion dollars.

    Which makes it rather appalling that so many of the mainstream run of Democratic candidates (Harris, Swalwell, Moulton, Klobuchar, Williamson, Hickenlooper, Delaney, de Blasio, Castro, Yang, even – sadly – Gabbard) seem to believe and promote the idea that hard work, and not ruthless and cynical mercantile appropriation of value created by the majority of the country’s – nay, the world’s – people, is what creates oligarchs.

As we can see from the interconnected answers given to these seven questions, we see forming two worldviews that are on the surface quite similar (and which produce similar answers from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on climate change and tech monopolies, for example), but that are moored at bottom by very different sets of underlying values and a priori political assumptions. One sees this clearly in their respective positions on foreign policy. Although they hit many of the same talking points – including control of foreign policy by big business, the inertia that sustains the ‘Forever War’, the ballooning military budget, the overreach of American military bases, and also (unfortunately) the existence of opposing ‘democratic’ (America) and ‘antidemocratic’ (China, Russia) blocs in gæopolitics – there is a definite qualitative difference between the two perspectives in that Sanders emphasises coöperation and multipolar alliances-of-necessity on tough global issues while Warren emphasises competition and American leadership if not dominance.

This ties directly into their contrasting attitudes on how to combat climate change; and the key underlying factor is in their basic œconomic thought process. The debates on the left over whether Sanders is actually a social democrat or a democratic socialist (or the degree to which he is or isn’t influenced by Karl Marx) are in some ways illuminating, but for practical purposes they are not instructive. I still think 15 was a softball question and I still don’t know quite what to make of the Colin Woodard thesis, but there’s something to be said here. Sanders is a first-generation New Netherlander whose parents come out of an intellectual milieu which distrusts primitive accumulation and libido dominandi. Warren, who zeroes in with such intense focus on issues like student debt and anticompetitive behaviours from tech companies, but doesn’t really articulate firm positions on questions of wealth inequality or health care, does not. She comes from an Appalachian Protestant frontier-mercantile tradition that thinks nothing is wrong with amassing wealth and power at others’ expense if at least all players start out with an equal-enough chance. That doesn’t necessarily translate in our current climate to her chances of electoral success in Appalachian and other swing states.

Something perhaps to think about a bit before the debates begin tonight.

23 June 2019

Holy Mother Æþelþrýð, the Venerable Abbess of Ely


Saint Æþelþrýð of Ely

One of the great wealths of the spirituality of præ-Conquest, præ-Schismatic Old England is that it is home not only to a great many princes and holy men, but a great number of holy women also, whose mild witness was every bit the equal in fervour, depth and sincerity of their male contemporaries. The much-celebrated Saint Boniface held written correspondence with not one but three notable, well-educated and holy women in England (Éadburg of Thanet, Wealdburg of Heidenheim and Leobgýð of Tauberbischofsheim), all of whom went on to become saints in their own right. This small historical fact demonstrates the broader reality that – far from being misogynist – the traditional, mediæval Orthodox Church in England appreciated, venerated and honoured both the feminine genius in general and all of its particular and sundry women saints: abbesses, nuns, princesses and martyrs. Among the greatest of these is the saint celebrated today in the Orthodox Church: Saint Æþelþrýð of Ely [modernised as Etheldreda or Audrey].

Saint Æþelþrýð’s life is quite well-attested, most notably in the History of Saint Bede. She was among the four natural daughters of Anna King of East Anglia, all of whom went on to become saints. She may have been mentored in her early years by the Burgundian Saint Felix of Dunwich, and she swore herself to virginity at a very early age, conceiving a desire for the contemplative life from then. Nevertheless, she was married twice for political reasons. The first time was to an ealdorman of the south Gyrwas named Tondberht, from whom she received the isle of Ely (so called, says Bede, because of the ‘vast number of eels’ who liked swimming in the marshy waters around it) as a morning gift, and who respected her vow of celibacy but died shortly after their wedding. At around the same time, her father Anna was killed in battle against the heathen Penda of Mercia.

Her second marriage, arranged by Saint Óswíu of Northumbria, was to Ecgfrið, king of Dere (and later Northumbria) and brother of Abbess Saint Ælfflæd of Whitby, who was nine years her junior and fifteen years old at the time of their wedding. Apparently, Æþelþrýð dearly loved Ecgfrið and vice-versa, but their marriage was somewhat troubled by the fact that her much-younger husband wanted to consummate. Bede relates of this troubled marriage that Ecgfrið offered ‘to give estates and much money’ to anyone who could cajole Æþelþrýð into his bed, but that she was steadfast in her refusals (as proven by the testimony of Saint Wilfrið and the incorruption of her relics) and eventually convinced her husband reluctantly to let her join a convent: that of Coldingham Priory of the Columban rule, governed by Abbess Saint Æbbe.

Æþelþrýð there received the nun’s veil and wimple from the hands of Bishop Saint Wilfrið himself. This was not the only saint of the North with whom the holy woman had been in contact; she also took instruction from Holy Father Cuðberht and was a great benefactress of his monastery, contributing not only money but also her own work of a hand-embroidered stole and cuffs. The new nun spent a year in Æbbe’s house before she was given leave to found her own community of nuns on the Isle of Ely, which had been her property before she gave it to the Church’s use.

Under Æþelþrýð’s kindly direction, the Abbey of Ely became a great school for saintly women in England – Æþelþrýð’s blood-sisters Seaxburg, Æþelburg and Wihtburg prominently among them.

Æþelþrýð lived a life of great ascetical devotion and rigour toward herself, though she was lenient and kind toward her sisters in the convent. She only wore woollen garments and never linen; she bathed in hot water only on the high holy days of Pascha, Pentecost and Theophany (and at that only after she had assisted all the other nuns in bathing); she ate only one meal a day unless hospitality or bodily need demanded she eat more; and she stood at constant prayer in the church from Matins until dawn unless bodily infirmity prevented her. She even foretold the plague that would claim her life, as well as reckoned the number of nuns who would repose with her in that event. She ruled Ely for seven years, and went to the Lord in the presence of her beloved sisters there.

A translation was ordered seventeen years after by the abbess who succeeded her – her sister Saint Seaxburg. She had a marble reliquary brought from Grantchester, for Ely was on all sides surrounded by swampy fens without any suitable material. When Æþelþrýð’s remains were exhumed, they were found to be wholly without corruption; and this was more to the astonishment of her physician Cynefrið who had accompanied her in her last days and who had opened and drained a large, painful tumour on the saint’s jaw. Of the tumour there was no trace, except for a faint scar where Cynefrið had made the incision.

The linens in which the saintly abbess was buried, Bede relates, had the power to expel devils from the possessed; and the stones of the Grantchester coffin themselves (which were found already cut to dimensions that, wondrously enough, fitted Æþelþrýð’s relics perfectly) were hallowed to the point that they could cure blindness and ailments of the eyes.

Of all the saints of the early English Church, Æþelþrýð seems to be the single one most consistently and enduringly popular in terms of her veneration, even in the modern day when English religiosity in general appears to be at a low ebb. The Cambridge town has held revival fairs in her honour on International Labour Day in 1987, 1997 and 2000, which turned out to be great successes. May it yet be granted that this great and holy woman of Ely guide her country again toward the true light of Christ! Holy Mother Æþelþrýð, chaste in mind and humble and gracious in heart, we beseech you pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

Saint Bede even composed a hymn in Latin, in honour of Saint Æþelþrýð and her vow of virginity. It makes up the twentieth chapter of Book IV of the History of the English Church and People:
O Trinity, who thro’ the ages long
Has ruled the spheres, give aid to this my song.
Let Maro wars extol – of peace I sing,
And praise the gracious gifts of Christ our King.
No rape of Helen forms my present theme,
Or idle tale for venal, shallow men:
Such foolish tales I shun, and here proclaim
The gifts of God that raise our hearts again.
See! God most high resigns His royal throne,
Descends to earth, and enters Mary’s womb;
To free the sons of men from all their tears
A spotless Virgin her Creator bears,
The Gate of Heaven, thro’ which its radiance pours.
Now sing, O choirs of virgins, of your Queen,
The peerless one whose like has ne’er been seen,
To whose high honour countless flowers arise
To follow her and imitate her ways.
Fair Agatha stands firm amid the flame;
Eulalia, too, prefers their sting to shame.
Strong in her faith, the virgin Thecla stands;
Euphemia faces beasts with prayerful hands.
Sweet Agnes smiles to greet the deadly thrust;
Cecilia meets her death and keeps her trust.
High triumph waits the faithful, trusting heart;
God’s loving care no worldly power can part.
Now Etheldreda shines on these our days,
And sheds the light of grace upon our ways.
Sprung of a royal and illustrious line,
She brings yet nobler gifts to Christ her King.
A glorious queen, a starry sceptre she
Receives from Him, a well-won dignity.
What earthly prince a worthy groom would be
When Christ makes her His bride æternally?
In Mary’s heavenly train you move in grace,
And, in her pattern, bear a royal race.
Twelve years you reigned a queen to your royal lord,
Then took the veil, and gave yourself to God.
Renowned for holy deeds, this blessed saint
Returned her life to God still free from taint.
For sixteen years her body, sealed away,
Remained untarnished by the tomb’s decay.
Thine was the power, O Christ, that did maintain
Her holy body and its robes from stain.
The direful dropsy and disease depart
When her fair garments touch the ailing part.
And Satan, Eve’s seducer, burns with hate
As this victorious virgin seals his fate.
Chaste bride of Christ, what glory rings you now
As heaven and earth your name and graces show!
Raise high the torches! Light the Bridegroom’s road:
Prepare a joyful welcome for our God!
Take up the harp, and sing a sweet new song –
Repeat its happy chorus, saintly throng!
None from the Lamb’s own flock can e’er remove
The souls close-bound to Him by chains of love.
Alma Deus Trinitas, quæ sæcula cuncta gubernas,
adnue iam cœptis, alma Deus Trinitas.
Bella Maro resonet; nos pacis dona canamus:
munera nos Christi; bella Maro resonet.
Carmina casta mihi, fedæ non raptus Helenæ;
luxus erit lubricis, carmina casta mihi.
Dona superna loquar, miseræ non prœlia Troiæ;
terra quibus gaudet, dona superna loquar.
En Deus altus adit uenerandæ Uirginis aluum
liberet ut homines, en Deus altus adit.
Femina uirgo parit mundi deuota parentem,
porta Maria Dei femina uirgo parit.
Gaudet amica cohors de Uirgine matre Tonantis;
uirginitate micans gaudet amica cohors.
Huius honor genuit casto de germine plures,
uirgineos flores huius honor genuit :
Ignibus usta feris uirgo non cessit Agathe,
Eulalia et perfert ignibus usta feris,
Kasta feras superat mentis pro culmine Tecla,
Eufemia sacra kasta feras superat,
Læta ridet gladios ferro robustior Agnes,
Cecilia infestos læta ridet gladios.
Multus in orbe uiget per sobria corda triumphus,
sobrietatis amor multus in orbe uiget.
Nostra quoque egregia iam tempora uirgo beauit ;
Ædilthryda nitet nostra quoque egregia.
Orta patre eximio, regali et stemmate clara,
nobilior Domino est, orta patre eximio.
Percipit inde decus reginæ et sceptra sub astris ;
plus super astra manens percipit inde decus.
Quid petis, alma, uirum, sponso iam dedita summo?
sponsus adest Christus ; quid petis, alma, uirum?
Regis ut ætherei matrem iam, credo, sequaris,
tu quoque sis mater regis ut ætherei.
Sponsa dicta Deo bis sex regnauerat annis,
inque monasterio est sponsa dicata Deo,
Tota sacrata polo celsis ubi floruit actis
reddidit atque animam tota sacrata polo.
Uirginis alma caro est tumulata bis octo Nouembres,
nec putet in tumulo uirginis alma caro.
Xhriste, tui est operis, quia uestis et ipsa sepulchro
inuiolata nitet; Xhriste, tui est operis.
Ydros et ater abit sacræ pro uestis honore ;
morbi diffugiunt, ydros et ater abit.
Zelus in hoste furit, quondam, qui uicerat Euam ;
uirgo triumphat ouans, zelus in hoste furit.
Aspice, nupta Deo, quæ sit tibi gloria terris ;
quae maneat cælis aspice, nupta Deo.
Munera læta capis, festiuis fulgida tædis ;
ecce uenit sponsus, munera læta capis.
Et noua dulcisono modularis carmina plectro,
sponsa hymno exultas et noua dulcisono.
Nullus ab altithroni comitatu segregat Agni,
quam affectu tulerat nullus ab altithroni.
In thee the image of God was preserved, O noble Æþelþrýð,
For thou didst take up thy cross and follow Christ.
Royal virgin, thou didst teach the multitude
By thine example that the flesh is to be scorned as fleeting,
While the soul needeth great care as immortal.
Wherefore, O holy Æþelþrýð, thou dost now make glad with the angels.


Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

22 June 2019

Alban, Protomartyr of Britain


Saint Alban

With deep gratitude and reverence, today the Orthodox Church in America commemorates the Glorious and Right-Victorious Alban the Protomartyr, whose holy blood first sanctified to Christ the ground of the British Isles.

Our great historian of the Church Bede the Venerable gives us an account of Saint Alban’s life, and places his martyrdom during the murderous reign of Diocletian. Bede gives no account of Alban’s parentage or upbringing, but it seems reasonable to assume that he belonged to the Romano-British population of the southern parts of Great Britain: the ancestors of today’s Welsh, Cornish and Breton peoples. Alban, so Bede’s account goes, was still a pagan when Diocletian’s persecutions of Christians began, likely worshipped the local British aspects of the Greek-Roman pantheon, and he lived in the præ-Roman Iron Age settlement and Roman municipium of Verulamium, since renamed in the honour of this greatest of its natives.

As the Roman soldiery on Diocletian’s orders were beginning to round up Christians and deliver them up to torture and death, the still-pagan Alban gave shelter to a priest who was then fleeing. Bede then recounts the martyrdom of Alban:
And when he observed this man’s unbroken activity of prayer and vigil, he was suddenly touched by the grace of God, and began to follow the priest’s example of faith and devotion. Gradually instructed by his teaching of salvation, Alban renounced the darkness of idolatry, and sincerely accepted Christ. But when the priest had lived in the house for some days, word came to the ears of the evil ruler that Christ’s holy confessor, whose time of martyrdom had not yet come, lay hidden in Alban’s house. Accordingly he gave orders to his soldiers to make a thorough search, and when they arrived at the martyr’s house, holy Alban, wearing the priest’s long cloak, at once surrendered himself in the place of his guest and teacher, and was led bound before the judge.

When Alban was brought in, the judge happened to be standing before an altar, offering sacrifice to devils. Seeing Alban, he was furious that he had put himself in such hazard by surrendering himself to the soldiers in place of his guest, and ordered him to be dragged before the idols where he stood.

‘Since you have chosen to conceal a sacrilegious rebel,’ he said, ‘rather than surrender him to my soldiers to pay the well-deserved penalty for his blasphemy against our gods, you shall undergo all the tortures due to him if you dare to abandon the practice of our religion.’ But Saint Alban, who had confessed himself a Christian to the enemies of the Faith, was unmoved by these threats, and armed with spiritual strength, openly refused to obey this order. ‘What is your family and race?’ demanded the judge.

‘How does my family concern you?’ replied Alban. ‘If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian, and am bound by the laws of Christ.’

‘I demand to know your name,’ insisted the judge. ‘Tell me at once.’

‘My parents named me Alban,’ he answered, ‘and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.’

The judge was very angry, and said: ‘If you want to enjoy æternal life, sacrifice at once to the great gods!’

Alban replied: ‘You are offering these sacrifices to devils, who cannot help their suppliants, nor answer their prayers and vows. On the contrary, whosoever offers sacrifice to idols is doomed to the pains of hell.’

Incensed at this reply, the judge ordered God’s holy confessor Alban to be flogged by the executioners, hoping to shake his constancy of heart by torture, since threats had no effect. But for Christ’s sake, he bore the most horrible torments patiently and gladly, and when the judge saw that no torture could break him or make him renounce the worship of Christ, he ordered Alban’s immediate decapitation. Led out to execution, the saint came to a river which flowed swiftly between the wall of the town and the arena where he was to die. There he saw a great crowd of men and women of all ages and conditions, who were doubtless moved by God’s will to attend the death of His blessed confessor and martyr. This crowd had collected in such numbers that he could hardly have crossed that evening, and so many people had come out from the city that the judge was left unattended. Saint Alban, who ardently desired a speedy martyrdom, approached the river, and as he raised his eyes to heaven in prayer, the river ran dry in its bed and left him a way to cross. When the appointed executioner saw this, he was so moved in spirit that he hurried to meet Alban at the place of execution, and throwing down his sword, fell at his feet, begging to die with the martyr if he could not die in his place.

While this man changed from a persecutor to a companion in the true Faith, and other executioners hesitated to pick up his sword from the ground, the most reverend confessor of God ascended the hill about five hundred paces from this spot, accompanied by the crowd. This hill, whose sides were not steep or rough, rose gently from a plain, and was covered with many kinds of flowers, its beauty providing a worthy place to be hallowed by the martyr’s blood. As he reached the summit, holy Alban asked God to give him water, and at once a living stream bubbled up at his feet – a sign to all present that it was at the martyr’s prayer that the river also had dried in its course. For it was not likely that the martyr who had dried up the waters of the river should lack water on a hilltop unless he willed it so. But the river, having performed its due service, gave proof of its obedience, and returned to its natural course.

Here, then, the gallant martyr met his death, and received the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him. But the man whose impious hands delivered the death-blow was not permitted to boast of his deed, for as the martyr’s head fell, his eyes dropped out onto the ground.

The soldier who had been moved by divine intuition to refuse to slay God’s confessor was beheaded at the same time as Alban. And although he had not received the purification of Baptism, he was certainly cleansed of the shedding of his own blood, and was rendered fit to enter the kingdom of heaven. Astonished by these many strange miracles, the judge called a halt to the persecution, and whereas he had formerly fought to crush devotion to Christ, he now began to honour the death of His saints.

Saint Alban suffered on the twenty-second day of June near the city of Verulamium, which the English now call Verlamacæstir or Wæclingacæstir. When the peace of Christian times was restored, a beautiful church worthy of his martyrdom was built, where sick folk are healed and frequent miracles take place to this day.

In the same persecution suffered Aaron and Julius, citizens of the City of Legions, and many others of both sexes throughout the land. After enduring many horrible physical tortures, death brought an end to the sufferings, and their souls entered the joys of the heavenly City.
The priestmartyr whom Saint Alban sheltered in his home and died to protect, whose name Saint Bede seems not to have known firmly, is known to posterity as Saint Amphibalos. He may or may not be the same saint as the Hieromartyr Amphibalos who was killed along with 999 other martyrs at Lichfield in the same persecution on the second of January, 305. But the identification of the two seems unlikely as the feast day of the priestmartyr associated with Alban is normally commemorated on the twenty-fifth of June, three days after his pupil’s; and his name appears in history only with the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth some eight hundred years later.

Saint Alban was very early commemorated as a saint and a beautiful cathedral was erected on the spot where he fell, as Saint Bede relates to us. But his cultus seems to have taken off only with the arrival in Britain of Saint Germain of Auxerre, some twenty years before the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes on Great Britain at the invitation of Vortigern. In those years the British Isles were riven with political instability, and this created opportunity for all sorts of heresies to arise – the most popular being the heresies of Arius and Pelagius. Pelagius – himself a Briton – turned out to be something of a political and moral elitist and individualist (something almost akin to a libertarian in modern terms), and this is something that the early modern debates in the West over free will and grace tend to overlook.

The ideological overreaction of Saint Augustine to Pelagius, which tended to wash out or elide the coöperative synergistic rôle of the human will in her salvation, unfortunately later overshadowed in the West the much more reasonable via media (taken by, for example, Abba Cassian and the majority of the Greek Fathers) which is generally taken to be the modern position of the Orthodox Church as a whole. Nevertheless, the Pelagian position made itself strongly felt in Britain in the early fifth century, and Saint Germain arrived in the Isle to attempt to correct the Britons to an Orthodox belief.

Saint Bede stresses that when Saint Germain arrived in Britain, he was welcomed by the common people, the lay folk of the plebeian class. The British commoners were rather put off by the Pelagians (whose individualistic spiritual elitism appealed primarily to patrician prelates like Severianus and his son Agricola who were primarily responsible for spreading the doctrine in Britain), but they lacked the eloquence and scholarly erudition needed to refute them. For this reason, when Saint Germain began preaching, the common people flocked to him and began to listen in particular to his injunctions against the doctrines of Pelagius. After some time, the Pelagians gathered themselves together and approached Saint Germain and his monastic followers. Bede presents us with a powerful picture that hints at the class differences involved. The Pelagians ‘appeared with rich ornaments and magnificent robes, surrounded by flattering followers’, writes Bede; ‘On one side stood the bishops, upheld by holiness and faith in Christ; on the other stood the Pelagians, full of presumption and pride.

According to Saint Bede, Bishop Saint Germain deferred to the Pelagians and allowed them the honour of speaking first. They put forward a great number of pompous, long-winded arguments in the highfalutin language of the well-educated. The clergymen following Germain then spoke, and referred themselves always back to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Apostles and the Evangelists. The Pelagians were shamed and refuted on every point, and the throngs of common folk which gathered around them were only with reluctance restrained from violence against them. A blind girl of ten years was brought before both of them, but the Pelagians deferred to the Orthodox to heal her, and it was Saint Germain’s prayers to the Trinity and intercessions asked of the saints which were effective.

Saint Germain, thereupon, made a visit to the tomb of Saint Alban in token of thanksgiving, and asked that his reliquary be opened. Into this reliquary, he deposited the several relics of the Apostles and martyrs from various lands which he had brought with him from Gaul, thinking it fitting that Saint Alban should share in this blessed company. This was the true beginning of the cultus of Saint Alban, and the Protomartyr drew the same popular common devotion thereafter. This shrine was retained untouched until the arrival of the Danes in the 870s, when the relics of Saint Alban were removed for safekeeping, and later restored. Saint Alban’s shrine was destroyed in the reign of Henry VIII amid the iconoclastic madness of the dissolution of the monasteries; however, although the shrine itself was reassembled from the smashed pieces, the relics were tragically lost – possibly buried in an unmarked grave.

Nonetheless, to this day, this first and greatest of the martyrs of Britain, this spiritual forefather of the Brythonic faithful – Welsh and Cornish and Breton – and also of the later converts to Christ among the Gaelic and Germanic peoples, is still venerated deeply by all the peoples of the British Isles and beyond, being one of their foremost patrons. Holy and blessed witness to Christ against the blind idolatry of the Romans, meek in bearing yet forthright in faith, beloved Alban, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!
In his struggle your holy martyr Alban,
Gained the crown of life, O Christ our God.
For strengthened by you and in purity of heart,
He spoke boldly before the judges of this world,
Offering up his head to you, the Judge of all!

Cathedral of Saint Alban

19 June 2019

Kóshpendiler ten years on, and Jaýjúrek myń bala


Mansur (Kuno Becker) and Eraly (Jay Hernandez) in Kóshpendiler

I started this blog, then called Matt’s Existential Musings, ten years ago to the day in 2009. The blog was set up to be a Peace Corps journal. Peace Corps didn’t quite work out. Blogging, it turns out, did – though the result turned out far, far differently from what I expected. I began it with an entirely-insufficient review of a 2005 movie called Nomad (or Kóshpendiler in Kazakh), starring Jason Scott Lee, Kuno Becker, Jay Hernandez and Ayanat Ksenbai. That I would go back this summer and start reviewing Kazakhstani movies like Baikonur, Kelin, Shal, Ulzhan (another film with Ayanat Ksenbai), Otyrardyń kúıreýi, Tulpan, Kavkazskii plennik (another Bodrov), Shıza (yet another Bodrov), Ya ne vernus’ and Pervyi eshelon, seems more than a bit convenient and coincidental. Please believe me, gentle readers, when I say that it’s serendipity, and I didn’t plan it this way. Even so, going back and taking another look at Kóshpendiler did seem like too good an opportunity to pass up.

Kóshpendiler is a movie in that elusive category that the French call nanar. It can loosely be called a historical epic and it is definitely an action movie – and Sergei Bodrov certainly had a creative vision that is brought in full force onto the screen. It makes enthusiastic and effective use of sweeping landscape cinematography, thundering herds of horses, vast period sets and intricate costume design, and as a result is visually lush and convincing. But the casting choices, the acting direction, and even the writing conspire, in the end, to produce something endearingly terrible instead.

Set during the Kazakh-Dzunghar wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Kóshpendiler centres around the life and career of Abylaı Han – whose given name was Ábilmansur. The voice-over narration from Jason Scott Lee informs us that the Kazakh people are being destroyed and enslaved by the brutal Dzunghars, and that the Kazakh tribes are too disorganised to put up any kind of unified resistance. A prophecy known to Lee’s character, Oraz the Wise, says that a direct male-line descendant of Shyńǵys Han will be born, who is fated to unite the Kazakh tribes and liberate them from the tyranny of the Dzunghars. Unfortunately, this prophecy also becomes known to Galdan Tseren, the ruler of the Dzunghars, who takes repeated steps to kill this child who will bring an end to his dominion. The broad contours of the story of Kóshpendiler will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of heroic mythology throughout the world, from King Arthur to Star Wars. Even so, here’s the standard warning: spoilers ahead.

The hero, Mansur (Kuno Becker), is saved at his birth from being killed by Galdan’s Herodic paranoia at the hands of his best warrior Sharysh (Mark Dacascos) and his band of Dzunghars. However, Sharysh manages to kill Mansur’s mother, the wife of Sultan Válı. Oraz, who saved Mansur, brings him to his grieving father, who is glad that at least his son was saved and agrees to grant one thing to Oraz. Oraz asks him for the right to raise Mansur – a request that Válı is loath to give, but does so both to keep his word and to assure Mansur’s safety from the wrath of Galdan. Oraz raises Mansur alongside a group of young boys from every Kazakh tribe. He teaches them to fight together without distinction between their clans or families, teaches them the history of Shyńǵys Han and the origins of the Kazakh people, and even references the old yarn about a bundle of arrows being harder to break than each arrow individually. But Mansur is closest to Eraly (Jay Hernandez), whose fighting ability matches his.

Sultan Válı pays a surprise visit to Oraz and his training school for nomadic boys, who all line up dutifully to greet him. When he comes to Mansur and Eraly, he wonders why they don’t give him their tribal names, and Eraly answers him: ‘We know our tribes, but Mansur and I call ourselves Kazakhs.’ From this Válı is able to guess that one of them is his son, but Oraz isn’t telling him which. Growing up alongside Mansur and Eraly is the lovely Gauhar (Ayanat Ksenbai) who seems to take an early interest in Mansur. At first, to all appearances, Mansur is more interested in her colt Moonchild (Kazakh priorities!), but soon learns to appreciate her. Unfortunately, he learns that Eraly is also in love with her, and thus refrains – despite Gauhar’s open encouragement – from chasing her so as not to strain their friendship.

We soon learn why Oraz put together this training school. The Kazakh khans and sultans, called together to answer the Dzunghar threat, spend their time swaggering, posturing, loudly bowing to no one, and generally refusing to work together. Meanwhile, Galdan somehow learns that Mansur is alive and again sends Sharysh to attack the city of Túrkistan. Sultan Válı sends the women and children, including Gauhar, out of the city to a safe hiding-place, but Gauhar rides back – followed by her brother Qasım – to be with Mansur and both are thus easily caught by Sharysh in ambush. A leering Sharysh, threatening her brother with a torturous death if she doesn’t comply, sends her back to Dzungharia to become his tenth wife.

Sharysh besieges Túrkistan, but for some reason agrees to a duel with a single warrior of the Kazakhs’ choice. Eraly volunteers, but Oraz chooses Mansur to go instead – telling Mansur that Sharysh killed his mother. As Sultan Válı watches from the walls, Mansur rides out and fights Sharysh on horseback, handily lopping off his head with the help of some incredible horsemanship – and then Válı recognises his own son. Eraly is initially joyful, but becomes jealous of Mansur’s preferential treatment by Oraz and Sultan Válı. Eraly learns that Gauhar has been captured, and rides off alone to her rescue without telling anyone except Oraz. This seems to be a theme. Mansur rides out after him – first stopping at the tree of Shyńǵys to pray – and is easily caught by the Dzunghars.

He is brought before Galdan and subjected to various tests clearly meant to kill him, although in his captivity he befriends Galdan’s son and unwittingly enchants Galdan’s daughter, whose advances he refuses. The tests include having to ride through two lines of archers shooting at him, and finally having to duel Eraly – though both of their faces are hidden from each other by chainmail veils. Mansur embraces a dying Eraly as he is told by Galdan that he’s free to leave the next morning. In secret, though, Galdan plans to have Mansur’s drink poisoned. The captive Gauhar sees this, and risks her life to steal Moonchild and rescue Mansur from the Dzunghars.

Galdan’s enraged Dzunghars besiege Túrkistan again in force, and this time they mean business: they beat up and quarter the Kazakh herald. Mansur sends out messengers to the other Kazakh tribal leaders, hoping that they will answer and ride to Túrkistan’s defence in time. Much of the rest of the movie, which sports some impressive battle choreography, horsemanship and pyrotechnics, narrates the battle for Túrkistan, which is saved even as the reinforcements arrive. The Dzunghar strength is broken, and Galdan’s son is captured. Mansur, however, shows mercy and sends Galdan’s son back to him with a model globe sporting the new realm of ‘Kazakhia’ and a message: Don’t mess with the Kazakhs.

End spoilers.

Again, Kóshpendiler has all the technical prowess of a modern action blockbuster, but the acting and writing are both delightful B-movie hams, with the Kazakh characters in particular seeming to routinely indulge in frankly boneheaded acts of bravery (though Sharysh isn’t exempt). From a historical perspective this is more than a bit unfortunate, because the historical Abylaı Han wasn’t just a brave batyr – he was also a preternaturally deft statesman and a wily military strategist, and deserves a reputation like that of China’s Zhuge Liang. Kuno Becker and Jay Hernandez in particular throw themselves into their rôles with a bit too much gusto. But the movie is telling in certain of its ideological aspects. The Kazakh nationalist narrative which the film gives voice to is multifaceted. The Kazakhs claim descent from Shyńǵys Han, the Mongol leader – and yet their enemies the Dzunghars lay perhaps an even better claim to the same descent. This being the case, the Kazakhs are shown by the movie to be inheritors of the spirit of the steppe: they are brave, honest, just, merciful to captives and hospitable to guests. Galdan, Sharysh and the Dzunghars, on the other hand, are shown in a different light. Galdan is an unmistakeable Herod figure, willing to slaughter children to secure his own power. He is willing to use poison to kill his captive Mansur. He brutally murders a Kazakh envoy. He shouts orders at his troops safely from the sidelines rather than fighting beside them. This contrasts starkly with Mansur, who shows mercy to Galdan’s young son and is willing to fight alongside and suffer in solidarity with his people.

There is a religious ‘us-them’ dichotomy that is drawn between Kazakh and Dzunghar. Kazakhs all pray openly and devoutly to God, like good Muslims. They all bow toward Mecca and they all stand together as equals – even though, without Mansur, they also squabble and boast and fracture when the time comes to take action. The religion of the Dzunghars is portrayed far less sympathetically. Galdan is attended by an obnoxious, obsequious and theatrically-toadying shaman whom the khan clearly despises. This runs alongside an æsthetic ‘us-them’ dichotomy that shows Kazakhs as embodying the noble qualities of both East and West, both Islam and the steppe tradition. Dzunghars, by contrast, are a steppe people who have gone soft and ‘forgotten their roots’. Galdan luxuriates in golden robes and lounges on a Chinese-looking throne beneath a silken canopy. The Kazakh Gauhar is a rugged steppe shieldmaiden who can ride and fight better than many Dzunghar men; but Galdan’s daughter is pampered, made-up, dressed in Chinese silks, and is easily seduced by the virile Mansur.

As a bit of national mythos-building, Kóshpendiler is both instructive and entertaining. All the same, given the lukewarm reception Kóshpendiler received overseas, it’s understandable that for the twentieth anniversary of Kazakhstani independence, the national film company Kazakhfilm Studios would want to revisit their earlier work. The result was 2011’s Jaýjúrek myń bala, directed by Aqan Sataev.


Kazakh warriors riding to battle in Jaýjúrek myń bala

It would be something of a waste of time and blog space to discuss the plot of Jaýjúrek myń bala, because it’s essentially the same as that of Kóshpendiler. The most significant difference is that instead of focussing on the big-name political figures like Abylaı Han (Dasten Shakırov) and Ábilqaıyr Han (Berik Aıtjanov), it focuses instead on the life and travails of a young orphan turned anti-Dzunghar resistance fighter named Sartaı (Asylhan Tolepov) and his band of fellow-orphans and friends who demonstrate bravery and self-sacrifice as they seek to drive the marauding, enslaving Dzunghars out of their homeland. Sartaı is similarly orphaned by the Dzunghars and seeks revenge on the Dzunghar commander who murdered his family. He and his best friend Taımas (Aıan Ýtepbergen) demonstrate the same strained foster-brother relationship that Mansur and Eraly do in Kóshpendiler – but perhaps an even better analogy would be an even further callback in Kazakhstani cinema: the psychologically-dense rivalry between Uzarov and Monetkin in Pervyi echelon. Sartaı even has a love interest in Zere (Alııa Anýarbek) who displays a similar lack of regard for her personal safety.

Let me state first off that, on practically every single objective and technical level, Jaýjúrek myń bala is a far better movie than Kóshpendiler. It may lack the sweeping grand-historical scope, swagger and colourful costume-drama flair of the 2005 movie, but it more than makes up for that in attention to period-specific detail, grit and acting chops. It works far better as a ‘serious’ war drama on less than half the budget. Yet, at the same time, in this driven pursuit of making an efficient, muscular action blockbuster in the mould of Braveheart or Gettysburg, more than a bit of the B-movie charm of the original Kóshpendiler got lost.

One noteworthy thing is that Jaýjúrek myń bala seems to actually double down on the ideological portrayal of the Dzunghars as a foil for the Kazakh national mythos and identity-building. The ancestral touchstone for Kazakh identity here is no longer the Mongol Shyńǵys Han, but instead the Turkic epic hero Alpamıs who also features in Bashkir oral legend, the tales of whom Sartaı’s elderly uncle Nazar (Tlektes Meıramov) tells to the young people around the campfire. The Kazakhs in Jaýjúrek myń bala are again shown to be both the true guardians of steppe chivalry, honesty and hospitality, and faithful Muslims who trust in God’s justice and providence. The Dzunghars are shown to be practically without redeeming qualities. The uniforms of the Dzunghars are black from head to toe. The Dzunghars shoot Kazakh children for sport; round up villages and slaughter the inhabitants; take Kazakh slaves whom they treat with callous casual brutality. Muslim piety is also made a more explicit touchstone of the ‘us-them’ distinction. Dzunghar leaders are also shown to be idolaters who bow before statues of the Buddha, get drunk on strong liquor and horse-whip beggars who ask them for alms. Despite all of this, ironically, the storytelling – which is more self-awarely gæopolitical – downplays the Sinification of the Dzunghars. The Kazakh leaders acknowledge that the Dzunghars are fighting a two-front war against both them and the Qing Dynasty.

When it comes to recommendations, I would actually highly recommend both Kazakhfilm productions – but for vastly different reasons despite their near-identical storylines and shared historical subject matter. Jaýjúrek myń bala is a proficient action movie in its own right and should appeal broadly to American audiences who love well-shot, well-acted war films. But the inadvertent comedy delivered by the overacting and ‘taco kung fu’ of Kóshpendiler give it an earnest nanar-ific charm that Jaýjúrek myń bala lacks, while it still carries the high production values and lavish costumes and technical effects of most Western blockbusters.

So, with that, I think I’ve wished a fitting happy tenth birthday to the blog! It’s been a long and bumpy ride from Providence across the steppes of Kazakhstan through Inner Mongolia and Henan to the west side of the Mississippi River – and I can’t say that I don’t have any regrets. But this online journal of mine is not one of them. Zdorovy!

Holy Hierarch Hildegrim of Châlons


Early modern lithograph of Saint Hildegrim

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate another saint among the continental Frisians, Hildegrim of Werden. Born to the Wursings, he was the son of Thiatgrim and Leofburg, and the younger brother of Saint Liudgar of Billerbeck, whom he accompanied and supported in the missions of Saint Willibrord and Saint Boniface both. He studied under Ealhwine of York for a time in England. Fortunately for the bubbly lovers among us in the Eastern confession, Saint Hildegrim was also the bishop – and patron – of Châlons-en-Champagne (which is in the wine region but not quite inside the famous vineyard areas).

Both brothers, Liudgar and Hildegrim, visited the Abbazia di Montecassino as pilgrims early in life, and there were tonsured Benedictine monks. Saint Hildegrim and his brother both had a hand in building the Kloster Werden dedicated to the Most Holy Theotokos and the Apostle Peter; and, once it was finished, the younger brother took up his residence there and the elder became its abbot.

Saint Hildegrim was made bishop of Châlons, but did not stay long in that office. He was soon appointed a missionary bishop among the Saxons in Osterbieck, though the see soon moved to Halberstadt owing to the political and religious tensions that were endemic between the Franks and the Saxons. One hagiographical tradition holds that he retired from his position as bishop altogether to resume the life of a lowly monk in Werden, where he spent the last eighteen years of his life. He is buried beside his brother Saint Liudgar, whom he accompanied and aided so loyally during his earthly life – and indeed was so closely associated with Liudgar that for a time he shared his brother’s feast day of the twenty-sixth of March. The Western Church, however, faithfully kept the memory of the date of his own repose on the nineteenth of June. Holy father Hildegrim, loyal brother, loving bishop and humble monk, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!


Châlons Cathedral

18 June 2019

Shal: ‘My god is the steppe’


Qasım (Erbolat Toǵyzaqov) in Shal

Another film by Ermek Tursynov (the director of Kelin), 2012’s Shal (Шал, The Old Man) is a cinematic transposition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea onto the Kazakh steppes. However, this brief description elides the important continuities between Shal and Tursynov’s former film Kelin.

Certain themes explored by Kelin are more deeply explored in Shal: the tension and the continuity between the generations; the closeness of the ‘Kazakh soul’ to nature; the duality of natural forces and will; the shamanic sense of tragœdy inherent to a præ-Abrahamic worldview. Certain motifs – both musical and cinematographic – also provide a sense of continuity between the two films. The shots of wildlife and natural vistas of steppe and tundra are exquisite (though the latter are sometimes rendered a bit claustrophobic by the often-present obscuring fog), and they are bolstered by a soundtrack which makes generous use of traditional flutes and fiddles. In general, Shal showcases to a greater extent than Kelin, the æsthetic-spiritual point Tursynov tries to drive home about Kazakh identity and the incompletion and ‘thinness’ of her Muslim formation in contrast to the ‘thickness’ of her affinity with and attachment to the native landscapes and œcosystems which she inhabits. Ideologically speaking, Shal (and Kelin) stand in contrast to the grand national narrative put forward by Kóshpendiler and Jaýjúrek myń bala: not necessarily in terms of what they count as the Kazakh virtues and heroic excellence, but rather in terms of how they characterise the faith of the Kazakh people.

Shal follows Qasım (Erbolat Toǵyzaqov), an elderly gentleman living in rural Kazakhstan who has an obsession with football – spending much of his time watching what games he can on his rickety and temperamental antenna. (Qasım even goes so far as to name all of his sheep after famous footballers, and paints their wool with their team numbers.) He is aided by his truculent, disrespectful handheld console-playing grandson Eraly – whom the old man calls his ‘little Satan’, and who in turn swears he’d rather hang himself than end up like his grandfather. One day a group of Kazakh and Russian men, led by a wealthy hunter (Ondasyn Besıkbasov) roll up in a fancy Humvee, setting out to snag some wolf pelts. Qasım shows them the way to the hunting ground, but warns them that it’s the off season and the wolves will have just borne their pups. The hunters don’t regard his warning, and drive off anyway. Qasım, taking his sheep out to pasture onto the steppe, gets lost in the fog. He hears gunshots out on the steppe as the hunt he aided goes badly wrong, and subsequently he is thrown into a bloody and harrowing game of survival, pitting man (and horse, and sheep) against wolf.

This, like Kelin, is a survival film – and, indeed, more explicitly so. Like Kelin, too, there is a North Asian shamanic undercurrent that underscores the visceral connexion between man and nature, and the porous divide between the realms of death and life. There is a deep and sacred connexion, too, between the young and the old, and the turn of the generations which was the penultimate punchline of Kelin.

Qasım may not always get along well with Eraly, but he clearly loves the boy – and it is this love which, he confesses to a wolf-hunter (the one played by Ondasyn Besıkbasov) he rescues, drives his will to survive. Eraly, too, loves his grandfather more than he lets on. Early on, after the old man falls asleep when watching television, Eraly covers him with a blanket. Later, when Qasım goes missing, it is Eraly who runs off to ask his uncle and neighbours where he has gone, and Eraly who calls for and then joins the official search parties that go in search. Shal also functions as something of a bildungsroman for Eraly, who is growing into the ways of Kazakh manhood. In fact, one could see in Eraly a bit of spiritual kinship with the more mild-mannered and easy-going Qarluq in Mori Kaoru’s Otoyomegatari. But the turn of the generations is marked in several other intersecting ways. Not just Qasım and Eraly, but also the pregnant ewe who gives birth to a lamb in the middle of a brushfire during a wolf attack. Also, in fact, the alpha female and her cub. It is a testament to Tursynov’s remarkable direction, that this bloody contest between nature and human being, which claims so many casualties – a contest which is in several points hinted at being a supernatural one – leaves the viewer at the end feeling more sympathy for the wolves than for their hunters.

Technology – and especially technological failure or insufficiency – is also a major recurring theme in Shal. The implicit critique of television and video games is present in the early relationship of Qasım to his grandson – and it’s worth noting that the film neither singles out the youth for his technological addiction, nor does it write Eraly off as irrevocably spoiled. Still, the handheld console is presented to us as an obstacle, as is the old television antenna. Elsewhere ‘gadgets’ appear, they always seem to fail in their intended purpose. The hunters disturb the balance of nature with their Humvee and their guns – both of which are ineffective at protecting them when the wolves attack. When Qasım discovers the hunters’ SUV – abandoned – the tablet with Google maps doesn’t help him get back to safety, and when he picks up one of the dead hunters’ ringing cellphone, he can’t understand the voice on the other end nor she him. (Ultimately, the cellphone serves as a deadweight makeshift grave marker for its owner.) And the helicopters and SUVs the rescue party uses are ultimately of no use in finding the lost and dying Qasım: it is only a grandson’s spiritual, instinctive-intuitive connexion to his grandfather that is shown as effective, when he turns back away from the search party and finds his bleeding grandfather lying down a gully in the snow.

There is a bit of perhaps-inadvertent Christian imagery here which Tursynov may have inherited from Hemingway: Qasım’s bleeding wounds during his last-stand fight with the wolves are on his arms, on his ankles and in his side, and he defends himself with a carpenter’s hatchet. In addition, as a literal shepherd, he sacrifices himself in an attempt to save what is left of his flock. But the explicit religious message of the film is not even Muslim, but (crypto-)Tengriist. When Qasım and the hunter are talking with each other at a campfire, Qasım reveals that he has never made the pilgrimage to Mecca as his ancestors had done – instead, the steppe is his both his place of pilgrimage and his god.

Toǵyzaqov’s acting in this film is phenomenal. A somewhat cantankerous but mostly good-humoured and gentle (except when riled) old man who alternately prays to and rails at the open steppe in his solitary wanderings with his sheep, he easily and naturally evokes our sympathy as viewers. Though Tursynov’s favoured direction is still minimalist – whether in dialogue or in music – the approach he took with Toǵyzaqov in Shal is perhaps more effective than the somewhat artificial silence he enforced on the characters in Kelin.

Shal, like Kelin, is a beautiful but harrowing watch – Tursynov is a master of building and maintaining dramatic tension across a movie which, despite its ninety-minute runtime, often takes the leisurely pace fitting to the lost old man at its centre. In addition, it seems that Tursynov better managed to get across his point about national character and priorities – the Kazakhs’ closeness to the land and potential pitfalls in relying on high technology and modern creature comforts against an often-precarious œcological balance of which the people are very much a part. Exploring both figuratively and literally a foggy liminal borderland between the realms of life and death as well as between the realm of the human and the realm of the nature gods, Shal manages to synthesise and articulate the strong points of both Kelin and Ulzhan without the silent-film obscurity of the former or the meandering pretentiousness of the latter.

15 June 2019

Venerable Éadburg of Winchester


Saint Éadburg of Winchester

On the fifteenth of June in the Orthodox Church we venerate the holy English princess and monastic Éadburg of Winchester – not to be confused with the Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet (and friend of Saint Boniface) of the same name.

The Saint Éadburg whom we are concerned with here is the daughter of Éadweard the Elder, King of England (in turn the son of Saint Ælfræd the Great), and his third wife Éadgifu of Kent, born around the year 920. She was left some land in Hampshire by her half-brother Æþelstán, but she had been given at the age of three as an infant oblate (as was then a common custom) to the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Mary’s at Winchester, which had been founded by her grandfather and grandmother Ealhswíþ. This was apparently decided in a custom very similar to the contemporary Chinese tradition of zhuazhou 抓周 which in China’s old society was held on the child’s first birthday to determine his future. Ten or eleven objects would be placed in front of the young child, and the one which the child chose to play with would supposedly foretell the child’s personality and career.

In young Éadburg’s case, the cognate Old English custom was celebrated on the little girl’s third birthday. Éadweard King placed before his daughter the symbols of royalty, various objects representing various trades, and finally the Chalice, the collection plate and the holy books of the Church. Little Éadburg did not pay the slightest attention to the objects representing a worldly career, and instead chose to play with the religious objects. From this it was foretold that she was destined for a life of holy seclusion and contemplation. She was thereafter entrusted to Abbess Æþelþrýð of Saint Mary’s for her upbringing and education.

Her hagiographer, Osbert of Clare, narrates her way of life in the convent. She was studious and humble. At one time, the prioress at Winchester found a nun sitting by herself and reading alone, which was forbidden and against the abbey rule. The prioress began to beat the nun, and stopped only when she recognised it was Éadburg, and prostrated herself before Éadburg in apology. (This may have been because of Éadburg’s high birth and political worth to the nunnery.) However, Éadburg forgave the prioress gladly and did not bear a grudge against her superior for her treatment, which she accepted as admonishment.

She also rose in the middle of the night – repeatedly and against the wishes of her superiors – to scrub clean the shoes of her fellow nuns. The abbess thought this was beneath her royal dignity, yet she continued to do it. At one time Éadweard King made a secret visit to Winchester to check on his beloved daughter’s life and happiness, and the nuns all had good things to say of her. Sensing that they were holding something back from him, Éadweard King pressed them on the issue, and after a time they disclosed to him his daughter’s behaviour of rising at night in secret to clean her sisters’ shoes. Instead of being angry as they expected him to be, Éadweard King was in fact delighted to hear of this. After this the nuns did not discourage her from this habit of humility.

Éadweard made yet another trip to Winchester in the open, and asked of his daughter to sing a song for him during the night’s entertainment. In this she was most unwilling at first, but her father insisted and indeed promised her anything she wanted if she would sing for him. At long last she was prevailed upon to offer her sweet voice to the task, but – again demonstrating her selflessness and her care for her sisters – the gift she asked of her father was not for herself but for the whole monastery: a royal estate at All Cannings in Wiltshire, which was among the properties of Saint Mary’s listed in the Domesday Book after the Norman Conquest.

Éadburg was also most generous to the poor, and ministered to the sick with her own hands. Osbert of Clare attributes to her five wonders. She healed a lame beggar in Winchester of his infirmity, and later cured a clerk from Saint Quentin’s of a bout of insanity which afflicted him as he was travelling through Winchester. She performed a successful exorcism upon a poor man from Wilton, and cured two other poor women of unknown residence. She also set free from his chains a man wrongly cast into prison by her father.

Saint Éadburg reposed at the age of forty, on the fifteenth of June, 960, and she was buried outside the church. For the five nights following her burial, the nun charged with closing the church window overlooking the graveyard was dismayed every night as it blew open – this was taken for a sign that she was displeased with her resting-place. The nuns took her casket and moved her inside the church, near the choir loft. Again Éadburg was displeased, and showed it by appearing herself to the nuns in a dream. They took up her casket and opened it, finding her relics to be intact and incorrupt. She was thereafter translated into the abbey church near the altar, where thereafter she rested.

Her sanctity was recognised locally by the bishop Æþelwold, who had heard the tales of the wonders she had wrought and sent investigators to the Benedictine nunnery. Unfortunately, the church in which Saint Éadburg was buried burned to the ground in 1141, during the Anarchy (the civil war between Empress Maud and King Stephen). The memory of the holy nun Éadburg was, however, kept intimately by the English Church prior to the Norman invasion. Holy and humble Éadburg, venerable nun and beloved sister, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!