17 September 2019

Brat: the film that made me a critical Russophile


Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov, Jr) in Brat

Before I proceed much further in this Kazakhstani film series I seem to have touched off (and that dates back to the beginning of this blog, come to think of it), I think it’s probably worth going back and revisiting a cult film that left a fairly deep impact on me personally when I first watched it in college – even though it is very much not a Kazakh film. Having recently watched Igla I was inspired to go back and watch this film – one which I have seen before but not yet commented on. If Igla was a præmonition of Trainspotting, as I hinted in my recent piece, then this film was absolutely a deliberate echo of that film.

To demonstrate how deeply this film impacted me, let me just say this. When I was still an Episcopalian, this was one of two films that made me start to sympathise, in a critical and unromantic way, with modern Russia – the other being Kavkazskii plennik. It doubled as one of the sources, along with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, that humanised the Russian people for me and made real to me their plight and desperation during the 1990s under Eltsin. The irony in this, is that despite this very real sympathy, it shows Russia at some of its very worst: violence – including sexual violence; drug abuse; alcoholism; escapist licence of all sorts; naked pursuit of lucre; casual racism; gharbzadegi; the ever-porous boundary (but in 1990s Russia particularly so) between biznes and gangsterism. I am talking, of course, about the low-budget crime thriller Brat by Aleksei Balabanov, starring Sergei Bodrov, Jr.

Brat deserves its place as a classic in Russian cinema, and Balabanov his reputation as a genius for having directed it. The film was shot on a shoestring budget; and the only reason it got off the ground at all was because of Balabanov’s relationships with Sergei Bodrov, Jr and the lead singer of Nautilus, Vyacheslav Butusov – whose music features prominently in the film.

The film follows the tight-lipped Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov, Jr), a young demobilised army vet who claims he only ever served at HQ, and whose favourite expression of approval is ‘нормално’. The first time we see him he’s walking onto the set of a Nautilus music video, and gets into a fight with the director and the bouncers which sees him detained and threatened with arrest if he doesn’t shape up and get a job in a week. His disappointed mother, who sees him as a disgrace to the family, tells him to go find a job like his older brother Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov), who lives in Leningrad. Danila, of course, does what he is told by his mother – like a dutiful son would.

Viktor, also known as ‘the Tatar’, is a hitman for a mobster nicknamed Krugly (Sergei Murzin) who talks seemingly only in rhyming clichés. Viktor is tasked with taking out a Chechen rival of Krugly’s, though Krugly dislikes Viktor’s cocky attitude and makes plans to eliminate Viktor at the same time. Viktor, in order to save himself, thrusts the job onto Danila when he arrives. Danila’s subsequent adventures in S. Peterburg see him attempt without success to buy Nautilus’s new album; befriend a homeless German named Hoffman (Yuri Kuznetsov) and a heartlessly-transactional bar-frequenting junkie named Kat (Mariya Zhukova). When carrying out his ‘job’, he is attacked by Krugly’s henchmen and flees in a tram operated by a married woman named Sveta (Svetlana Pismichenko), with whom he starts up a love affaire. Danila is pulled deeper and deeper into the corruptions and temptations of S. Peterburg, yet despite the brutal acts of self-preservation and temptations he is prone to, he somehow manages to hold onto a certain sense of decency and honour – something which he finds lacking in his entire body of acquaintance (except for the homeless German and Sveta). He also manages to protect the weak and outwit his enemies not only by outgunning them but also by jury-rigging together matchbox flash-bombs, pop-bottle silencers and nail-filled shotgun shells from the various dingy apartments he crashes at.

Storywise, the plot is straightforward almost to a fault; the only digressions are the ones that happen within sight or earshot of the protagonist, and these are usually dealing with the music of Nautilus. And cinematographically, Brat is a very claustrophobic film which clearly was making the best of its limited budget (and possibly making a subtle literary commentary on the setting). Most of the action takes place in cramped, narrow apartment hallways with flickering incandescent lighting. Every window and mirror is dingy. Even Krugly’s headquarters is decked out with a dusty ‘80s IBM sitting in the background, and little else. There are lots of long takes, and the film is paced specifically to deglamourise the violence of its protagonists. Despite a lot of characters being shot to death, the blood effects are minimal and usually kept in a blurry background. Balabanov is also clearly a big fan of fade-to-black transitions, with a lot of the punchlines to various story sequences being left implied.

Brat relies a great deal on filmic symbolism to establish its moral universe. Danila, with whom we are supposed to sympathise, is unassuming in appearance, and dresses in an oversized grey turtleneck sweater. The other young people around him – especially Kat – are decked out in the expressions of Western counterculture of the time: black leather, piercings, eye shadow, mohawks. The people who hold power, like Krugly, are also aficionados of Western styles. Krugly wears Versace and drinks Hennessy. ‘American’ music is associated with drugs and cheap loveless transactional sex; it is compared unfavourably to the healthier and more wholesome Russian-inflected music of Nautilus, which provides the backdrop to Danila’s affaire with Sveta.

It’s also definitely a piece which reflects its time, almost more so than its place. In fact, Brat is a mirror that’s held up to an entire generation of young Russian men caught in a struggling time, for whom Danila Bagrov became something of an instant anti-hero. Danila is not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘good man’ – this is something that Sergei Bodrov himself has made clear in his interviews, and is voiced in the film itself by Sveta. But despite his weaknesses he possesses a folksy cleverness masqued as gullibility and an innate sense of justice. It’s unclear by the end of the film as he skips town whether or not he has lost his soul entirely – although the German, the sole uncompromised voice of conscience in the film, claims he has.

Balabanov’s Brat made me a critical Russophile, not only in that it showed the depth of the œconomic woes and spiritual degradation of Russia in the lawless ‘90s, but also hailed back to a rich and vibrant literary world in historical Russia. The motif of Leningrad (and which is referred to explicitly with its præ-Communist name of S. Peterburg in the film) as a corrupting influence, an artificial city of masonry ruled by greed, a malevolent force that parasitically feeds off the strength of its residents and makes them weak. S. Peterburg as a character in her own right – that’s pure Dostoevsky.

In short, I would say that Brat is a film one needs to watch, and not only watch but feel, to get an appreciation of how Russia got here as a country. It’s not all about communism and it’s certainly not all about ‘authoritarianism’. There is a real spiritual and material struggle behind modern Russia, that is too often disregarded or sneered at in Anglophone coverage of current events there. The questions Balabanov poses to his viewers are meant to reflect this struggle and the dimension of Russia’s shared life – along cultural, political and œconomic dimensions – that was simply AWOL in the 1990s. Danila Bagrov is a cultural icon and hero for his time precisely because he is flawed, and precisely because he is fallen – but perhaps not irredeemable.

16 September 2019

Venerable Éadgýð of Wilton


Saint Éadgýð of Wilton

The West Saxon saint Éadgýð [that is, Edith] of Wilton has been particularly beloved of the English for scores of generations; and she is reckoned to be one of the ‘national saints’ whose veneration very early spread throughout the English Church in the period prior to the Great Schism. Reading her hagiography it is easy to see why. Éadgýð is notable primarily for the dazzling radiance of her kenotic giving and generosity, her sweet and gentle spirit. Though the ascetic side of her spiritual life is also there, that same ascesis is a moon made radiant by a soul set ablaze with the love of Christ and with the love of the poor. Though her life on earth was short, her inward goodness shone all that much brighter. Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we honour her memory.

Éadgýð was conceived in the irregular union of Éadgár the Frithful, King of Wessex, and his kept woman Wulfþrýð. Her two parents later became saints, but at the time of her conception neither of them was particularly saintly. Their union occurred, after all, after Éadgár had rapt Wulfþrýð – by most accounts willingly – from the monastery at Wilton where she was then either a nun or a novice. Shortly after her birth, Wulfþrýð began to have compunctions about all of their souls – her kingly lover’s, her daughter’s and her own. She separated amicably from Éadgár (though the two of them remained friends) and returned to her monastic vocation at Wilton, taking their baby daughter Éadgýð with her.

Yet though Éadgýð was a ‘love-child’, she was not one single whit less beloved by God, who truly made a place beside Him for her and for her eldern. She grew up under the eye of her repentant mother, and in the company of the sisters of Wilton. There she received a top-class education; she grew skilled both with her hands and in the exercise of her mind: she read the Psalter and the Holy Scriptures. She grew the monastery’s library significantly – some of it with her own skill at illuminating manuscripts. Her father, for her sake and for the sake of her mother, sponsored the abbey at Wilton from his own coffers for the rest of his life. Not surprisingly, with this attention and education, she grew to love God and to seek the life of a virgin in Christ. When she reached the age of fifteen years, she took the wimple and veil and joined her sisters at Wilton as a nun.

As a nun, Éadgýð’s life was marked by the same rigorous asceticism of her sisters there. She kept a strict fast, preserved the purity of her body, laboured with her sisters, and spent long hours in the study of Scriptures and singing in praise of God. But her life is noteworthy on account of the kenoticism of her witness, the social dimension of her ascetic life. Éadgýð spent her days in the company of lepers and the homeless, preferring it to that of her mother’s and father’s class. She fed the hungry, clothed the naked and took care of the ill, in a hospital she herself founded. She gave bread and shelter and whatever silver she could spare to any who came to her asking for it. She even washed and mended her sisters’ socks at night while they slept. Every spare moment she had, was given to the help of her neighbour.

Her love did not stop with human beings; she also had a deep and abiding love for animals both wild and domestic. She freely offered food to wild deer and pigeons which would then eat from her hand. She also caused something of a scandal in ecclesiastical circles by having built and keeping a home for animals near her cell on one side of the Wilton monastery.

She had a habit of washing herself regularly in hot water and dressing in magnificently fine gowns, which brought upon her the consternation of the zealous and austere Bishop Saint Æþelwold of Winchester, who along with Saint Dúnstán and Saint Ósweald was close in his friendship with Éadgýð’s family. However, she argued back to the bishop that outward beauty was not as important to God as the beauty of the heart, which must be full of love and humility. (It was not every nun that dared to talk back to a hierarch of the Church!) In addition: what Saint Æþelwold did not see was that beneath her fine and luxurious dress she wore a hair shirt. Saint Éadgýð understood well that the need for beauty is as great as the need for bread, even among the poor; and she was not stingy with her own. As Chesterton put it with regard to the dress habits of the later Thomas à Becket:
in Christendom apparent accidents balanced. Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold and crimson, and there is much to be said for the combination; for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold. It is at least better than the manner of the modern millionaire, who has the black and the drab outwardly for others, and the gold next his heart.
Saint Éadgýð was also given foresight by her righteous life of mercy to the poor and steadfast devotion to Christ. She was given to see a vision in which she lost her right eye; the following morning she learned that her innocent elder half-brother, Éadweard King, had been martyred in Dorset.

She had a particular devotion to the great hieromartyr and divine philosopher Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, called ‘Denis’ after the French usage. She founded a church in Wilton which she dedicated to that saint, and even designed the frescoes herself. She died very shortly after the dedication, from a fever. During her illness she was tended personally by Saint Dúnstán, who wept as he did so because he was given to know that her death was near. He gave her the Holy Gifts before she reposed. Shortly after that, nuns at Wilton began to have visions of her ascent to heaven, and she quickly gained a local cultus which grew into a national one. Her other half-brother Æþelræd Unrǽd personally venerated her – as did the later kings Éadmund Ironside, Cnut the Great and Éadweard the Confessor.

Saint Éadgýð is far from a typical monastic saint – if indeed one can speak of any monastic saint as ‘typical’. Holiness and goodness are infinite in variation. Saint Éadgýð’s clear erudition, her willingness to argue with powerful men and her devotion to a first-century Greek philosopher-saint are unusual. But the decidedly social, decidedly political nature of her philanthrōpía for the poor – which chiefly came, one should note, from the public funds of her kingly father – lies firmly in line with the early social radicalism of Old English Benedictine spirituality. But the brightness and clarity of her virtues made her easily one of the most popularly-venerated of the holy mothers in the late Old English period and beyond. Holy Éadgýð, venerable monastic and firm friend of the poor and needy, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Thou didst love Christ from thy youth, O blessed one,
And ardently desiring to labor for Him alone,
Thou didst struggle in asceticism in the royal convent at Wilton.
And having acquired humility of soul and spiritual stillness,
Thou didst pass over to the mansions of paradise,
Where thou dost intercede for us, O venerable mother Éadgýð!

15 September 2019

Igla: black sheep of the Kazakh film family


Moro (Viktor Tsoi) in Igla

Igla (Игла, The Needle) is a film which I found more interesting on account of its reverberations in later Kazakh cinema than on its own merits. A 1988 ‘Kazakh New Wave’ contemporary of Mest’ and Otyrardyń kúıreýi, Igla does not in the same way dwell on grand questions of fate and identity; however, it unfortunately more than makes up for that by way of pretentious art-film mannerisms and postmodernist meandering. There’s something significant in the fact that the other two films here explicitly centre Kazakh film within an East Asian ambit; tying Kazakh destiny to both historical Mongol domination and contemporary Soviet-Korean ‘lostness’. Here, musician-turned-leading-man Viktor Tsoi, himself of Soviet-Korean descent, seems to embody a part of that ‘lostness’, no matter whether he occupies a Russian or a Kazakh cultural milieu. But whereas for Chae Sungu in Mest’, his lostness carried with it shame and emasculation; Tsoi’s character here wears that same lostness as a badge of honour and masculine pride. Igla balances Tsoi’s rock-star-sized ego and prima donna on-screen presence against Nugmanov’s desire to ‘play around’ with the filmic medium, and the result is something that is a bit more than the sum of its parts. (Rather disappointing is the inexplicable lack of hedgehogs in the film, though.)

In Igla, a drifter named Moro (Viktor Tsoi) comes to Alma-Ata to collect on a debt owed to him by a small-time crook and part-time factory worker named Spartak (Aleksandr Bashirov). Not having a place to stay, he drops in on his ex-girlfriend Dina (Marina Smirnova), whom he quickly discovers is addicted to morphine. Moro decides to help Dina kick the habit with a trip to the Aral Sea, but soon finds himself on the wrong side of a drug-smuggling gang led by a hospital surgeon named Artur (Petr Mamonov), who is the one who got Dina addicted in the first place. The two plots collide with Moro in the middle.

There’s not all that much more to the story than that; it’s a short film, and much of it lingers on extended sequences in Dina’s apartment or else on the Aral Sea, which has been turned into a desert. In addition to this modern man-made desert, dingy block apartments, rusty chain-link fences and abandoned parks form the backdrop for much of the film. Nugmanov enjoys linking these extended sequences either with close-ups of a digital clock showing the time, or with white century text on black title cards. Very often radio or television programmes are playing in the background, and key events in the plot are often narrated or ‘foreshadowed’ by what the television is broadcasting at the time, adding to an almost paranoid sense of surrealism. The core message of the film – insofar as it even has one, which is somewhat doubtful – is very much anti-drug. However, it portrays morphine abuse and its effects in candid ways that would have been unthinkable in earlier Soviet cinema. Further small eccentric touches, like the occasional animated scrawls that indicate a character’s thought process (as they occasionally do in, say, James Gunn’s Super or, indeed, Baikonur and Absurdistan), add to the countercultural feel of the movie.

Also interesting is that the Soviet state is rendered a nearly-absent presence, passive and almost invisible – I say ‘almost’ because the sole representations of Soviet government apparatus or ideology present themselves through the near-ubiquitous televisions that Nugmanov either places in the frame or has playing in the background. (Igla’s ending title card is an ironic dedication to ‘Soviet television’.) They serve almost as a ‘chorus’ to the main action, which happens in a heavily-stylised, almost caricatured criminal underworld. The soundtrack is shared between these television ‘samples’, and contemporary rock music – mostly from Viktor Tsoi’s own band Kino.

Igla is really mostly about Viktor Tsoi, though, and what he represented to a generation of Russian youth. Tsoi is to Russian culture what Cui Jian 崔健 is and has been to Chinese culture. Moro, Tsoi’s alter-ego in the film, is a mullet-rocking, jeans-wearing leather-clad ‘bad boy’, a Byronic anti-hero, often seen wearing shades and with a cigarette flopping out of his mouth. He gestures with his middle finger and says ‘fuck’ a lot. He is – almost more so than any other filmic Russian protagonist I can think of, off the top of my head – instantly recognisable and sympathetic to an American audience: he is the avatar of an alienated, rebellious and cynical youth culture. He even pulled a James Dean two years later and died in an auto wreck, lending him personally (and his performance in this film particularly, which was his last) a martyrific mystique.

There are a number of comparisons that can be made here. Igla has the counterculture cult-film appeal of Repo Man and, a bit more distantly, the hapkido-filled rage of Billy Jack. It anticipates the cynical thematic sensibility of Trainspotting and the subversively genre-savvy wink-nods of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. It sounds like I’m talking it up a bit too much, though, with these comparisons. Igla has its own cult-film brilliance, but it’s much more rough, experimental and protean than any of these comparisons would suggest. It took me about halfway through the film for me to figure out quite what it was up to.

Igla’s influence on later Kazakh cinema, though – particularly in the crime-thriller subgenre – gives it an importance and a place of honour there which director Rashid Nugmanov had no reason to expect when he made it. Aqan Sataev’s Réketır pays explicit homage to Igla in multiple scenes; including the shell game scene and even the ambiguous ending. Gúl’shad Omarova’s Shıza also plays up the Viktor Tsoi cigarette-smoking black-leather-and-sunglasses æsthetic with its own definitively young leading man – though it does so with its tongue firmly in its cheek. If Ivan groznyi is the stately forefather of Kazakh cinema, then Igla is almost certainly the black sheep of the family. But it’s a family member that can’t be ignored.

12 September 2019

Holy Mother Éanswíþ, Venerable Abbess of Folkestone


Saint Éanswíþ of Folkestone

Possibly the first woman (alongside her aunt, Saint Æþelburg of Lyminge) to lead a religious community in England, and the granddaughter of the saintly royal couple Æþelberht and Berhte of Kent, today the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates Saint Éanswíþ of Folkestone, the spiritual mother of Kent.

Despite his parents’ conversion, Éanswíþ’s father Éadbald was still a Teutonic heathen when he came to the throne. It would take him several years to be converted by Saint Laurence, Archbishop of Canterbury. Upon his conversion, he put aside his first wife – who was also his stepmother – and married instead Emma of Austrasia, a Frankish Christian. Éanswíþ was the first-born of this union.

From childhood, Éanswíþ desired to lead a holy life of virginity in devotion to Christ. No doubt she was influenced by the company she kept, of holy men and women – Saint Æþelburg and Saint Laurence, but also Saint Mellitus and Saint Justus. Her aunt Æþelburg had married a heathen Northumbrian prince, Éadwine; and Éadbald hoped to make a match for his own daughter of equal political advantage. Unlike Æþelburg, however, Éanswíþ did not enter willingly into such a match. Indeed, she refused to marry at all. Despite her father’s consistent entreaties, God strengthened her in her refusal. Eventually, her father relented to let her become a nun, and with his blessing and support she founded Folkestone Abbey in 630. Nowadays there is an Abbey church which bears her name, but which was then dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul. Folkestone Priory drew holy women from both England and Francia; they gave themselves to constant prayer and repentance, as well as songs of praise to the Lord.

Saint Éanswíþ spent all of her remaining days on Earth in this house of God together with her sisters in God, and devoted herself not only to study of Scripture and prayer and the copying of manuscripts, but also to manual labour and works of material mercy for the sick, the poor and the homeless. As with all of the early men of God who came to English shores, and in particular the holy mothers of the English Church, material aid to the needy was one of her highest priorities.

In life, Saint Éanswíþ was able to work wonders; and several such wonders are attributed to her by her hagiographers. She healed a blind woman by the power of her prayers to God; and she also healed a madman of his mental illness in the same way. When Folkestone suffered a dearth of fresh water, her prayers produced a holy spring which met all the priory’s needs; at her asking, God even made the water to flow uphill for a mile to where the abbey was. She was even able to speak with animals and birds, who listened to her. She asked the birds to stop stealing wheat from the abbey fields, and they did as she bade them.

Her life on earth was sadly short. She reposed on the thirteenth of September in the year 640, after ten years in the priory. Although her life is ill-attested in contemporary documents, it is clear that she already had a local cultus by the year 867. In that year, the heathen Danish invaders attacked the priory at Folkestone and destroyed it; however, her relics had been moved inland to protect them. The site of the original priory was claimed by the sea, and the current church was built some miles inland in 1138.

The shrine to Saint Éanswíþ was destroyed in the anti-monastic violence and persecutions of the English Reformation; however Saint Éanswíþ’s relics had been hidden in an alabaster-lined leaden reliquary in the church walls, as workmen discovered on the 17th of June, 1885. At first, the reliquary was brought out for public veneration on the saint’s feast day, but the practice halted when several more puritan-minded parishioners complained that the rector was ‘worshipping’ the relics. Still, some of the parishioners at Saint Mary’s and Saint Eanswythe’s still offer candles and flowers for the feast, at the brass door behind which the reliquary is ensconced. An Orthodox iconographer gifted the parish church an icon (shown above) of the Holy Mother of Kent.

With gladsome voices and hymns of praise
Let us extol the venerable Éanswíþ,
Who, setting aside rich princely apparel,
Gladly put on the mean and lowly habit of a nun;
And, in place of the idle pursuits of the royal court,
Set herself boldly to acquire all the virtues.
Wherefore, having pleased Christ by her charity and love,
She ever intercedeth with Him to have mercy on our souls!

11 September 2019

Meaningful justice requires hierarchy of values


One of the things I find I have diminishing patience for – either in online discourse or in any other public forum – is the lazy equalisation of values that comes from reductive readings of history and a certain lack of education in philosophy. Indeed, this was one of the reasons I wrote that piece late last month on how a right attitude toward the family is necessary to combat nationalism. The Good (and the Beautiful, and the True) may be ontologically one, but it presents itself to us humans in a dizzyingly-vast array of discrete goods necessary to our flourishing, and part of the real work of striving for the good is sorting through these goods in an attempt to properly place them. Even if we assert that justice and the Good at its base requires some form of real equality for people (something which, even as a leftist, I’m not 100% convinced is possible), that very same equality of being requires a hard inequality of values – with differing ranks and degrees of importance being ascribed to each.

It strikes me after reading several pieces that both the Anglo-American tradition of liberal conservatism, and the Continental tradition of national conservatism, have both been losing the plot rather badly in this most essential of conservative endeavours (at least according to Russell Kirk, for whom the transcendent moral order and hierarchies of value were of paramount importance) for about the past two hundred years or so. This point was driven home rather strongly by several articles I read recently, one of which being a Rod Dreher gush piece over Orbán Viktor (the interesting but for various reasons rather troubling Prime Minister of Hungary), and the other being the New York Times review of George Will’s latest book, which appears to be nothing short of a liberal-conservative manifesto in an age where such beliefs seem, to put it politely, quaint.

Both Dreher and Will seem to be in not-quite-equivalent measures guilty of ignoring Kirk, because both of them dangerously collapse the entire project of the transcendent social order in ways which mirror – as Dreher notes with one of his increasingly-sporadic flashes of self-awareness – the Ahmari-French debate at the Catholic University of America, which is in itself a rehash of a theopolitical debate which has been rollicking the English-speaking Catholic world for some time and which does not leave us Orthodox types unscathed.

If we were to take this debate at face value, at its core is the question of whether the state can or should take an interest in substantive questions of justice – including on pelvic issues – to the extent that it should be willing to bring the force of law to bear on them. For French, conservative goals can be best advanced by preserving in the state as much of a neutral arbiter as possible on questions of cultural value, and preserving as much private space as possible for conservative options to be pursued, through the pluralism of a marketplace of ideas. For Ahmari, by contrast, the state cannot be neutral. It is always already an expression of the values implicit in a culture; and the culture war must be fought in order to win a just state, which can be used to pursue both public and private goods.

The confusion of means and ends on both sides of this debate is all too readily apparent, unfortunately. French’s defence of pluralism clearly does not extend to the international sphere; and he is all too willing to use the full coercive strength of the state to force another sovereign people to adopt an entirely different way of life and an entirely different laundry-list of social goods, as seen in his repeated, intellectually-odious defences of the Iraq War (which was indeed a war on truth itself). French’s variant of ‘classical liberalism’, precisely as a comprehensive doctrine of justice replete with its own priests and zealots, justly earned its obsolescence through this very war – along with the prior one in Yugoslavia, and the subsequent one in Libya. For Ahmari’s part, his embrace of Trumpism reeks of the very same sort of ‘sincere irrationality’ that he derides in French. Ahmari derides French for cutting deals with the devils of sexual licence and other forms of cultural progressivism in his pursuit of a level cultural playing field. However, he shows himself all too willing to cut deals with the philosophical devil of post-modernism in his practical political choices.

These are not hypocrisies specific to these two gentlemen or to this specific debate: they point straight to the problems with both ‘classical liberalism’ and Catholic intégrisme. Though both claim to combat progressivism, both are in fact guilty of accommodating progressive arguments about the nature of political reality. Classical liberalism always hides the comprehensive (and, at base, non-Christian) nature of its own truth claims behind various guises of ‘neutrality’ in state and market, precisely because any hint of the specificity of its value-claims undermine its claims to universality. On the opposite side, intégrisme – which in its original instance as now arose as a deliberate counter-narrative to liberal conceptions of politics – has never been as pious as it pretends to be. Maurras was an agnostic. The creative force behind Action française came from the anti-Dreyfusards. From the start, the intégriste project had only a positivist and instrumentalist conception of faith.

Both Frenchian classical-liberalism-via-neoconservatism and Ahmarian intégrisme make the fatal error – fatal, that is, from the temperamental conservative, Burke-and-Kirk perspective – of collapsing necessary distinctions-of-kind within the moral order. These collapses lead each to have a deficient or disordered understanding of the proper rôle of the state. Classical liberalism conflates the limited, procedural state and the negative liberties it safeguards with higher orders of goods, such that it cannot conceive of any potential discrete social or political good or moral priority which that state might sacrifice its neutrality to pursue. In essence, for liberalism, negative liberty becomes a sort of god.

On the other hand, intégrisme in its too-close, ostensibly-religious pursuit of these discrete social and political goods, expounds a religion which smells a bit too much like a state. It arrogates to the religious sphere the responsibility of crafting political projects, and in so doing instrumentalises the religious. Even the innocuous-sounding ‘integralism in three sentences’ makes the Grand Inquisitor’s mistake. Our intégristes think spiritual and temporal goods possess only differences in degree, but belong to the same category. The problem with this, of course, is that it undermines actual religious witness on spiritual goods which don’t rightly belong to the same kind as the temporal ends of politics. Christ did not come to deliver us bread; He came to be our bread and drink and to deliver us from the very need for bread.

Which brings us back to Dreher and Will. Although Dreher seems closer to the truth than Will to me, I must be harder on Dreher here because he should know better than to embrace Orbán and his quasi-intégriste project with both arms open. If Dreher had any interest or even idle curiosity about the religious tradition to which he has attached himself – which also happens to be mine – he would know very well that neither side of this debate is particularly friendly to Orthodox Christians. He would know that neither side appreciates the precarious witness we bear on the theopolitical question, nor the tragic witness we bear on the question of nationalism. These witnesses, both tied to the material and political legacy of Eastern Rome, are not unrelated to each other.

Please do not mistake this for an appeal to false moderation. It’s an appeal to maximalism. In fact, my position here is pure Leont’ev, pure Pobedonostsev. Like both of these great Russians, we should not concede the slightest ground here; nay, neither to classical liberalism nor to the resurgence of nationalisme intégral. An approach which preserves the hierarchy of values in a transcendent moral order, indeed, must be particularly careful not to conflate the different kinds of loyalties which are due in different proportion to different loci of our social context, because to do otherwise would be to risk effeminacy and vulgarisation. However, given the state of our national climate of mutual fear and loathing, I fear that both effeminacy and vulgarisation lie inescapably in our path.

In America, I fear, the way out will be long and difficult. It will involve passing through a protracted period of barbarism. (Partially contra Fallows, though it may not be as bad as advertised, it will still be no cake-walk.) It will involve the near-insurmountable task of building and living out different modes of loyalty to each other than those being presented to us in our political, cultural or social lives. Our bad national habits of embracing bumper-sticker patriotism, totemic brand consumption and other forms of sacrifice-free virtue-signalling voluntaristic affinity that calls for no level of sacrifice, simply won’t cut it anymore.

09 September 2019

Holy Mothers Wulfþrýð of Wilton and Wulfhild of Barking

This week in the Holy Orthodox Church we venerate two noble kinswomen of late Old England, Wulfþrýð of Wilton and Wulfhild of Barking, who also became venerable abbesses. Their feast dates are also quite close, as they both reposed within a few days of each other in September in the Year of our Lord 1000. Wulfhild is commemorated today on the ninth of September, and Wulfþrýð both today and on the thirteenth).


a sæcular illustration of Saint Wulfþrýð of Wilton


Icon of the Synaxis of the Saints of Barking; Saint Wulfhild is on the far left

Wulfþrýð was the elder of the two cousins, having been born in the year 937. She was educated at Wilton Abbey, and lived there with the nuns. At the age of twenty-three, when she was either a novice or a nun, she was kidnaped by (or willingly eloped with) the then-not-so-saintly Saint Éadgár King of Wessex.

First, however, Éadgár seems to have been hard in pursuit of her younger cousin, Saint Wulfhild (born c. 940). Wulfhild, however, was then also already a novice at Wilton and dead-set in her determination to become a nun. Éadgár contrived to have her aunt, Abbess Wenflæd of Wherwell, invite her to her own abbey. It was, however, a trap: Wenflæd had already made a deal with Éadgár to deliver Wulfhild into the hands of his men, and he kept her at Wherwell under guard. However, Wulfhild managed to escape through the drains. Éadgár pursued her back to Wilton and found her there, but she had already sought sanctuary in the altar, and the amorous young prince was forced to relinquish his claim on her.

But Éadgár found in her elder kinswoman Wulfþrýð, who was as stated before also at Wilton, an equally-fair and far more willing lover. He took her to his manor at Kemsing in the North Downs where she became his kept woman. The affaire resulted in Wulfþrýð’s pregnancy, and while she was still in Kent she gave birth to a daughter, Éadg‎ýð. Soon after their daughter’s birth, Wulfþrýð – stricken with compunction for the souls of herself, her husband and daughter – returned willingly to Wilton. It appears she remained good friends with Éadgár even after her return to the monastic life. Éadgár – who also seems to have repented – acknowledged Éadgýð as a legitimate daughter and penned a charter to Wulfþrýð for her support; he also willingly undertook seven years of fasting penance for having seduced her, during which time he also would not wear or even touch his own crown. Later, when Wulfþrýð had become Abbess of Wilton, she successfully pled before her former lover for clemency on behalf of a thief pursued by his bailiff, who had sought sanctuary within the abbey.

Both women were the beneficiaries of Éadgár’s public penance. Saints Wulfþrýð and Éadgýð both were well cared-for at Wilton, which received generous support and endowments from Éadgár King for the rest of his life. Holy Mother Wulfþrýð cared deeply for their daughter, who in turn embraced the monastic life, complete with its prayer and abstinence and radical kenotic giving, with both arms. Saint Éadgýð is commemorated next week so I will treat her in greater depth then; but suffice it to say that despite her death at a tragically young age, she is nevertheless one of England’s great ‘social justice’ saints, with her emphasis on caring for the poor and needy. Wulfhild, who was then a nun at Horton in Dorset, was made abbess – with Éadgár’s blessing and more likely than not at his insistence – of the newly-renovated Abbey at Barking to which Saint Dúnstán had contributed so much. In her pursuit of holiness she joined such venerable abbesses and holy mothers of the Church as Saint Hildalíþ and Saint Æþelburg sister of Saint Eorcenwald.

Sadly for England, Éadgár remarried. The third wife he chose, Ælfþrýð, was blessed with Wulfþrýð’s outward fairness but all too little of her inward beauty, for she had the heart of a venomous snake. She bore to him the future king Æþelræd Unrǽd. However, she also connived to have Éadgár’s elder son Saint Éadweard murdered. She also bore a certain spiteful jealousy toward Éadgár’s former wife and her kinswoman. She connived with several unscrupulous nuns of Barking to have Saint Wulfhild was stripped of her abbacy and thrown out of the house of God. Wulfhild spent the next twenty years at Horton, and would later be reinstated as abbess of Barking by Æþelræd King. The final seven years of her life, Saint Wulfhild served as abbess of both Barking and Horton.

As for the older cousin, Wulfþrýð, she served as Abbess of Wilton until her death, several years after her saintly daughter’s. Éadgýð, for the wonders she wrought in life and for the visions of her which the nuns of Wilton received, quickly was recognised as a saint and became the patroness of Wilton; she was publicly venerated and her cultus promoted by several kings starting with Æþelræd Unrǽd. Wulfþrýð herself continued her daughter’s work and managed the affairs of Wilton with great success. She too was venerated as a saint after her death, and was buried in front of the altar inside the Wilton Abbey Church.

Holy mothers Wulfþrýð and Wulfhild, you who rejected worldly power and ease for lives of devotion, for the sake of us your wayward children, pray unto Christ our God to save our souls!


Saint Mary’s Church in Wilton


Barking Abbey in London

07 September 2019

Holy Hierarch Ealhmund, Bishop of Hexham


The Abbey Kirk at Hexham

Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we celebrate another Northumbrian saint, the relatively-obscure Ealhmund, Bishop of Hexham. Successor in office to some rather illustrious English Orthodox saints, like Holy Father Cuðberht, Holy Father John of Beverley and Bishop Saint Wilfrið (who founded the abbey kirk at Hexham in which Saint Ealhmund served), Saint Ealhmund spent thirteen years in that office. Very little is known of his life other than that; the records were destroyed by waves of invasion by the Danes and the Scots. However, he was held in deep veneration by the folk of Hexham soon after his death. He was buried alongside Saint Acca outside the church, and there his relics stayed for two and a half centuries.

In the year 1030, a sacristan of Durham named Fr Ælfræd Westowe undertook to translate the relics of Saint Acca from the church grounds into a reliquary, placed in a state of honour within the church. This was done. About two years later, a vision appeared to a certain Northumbrian named Dregmo, who lived near the church at Hexham. In this vision, Saint Ealhmund appeared in his bishop’s robes and with a crozier in his hand, and he prodded Dregmo to attention with it. He asked Dregmo to go to Ælfræd Westowe and bid him translate his own relics also into the church at Hexham. When Dregmo asked who he was, the apparition proclaimed himself to be Saint Ealhmund, the fourth bishop of Hexham after Saint Wilfrið, told him his bones had rested near those of Saint Acca, and furthermore bade Dregmo to be present at the translation with Ælfræd.

The vision ended, and when Dregmo awoke he went straightaway and informed Ælfræd Westowe of everything Saint Ealhmund had related to him in the proper order, including the location of his bones. The priest went gladly to Hexham, assembled the folk there, told them what had happened, and set a day for the translation. When that day came they lifted Saint Ealhmund’s bones from the tomb with care, wrapped them in linen, and set them on a bier. Since the hour was too late for the Divine Liturgy to be celebrated, the bones were left on the porch at the west end of the Church for the night.

During the night vigil, the priest of Durham stole into the Church while the others slept, and robbed Saint Ealhmund of one of his finger-bones. The following morning, when the priest undertook to move Saint Ealhmund’s bones into their reliquary, he found them far too heavy for any man to lift. He withdrew himself, thinking he was unworthy. All the men of Hexham tried to lift the bones, but by the same ominous wonder none were able – it was like any one man trying to lift the church itself off its foundations. No one was found able to lift the bones. Meanwhile Fr Ælfræd, still ignorant that he was the cause of this omen, instructed the faithful to pray God to reveal the cause.

Once again the vision of Saint Ealhmund came to Dregmo, and he rapped him awake with his crozier, and scolded him sternly:
What is this that you undertook to do? Were you going to bring me back into the church harmed, when I served God and Saint Andrew here whole in body and soul? Go, therefore, and witness in the sight of all folk that what has been taken recklessly from my body should be brought back again, or else you will never be able to take me up from this place in which I now am.
When he had said this, he took Dregmo and led him to where his body lay, and showed him where one of his hands was missing a finger-bone. On the following day, Dregmo stood in the throng and told them all that Saint Ealhmund had said, bidding the thief come forward and make good what he owed. Stricken and ashen-faced, Fr Ælfræd came forward and prostrated himself upon the floor of the church, owning himself to be the thief. He begged the forgiveness of the folk, of God and of Saint Ealhmund, and restored the finger-bone to its rightful place. When this was done, he and his deacons were able to lift the saint’s bones with nigh no effort at all, and set them in their rightful state of honour in the church. This happened on the sixth of August, 1032.

Later, Fr Ælfræd Westowe asked openly, and was granted, the right to translate back to Durham a portion of the relics of Saint Ealhmund, along with those of Saint Acca, Saint Bede, Saint Óswine, Saint Boisil, Holy Mother Æbba and Saints Billfrið and Balthere. Holy Hierarch Ealhmund, pray to God for us!