29 March 2018

Mine own faults

Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk,
But grant unto me, Thy servant, the spirit of integrity, humility, patience and love.
Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults,
And not to condemn my brother.
As my Czech-Yiddish forebears would have told me as I made my prostrations after the fashion, roughly speaking, of Saint Ephrem the Syrian: Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it. And boy, did I.

This Lenten season has shown me up as a pretentious, preening, pompous fool, crowing over ideas which were never his own to begin with, and who is nowhere near as clever as he pretends to be. (But then, I should already have known that. My erstwhile gentle readers have been so kind as to inform me of it themselves, on occasion.) It has shown me up as a self-righteous, quarrelsome brawler in words. To Chase Padusniak, whom I called out with that post: I am sorry for my bitter polemic. Forgive me, a sinner. Even my attempts at humility have sharp edges. It has shown me up as a foreigner with a full belly and nothing better to do than to point fingers. It has shown me up as an intellectual-yet-idiot dupe, a self-deceiving excuser of harm in ‘good causes’. It has shown me up as a poor faster, an inconsistent almsgiver, a faineant prayer.

And this Lent brought me face-to-face, not once but twice – with an injury and a death, each very close to home – with the brute fact of mortality. The latter is still too raw. It was a swift and unexpected kick to the rear which will hurt far longer than this past Lent, or the next. (On that note: if you can spare a thought and a prayer for Mildred, you would have my deep and sincere thanks.)

Oh, yes: I am very much a sinner. And I am put very much in mind of that as Holy Week draws near, and Our Lord draws nearer on His path toward Jerusalem. This will sound paradoxical: it’s not comfortable, being in this frame of mind, but there’s an odd sort of comfort – or at least consolation – in it all the same. Forgiveness of others and prayer for them should never be far away in any event. But when accompanied by such stings, they somehow become easier, more natural. And there’s nothing more fitting, when my brothers and sisters around me are all in the same frame, throwing palm branches before Him as He appears before us.
For blessed art Thou unto the ages. Amen.

27 March 2018

Amy Chua has a good point to make

Dr Amy L Chua

Well, I may be stepping in it here. No matter – I’m good at stepping in it, and while I’m about it I may as well step boldly.

As my gentle readers may recall, Dr Amy Chua of Yale University is a controversial and polarising figure for several reasons. Starting with her autobiographical Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she raised some hackles and drew some sharp criticism from a number of quarters. Most notable was that from fellow Asian-Americans who thought that Chua was unironically and simplistically championing draconian and tyrannical methods of parenting.

Her subsequent book, The Triple Package, came in for still more criticism, this time for being racist, engaging in stereotyping, sorting immigrant groups into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and holding an arbitrary notion of ‘success’.

I haven’t read either of these two earlier books of hers and thus can pass no well-informed comment, pro or con, on either. (Still, I must admit the breathless denunciations of her work from such ‘woke’-neoliberal corners as Salon and HuffPo do render me slightly sympathetic.) But earlier today I was listening to an interview she was holding on Minnesota Public Radio about the relationships between tribalism, national identity and democracy, in light of her most recent book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. I found it fascinating, and felt it raised a number of timely and important questions. I found Dr Chua’s analysis rather badly oversimplified a couple of things, but the broad strokes of her analysis struck me as surprisingly accurate, and got very deeply at subjects that I’ve been struggling with, on and off, for a very long time on this blog and elsewhere.

In short, based on what I heard from her interview, her understanding is broadly Aristotelian: we are political animals. Our political and group-forming nature is grounded in those groups that are closest to us in the animal sense. In short: we form tribes. On rare occasions – and this happens particularly when empires form – we can form what Dr Chua calls supergroups: strongly cohesive social bonds of civic loyalty which transcend and interpenetrate our tribal loyalties, while still allowing these tribal loyalties to flourish at a subordinate level. She sees this strongly in the American identity particularly. Immigrant groups – Irish, Italians, Chinese, Slovak, Mexican, Hmong, Somali – have historically been able to maintain intense connexions with their historical identities while at the same time being in equal measure intensely patriotic to the overarching identity of ‘American’. She contrasts this sharply with the notion of identity prevalent in nations like France and China, which do not meet the second requirement of being a supergroup. France, she says, has a very strong overarching civic identity, but it maintains this at the expense of the historical identities of its immigrant populations. In order to be French, one must speak French, look French, act French – and that includes no outward public displays of religiosity.

Being a supergroup, Chua argues, has its strengths. It also has a glaring weakness. We are a supergroup that is based on an ideology: that of democracy. In order to maintain our supergroup identity, we place an overweening faith in that ideology, and that leads us to underestimate and misjudge the strength of tribal loyalties elsewhere. She sees this particularly in our foreign policy. As brutal as they were, the British and the French were nonetheless effective colonialists and imperial administrators, precisely because they put ideological convictions to the side and used the attractions of tribal identity to pit disparate groups against each other and thus position themselves as indispensable to the maintenance of civil order. Our imperialism is not marked by such depth of understanding of group loyalties, but instead by a kind of blind faith.

Instead, our blindness to tribal loyalty has led us into making some ridiculously wasteful, cruel and pathetic blunders. Chua argues that American pro-capitalist policy in Vietnam triggered a mass surge of support for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, not because there was any particular love for Marxist-Leninist thought ideologically among the Vietnamese people, but instead because our policies favoured a very small tribal clique – the Hoa 華 – who controlled a vastly disproportionate amount of the industrial wealth and business interests in the country. Our understanding of our involvement in Vietnam as a grand ideological struggle between communism and democracy gimped our strategy in the long run, because we had basically outsourced the œconomic structures under our control to a small, well-connected, urbanised (and resented) ‘market-dominant minority’ in the country. Chua argues further that we misjudged the threat of the ‘domino effect’ occurring, because we had misunderstood the relationship between North Vietnam and China, and assumed them to be ideological partners rather than historical rivals.

She gave a similar diagnosis of Iraq and Libya, coming down firmly against the interventionist line in each case. The ideological posturing of the Bush government, and the blind faith they placed in proceduralism and elections, exacerbated the old ethnic and religious-sectarian resentments in a way which alienated us even from Iraq’s own sæcular democrats. The result was a long, bloody and protracted period of sectarian warfare that undermined decades of painstaking political work by Arab nationalists like Dr Pachachi.

Chua’s diagnosis for our current identity-political struggles and rise of tribalism, as I understood it from the interview, was a reinvigorated civic nationalism. This sounds great to my ears, but her articulation of it left a little bit to be desired. After all, what Chua had described in her section on supergroups was a kind of ideological faith which had underpinned America’s overarching civic identity while allowing subordinate cultural identities to flourish. If her following analysis is any indication, clearly that isn’t going to cut it anymore, by itself.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been struggling with nationalism here – sometimes decrying it, sometimes supporting it, sometimes drawing distinctions. It’s also one of the reasons why I’ve been paying attention to other forms of what Chua would call ‘supergroup’ formation, and why I was a little frustrated with her interview and the narrowness with which she approached the topic of supergroups. We have examples of non-imperial states that have formed Byzantine-style supergroups: my two favourites, obviously, are Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Heck, even Great Britain back in the day was such a supergroup.

One of the great benefits of monarchy is that it provides a basis for civic identity that is neither ideological, nor tribalistic, nor charismatic-dictatorial. This is what formed the basis for British and Yugoslav identities (to start with). Yugoslavism began as a civic-monarchical loyalty to the House of Karađorđe, but morphed after WWII into a shared identity forged around a common experience of œconomic democracy. (In truth, there was a certain degree of continuity between the supporters of Yugoslav monarchy and the Partizans, though die-hard loyalists of each are loath to admit it.) Czechoslovak civic nationalism, on the other hand, found its ideational basis in a left-distributist understanding of bioregionalism, as articulated by its single most influential mind: that of Antonín Švehla.

Ironically, too, Chua might have drawn benefit from a bit more finessed read on China’s own history. There was an effort – successful for a time – to forge a supergroup identity under the Qing monarchy. This was partly owing to the monarchical structure, and partly owing to the gently-critical reformist Confucian ideology that was regaining its lost popularity under the Qing emperors. Likewise, today, it simply won’t do to ignore the supergroup-forming tendency in China, or to write it off (as too many media outlets simplistically do) as so much window-dressing. The dialectic between ethnic Han identity and the state ideology (which is officially multi-ethnic) is real and should be accounted for.

These are minor nitpicks, though, in what was otherwise a remarkably impressive interview. Dr Chua very rightly diagnoses and decries the shift on both right and left to form new tribal identities, and wants to usher us instead back toward a more robust, shared civic awareness. And she’s right to suggest two things that will help do so. The first is to acknowledge our past ideological lacunæ, and adopt a humbler attitude both toward the power of democratic proceduralism and toward the outside world. The second is to acknowledge the corrosive effect of vast and widening œconomic inequality on our civic life. She doesn’t have a single silver bullet to any of these problems, but to her credit, she’s intellectually humble enough not to pretend to. I may have to pick up her book. And if I like it, I may pick up her past ones as well.

25 March 2018

The poetic-political mind of Wen Yiduo

Mural art depicting Wen Yiduo

I’ve mentioned the Republican-era poet Wen Yiduo 聞一多 a couple of times on this blog – once in connexion with the Chu classicist Qu Yuan 屈原, and once in connexion with the populist philosopher Liang Shuming 梁漱溟. Reading a couple of compilations of his poems with commentary now, this dual juxtaposition now strikes me as all the more appropriate. What could be more fitting than to pair him with both an outspokenly-political contemporary and with a beloved poetic figure from China’s distant antiquity?

Wen cut a figure nearly (but never quite) as anachronistic and out-of-step with his time as his political comrade Liang Shuming did. As translator TT Sanders recounts it, his students remembered him as an odd, frail, bespectacled man in a traditional Chinese robe (at a time when such things were decidedly passé), who would open each of his lectures by offering his students cigarettes, take one himself, and then proceed to give mesmerising lectures on the Classics and the poets of bygone ages, which would keep his students spellbound into the wee hours. This picture may seem quite out-of-step with the rabble-rousing activist Wen Yiduo who, on 15 July 1946, defiantly delivered a thunderous speech in Kunming 昆明 denouncing the corruption and violence of the Guomindang, particularly in relation to their political murder of proletarian author and labour activist Li Gongpu 李公樸, whom Wen had been eulogising. Later that same day, Guomindang operatives would gun him down on the streets of Kunming for this speech. In his death, then, he would come to resemble for millions the same Qu Yuan whose poetry he admired. His outspoken political convictions and martyr’s death at the hands of the Nationalists made him a favourite among Chinese Communists, including Mao.

Indeed, from what I can tell, there exists a body of commentary on the radical left politics which ultimately got Wen Yiduo killed; and another largely separate body on his poetry, which – even though it is expressed in the vernacular – nonetheless can never quite detach itself from China’s past and the fragments of the lao shehui 老社會 still embedded in it. It can be tempting to separate Wen’s art from his politics, and indeed the poet himself tries valiantly to do so, referring to himself deprecatingly as a ‘bookworm’. Another of his English-language translators, RH Dorsett, refers to these ‘stark conflicts’ within him between his radical-left politics and his love for the ancients that went unresolved, but which give his writing such power, and I agree with him about their nature. I’m not so convinced, however, that these conflicts are indeed the sort of grave contradictions Dorsett implies they are.

This kind of ‘contradictory’ politics, after all, has a certain degree of precedent. Commentators haven’t quite been able to figure out just what to make of Gong Zizhen 龔自珍 either – another poet-activist whose ‘eccentric’ work alienated him from the authorities. I’d say the resemblance is a passing one at best: Gong Zizhen’s revolutionary-conservative politics have a markedly different focus and context from the left-traditionalism of Wen Yiduo. But the parallels are still intriguing.

Gong Zizhen was, after all, very much a member of the literary class. His styles of poetry and prose, if idiosyncratic, were still highly traditional. He used these high literary forms, however, to express strident criticism of the bureaucracy and give voice to revolutionary ideas – confiscatory land reform favouring the poor, liberation for women, ‘constitutional’ restrictions on the powers of the Emperor. For these stands and for his cantankerous personality, he was long considered an ‘eccentric’.

Wen Yiduo is very different, both in terms of personality and of literary method. Though he shared Gong Zizhen’s high scholar-official class background and was given a thorough classical education, his involvement in the May Fourth generation left an impact that was equally deep. His travels abroad and his experiences among the Chinese immigrants of America also shaped his outlook; his outrage at their treatment gave his work a patriotic tinge. His poetry was therefore expressed in the vernacular (baihua 白話), in the oral language of the ordinary man. His orientation was, to borrow the Russian term, narodnik. His heart was always with the common people, and never with the élites. But he could never bring himself to issue the violent denunciations of the Classics and the old society that his May Fourth contemporaries delighted in. His poetry is laced particularly with allusions to mediæval Chinese authors such as Li Bai 李白, Bai Juyi 白居易 and Li Shangyin 李商隱. Furthermore, he wanted to reconstruct for the new vernacular literary forms the same kinds of rigorous formal standards and patterns that had obtained for classical poetry. He didn’t want the vernacular merely to speak; he wanted it to sing.

The two men are very different; that is because their social surroundings were different. Their times were different. The ‘big questions’ each man faced were different. How could their modes of expression possibly be similar? And yet a certain similarity lingers; the two men seemed to be pointing, with different means at their disposal and from different vantage points, to a similar ‘winged vision’.

The ‘non-ideological’ nature of Wen’s vernacular poetry can be deceptive. Dorsett rightly speaks of Wen’s poems having a ‘lustre’ which indicates more about their depth than their surface. Wen’s poems talk of the fleeting nature of love; many are meditations on death and deprival, the loss of a loved one or regret at not being there for them. These are experiences which are immediately accessible. Wen’s daughter passed away from sickness while he was abroad in America; a couple of his more heart-rending poems, like ‘Forget Her’, appear to be addressed to her. Wen has his ‘light’ poems as well, such as the self-deprecating ‘Mr Wen’s Desk’, which has all of his anthropomorphised office stationery and furniture complaining about their neglect and misplacement by their ‘master’, like subjects petitioning against a wicked magistrate. But regardless of the mood of his poems, when he tries to speak in his poems through someone else’s voice – whether a laundry-washer or a rickshaw-puller – there is always an attempt to ‘get into their shoes’ even though Wen can never really succeed in casting off his literary background. Here is where Dorsett sees some of those contradictions which lend his poetry complexity and power.

Sometimes politics can ‘break in’ on a poem in a surprising, unexpected and yet completely-fitting way: as when his poem on ‘Spring Light’ ends suddenly with a piteous outcry by a blind beggar on the street. It’s also hard to keep political thoughts away from a poem like his most popular one, ‘Dead Water’; the attractions and repulsions of an algæ-covered stagnant pool are directly indicative of larger themes – though even ‘Dead Water’ is downright subtle in comparison to some of Wen’s later poems, like ‘A Concept’, ‘A Discovery’, ‘A Phrase’ and ‘Tian’anmen’, which deal directly with the contradictions and frustrations of Republican China.

Romantic Anglophilia is a presence in Wen Yiduo’s poems. He is particularly drawn to Keats, whom his poems occasionally quote. However, despite belonging to the same Crescent Moon literary circle (Xinyueshe 新月社), he is not another Xu Zhimo 徐志摩. Despite Wen Yiduo’s poetic narodnichestvo, the Romantics cannot claim him for their own without reservation. After his return from America, Wen was simultaneously too engagé to fit in well with Crescent Moon’s naturalistic focus, and too classically-minded to bless poetic innovation and ‘authenticity’ for their own sake.

Wen Yiduo cannot be neatly separated into two halves: poet and activist. Even in translation it becomes clear that the two sides are inseparable and often indistinguishable. Wen wanted to point, with his work, to a certain lyrical sensibility in the common man and the common woman, even when they themselves were flawed, in pain and confusion, riven with contradictions. In himself, these ‘contradictions’ led him to champion both classical literary culture and left politics in a highly idiosyncratic way – idiosyncratic, but not unprecedented. In death he became a powerful symbol of the Revolution. Had he lived, his disciplined vernacular form of poetry might have inspired earlier the sort of reviving embrace of the Classics that appears to be taking shape now.

24 March 2018

Free Ahed Tamimi; free Palestine

Ahed Tamimi is a heroine. Ahed Tamimi should not have to be.

Ahed Tamimi of Nabi Saleh, the sixteen-year-old Palestinian girl who became (in)famous for slapping an IDF soldier in the presence of a cellphone camera, committed a small and direct but justifiable act of violence in defence of her home and her loved ones. She is now subject to the larger, impersonal administrative and unjustifiable violence of political detention, having been sentenced to eight months in prison this past week. She is a prisoner of conscience in a society risibly called the Middle East’s only democracy by such mouthpieces of the CIA as Freedom House.

There ought to be no cause in any civilised society for a sixteen-year-old girl to be placed in the position of having to defend her home from the soldiers which occupy the land she lives on. But there she was. She did what she did; she did so with bravery and just cause.

There is no good reason, in any Abrahamic tradition of jurisprudence, to punish a child so disproportionately for an act of filial piety and self-defence against a lethally-armed soldier threatening her family and her home. And it is clear from other acts of a similar nature that this unjustifiable administrative violence is visited prejudicially upon Palestinians as a people. The treatment of Ahed Tamimi underscores the fact that the state of Israel has a two-tiered system of justice: one for those it ethnically considers its ‘own’, and the other for ‘those other people’.

A free, independent and sovereign Palestinian state must form. Such a position is justified by history and by moral reason. There is no inherent reason such a state must be inherently opposed to Jews generally, or even those who currently live in the state of Israel. Those fears are artificially stoked by a deliberate campaign of propaganda, and by the inhumane treatment meted out to Palestinian Muslims and Christians by Israelis themselves.

In the meanwhile, it is incumbent upon the state of Israel to enforce proportionate justice. The sentence upon young Miss Tamimi, being unjust and disproportionate, must be reversed and revisited; she herself must be released from detention.

23 March 2018

Addressing actually-existing orientalism

I wondered briefly if I ought to write this blog post at all. I actually wouldn’t be considering it if several coincidences hadn’t occurred in fairly rapid succession. Firstly, orientalism is actually a topic that I’ve engaged with several times on this blog, starting here. I had spent some time talking about this topic directly in one of my more recent entries, attempting to defend the Pre-Raphælite Brotherhood from certain charges of orientalism, on the grounds that their Romantic engagement ‘eastward’ came not out of a desire to essentialise or mythicise an artificial distinction between virtuous progressive Western republicanism and decadent Eastern despotism. Instead, the interventions of Ruskin and Morris attempted to recover something of value from the Byzantine and Arabic artistic forms that had been lost in the Renaissance transition to modernity – here as always, I have been ready to look to certain instances of self-reflection within the West that speak to its health and life, and distinguish these clearly from the destructive forms of culture, motivated by the libido dominandi, that seek to ‘rewrite’ the West and impose its brand of intellectual conformity on the East.

It just so happens that another blogger, a Catholic fellow named Chase Padusniak who blogs at the Patheos outlet Jappers and Janglers, wrote an article on the same topic, a kind of j’accuse levelled ostensibly at converts to all forms of Eastern Christianity, but in actuality specifically at a certain kind of convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. In it, despite a professed ‘great love’ for the Orthodox, Padusniak takes aim at those ‘convertodox’ who, driven by a politically-motivated dissatisfaction with the West, construct a mental stereotype of the East as a theologically- and politically-pure Shangri-La within which the ‘right kind’ of theopolitics prevail. In itself, I have no problem with this general line of critique, and I can support its application in certain circumstances. In fact, I have levelled similar critiques of these tendencies within Orthodoxy myself, and militated against them. Coming, as I do, from Episcopalianism rather than from evangelicalism or from traditionalist Catholicism, these critiques may be a bit easier for me to make (though, of course, I have plenty of barely-examined convert ‘baggage’ of my own).

If not for a certain second coincidence, I wouldn’t have to call Padusniak’s article out here as fundamentally duplicitous, mean-spirited and self-serving. For a bit of background: I also happen, as a personal project, to be seriously researching the Arab world’s transition to modernity – in part to challenge some of my own theopolitical preconceptions; in part to build a better understanding of a tradition which had adopted me and my family.

One of the books I am currently reading in this project is Michael Provence’s scholarly monograph The Great Syrian Revolt, which details the French mandatory occupation of Syria and Lebanon in the wake of the First World War, and the circumstances which led the Druze chieftain Sultân al-Atrash to lead the ultimately ill-fated (but seminal, as far as Arab nationalism is concerned) 1925 revolt against French rule. To put it mildly, Provence’s sympathies are clearly engaged on behalf the rebels, and clearly not on behalf of the French colonial administration. This, with good reason. French rule in Syria was disastrous. ‘The destruction visited on Syria’s cities, towns and villages was unprecedented,’ Provence writes. ‘The mandate government used collective punishment … wholesale executions, house demolitions, utilisation of tanks and armoured vehicles in urban neighbourhoods, population transfers from region to region, and round-the-clock ærial bombardment of civilian populations. While these ghastly methods have continued to characterise conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, it was the distinction of the mandatory government of France to have used them first.

One of the themes presented by this book is that the revolt showed the Syrian Arab population not to be as divided as the French government presupposed, and not in the same ways as the French routinely assumed. On the other hand, Provence being an even-handed scholar, he does not seek to ignore or paper over the sectarian divisions either. He does not ignore the fact that the French government made it a matter of policy to favour Uniates – Byzantine Catholics of the Maronite and Melkite jurisdictions – over other local Christian populations, and Christians generally over Muslims, Alawites, Druze, Jews and other religious groups. This was done for primarily ideological – and indeed, orientalist – reasons. As Provence writes:
The policy of separation aimed to exploit divisions in Syrian society and break Syria into easily managed geographically and religiously separate pieces. The architects of this policy were French colonial officers with a particular right-wing, pro-Catholic political bent. The colonial policy that they designed in Morocco and brought to Syria mixed indirect rule with a heavy measure of unself-conscious paternalism. It favoured traditional elites over those with modern education and nationalist ideas, the countryside over the city, Uniate Christians over Orthodox Christians and all Christians over Muslims and sought to emphasise divisions within society and so develop each segment independently of others, thereby facilitating colonial rule and curtailing organised challenges before they could emerge. At the base of the conception of colonial rule was a romantic notion of timeless and changeless “Oriental” society, best governed with fatherly “love” for the colonial citizens. Combined with paternalistic love was an emphasis on the material and economic advantages of colonial rule.
We can see all the hallmarks of Dr Sa‘îd’s classical definition of orientalism here, right down to the Whiggish-historical mandate to civilise the foreigner which the French government had assumed for itself. Naturally, the Uniate Christians so favoured by French policy in 1925 tended to support the French mandatory government even as it was destroying their fellow Syrians by the brutal methods mentioned above. On the other hand, Orthodox Christians, being lower in the social pecking order, tended to support the anti-colonial, broadly non-sectarian Arab nationalist rebels. There are indeed important exceptions which Provence discusses in detail, including Maronites who joined and lent their wholehearted support to the revolt, but in the broad strokes, this is the historical fact he alludes to. Having mentioned this historical fact in a Facebook post, however, brought Padusniak down something fierce on my wall. Ignoring wholesale the context in which my original comments were made, he began hurling accusations my way of being ‘ahistorical’ and then dismissing me, astoundingly, as a naïve ‘pan-Slavist’ for failing to condemn Russia and the Eastern Roman Empire in the exact same terms and with the exact same vehemence that I condemned France, even though neither Russia nor the Eastern Roman Empire is substantively related to the 1925 Revolt in question. When all you have is a hammer, as they say…

In this context, Padusniak’s indictment of ‘orientalism’ appears as self-serving, and even as a form of Freudian projection. Despite a bit of legalistic arse-covering at the beginning of his blog post, this charge of ‘orientalism’ coming from a Catholic is substantially aimed only at us Orthodox, for whom he professes a peculiarly-French sounding ‘great love’. As we can see, even those of us who substantively agree with him about these tendencies in Orthodoxy are to be attacked in the same terms. Thus selectively applied, however, Padusniak’s analysis becomes completely useless to any sort of reflection on the ways in which actually-existing orientalism in Western governing ideologies shaped the history of the East or, indeed, the present situation in the countries directly affected – where the old French mandatory-colonial masters are again intervening against an Arab nationalist authority for rather similar paternalistic reasons, although the recipients of their colonial largesse have changed. And my criticisms of the French and their local clients – either then or now, it seems – are therefore attacked as ‘ahistorical’. Oy vey, indeed.

For the record, because I know the subject will surface no matter what else I say: I do not hold Russia blameless. They have their own interests in the Middle East which could stand to be scrutinised to a greater degree than they are, by the appropriate people. I do happen to think these interests are better-articulated than our own are, and that they have somewhat more of the force of justice behind them where Syria is concerned. But I do not live in Russia; I am not in any degree responsible for the Russian government’s actions. Though I am an Orthodox Christian, I live here in the West, and I am a citizen of a Western government – a government allied to France, a government whose own policy in the Middle East has been profoundly misguided for a very long time. It is this policy which needs most urgently to be questioned and changed. If a concept of orientalism is advanced in our own political context, which cannot question or change such a policy, it is of no use whatsoever.

20 March 2018

Slipping into a well-travelled wake

I confess to feeling a bit inadequate and stupid at the moment.

From my days as an Anglican socialist, the influence on me from men such as John Ruskin, William Morris and Richard Tawney has been considerable, if on a certain level unacknowledged. Unto This Last was one of the books I recommended some while back. I have long been a fan of Morris’s artwork and the architecture associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. And the Christian Platonism of men like Tawney (and women like Astell) has had a deeper influence on my thinking than I would have thought possible several years ago.

I had no idea, of course, that Ruskin had been drawn to the æsthetics of the Byzantine and Arab world in The Stones of Venice, long before I had ever set foot inside an Orthodox church or experienced Arabic hospitality. I tripped over those things on my own; and practically had to be beaten over the head with them. I had no idea that Morris had been militating against the war policies of Britain in Crimea and the Balkans and admiring Tsarist Russia’s liberation of the serfs, a century and a half before I halfwittedly stumbled over the legacies of Yugoslavia and Russia and began falling in love with both. And although it’s true I’d been a Sinophile for a very long time, I had no idea that Tawney had not only composed a study about China, but had used the same to champion the ideas of Jimmy Yen 晏陽初. Ninety years later, I would be blundering my way through Baotou and fumbling after similar ideas in a more haphazard way.

The English Fabians and guild socialists of yesteryear were engaging the civilised East – both Near and Far – in a meaningful, active and coherent way, just as Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 approvingly noted they were. And if this late-coming dawning realisation of mine weren’t enough cause for a certain degree of intellectual embarrassment, here’s another: I simply found myself unknowingly slipping into their wake, ever since taking a Chinese class in my freshman year of college. Even my increased anti-war activism and turn toward Orthodoxy can be seen in this light.

I’m not recounting all this to pat myself on the back. I’m not trying to reassemble all the fragments or reinvent the idea of Anglo-Orthodoxy on a personal level. Although that would be a fun project, it would also run far too great a risk of being self-indulgent – a chance to show how clever and erudite I am, at the expense of a deep personal truth. The connexions there already existed. I merely fell into them like a dumb beast into a net. Indeed, if anything, this should be another occasion for metanoia – which, indeed, this whole season ought to have been. Is this entire blogging project a kind of æsthetic indulgence? At bottom, is my religion just an outward affectation, like my uses of British spelling and deliberately-antiquated ligatures? Am I really just another smug Episcopalian konvert attracted by bells and smells, content to keep going his ways without fully examining himself in his heart of hearts?

I hope not. But I can’t rule that possibility out.

19 March 2018

When Tawney went to China

I am currently reading Land and Labour in China, by the great British Christian socialist Richard Henry Tawney. Apart from being a fine read in its own right, still germane to contemporary issues and problems going on 90 years later, it also contains quite a few pleasant surprises. Imagine my delight, gentle readers, when I found among the dedications, of which Tawney had compiled quite a lengthy list – including such notables as John B Condliffe, Zhang Boling 張伯苓, Fang Xianting 方顯廷, Franklin He 何廉, Tao Menghe 陶孟和, Chen Liting 陳立廷, Liu Dajun 劉大鈞, John B Taylor and William L Holland – rural education activist Dr YC James Yen 晏陽初 and the Dingxian 定縣 Mass Education Movement, as well as the great novelist and civil rights activist Pearl S Buck and her then-husband Dr John L Buck. Great minds don’t merely think alike, it seems. They actively influence each other.

This study is the result of a trip Tawney took to Shanghai in November 1931, to attend a conference of œconomists, agronomists and rural specialists on the topic of development in China. In it, Tawney undertakes to describe and diagnose the œconomic problems facing rural Chinese society. To be sure, he takes a slightly-patronising patrician British perspective, but for all that one motivated by sincere and heartfelt empathy – and thus also bears the profundity of that empathy.

Tawney acknowledges the obvious difficulties for the layman in attempting to study China’s rural culture, including the immeasurable and omnipresent civilisational history and the internal diversity of such a vast and densely-populated landmass. Even so, he undertakes to make some insightful generalisations. Though a bit horror-stricken at the way Chinese peasants have historically depleted their forests, he expresses a just and heartfelt admiration at the vast and decentralised irrigation system, ‘among the greatest achievements of the art of the engineer’, and for the ‘technical expertness’ and ‘miracles of ingenuity’ which mark the Chinese peasant’s ability, through labour-intensive techniques, to wring enough food and cash crops to survive off a marginal allotment of family land. For this reason Tawney refers to the Chinese peasantry, not as serfs nor as yeomen, but as a ‘propertied proletariat’. He is also an admirer – alongside Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 – of the unique ‘communism of the [patriarchal] Chinese family’, even as he understands it to be a necessary survival technique for a class constantly under threat of starvation and penury. The picture Tawney paints of rural China is vivid, and in some ways quite familiar. He describes the political proclivities, for example, of Jiangxi and Hunan, which today form part of China’s ‘red belt’ and which were traditional strongholds of Maoism during the Civil War:
[Jiangxi and Hunan,] with an abnormally high percentage of tenants, and acute agrarian discontent—form enclaves of revolution, where such government as exists is conducted by communists.
He is sensitive to the uniqueness of rural China’s overall plight, and repeatedly warns against the lazy-but-ubiquitous (at the time) comparison of contemporary China to the European Middle Ages, though he does acknowledge certain parallels in outlook and overall temperament. Simplifying his argument somewhat, in this measure he separates China’s agrarian problems into two broad and overlapping categories: the ‘natural-historical’ and the ‘œconomic-social’. Natural-historical problems include flood and drought, deforestation and desertification (yes, Tawney was prescient here too!), physical limitations of the carrying capacity of land, trends of population growth, and other inherited problems. Tawney by and large, but not completely, approaches these problems with a traditionalist Anglican resignation in the face of the ‘brutal facts of nature’ and the ‘inexorable limits’ of human action. Œconomic-social problems, on the other hand, include land tenure, ground rents, usury, exploitation, banditry, government corruption and underdeveloped agricultural and communications technology. Tawney stresses that solving the problem will take decades and sensitivity to local conditions and institutions, but he reads as hopeful about the means of ameliorating these latter with selective borrowing from the experiences of other countries which underwent similar rural privation.

His prescription? What amounts to an endorsement of rural reconstruction. Mass education; a coördinated plan of government protectionism for agriculture; investment in rural roads and rail; grassroots organisation of mutual aid, credit, marketing, consumer and insurance coöperatives; legal prohibitions on abusive rent, lending and mercantile practices; improvements in agricultural technology; small-scale industrialisation. Education, to the Fabian Tawney, was the key and linchpin. In this, it is small wonder he spoke in glowing terms of Jimmy Yen’s work, and complained of the Dingxian model only that it was as yet so rare elsewhere in China. It was on this basis that he thought coöperative efforts among farmers could be built on a strong foundation. If this advice went unheeded, his predictions were dire and, as it turns out with the benefit of hindsight, eerily discerning:
The revolution of 1911 was a bourgeois affair. The revolution of the peasants has still to come. If their rulers continue to exploit them, or to permit them to be exploited, as remorselessly as hitherto, it is likely to be unpleasant. It will not, perhaps, be undeserved.
His diagnosis of the cities of the coast is a bit more dismal. He has little affection for Shanghai, an ‘optical delusion’ which exemplifies and epitomises the ill-fated attempts to import and impose Western institutions onto a Chinese cultural structure. (He does, however, admire – however grudgingly – its progress in industrial development.) And despite being a proud patrician Briton, his attitude toward the Concessions is one of contempt born of moral approbation. In his few references to them, he cites them as hubs of exploitative tenancy practices, pawnshop usury and speculative finance capital, parasitically draining wealth away from the countryside which still urgently needs it.

He sees little hope for an organised urban proletariat in November 1931. He sees much to admire, both æsthetically and from a standpoint of internal organisation, of the Chinese variant of the guild system present in the cities. But he points out two things: firstly, that it has proven far less politically efficacious than its Western mediæval counterparts; secondly, that it is dying – particularly in the Concessions. Tawney notes that the industrialisation in China which is replacing it is still embryonic in nature and confined to the coasts, and also that this nascent industrialism is deepening the divide between inland and coast. Infrastructure improvements, protectionism, industrial policy and land reform can help. But to depend on these measures alone, Tawney cautions, ‘is to court disappointment’, so vast are the socioœconomic hurdles involved (including a huge population of cheap migrant labour), and so meagre the weapons to address them. What few labour unions there are, have been quashed by the government as readily as peasant self-organisation has.

From here Tawney segues into China’s political issues. Tawney deserves praise for correctly speaking of China as a civilisation-state rather than as a nation-state. But he overstates his case slightly when he argues that China has not had a political life, per se, until modern times. Here he would have been better-advised to read Kang Youwei, or his antecedents in the statecraft tradition of Ru learning. China’s political life was not brand-new; it was being rediscovered in the Ming and Qing after a long dormancy that had lasted since the end of the Han, at the time the presence of Western ideas was beginning to make itself felt.

This oversight is forgiveable given that Tawney’s focus is not on history but on the present political situation. On the surface, it appears that Tawney is being coy about where he stands on political issues. However, this surface-level placidity hides several radical diagnoses of China’s malaise which amount to a damning indictment of the current Guomindang and its policies. Barrington Moore, who wrote the introduction to my edition of the book, has this to say:
The party had already become based on the type of exploitation that Tawney himself described and condemned. To ask that it put into effect the reforms he suggested was almost to ask it to commit political suicide.
If this is an exaggeration, it isn’t much of one. Tawney notes that effective government is a rarity in China of 1931, and even the idea of government lies discredited among the peasantry for whom it does nothing but tax and conscript them, without so much as providing effective protection against banditry or Japanese rapine. If an effective government is to form in China, it will first have to be localised in those provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Hebei and Shandong which have seen some growth of industry and are firmly under government control. Rather than the ‘military despotism’ decried by the Chinese intelligentsia (and by Tawney himself), that government needs to place greater emphasis on provision of basic policing, health and education services, rather than funnelling more money to the warlords or to a fight against Communists in Jiangxi and Hunan which it cannot win by bayonets alone. It is noteworthy that Tawney does not speak of democracy, and of constitutionalism only briefly, but instead focusses his attention more on questions of basic civil competence.

If Tawney seems prescient in some of his descriptions and diagnoses of China here, and if much of his analysis sounds in certain ways painfully contemporary, that’s well. But it’s worth bearing in mind, too, that he is in some ways closer to the norms of the old society of China than the Chinese contemporaries he works with and cites as authoritative. Like Jiang Qing 蔣慶 today, he decries the ‘fever for imitation’ in young China. Instead, he places a great deal of trust in the education of a new cohort of intelligentsia. Also like Jiang Qing, he would not have them look to Western institutions or ideas for guidance. ‘The machinery is useless or destructive in the absence of a philosophy of life to control and direct it,’ Tawney writes. ‘The West cannot give to the East what it does not possess. It can bring to China, in the realm of ideas, little but uncertainty and confusion.’ Call this position radical or reactionary as you will; but Tawney appears to find himself in full agreement with his contemporary Liang Shuming here, that China must rediscover and resynthesise the values of her own civilisation in order to rejuvenate herself.

10 March 2018

The Well at the World’s End

The usual SPOILER ALERT stands here. I go into detail about many of the key elements of the plot, so please be forewarned!

To say that William Morris is a gifted spinner of yarns would be a massive understatement, as would it be to say that said yarns have been profoundly influential. Even were it not for the fact that both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were avowed fans of the well-spoken wordsmith of Walthamstow, and owned as much gladly and openly enough between them for a dozen such authors, a perlustration of a novel like The Well at the World’s End would yield a wealth of witness to that very fact. At the same time, though, the Well with all its rough edges has as much of a kinship resemblance to the works of Robert E Howard (on whose ‘low fantasy’ sword-and-sorcery novels Morris apparently left as indelible a mark) as to the ‘high fantasy’ epics of his better-hoofed Inkling fans.

The Well at the World’s End is the tale of Ralph, the youngest son of the King and Queen of Upmeads, as he escapes from home and undertakes a perilous and nigh-impossible journey to the eponymous Well – a single draught from which is rumoured to improve one’s health, regenerate one’s beauty, lengthen one’s life severalfold and cast a certain luck and grace over one’s endeavours. As he sets off from home, he is given a set of beads by his godmother Katherine, which mark him as a quester for the Well. Ralph being a doughty and rather selfless lad, he gives his help to poor and imperilled people that he meets, and so makes a number of friends and well-wishers, and a few powerful enemies. The novel sprawls with a wealth of detail about the landscapes and societies that Ralph must traverse: the Perilous Wood, the Burg of Four Friths, the Land of Abundance, the Cheaping Knowe, the Uttermost Lands, the Dry Tree and the abode of the Sorceress that stands on the road to the Well.

Ralph starts out his quest with very little guidance and even less clue of what he’s doing, and he’s primarily guided by his emotions of sympathy and affection. He learns very early on that not everyone he meets is to be trusted or has his best interests at heart. He encounters, and either falls in love with or is seduced by, the beautiful and beguiling Lady of Abundance, who is never given a proper name in the entirety of the story, and who remains something of an enigma throughout. The accounts of the Lady of Abundance given by the people she rules, by her enemies and even by herself are contradictory and irreconcilable, and two distinct images of her emerge. Is she one of the ‘fey’, an amoral temptress who bewitches men and drives them to madness before leaving them? Is she merely, as she herself claims and as Ralph believes to the end, a simple girl who led an eventful life, whose preternatural beauty and other gifts all come from the Well (from which she drank)? It’s a testament to Morris’s storytelling ability that not only is that question left unresolved, but both interpretations of the Lady of Abundance make sense given what we’re told. Ralph saves her life on one occasion, and she later returns the favour after he is captured by the Knight of the Sun, her estranged husband who murders her in a jealous rage.

It’s really only after the Lady of Abundance is murdered that Ralph, driven by a mixture of grief and resolve, begins his pursuit of the Well in earnest – a sign of Ralph’s budding maturation as a character. He happens upon one of his brothers, whose valet is an old friend to the House of Upmeads and who directs Ralph on a road that leads through Cheaping Knowe to Utterbol, near which lives one of the men of his old hometown of Swevenham – who was said to have sought the Well some forty years back. Following these leads, and also the memory of a peasant girl he met at Bourton Abbas, and fancied early on in his quest, he sets off for Utterbol.

It’s here that the parallels with Howard’s novels become more obvious. The villains that Ralph faces are not powerful Dark Lords, dragons, necromancers or supernatural demons. They are men, and their evil is also very human. Ralph’s primary enemies are the quasi-Spartan warrior-citizens of the Burg of Four Friths, the slavers of Cheaping Knowe, and the lord of Utterbol. Ralph falls foul of the last, a debauched petty tyrant who takes pleasure in the torture, mutilation, castration and rape of his victims. Ralph learns of the yeoman girl he’d been seeking that she was taken captive by wild men and led by one of them, Bull Nosy, to be sold as a slave at Cheaping Knowe; however, she proved so unruly that Nosy decided to try his luck instead at Utterbol. He encountered the Lord of Utterbol on the road, who murdered him and took the yeoman girl as his own slave.

This yeoman girl, whom Ralph later learns is named Ursula, is in some ways the most admirable character in the novel. She is not blessed with Ralph’s extraordinary good luck (though they share identical tokens from Well-seekers, we learn later that Ursula didn’t get the effect of it because it had to be given by an admirer of the opposite sex), but sets off in pursuit of the Well on her own initiative and her own power. In the face of all the same dangers that beset Ralph, she proves herself to be resourceful, level-headed, understanding and kind. She falls in love with Ralph early on, but only dares to show it after he saves her from attack by a bear. But far from being a helpless damsel, she then goes on to save Ralph’s life multiple times and takes something of the more active rôle in leading him to the Sage of Swevenham, and from there to the Well.

After they have found the Well, they begin the journey back home. Quite typically of the fantasy novels to follow, and particularly those of Tolkien, Ralph sets out from home full of youthful impetuosity, longing for adventure and love and fame. But once he’s achieved his goals, having suffered loss and hardship and becoming somewhat more sure of himself, he finds that all he really desires is to see his beloved parents again, to love and serve them and his people of Upmeads. The road he sets out on ends at the same place he started, and Morris beautifully arranges the structured chiasmus to the entire story, as carefully as if it were one of his intricate floral-geometric wallpaper patterns. That’s something that Tolkien clearly strove for in his own writing.

As the two lovers and Well-friends approach Upmeads, they find that the world they traversed in their quest has changed – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The tyrant of Utterbol has been overthrown and replaced by the avenging brother of Bull Nosy, Bull Shockhead, whom Ralph had befriended on the road there – though Shockhead has plans to undo and make amends for Utterbol’s prior tyranny. The queen of Goldburg, having pined sorely after Ralph, abdicated her throne to her kinsmen. The champions of the Dry Tree, having suffered the death of their Lady, led a slave revolt against the Burg of Four Friths, and the former denizens thereof – bereft of their home by their former slaves – went on a rampage, killing and sacking towns and villages in the direction of Upmeads, driving Ralph’s parents and people out of their homes. The climactic confrontation is between Ralph, with the friends he’s made in his quest at his side, and the marauding former Burgers. If you’re noticing parallels with the Scouring of the Shire here, gentle reader, rest assured – you aren’t the only one!

Morris’s class politics make themselves felt more strongly here than in The Wood Beyond the World. It’s telling that the single most heroic character in the book, Ursula of Bourton Abbas, is a peasant and former slave, a woman used to working with her hands and arms and legs in the fields. The representatives of the ‘nobility’ are much more of a mixed bag: Ralph, obviously, has all the marks of a hero, but he is somewhat susceptible to being misled both by his naïveté and by his hormones; on the other hand, the Lord of Utterbol practically embodies the libido dominandi of the worst elements of his class. And the Lady of Abundance is so elusive and enigmatic herself as to embody Morris’s own ambiguous relationship to the elder ruling class. And lastly, the bourgeoisie: though there are examples of honourable and good members of the middle class (most notably Clement Chapman and his wife Katherine), the people of Cheaping Knowe and the Burg of Four Friths are generally portrayed as narrow, bigoted and unfeeling scoundrels, and their ‘capitalist’ exploitation of the poor is often portrayed as equally bad if not worse than that under the feudal kingdoms.

This sprawling fantasy epic, though overshadowed by the better-known novels that it inspired, is very much worth reading and enjoying in its own right. As with The Wood Beyond the World, Morris’s deliberately-antiquarian language can be a bit daunting at first, but once one gets used to it the artistry of his word choice and phrasing itself can be a source of reading pleasure.

08 March 2018

Hammersmith – neither state nor anarchist

With apologies to the late great Lemmy Kilmister, a convinced anarchist as well as a top-class musician, the political society named for Hammersmith was not an anarchist one. William Morris, the Pre-Raphælite father of guild socialism, is often glossed as an ‘anarchist’ or a ‘libertarian socialist’, but he deliberately rejected such labels for himself, even though he maintained friendships with several prominent anarchists such as Pyotr Kropotkin.

What are we to make of this, then? Guild socialism did have a profound impact on subsequent generations of ‘libertarian socialist’ and ‘anarchist’ thinkers, to be sure. And it was in direct reaction against state socialist Edward Bellamy’s nationalist enthusiasm that Morris wrote News from Nowhere (on which work I will have a blog post at a later time). So why, then, did William Morris feel it necessary to distance himself from anarchism explicitly, repeatedly and with enough insistence that he withdrew Hammersmith from the Socialist League over the latter’s anarchist turn? Indeed, Morris set out the programme for the Hammersmith socialists explicitly as ‘neither state socialists nor anarchists’. What was the rationale there?

Morris brought two major charges against the anarchists of his day. Firstly, that even the ‘left’ anarchists with whom he worked and most closely associated in the League had a ‘thin’ understanding of the human personality, one which could be easily detached from its social moorings. On the epistemological level, Morris thought it impossible in the first place to consider the individual, as the anarchists wanted to do, in isolation from her social status, relationships and physical surroundings. On the normative level, Morris’s Christian background – even after he had foregone it to a degree – would not permit him to take leave of the conviction that human beings are complex, irrational, often short-sighted and contradictory, subject to a ‘variety of temperament, capacity and desires’. This insufficiency demanded the presence of what Morris himself called a ‘social conscience’ or a ‘public conscience’, which the best anarchists – like Kropotkin – recognised in theory but not in practice.

Secondly, and on a related note, Morris came to observe that the tactics of political violence used by anarchists were counter-productive to the goals they claimed to want to achieve, and ultimately reactionary both in their consequences and in the assumptions of human nature and political action that underlay them. To tell the truth, Morris was quite prescient here: this is a problem which particularly continues to plague modern anarchists. Morris deeply mistrusted anarchist attitudes toward authority and violence, even though on the surface his critiques of the state seemed to overlap heavily with anarcho-communist ones.

A third difference between Morris and the anarchists – as well as the Marxists – may lie in the differences of their approaches to history. Morris thought, in keeping with his High Tory tutor John Ruskin, that there was something very much worth recovering in the ancient English traditions. Else, he would not have appealed to the peasants’ revolts of bygone days, to Islamic art, to the traditions of mediæval epic poetry and romance that would lead him to pioneer the modern fantasy novel. Kropotkin in particular had no use for this kind of synthesis; for him the past was always the location of exploitation and alienation in more primitive forms. Liberation was to be sought in the present. For Morris, by contrast, though the distant, meaningful and spiritual past was not to be imitated, traces and indications of a purer and more noble way of life were to be sought there.

It is perhaps a little too easy and a little too pat to write off Morris as a refusenik and a ‘splitter’. Just as with his æsthetic-political commitments, Morris’s own attitudes toward authority and political violence were complex and not easy to unpack in a simple or easily-categorised way, except possibly to say that he was an anti-imperialist perhaps even before he was a socialist. The fact that his proto-guild socialism was, shall we say, apophatically defined should not detract from the clarity of his vision, even if that vision was primarily to be seen in his written works and visual artwork, rather than in the form of a political manifesto.

07 March 2018

Wahda and sobornost’

Jamal al-Dîn al-Afghânî and Muhammad ’Abduh

In Arabic-British historian Albert Hourani’s book Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939, I managed to find this gem in the chapter on Muhammad Rashîd Ridâ:
The second distinguishing sign of Islam is that it has created a single community: not simply a Church, a body of men linked by faith and worship yet separated by their natural characteristics, but a community in every sense. The long history of the Caliphate, the spread of a common culture, and many centuries of mingling and intermarriage, have created an umma which is both a Church and a kind of ‘nation’: it is held together by unity of religion, of law, by equality and mutual rights and duties, but also by natural links, and in particular that of language, since Arabic is the universal language of devotion, doctrine and law wherever Islam exists.

It is impossible indeed to exaggerate the importance of unity for these writers
[al-Afghânî and ’Abduh], and the scandal of disunity. But when they talked of unity, they did not mean a unity based on feeling or tradition alone. They were aware, as al-Afghânî had been, how transient and unstable a merely affective unity could be, and how dangerous when not transient. Nor did they mean that unity should express itself necessarily in the form of a single Muslim State; we shall see later what type and degree of political union Rashîd Ridâ thought to be possible. Islamic unity meant for them, in essence, the agreement of hearts of those who accepted each other as believers and dwelt together in mutual tolerance, and the active co-operation of all in carrying out the commandments of religion. The community which was so constituted held authority from God: this was witnessed by the hadith, ‘My community will not agree upon an error’. In so far as any human being exercised any authority in it, it was ‘those who have the power to bind and loose’, a vague phrase which may mean, in general, those who have responsibility for the unity and continuity of the umma, or more precisely the doctors of the law and the holders of political power.

But unity is necessarily connected with truth: there can be no real agreement between Muslims unless they are all agreed on the truth, and conversely agreement is a sign of truth. Possession of the truth is the third and most fundamental sign of Islam, and the true Islam is that which was taught by the Prophet and the ‘Elders’ (
If something about this sounds familiar to an Orthodox reader, that’s because it very well should. Community which is neither sentimental nor outwardly political, but an active coöperation based on love and unity under a divine truth: the principle that these early Arab nationalists were aiming after, from another direction, was precisely the principle of sobornost’ which was espoused in the writings of the Orthodox Slavophils of the first generation. ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!

From an Orthodox perspective, of course, a quest for sobornost’ within Islam is bound to fail, precisely because that truth which is the absolute criterion for such a quest is something Islam fundamentally lacks. Sobornost’ in Orthodoxy is a principle which flows out of the paradoxical theology of a Triune God: three persons, three wills, in perfect community sharing a single essence. The Symbol of Faith is an ikon of the sobornost’ of the Trinity, which when the believer confesses it, is truly imparted to her as a participant in that same communal love through the Holy Spirit. We participate in the communal love of the Trinity when we partake of the Eucharist. The criterion of truth that is the basis of sobornost’ is embodied in that Eucharist; for the Christian, the truth has always a human face.

In Islam, God is a monad, disembodied (Saint John Damascene would say ‘mutilated’), accessible only through the law and the textual record of the words of its Prophet. The criterion of truth to which the Islamic theorists of sobornost’ had to appeal was, by its very nature, univocal – the community, the umma, which could be based upon it would by necessity have to be passive recipients of that truth rather than active participants. The sobornost’ thus arrived at would therefore be one-sided; having only the single aspect of obedience to rely on, it would have to seek refuge in some rigid outward form – fideism or rationalism, of the sort which Rashîd Ridâ ultimately embraced – or else in those forms of mysticism to which al-Afghânî was drawn, which in any event would lead back to the source.

The point of this post, however, is not to indulge in a straight-up critique of Islamic theology, but instead to point out that Muslim thinkers were independently arriving at a dynamic and communal theory of wahda – or may we say sobornost’? – through a critical engagement with modernisation. Even if al-Afghânî was deliberately and unambiguously positioning himself counter to European colonialism, this striving after spiritual unity, both within his thought and as a hallmark of the Arabic political thought that followed him, is not to be considered as a simple borrowing of, or reaction to, Western ideas. The philosophical debts of al-Afghânî, as Hourani makes clear, are to the mediæval Persian Academic ’Abû ’Alî ibn Sînâ and the Peripatetic ’Abûlwalîd ibn Rushd. As in China with Xu Zhimo 徐志摩, German Romanticism (which is sometimes considered to be the fountainhead of Slavophilia) makes its appearance in Arab thought only with the later figure of Sâti’ al-Husrî.

But it is unsurprising that those Orthodox Christian Arabs who followed in al-Afghânî’s footsteps – notably Michel ’Aflaq (in whom the thought of al-Husrî too echoes loudly), Qustantîn Zurayq and George Habash – seized with such fervour upon this dynamic and multivalent principle of wahda. There is far greater power, even latent, in the Orthodox Christian tradition for such a concept, and it may have left subtle traces on the thinking of these political figures. More interesting still is how figures like ’Aflaq could speak of wahda and in nearly the same breath talk of the need for decentralisation and localism. This can be interpreted in a purely cynical way, of course. Such cynicism is indeed growing more common with the waning intellectual currency of Arab nationalism and its long history of authoritarian governance. But it can also be read much more charitably, as a call to an Arabic unity of spirit and will based on love, rather than a mere outward political unity or one predicated on some external form of rationality. There is a gem worthy of retrieval in this particular line of political thought, however it may lie depreciated by decades of propaganda against the states of Baššar al-’Asad and Saddâm Husayn.

Again, this is based solely on my readings of both the secondary literature (like Antonius and Hourani), and primary literature in translation, so I may well be barking madly and comically up the wrong tree. Even so, this passage in Hourani’s book is deeply and richly suggestive to me. There seem to be many paths pointing to a certain, very Christian end in the world of Arabic thought – even Islamic Arabic thought – and I can’t help but follow where those paths might lead.

06 March 2018

Ruskin, Morris and the Byzantine æsthetic

A Coptic Baptismal Procession
by Pre-Raphælite painter Simeon Solomon, 1865

The relationship of the Pre-Raphælites to the Holy Land and the Middle East is a somewhat ambivalent one. There is in the artwork that sprang from the movement, to use Said’s term with all of its various shades of connotation, an orientalist approach to the Near East. Though the Pre-Raphælite painters showed a marked preference for verdant copses and pale maidens, draped in the mists of European antiquity, one might surmise (with some degree of justice) that a sepia palette would occasionally allow the Pre-Raphælites to project various prejudices and insecurities about the Western art world onto what they may well have imagined, in their Romantic sensibility, to be something of a blank canvas. And yet, such an interpretation is never entirely fair to them, as a school.

The classical orientalism described by Said would presume a Whiggish view of world history, wherein the enlightened modern European must be portrayed flatteringly against the essentialised, emotivist-primitive-and-superstitious ‘eastern despotism’, the better to prepare the latter for the inevitable ‘uplift’ and assimilation into a European-led modernity. Yet it was precisely this Whiggish view – in both the æsthetic sense and the political one – that the Pre-Raphælites rejected outright! Though we can see traces of this kind of orientalism in Holman Hunt, there is also the countervailing force in his work of a genuine appreciation for something the Near East has that modern Europe lacks.

This tendency is even stronger in the Pre-Raphælite theorists, John Ruskin and his pupil William Morris. While the rest of polite English society looked down their noses with a mingled pity and distaste, after the fashion of Edward Gibbon (or Baron Acton), on the benighted ‘east’, Ruskin was publicly in raptures over the art which Venice had plundered from thence. To his mind, the artistic and architectural style of the Eastern Roman Empire represented a deep human truth whose integrity had been shattered by the onset of the Renaissance, which had all the character to his mind of a Satanic betrayal. Though we may assume Ruskin was genuine in his appreciation for the Eastern antiquity which peeked through in Venetian architecture, it seems reasonable to assume that it was his ‘violent Tory[ism] of the old school’ speaking when he denounced the modern turn.

William Morris may never have been as prolix as Ruskin in his admiration for the East (both Christian and Islamic), but then, he never really had to be. The Arabic-Islamic influence on his artwork, and particularly the patterned plant motifs which became his hallmark, left its own profound witness. However hostile Morris may have been, and with good reason, to the Ottoman Turks on a political level, Morris was nevertheless a devoted admirer of Islamic handicrafts, and his basic conviction that utility and beauty were in an ultimate sense not only not at odds but practically identical, seems to have resonated with the same.

To be sure, there may have been a subtler form of orientalism at play in the Pre-Raphælite treatment of the East, broadly considered. The Romantic sensibility evinced by the Pre-Raphælite artists and critics demanded a certain ‘state of innocence’ on the part of those societies deemed closer to ‘nature’, which could by turns be every bit as patronising as the ‘sloshy’ Whiggism they rejected. Though it may hold the grains of a very important truth, the sharp divide Ruskin wedges between the Eastern Roman Empire and the art of the Renaissance is… historically a bit naïve, let’s put it that way. All this having been said, though, the Pre-Raphælites indicated something critically important. That indication was not necessarily about the societies they portrayed, but instead about our own, and the debts we owe in our spiritual life to a civilisational deposit that cannot be easily glossed as merely ‘Western’. Bear in mind: these were not Orthodox Christians talking. These were Anglicans, English non-conformists and the odd cultural Catholic. Even if the point the Pre-Raphælites made was in a purely æsthetic fashion, it was still sorely needed.

04 March 2018

Morris, the Eastern Question and socialism

William Morris

I’ve spoken a bit briefly on the topic of the great William Morris, having read and enjoyed The Wood Beyond the World earlier this year. But the question of how Morris went from being a relatively apolitical artist and antiquarian into political activism and advocacy for a sort of guild socialism is an interesting one. In fact, it was a question of foreign policy which first made William Morris turn his attentions to questions of politics and œconomy. And, at that, a question of foreign policy involving Russia.

William Morris’s interest in social questions had already been somewhat roused by an interest in the preservation of old buildings, and particularly old churches. By the same token, the preservation of the ancient communities which inhabited those churches was a matter of keen interest to him. The news of the atrocities which the Ottoman Turks had committed in the Balkans against the Christian populations of Bulgaria and Yugoslavia caused Morris to set his face solidly against them, and to take an almost automatic position of sympathy with Russia in their disputes with the Ottomans. Add to that, that he had already been taken with some admiration for the Russian government for its abolition of serfdom and for its stance on the liberation of slaves in other areas of the world. Here is what he said in a letter to a friend, Charles Joseph Faulkner, in 1876:
As to the Russians, all I say is this: we might have acted so that they could have had no pretext for interfering with Turkey except in accordance with the unanimous wish of Europe: we have so acted as to drive them into separate interference whatever may come: and to go to war with them for this would be a piece of outrageous injustice… I know that the Russians have committed many crimes, but I cannot accuse them of behaving ill in this Turkish business at present, and I must say I think it very unfair of us, who freed our black men, to give them no credit for freeing their serfs: both deeds seem to me to be great landmarks in history.
Interestingly enough, this stance on the ‘Eastern Question’ came to heighten Morris’s sympathy and concern for the English working class, and for a reason which – particularly for a man who came to be so renowned for his socialism – may seem striking for its conservatism. In the English working class Morris saw an admirable inertia, particularly on questions of war and peace, similar to what the arch-reactionary Pobedonostsev observed among the Russian peasantry. The workingmen of London proved a more sympathetic audience to the anti-interventionist message than any other, and Morris began to address them with gusto:
Who are they that are leading us into war? Greedy gamblers on the Stock Exchange, idle officers of the army and navy (poor fellows!), worn-out mockers of the clubs, desperate purveyors of exciting war-news for the comfortable breakfast-tables of those who have nothing to lose by war… Shame and double shame, if we march under such leadership as this in an unjust war against a people who are not our enemies, against Europe, against freedom, against nature, against the hope of the world.

Working men of England, one word of warning yet: I doubt if you know the bitterness of hatred against freedom and progress that lies at the hearts of a certain part of the richer classes in this country: their newspapers veil it in a kind of decent language; but do but hear them talking among themselves, as I have often, and I know not whether scorn or anger would prevail in you at their folly and insolence. These men cannot speak of your order, of its aims, of its leaders, without a sneer or an insult: these men, if they had the power (may England perish rather!), would thwart your just aspirations, would silence you, would deliver you bound hand and foot for ever to irresponsible capital. Fellow-citizens, look to it, and if you have any wrongs to be redressed, if you cherish your most worthy hope of raising your whole order peacefully and solidly, if you thirst for leisure and knowledge, if you long to lessen these inequalities which have been our stumbling-block since the beginning of the world, then cast aside sloth and cry out against an Unjust War, and urge us of the middle classes to do no less!
Note the last part especially: Morris sees vanishingly little hope within his own middle class even at this early date, but instead finds it incumbent on himself to ask the working class to act out of its own patriotism for the salvation of the country from embarking on a grave injustice in a foreign adventure against Russia. He had little trust in Gladstone or in the Liberals’ interest in anything but their own pocketbooks. The dithering of the Eastern Question Association in the light of prevailing public opinion soured Morris on bourgeois politics for good, and he threw himself instead into the cause of liberating the working man from the shackles of capitalism – the logic which pinned together the entire imperialist war machine which Morris despised. His shift from a kind of Cobbett-like radicalism toward full-fledged socialism was gradual, but complete by 1882.

We may also assume that he imbibed some of this friendliness toward the working class and sympathy for socialism from his colleague and mentor, the Tory socialist art critic John Ruskin. However, the influence of the foreign-policy debate and the ‘Eastern Question’ of the time on Morris’s evolving political and œconomic views cannot be easily ignored or explained away in other terms.