31 August 2019

Our father among the saints Aidan the Venerable, Holy Hierarch of Lindisfarne, Enlightener of Northumbria

Holy Father Aidan of Lindisfarne

The very last day on our liturgical calendar in the Orthodox Church also happens to be the feast-day of Holy Father Aidan [Aedán, Aodhán], Irish monk of Iona, founder and first bishop of the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, close friend of Saint Óswald King of Northumbria, one of the first and greatest fathers of English Christianity, and an apostle particularly to the English North.

As with sadly all too many early saints of the British Isles, practically nothing is known of Saint Aidan’s birth, parentage, circumstances or early life. We know from Bede the Venerable that he was a monk at Hii (that is to say, the monastery of Saint Columba at Iona) from an early age. We also know certain things about his character as a monk. Bede describes him as ‘a man of outstanding gentleness, holiness and moderation, zealous in God’s cause’. Aidan was, for example, strict in great degree with himself: with the blessing of his abbot and in accordance with his bodily strength, he undertook a severe fasting régimen, mortification and other forms of abscess. But he was also in the same degree mild and sweet with his brothers and with all non-monastics, forgiving and understanding of weaknesses.

Saint Óswald spent much of his time in exile at Iona. It is therefore not improbable that Aidan was well and intimately known to the exiled prince. All the same, when Óswald returned to take the throne in Northumbria and sent for a teacher in Christianity from Iona, Aidan was not the first man they sent. Instead another monk, Cormán, went. Equal to Aidan in ascetic austerity but somewhat lacking in grace, Cormán found to his horror that the heathen English of the North were given to all manner of vices: violence, drunkenness, fornication, superstition. He denounced English sinfulness in strident terms. When they refused to listen and complained of him, the frustrated monk returned to St Columba’s. When asked the reasons for his return, Cormán said to the abbot that ‘they were an uncivilised people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament’. Hearing this, Saint Aidan gently rebuked his brother Cormán:
Brother, it seems to me that you were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually instructed them in the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the sublime precepts of Christ.
The monastic brothers of Iona agreed thereon that Aidan be sent instead as a missionary bishop, and the monk agreed to go. Upon his arrival in 635, Saint Aidan asked of Óswald, and was given, the isle of Lindisfarne on which to build a monastery. The isle was fitting for two reasons: it was near to Óswald’s main holding at Bamburgh; and though it was a secluded island at high tide, at low tide a sandbar joined the isle to the mainland, allowing passage across. Aidan, an Irishman who spoke little English, went afoot among the English, often with the king himself as his interpreter. He spoke to the folk on their own level, not scolding or hectoring or using highfalutin theological terms, but gently teaching using tactile images and words they could grasp with ease.

Saint Aidan, though he held to the Celtic rite (much to Saint Bede’s legible chagrin) and was not part of the Gregorian mission, shared the Pope’s love for the English folk, especially the poor. He set no store by wealth or goods. Whenever some rich man gave him a gift, he sold it and gave the proceeds away to the needy, or else used the money to redeem slaves from their captivity. Much like the Serbian Patriarch Pavle of blessed memory in more recent times, Saint Aidan did not like using ostentatious or comfortable forms of transportation, but preferred to go on foot. Saint Aidan was once given a fine horse by Óswald’s successor, Saint Óswine of Deira, but upon first seeing a beggar in need, he took the horse along with all its kingly trappings and gave it to the beggar. Óswine asked why he had done this with his gift, and Saint Aidan replied thus: ‘What are you saying, Your Majesty? Is this foal of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?’ Being thus mildly rebuked, Óswine took his sword and knelt before the bishop, swearing never again to speak of the horse, nor to judge the bishop for whatever he gave to the poor.

Holy Father Aidan was also remarkable for his keen foresight and for the power of his prayers. He was once approached by a certain priest named Utta, who was bound abroad to bring back a maiden named Éanflæd, who had been exiled to Kent on the death of her father Éadwine, as a bride for Óswíu King of Northumbria. He was bound for Kent by sea and first went to Aidan to get his blessing. Aidan gave it, and also gave to Utta a phial of holy chrism, and told him to sprinkle it on the waters if any inclement weather should arise. Arise it did, in a terrible way. The sailors tried to lay anchor to weather the storm, but the line broke. The shipmen panicked as their ship was tossed about and water began to break over the hull. The ship was threatening to sink, and the shipmen became convinced that all their deaths were at hand. But Utta managed to grab the phial and emptied its hallowed contents out into the chopping, churning waters. No sooner was this done than the storm calmed and the sea became still. Thus Aidan through the foresight given to him by God saved the lives of Utta and Éanflæd, and the wedding of Óswíu with Éanflæd went forward. (She would later retire to Whitby Abbey and would serve there as abbess; and one of the fruits of her union with Óswíu was the future holy mother Ælfflæd of Whitby.)

Saint Aidan is known, and not without grounds, as a particular patron of firefighters. Much like Holy Hierarch Mellitus did in Canterbury, Saint Aidan saved Bamburgh from a fire set by the fell heathen king, Penda of Mercia. Penda had laid waste to all the hamlets in the surrounding countryside, and sought to bring a swift end to the siege. He brought brush, dry straw, planks and beams with him and laid them about the city walls, setting them on fire. Saint Aidan, who sat at prayer on the Isle of Farne two miles off, saw the conflagration and called out, ‘Lord, see what evil Penda does!’ No sooner were these words uttered but the winds shifted and blew southward, turning the flames back upon the town’s besiegers. The siege was indeed lifted, because Penda’s marauding Mercians drew away frightened. By this omen they understood Bamburgh to be a holy stead, shielded by divine power.

Saint Aidan served as Bishop of Lindisfarne for sixteen years. Aidan liked to preach and pray in a small kirk nearby the town of Bamburgh, and he did so until the end of his earthly life. The deacons had set up a teld outside the kirk by its west wall, in which Saint Aidan could still pray even when sick. As it happened, he leaned against one of the posts of the kirk when he reposed, on the thirty-first of August, 651. He was taken back to Lindisfarne and buried in a state of honour in the churchyard there, where he was succeeded by Saint Finan of Lindisfarne, the second abbot-bishop there. It so happened the kirk on the mainland where Saint Aidan had rested and died later was burned to the ground by Penda’s heathen Mercians: wondrously, the only thing in that kirk left standing was the post on which Saint Aidan had been leaning at the end of his life. That post, which served as part of the structure in three subsequent churches, became a site of pilgrimage and a wonder-working relic in its own right, its hallowed wood healing many who came there to visit.

Saint Bede has a certain tendency (not unknown to English historians of any age, really) to write a bit stuffily and haughtily about his ideological opponents. In his case, that would be anyone connected with the Celtic-Roman Easter controversy on what was actually the wrong side. At the same time, thankfully, as a historian, Bede’s scholarly scruples and genuine humility outweighed his polemical tendencies. Saint Bede, even as he reproved in the harshest terms Saint Aidan’s error regarding the calendar, had nothing but sincere praise for Aidan:
He cultivated peace and love, purity and humility; he was above anger and greed, and despised pride and conceit; he set himself to keep and to teach the laws of God, and was diligent in study and prayer. He used his priestly authority to check the proud and powerful; he tenderly comforted the sick; he relieved and protected the poor.
And so also we should remember this most remarkable and beautiful-souled Irish saint of our Church, who went a missionary into unkith lands not with a quick tongue, bravado or vainglory, but instead with a heart full of love. He preached the Gospel not only in words, but also in his help to the unfortunate and his consolation to the sorrowful. Holy Father Aidan, humble friend of the poor and downtrodden, calmer of the storms of our worldly cares and douser of the fires of Hell, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
A scion of Ireland, transplanted to Iona, the isle of saints,
Tended there thou didst grow to spiritual fruition;
And when the field of Northumbria
Was ready to receive the seeds of the Christian Faith,
Thou wast sent thither to plant the crop of salvation.
Wherefore, labouring diligently day and night,
Thou didst produce a rich harvest for Christ.
O godly Aidan our father, entreat Him earnestly, that our souls find mercy.

27 August 2019

Holy Martyr and Hermit Degymen of Watchet

St Decuman’s Church, Watchet, Somerset

The twenty-seventh of August is the feast-day of the præ-Schismatic Welsh hermit, Saint Degymen, who was martyred in the year 706. Though he was Welsh and a hermit rather than a monk, he was an adherent of the Roman rather than the Celtic rite. His presence on both sides of the old border between the lands of the Saxons and the lands of the Britons additionally attests to his value as a saint venerated by both peoples in later centuries.

Saint Degymen [also Decuman or Decumanus, and in other archaic sources Decombe or Dagan] was born in the far southwest of Wales, at Rhoscrowdder on the capes of Dyfed. He is still remembered there as the patron of the parish church, St Decumanus’s. He apparently formed a desire at some point in his young adulthood to become a hermit, and set off on a ‘hurdle of reeds’ (possibly a coracle) across the Bristol Channel. He made land in Somerset, near where Dunster Castle (a fort with a history dating back to the Anarchy) now stands.

He made for Watchet, where he set up a monastic cell and an oratory – now a church which bears his name. As was common among Welsh hermits and holy men of the time, he had only a single cow, and the milk from that cow provided his sole sustenance. He seems to have gotten into a conflict with the heathen in Somerset, because the spot he chose for his hermitage was apparently sacrosanct to them.

An early account of Saint Degymen’s death has this to say: ‘A certain man… more poisonous than the adder, envying the great father's sanctity, hating virtue and raging with furious mind in detestation of the Christian name, approached like a wild beast and cut off the head of the Saint of the Lord amid his prayers and holy devotions and so sent him to the heavenly kingdom.’ Stanton’s Menologion for his feast-day says only that he was ‘put to death by a murderer, in hatred of religion.’ David Nash Ford adds that his murderer beheaded Saint Degymen with a spade. Nothing is said, however, of the nature of the murderer’s hatred of religion, though perhaps this is not important. The hagiography says that Saint Degymen then took up his own head and walked to the well with it, washed it off and placed it back on his shoulders before he reposed.

There is, indeed, a holy well in Watchet attributed to Saint Degymen, whose waters are ‘sweet, healthful and necessary’ to the purposes of the people of Watchet, and have been for ages. The well is still used for baptisms, and is visited by pilgrims in Somerset.

There is indeed something delightfully contrarian about Saint Degymen – a follower of the Roman rather than the Celtic rite while in Wales, once he set foot in Saxon territory he took up not the cloistered life preferred by his hosts but instead the hermitage favoured by his own people. He went against the grain so much, it seems, that he was able to pick up his own head after his death and place it back where it belonged as though it had never happened. Truly a saint for curmudgeons, the stubborn, the stiff-necked and perhaps the slightly-perverse as well! Holy martyr Degymen, beloved hermit of Somerset, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

26 August 2019

Saint Ninian of Whithorn, Apostle to the Southern Picts

Saint Ninian of Whithorn

The twenty-sixth of August in the Holy Orthodox Church is also the feast-day of Saint Ninian of Whithorn, traditionally the first man to bring the Gospel to the Pictish people of northern Scotland. Though much of what we know about Saint Ninian comes from much later sources beginning with Bede the Venerable, the church he founded at Whithorn has survived along with several other intriguing pieces of evidence. The following hagiography draws on the tradition of Saint Ninian beginning with Bede and continuing with Æþelræd of Rivaulx and James Ussher of Ireland.

Saint Bede refers in Book III of his History of the English Church and People to a Bishop Ninian [also Saunt Ringan in Scots, or Trynnian in northern England], as ‘a most reverend and holy man of the British race, who had been regularly instructed in the mysteries of the Christian Faith in Rome’. His see had been dedicated to Saint Martin, and he had used it in preaching missions among the southern Picts. By Bede’s time, the Church of Saint Martin, which was still in active use by the English, was located within the borders of the sub-kingdom of Bernicia. Because he had built it from stone – a rarity among Brythonic sacred architecture of the time – it was called Candida Casa, and the relics of Saint Ninian ‘and those of many saints’ were housed there. It was very likely this brief mention in Bede’s History, along with Bede’s reputation as a historian, that saved Saint Ninian from total obscurity and historiographical oblivion.

Filling this account out a bit, it seems likely that Saint Ninian would have come from Yr Hen Ogledd during its heyday – being born perhaps in the middle of the fourth century – and belonged to the Romano-British tradition of Celtic Christianity. He would have to have been born somewhere south of Hadrian’s Wall. If Bede’s account is to be credited, he spent some time studying in Rome and may have spent some additional time in Gaul to have been familiar with Saint Martin, who may himself have sent masons to Britain to assist Ninian in building his stone church at Whithorn, which was modelled after Gallo-Roman architectural conventions.

Ninian came back to Cumbria and journeyed into Scotland, probably around the year 394. He settled in Whithorn, which is now in the region of Dumfries and Galloway. The stone church he founded there soon became a thriving monastery and a centre of learning. He preached to both the Picts and to the Goidelic Irish settlers in the south – the ancestors of today’s Scots – with significant success. The disciples of Ninian spread the living Word of Christ throughout the British Isles from thence, as attested by the several churches throughout Scotland, the Isle of Man and northern England dedicated to his memory. He worked a number of wonders in life, and his relics continued to do so after his repose. Along with Iona and Lindisfarne, Whithorn became one of the most important monasteries in the North Country. It seems to have taken several of its ascetic disciplines from Palestine and Ægypt.

At the time of Saint Ninian’s repose, it is said that a bell began to ring of its own accord – announcing the death of a righteous man. He was buried in a stone coffin and entombed at the altar of the church at Whithorn, where his relics remained until the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries. Holy bishop Ninian, equal to the apostles, intercede with Christ our God to have mercy on our souls!
Having been instructed and blessed by saints, O holy Father Ninian,
Thou didst return to Northern Britian to preach Christ to thine own people.
Following thine example, O Apostle of the Picts,
Light of those in the darkness of paganism,
True shepherd of the sheep,
Teacher of the Orthodox Faith and Founder of Candida Casa,
Pray that we will tirelessly labour for Christ among our fellow countrymen,
That our souls may be saved.

Whithorn Priory, Scotland

Holy Hierarch Bregowine, Archbishop of Canterbury

Saint Bregowine of Canterbury

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the twelfth Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Bregowine (Bregwin, or Brevin) – student of Saint Theodore, friend of Saint Lul and predecessor in office of Saint Jænberht.

Surprisingly little seems to be known about this holy saint of the Church, apart from the fact that he has an awesome name that clearly influenced Tolkien and at least one of his characters’ names in Lord of the Rings. Scholars agree that he was probably not Mercian or Kentish. In some later, post-Conquest hagiographies, he appears to have come from the mainland – a Continental Saxon. He came to Canterbury to study at the abbey school. This would have been during Saint Theodore’s time, so he may very well have been acquainted with the holy and wise Berber abbot, Saint Hadrian.

Bregowine was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury on 27 September 761, and received his omophor from Pope Paul I of Rome. This being the case, he was likely elected by the will of Æþelberht II, King of Kent. His archbishopric is marked by two forms of extant documentation. The first: a correspondence between himself and Saint Lul of Hersfeld, which still survives. Saint Lul and he had apparently met in Rome and had struck up a friendship there; the letters indicate that Bregowine regretted having lost contact with Lul in the midst of war, and refer to a reliquary he was sending along with the letter as a gift. The other are claims at law involving the holding of land. Saint Bregowine protested the takeover and retention of Cookham Abbey (probably near the site of the modern-day Holy Trinity Church there) by Cynewulf King of Wessex.

Bregowine ruled fewer than four years, reposing in the Lord on 26 August 764; and yet he was quickly thereafter recognised locally as a saint. He was interred, rather unusually, in the baptistery of Canterbury Cathedral rather than in the Abbey Church of Saint Augustine. His relics survived a fire that broke out in 1067 in the cathedral, and were relocated to a vault in the north transept as a result. A German monk named Lambert attempted to translate Bregowine’s relics to a monastery he planned to build on the Continent, though this attempt seems to have fallen through. However, they were moved instead to the south transept, to the shrine of Saint Gregory.

Holy Hierarch Bregowine, pray to God for us!

25 August 2019

Venerable Gregory the Abbot of Utrecht

Saint Gregory of Utrecht

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate another continental Western missionary saint among the Frisians and Saxons, Saint Gregory of Utrecht. Gregory was a friend and disciple of our much-beloved English Saint Boniface, and accompanied Boniface on his third journey to Rome.

The grandson of a Frankish noblewoman named Addula, the Abbess at the Benedictine house in Pfalzel, and the son of her son Alperich and Saint Wastrada, Gregory spent his early years there and learned about the Scriptures and Holy Fathers in the same town. When Saint Boniface passed through Pfalzel, he stayed at the Benedictine house, and the teenage Gregory was called upon to read from Holy Writ at mealtimes. After he had done, Saint Boniface expounded to him the inward meaning of the texts and their bearing upon the ascetic life. The private counsels of holy father Boniface apparently moved Gregory so deeply that he begged to be allowed to accompany him – and succeeded in his intention through firmness of will. Gregory shared in Saint Boniface’s toils, trials and setbacks, and even shared some of his holy starets’s inward struggles. He even accompanied Boniface on his third trip to Rome in 738, and brought back with him from there many holy books for his library.

Holy Hierarch Willibrord reposed in the Lord in 744, and left no successor to his see in Utrecht; Boniface was left to act as an interim administrator for the new diocæse. He appointed his comrade Gregory as Abbot of Saint Martin’s Abbey in Utrecht in 750, which had been founded by the holy hierarch. Another close companion of Boniface, Saint Éoban, was appointed Bishop of Utrecht in 753 – one year before his and his master’s martyrdoms in Dokkum at the hands of the heathen. After Boniface’s death, all of the duties of the bishop of Utrecht fell to the trusted Abbot Gregory; for this reason he is sometimes called ‘Bishop’ even though formally he was never consecrated.

Under Abbot Gregory, with his love of learning and his respect for books, Saint Martin’s Abbey became a hub of scholarship and a beacon of classical education. The school was, as could be seen, not only for the Franks but also for Frisians, Saxons, Bavarians and Swabians. Late in Abbot Gregory’s life, a bright and devoted young Frisian monk named Liudgar appeared in the abbey school. Gregory was so impressed with Liudgar’s love of learning that he made the monk a teacher there. Saint Liudgar would later be the one to write the Vita of Saint Gregory of Utrecht; in it he describes some of Saint Gregory’s virtues. Gregory is therein described as not only devoted to study of holy things, but also soberly ascetic, contemptuous of worldly riches, generous to the poor, kind and forgiving.

Late in his life, Abbot Gregory was afflicted with a palsy that immobilised first the left side of his body and then the whole of it. As he approached his worldly end on the twenty-fifth of August, 770, he asked his brothers to bear him into the church, which is where he reposed in the Lord. For the most part his wonder-working relics were kept at Utrecht, though some were moved to his saintly mother’s home in Susteren. Holy Father Gregory, pray to God for us!

Domkerk Sint-Maartens, Utrecht

Venerable Æbbe the Elder, Abbess of Coldingham

Kirk Hill at St Abb’s Head, Scotland

The twenty-fifth of August may be a warm summer day, but it is the feast-day in the Orthodox Church of the first abbess of Coldingham, Saint Æbbe the Elder. This northern English Church mother is associated with some of the greatest saints of the English north, including Saint Wilfrið of York, Saint Æþelþrýð of Ely, Saint Cuðberht of Lindisfarne, her sister-in-law Saint Éanflæd and, of course, her brother Saint Óswald. In Saint Æbbe the Celtic asceticism meets and clashes with the outward Celtic gentleness: for, while she was tirelessly strict and demanding upon herself, she was – even to a fault – indulgent toward others. This led to some unfortunate excesses at the monasteries she founded.

Saint Æbbe was born to the fearsome heathen chieftain, Æþelfrið King of Bernicia, and his wife Acha of Deira – whose personal union forged the beginnings of a united Northumbria. Æþelfrið was killed by an East Anglian army led by Rædwald in support of his brother-in-law Éadwine, and all of Æþelfrið’s children, including Éanfrið, Óswald, Óswiu and Æbbe, had to flee northward and westward into Dál Riata. While enjoying the hospitality and protection of the Scottish king, all of these Northumbrian princes (and princess) in exile were converted to Christianity.

While in Scotland, Æbbe was pursued by an unwanted but persistent suitor named Aidan. Though the match was favourable to her brothers who saw in Aidan a valuable political ally, Æbbe, being watchful of her virginity, had no mind to marry at all. She took the veil from the Scottish Saint Finan (later of Lindisfarne) and became a nun. However, this did not put Aidan off. He pursued her, thinking to force her into marriage. She fled him to Kirk Hill at St Abb’s Head, where she took shelter on the high rocks. The high tide cut off Aidan’s pursuit with impassable breakers. By Saint Æbbe’s prayers, God preserved her by holding the tide at its highest ebb for three days, until at last Aidan gave up in frustration. Seeing her resolution, her brother Óswiu gave her an additional piece of land at Ebchester, which she used to found another monastery.

But Saint Æbbe founded her main double monastery on Kirk Hill, and her monks and nuns lived in humble, separate cells made from wattle and thatch. Another conflicting story about the foundation of the monastery at St Abb’s Head goes thus: during one of Northumbria’s incessant wars, Saint Æbbe was captured by the enemies of Óswiu King. She managed to escape, however, in a boat which she sailed up the coast alone. Coming around the eastern coast of Scotland, she was guided safely to shore by the chanting, so it seemed to her, of monks. They were finishing one of the offices in their little kirk, and saw the boat come ashore when they came outside. It was guided through the treacherous breakers as though preserved by some superhuman hand. When Saint Æbbe made land, the monks swore to obey her as clearly this was a holy woman of some influence with God.

Saint Æbbe was greatly respected by the other Northumbrian saints, including those as disparate in disposition and temperament as Saint Wilfrið and Saint Cuðberht. Indeed, she became fast friends with the latter, who came – despite choosing not to spend a great deal of time in the company of the opposite sex – to visit her at her monastery. It was she, in fact, who made for the saint the linen garment in which he would eventually be buried.

Saint Æbbe, probably remembering her own experience with Aidan, also gave shelter to Saint Æþelþrýð, who sought to become a nun. Her husband, Ecgfrið (Saint Æbbe’s nephew), pursued her to St Abb’s Head, where the wonder of the rising tide and the breakers which had preserved Saint Æbbe from Aidan’s attentions repeated itself for Æþelþrýð. It was here that Ecgfrið reluctantly agreed to separate from his wife, who entered the conventual life with the blessing of Saint Wilfrið and ultimately established a cloister at Ely. This whole episode caused a great deal of bad blood between Ecgfrið and Wilfrið, and the former to begin persecuting the latter. It so happened that Ecgfrið visited St Abb’s Head later along with his new wife Eormenburg, and while she was there Eormenburg went into convulsions and fits that were thought to be the work of demons. Saint Æbbe healed the king’s wife, but rebuked Ecgfrið sternly and told him that Eormenburg had been thus visited because they had imprisoned Saint Wilfrið for nine months and robbed him of a reliquary he treasured – probably containing some of the relics of his beloved martyred master Saint Ennemond. Ecgfrið promised to release the bishop and restore his reliquary; once he had done so, his wife recovered.

Saint Æbbe’s double monastery was blessed for some while by her own personal observances and her keeping of a strict rule of asceticism. However, many of her spiritual children – coming as they did from high-born English backgrounds – were unruly and lax in their observances. They drank and feasted heavily; they spent hours in idle talk; and monks and nuns even cohabited together in shameful fashion. While he was there, Saint Adamnán of Iona received a fearsome vision, that the priory would suffer fire and be burnt to the ground on account of the monks’ sins. He duly told Æbbe of this, who for her own part was deeply distressed. Adamnán comforted the holy abbess, however, saying that on account of her own holy life that this dreadful thing would not come to pass as long as she was alive. But it so happened that after her repose, one careless monk forgot to put out a candle, and a spark lit among the thatch, and the whole complex went up in flames. Saint Æbbe’s cloister at Kirk Hill was later rebuilt, however, under a stricter rule and only for nuns.

Saint Æbbe reposed in the Lord at her abbey at Coldingham on the twenty-fifth of August, 683. Although her monastery was destroyed soon after her repose, her efforts in bringing Christianity to Northumbria were by no means forgotten, and even after the site was deserted by monks, Kirk Hill was the site of pilgrimage for many local people who came in faith seeking healing. Holy Mother Æbbe, gentle nun and witness among the Northumbrians, pray unto Christ our God for us, your wayward children!

St Ebba’s Church, Ebchester

23 August 2019

Familial love against the nationalist myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Martyr Tydfil of Penydarren

Saint Tydfil of Penydarren

On the twenty-third of August we commemorate yet another of Brychan Brycheiniog’s many, many saintly children who wandered all over the countrysides of the British lands of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, preaching the Gospel. The one we commemorate today is Saint Tydfil of Penydarren (now a community in Merthyr Tydfil, which is named after the saint).

Saint Tydfil chose as her home a stead in a valley, where the Little River Taff (Taf Fechan) meets the Big River Taff (Taf Fawr). She quickly gained a good name among the farmers who lived in the valley, as she had a kind and compassionate heart, and was skilled in the healing arts. She cured both sick people and sick farm animals. She constructed a llan, or an enclosed churchyard, and a double monastery – one for men and another for women. This llan included a wayhouse for travellers, a hospital with several houses, as well as a scriptorium. She never became an abbess, but she did live there in just such an unobtrusive and holy way for many years.

In the twilight of his reign, Brychan Brycheiniog decided to visit his daughters again. One of them, Tanglwst, lived on the west side of the River Taff, and Tydfil lived on the east. Brychan took with him his young son Rhûn, his grandson Nefydd and some retainers. Seeking to stay behind a little longer, he sent Nefydd and the retainers on ahead of him, while Rhûn stayed in Tanglwst’s llan. In retrospect, splitting the party turned out not to be the wisest move.

At this time, the Picts basically had the run of western Britain in the wake of the Roman government’s collapse, and were opportunistically raiding the Romano-British (now Welsh) populace under the cover of a Saxon invasion. Word reached the Pictish raiders that the king of Brycheiniog was in the district and only lightly guarded; they moved to attack. Tydfil went with her father and brought as many of the villagers and monastics as she could before the Picts attacked.

The Picts attacked and slew Rhûn as he held a bridge against their advance, and then moved on the king. The raiders captured the king, robbed him and his other retainers and family of all their valuables, and planned to hold him for ransom. Those who were of no worth to them, they killed. Tydfil did not fight or flee, but instead prayed calmly until the Picts slew her. Shortly afterward, Nefydd came back for his grandfather with reinforcements, and gave chase to the fleeing Picts, whom he defeated at Irishmen’s Hill.

Saint Tydfil, who had died a martyr’s death, was buried in the churchyard which she had established. The area of the Taff Valley she inhabited was renamed Merthyr Tydfil. The llan she had built stayed standing until the thirteenth century, when it was replaced by a stone church dedicated to her memory. This stone church was replaced twice in the nineteenth century, but it is still standing and serves an Anglican community.

Although Tydfil never became a monastic or an abbess as many of her siblings did, her humble life of prayer and service of the people who lived around her assured her an abode of blessedness and fond memory in the hearts of the Welsh people. Holy martyr Tydfil, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

Church of St Tydfil, Merthyr Tydfil

21 August 2019

Hong Kong is an island (and an oligarchy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 August 2019

Platform: a ground-eye view of uneven development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuǵan jer: a mild early assertion of Kazakh-ness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 August 2019

Ivan Groznyi and the birth of Kazakhstani cinema

Nikolai Cherkasov in Ivan Groznyi, pervoi serii

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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