A Curious Novel: Postmodernism and Holy Madness | Dr. Rowan Williams | TEDxOxBridge

Translator: Amanda Zhu
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Why is it that we read novels
or indeed write them? I suspect that one reason we read novels is that we’re all of us aware,
either guiltily or joyfully or gratefully, that we discover who we are
and what we are partly by telling and retelling stories
about ourselves. We most of us know what it’s like to reinvent ourselves
as we tell our story. And so when we read a novel, one of the things that’s going on
is that we’re watching a person, a self, in the process of being constructed
as a story unfolds. So one reason for reading novels
is sheer curiosity: We want to know how stories get told
because we like doing it ourselves. We want to know, because we want
to understand a bit better, what it’s like to turn into a person,
to become a self. But of course, a novel isn’t just
somebody else telling a story, let alone telling a story
about themselves. We know that the storyteller knows more than the character
in the story can ever know. We know that there’s irony
shot through every novel. The storyteller may say, as some great novelists have said
of their characters, that they’re surprised
by what the characters do. Tolstoy famously said he was astonished when Anna Karenina
decided to commit suicide, but we know, actually,
they are in control. And if at the end of that enormous book, Tolstoy had decided that Anna Karenina
should live happily ever after, he could have done it, and Anna Karenina wouldn’t be
in any position to object. So, also when we read a novel, we’re looking at insecurity, at complicated layers
of meaning and possibility. We’re looking not just at a story
of how a life unfolds and how a person gets made; we’re also looking
at the very different kinds of meaning, the very different kinds of trajectory
that could emerge. You get a sense
of the fragility and the oddity of human identity. All of which adds up
to quite a good set of reasons for reading novels if we’re interested in people,
yourself, the world, or even, in my line of business, God. So I want to talk a bit
about one particular recent novel by a Russian novelist,
Eugene Vodolazkin. He’s a professional scholar
of the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe, which might not immediately suggest
that he’s a brilliant novelist, but he is. And here’s his novel called “Laurus,”
which is about 15th century Russia. I’ve chosen to talk about this partly because I think
it’s a brilliant novel, partly because it unfolds some of the issues I’ve flagged up
at the beginning as general questions. It’s a story about a man growing up
in central Russia in the 15th century, an orphan brought up by his grandfather, trained by his grandfather
in traditional healing methods among other things. Grandfather dies. The young man himself becomes a healer. He forms a relationship with a young woman
who turns up in the village one day. The young woman dies in childbirth,
so does the child, and the young man is consumed
with guilt and terror and self-reproach about what he might have done
and couldn’t have done. He has to come to terms
with his own powerlessness and his own ignorance – an ignorance which has actually
caused the death of two other people. So in a way, he’s faced with a question of how he can go on being the same self when that self is apparently guilty –
guilty of the death of others. What happens next is a very different kind of reinvention
from the one we often think of in terms of our own
experience or of novels. The young man, Arseny,
does indeed reinvent himself. He decides that the rest of his life has, in some way, got to be a life
that represents in the world the person he has loved and lost; he’s got to live a life
on behalf of Ustina, his dead lover, and her child. You could say he reinvents himself
to give space, to give room, to that lost other person. When he reinvents himself, he’s not trying to make himself
more secure, more interesting, more sexy, more powerful; he’s trying to reinvent himself in order to open up space for an other. And he does this in various ways: he becomes a wanderer, the pilgrim, he becomes what in Russia was called
a yuródivyy, a holy fool – somebody who abandons
all notion of respectability and success, who lives a life which is, to all outward appearances, stupid,
outrageous and unconventional but is, in its stupidity
and outrageousness, a kind of selflessness. He arrives in a neighboring city,
the city of Pskof, in central Russia, where there are already
two holy fools working hard at it, and one of them says this to him, “Be her and be yourself simultaneously. Be outrageous. Being pious is easy and pleasant.
Go ahead and make yourself hated. Don’t let the people of this town sleep.
They’re lazy and incurious. Amen.” In other words, he’s encouraging Arseny not only to take on himself
the unfinished life of the person he loves but also to be himself in that; to find himself in giving room
to the dead Ustina, knowing that, in this,
he will be offensive to many people. It will seem a ridiculous way to live. “Disown your identity,”
says the other holy fool to Arseny, “Disown yourself completely.” Well, in those terms,
it’s a very frightening command, but as the novel unfolds, you can see how this
giving space to the other, this reinventing of a self that’s not
defensive, aggressive and anxious, is actually a flowering,
a maturing at the same time. We have descriptions
of Arseny as a healer, “Sometimes it works
and sometimes it doesn’t. Doctoring experience tells him medicaments are not
the most important part of treatment. Arseny does not help everyone. He hears out the patient but turns away from him
when he feels powerless to help. Sometimes he will press his forehead
to the patient’s forehead and tears will flow from his eyes. He shares the patient’s pain with him
and, to some degree, his death too. Arseny’s heart fills with grief
because he understands that the world does not remain the same
after a patient passes away, but even the patients Arseny cannot cure
feel benefit from interacting with him – they think their pain reduces
after meeting with Arseny and their fear lessons
along with the pain. In his exploration of pain,
he gets to the very bottom of things.” That healing life, that life which is grounded in a giving room
to the other who’s been lost, the other who’s been frustrated, who’s been crushed by suffering. In that giving room, Arseny becomes not only more fully himself but a place where very many others
can find life and hope. It’s a theme that keeps
coming back in Russia, in the Russian Christian world,
and in the Russian literary world. One of the great 19th-century Saints
of Russia, Seraphim of Sarov, said, “If you have peace in your heart, thousands of people
find their healing around you.” And Arseny in this book
is that kind of person. He continues his wandering. He continues his holy folly. He goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem
with another holy fool. He comes back to Russia. He finally becomes a monk
and takes the monastic name of Laurus, “Лавр” in Russian, the title of the book. He goes on, we might say,
reinventing himself, but he goes on reinventing himself in a way that consistently
gives more and more space. Russian novels of the 19th
and 20th centuries often have figures like this in them, figures whose withdrawal so that others
may find life for hope around them, who are, in the eyes
of the world, failures or who are, in the eyes of the world,
impossibly eccentric. These figures turn out to be the ones who actually bring
something new or different into a world where people are constantly
trying to reinvent themselves so as to be safer with fewer open doors around them. In all the great novels of Dostoevsky, you will find this principle
coming back again and again – figures who somehow change the landscape by refusing to close in on themselves,
by refusing to defend themselves. Their stories, their novelistic unfolding, are stories about those whose reinvention
is a kind of self-stripping or self-denying; they become selves by not being the kind of self
you expect them to be. And behind this is the long tradition
in Russia of these holy fools, these wild and eccentric figures, who appear quite often
in Russian chronicles, sometimes walking naked
through the streets in midwinter, sometimes throwing stones at churches
and praying in pubs – people who constantly run
across the ordinary conventions of being holy and by doing that, open up something
that would otherwise not be there. So it’s an interesting question
to think about in relation not just to this novel
but to novels as a whole: As you read a really good novel, what is it you’re tracing in the stories
of the persons there? Processes of reinvention that shrink and narrow and restrict
who people are and what they can be. Those are the tragic stories, stories where suffering, frustration,
the sheer difficulty of being human repeatedly drives people
not inwards but outwards. They’re not exactly comedies. Though this is incidentally
a very funny book as well as a very serious one, like Dostoevsky’s books,
not comedies but not tragedies either – narratives of how people
become selves, become persons not by spraying out the borders
of their territory like some animal
putting its scent all around, but people who understand
that the real reinvention, the reinvention that matters,
is a kind of letting go. A good novel will raise
questions like that for us. A good drama also. Think of Shakespeare’s dramas
in that light – dramas of closing up,
dramas of opening out, dramas that are
all about the possibilities and the relationships
being shut down one by one, dramas that are about unexpected,
sometimes outrageous moments where new possibilities emerge,
where boundaries are crossed, where what you thought was over returns, the person you thought was dead is alive. And something opens up. Drama and fiction are, it seems,
pretty universal human activities. Universal, I’ve suggested, partly because we are fascinated
by our own stories, much too fascinated most of the time, but if we engage with the narrative
of drama and fiction, part of what we might hope to draw
from it, from that engagement, and to draw from the really brilliant, the really searching bits
of drama and fiction, is that question of how we exercise
most creatively our creative power of telling stories
about ourselves. Do we exercise that power in creating the safe, the impressive,
the successful version of ourselves or do we, like Arseny
in this remarkable book, go on reinventing ourselves not as the giants and heroes
and saints we’d like to be, but as those willing to give
more and more space for the life of others to come alive
in us or around us. Thank you very much.

14 Replies to “A Curious Novel: Postmodernism and Holy Madness | Dr. Rowan Williams | TEDxOxBridge

  1. According to Codex Magica written by Texe Marrs, Rowan Williams is also a Senior Druid Priest. The Church of England like the Catholic Church is just another pagan institution covered with a sprinkling of Christianity.

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