Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Something Amiss

Looks like this curious non-review of the novel Laurus seems to have been referring to "Brahmins" as "Brahman" - I suppose republished to correct the mistake:

​Russian Brahman by Alan Jacobs | Articles | First Things
First Things
Russian Brahman. by Alan Jacobs April 2016. Laurus by eugene vodolazkin translated by lisa hayden oneworld, 384 pages, $24.99. Eugene Vodolazkin's ...

​Russian Brahmin by Alan Jacobs | Articles | First Things
First Things
Russian Brahmin. by Alan Jacobs April 2016. Laurus by eugene vodolazkin translated by lisa hayden oneworld, 384 pages, $24.99. Eugene Vodolazkin's ...

Whatever his problematic grasp on Hindu concepts, it's obvious Jacobs knows little to nothing about the tradition of Russian yurodivy, which makes this review overall kind of silly at best. Interested readers can refer to the hagiographies of Xenia of Petersburg or Feofil of the Kiev Caves Lavra to become acquainted with some of the conceptual background to the novel, both published by the monastery press in Jordanville, NY in English. As a complement the Pavel Lungin movie Ostrov is worth watching carefully - the film is based partly on Feofil, though like the life of St Xenia, it explores the theme of vicarious repentance. (It was not until the third time I saw the film that I fully grasped it - the visuals are stunning and in many respects a distraction.)

On a similar vein, the reviewer seems to be unaware of the standard - far too standard to be universal in fact - Eastern Christian view of the spiritual life: purification, illumination and theosis. This is particularly strong in the present tense Eastern Orthodox tradition with the popularization on the compendium of texts on prayer from the patristic and medieval eras known as the Philokalia, so there should be no surprise that it is echoed by a Russian Orthodox novelist writing about a fictional early Russian spiritual figure. These are themes that recur in entirely secular Russian literature as well as, for example, the surrealist Vladimir Sorokin. Mistaking normative Eastern Christianity with Hindu/Dharmic spirituality seems like a fundamental error that even a high school student would have avoided. I am astonished by this given the relative popularity of the Way of the Pilgrim, which contextualized the Philokalia in 19th century Russian spirituality explicitly. This, I fear, provides an acute illustration of the siloing of intellectual life in America these days (if not a somewhat obvious poverty).

All of that aside, what continues to trouble me in general is the fact that most of the reviews of Laurus that I've seen have been oriented toward theological critiques - endorsements or arguments revolving around the reviewer's reading of what the author might want us to think about religion. And yet it is obvious that Vodolazkin did not write a religious apologetic (Jacobs invokes Karamazov, which is simultaneously a religious argument and a humanistic work - but Laurus is anything but the former). Laurus deserves a review as a work of notable - even great - world literature: which is to say first and foremost an exploration of what Vodolazkin is attempting to accomplish as a writer and what that has produced as a work of literature. The lack of serious analysis is particularly puzzling given the devices Vodolazkin uses to deal with language, identity, personality, relationship, and - yes - time. We could do with a few less sermons and a bit more thought.

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