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Not too many years ago a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, “Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an Elder. Instruct me, please, holy Father, that I may attain to spiritual advancement.”
Going to the bookshelf, the Abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. “Read this, son,” he said.
“But Father!” objected the disturbed aspirant. “This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!”
The Abbot smiled, saying, “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you-they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”
A while back, blogger with similar interests to mine posted that Christians ought not, and Orthodox Christians most definitely should not, read fantasy literature:
Fantasy… is a pure expression of the passions. Basically it’s whatever the mind imagines ends up on paper. So then we end up with werewolves and vampires and a celebration of evil that in the modern genre completely lacks what the original characters were intended to portray. In this way, a genre that was meant to lead someone toward Christ now pulls them in the opposite direction by tantalizing every wicked fantasy and passion imaginable, and infusing it with a lustful voyeurism so that people constantly want more and more perverse and graphic fantasies.
On the surface, I have to say that I agree with her. “Man’s imaginations are wicked from his youth”, Genesis says. I made an offhand comment about fifteen years ago to a friend on the ‘darkening’ of the fantasy genre; most of the material that was coming out at that time seemed to be concerned with the demonic, and with the infernal side of occultic powers. There didn’t seem to be any celestial counterweight and a lot of fantasy material seemed to be moving from the Tolkienesque to the “gritty”, “realistic” outlook. The best of it was pagan/stoic and the worst of it was flatly demonic. Once the pornification of Western society got underway in earnest, wrought in great part by the Internet, fantasy literature followed suit, and now you can’t turn a page without some sexual practice that would have shocked a jury forty years ago described in painstaking detail between orcs and elves.
It is not fantasy material exclusively that as fallen prey to this; romances are saucier and kinkier; simple murder no longer suffices to carry a detective novel, you need cannibalism or torture. The problem is that there is no longer any intermediary between the head, the eyes, and the loins. Lewis’ Men Without Chests have arrived, and they are worse than any glittering vampire or werewolf out of the latest potboiler. There is in Tibetan Buddhism the concept of the Hungry Ghost (ཡི་དྭགས), an entity with overdeveloped mouth and stomach, but with a neck and chest too thin to allow for the passage of food. This parcel of decayed human energy lives in constant torment as its enormous stomach demands input from its hypertrophied mouth, but there is nothing in between that can mediate the transfer. We have starved the sentiments for so long that we may be said to exist in a state of spiritual diabetes. We devour and devour all manner of stories; fantasies, romances, novels, but we seem incapable to extract even the minutest nutrition from any on them, We are like those who lack a vital digestive enzyme.
Forty years ago, Father Seraphim Rose also noticed this strange deficiency in young pilgrims coming to his California monastery for spiritual guidance:
[There is a] problem [which] lies in the poverty of our modern soul, which has not been prepared or trained to receive the depths of true Christian experience. There is a cultural as well as a psychological aspect to this poverty of ours: The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this–but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it–the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable
Father Seraphim went on to say that what was needed in this situation was a “Dushevni diet”, one that would nourish the middle soul, the Chest, in Lewis’ vocabulary. The idea of the “Dushevni diet” is to allow the soul to learn those responses to an object which those objects ought naturally to invoke, or which a well-trained soul should naturally feel. Lewis himself, in The Abolition Of Man, uses the example of Samuel Johnson’s observation that
That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force
upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the
ruins of Iona.
with the caveat that the man whose patriotism does not swell at Marathon or whose piety is not warmed at Iona will inevitably complain that because his [lack of] patriotism and his [lack of] piety are neither strengthened nor fortified at either Marathon or Iona, it must follow the idea of these places doing either is a subjective fantasy, and that his feelings of tedium and his desire to find an inn where he can grab a beer and watch the soccer matches are just as valid as all that sentimental nonsense about brave ancient Athenian citizen-warriors or Celtic monks standing waist deep in freezing water chanting the Psalms. I’m sorry, but those thoughts are the grandfathers to the complaints of overweight women that they are equally as desirable to as wide an array of men as their slender sisters. That just is not so. Value is as objective as anything measured by the positive sciences. It is just that the instrument used to measure it is not a scale, or a measuring stick, or a pipette, but rather the human soul itself. If that soul is faulty or unbalanced, it will perforce register a different value for the object than will the purer soul.
Until this point, I have said nothing that Fr. Seraphim and Dr. Lewis have not said before me, and much more eloquently. However, as far as an Orthodox Christian who enjoys and appreciates the fantasy genre as I do, I would like to make the following observations:
First of all, salvation is offered to us through What Is, not through what we would like it to be. The very first time I saw an Orthodox icon of Christ, I was struck by the Greek legend Ὁ ὮΝ, “That Which IS”, in the nimbus of his halo. In itself, this would appear to be reason enough to exclude anything of a fantastic nature from Fr. Seraphim’s “dushevni diet”, and with the vast majority of modern fantasy, I would be in complete agreement with myself. There is a lot of brutality, a lot of anxiety, a lot of lasciviousness, and a complete lack of transcendence in most fantasy material these days, both Western and Eastern. I include Eastern fantastic literature because Japanese and Korean manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) are occupy the same literary niche for young people of my son’s generation that The Lord Of The Rings and the Narnia books occupied for me when I was younger.
But there is an important point I would like to make: For all the popularity of the ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’ fantasies of Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, and China Mieville, we would do well to remember that they are considered ‘realistic’ because of one important point; their narratives unwind in created worlds that resemble our own in one essential way; they are closed worlds where even magic is technological in nature. It obeys ‘rules’ that cannot be broken, which can be observed and mastered, and using techniques which can be perfected through experimentation and practice. There is no help coming from beyond the circle of the invented world. Self-interest rules all things, and the struggle of omnes contra omnes continues apace. In the hands of the aforementioned authors, this “realistic” approach to fantasy has produced some engaging yarns. They are gifted writers, and, interestingly, Mr. Mieville has produced a story which points beyond itself in a way I’m not certain the author didn’t intend.
In The City And The City, Mr. Mieville has created two separate cities, Beszel and Ul Quoma. The two cities occupy the same physical space, and may even share buildings and streets. Each ‘city’ has its own airport and port district. Citizens of each city can dimly glimpse, at times, residents of the other city or the outlines of buildings. However, to admit to this is to commit Breach, risking arrest and incarceration. Citizens of both cities have been strictly trained since earliest childhood to disregard all evidence of the other city. The narrative of Mr. Mieville’s book unwinds as a policeman in the less wealthy city, Beszel, is investigating a murder of a young woman which implicates a well-connected functionary in the corresponding, wealthier city of Ul Quoma. His distress increases as he realizes that the world in which he grew up believing does not correspond to the world as it actually is.
In the same way, there is something fantastic about the life we live in our sanitized, corporatized, modern world. We fly across the landscape like Djinn in metal boxes. We know the thoughts of others at multiplied hundreds of leagues. We hear no animals bawl out their agonies when their time comes to keep us nourished. In addition, a constant barrage of intellectual static that attempts to convince us that This Truncated World Is The Real World, that nothing exists outside of what can be measured, monetarized, and manipulated. If you want to maintain little fantasy religious worlds or little counter-cultural worlds within strict boundaries of a “religious” or “intentional” community, you are by all means free to do so (We are not tyrants, after all, is another song that is sung constantly). If you try to smuggle anything out from behind those well-guarded frontiers, though, you will find yourself committing Breach and arousing the ire of the Gatekeepers. In this way, something like The Lord Of The Rings, or even Spirited Away, can serve to cast doubt on the Official Narrative. Spiritual forces and proper human sentiment can be experienced as liberating and empowering, and in this way, the Real World, The Only One That Truly Is, that which is signalled by the Greek letters in the halo, can be made more real than this dreary official fantasy in which we find ourselves.
In the last week, I have been following an interesting exchange between David Theroux and my loyal friend Steven Hayes about the economic thought of CS Lewis. It appears Paul, whom I suspect of being a right-leaning American Catholic suspicious of governmental interference, found a kindred spirit in Lewis, who was certainly no fan of political ideologies.
Steve, a left-leaning South African with whom I share a concern that the benefits of “freedom” in the market sense have been inappropriately distributed, and with whom I share at least the apprehension that governmental coercion may be the only weapon available to whinge the behemoths currently dominating the geopolitical environment, responded saying that he felt that Lewis would not have allowed himself to be aligned with American Libertarianism, which is an ideology that wishes to extend to all Americans the benefits of that freedom from governmental restraint currently enjoyed by those who can afford seats at $10,000 a plate fundraising dinners.
Mr. Theroux offered a rebuttal to Steve, which Steve graciously forwarded to me in a mailing list, is unavailable for linking, although I hope to remedy that shortly.
I think that the whole problem of trying to pigeonhole Lewis’ politics and/or economic theorems [and, let us confess, all politics appears to have reduced to economics in our darkening era] is that Lewis’ thinking along operated primarily on a pre-Enlightenment, pre-“Victorious Analysis” basis.
I don’t know anything about Natural Law theory, except that it seems to be often on the lips of a certain type of Catholic. I am assuming that Natural Law is something akin to what Lewis dealt with when he introduced the concept of the “Tao” in ‘The Abolition Of Man’, so if I make mistakes in understanding the ideas begind Natural law, please bear with me. I have to admit that the whole idea of ‘law’ leaves me a bit cold, whichever phrase it is embedded in; “Natural Law”, “the Law of Historical Necessity”, “the Law of the Marketplace”.
I would like to bring the thought of another of the circle of Lewis’ friends, Owen Barfield, to play upon the issue of economic thought:
“[Francis] Bacon… was at least among the first to draw the analogy in English. so that in the history of thought, we have a here a pretty definite point – round about the beginning of the 17th century – at which the concept ‘laws of nature’ first begins to reveal itself as working in human minds.”
Barfield goes to to explain that the idea of Law, from the time of Bacon on, displaced the older idea of Form as a metaphor of “thinking Nature”. The older idea of Form, which was useful in explaining ‘natura naturans’, Barfield maintains, were the “memory of those elements which the best Greek thinking could still apprehend in its time as living Beings” was usurped by the menta habit of thinking of Laws, which dealt with ‘natura naturata’, as a static thing “which dealt with the rules that govern the changes which occur in the sense-perceptible part of nature.”
This helps me to distinguish the economic thinking of Lewis, and his companion Tolkien from the algorithmic thinking about The Market© that is so ubiquitious in our day. The Algorithm arose in the Seventeenth Century as a way of thinking and swept all before it. The United States, it is sometimes helpful for me to remember, is not a Nation based on ties of race, religion, or culture, but literally an Algorithmic state, based not on centuries of precedent and custom, but on ABORSGSIARTATBWTAADR (A Bunch Of Really Smart Guys Sitting In A Room Thinking About The Best Way To Achieve A Desired Result). And the temptation is, when confronted by undesireable results proceeding from the execution of the Algorithm, is to reach for the levers and tweak it until it produces the desired results.
The result of the triumph of the Algorithm has been an undeniable increase in the levels of comfort for those who benefit from its application, especially for those close to the levers and those who directly support them. Indeed, the limited liablity corporation and the ersatz personhood rendered to it by legal fiat represents kind of an Incarnation for this Algorithm. The pronouncements of those in charge of these entities indicate there is a kind of reverse-theosis underway in them that strips them of any concern that cannot be quantified by this Algorithm.
In contrast, Lewis champions a kind of a pre-Algorithmic ordering of society, where The Market© digests other concerns besides the merely economic. Novelist Gene Wolfe in a masterful essay on Tolkien says this in a way I can only marvel at:
“Philology led him to the study of the largely illiterate societies of Northern Europe between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the true Middle Ages (roughly AD 400 to 1000). There he found a quality — let us call it Folk Law — that has almost disappeared from his world and ours. It is the neighbour-love and settled customary goodness of the Shire. Frodo is “rich” in comparison to Sam, though no dragon would call Frodo rich; Sam is poor in comparison to Frodo, though Sam is far richer than Gollum, who has been devoured by the tyranny and corruption of the One Ring. Frodo does not despise Sam for his poverty, he employs him; and Sam does not detest Frodo for his wealth, but is grateful for the job. Most central of all, the difference in their positions does not prevent their friendship. And in the end, poor Sam rises in the estimation of the Shire because of his association with Frodo, and rich Frodo sacrifices himself for the good of all the Sams.”
“Sam Rayburn, a politician of vast experience, once said that all legislation is special-interest legislation. Of our nation, and of the 20th century, that is unquestionably true; but it need not be. We have — but do not need — a pestilent swarm of exceedingly clever persons who call themselves public servants when everything about them and us proclaims that they are in fact our masters. They make laws (and regulations and judicial decisions that have the force of laws) faster and more assiduously than any factory in the world makes chains; and they lay them on us.”
It need not be so. We might have a society in which the laws were few and just, simple, permanent, and familiar to everyone — a society in which everyone stood shoulder-to-shoulder because everyone lived by the same changeless rules, and everyone knew what those rules were. When we had it, we would also have a society in which the lack of wealth was not reason for resentment but a spur to ambition, and in which wealth was not a cause for self-indulgence but a call to service. We had it once, and some time in this third millennium we shall have it again; and if we forget to thank John Ronald Reuel Tolkien for it when we get it, we will already have begun the slow and not always unpleasant return to Mordor.”
Please note that the essay by Mr. Wolfe is copyrighted, and the owner of the website from which I obtained the above fragment paid Mr. Wolfe for the privilege of publishing the essay in its entirety. Thank you, Mr. Robertson, for making this available publicly.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that the way back is the way forward. Nostalgia for Holy Rus or the Anglo-Saxon Thengs or even the Scotland of David Ricardo will not assist us in our current extreme. We live in a time where children now consider it a judicious investment to bring a firearm to school, but I do not want to return to a time when such schooling was available to very few, if at all.
What Barfield indicates is that we need to have a different way of thinking;
“The economic life is today the real bond of the civilised world/ The world is not held together by political or religious harmony, but by economic interdependence; and here again is the same antithesis. Economic theory is bound hand and foot by the static, abstract (algorithmic) characte of modern thought. On the one hand, everything to with industry and the possibility of substituting human labor by machinery, or at very least standardizing it into a series of repetitive motions, has reached an unexampled pitch of perfection.”
“But when it is the question of distributing this potential wealth, when it is demanded of us that we think in terms of flow and rate-of-flow, in otherwords that we think in terms of the system as a whole, we cannot even rise to it. The result is that all our ‘labour-saving’ machinery produces not leisure but its ghastly caricature unemployment while the world sits helplessly watching the steady growth within itself of a malignant tumor of social discontent. this incereaasingly rancourous discontent is fed above all things by a cramping penury, a shortage of the means of livelihood which arises not out the realities of nature, but out of abstract, inelastic thoughts about money.”
Now, I will be the first to admit that I am clueless about the kind of thinking Barfield says we require at this juncture. Whether it is holistic rather than reductionistic I cannot penetrate at this time. If it holistic, it runs the risk of requiring somebody to know a system extensively before saying anything about it, and every time I head down that path, I find myself thinking algorithmically about non-algorithmic thought, and thus get myself all balled up in knots.
The closest I have gotten is, maybe, when meditating in a grove of trees about photosynthesis, I entertained a kind of a pre-sentiment that the trees “wanted” to trap the sunlight and turn it into useable energy, not only for themselves, but for all the biosphere, and if I could just ‘learn their language’, as it were, I could find a way to cooperate with the trees and help them do this.
I think another of the neglected Inklings, Charles Williams, with his concepts of Co-Inherence and Webs of Exchange, lends himself to an economic interpretation. Certainly Williams, as a lifelong City dweller, would have a different outlook than the bucolic Lewis or Tolkien. Certainly, a good case could be made for there being different Webs of Exchange; the Chemical, the Biological, the Semantic, the Anthro-Economic which exists over and above the others and which currently is returning evil for good.
“I saw that movie once, on TV, at 4:00 in the morning,” Burden complained. “I was in a bad place at that time. I was working the graveyard shift, my head full of apocalyptic nonsense from that fundamentalist college I had just graduated from. So, I thought it had deep meaning.”
Burgeon relaxed in his chair, crossing his arms behind his head. “It was early Reagan, still pre-perestroika. Maggie Thatcher had just taken the reins in the UK. The Soviet Union was still in expansionist mode, embarassing us at every turn in the Middle East, in Central America, in Southern Africa. The NWO Oligarchs weren’t as cocksure as they are now.
“…and then you saw these rows and rows of hammers, marching across the parade field with the stormy skies in the background.” Burden exhaled sharply. “It was a powerful image. Then you had Pink, Bob Geldorf if I remember correctly, addressing the rally with his eyebrows singed off. Now, do you remember the insignia he was wearing on his suit?”
Burgeon smiled. Despite his coyness, he did remember. “The crossed hammers? I thought it stood for kind of trade-unionist lefty fascism, kind of like that to which the unions were subjecting the YooKay before Maggie collared and peeled them. What does this have to do with your exotic World-War-III- breaking-out-in-the-Balkans fantasies?”
Now it was Burden’s turn to smile. He seldom got Burgeon to listen to anything he had to say these days. “Do you remember when Kosovo declared independence in 2008?”
“Oh, thank God this isn’t about Israel or the Jews,” Burgeon said. “You’ve become positively medieval on the subject of the Jews since you converted to Orthodoxy. I never know when you’re going to recommend the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion.”
“Relax,” Burden answered. “This has nothing to do with the Jews. It has to do with cell batteries for electric vehicles; nickel-zinc batteries. Now, the EU recognized Kosovar independence immediately. Immediately! Even the US waited a couple of days. Now, I never really knew what all the fuss was about Kosovo, but it turns out there’s a mining complex there sitting on the largest unextracted lodes of zinc and nickel outside of Africa, and only days’ transport from the factories of Germany and Britain.”
“Let me guess,” Burgeon yawned. “Serbia isn’t pleased about this.”
“Uh, the mines are in the Serb-controlled northern part of Kosovo,” Burden answered. “They’re behind a soft partition that the Serbs want to be little harder. Now that Ghawar and Cantarell are in decline, the Euros are going to have to deal with Putin, and he isn’t at all pleased with their fabrication of Kosovar independence.”
“I doesn’t matter,” Burgeon replied, brushing his nails against the chair arm. “I was in Prstina a few months ago, and the place looked like little Brussels. I saw more EU flags fluttering than Kosovar.”
“Tell me about it. Actually, the independent “Republic of Kosovo” is little more than an appendage of Brussels anyway, with US complicity. If the NATO forces ever leave, the Serbs will be back to make 1998 look like an ethnic touch-up instead of an ethnic cleansing, and they’ll have Russian backing.”
Burden fidgeted briefly on his computer, and Burgeon leaned in to see what he was up to. “Here is the photo from the Republic of Kosovo Ministry of Mines.”
“Pretty ladies,” whistled Burgeon.
“I know you’d zero in on that, Burgeon,” Burden grumbled, “but notice the logo overhead, on the right. Not the EU constellation.”
“Oh my God.”
And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
“We do not content ourselves with a pluralist marketplace of gods. Polyarchy and utter, brawling anarchy are one and the same. Division is strife, and hastens to dissolution…One is the might of my Trinity, One the knowledge, One the glory, One the power. so again, the Unity cannot dissolve, being greatly honored in the one harmony of Divinity.”
St. Gregory of Nazianzus
The organic body sang together; dialects of the world sprang in Byzantium; back they rang to sing in Byzantium; the streets repeat the sound of the Throne
I’m sorry that this post has languished for as long as it has. At one point I wanted to make the ever-so-obvious point that the problem of the One and the Many has its reflection in the political sphere, and that an over-emphasis on the One leads to Tyranny, such as that which would obtain were the Islamic Universal Caliphate ever to be instantiated, and that an over-emphasis on the Many leads inevitably to Anarchy.
Over against this I wanted to deposit the idea of the Chalcedonian Commonwealth, of which the most consistent example were the Christian Empires of New Rome and Moscow, with their deeply ingrained idea of synergy, the working together of the Church and the State according to the Chalcedonian formula, although that synergy was honored far more in the breach than in the ideal in Byzantine and Russian societies. Nevertheless, I believe that something akin to a Christendom, a commonwealth of Orthodox Christian nations, would most closely incarnate the life of the Trinity in the political sphere.
It appears from a reading of history that this state of affairs was beginning to coalesce in the West at the beginning of the fated eleventh century. The Western Empire, as it was thought of at that time, had moved from Carolingian hands into the Saxon Ottonian dynasty, who with the help of a series of sympathetic popes culimnating in Sylvester II, was moving towards just this sort of Byzantine model of symphony. The untimely death of the half-Greek Otto III lead to the severing of the two powers, and the development of the monarchial Papacy and the reaction of the development of the secular power as autonomous, and operating in an autonomous sphere.
Orthodoxy requires a fall-of-the-West story. At one time I considered this a defect in the Orthodox narrative. Papal Catholicism, after all, does not appear to require a fall-of-the-East story to complete its narrative, but its narrative does not have, to me, the compelling nature of the Orthodox narrative. The post-schism history of the Christian West makes better sense in the context of a gradual Dying-Of The-Light, a thousand-year summer twilight in which the memory of the Kingdom of God is replaced by the Kingdom of Man, first in its ecclesiastical, then it its secular, and finally in its radical form.
Empire is the exterior of Church. Church is the interior of Empire.