When Laurus dies, his body lies beside his little hermitage. It gives off the scent of pine cone like an incense. Finally, after reposing in the woods for some time, writes Eugene Vodolazkin, “On August 8, in the year 7028 since the Creation of the world and the year 1520 since Christ’s birth…they raise Laurus’s body from the earth and carefully carry it through the forest.”
In the hauntingly vivid novel Laurus – translated with great sensitivity by Lisa C. Hayden – Vodolazkin always has the end of the universe in view. Arseny, the protagonist, transforms into a Holy Fool named Ustin, and finally full circle into Laurus, a hermit who lives in silence among the wild herbs of the Russian forest. Always, though, he is Arseny. After his death, a rope is tied to his feet. Screams are heard from the crowd of 183,000. The bishops, beards floating in the wind, take the rope and drag his body through a field of wheat, his dead arms fall open into a blessing and begin to finger the grass, just as you or I would finger a rosary bead.
It’s a haunting image, a riddle presented to an uncomprehending, modern mind. Why did it make my eyes water as I pictured the image? Why did that funeral rite baffle me so, almost make me angry how they treated the body? Laurus is a particularly beautiful but incomprehensible novel, a blend of modern language with archaism, a series of juxtaposed vignettes that somehow stitch together into a unified life. Vodolazkin writes like a medieval. This is an intentional choice, he explains in a contribution to First Things, “Texts were not so much composed as compiled in the Middle Ages. New texts contained, almost consisted of, fragments of preceding ones.” Time is cyclical. What has come before will come again.
The nature of time means that it doesn’t endlessly progress, but returns to itself in new and mysterious ways. Laurus is written in the form of a new medievalism. It seems fragmentary until, suddenly, it isn’t. The fragments are gathered up and circumscribe a redemptive moment.
In another contribution to First Things, in an article titled, “The Age of Concentration,” Vodolazkin clarifies his search for the new medievalism. In Russia, he writes, materialism is passing away both in its communist and capitalist iterations. The two are closer than they like to admit, with their chaotic permissiveness and individualistic selfishness, their all-encompassing worship of the economy as a measuring post of success. Even as Russia has seemed to be growing economically closer to the West, she has grown more wary, passing out of the range of Western cultural influence and back to the East. This doesn’t seem possible – why would a people only dabble in Western capitalism, and why would they turn away from its unsurpassed ability to produce wealth? It only makes sense once we understand that, “Metaphysics is one of the movers of history”
In the split of Russia from the West is proof that the Age of Concentration is upon us – the new medievalism – an age when the inner life of man will be concentrated, filtered, and by some mysterious herbal alchemy, transformed entirely.
The Age of Concentration is marked by: 1) Inner Strengthening, and 2) Social Reconsolidation. Both of these markers are present throughout Laurus.
Vodolazkin writes, “Our dispersed and untrained souls need to be shaped and formed, attaining focus or concentration. This will have to be realized first of all on the personal level, requiring the development of the ability of self-direction independent of the condition of society and the propaganda surrounding us. Personal concentration works against the dispersing influences that might otherwise gain control of our souls.”
With each passing day, we are learning (or have already learned) to distrust legacy news and other sources of information as a form of propaganda. The old establishment has lost credibility. Institutions such as Congress, academia, and even law enforcement are coming under severe criticism. The American Dream is in tatters as hope is lost in the once taken-for-granted proposition that a person who works hard and does right will prosper. Personally, my social media feeds have tilted over the past few months into political commentary at an alarming rate. Any sense of these people as individuals who I have befriended is subsumed under the weight of current events. I’ve been snoozing people on my facebook feed at an alarming rate as they’ve become unwitting mouthpieces of propaganda (of all kinds), and find myself constantly fighting the urge to spout propaganda too. The urge is powerful. It is a singing Siren. There’s a manipulation at work that strikes the foundation of who we are as individuals and as an authentic human community, a hollowing out of our personal agency. The deployment of language to gain and leverage power is alarming. The goal is to gain control of our souls and subject them to a materialist end. This is all the more frightening because it’s unwitting, an unstated movement of materialism towards its proper end. Even the villains are being manipulated.
In Laurus, Arseny is assaulted by a gang of young boys. “They knock him down, onto the boards of the roadway. Several pairs of hands press him into the boards, though he does not resist. The boy whose hands remain free nails the edges of Arseny’s shirt to the boards. Arseny watches the boys laugh and then he laughs, too.” Why are the boys abusing a holy man who never did them any harm? No reason. No reason at all. It’s just what you do. See a Holy Fool. Abuse the Holy Fool.
What happens next is even more interesting, “It gets quiet when (the boys) run away. Only one boy remains, and he approaches Arseny and embraces him. And weeps. Arseny’s heart sinks because he knows this boy pities him but is embarrassed to show it in front of the others…He kisses the boy on the forehead and runs away because his heart is ready to burst. Arseny chokes on his sobs. He runs and the sobbing shakes him and tears fly from his cheeks in all directions, sprouting all sorts of humble plants on the roadside.” Set free from the mob, the humanity of the boy returns to him. It is only when he is free of the dehumanizing social construct in which he was trapped that the boy is able to concentrate his personality into that of a sympathetic, caring, feeling, human being. The change comes naturally and it comes easily.
It’s time to turn off the system that we might see and love the individual souls of which it is comprised. Doing so takes enormous inner strength.
A society made of only horizontal, materialistic connections cannot prosper. In Laurus, the people laugh at but, ironically, are in desperate need of the Holy Fools who wander their city. These strange men remind them daily not only of their charitable obligations to each other but also that demons linger at the door to their houses waiting to pounce. Arseny very helpfully throws rocks at the houses to chase the demons away. The Fools are embarrassing and unacceptable socially, but they provide a necessary vertical connection. God exists and he is a strange God. This vertical connection serves as the basis for personal autonomy and individuality. It’s the staggering and disruptive departure from the usual material concerns of life that sets us free to live in solidarity with our fellow man. Arseny feels connected with his fellow man throughout his life, caring for and nursing them with heroic compassion, even as he lives in isolated circumstances for most of his days.
Metaphysics is a great mover of the Russian mind in Laurus – concern for the end of the world, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the truth of the Holy Fools, the inexorable, redemptive drive that steers Arseny towards his destiny. We might be able to convince ourselves that the path to freedom is through protest and revolution. It is not. Vodolazkin writes, “Today, the paradigmatic modern way of achieving independence from mass consciousness is one of social protest. But this is horizontal—the position ‘against.’ The vertical connection provides a much stronger position. It puts one in position ‘above’ and transcends the horizontal web of social relations.” The source of renewal for the individual, the living power of Laurus, of all art, of human thriving writ large, is religious – transcendent beauty mediated through cultus.
The new medievalism is focused on the reconsolidation of society towards its metaphysical end, always keeping in mind that the end of the world is drawing nigh. Everything proceeds in light of this apocalypse. Everything physical is in the shadow of the metaphysical. The effects this has on societal construction is concentrating. There is but one goal, one way this life we are building together will end. So focus.
Laurus reveals again and again the dark heart of human communities have lost sight of the metaphysical, particularly how they become wrapped up in utopian delusions of constant progress. Communities that forget the year the world will end also let go of their humanity. They form irrational, purposeless mobs to scapegoat and do violence to justice. They’re prone to plague and natural disaster but don’t know how to put their pain into perspective, have no ability to situate suffering within a redemptive framework, and so they dissimulate, building up to a mimetic, propulsive force that randomly explodes into singular, murderous acts. Arseny himself, a holy man, is regularly confronted by mobs who would bully him and rulers who would control him. The relationship is asymmetrical, because for him, these are but episodes on a pilgrimage.
The mob is unable to accurately name an enemy and address it in a constructive way. It lashes out. An age set adrift on a sea of materialism is unable to bring language to bear in an accurate way, unable to communicate, and thus unable to grapple with reality. When the mask slips from the fantasy, the utopia descends into a hellish panorama and the myth of constant progress becomes violent. Sound familiar?
Vodolazkin is clear on this point, “It is wrong to think of utopias as harmless dreams. Combined with the idea of progress, utopian thought is a dream that motivates action. It establishes a goal so lofty that it cannot be reached. The more ideal it becomes, the greater the stubbornness with which it is pursued. There comes a time when blood is spilled. Oceans of blood.”
These past few months have rattled us, but we have before us the opportunity to reconsider our values. Not what we say we believe, but how we actually situate ourselves in a particular place, with each discrete action never taken for granted. “The past is returning,” argues Vodolazkin, “Any return assumes a preceding departure. Perhaps, though, the past never left, and its absence will turn out to have been an illusion.” Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps a new medieval age is upon us, not as a departure from the present moment but as an antidote ready-born within it.
We are a new text about to be incorporated into an old text. We are being written into an ancient story. Our history matters. Who we were and where we have come from is not worth sacrificing on the altar of progress. Vodolazkin writes, “In the Middle Ages, which did not know the idea of progress, either in public life or in aesthetics, the old and the new were not opposed: New texts incorporated old texts. We see the same sort of symbiosis in postmodern literature, which makes precursor texts a part of itself rather than rejecting them.”
The Age of Concentration is here. I have no clue what it means to lay out this claim. I am as baffled as anyone else as I watch Laurus dragged through a field of wheat, his blood spilling into the furrows. Is this a fruitful seed?
“What kind of people are you? Says the merchant Zygrfyd.” The merchant is a symbol of materialism, a world devoid of inchoate, deep mysteries. It isn’t so much that he is wrong so much as he, like all of us, must turn our faces to the mystery. “And do you yourselves understand it? Asks Zygfryd. Do we? The blacksmith mulls that over and looks at Zygfryd. Of course we, too, do not understand.”
The Rev. Michael Rennier is on the editorial board of Dappled Things. He is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord parish in St. Louis, MO and regularly posts his homilies here.