Monday, July 13, 2015

Detachment, Not Withdrawal--My Take on the Benedict Option

The so-called Benedict Option is much in discussion these days, at least in certain circles.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, it references the last sentence in Alisdair MacIntyre’s 1981 classic, After Virtue, in which the author suggests the need for a contemporary version of St. Benedict.  This presumes, of course, that one views our own era with alarm--if not exactly a new Dark Age, then certainly a darkening one.  For those, however, who still hold to the promise of Progress, this entire discussion must seem absurd, and they should not trouble themselves with notions of the Benedict Option.  Rod Dreher has been writing about this for some time now, and his spot at The American Conservative website has become the clearinghouse of record for this subject.  The dialogue Dreher has initiated is resonating with many, and seems to be gaining traction on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Recent Dreher posts here and here are as good an introduction as any, as well as good summaries of the criticism it has engendered.  If interested, one can just follow Rod’s writings (and the many links) back for quite a few months and gain a fuller appreciation for the ongoing discussion.  The objections (and there are many) seem to fall into two broad categories:  a) that the Benedict Option advocates a quasi-monastic withdrawal from the world, and b) that the Benedict Option remains too vague and undefined.  I do not sympathize with those who posit the first criticism, for it seems that they are reacting instinctively and not really engaging with what Dreher has actually written.  A strategic retreat is not the same thing as a withdrawal.  The second criticism has some validity, however.  Eventually, there will need to be more clarity about what the Benedict Option actually entails—some summation of the principles that unite its adherents.  At present, the Option assumes whatever shape one pours into it, as my comments below illustrate. 

How I envision the application of the Option probably differs from that of many others, and would certainly be at variance with how it is characterized by opponents.  I just do not see large numbers of future Benedict-opters setting up farm coops or flocking to communes and/or monastic institutions—although such things will definitely be part of the mix.  (It would not hurt like-minded folk, however, to begin taking a few small, if symbolic, steps away from our consumerist culture.  This could begin with something as simple as tomato plants on the patio, or a few chickens in the backyard, etc.)  But the simple fact of the matter is that most of us will continue to go about working in the world, much as we do now.  So, there will be no absolute withdrawal, as such, or at least not one that those around us can easily detect. 

What is called for, however, is a detachment from the dominant culture.  I see that as a great and needed good.  Far from fleeing to protective enclaves, driven by desperation or despair, Benedict-opters will stand apart from all the noise; sober, clear-eyed, and hopeful in the face of the ruin around us.  For too long we have drifted along in the broad currents of our Age, all the time thinking we are somehow in command of the situation, when actually we are being swept right along with everybody and everything else, while steadily losing our grips on the precious things that matter.  So, we must make our way to one shore or the other, pull ourselves out of the current, and take inventory of that which remains.  At this point, it seems more a matter of saving and securing whatever can be saved.  The rebuilding can come later.

It might be helpful to look at peoples throughout history who have done this very thing.  In this country, we have the quirky example of the Amish, but I do not think that is the model for us.  Certainly that is instinctively how opponents to the Benedict Option would jump to characterize the movement.  Ours is not a rejection of contact with the modern world, but rather a refusal to believe any longer in the promises of modernity.  What I have in mind are those peoples who have lived as aliens for centuries and have emerged largely intact:  the Jews throughout much of history, and the Armenians in the Near East come to mind.

I am hesitant to use battlefield metaphors and/or analogies.  They are too easy and too susceptible to simplistic and widespread abuse and demagoguery (i.e. “Take Our Country Back!”).  Many activists still resort to this sort of thing, however.  I find it sad to see them floundering and lashing-out in the old ways, thinking that political engagement and a tight grip on Americanism will turn the tide.  In this context, Rod and others have used the terminology of “the battle is lost.”  Yes, there is that, but I think it goes much deeper.  Maybe I am too given to considering the longue duree, but I do not believe the battle was ever winnable in the first place. 

One has to look no further than the paroxysms of outrage over  recent legislation and/or Supreme Court decisions—the belief that our country has suddenly been sent into a moral and existential tailspin.  (And let’s be clear, for many Americans, this new-found concern for our “national crisis” only took shape when they looked up from their dogged pursuit of the American Dream to notice that the country had elected its first black President.)  Nostalgic longings for the Reagan era (and he was as much a part of the problem as anyone) displays historical naiveté and shortsightedness. No, our problems are deeper-rooted and we must go back to our very founding, I would think.  A wise priest-friend once said to me that it was not in the nature of Americans to be Orthodox.  We were discussing something very specific, but the larger point holds. 

I may well agree with particular concerns of the Right (or not).  But where they see a precipitous sloughing-away of traditional values and ideals, I see as the natural progression our nation has been on all along, built as it is upon a foundation of individual rights.  The unique atomized person is exalted over all, at the expense of any larger sense of community, not to mention any sense of the transcendent.  And so, Americans who seriously contemplate the Benedict Option must realize that it will necessarily entail being both counter-cultural and indeed, radical.  I noticed a sign outside a nearby Methodist Church that got it just.exactly.wrong:  “A radical is someone with both feet firmly planted in the air.”  This is the broad accomodationism of the day, and such thinking will not appeal to Benedict-opters.  A radical is more likely someone who faces the world head-on, clear-eyed and with both feet planted firmly on the ground.  So if they are serious about it, Benedict-opters will definitely be tagged as radical.  The decision will have to go far beyond reactions to the usual red-button issues of our day, but will also require acknowledging the implicit economic implications of the decision. 

The American Way of Life is--in every real sense of the word--a religion all its own.  We are its willing disciples, our altar is the Free Market System, and we worship the trinity of consumerism, nationalism and democratization.  A False God to be sure, but nevertheless one with its own unique rituals and sacraments.  The American Dream is but a replacement religion, not a complimentary “lifestyle.”  If one is contemplating the Benedict Option, I think the idea of being a “good American,” as that term is commonly understood, will have to be jettisoned.  In fact, one may well have to be a decidedly bad American.

The Benedict Option is rightfully perceived as a Christian undertaking.  I would think that Catholic and Orthodox believers will be better prepared, theologically and institutionally, to nuture and equip the Option.  I would extend this to include some Lutheran and dissident Anglican churches, as well.  That said, we must know that we have no immunity from the forces that affect everyone else around us.  In coming decades our numbers will be absolutely decimated.  Catholic and now Orthodox believers have often bought into the Americanist heresy every bit as much as their Protestant neighbors.  So there is no room for smugness or self-satisfaction.  And on a side-note, this would be a good time for Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theologians and church leaders to spend more time soberly assessing our commonality of purpose in light of the challenges we face, and less time on protecting jurisdictional turf.

Mainline churches have already made their bargain with the Spirit of the Age.  This will not serve them well in the long run, and the familiar theme of their precipitous and inevitable decline does not need to be elaborated upon here.  And so, individual Christians within many such churches—Disciples of Christ, the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and soon-to-be Methodists—might well decide to go with the Benedict Option, but it will be in spite of their church affiliation, not because of it.

The jury is still out on many Evangelicals.  One occasionally hears encouraging things from their spokespeople (Russell D. Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example), but I wonder if any of it is filtering down to the local congregational level.  From what I see, the rank and file remains too cozily attached to American civil religion.  Evangelicals will need to digest the hard truth (for them) that the flag, patriotism and valorizing “our troops” are not part of the Gospel.  They have been sold a bill of goods, though they have not yet realized it, I think.  Despite the very obvious commitment of many Evangelicals (and their ranks are simply too broad and varied to cover with a blanket characterization), I am left with the impression that they are still too tightly wrapped in an embrace of our American Way of Life.  I hope that I am wrong on this.  I recognize that I too quickly and instinctively agree with the broad-but-shallow characterization of their Protestant underpinnings.  Apostolic churches do have a history of endurance and survival (but not everywhere and at all times).  One simply doesn’t know what Evangelicals will do.  At this point, I am not sure about how appealing a Benedict Option would be for Evangelicals.  When Baptist churches start removing their American flags from their podiums, then I will start taking notice. 

Unlike many, I do not harbor apocalyptical visions of America’s future.  I think our country will go along much as it is now, only more so.  The rich will get richer, popular “culture” will get even crasser, and we will continue to throw our weight around in the world.  (When there are global conflicts where the only good option is to choose “none of the above” rather than any of the bad choices, we will invariably continue to choose the worst of the bad choices.)  And the military-industrial complex Ike warned us about will hum right along.  Income disparity will widen.  There will be the gated comfortable, flush with income (if not real financial security) who will continue to build and to buy and keep the consumerist economy ginning, who will still marry and more or less stay married and who will go along with the casual cultural Christianity for a while longer, who will provide good educations to their children who will get decent jobs and marry others in similar circumstances.  And then there will be those on the other end of the spectrum, what could be called Tattooed America, who will not marry, who will have not done church in generations, and who are financially vulnerable.  Both extremes are more similar than they could ever imagine, having become unmoored from any real connection with the Christian faith.  Neither will believe there should be any restraints on what an individual should be allowed to do.  I realize that this is painting with the broadest of broad brushes, but that middle ground most everyone thought they occupied is shrinking and most are edging closer and closer to the tattooed set. 

Those who step aside, the detached Benedict-opters, will realize that they have no home in either camp.  And this should lead to the recognition of who exactly are our compatriots in detachment--those share commonality of purpose.  We may well find that things do not neatly sort out between Christians and the Other.  Our observant Muslim neighbors may be more simpatico to our view of the world than our members of our own tribe with their motorboat in the driveway, golf clubs in the garage and the pool in the backyard.

So what would the Benedict Option look like in actual practice and implementation? In true American style, I believe it would probably be quite “diverse.”  It might be confined to a single home, or perhaps a close neighborhood.  Some might opt for commune, farmstead or some sort of farm coop.  I can see it taking root and flourishing in the heart of our cities.  Monasteries would naturally be an element of the Benedict Option.  And of course, it might be a parish—I will say that it should be a parish.   Our suburbs will be the most sterile ground for the Option, as they are for most things of any permanence.

But Benedict-opters would probably be in the workplace along with everyone else.  They would participate in the political process, though they would fully realize that there is no safe harbor in either party.  The GOP will continue to use religious voters as long they will allow themselves to be so used.  If you still hold to the view that political activism is a legitimate approach to our problems, then you are probably not ready for the Benedict Option.  Voting will be to head-off the worst of the alternatives we face, certainly not to “effect change.” 

Benedict-opters would closely oversee the education of their children, whether home-schooled or not.  I know that home-schooling is an article of faith with many.  It is not with me.  I know that it can be done well, I just have not seen many examples of it.  My concern lies more with the motivation behind home-schooling that it does with the actual teaching that takes place.  All Benedict-opters will instinctively know, however, that true education will come at home.

Again, detachment does not mean withdrawal.  Adherents should be noted for their open-handed generosity—to all.  Our homes (and porches!) and institutions should be safe harbors of calm and civility—places of genuine, welcoming hospitality.  Speaking of our homes, Benedict-opters may have to eschew our vaunted American propensity towards mobility.  Perhaps we need to find a place and stick to it, allowing time for true community to build from the ground up.  This mobility is a perennial problem in many parishes, with families coming, but also going.  The Option will require adherents to seriously weigh community against professional advancement. 

A Benedict Option household or institution will be, almost by definition, a place of learning, of the passing along of eternal verities.  Opters will have to begin to think generationally again.  We must build spiritually, intellectually and even physically with an eye to our grandchildren, or better yet, our great-grandchildren.  As our forebears had always done, so must we.   The gratification of today must be postponed for the good of our posterity.  This seems jarringly Old World to our ears, but so much the better.  Who knows, maybe parents will even return to becoming involved in the marriage arrangements for their children.  Dowries worked for a long, long time.  Maybe I am getting carried-away, but we must take the long view of things, seeing past the current darkness, all the while realizing that there will be no permanent victory this side of the grave.  But life has to be lived, and it should be done so intentionally and courageously.

In the getting from here to there, Benedict-opters will no doubt begin to form webs of mutual friendship, support and connectivity.  This has to be based on something more substantial than social media, but the role this plays should not be discounted.  In the meantime, many online forums present sanity and clarity to those of a traditionalist bent:  The American Conservative (a name not without irony, for the magazine is anything but in contemporary understanding of the word), Solidarity Hall, and Front Porch Republic come to mind.  If you don't mind a little dystopianism,  then James Kunstler is a good read.  Exactly how do we get there?  I do not know, other than for people of good will and courage to begin to make small steps in that direction.


Some have said that the Benedict Option is nothing more than the Church being the Church, and as such there is no real need for designating it otherwise.  Certainly for me, a Benedict Option would be little more than traditional Christians acting and living as if they really believed it.  

Friday, July 03, 2015

Tribe Trumps Treatise

If you understand your own place and its intricacy and the possibility of affection and good care of it, then imaginatively you recognize that possibility for other places and other people, so that if you wish well to your own place, and you recognize that your own place is a part of the world, then this requires a well-wishing toward the whole world. 

In return you hope for the world’s well-wishing toward your place.

And this is a different impulse from the impulse of nationalism. This is what I would call patriotism: the love of a home country that’s usually much smaller than a nation. 

Wendell Berry

(Note:  Please ignore this post if you are intend to have a happy-clappy Fourth of July)

It seems I am a poor patriot, or at least in the modern understanding of the word.  Of all our civic holidays, this one leaves me the most ambivalent:  no flags flying, no fireworks, no hot dogs.  Nada.
  
I’m afraid mon confreres around here concluded long ago that I’ve probably read too much, traveled too far, and have consequently become--as an in-law once succinctly (and accurately) put it--“so strange.”   But really, my Fourth of July skepticism goes all the way back.
 
July 4th was one of the three holidays during the year when my dad would shut down the office, the others being Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.  But this hardly meant that we took the day off.  Rather, it gave my dad free rein to schedule a full day of farm work.  He was no gentleman rancher, but a true Texas cowboy.  He had every intention of being a rancher, though fate and the Depression temporarily derailed that ambition.  As it turned out, Dad lived his working life not in cattle country, but within the confines of the Old South.   To the extent that he saw himself as successful professionally, it was only in that it allowed him to become what he always meant to be, a cattleman.  And so, on the Fourth, we usually had some kind of big round-up planned, or moving cattle, or penning cattle, or vaccinating cattle, or cutting cattle.  None of this took with me.  I had rather been off somewhere with my head in a book.  Why couldn’t we just leave the cows alone to eat their grass in peace?
 
If not that, then there was often hay on the ground during this day.  Invariably the hay-haulers would be a no-show or a partial-show, or there would be a threat of rain, meaning that everyone had to jump in and get the hay in the barn.  And we bailed a lot of hay.  I actually grew to enjoy the camaraderie with the hay-hauling, and could stack hay better than my brother.

We would come home to a large meal that my mother had been preparing all day, mostly from our own beef or chickens, and our own garden produce.  There’d be a couple of pies, a pound cake, and glory of glories—my mother’s homemade rolls.  She would’ve heaped scorn on the idea of hot dogs and chips.  My dad might bust a watermelon or, even make some homemade ice cream.  At the end of the day, we would finally lounge-around a bit, and then my dad would tell stories.  He was a natural at this sort of thing.  We listened to his tales that we had often heard many times before; of the days of his youth, or anecdotes he overheard from his elders, etc.  My mom was not much of a story-teller, but was there to insert a dose of reality if his tale-telling became too expansive.
 
And so, that was it:  no flag-flying and no fireworks (I faintly recall once holding a sparkler in my hand as a small child, but this sort of thing fell within that broad category that my mother characterized as “foolishness.”  The lesson stuck, because I do not ever recall buying any as an adult.)  There were no hot dogs, nor goings-on about freedom and liberty, nor references to “our troops.”  Nope, none of that.  My memory and understanding of “patriotism,” was little more than an allegiance to very particular people, and to very particular places, both experienced and in memory—our family “myth,” if you will.  Any larger understanding of Patriotism with a capital “P” probably went no farther than an appreciation for a country that allowed my people to live out their lives in the manner that they did.  I was very much at home with Wendell Berry’s definition of patriotism for three or four decades before I ever heard of the man.

I remember a conversation from almost 50 years ago between my mother and one of my favorite uncles.  He was a career Navy man and somehow he had made a casual reference to the flag, in the context of patriotism.  My mother, ever the literalist, shocked her brother-in-law by matter-of-factly stating that it was nothing more than a piece of cloth.  I was sympathetic to my uncle, of course, but it was my mother’s attitude that stuck with me.  It is has been many years since I have said the Pledge of Allegiance.  Oh, I’ll go through the motions—I’ll stand and put my hand over my heart, but the words do not come out of my mouth.  I just don’t feel right about it.  Patriotism is one thing, nationalism something altogether different.

For the last two years, I’ve been in the Republic of Georgia during their Independence Day celebrations.  I found it all great fun, this comic-opera militaristic display of bravado, with housewives foundling bazookas and children clambering about upon tanks and hum-vees parked on the city plaza.  Upon reflection, however, such nationalistic fervor is as unsettling in the Georgian context as it is here or anywhere else.

I do enjoy the Georgian flag, however.  This is a flag one can be enthusiastic about:  a blood red cross on a field of white, with four smaller red crosses, each located in the quadrants formed by the larger cross.  I intended to buy one while there, but my son (in an acorn-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree episode) quizzed me pointedly about it.  Why was I buying a flag and what did I intend to do with it?  His larger point (retained from Scouting) is that flags are not to be treated casually.  If you are going to deal with a flag, then know that there is a tradition and protocol for doing so, and then follow it.  In this, he came down on the side of his great-uncle, rather than his grandmother.  And, as it turned out, all the flags I saw for sale on the day before Independence Day, were nowhere to be found the day after.

I can deal with most of the silliness on the Fourth.  I have earplugs if they turn up the Lee Greenwood or Toby Keith.  I guess it is the rhetoric that gets to me.  Sometimes, we actually need to stop and think about the words that come out of our mouths.  I love our history.  I really do.  I've spent a lifetime studying it.  We are truly unique in so many ways--but this is due to many factors, not the least of which is the simple accident of geography.  What it is not dependent upon, however, is any intrinsic superiority of our own.    

And that is where I part company with the civic observance of the Fourth.  We often seem incapable of praising our unique American-ness without using language that characterizes it in terms of superiority.  Unique is not the same thing as exceptional.  American Exceptionalism--the child of Wilsonian Democracy and the grandchild of Manifest Destiny--is our besetting sin.  The last time I checked, Pride was still a vice.  And we all know what it goeth before.  Let me know if you ever see a bumper sticker that says "Humble to be an American."    

In this morning's local paper (the reading of which is a bad habit that I can't seem to shake, for it is truly toxic), a columnist wrote of talking with members of her "small group" from church who had just returned from a 10-day mission trip to Russia, where they had been teaching English using the Bible.  She asked their impressions of the country and heard about how thankful they were to get back here where there were fully-stocked shelves in the stores.  The main quote, however, was that the people were hungry for "God, freedom, and anything American."  There you have it--the way we look at ourselves and at the rest of the world.  If this quote strikes you as anything other than self-serving crap, then my entire post will likely be incomprehensible. 

I also wish Americans knew more about the Revolution we celebrate.  I think someone once said something to the effect that a revolution is only a rebellion until it is successful.  And so, our “Revolution” was only such after Yorktown--before that it was a rebellion.  I am not just playing with words here.  On the Fourth, one will hear politicians and other unlearned types wax eloquently about the struggle for our “freedoms,” and “liberty,” and the sacrifices of “our troops”, etc.  Just for good measure, they may also throw in a line about fighting to be able to worship the way that we please.  It won’t matter—no one in their audiences will likely know the difference.  That is our Founding Myth.  

There are myths and then there are myths--most have an element of truth, but some are truer than others.  The hard fact of the matter, however, is this:  our rebellion cum revolution was fought over economic considerations; tax policies, if you will.  Americans did not, nor do they yet, like to pay taxes.  From the beginning, we have demonized those we oppose, so as to cast the particular war in moralistic terms.  And so, George III becomes a tyrant, an evil oppressor in our telling.  I will just say this, the "oppression" was relatively benign, and as "ruthless tyrants" go, George III is way down the list.  I am not saying that the war could have been avoided, for there was a certain inevitability about it all.  England had kept us on such a loose rein for so long that we forgot that the rope was even there.  I am simply saying that the war was not exactly what it is broadly perceived to have been.

And finally, there is the Declaration of Independence itself, a document that has quite literally changed the course of world history.  The language soars.  Jefferson had a way with the written word, to be sure.  My skepticism, however, comes right at the very first:  those “unalienable rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I no more believe in unalienable rights than I believe in the concept of progress.  They are not made true simply because Locke and Jefferson say so.  One finds no basis for them in the Christian Scriptures, which, if anything, promise suffering, death and alienation from the world.  They are indeed worthy goals for any society, but come about only after the hard work of citizenship to first create, and then secure them.

These concepts are the underpinnings of Americanism.  Traditionally, all it took to become an American was to land on these shores, buy into these ideals, and learn a bit of English. In America today, however, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can mean anything and everything. And many worry that historic understandings of the concepts behind the words have been stretched and twisted almost beyond all recognition.  One can gather much more evidence supporting the view that America is fracturing than one can to support any coalescence.  So my very real concern--taking the long view--is whether a document and the beliefs it extols are enough to create and mold "a people."  Is it enough and will it be enough in the future?  We are 239 years along—nothing much at all, taking the long view of history.  I am not an apochalypsticist, for to paraphrase Adam Smith, “there’s a lot of ruin” left in us.   At this point, it is not a matter of “will the center hold,” for there is no real center that I can detect.  Maybe the fringes will hold.  Either way, it will be interesting to see how the experiment plays out.  Unlike most Americans, however, I just know that it is neither foreordained nor assured that it will do so.  I also know that most every time, when all is said and done, that tribe trumps treatise.



Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Little Re-remembering

     For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unexpected; so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careening unconsciously down the slippery avenues of eternity.  (Anthony Powell, The Buyers Market, page 274.)

     While recently rummaging around for something, I came across my commonplace book from many years ago.  Though undated, I was able to deduce that I started it in 1996.  The last entry was dated 10 January 2004.  These two dates bookend a number of noteworthy milestones in my life:  my mother's death (the last of my immediate family), the deaths of two much-beloved uncles, our son going off to college, my 2nd-6th trips overseas, the beginning of a side career of teaching, 9/11 and its aftermath, appointment to a position of responsibility at our local church (soon followed by a scandal/crisis), some sobering financial reverses, and most pivotal of all, my encounter with the Orthodox faith in June of 2003. 
     Of the 218 pages in this particular journal, only the last 50 pages or so fall after that aforementioned date.  Reading back over what I had recorded before then was an eye-opener, to say the least, for it raises doubt in my mind as to the self-narrative I have so carefully crafted.  In my telling of it, I have always emphasized the unforeseen nature of being confronted with Orthodoxy--I often say that I "stumbled" into it.  I found the whole "seeker" posture to be too affected, or self-deferential, or narcissistic, and ultimately mostly ridiculous.  In my case, I arrived in the Balkans only half-aware even of their Orthodoxy.  Yep, you might say the Faith blindsided me.
      And while I still believe this to be largely true, this narrative fails to acknowledge just how receptive I was to receiving Orthodoxy.  My jottings from 1996 through 2003 certainly indicate that something was going on.  To be sure, no discernable "Road to Orthodoxy" emerges from these early writings.  My readings were unfocused and undirected, and my writing was equally undisciplined.  But taken as a whole, the restlessness of my intellect during that time is almost palpable.  (I think restlessness is the right word.  I was not disappointed with my life, for I had--and have--a very good one.)  My writings betrayed, however, a gnawing realization that there simply had to be some larger and more significant drama playing-out, one of which I had not even begun to grasp the meaning.  So yes, when Orthodoxy "found" me, you might say that I was primed and ready for it.
     At some point during Holy Week, in the midst of one of those interminable services that run together in our memory, I was doing my regular bit as an altar server.  During one of the processions, in-between chanting and trying not to mess up, I clearly remember thinking to myself, "This is life."  That's all.  "This is life."  In this ritualized worship that is so strange to our region but so alive to me, I am being disciplined, my passions are being worn-down (albeit much too slowly), and yes, I am participating in that larger drama I half-sensed many years ago, the one that transcends time and space. 
     Anthony Powell's passage at the beginning of this post applies to a fictional character, a young man starting out in life.  His words resonate with me, though I was middle-aged even at that time.  No matter.  I have taken them to heart, as I careen--though consciously and intentionally--down the slippery avenues of eternity.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

More from Fermor: Finding Orthodoxy in Odd Places (1)


Nothing much beats the satisfaction of finishing a really good read.  Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, (of which I wrote earlier) is simply the best book I have read in quite a long time.  Always a keen observer of the human condition, Fermor’s open, generous spirit made wide allowances for the foibles of others.  The Broken Road takes him from Bulgaria, into Romania, back to Bulgaria, and then on to Mount Athos by way of Constantinople.  These Orthodox lands held a lasting fascination for Fermor, and indeed, he was to live the greater part of his long life there, first in Romania until the war, and then in Greece.

With an ear for languages, Fermor would--with seeming effortlessness--quickly immerse himself into local life.  I was curious to see how he would react to the pervasive Orthodoxy in his midst.  Fermor expressed interest in most anything, and the foreignness of Orthodoxy held an attraction for the inquisitive young man.  He remained appreciative, though not uncritical, of our Liturgy, the church’s iconography and the assortment of saints and scoundrels he met along the way.  He never addressed Orthodoxy systematically, but always as something of a backdrop to the story he was telling, which is the better course anyway.

One of my favorite episodes is the experience at the Savoi-Ritz in Bucharest, though the references to Orthodoxy here are so slight as to be easily missed.  After trudging north from Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the glittering Romanian capital proved to be an eye-opener for the nineteen-year old.  The pre-Ceausescu Bucharest was not known as the “Little Paris of the East” without good reason.  Fermor traveled on a shoestring, but in Buchares he did not try for a room in the disreputable outskirts, but instead chose a lodging just over the line into the barely reputable district.  A wooden sign over the door painted “Savoi-Ritz” attracted his attention.  Madame Tania, an elderly, hawk-nosed, French-speaking Bessarabian woman showed him to a surprising well-furnished room upstairs.  Fermor, “hell-bent on the bright lights of the town centre,” quickly washed and combed through his hair, then asked for directions.  The proprietress seemed hurt that he was leaving so soon, remonstrating “on s’amuse bien ici!”  Fermor insisted on attaining the Calea Victoriei, however, so she did not press the point. 

After a night on the town, Fermor returned to the Savoi-Ritz at 2:00 am.  Madame Tania let him in and invited him to join them in the kitchen for a glass of wine “as everyone was having supper.”  In the “cozy kitchen with an ikon in the corner and a chicken and potatoes in a dish,” Fermor found four “rather pretty girls” in dressing gowns or kimonos, setting around the table.  The young man suddenly realized his own naivete, as he had stumbled into a maison de passé instead of a regular hotel.  Madame Tania reassured him that they did, on occasion, take in regular travelers.  Her recounting of his error provoked good-hearted laughter all around the table, and Fermor ended-up spending the rest of the night listening to their relaxed after-work banter, and to the stories they had to tell.  After his arrival, a fifth girl “clattered down the steps on wooden patterns, shook hands, sat down, flung her dark shock of hair back, crossed herself and set to [eating].”  On the morrow, these good-hearted souls would mend and iron his best change of clothes so that he would be more presentable on the Calea Victoriei the following night.   

Fermor thought to ask them about the strange men who seemed to have a monopoly on Bucharest taxicabs.  The women howled with laughter.  Madame Tania explained. 

They belonged to a religious sect widespread in Bessarabia and southern Russia….After marriage and one or two children…the men castrated themselves, hence the beardlessness, the high voice and the expanse, and the general eunuch-like style….(One of their tenets…was the belief that Czar Paul, the murdered son of Catherine the Great, would one day return again as the Messiah.)  ‘They are bad-tempered men,’ Tania was saying, ‘always cross.  I’m not surprised.’  A smile hovered on her face.  ‘Of course, we don’t see much of them here…’

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Son of a Storyteller


I come from a long line of storytellers  I enjoy listening to a good tale, and have some decent stories to pass along myself, if I do say so.  Of course, I have few opportunities to tell anyone around here, as the folks around here are only interested in hearing stories about, well, people around here.  I believe this is what the dictionary would describe as provincialism.  I should not complain, however, for it is only a minor annoyance and given everything else that is going on these days, it hardly qualifies as a real problem.  I do not do nostalgia or cheap sentimentality and so resort to listening mode here in my small town.  But get me around my friends; or better yet, my cousins, and the stories will fly. 

I was talking to my son this morning, hearing the latest goings-on in what might be called Tbilisi café society.  Living as an expat in a foreign capital is not without its adventures, apparently.  But we also discussed the implications of the recent death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.  John wondered how things might have been different if the Hashemites had not been given the shaft by Wilson et al at the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles.  I warmed to this subject, as one of my favorite themes of historical discourse is that most global problems of the twentieth century can be traced back, one way or the other, to Woodrow Wilson.  (And the fact that George W. Bush's foreign policy was often characterized as "Wilsonian" offers a key insight into my animus towards his administration.)

Then John made some offhand remark about the time our Uncle Bill met the king.  I said "What?"  He replied, "you know, the time he met the King of Saudi Arabia."  No, I did not know.  As a 17-year old, my Uncle Bill dropped out of school, hopped a freight train to California and joined the Coast Guard, this being his ticket out of Depression-era Texas.  When the war came, he joined up with the Navy and served 26 years, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer.  He really did see the world during that time, circumnavigating the globe three times.  He had tons of stories, and I liked nothing better than sharing a pot of coffee with him and listening to them roll out.  I had a keen ear for his stories about growing up in central Texas.  The Navy tales, however, ran together in my hearing.  As much as I enjoy hearing of other lands, I did not have an overriding interest in sailing or the sea.

Uncle Bill kept a lot of memorabilia from those days, and I guess I looked through all the pictures at least a half a dozen times through the years.  Yes, I do recall there being one snapshot taken on the ship where Bill and two or three other sailors were relaxing on deck.  One of the men had a monkey on his shoulder.  My son remembered Uncle Bill showing him the same picture, but he thought to ask the obvious question that only a child would know to ask, namely: "Where did the monkey come from?"  To which Uncle Bill replied, "the King gave it to us."  I remember that Uncle Bill spent a lot of time in the Persian Gulf area, and had visited Saudi Arabia more than once.  I'm not exactly sure of the date, so it could have been either Ibn Saud or Saud, but apparently the king had an extra monkey to offer to the crew.

John has a much more precise and exacting memory than I do.  I am pleased (and proud) to realize that he has been there all along, listening, and perhaps salvaging some of the stories I let slip through the cracks.

 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Charcoaled Samaritans of Gabrovo


I am leisurely reading through Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful posthumously-published A Broken Road.  By early autumn 1934, the nineteen-year old had hiked as far as Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where he lingered in good company.  From there, he pushed north, across the “Valley of the Roses,” up into the Shipka Pass through the Stara Planina range, and down the other side to Gabrovo and then Turnovo.  With a pound note in his pocket, the youth anticipated a £5 replenishment awaiting him at the post office of the latter city.

Fermor stopped at the Shipka Monastery—home to a grandiose, if a bit garish Russian-built church.  He listened to the stories spun by the White Russian refugees residing there, wistfully yearning for the Romanov restoration that never was to come.  A melancholy mood enveloped Paddy as he pushed on alone from Shipka.  Few carts were on the road, and no farmsteads were in view.  The darkening shadows of night were approaching, and a biting wind whistled through the pass.  To top it all off, a nail had worked its way through the sole of his boot, bloodying his toe and making each step a painful endeavor.

A cart with two elderly men pulled alongside Fermor.  He waved them to stop and explained his predicament in halting Bulgaria.  The grinning driver made the universal symbol of avarice—rubbing his thumb and forefinger together—and asked him how much money he had on him.  The youth, thinking this a jest, responded with an incredible figure and then made an effort to alight the cart.  He was astonished when the driver prevented his entry, then cracked his whip and disappeared into the darkness ahead.  A similar scenario played out with the next cart that drew alongside Fermor.  The young adventurer was astonished.  Never in his hike across Europe had he encountered such inhospitality. 

A few miles farther on, Fermor spied a farmhouse near the road, with a small light inside.  He went to the door and knocked, explaining his situation to those inside.  His plea went unanswered, except for muffled whispering behind the door, followed by the blowing-out of the lamp.  Dejected, Paddy limped on down the road, swearing at his fate, “blinded with tears of fury and frustration.”  He wondered “what passion of xenophobia, predatoriness or timidity lurked in this horrible mountain range?”  His fortunes, however, soon took a turn.

After an hour’s tormenting crawl through the windy moonlight, I spied a gleam of light in a wide hollow to the left of the road.  The wind dropped as my track, sinking below the trajectory of its flight, dipped into a quiet dell full of beech trees.  At the end, on the edge of the spinney, tall dark pyres smouldered and an aromatic tang of woodsmoke hung in the air.  Light radiated from the doorway of a hut.  It was cleverly woven of branches, a leafy cave, and inside it, three satanic figures, their rags showing a dusty black by the light of an oil dip, were sitting cross-legged on a carpet of leaves and playing cards with an upturned sieve for a table.  They were charcoal burners.  How different was the welcome here!  All three leapt up, led me to a place in their midst, helped me off with my blood-filled boot, washed the damaged foot with slivovitz and wrapped it in a clean handkerchief, then plied me with slivo for internal use and then with bread and cheese.  Finally, after commiserating over my reverses, they made me a leaf-bed of freshly cut branches and bade me goodnight, as they rolled over to sleep.

            Fermor watched during the night, as his benefactors would check on their pyres, stoking and then damping down “their three great smoldering cones.”  In the morning, one of the men cleverly managed to hammer down the offending nail in the boot sole.  The three men quickly went about their work, cutting and trimming trees before adding them to the charcoal-producing pyres.  As the charcoal burners scrambled up and down the pyres, poking the fires, Fermor noted that his “black benefactors bore the aspect of stokers in hell.”  After a while, Fermor waved goodbye to his Samaritans and climbed back up to the road, “and after a long way of unwinding downhill, reached Gabrovo.”

            Of these lowly charcoal burners, I would say that of such is the citizenship of Heaven.

 

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Marathon


In 1969 or so, I got a glimpse of the Big Bend country of Texas, stretched-out in the back of my sister’s little Pontiac station wagon, wedged in between the luggage, picnic supplies and my niece and nephew.  Ever since then, I’ve wanted to return and do it right. 

Forty-five years later, I made good on that resolution.  I recently spent two nights in Marathon, a quiet, low-key place of some 400 souls, located 54 miles southwest of Fort Stockton, 32 miles east of Alpine, and 108 miles north of Terlingua—with nothing in-between any of those destinations. 

This is what people who have never been to Texas think the state looks like.  The topography is certainly breath-taking:  low-lying mountains as a backdrop, with broad fertile basins between—home to real ranches and their vaqueros.  And at night, well, the sky is bright with stars, undimmed by any lights from below, just like that old song says, “the stars at night, are big and bright…”  While I could easily romanticize the region, I also realize how hard it would be to make a living in this rugged locale.  While no doubt some fortunes were augmented, I doubt if any were actually made here.

Edna Ferber’s Giant did as much as anything to lock-in a certain stereotype of Texas and Texans.  In fact, this is in the heart of Giant country—the movie was filmed in the next basin over, on the other side of the Alpine pass.  Marathon itself has something of the mystique of that particular movie.  Alfred Gage, a Vermont-born entrepreneur, founded the town and named it Marathon after a description he had read of the original Greek site.  The town became the headquarters for his ranching operation.  The historical marker said that his ranch encompassed 600 sections.  A section contains 640 acres.  You can do the math.  Gage later went on to San Antonio, where he made his real money—in banking, of course.  He would return to the ranch, however, and in the mid 1920s constructed what is now the Gage Hotel to serve as his residence and ranch headquarters. 

From a commercial standpoint, the hotel is the town.  Take away the hotel, its restaurant, the bar and the small cluster of businesses absolutely dependent on the Gage’s clientele, and there would be no real reason to even slow down while passing through Marathon.  I liked the vibe of the hotel—all done out in 1920s Texas cattle baron grand. 

I have a bad habit of noticing small things and drawing perhaps too large implications from them.  I took breakfast both mornings at Johnny B’s, a small hole-in-the-wall eatery next door:   a simple establishment consisting of six barstools and four tables.   Arriving before sunrise, I was the only Anglo there, joining the cook and two tables of Hispanic cowboys—the real kind, not like those from where I'm from.  What caught my notice was that they had all taken off their hats inside, as gentlemen used to be taught to do.  As I slurped on the coffee and waited on my pancakes and bacon, I realized that I was dining with a classier clientele than most anyplace I would otherwise frequent these days.   

The Gage Hotel is always quiet.  They have no televisions, and consequently weed-out those guests who cannot live without them.  My upstairs room was located on the front of the hotel, facing the railroad tracks across the highway.   After a while, you become accustomed to the occasional plaintive whistle in the night, followed by the rumbling of the tracks as the trains whiz by.  The first night, I heard a train whistle approaching from the west.  I pulled the shutters back, and then raised the window and peered into the darkness outside, as the train's headlight approached Marathon.  This was no ordinary train, however, but the Sunset Limited, carrying passengers from Los Angeles on to New Orleans.  The sleeper cars and the dining car were all alight.  I briefly wondered about these passengers lumbering across West Texas in the night.  And I was reminded of the passage I quoted previously from The Broken Road—of Paddy Fermor hiking across the Rumelian plateau in 1934, stopping to wave at the passengers aboard the Orient Express as it hurried along on its way to Constantinople.  My experience  is not exactly that, but in this diminished age in which we live, it will have to suffice.        

 

Thursday, January 01, 2015

History in smithereens

Patrick Leigh Fermor At Rila Monastery, 1934


 

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor is a good way to start off the new year. Fermor wrote about many things, but his fame stems from his account of a 1933-1934 hike across Europe. He intended a trilogy, and the first two volumes appeared decades ago. Severe writer's block descended on the prospective third volume, however, and Paddy Fermor was still revising his notes two weeks before his death at age 96.  The literary executors proceeded to decipher his legendary unintelligible handwriting and publish the third volume, The Broken Road:  From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, in 2013.  I purchased the book as soon as it was available in England, some months before being on sale in American bookstores.  For a number of reasons, I am only just now really starting to read it.

The account picks up with Fermor leaving the Danube at Vdin and entering Bulgaria, a country of particular and enduring interest to me.  Though hardly over a chapter into the book, I am already highlighting passages.

For historical context, there is this (on the road east out of Sofia):

This as far as history records is the great path from Europe to the Levant: the road to Constantinople and the gates of Asia.  It is the track of a hundred armies and the itinerary of those wonderful caravans from Ragusa that joggled their way to the Black Sea and Anatolia, just as their huge argosies of merchandise--when only Venice surpassed the little walled republic in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.  Here, too, the Bulgarian inhabitants were at their most defenceless during the long night of subjection to Turkey.  The Ottoman 'beglerbeg' or viceroy of the Balkans, ranked as a three-tailed pasha, had his court and his garrison at Sofia, and between here and the capital, the Bulgars were powerless; the faintess stirrings would unloose a whirlwind of janissaries and spahis and later on, and perhaps the worst, bashi-bazouks.  They adorned the towns with avenues of gibbets, the burnt villages with pyramids of heads and the roadsides with impaled corpses.  I think it is an Arabian proverb which says, 'Where the Ottoman hoof has struck, the grass never grows again': and it is true that their occupation of the Balkans--in Bulgaria it started before the Wars of the Roses and ended after the Franco-Prussian War--has left desolation behind it.  Everything is still impoverished and haphazard, and history in smithereens.  The Turks were the last but one of the Oriental barbarians to cast their blight over Eastern Europe.

For a taste of pre-Hitlerian Europe, there is this (while walking east as the Orient Expresss passed by):

The pink lampshades glowed softly in the dining car, the brass gleamed.  The passengers would be lowering their novels and crosswords as the brown-jacketed attendants approached with trays of aperitifs.  I waved, but the gloaming was too deep for an answer.  I wondered who the passengers were--they had travelled in two days a journey that had taken me over nine months, and in a few hours they would be in Constantinople.  The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms' manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau.

Simply put, the man could write!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

John A. Graham's Culture Tours

I do not do New Year's Resolutions, but this may come close to it.  I do plan to resume blogging in 2015, after taking off the better part of a year.  I know of no better topic to begin with than a reminder concerning John Graham's 2015 tours.  Go to his website, here and check out the offerings for 2015.  John is offering a new tour this year, concentrating on the highlands, first in Armenia and then in remote Tusheti.  By all means, check it out.  You know you want to go.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Philip Jenkins on the Reformation, both Protestant and Islamic

     2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In The Breaking of Images, noted Baylor scholar and author Philip Jenkins gets a jump on the anticipated flurry of commentary. The occasion of his piece is David Motadel's recent review of "The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam" by James Noye. As Jenkins notes, "the review, and the associated scholarship, raises important questions about how we conceive of the Reformation, how we teach it, and significantly, how we will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the event in 2017." 

     In this article, Jenkins presents two important conclusions. The first one is certainly at variance with the broadly held perception of the Reformation--that is, of course, if any view of the movement (outside of scholarly circles) could said to be broad these days. My evangelical college students are as oblivious to this era and its implications for their beliefs as they are of any other historical period. That is not to say that I made any systematic study of the Reformation back in my Protestant days either. The Reformation personalities never interested me (and still do not). My understanding was the conventional one--that the movement corrected abuses in the Roman Catholic Church and made the Bible available to the common man.  (My particular sect never devoted much attention to the movement, as we believed they did not go nearly far enough, misguidedly emphasizing "reformation" rather than "restoration.")

     Jenkins (and Noye) would counter these comfortable, self-affirming assumptions with the proposition that "Iconoclasm was central to the Reformation experience, not marginal, and not just a regrettable extravagance."  In other words, the main thrust of the Reformation was the destruction of the images.

"For anyone living at the time, including educated elites, the iconoclasm was not just an incidental breakdown of law and order, it was the core of the whole movement, the necessary other side of the coin to the growth of literacy. Those visual and symbolic representations of the Christian story had to decrease, in order for the world of the published Bible to increase. In terms of the lived experience of people at the time, the image-breaking is the key component of the Reformation. In the rioting and mayhem, a millennium-old religious order was visibly and comprehensively smashed....in effect removing popular access to the understanding of faith and the Christian story."

No doubt my reception into Orthodoxy led me to reevaluate the Reformation, this time from the sidelines. Any deeper insight, however, I attribute to Eamon Duffy's brilliant and magisterial The Stripping of the Altars, simply one of the best corrective works of historical scholarship ever written.  

      Jenkins' first proposition may not trouble Reformation apologists, as I doubt many have ever anguished over the rampage against the images. His second observation, however, will be harder to digest, namely:  "Analogies between the European Reformation and contemporary Islamism are much closer than many Protestants would like to admit." Now before the sputtering starts, let's be perfectly clear about what Dr. Jenkins is proposing.  He is not comparing Protestant theology to Wahhabism, for example.  Nor is he addressing the specific truth claims of either body.  To forestall the expected rebuttals, Jenkins states that "I am speaking very specifically about attitudes to images in religious devotion, and the absolute supremacy of the written text, with the physical iconoclasm that followed from those positions. Could I make that any clearer?"

     Jenkins explains:



"Like Calvinism, Wahhabi Islam urged the destruction of everything that could be seen as a later accretion to the core of the religion, as well as all manifestations of paganism or idolatry.  Since the 1920s, this version of the faith has been the official creed of Saudi Arabia, and variants of it are found among Islam's violent and extreme movements.

For present purposes, it is the Wahhabi tradition that has unleashed the savage destruction of shrines and holy places that has been so widely deplored in the past half-century or so. This includes the Taliban's destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan, the attempted eradication of the glorious shrines and libraries of Timbuktu, and the annihilation of most of the ancient shrines and tombs around Mecca itself. Some Egyptian Islamists fantasize about eradicating all the ruins of pagan ancient Egypt, including the Pyramids themselves. Modern Westerners are rightly appalled by such acts as desecrations of humanity's cultural heritage. But such outrage demonstrates a near-total lack of awareness of the West's own history. Nothing that the Islamists have done in this regard would cause the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers to lose a moment's sleep. They would probably have asked to borrow hammers and axes so they could join in."

     Dr. Jenkins also raises an eyebrow or two at the typical Western reaction to Islamist extremism, most often expressed in the hope (and need) for an Islamic "Reformation." Our progressive interpretation of the Christian Reformation as a triumph of reason and moderation over superstition is, in his estimation, "an extremely distorted view." Jenkins finds the movement to be anything but, instead characterized by extremism, violence and destruction.

     And so, the real take-away from this article is that Islam actually is going through its own Reformation, and has been doing so for the last hundred years or so, "exemplified by the Wahhabis and Salafists.  That's the problem."  The destruction of the Shrine of the Prophet Jonah in Iraq by ISIS is only the most recently manifestation of this particular pathology. Jenkins detects similar motivations between such recent barbarism and the iconoclastic rampages of the European Reformation. 

     Most Reformation apologists will simply refuse to accept any legitimate correlation between the two eras. The Reformers saw themselves as stripping away the corrupting accoutrements of the established church, and in so doing returning to the pure faith. How does this rational differ, exactly, from the motivations of today's Islamists? But there is an even more fundamental unity between the two movements. Both adhere to the "absolute supremacy of the written text, with the physical iconoclasm that followed from those positions." This bibliolatry would not doubt be denied by most heirs of the Reformation. And yet, words do have meaning. The belief and trust in the Bible itself, rather than the Trinity, seeps out from countless hymns, sermons, publications, and the very language of evangelicalism. This is no straw man, as I have observed it up close.

     And so, the Reformation, for better or worse, realigned and reset the Christian faith for many. According to Dr. Jenkins, we may now very well be spectators as Islam undergoes the same wrenching process. 
  

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Kennan Diaries--Part 2





This is the second installment of selections from The Kennan Diaries:  George F. Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola.  

The first entry from 1936 naturally caught my attention, as Kennan found himself in the Soviet Republic of Georgia. While I might quibble here and there, I found that his observations largely rang true of this proud and idiosyncratic people.  He accuses Georgians of laziness--perhaps the cardinal sin for someone of Kennan's Midwestern Presbyterian background--but it is a noble laziness.  His account agrees with that written by W.E.D. Allen just a couple of years later.  Both men foresaw that the Georgians would outlast the Russians--just like they had everyone else.

Kennan's entry from 1933 displayed his lifelong pessimism (even at age 28) about the trajectory of his own nation.  He exhibited little patience with the foibles of his countrymen.  Kennan expected the worst, and the broad American culture rarely failed to disappoint.  But an entry from 1939 revealed that he remained at heart, a thoroughly "old" American who sneered at the cheap sentimentality of the British.
 . 

1933
Riga, January
     "America, after all, is too broad and confusing a conception to warrant any genuine loyalty. What have I in common with the average southerner, or the New York Jew, or any one of a hundred types? America is hardly a national conception anymore. It is a sort of international entity. The overflow from the entire world has seeped into a great territory and has drowned out the heritage of my fathers. There it lies now, this human overflow, sprawling out over the continent in all its ignorance and all its sordidness, a society conceived in selfishness and dedicated to the proposition that one man's suffering is no other man's business, incapable of regulating its own public life, waiting stupidly for the advent of catastrophe."
 
1936

The Caucasus, March
    
     "Kutaisi and Tiflis were too much alike to be described separately. They are essentially oriental cities, cities of the Near East. Hot sunshine, dust, overcrowding, intense street life, poverty, disease, and deceit seemed to be their main characteristics.
     The Georgians are a lazy, dirty, tricky, fiercely proud, and recklessly brave people. They never seem to work unless they have to. The Transcaucasus is the spiritual home of the drug store cowboy. The streets are packed with loafers at all hours of the day.
     Transcaucasian filth is the filth of the Orient. Compared to it, Russian filth seems earthy and wholesome.
     The Georgians claim to have acquired their trickiness from their dealings with the Armenians. However this may be (and to the outsider it seems an idle question), Tiflis and the entire Trans-caucasus seem to be rampant with corruption, speculation, and crookedness. It is commonly believed that every cashier in Tiflis makes an average of two or three hundred rubles a month on the side, by crooked means. Many of the state funds flow into channels other than those for which they were allotted. Arrears in the payment of wages are a chronic evil which not even the best efforts of the state have been able to alleviate. The teachers seem to be the hardest hit in this respect.
     The pride of the Georgian is well known. He looks down on all the neighboring races, with the possible exception of the Turk, for whom he has a certain respect as a fighter. The Armenian he hates virulently, and the Russian he holds in contempt.
     Being an intense individualist, he has a typically romantic conception of honor and dignity. He will stand being cursed better than he will stand being laughed at. He considers that it is better not to live at all than to live with besmirched dignity. He is willing to fight at the suspicion of a sneer or a slight.
     As a result of this same individualism, he shows great daring and spirit in an individual, hand-to-hand encounter, but makes comparatively poor material for a military organization. The Caucasian military units (I understand there are two divisions of locally recruited troops stationed in the Transcaucasus) look sloppy in comparison with Russian units.
     Although the Georgian nationalists do not like Stalin, they have every reason to be thankful to him. They are still the only remaining independent people of any importance in the Soviet Union. This is borne out by thousands of little indications by the faces and behavior of the people, even by the number of loafers and beggars in the Tiflis streets.
     The Georgians have never regarded themselves as having been conquered by the Russians, or as being a subject race. The Russians, in their view, simply bribed their princes and grained access to their towns. Russian soldiers, they told me, had never subjugated the country districts. At the present time, the Russians were only a tool in the hands of one faction of ambitious Georgians. To hell with them.
     Since the Kirov murder, Moscow's grasp on the Transcaucasus has begun to tighten up. It is doubtful whether Stalin, in the face of the consolidation of his power and his economic success in Russia, will be willing to tolerate much longer the laziness, the backwardness, the corruption, and the defiant, romantic nationalism of his compatriots.
     Georgia will be a hard nut to crack. But Stalin's nutcracker has cracked hard nuts before, and at the present moment it is stronger than ever. Outside observers who have had an opportunity to study Georgia at close range for a long time feel that this contraction of the Moscow nutcracker, when it occurs, will be the best thing that ever happened to the Georgians...
     The country was rich with the remnants of every sort of old culture: Roman, Greek, early Christian, every pre-historic. It was evident that man had scratched out a scanty existence on these barren, almost biblical hills for many a century.
     We passed a dam and a hydroelectric station, built some years ago by a German firm. Over it stood a statue of Lenin. The outstretched arm pointed downward, and, local wit had it that he was indicating to the faithful where they should look for his soul.
     One wondered whether some day that electric station and the statue of Lenin would not join the rich assortment of historical ruins and mementos which littered the surface and the bowels of those hills--whether, a thousand years hence, the era of Russian domination might not be recorded by historians as merely a brief and minor link in the long chain of the history of the Caucasus. It was difficult to believe that the crude stamp of Soviet Muscovy would leave a mark deeper than the mighty cultural influences of Greece and Rome."


1939

London, June 11

     "Sunday. Stayed home all morning. Lunched downstairs. Anna Freud came over in the afternoon, a middle-aged woman with tired, deep eyes and a sensitive, intelligent face which, once seen, will not readily be forgotten.
     Later we went downtown. We walked around past Buckingham Palace and past a park where the ponds were beautiful and full of ducks and smelled abominably.... Thence to a big movie house, where we saw Goodbye, Mr. Chips and I was disgusted at the sentimentality and romanticism with which the British upper-class loves to surround itself."