Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Aesthetic Irresponsibility in a Broad and Mellow Land

Teimuraz I by Castelli

     I am still having quite a time with W.E.D. Allen's A History of the Georgian People (see three posts previous.)  The author detects a bit of the heroic in the Georgians--likening them to the Irish and the Spanish--and sees this as the defining characteristic of the nation.  This is not just literary hyperbole on his part.  Georgia is an altogether different place--you can see it, you can feel it, and somehow, you want to part of it.  The region worked its charms on me as much as it did on Allen.  I recall sitting in the airport terminal, awaiting my flight out of the country, and being unable to stop crying.  That has never happened to me, either going to or coming from anywhere else.  Even if I am never able to return there, Georgia will remain the great and grand adventure of my life. 

     A few of Allen's observations gave me pause, but only at first.  For example, he did not find them to be a particularly religious people.  I would beg to differ with Allen on this point, as that was not my experience at all.  I have to consider, however, that he was an Englishman viewing a Soviet republic during the 1930s, where outward religiosity was certainly circumscribed.  (I recall my visit with the caretaker of the small village church in the Caucasus where he allowed us to see the priceless 12th-century icon of St. George--hidden by villagers for the 70 years of Communist rule--then passing around a bottle of homemade vodka there in the sanctuary.)    The--shall we say--exuberance of the Georgian people (others might characterize it as boisterousness or even rambunctiousness) carries over wherever they are--yes, even in a church service.  Little of it would be recognizable as piety, as understood in the Western sense.  So, I get what Allen is saying, and will concur with him, but only up to a point.  (I also detect in Allen some antogonism to the particularities of Christiantiy, or rather anything beyond its cultural sheen, which is not unexpected of an English author of that era.) 

     He also noted that Georgian culture emphasized heroes rather than martyrs.  Here again, this struck me wrong at first--particularly after having visited Davit Gareja twice.  Upon on further reflection, however, I believe he may be on to something.  When you read accounts of the Georgians saints, they are quite often stories shot-through with the heroic grand gesture. 

     Allen is a romantic and when he compares the Georgian people to the Armenians, the latter comes-off at a decided disadvantage.  The term he employs for the former is "aesthetic irresponsibility," while the Armenians are described as "individual materialists."  Still later, Allen skillfully summarizes the Turkish interlopers in the region.  But enough of my commentary....

     The survival of the Georgians, not only as a people but as an individual cultural and political whole during these centuries of aggressive Imperial intervention from west and east and of formidable sporadic attack from nomads--Khazars, Turks and Mongols--is remarkable.

Gori by Castelli

     There is a curious element in the character of the Georgian people, a kind of irresponsible individuality of the nation as a unit, which is comparable to a somewhat similar individuality which may be observed in the national characters of both the Spaniards and the Irish.

     This characteristic of the Georgian people may be described as an aesthetic irresponsibility.  Thus the Georgians, like the Spanish and the Irish, have come under many forms of alien political and cultural coercion.  They accept this domination, but they do not take it seriously, and when the domination passes the people that have suffered it remain in character much the same as formerly.  It would be untrue to say that they do not resist such domination; they frequently resist it savagely, but they resist as a nation, as a living animal, and their resistance is not for a principle.  Thus we find throughout the history of Georgia, as of Spain and of Ireland, that it is the nation that is held sacred and not this or that principle.  And if one people or the other has fought with ostensibly religious aims, it will be found that it is because the religious cause represented the national cause.  The Georgians are not a religious people, neither are they a political people, but they have a very strong and abiding sense of their community as a nation, and their individuality as a nation.  This sense of national individuality is very old--far older than the clamant sense of nationhood which is voiced by so many of the comparatively young European nations.  The Georgian sense of themselves as a nation certainly dates from the time of the mediaeval Georgian kingdom, and it is voiced by Rusthaveli and other of their mediaeval poets.

     The sense of nation is in itself a kind of aestheticism--a form of sensual taste--a preference for one's kind in contrast to other kind.

     One the other hand no man--or no people--of essential aestheticism, of taste, can conceive a fixed preference for a certain religious or political conception.  Martyrdom is essentially a breach of aesthetics, while heroism on the other had is an orgasm of individualistic artistry.  Thus we find that the Georgians are often, indeed always, heroes and never, or very seldom, martyrs.

     In this "aesthetic irresponsibility" of the Georgians lies the secret both of their charm as a nation and of their survival as a strongly individualistic national unit.  The Georgians retain in a remarkable degree, both individually and as a people, the clear and gentle outlook, the free and inquiring intelligence and the high amoral and untrammelled mind of primitive man.  The generosity, the loving simplicity and the humanity, the animal love of life which characterizes the Homeric poems and the ancient literature of the Celts and Scandinavians lights the pages of the mediaeval Georgian epics and declares indeed the mind of the Georgian of these days.

     It is this "aesthetic irresponsibility" which has secured the integrity of the Georgians through the vicissitudes of their history.  Many political systems and many creeds have lain heavy on the country.  They have passed away, and the Georgian has remained, laughing, easy, unchanged and untroubled.

     The remoteness of the geographical position of the country has been one of the fundamental causes of the strong sense of kind--of national individuality--of the Georgians.  this remoteness has at once isolated them and caused them to develop a sentiment of long and ancient and independent communion among themselves.

     At the same time the climate is a mellow joyous climate and the wine is good, so that neither the air nor the diet are conducive to the worrying over principles and the gnawing over grievances.

     The unfortunate Armenians, on the other hand, nursing hard dogma upon their icy uplands, made material in this bleak economic want, have as a nation come very near at times to that physical extinction which usually awaits the martyr, and to that cultural extinction which falls to the lot of a community composed of individual materialists.  For during the early Middle Ages the Armenians fought doggedly against the Muhammadan invaders as the enemies of the Christian religion and they entered with enthusiastic heat into the interminable theological disputes that rent the East Christian world.  But the individual materialism which in inherent in men born in a sterile unfriendly land always drew off the most vigorous spirits of each succeeding generation into the service of rich masters--Byzantine, Arab, Mongol and Turk.  Thus we may view upon a very broad and general background of the history of these peoples--the Georgians in their broad and mellow land, with their troubadours and light philosophies, their joistings, their drinking-bouts, their heroes and their games; and the Armenians, a dour and dogged yet self-pitying people, with their dogmas and their rites, their monkish chroniclers, their hard soldiers, their merchants and their martyrs.

The Ambassador of Samegrelo in the Entrance Gate of the King of Imereti by Castelli

     The mediaeval Kingdom of Georgia struck the imagination of Western travellers, Marco Polo, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo and others, as an isolated community of Western culture and Christian religion surviving in the midst of powerful Mussulman tyrannies and half barbarous tribes and peoples.  And we now may marvel less at the military prowess which maintained the independence of this culture than at the tenacity of those Classic traditions of life and at the vigour of that East-Christian civilization which after every devastating storm cloud sprout new twigs of life upon the ancient soil of Colchis.        (pages 71-74.)

     And the Turks became masters of Anatolia and peopled it, which the earlier Asiatic powers, Persian and Arabian, could never do, really because they liked the land; it suited their dour northladn nature, and they wanted to inhabit it.  They brought with them the beliefs and ways of Islam, civil clothes but lately borrowed by spiritually naked pastoralists, and they found and used and lived upon, rather than built upon, the debris of the feudal culture of the East Christian world.  These needy reivers, fierce destroyers, now settled over their wide provinces as comfortable and unprogressive, but still warlike barons; they built their feudal states and pressed against the broken towers, left standing, of Eastern Christianity in the Mediterranean coastlands, along the Pontus, and in Georgia.  (pages 92-93.)


Brad said...

Thanks for this beautiful passage.
I first heard Georgian polyphony a few years ago and have been fascinated by the Georgians ever since. Their drinking songs are amazing too.
I think the beauty of their culture shocks us even more because we as modern Americans lack everything you speak of.
I hope to make it to Georgia one day - a life dream.

pontus' palate said...

Thanks for writing again.

If your blog turns into one only about Georgia that would be fine with me.

Do you know anything about the language?

John said...

Thanks for your comments. I have more or less stumbled into most things of significance in my life. I never had any great interest in vising Georgia, even after I was well on the road to becoming Orthodox. One day I was thumbing through a travel magazine (probably in an doctor's office) and was taken aback by a stunning full-page photograph of a Georgian mountain valley. I remember thinking that if I never went anywhere else, I had to go THERE. And so I did. I was past 50 when I first set foot on Georgian soil. As you already have the desire to visit Georgia, even at your young age, I have no doubt that you will do so one day.

John said...


Thank you for you kind words. Do expect a few more Georgian posts in coming days.

I do not know a great deal about the language. I think it is beautiful in print--I tell people it looks like "elvish."

I do know that a general rule is that every letter is spoken, there are no silent letters. Thus a fairly simple Georgian word like "Khvanchkara" (my favorite wine) gives me fits. I struggle trying to pronounce the K and H and V, all together.

My impression is that Georgians tend to be voluble and gregarious in their conversations. I would overhear two people talking and think they were arguing. I finally asked my friend Luarsab about it. He just shrugged and said they were not angry, but that was simply the way they talked.

I do know one Georgian word--and I use it frequently. The word given at a toast is "gaumarjos" (pronounced GAH-mar-jose). The word has a much deeper meaning than the English word "cheers," for example. It actually means "victory." Georgians are accustomed to living in a dangerous neighborhood--Persians, Mongols, Turks, Russians, Dhagastanis and countless others have all had a go at the region. When two or more Georgians would share a parting drink in too-often perilous times, they had little assurance that they would meet again. And so, the toast of "victory." It's a wonderful use of the word, don't you think?

pontus' palate said...

Yes, I agree.

I used to play chess with an retired Georgian doctor who came to my country under very sad circumstances (or rather he found himself in sad circumstances when he and his wife arrived). There isn't really a large diaspora anywhere I think.

I was young at the time and found him very gruff but we could relate over the chessboard, although he knew no english and I knew no georgian or russian. I did know some international chess words.

He was a very tenacious player and when I managed to win I felt we connected when he would look at me with admiration. When we went back to his apartment he would stand straight up bark orders to his wife to get me cookies.

I moved away for three years, but when I moved back I didn't connect with him again. He was moved to an extended care home for something I don't know what.

This last summer he died. His wife had asked our priest to visit him when he was dying. He was an atheist. I was told he accepted to give confession but I don't know how genuine it was.

I got a funeral card with a nice picture of him as a young man with some landscape pictures from Georgia I think.

Reading about Georgia here feels like a reminder to pray for him. His wife has since moved to another city to live with relatives.