Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Andrew Bacevich is a National Treasure

     "How to revive the flagging fortunes of the Republican Party might matter to some people, but it's not a question that should concern principled conservatives.  Crypto-conservatives aplenty stand ready to shoulder that demeaning task.  Tune in Fox News  or pick up the latest issue of National Review or the Weekly Standard and you'll find them, yelping, whining, and fingering our recently reelected president as the Antichrist.
     Conservatives who prefer thinking to venting--those confident that a republic able to survive eight years of George W. Bush can probably survive eight years of Barack Obama--confront a question of a different order.  To wit:  does authentic American conservatism retain any political viability in this country in the present age?  That is, does homegrown conservatism have any lingering potential for gaining and exercising power at the local, state, or national levels?  Or has history consigned the conservative tradition--as it has Marxism--to a status where even if holding some residual utility as an analytical tool, it no longer possesses value as a basis for practical action?"

From Counterculture Conservatism:  The right needs less Ayn Rand, more Flannery O'Connor by Andrew Bacevich in the January/February 2013 issue of The American Conservative (not yet online)

Friday, January 18, 2013

2013 Georgian Monastery Tour

Once again I have the great pleasure of helping spread the word about the annual Georgian Monastery Tour.  If you have ever thought about visiting the country (and what right-thinking person hasn't,) then there is no better way to do so than with John and Luarsab and the crew.  I am not a tour person, but my 2007 visit was a highlight of my life.  I am seriously considering ways in which I could justify going this year.  I suppose the house could go another year without paint. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Aesthetic Irresponsibility in a Broad and Mellow Land (Part II)

          With this post, I continue a few observations on W. E. D. Allen's 1932 A History of the Georgian People.  The author contends that in the late Middle Ages, and during the transition into the Modern Age, that Georgia's status differed little from that of Spain, France or England.  In other words, by comparison there was nothing intrinsically different about the obstacles the Georgians faced, when compared to these other peoples as they were developing into great empires.  So the question remains, why did the Spanish, French and English succeed (if that is the right word) and the Georgians failed?  Allen may be on to something, but in so doing may call into question traditional definitions of success and failure.
     ...the difficulties which impeded the consolidation of a strong Caucasian State were no greater than those which had stood in the way of the rising Houses of France and Castile in the West.  Set against Persian influence in the eastern Caucasus the predominance of the English in Anjou, Gascony and Guienne or of the Muslims in Andalusia; set against the dinintegrant local lordships in Imereti and Samtzkhe the dukedoms of Brittany and Burgundy or the powerful independencies of Aragon and Navarre; you have the same picture.  And the problem presented to the Bagratids by the mountaineers of Circassia, Osseti and Daghestan was no greater than to the Plantagenets and Tudors was the problem of "the Celtic fringe" in Ireland, Wales and Scotland.  For the Georgian Kingdom of the Bagratids, the possibilities of power, of nascent nationhood, the chances of history, were much the same as those of Aragon and Castle, little less than those of Valois France and of Plantagenet England.  And therefore we may inquire why at the  of the eighteenth century, when France and Spain and England had grown to be the proud world-empires of the West, Georgia was no more than a string of paltry principalities ready to the may of the Russian Emperors.  In history we speak much of economic forces, of geographical conditions, of universal political tendencies.  Yet so much of it is man-made and chance-made.  Character and luck are the fundaments of Empire.  The characters of individual men and the luck of not infrequently a loaded dice it was that gave England power in the five continents, and left German emerging tardily from mediaeval divisions to impotent resentful unity; that made the Castilians rise to Empire, while ancient cultured Italy remained a congeries of senile principalities; that thrust down Sweden with the feckless Vasas and reared up the Dutch, so careful, obstinate and grasping; that sank derelict the jabbering liberties of Poland, and founded the sombre rigidity of the Muscovian Monarchy.

     In Georgia history went askew....the Georgians had ample time, one hundred years, in which to consolidate a stable kingdom based on a common nationhood, which no less than sprawling, disjointed Poland might have resisted the onset of the Turks....Yet in that century the political battle of the Georgian people was lost, and the nation passed to a perpetual minimality....In Georgia, the shattered and dissected monarchy forgot even its vain pretension to rule "from Nikopsia to Derbend"; "the Mussulman third" of the Caucasus which in the twelfth and even in the fourteenth century had been partly won and might have been consolidated, was lost for ever.

     The Georgian rivals fought like chivalrous boys; they did not kill like kings.  The House of Bagrationi spawned far and wide its handsome knightly claimants, but not one of them grew cunning, mean and watchful-to scotch the rest.  Here were no cold, wary Tudors whetting the axe for their distant cousins, but a pack of Christian gentlemen wasting the land in chivalrous fracas.   (emphasis mine)  In this period the gallantry of one claimant towards another is as amazing as the futility of their plots and combinations.  From which let us remember that is is not Black Princes that have built the nations, but black livers [and]...that nations, like tunnels, roads and bridges, are not built by gentle men.

     One of my core beliefs about history is the fact that it can turn on a dime.  Character, circumstances and chance--what some would characterize as luck--are often more important to the direction of history than any socio-economic factors, or God forbid, ideologies.  I think Allen would certainly agree with all that.  In short, he finds that the Georgian Kingdom failed because its people were too foolish, too gallant, too romantic, too gentle, and dare I say it it--too Christian.  As my son put it, they were not serious enough about killing to become a "great" nation. 

     When the two of us traveled to Svaneti in 2006, our guide hired three armed guards to follow our rattle-trap old Lada up into the Caucasus.  I thought it was overkill at the time, as I have never concerned myself much about personal safety.  She explained that solitary vehicles on these mountain passes made easy targets for local bandits.  These brigands would rob travelers, but they never committed murder.  She went on to explain that if you had wine in the vehicle, they would probably uncork it and pass the bottle around with you before fading back into the forest.


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.)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Homily 51


I thought I would start off the New Year on a high note by quoting from St. Isaac the Syrian.  The problem with doing this, however, is finding a place to stop.   Here is a selection from Homily 51:

Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life and there is no mention of it in Christ's teaching.  Rejoice with the joyous and weep with those who weep, for this is the sign of limpid purity.  Suffer with those who are ill and mourn with sinners; with those who repent, rejoice.  Be every man's friend, but in your mind remain alone.  Be a partaker in the sufferings of all men, but keep your body distant from all.  Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even men who live very wickedly.  Spread your cloak over the man who is falling and cover him.  And if you cannot take upon yourself his sins and receive his chastisement in his stead, then at least patiently suffer his shame and do not disgrace him.  Do not strive with men for the sake of the belly.   And do not hate for the sake of honour.  and do not find pleasure in judging....If you cannot be still within your heart, then at least make still your tongue.  If you cannot give right ordering to your thoughts, at least give right ordering to your senses.  If you cannot be solitary in your mind, at least be solitary in your body.  If you cannot labour with your body, at least be afflicted in mind.  If you cannot keep your vigil standing, keep vigil sitting on your pallet, or lying down.  If you cannot fast for two days at a time, at least fast till evening.  And if you cannot fast until evening, then at least keep yourself from satiety.  If you are not holy in your heart, at least be holy in body.  If you do not mourn in your heart, at least cover your face with mourning.  If you cannot be merciful, at least speak as though you are a sinner.  If you are not a peacemaker, at least do not be a troublemaker.  If you cannot be assiduous, at least in your thought be like a sluggard.  If you are not victorious, do not exalt yourself over the vanquished.  If you cannot close the mouth of a man who disparages his companion, at least refrain from joining him in this.

Know that if fire goes forth from you and consumes other men, God will demand from your hands the souls which your fire has burned.  And if you yourself do not put forth the fire, but are in agreement with him who does, and are pleased by it, in the judgement you will be reckoned as his accomplice.  If you love gentleness, be peaceful.  If you are deemed worthy of peace, you will rejoice at all times.  Seeks understanding, not gold.  Clothe yourself with humility, not fine linen.  Gain peace, not a kingdom.