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Friday, August 03, 2012

tolstoy and pussy riot


The Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church issued a ruling in February, 1901, that read in part:

“In our days, God has permitted a false teacher to appear: Count Leo Tolstoy. A writer well known to the world, Russian by birth,and Orthodox by baptismand education, Count Tolstoy has been seduced by his intellectual pride; has insolently risen both against the Lord and his Christ and against his holy hermitage; and has publically, in the sight of all humankind, repudiated the Orthodox Mother Church which reared and educated him.” This was the Church’s notice that Tolstoy, for writing The Kingdom of God is within you, Resurrection and supporting a radical pacifism, was no longer a member of the Church.

In Resurrection, Tolstoy had parodied Pobedonostsev, the head of the Church in Moscow. After the novel came out, “Pobedonostsev personally visited TsarNikolai II to acquire his approval, which he obtained.” [A history of Russian Christianity, 202]

In 2010, the Church confirmed the excommunication:
“Leo Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901 can’t be overturned because the writer never publicly renounced his “tragic spiritual aberrations” a church official said.
“The decision of the Most Holy Governing Synod merely stated an accomplished fact,” said Archimandrate Tikhon Shevkunov, executive secretary of Patriarch Kirill’s council on culture. “Count Tolstoy excommunicated himself from the church, he broke with it entirely. He not only didn’t deny this, but emphasized it vigorously at every opportunity.”
Shevkunov was responding to an open letter to the patriarch from Sergei Stepashin, a former prime minister, on the occasion of the centenary of Tolstoy’s death on Nov. 20. Stepashin, as head of the Russian Book Union, asked the patriarch to explain the church’s position on Tolstoy and to make a “public display of compassion in some form.” – Bloomberg
Let’s remember, for a second, that this is a church that regards Czar Nicholas II – the man who ordered the anti-semitic pogroms of 1905, and who was responsible for the slaughter of millions during World War I – as a saintly martyr.

Tolstoy replied to the publication of the excommunication with a letter in which he displayed more art. Tolstoy’s genius for the direct comes out in his list of faults with the decree, among which is this:

… it is arbitrary, for it accuses only me of disbelief in all the points enumerated in the Edict ; whereas many, in fact almost all educated people, share that disbelief and have constantly expressed and still express it both in conversations, in lectures, in pamphlets and in books.
It is unfounded because it gives as a chief cause of its publication the great circulation of the false teaching wherewith I pervert the people — whereas I am well assured that hardly a hundred people can be found who share my views, and the circulation of my writings on religion, thanlcs to the Censor, is so insignificant that the majority of those who have read the Synod's Edict have not the least notion of what I may have written about religion — as is shown by the letters I have received.
It contains an obvious falsehood, for it says that efforts have been made by the Church to show me my errors, but that these efforts have been unsuccessful. Nothing of the kind ever took place.
It constitutes what in legal terminology is called a libel, for it contains assertions known to be false and tending to my hurt.
It is, finally, an incentive to evil feelings and deeds, for, as was to be expected, it evoked, in unenlightened and unreasoning people, anger and hatred against me, culminating in threats of murder expressed in letters I received. One writes : ^ Now thou hast been anathe- matized, and after death wilt go to everlasting torments, and wilt perish like a dog . . . anathema upon thee, old devil ... be damned.' Another blames the Government for not having, as yet, shut me up in a monastery, and fills his letter with abuse. A third writes : ' If the Government does not get rid of you, we will ourselves make you shut your mouth,' and the letter ends with curses. ' May you be destroyed — you blackguard !' writes a fourth ; ' I shall find means to do it . . . and then follows indecent abuse.”
Tolstoy wanted to destroy the superstitions with which he felt the relationship between God and man had become encrusted. He went to any lengths to make clear that this relationship was, pre-eminently, one of clearsightedness. Some of this most powerful writings are simply enumerations of uncomfortable facts: for instance, in his pamphlet on the assassination of King Umberto by an anarchist, he went out of his way to condemn killers – including King Umberto, whose army in Ethiopia was engaged precisely in killing. These are the kinds of things that make for social discomfort. To say, for instance, that George Bush is a much bigger killer than Osama bin Laden is simply a statistical truth. But to say, we can guarantee a controversy – as if truth had to be imbued with the proper apologetic before it can make its way to the surface, to the text or the tip of the tongue. Tolstoy spent his life trying to drain the apologetic from his speech. Alas, even this notion has been colonized and commercialized under the slogan of speaking “truth to power” – a phrase that banalizes the process down to a bumper sticker, and makes it a lie – a lie that the truth is somehow outside of power, and is being used for the most ideal of purposes by the blameless, or the victim.
All of which brings us to the Pussy Riot trial. I went with some friends to the Triannale at the Palais de Tokio the other day, and they were showing the video of the performance at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow for which the Pussy Riot women are now on trial. It was a fascinating performance, in the best punk tradition. It called out the Orthodox hierarchy for their wretched subservience to the Putin regime. And it used the words God and shit together, although my friend Masha, who watched it, said that the translation is inaccurate – the word shit is something more like excrement, the thing expulsed.
Tolstoy, with his 19th century sexism, would probably not have approved, and with his19th century positivism, he would have found invocations of the Virgin to be superstition and false. However, he would have recognized the spirit of Vera Zasulich, the woman who tried to assassinate the governor general of St. Petersburg in the 1870s – as well as the sublimation of that violence.
The Pussy Riot trial is, of course, a farce that is humiliating the Putin regime more than the supposed “criminals”. I think Putin has recognized this. But it is fascinating to see the old cogs still in motion, the old torture device of rigged trials and false piety still being used, as though it had never been put in the museum at all.
Destroy the machine!  



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