Posts Tagged ‘Renaissance’

Orlando Figes: Natasha’s Dance

February 2, 2022

Anyone who has read any Russian literature or history must be aware of how different a nation Russia feels compared with ourselves or other European nations; sadly this awareness never seems to percolate down to politicians… Agains the current backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, I was constantly struck by the lack of ability or willingness of Western leaders and politicians to see the world from the perspective of Russia and its people, which might actually inform a more helpful and sensible response to them. But we are incapable of going beyond the triumphalism of “we won the Cold War”. It was in the hope of digging deeper and understanding more, that I finally opened this tome which I’d bought nearly 20 years ago.

Figes offers an excellent, clear and detailed contextual background at the start, and this is possibly the best part of the book, as he takes us far back into the country’s history. Russia had no experience of the Renaissance, and no religious Reformation: here are two major differences which set it apart from the rest of Europe. Then there is the power of Orthodox Church rule, which I’d never really grasped, and it gradually became clear how the church developed into an arm of the state and its power as time passes, far more a part of the establishment than the Church of England is here, for example, with there being only the one faith in Russia. Then there were the long years of Tatar rule. And serfdom, an idea we have no conception of here in the West, and it struck me quite forcefully how Stalin’s labour camps were in many ways a return to that idea, an almost endless supply of slave labour at the service of the rulers.

The idea that you could send troublemakers to Siberia – thousands of miles away – reminded me that we transported criminals to the American colonies and later to Australia, but Russia sent away clever people, intellectuals, dangerous thinkers, and then eventually allowed a lot of them to return home.

Figes documents the relationship between Russia and Europe, or rather the relationship between the Russian intellectuals, aristocracy and bourgeoisie and Europe, for the peasantry and serfs were a class completely apart. Does Russia belong in Europe or not? This is a question which still poses itself today, even though in different terms. From an incredibly wide knowledge of Russian history, art, literature and culture generally, Figes shows us the love/hate relationship which has endured for centuries: Russian feelings of inferiority when they compared themselves with what Europe had attained culturally and economically, and equally the Russian sense of purity and superiority when faced with what they perceived as our decadence…

Russians sought to imitate us, and then to derive and develop something better and more specifically Russian from their encounters with the West, but the pull (and the repulsion) has always been there. This ambivalence has been long-lasting as over centuries the country sought to define and understand itself in relation to the west. Is the famed Russian soul, the Russian psyche, really different from ours?

We eventually move on to the idea that Russians are somehow prone to collective emotion and political excess, which Figes illustrates by reference to the Populists of the 19th century and the Bolsheviks of the 20th. He sees a quasi-religious angle to the Russian revolution, anchored in the nation’s past. Soviets wrestled with how to transform the backwardness of Russian society, and their attempts were too radical and wide-ranging to have succeeded anywhere, perhaps least of all in such a backward nation. Excesses developed easily and were widespread.

Where the book falls down, in my estimation, is in the burden of too much detail, too much reference to the minutiae of various paintings, operas, ballets etc. In places it’s repetitive, in others it doesn’t make for clarity when you can’t see the paintings, for example; there are some illustrations included, but too few for the general reader to follow Figes’ analysis.

The section on Soviet art and culture feels very much tacked on to the rest of the book and not linked with Figes general thesis; clearly late capitalism and its effects were much more extreme in that country than in the rest of Europe, which links in with the idea that Russia did not go through the bourgeois phase, in the Marxist interpretation of history and economic development. I got the impression that Figes regards the art and culture of the Soviet era as an aberration; he is almost dismissive of it. He spends as much time on emigres as the homeland. However, he is interesting on artists’ experiences of exile, and how its effects were far broader than we can imagine.

Russia is obviously a country of extremes, and this must be connected with the sheer physical vastness of the country; even the USA, another vast and extreme nation in some ways, is only half the size. The church is very much a tool of the state; it reinforced Tsarist power, and was even invoked by Stalin in the darkest days of the Great Patriotic War. It is very different from Western Christianity, anchored in ritual, rather than based on theology.

It’s a useful book and I learned quite a lot from it; my sense of the background to Russian history is rather clearer, and yet the overall effect was not as coherent as I had hoped.

Marguerite Yourcenar: L’Oeuvre au Noir

June 18, 2018

51zEOgllRmL._AC_US218_51HB6gDD2sL._AC_US218_Have you ever read a book, thought, “That was really good!” and realised that you hadn’t really grasped more that half of it? That happened again, with another Marguerite Yourcenar novel, just as it had a few years with her more famous Memoirs of Hadrian… I shall be going back to both of them, because there’e so much more in there.

This novel was translated into English as The Abyss by Yourcenar’s lover. It’s a bildungsroman in a sense, as it’s Zeno’s life and development that we follow mainly, in the development of the mind of a Renaissance genius and freethinker – so you know really that it’s not likely to turn out well for him. The early sixteenth century, with its explosion of knowledge plus a certain measure of intellectual liberty (in some places) unleashed by the Reformation, holds a fascination for writers; this novel recalled for me the award-winning (and soon-forgotten) Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, and the astonishing Q by Luther Blissett, the only novel I know of written by an anarchist collective… Also in there is an echo of Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund, as Yourcenar does spend time comparing the attitudes and fates of Zeno’s childhood companion, too.

Zeno’s main interest is scientific – including alchemical – and medical research, many aspects of which were fraught with all sorts of dangers in those days. The rich heir, Zeno’s friend and companion of his early days, rejects that world in favour of soldiering and whoring; they meet up after many years in a significant encounter. Indeed there are many chance encounters and re-encounters throughout this novel, which add layers of depth and meaning to events and characters.

The turbulent backdrop of warfare and religious strife forms a panorama to the book; Yourcenar is clearly very interested in what people then knew and didn’t know, what they cared about and didn’t care about. The picture she develops is quite different from our twenty-first century picture of what things were like back then, and her picture of the isolation of thinkers, writers and savants in a time where communication was a lengthy process or hardly existed at all, where one didn’t learn of quite major or catastrophic events until months later is quite an eye-opener. Little knowledge being disseminated, it was possible for significant research and discoveries to be lost forever; equally laborious work might be duplicated unwittingly. It was a long time before a world of new learning had accumulated sufficient critical mass to become a permanent fixture, incapable of being suppressed by religious or temporal powers.

Yourcenar also evokes brilliantly through the character of Zeno how the mind of a savant in those times so different from our own might have worked, explored, wandered from subject to subject, and attempted to work things out; from the historical and the psychological perspective it’s a powerful and thought-provoking novel, and a reminder of both how dangerous knowledge can be, and how tenuous our hold on progress and civilisation is, too.

Johannes Fried: The Middle Ages

July 27, 2017

I’m starting this post with a really major gripe, that a major academic press should publish a book like this, that has been so poorly edited and so sloppily proof-read. In places it reads as if it’s been translated using google translate, with infelicities of expression and poor syntax making it at times almost incomprehensible; there are errors in some Latin expressions and in a couple of places, proof-reading annotations have been erroneously left in the final text… good grief!

The book itself is a difficult read: there’s such a huge sweep of time and material to cover that it seems impossible to corral it all coherently, and the author has to keep doubling back on himself, picking up threads he dropped for a while. And there are so many names, of tin-pot local rulers in the Europe of those times. Fried’s focus is mainly on France, Germany and Italy – or the areas that comprise those nations today – and in some ways that’s understandable, as the core of the story was there, and the rest of the continent was peripheral.

And yet – it’s really good. It challenged me, and the picture I’d had of the Middle Ages, almost through my entire reading life. It is a revisionist approach, countering the perceived idea of those times as a swamp of ignorance and barbarity that was finally and thankfully swept aside by the flowering of the Renaissance, followed by the Enlightenment.

The major calamity or disruption to civilisation was the collapse of the Roman Empire: after that, the story is one of people and principalities attempting to pick up the pieces and stick something back together again, a tale of warlords and would-be aristocrats learning how to build and maintain countries, defining the nature of kingship and its relationship to those being ruled, against a backdrop of the Church and the Papacy also flexing its muscles and trying to assume ever more power, as well as defining itself in increasingly secular terms. You can certainly see, by the end of the book, where the impulses for the Reformation came from: the corruption of the Church was truly scandalous.

The scale of the task of recovering from a collapse of civilisation is vast: Fried shows us how much had to be rediscovered and re-invented (and was – the idea that all learning vanished until the Renaissance is clearly untrue). Even the capacities of language itself were limited, as the universal language had disappeared…

A great deal of work clearly went on: monastic orders were founded and texts were preserved, even if then lost again or not understood; cities developed and the necessary apparatus of law painfully developed to allow trade and the slow evolution of what would become capitalism, and Europe itself; the old religious attitudes to money (root of all evil) and interest (sinful) were gradually reinterpreted as everyone came to see how essential both were to progress…

Equally, Fried shows us the beginnings of the growth of reason, the gulf opening up between it and faith, which I had again always associated with the Renaissance and Enlightenment: ways of thinking evolved and you can see the gradual development of the European mind; the task of defending religion (specifically the Catholic Church) against the onslaughts of reason was already a challenging task towards the end of these times.

The picture of the Middle Ages as an obscurantist epoch is ultimately, Fried demonstrates, a product of the Enlightenment rather than a truth about those times. The quest for knowledge was pursued vigorously and moved towards the era of exploration and contact with the world outside Europe; even though a great deal of geographical knowledge from earlier times did in fact still exist, it was not easily accessible or directly usable, and this helped keep the brakes on discovery.

Fried’s overall sweep is masterly, through such an enormous amount of material: over the course of the book he does manage to draw together the vital strands and show how they came together over time; the thematic chapters were for me far more interesting than the endless iteration of names of princelings throughout Europe. He shows us the gradual development which ultimately led to the coherence of Europe as a place and an idea, the centre of a particular civilisation which, for better or worse, we are all part of…

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