One Thousand Words or So

Round and Round

It’s one of those days in which I can’t seem to accomplish much. Tomorrow will be worse.

It’s 9:30 p.m. I have a memory card to download but little else.

Maybe I’ll resort to the strategy I used yesterday, killing two birds with one stone: digging up inspiration and removing another tab from my browser.

A few weeks ago, I somehow stumbled upon a post by Eugene Vodolazkin, the author of Laurus. Not only that, but it was published at First Things, a site I visit occasionally. Finding the two connected was a surprise, yet it makes sense, so I guess I’m not really surprised. After shooting past the post in my browser every day, I read it, a day or two ago, and I really wanted to close it down, but I knew I’d need to pay it more attention and process it before I moved on to the other post at First Things that Vodolazkin wrote. Who knew?

In “The Age of Concentration,” Vodolazkin is comparing Russia to the U.S. and finding that Russia is turning inward. This intrigues me, because last night I met a character in A Gentleman in Moscow, who works for the government and has asked Count Rostov to help him become a gentleman. He claims that Russia is on the verge of becoming a player in the world, and he wants to be ready to mingle. Russia did, indeed, become a player in the twentieth century, fighting for the spotlight with the United States. But now?

The contrast between Russia and the U.S. has reached a point that it did not seem to have attained even in Soviet times. The propaganda war waged by each side has taken on a form unprecedented in its harshness. At times, one fears that rashly pronounced words could turn into bullets. And all this is taking place with Russia no longer a communist country in ideological conflict with the West. An absurd situation? Yes, but only if one takes into account nothing other than economic and political factors. If one believes metaphysics is one of the movers of history, the situation is less surprising. 

The antagonism between Russia and the United States is a sign of the era that is replacing the one we inherited. I call it the age of concentration, and put it in the same category as antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and modernity. In a formal sense, the age of concentration can be compared to the ­Renaissance, but with a significant difference: What is being resurrected is not antiquity but the Middle Ages. There are two levels of this restoration, one personal and the other social. 

Vodolazkin is a philologist who works on medieval manuscripts, so he likely knows what he’s talking about when he starts in about the Middle Ages. Check out this paragraph:

Our dispersed and untrained souls need to be shaped and formed, attaining focus or concentration. This will have to be realized first of all on the personal level, requiring the development of the ability of self-direction independent of the condition of society and the propaganda surrounding us. Personal concentration works against the dispersing influences that might otherwise gain control of our souls. 

Are echoes of Jordan Peterson ringing in your ears, as they are mine? In yesterday’s post, I shared some of the Quillette interview with Peterson, specifically the section in which he asserts that first and foremost, individuals must get their houses in order, and the positive changes there will ripple out to affect society in the right way. Vodolazkin himself provides a nice connection to the words of Peterson when he writes, “Thus, when we speak of a rise in social tension in society, we tend to forget that this nervous energy is generated by concrete human souls. Of course these souls resonate with each other, but this nervous energy can be turned off only by each specific human being—in himself.”

I find this paragraph especially insightful:

We live in a time when mass consciousness is being inculcated by education and media. It encourages horizontal connections. We think of ourselves in terms of relationships to other people. The individual becomes part of a mass. Celebrity marks an important instance. It is a status won by horizontal acclaim. The Middle Ages, by contrast, exalted sanctity, which flows from the vertical connection to God, not horizontal connections to others. This vertical connection provided the individual with autonomy, allowing him to evaluate events and relationships from the point of view of religious ethics. Today, the paradigmatic modern way of achieving independence from mass consciousness is one of social protest. But this is horizontal—the position “against.” The vertical connection provides a much stronger position. It puts one in position “above” and transcends the horizontal web of social relations.  

Just today, on Twitter, I witnessed the latest hero of the moment being torn down by those who placed her on the pedestal in the first place. She tried to rebel against the thought police and form her own opinions, refusing to kowtow to a person who has been accorded greater victim status. I wonder how she’ll fare in the end.

Vodolazkin is talking about putting our trust in what will last for eternity, rather than hoping that moth and rust will glance over and spare what we value here on earth.

In his comparison between modernity and the Middle Ages, Vodolazkin considers the concept of time, and you know I find that fascinating. He tells me that in the Middle Ages, time was viewed cyclically, not linearly. Rather than looking to the future, as we are always doing, trying to progress to some sort of utopia, people in the Middle Ages saw old events as being repeated at a new level. The Incarnation was the apex of history, and it got played out over and over in the Christian Mass.

There is much more to the article, and it is certainly worth reading. Tomorrow, I hope to get a chance to read Vodolazkin’s other post on First Things. I’ve already added his second novel to my wishlist and will likely order it when the translation becomes available.

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