In the ancient world, texts are written for the ear, not for the eye. Continue reading
For Yuri; an afterthought to how Dostoyevsky may have replied to Gerard’s objections to the focus on tending to the heart, and his championing of economic development and rationalization of the social world as the primary route leading to the reduction of the world’s problems and, seemingly, the improvement of human nature — in which moral and ascetical practices, such as tending to one’s heart, are seen as superfluous at best. What follows below is not an argument against this (who would begrudge development?), simply an attempt at being an amanuensis of sorts. Continue reading
Preparation protects us from being sneak-attacked
by the long slog of work-over-time; Continue reading
For Yuri, a prelude (whose scope and sprawling messiness was massively underestimated when I began work on it) to other pieces, already underway.
The Prompt for This Post
Or, How I Ended Up Down This Rabbit Hole
This bizarre and metastasizing tumor of a post was initially prompted by a number of passages in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, one in particular that comes towards the beginning of the book. The figure in this passage, Alexei (Alyosha) Fyodorovich Karamazov, is left motherless at the age of four. The narrator tells us that “though it is strange, I know that he remembered his mother all his life — as if through sleep, of course.” We soon hear this repeated:
although he lost his mother in his fourth year, he remembered her afterwards all his life, her face, her caresses, “as if she were standing alive before me.” Such memories can be remembered (everyone knows this) even from an earlier age, even from the age of two, but they only emerge throughout one’s life as specks of light, as it were, against the darkness, as a corner torn from a huge picture, which has all faded and disappeared except for that little corner. That is exactly how it was with him: he remembered a quiet summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (these slanting rays he remembered most of all), an icon in the corner of the room, a lighted oil-lamp in front of it, and before the icon, on her knees, his mother, sobbing as if in hysterics, with shrieks and cries, seizing him in her arms, hugging him so tightly that it hurt, and pleading for him to the Mother of God, holding him out from her embrace with both arms towards the icon, as if under the protection of the Mother of God…and suddenly a nurse rushes in and snatches him from her in fear. [A1]
The sequence of the narrative seems to suggest a connection between this memory and Alyosha being gathered to the Elder Zosima.
The imagery in the excerpt above seemed to have familiar symbolic elements in the background, and so called my mind back to a passage I read about fifteen years ago in a book by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, Theology of Wonder. There Bp. Seraphim wrote about a certain myth, where
[t]he story is told, (we will use a Jewish narration which comes from a deep meditation of Genesis), Adam was clothed in light, yet somehow, whereas children grow out of their clothes, he diminished, and his clothes were shattered and the shards of light became the worlds. And Adam himself was somehow shattered. It is said that the Shekinah, the Presence of God, wanders the world in search of the shreds of light, to gather them. And Adam also, in his exile, seeks to find himself, the way back to himself. It is the story of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob, isn’t it? 
Given the way that the characters in Brothers Karamazov are themselves fractured bits in search of wholeness, and of integration beyond the clamor of interpretations, it seemed like digging up this tradition might be profitable for exploring some of the themes of that novel.
I reached out to Bp. Seraphim for the sources that this passage was drawing upon, but he wrote it long ago, and could not confidently recall them, as he has been occupied with other reading and writing, and with pastoral-episcopal obligations. Therefore, I couldn’t let go until I had gotten to the bottom of things; it took me down a rabbit hole, and here is what I found, Yuri.
It turns out that his telling is an accidental fusion of two traditions.
The first is the very old tradition –earliest evidence in the first century B.C. or A.D., though I have a hard time imagining it is not older– of Adam’s primordial garments of light, lost through the transgression, to be reunited at the end of time, or to reappear in and on the Messiah. Sometimes the garments are clearly garments of light, sometimes Adam is covered with “light”, sometimes “glory” or canopies of cloud. (It is not clear that second temple Jewish authors made a very strong distinction between light and glory.) This theme of “the glory of Adam” is found in late second temple Jewish, Rabbinic, Samaritan, and Christian contexts. The Syriac tradition is the one that carried this tradition the longest, with the most explicit language. Probably through East Roman (vi&., Greek) readings and incorporations of the hymnody of Ephrem the Syrian, a variant of this tradition ends up in the Byzantine Liturgy, and so would have been familiar to Dostoyevsky through its recitation at the beginning of each Lent with the chanting of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the hagiographer of St. Mary of Egypt. (This, in addition to any detection Dostoyevsky may have made of this theme in the New Testament.) In the Greek, Roman, and Syriac traditions, there is a strong internal element to these garments, even if they appear ritually in the baptismal robes — the heart can be “clothed in light” or “clothed in darkness”, and the soul can become, especially in the writings of Pseudo-Macarius, the chariot or tabernacle or temple of God himself.
The second is a late medieval Kabbalistic tradition about the “shattering of the vessels” coming from Adam Kadmon (something like the primordial man, the first emanation of Ein Sof in Lurianic Kabbalah, not to be confused with “the human, humus from the soil” as Robert Alter translates Genesis 2:7). This tradition is associated with Isaac Luria. The distinction between the primordial archetype of humanity and the original human being goes back at least to Philo of Alexandria, who, as I recall, upon reading the distinctive stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, interpreted Genesis 1 in a Platonic fashion. (There is an analog of this theme of gathering in the Hebrew Bible, in the writings of the second temple period, and in the New Testament [1γ]. Fair warning: I won’t be exploring the themes in this parenthetical note in what follows.)
Time constraints prevent me from being exhaustive in exploring these myths — I do not have time to look at the Lurianic one here, though I recommend Gershom Scholem’s book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism if you’d like to pursue it, Yuri (there is a whole section on this myth there), and several have recommended this book by Luria’s disciple, apparently summarizing the Lurianic system. (I cannot chase that stream right now.) Further, I shall be uneven in the degree to which I examine the several themes pulled out, below, but I would like to look at some of their elements (of responsibility, of autonomy, of alienation, of interiority, of clothing, &c.). I am told that the Zoharic tradition contains nothing in it about the Shekinah gathering anything to do with Adam, as (again, so I’m told by the several scholars I touched base with) the advent of the Torah coincides with the return of the Shekinah to heaven in the Jewish mystical tradition.
The list I have just mentioned is itself, of course, not exhaustive of the texts under consideration, but relative to imminent projects, and many bear upon themes and passages in The Brothers Karamazov. I leave them here, mostly in isolation from those projects, so that other interested readers may examine this tradition without referring to the concerns that brought me to research and write this for you in the first place.
The Harvard Ed Portal near me hosts several events, and yesterday’s was “Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band” (there is a YouTube clip of the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band here (that family has been doing this for eleven generations!), and an NPR clip of Wu Man here; there is also a disc they were selling at this event titled “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”, available as a disc and for streaming, YouTube trailer here — more on this disc later, and its accompanying school lesson-plan material, which prompted this post). The event was, in several ways, both eye-opening and beautiful (alien in its tones and stories and some of the conventions of singing; familiar in its musical similarity to Blues and the visual similarity of the puppets to certain Late Antique Anglo-Saxon and Celtic knotwork illuminated manuscript conventions; moving all around).
I loved the show, the performers seemed like wonderful people, and they were very gracious in fielding our questions. I was sad to hear that there were fewer than thirty people left in China who knew this trade — the performers told me that they were 12 when they made their first puppet (out of cow skin, via a rigorous process), and 20 when they could manipulate the flat figures, which each have three poles to move the many parts, with one hand only (to see what I’m talking about, expand this post by clicking “continue reading” below, then look at the image on the header of the expanded post). The younger generations want to leave the villages, want lucrative careers, just want to watch cartoons — though they flock to the performances when they’re held. Thankfully, the Chinese government recognizes the cultural value of this profession, and supports the mission of these puppeteers (similar to how Irish Gaelic survives in the state-sponsored Gaeltachtaí).
On my way out the door, however, I was dismayed to find that an American product was being pushed at the door that, despite its best intentions, was not only smugly imperialist in its self-assured nihilism but insulting to the richness of the Chinese tradition, and its clear apprehension that value is real, and insulting to the Western European tradition, which has also traditionally recognized that what is worth pursuing is worth pursuing because of its inherent worthiness. Continue reading