Reflections on Entering and Leaving the Left, and Other Matters, Part i.

Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855–1888).jpg
This somehow this seemed an appropriate portrait for this essay: here at his desk is the young Russian radical and author Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855–1888), as depicted by his friend Ilia Efimovich Repin. (Met. 1972.145.2)

For some time now I’ve realized that I am effectively politically and ideologically homeless. Having for a time sojourned on the libertarian left, over the last few years I’ve drifted away from the left side of the spectrum, but without really ending up anywhere classifiable. By many metrics I no doubt still appear ‘leftish’—I am critical of both statism and capitalism, embrace political decentralization, the wider distribution of power and wealth, localized control, the importance of unions, co-ops, and other mutualist or even socialist forms of political economy, and so on. While I would not describe myself as an environmentalist, my reasons are similar to those of someone like Paul Kingsnorth (whose trajectory I think I can understand quite well, and which has many similarities with my own), and the importance of the ecological to my politics has increased, in no small part I suspect to having recently become a father. But at the same time I have grown extremely critical, or simply uninterested, in much of the rest of leftist discourse, both in its more ‘classical’ formulations and its contemporary manifestations in the West, most of which I find alternatively infuriating and dull. I have never had any interest in and but little patience for so-called progressive politics, and the recent turn of those politics towards essentialism and shallow identity-mongering has done nothing to raise my appetite. But closer to the lay of the radical politics I once practiced, I can no longer countenance a politics based solely on some form of ‘liberation’ divorced from transcendent values, nor can I intellectually or otherwise justify the ideas of personal autonomy and strict egalitarianism lying behind those ideas of liberation. And I found that a great deal of what I needed to maintain to remain a ‘good’ leftist, even of the libertarian variety, simply did not mesh with any form of reality I could perceive. Nor could I any longer reconcile the full range of my ‘strong’ political commitments with my commitment to Orthodox Christianity and my increasingly ‘thick’ formation within the Church.

But even deeper, I found that I simply could not subordinate my life and the world around me to a political ideology of any sort, that I could not and did not want to bring everything under the aegis of the political: which was exactly what seemingly every political option, left and right, was demanding. So there it is in a nutshell—in what follows, here and in further essays, eventually, I’d like to walk through this process, to scope out my own twists and turns of thinking, of practice, of emotional development and change. As is the case with a lot of personal, autobiographical writing, my foremost goal is really just to explain myself to myself, to make sense of my own life’s trajectory through a selective but, I hope, relatively honest and thoughtful narrative. Of course there are arguments and claims herein, which I imagine an astute reader picking up on and probably contesting. But more fundamentally, I think that this political de-conversion narrative points to a very important reality about what it is to be human: our lives do not unfold neatly and coherently, our thinking and our cultural participation and choices do not necessarily make sense, and where we end up is often quite unpredictable and contingent. Every self is really a sort of bricolage, a multitude of wills at work in one person, as Flannery O’Connor put it. Our lives unfold under the signs of many ‘cultures’ and traces, things gathered in the past rising to the surface unexpectedly and uncalled for. Therein, in fact, lies part of the problem with any political ideology: it tends to smooth things over, to foreclose the stories and pieces and moements that do not ‘fit,’ and to demand that we render our own life narratives accordingly.

So, to begin. I don’t really know precisely at what point I started to think of myself as being on the left of the political spectrum. It was really more of a gradual process, and a gradual realization- both coming and going. In this I imagine that my experience is not too different from that of many others. That said, there have been particular points in my life that have stood out as pivotal moments, both at the time and in later reflection, moments that, not coincidentally, also provide good structure for a narrative. My two most important political epiphanies both came, at different speeds, in the first years of the new millennium: the first, and probably most fundamental, was a result of a summer spent in southwest China, at the tender age of nineteen. That summer was, in retrospect, one of the most important and formative periods in my life, a summer of dawning realizations, vastly opened vistas, joyful, sometimes strange, encounters, and wrenching conclusions about the nature of things. I was hardly a naive or uninformed young person at the time, to be sure, but my knowledge of the world beyond my own corner of it was mostly mediated to me at a remove, and that mediation, as is so often the case, disguised as much as it revealed.

Among the revelations visited upon me during those alternatively blissful and excruciating months in the hills of Yunnan was a clarity about the nature of the state and of capitalism. I had already imbued literature, political positions, and cultural ephemera such as to give me a critical stance towards both, but it was fragmentary and incoherent. I thought of certain sorts of states—authoritarian and totalitarian ones—as ‘bad,’ and if I thought of capitalism at all I worried about its particular uses, and did not think of political economy or economy in general in a very systematic way. I had a sense that capitalism was the result of free markets, within the framework of a state that oversaw some things but mostly left the market to work its magic, or something along those lines.

Continue reading “Reflections on Entering and Leaving the Left, and Other Matters, Part i.”

Derviş ‘Ömer’s Mother Mocks a Saint


As I’ve noted before, Ottoman saints’ lives, especially those from the seventeenth century forward, are often wonderful sources for catching glimpses of everyday life in the Ottoman world, or, rather, ordinary life in contact with the extraordinary powers and abilities of a saint. The eighteenth century menâkıb of Şeyh Hasan Ünsî, which I have featured here several times before, has proven to be an especially good source in this regard, and the story I’ve translated here is yet another instance of the intersection of the saint’s life with the everyday lives of ordinary residents of Istanbul. The story is narrated to the text’s author, Ibrahim Hâs, by one Derviş ‘Ömer, about whom we are given no further details beyond what can be picked up from within the story.

There are several points of significance worth pointing out in relation to this account: one, this story revolves around women’s interactions with Şeyh Hasan. Note that the women in the story interact with the saint quite freely, leaving their house to visit him, entering his presence, kissing his hand, and so forth- while this sort of interaction sometimes drew criticism from other quarters of Ottoman society, here there is no sense of impropriety or critique at all. What is ‘problematic’ from the view of the saint and of the storyteller and the rest of his household, however, is the fact that Derviş ‘Ömer’s mother (whose name is not given in the story), while in some sense a ‘believer’ in the saint, also feels no compunction in parodying his actions, namely, his practicing the ritual of ‘reading and blowing,’ that is, reciting certain efficacious prayers then blowing upon the person seeking healing, the idea being that the saint’s breath will convey healing bereket. If as you imagine a şeyh doing this you find it a bit humorous, you’d be in the company of the people in ‘Ömer’s household, too: hence this story helps us to imagine what sorts of things an eighteenth century Ottoman subject might find funny, such as, evidently, pantomiming a saint.

If you’re also thinking that perhaps pantomiming a saint might not be especially pious and could lead to trouble- especially with Şeyh Hasan, who seems to have been a bit testy- you’d also be right, and that is the ultimate moral of the story, which follows after this helpful illustration:

Hailing from a different story, this illustration from Atayı’s Hamse provides a good visualization of sleeping arrangements in an Ottoman house (though the furnishings along the wall indicate a more lavishly equipped dwelling than the one suggested in our story). (W.666.35B)

There was a child from among our relatives in our household who became sick. My mother and the child’s mother, along with a couple other women of our household, went to visit the şeyh of Aydınoǧlu Tekke, Ünsî Hasan Eendi, in order for him to read over the child, saying to him, ‘Read over this child.’ The venerable Şeyh read over and blew upon the child, then my mother with the other women came home, and in that very moment the child became well.

After my mother returned from visiting the venerable Şeyh, in order to make the women and children in our household laugh said to them, ‘Şeyh Efendi read and blew like this upon the boy—come, let me read over you!’ Saying this she summoned the women in the household and some came and sat down before her. My mother filled her cheeks with air then blew on them, and they all laughed. She did this a couple of times.

When evening came we performed the evening prayers, then put on our clothes for sleeping. There were no people from without the household (nâmahrem) among us. Our house being narrow, we all lay down in one room. We all went to sleep. At some point in the night from our midst there came a great groan and the sound of kicking about. Exclaiming, ‘Who is this, what’s going?’ we all woke up. I lit a candle and saw that it was my mother! She had turned a shade of deep purple and with great anguish she was kicking about, her eyes closed, saying nothing, her mind gone, hearing nothing of our words. We were all scattered about [the room], but we gathered to her, not knowing what to do. She kicked about in this condition for about an hour, struggling. This kept on until suddenly, she went senseless and lay down. ‘Is she dead?’ we cried, but checking we saw that she was fine. For about two hours she lay senseless. Afterwards she gradually grew paler, and a while after that her intellect returned and she opened her eyes, but she was confused. We said, ‘O mother, what happened to you? What changed your condition—this evening there was nothing wrong?’

With sorrow she replied, ‘This evening we all lay down. But while you all fell asleep, I was unable to sleep. I could not close my eyes. I saw before my eyes that the Şeyh Efendi that read over our child had appeared, and at that very moment with power he took hold of my throat and said, “Why did you take me for a laughingstock—am I your laughingstock? Does anyone take me for an object of ridicule?” Saying this he gripped my throat such that while I wanted to cry out and shake it off, I was unable to do so; finally, I passed out. I don’t know anything else.’ Continue reading “Derviş ‘Ömer’s Mother Mocks a Saint”

The Art of Self-Knowledge

JOhn Donne
Portrait of John Donne (1573-1631), painted in 1622. V&A DYCE.5

‘If we remember that such exhortations resound throughout the popular treatises of our period, whether Puritan, Catholic or Anglican, we may avoid a tendency to attribute the acute self-consciousness of English meditative poetry in this era chiefly to Donne’s example, or to declare that “Herbert’s extreme insistence on individual responsibility” is “rather Puritan than ‘Churchly,'” or to attribute to the influence of Epictetus the presence of such a consummately Christian view as that expressed by Donne in his significant lines to Rowland Woodward:

Seeke wee then our selves in our selves; for as
Men force the Sunne with much more force to passe,
By gathering his beames with a christall glasse;

So wee, If wee into our selves will turne,
Blowing our sparkes of vertue, may outburne
The straw, which doth about our hearts sojourne.

But may we not argue that the fierce inward scrutiny of Puritanism intensified this emphasis, put a “finer edge on the spiritual life” by pursuing methods of analysis that “called for more intelligence and more concentration than any of the Catholic techniques”? I believe that the foregoing chapters will have shown that such a view represents a misapprehension of the devotional techniques of the Counter Reformation. Intense concentration on the “motions” of the self is not a peculiar tendency of Puritanism, though it has some peculiar aspects, deriving from Puritan theology… But so far as self-examination is concerned the fact is that both Catholic and Puritan, while accusing each other bitterly of neglecting the inner life, were pursuing the art of self-knowledge by methods equally intense and effective- methods that had, on both hands, developed a subtlety of self-awareness that went far beyond the popular achievements of the Middle Ages.’

Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954)121-122.

At the End of the Winter, Southwest Virginia

Here, now
What is keenest
Is the horizon above the barn,
White pines in rank and sharp air spilling down,
The winds off the Blue Ridge. We tramp up the melting snow the pools
The mud to the fence line, admire the red oxen in the pasture,
Auburn bodies of gentle power against the patching white,
Horns curve fierce and ivory, a piece with the lay of the land
And the land’s tongues’ gentle lilt. I know
The gentleness belies the fierceness, too,
And I pray both stay long and lean against the hard times
Building up brilliant store, a slumbering trout lily under the snow.

A Saint of the Rural Road in Ottoman Anatolia

Ottoman Sofra
A rare example of an early 17th century Ottoman sofra- a round cloth, in this beautifully decorated with tulip and other motifs- spread out on the floor or ground in order for food to be placed on it, functioning like a dining room table. While the saint in the story below probably would not have had so finely crafted a sofra, this one gives an idea of what such a textile looked like- and how a reader of the story might have imagined a saint’s sofra to look. (St. Louis Art Museum 175:1952)

Rural religious life in the pre-modern Islamic world remains relatively little known to historians, at least in comparison to religious life in medieval and especially early modern Western Europe. This is partially due to the absence of many of the confessional, disciplinary, and other institutional structures and organs, such as the Inquisition in its various forms, whose operations ensured that much rural life- primarily, but not exclusively, religious- would be quite visible to future historians. For a context such as the Ottoman Empire, our sources for rural life in general are rather scarcer. Travel literature, population and resource surveys, and similar sources are one means of uncovering early modern life among peasants, nomadic peoples, and other inhabitants of rural spaces and places. The following life of a rural saint of the 16th century, which I’ve taken from an Ottoman Turkish biographical compilation by the poet and author Nevîzâde Atâyî (1583–1635), represents another potential route for recovering aspects of religious and social life in the Ottoman countryside- which is where, after all, the majority of the population in fact lived.

I do not know how Atâyî, who was very much a product of the Ottoman elite literary and learned milieu, came by his knowledge of the life of Ahmed Dede, the saint featured in this account, but it seems likely that because of his position on an important route between two well-established cities in western Anatolia, Ahmed Dede was known to people in the imperial center (including, evidently, Selim II). While this account of his life comes from an elite, urban writer, and was written in ornate Ottoman Turkish prose, heavy with Persian vocabulary and constructions, a style I have tried to reproduce somewhat in my translation, it remains valuable for the inadvertent insights into what might have constituted a saint in rural Anatolia. Ahmed Dede, who was known by several other names as well, while he received initiation from sufi masters both in his home village and during a sojourn in Istanbul, seems to become recognized as a saint due to his generous acts of hospitality, and his reputation for miraculously fertile grain crops, crops which he himself cultivated. Previous eras of historiography would probably have suggested that Ahmed Dede was a ‘survival’ of a pre-Islamic fertility cult: while such an idea is, for a number of reasons, quite untenable, it should come as no surprise that peasants and others in the rural world would value divine protection for crops, and that generosity in one’s abundant material possessions would count as a major marker of sainthood.

I have taken the extra step in the below translation to include footnotes explicating some of the less obvious references and allusions that our author makes, as well as to note a couple of places where I am not myself entirely confident that I understood Atâyî’s meaning!

Sofra close up

Şeyh Ahmed Dede: He came into the world in a village named Gırbalcı, near the town of Kütahya [1]. Among the common people he was known as Kalburci Şeyhi as well as Mıhmandâr and Çavdârli after the tribe. From the ‘ulamâ of his native place he obtained learning and, being from birth ordained and whetted for taking ‘mystical letters and meanings,’ he joined the service of Şeyh Sinân Karamânî, then inclined towards the beholding the divinely graced Abdüllatîf Efendi. It is related that one day he [Ahmed Dede] was present at a lesson with two companion when, while the aforementioned şeyh was in the time of his spiritual brightness and openness [to God], each one made supplication concerning the desire that was implanted within him. The aforesaid şeyh’s arrow of supplication having been shot and hitting God’s giving answer, one of them became, in accord with his heart’s desire, an officer in the army, while another, in concordance with his soul’s inclination, became part of the folk of knowledge—but the subject of this account, [Ahmed Dede], obtained the grace that he, like the basin and table of Ibrahim, would not have his licit wealth (mâl-i halâl) become exhausted [2].

Afterwards, coming to Istanbul, in the service of the pole of the sphere of divine reality Merkez Efendi he perfected his spiritual wayfaring. After being authorized in giving guidance he became eminent through the gracious oversight of Kastamonulu Şabân Efendi. Ultimately he returned to his village and set up in his well-known zâviye [3], feeding travelers and giving perfect honor to passers-by. In this manner through the months and days he gave praise to God, this honorer of guests of the house of Islam dying in the year 978/1570—to his spirit be divine mercy!

The aforesaid saint’s miraculous gifts of grace (kerâmât) with divine might are well-known—like the brilliant sun and the haloed moon, day and night, he spread out bread and table. He was a Milky Way of the lined-up food-cloth stretched out as constant beneficence, his laughing face like a damask rose, as he made manifest the open sofra, he a spring-time cloud of constant out-pouring, a comfort-giving hand, dressed in nobility, a sea of sainthood, a pocket of aid, treasury of the unseen and traveling-wallet of grace, of holy ardor, the cultivated field of the one in need of the bread of blessing is from the blessings of God. Continue reading “A Saint of the Rural Road in Ottoman Anatolia”

The Spirit of Robinson Jeffers Rises Along the Lost River

Gray clouds mount, earth and river sink down
Under the stones’ still new cut. The sliced bloodroot bleeds and bleeds,
But the ten thousand things fall silent along the bypassed highway.
Ah hawk, swooped and spun by a following raven,
There is no solace in what we think will be freedom, but only
Shadows and dreams chasing and chasing.
My skin laps the bloodroot’s flow and the limestone opens
To staunch the river’s run. So what is hidden is always coming out,
And returning to ground, the round and round of the world.
One name gives way to another. Time goes, and goes nowhere,
Goes everywhere. I lock eyes for a hanging moment with
The buzzard in silent glide. Somewhere the ten thousand things gather.


Shaykh ‘Alā al-Dīn Goes on Campaign

Divan of Mahmud `Abd al-Baqi Ottoman Army
The Ottoman army enters a city, from an illuminated copy (Met. 45.174.5) of the Divan of the poet Bâkî (1526–1600). Note the banner held aloft by the soldiers in the top right corner, similar to what we might imagine the saint in the tanner’s story below carrying; also note the diversity of soldiers and other support personnel visible.

Like early modern militaries the world over- and in fact like any organized and sizeable military, right up into the present- the Ottoman military relied on a vast body of ‘support staff’ to travel on campaign and wage warfare. Many of these support staff were recruited from the guildsmen of Istanbul and other major cities in the empire, the craftsmen and artisans and merchants being required to essentially pick up shop and go on campaign, agreeing to offer their services at a set price. In the following short story, taken from an Arabic biographical and hagiographical compendium by the scholar Balī ibn ‘Alī, also known as Alî Mınık (d. 1584), the miracle story is related by a tanner from Edirne who had recently returned from campaign. As is often the case in these sorts of stories, the details are thin, but we are probably meant to imagine a battle involving a fortress on the frontier with the Hapsburg lands. The story is pretty self-explanatory: besides being narrated by a member of the army’s ‘support staff,’ the story is interesting for what it reveals about the perceived role of seemingly unassuming saints in Ottoman military successes, and the imaginative travel, if you will, of otherwise sedentary saints out to the contested frontier.

Divan of Mahmud `Abd al-Baqi Ottoman Army
A close-up from the above of the army’s banner.

‘Among the miracles (karamāt) of [Şeyh Alâüddînd Cerrâḥzâde/‘Alā al-Dīn al-Jarrārzada, 1495-1575]’: the story that our shaykh Muṣlaḥ al-Dīn [the son of ‘Alā al-Dīn], God be merciful to him, related, saying: “We were sitting outside of the aforementioned zawīya [the Dergâh of Şeyh Şücaeddin, in Edirne] with some of the disciples. Tanners in the city had previously been drafted to go on campaign. A tanner came up and kissed my father’s hand, then kissed his feet, and said, ‘If it hadn’t been for you we wouldn’t have taken the fortress!’ My father said, ‘What is this fortress? I don’t know anything at all about it.’ The man persisted in his entreaty and humble supplication, but [my father] persisted in his denial.

So we asked the man about the story, and he said: ‘I went out to war for the Sultan with a detachment of tanners. When we had invested Such-and-Such Fortress, and aimed to seize it, the fighting wore on, and the flame of piercing and striking flared up, so that the fortress was refractory and refused to be conquered. The army was bewildered and despaired of seizing it, until suddenly a shaykh with a banner in his hand appeared, charging at the infidels, scattering them like dust struck by a powerful cold wind. He scaled the fortress and planted the banner upon it. The soldiers of the Islamic army followed after him, entering the fortress through this spot, its conquest becoming easy because of that man. My companions and I got a close look at the man—it was Shaykh ‘Alā al-Dīn, there being no doubt that he came on military campaign with us, and was present for the conquest of the fortress, yet we marveled that we had never once seen him while on the way there!’”

“Later, when I was alone with my father I asked him about the reality of this matter, so as to receive confirmation from him about this secret matter. He would not say anymore than that he did indeed know the one who had obtained to this degree, and that ‘You will obtain, God willing, to this degree of spiritual power when you reach maturity—God cause us and you to obtain to high degrees of spiritual power, and pour out upon us from the streams of His hidden and manifest kindness!’”

Balī ibn ‘Alī, al-ʻIqd al-manẓūm fī dhikr afāḍil al-Rūm (Dār al-Kitāb al-ʻArabī, 1975), 467-468. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.