On Landscapes

A Brazilian Landscape
‘A Brazilian Landscape,’ by the Dutch painter Frans Post (1612–1680). (Met. 1981.318)

 

The landscape has its own sound, an idiom, a dialect, a particular light and temperature and their changes with the seasons. The landscape is the median, the densest synthesis, the ordinary reality. Most people grow up not in countries or towns but in what occupies the middle ground between them: in landscapes. “We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it. I can think of no better identification.” The landscape is the center, the focus of our lives, and so it is also what is most contentious, contested, embattled, and susceptible to myth-making and ideological construction. There are near-equivalent terms: region, scenery, homeland. The landscape is more important than the political-administrative district; it means more to us than the state, and its meanings reach deeper. People define themselves by the landscape in which they have their roots no less than by the nation whose citizens they are. That is why landscape paintings are not just depictions but our world en miniature: microcosms. Because the landscape designates a totality, the history of the landscape, and of the cultural landscape in particular, has come to stand for efforts to reunite divided and isolated disciplines, to recover the conviction that history can, and should be, narrated as an integral whole, as histoire totale. “Landscape” is a highly malleable term, but its core meaning is inalienable, whether we speak of ruined landscapes or the landscapes of memory, of human or urban landscapes. It always designates the cohesive form, the ensemble. All its various meanings are anchored in its primary signification, the physical landscape.

We walk or travel through landscapes. Their changing appearances and the distinctions that let us tell them apart reveal the richness of our world. The landscape is the consummate result of human labor and human genuis. It is the greatest work of art imaginable, the supreme human achievement, and when our endeavors in it come to grief, it is the greatest conceivable calamity. The landscape is the most solid substance in which man has ever wrought the objective reality of his existence—geography, Robert A. Dodgshon has written, is about the “materiality of social life”—and at once his subtlest and most atmospheric creation, to which poets, philosophers, architects, and the entire human community have each contributed their shares. So to read and decipher landscapes is to unlock a door to the history of a people, of the nations, of humanity. Because “virgin” landscapes do not—or not longer—exist, all history of the landscape is a history of cultural landscapes. Hugo Hassinger has argued that anthropogeography is simply the “morphology of the cultural landscape,” the study of the tectonics of the social sphere, the inertia of the built world, the visible distribution of power and powerlessness, to mention only a few aspects. Historians are experts in matters of cultural forms: (cultural) morphologists. They take an interest in surfaces, and so they must be good phenomenologists and physiognomists if they hope to detect essential processes. They read the landscape like a text, carefully peeling off layer upon layer as though it were a palimpsest.

Karl Schlögel, In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics, translated by Gerrit Jackson (New York City: Bard Graduate Center, 2016), 235-237.

No More Notebooks for Shaykh ‘Alwān

Preacher with Ink instead of Rosewater
An illustration of the interior of a 17th century Ottoman mosque, which wouldn’t be too far off from the setting of the below story- the preacher on the minbar (with hands in his deep sleeves), the candles at the mihrab, the men seated to listen to the preaching, and the neatly lined up shoes, all would have been seen, albeit in somewhat different forms (the floral decoration on the side of the minbar, for instance, is a clear indication that this is a 17th or 18th century setting). (Walters M.666)

Shaykh ‘Alwān (d. 1530) was one of the major Muslim saints of late Mamluk into early Ottoman Damascus. While possessed of the multifaceted education typical of a member of the ‘ulama of his time, Shaykh ‘Alwān’s most important formation came at the hands of an itinerant holy man from the Maghrib (modern day Morocco, ‘Ali al-Maymūn. The following story, related by Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, an important source for saints’ lives from early Ottoman Syria, describes Shaykh ‘Alwān’s first encounter with the man who would become his spiritual preceptor. Besides illustrating a saintly miracle of sorts, it incidentally provides a look at how an early modern Muslim preacher would conduct his sermons, namely, with a handbook of useful material tucked up his sleeve (literally!).

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Shaykh ‘Alwān related to [Shaykh Yunūs) in 924: He was preaching in Hama, in accordance with the custom of preachers—using a notebook with pleasing stories, wise anecdotes, and edifying reports and accounts, when al-Sayyīd ‘Ali ibn Maymūn—who was also preaching in Hama—passed by him, stopped before him, and said: “O ‘Alwān, preach from your head, and not from a notebook!” But Shaykh ‘Alwān did not pay him any mind, so he said the same thing a second time, then a third. Then, Shaykh ‘Alwān reported, “That caused me to pay attention, and I knew that he was from among the Friends of God. So I said to him: ‘It’s no good for me to preach from my head—meaning by heart.’ He replied: ‘Nay, preach from your head!’ I replied: ‘Ya Sayyīdi, only if you help me!’ He said: ‘I do, and trust in God!’ So when I awoke the next morning I went to the preaching session, with my notebooks in my sleeve. When I sat down the Sayyīd was opposite me. I began speaking from the heart, and God inspired (fataḥa) me, and that inspiration has continued until now!”’

Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, al-Kawākib al-sāʼirah bi-aʻyān al-miʼah al-ʻāshirah (Beirut: Dār al-Kuttub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1997), v. 2, 204-5).

St. Paisius Loves Grapes

Paisi Velichkovski
St. Paisius Velichkovsky in an early iconographic depiction.

Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794) was a monk, writer, translator, and spiritual guide who was born in what is now Ukraine, but who spent much of his life traveling through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Moldovian and Wallachian principalities of the Ottoman Empire, encountering many forms of monastic life and gathering spiritual and patristic writings. His spiritual disciples and his writings and translations would prove highly influential in the wider Orthodox world, providing the foundation for the Russian startets tradition made famous in Dostoevsky’s Elder Zosima. Paisius also wrote a fascinating and detailed autobiography of the first half or so of his life, from which the below is excerpted. The image of himself that he presents is of a young man who is pious and driven to deepen his spiritual practice, but also subject to numerous failings, ambiguous moral situations and decisions, and various difficulties and struggles. This particular story illustrates the quite intimate and human self-image that Paisius presents throughout his autobiography.

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At the appropriate season the venerable superior of the hermitage, Father Dometij, assigned me the obedience of tending the hermitage’s vineyard, which was on level ground above the hermitage, at a distance of nearly one verst. He commanded me in no wise to dare eat any grapes until I had eaten at least a small piece of bread ; but provided I ate the bread, he gave me his permission and blessing to eat as many grapes as I wished , before or after the daily meal. He did this for two reasons, firstly because grapes were few in the country where I was born, and I had scarcely ever had the chance to taste them, and secondly, out of indulgence to my weakness, for he realized that I had a great desire to eat grapes and that I could not get my fill of them. Having received his command and blessing, then, after eating a bit of bread, I ate grapes often, both before and after the meal, choosing the one which grew sparsely, that is, not close together, for these were sweeter than the others. My passion for eating grapes came to such a pitch that I wanted no other food. When I went to the meal in the hermitage, I ate very little of anything else, but I ate grapes in abundance and with great relish. Having partaken of almost no other food that whole season until the harvest, I suffered no small illness of body, and my face grew thin as if from some disease. But after the harvest, when I ceased eating grapes and partook of the usual food with the brethren, I began to feel stronger day and night; and in a short time I was restored to my previous state of health.

Paisius Velichkovsky, The Life of Paisij Velyčkovs’kyj, translated by Jeffrey Featherstone (Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by the Harvard University Press for the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University, 1989), 82-83.

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For further reading: John A. McGuckin, “The Life and Mission of St. Paisius Velichkovsky. 1722-1794: An Early Modern Master of the Orthodox Spiritual Life,” Spiritus 9, no. 2 (2009): 157–73.

On ‘Influence’

‘Influence’ is a curse of art criticism primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient: it seems to reverse the active/passive relation which the historical actor experiences and the inferential beholder will wish to take into account. If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters the second is always the more lively reality. It is a very strange that a term with such an incongruous astral background has come to play such a role, because it is right against the real energy of the lexicon. If we think of Y rather than X as the agent, the vocabulary is much richer and more attractively diversified: draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, have recourse to, adapt, misunderstand, refer to, pick up, take on, engage with, react to, quote, differentiate oneself from, assimilate oneself to, assimilate, align oneself with, copy, address, paraphrase, absorb, make a variation on, revive, continue, remodel, ape, emulate, travesty, parody, extract from, distort, attend to, resist, simplify, reconstitute, elaborate on, develop, face up to, master, subvert, perpetuate, reduce, promote, respond to, transform, tackle… – everyone will be able to think of others. Most of these relations just cannot be stated the other way round- in terms of X acting on Y rather than Y acting on X. To think terms of influence blunts thought by impoverishing the means of differentiation.

Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Picture (Yale: Yale University Press, 1985) 58-59.

Notes On the ‘Why’ of Doing History

In thinking and talking about the work of history as a discipline, I have long enjoyed using the metaphor of ‘inhabiting’ a given past, but it has often occurred to me that I ought to build upon and expand from that metaphor, to develop an argument or an explanation—I am not sure what word works here—for why history matters, how one encounters the past, and what that does in one’s life, work, being. Here are a few thoughts towards that end, essentially my own thinking out loud, for which I ask your indulgence and, perhaps, participation should you feel inclined.

In the work of historical encounter, especially, I think, in the work of encounter with individual and collective lives in the past, one expands one’s own self, you become richer and deeper and are able to see the contingency of the present and the multitude of possibilities inhering in the past and in the flow of human history. There is a sort of loneliness and poverty that afflicts someone whose knowledge begins and ends with his contemporary world, in which the only emotions imaginable, the only configurations of self conceivable, the only moral universe explicable, the only languages comprehensible, are those of one’s own narrowly circumscribed present. What is more, one does not even fully grasp one’s own present: for all of those things—emotions, sense of self, morality, and so on—are expressed in and through us because of the work and being of past worlds. And whatever genealogies extend backwards from our particular presents at some point intersect with or overlap or contrast with other genealogies, other worlds of the past, spread out across this earth. We are now living in a historical moment in which our tools and our manner of life, at least in the post-industrialized nations, allows us an unprecedented ability to delve into the past and to encounter great sweeps and depths of the human experience. At the same time, we are perhaps more than ever in human history constrained by our governing and prevailing ‘inner technics,’ by our ideologies, by our habits of thought from looking beyond the narrow boundaries of the present or of what is familiar and safe.

Yet people long for these sorts of encounters with the past, they long for both the stability of connecting with long traditions and the dynamism and vitality that comes from stepping into streams of time and practice longer and larger than ourselves. Not unlike previous periods in modernity, false encounters with the past, and manipulative iterations of nostalgia and propagandized memory so often end up being the means whereby people try to ground themselves in history or seek encounters with other, past worlds. Such means can range from mostly benign indulgence in nostalgic media or advertising campaigns to recruitment into resurgent authoritarian leftist or rightist movements which promise the recovery of some lost golden age, whether it is one of the power of workers or the unity of the nation. Unsurprisingly the time horizons on such nostalgic endeavors is rarely very deep, the twentieth and nineteenth centuries providing the usual frames of reference, even if colored, on the right, with vague appeals to ‘tradition’ and to deeper pasts.

History by itself is not sufficient to give people a sense of meaning or to ground them in connection with others and with deep pasts and traditions. In some ways the discipline of history runs counter to any political project that would seek to use the past for justification, in fact, for the discipline of history rightly done reveals a dynamic and contingent past, looks at the inner logics and developments of traditions and ways of life. Rather, history offers a space for encountering the past in its complexity and wonder (and, to be sure, terror and darkness), of enriching one’s self through stepping into other worlds and out of one’s own, expanding the bounds of what is imaginable. History erodes the feeling of loneliness and of a crippling ‘autonomy’ by revealing the interconnections and interdependencies that all humans, ourselves included, partake of. We inhabit, for a moment and of course partially (but this is always true for us) the lives of others, encounter their fears and dreams and catch glimpses of how the world looked through their eyes. What we may then do with the knowledge—a knowledge that is, or at least should be, multifaceted and not easily described—so gained is not dictated by the knowledge itself. There is no political program determined by deep encounters with human pasts. Rather, any political program or cultural ambit or whatever else that we may embark on in the here and now ought to be informed by, situated within encounters with and awareness of many human pasts, with persons in the past, an experience and knowledge which may then help lead towards wiser, more human, more emphatic and adroit, actions and policies and works of life.

The Khan and the Vardapet

The following passage, which comes from a 17th century work of Armenian history focusing primarily, though not exclusively, on happenings in the Safavid Empire, reveals some of the complexities of relations that could arise between the Armenian Orthodox minority and the majority Muslim populations in the Safavid and neighboring Ottoman polities. In this instance, an important early 17th century religious reformer, Vardapet Movsēs (a vardapet/վարդապետ is a type of teacher–scholar-clergyman in the Armenian Church, whose function, as in this case, might also shade towards preacher), forges a bond with the local Safavid governor, an Emir Gūna Khan. Movsēs would go on to build good relations with the Safavid shah himself, even as Movsēs found himself in bitter conflict with other members of his own church’s hierarchy.

In this story, excerpted from a much longer hagiographic account embedded in Aṛakʻel of Tabriz’s chronicle, we see Movsēs interacting with the khan and receiving him as a patron. This relationship allows Movsēs to pursue his goal of renewing the Armenian Church in the border region around Erevan (modern-day Yerevan, Armenia), a work of renewal and reform that simultaneously seems to have won him renown as a living saint and enemies threatened by his upsetting of the church’s status quo. What was ‘in it’ for the khan? Perhaps he saw in Movsēs saintly practice and power- many of the vardapet’s ascetic and devotional practices would have been quite familiar to an early modern Muslim as marks of sainthood, and so carried an ecumenical ‘charge.’ The khan probably also hoped that Movsēs’ work would help to stabilize the Armenian community and encourage its growth, especially since the region had long been contested between Ottomans and Safavids, the resulting warfare hardly being good for what we would now call ‘infrastructural’ development. At any rate, the vardapet and the khan’s mutualistic bonds point towards the dynamic range of relations- positive and negative and neutral- early modern Armenian Christians and Ottoman and Safavid Muslims could have with one another, something that is easily forgotten in the shadow of the tragedies of the modern period that would devastate Armenian communities in the region.

The Scribe Petros and his Pupils, 1386
The scribe Petros and a pupil, offering a good example of the sort of clothing an Armenian vardapet might have worn in the late medieval or early modern period. From a Gospel book completed in 1386 in the Lake Van region (J. Paul Getty Collection, Ms. Ludwig II 6, fol. 13v).

The prince and ruler of the city of Erevan and the Ararat province at that time was the great and mighty governor, Emir Gūna Khan, who somewhat accidentally met Vardapet Movsēs. The khan asked about him from the Christians who stood before him, who replied that who he was and where he came from. It so happened that the khan met the vardapet once again and, during their meeting and conversation, the khan was pleased with the vardapet, for God’s kindness made his servant appear agreeable in the eyes of the ruler. The khan did not let Movsēs go to the Western provinces [ie the Ottoman Empire] but kept him in the city of Erevan. Day after day the khan came, witnessed the liturgy and other church ceremonies, conversed with him about knowledge and religion, and listened to the vardapet’s replies, which were polite, pleasant, and bearing God’s graces. The khan grew fond of him because of his pious lifestyle; that is why he kept him in the city of Erevan. The vardapet stayed three years in the Kat’ohike church.

From olden days in the northern part of the city of Erevan, among the vineyards, stood a beautiful chapel, built on the grave of the holy apostle Anania. It was in ruins and uninhabited. The khan told the vardapet, ‘Do you see this church, which stands uninhabited? Pay heed to me and do not go to another province. Make it your home, settle here, so that we can be near and comfort each other.’ All the parishioners, citizens and merchants, begged and asked the vardapet to do the same. Their words pleased the saintly vardapet, and he undertook to build that place through the income and with the help of local Christians and merchants, who, because of their love for the vardapet, willingly gave alms for the construction, so that the vardapet would reside among them. That is why the surrounding fence, cells, chapel, sacerdotal, and other structures were quickly built, When all the construction was completed, the vardapet, together with his fellow monks, settled there and established the order and regulations practiced in the Great Hermitage. Many monks, hermits, and men who wished to study the scriptures and who were wise and led a saintly life, gathered there. They lived together, young and old, happily, based in cells, praying continuously and reading holy books.

His fame and truthful sermons, as well as word of his pleasant disposition spread to all the lands in Rum, Kurdistan, Georgia, and Persia, for merchants from all lands came there [to Erevan], met him, and spread the word.

Aṛakʻel of Tabriz, The history of Vardapet Aṛakʻel of Tabriz ( Patmutʻiwn Aṛakʻel Vardapeti Dawrizhetsʻwoy)  Translated by George A Bournoutian. (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2005), 217-218.

The Incident at Nabi Samwil

img_5151.jpg
The mosque-shrine of Nabi Samwil, now split between Muslim Palestinians who use the above-ground mosque, and Jewish Israelis, who control the tomb-shrine itself. The figures atop the structure are members of the IDF.

i. I am standing, a few miles north of the Holy City, on a rise of ground that slopes off to one side towards the Jordan River, on the other towards the Great Sea. Like every rise of ground in this angry and holy land, it is covered over by a vast sea of the past and present commingled and churning. When the Crusaders crested this hill they could see the walls of their goal, or so the story goes, though today we can see only the ever expanding sprawl of modern Jerusalem, rising and falling over hills where a few decades ago there were only olive trees and flocks of sheep and goats and little villages. But we are not looking out over the rolling hills that spill out, east and west, from along the invisible Green Line that divides—in theory at least, one that that grows less relevant day by day—Israeli and Palestinian territory. We are watching, my friend and I, in transfixed anger, a momentary act in the interminable drama that plays out on this hill and in so many other places in this land, day after day after day, the long ugly drama on endless repeat. As the sun sets over the great corrupting sea to the west, I find myself right in the thick of that drama, feeling emotions to which I am unused and which terrify me even as they shoot through my body and heat my blood. I clench my fists, fight back hot tears, fight back the urge to pick up a stone and crack someone in the head. Instead I curse under my breath, tell M. that I am going back to the car, and hurry down the hill to the rental, parked precariously on an incline. I climb inside, grab the wheel, and weep angry tears. M. follows close behind and we drive off in bitter silence, processing what we’ve seen and felt and how very ordinary it is for this land.

ii. I was staying for several days in an Airb&b rental on El-Wad street, one of the main arteries of Jerusalem’s Old City, in an apartment being rented out by a French archeology student whom I never met. M. was staying there as well, while taking Arabic lessons. We had spent this particular day taking a break from the Old City and its tensions, the strain of soldiers on every corner with heavy weaponry slung in front, the constant watch of cameras on every other rooftop, perched above the street, the heaviness that percolates through the air, the loud silent confrontation of the settlers’ bristling rooftops. I could not then and cannot now imagine what it must be like to live here as a resident, to have this be your reality every day and night. After a week it was too much for me. Perhaps you adjust. Perhaps you bottle it up until it snaps. During my stay I wondered more than once what I would do were I in the place of a Palestinian Jerusalemite, or an Israeli settler. I don’t know, but I can speculate, and it’s not very pretty.

After picking up our rental car, at an agency down the street from the King David Hotel of lore—every block, every stone here has some world-historical significance, it gets old really, and I’m a historian—we cross through the Separation Barrier into the West Bank, then through another checkpoint, past a settlement, eventually winding down to Ein Prat National Park, our main destination for the day. Like almost everywhere else here it goes by at least two names—in Arabic it’s Ayn Farar, close, but not quite the same, as the Hebrew. Unlike most places around this city, though, it is an island of calm and coexistence. Apart from a couple of Japanese tourists who arrive as we are leaving, we are the only foreigners. Israelis and Palestinians—more of the latter than the former, at least today, it seems—are enjoying the cool waters of the springs and creek cutting through the desert, or are out hiking along the steep wadi, or enjoying a picnic in the eucalyptus groves planted during the British Mandate (growing alongside the ruins of a Byzantine church, in the shadow of a still functioning monastery inhabited by monks of Eastern European extraction…). There are no guns or uniforms or political slogans in sight. The settlements that cling to the ridgetops in this part of the West Bank are invisible, having receded behind the crags lining the wadi. We climb into caves used by late antique hermits, trail gazelles up a hill to a village site dating back, so they say, to the late Neolithic, sink into the marvelous papyrus reed jungles that hug the course of the stream. The conflict is far away, and here, at least, we feel as if there are possibilities open beyond merely tracing new permutations in the never-ending struggle.

iii. We spend the rest of the day exploring, down to Jericho, motoring into town past the languid Palestinian Authority checkpoint, get a bite to eat, and try to find an Umayyad ruin. We end up by the Jordan instead, at a site claimed to be where St. John baptized Jesus, but which today is dominated by a looming Israeli military instillation and mine-seeded zone, a parking lot full of tourist buses, and gaudy new churches across the holy river on the Jordanian side. It’s a strange and vaguely disturbing scene, and I remark that I feel like I’ve scene it all in a dream. Continue reading “The Incident at Nabi Samwil”