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

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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:

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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.