Sunday, June 15, 2008

Moscow, 12.10.92: Ethereal Monks and Circus Capers

10 A.M. Our bus touring Moscow. Re: the circus—not much to report, really—trapeze artists, performing bears and dogs, a magic show, horseback riders, all to the accompaniment of incessant jumped-up music and strobe lights, with the cumulative effect of so wiring me that I was in a state of high angst by bedtime, and had the devil of a time going to sleep.

Yet I shouldn’t grumble. Many impressions at the circus: again, the Asianness of the nation, the delight in color, sound, romance, boy meets girl, girl transforms boy to dog or somebody else. We forget how many of our fairytales originated in Asia, and the courtly love idea. What that means is that we forget how stylized and symbolic is the courtly love tradition—how much a social construction, and not a reading of “nature.” This tradition informs the deepest mythology of most of our cultures, and in Hollywood’s rendition, is now so firmly implanted in people’s minds that I imagine it’s more taken for granted than reflected on.

What else struck me at the circus (and this is somehow related to what I’ve just said, but in a way that’s hard to express) is how much delight the audience took in what was essentially a rather pedestrian, if astonishingly expert, array of performances. Pedestrian in the sense that the same tricks took place over and over, and no one seemed bored by the lack of variety.

All this might be due to communism, but I suspect it was already there in folk culture before modernity. That’s the thing about the circus: it’s a folk performance. To enjoy it, you have to suspend the Enlightenment critical sensitivities, especially with regard to cruelty to animals.

What folk culture delights in is the uniformity, predictability, boy meets girl, boy saves girl, girl transforms boy—for the 1900th time. Even carnivalesque subversions of the theme are fairly predictable.

All this sounds snide and condescending. I don’t mean it that way. What I mean is that I stand on the post-Enlightenment side of the divide and cannot help seeing all this from the side on which I stand. Even my frissons of horror at folk culture are interspersed with nostalgia for the lost home, Heimweh.

9:30 P.M. Just too much to record—I can’t keep up. Today, a bus tour of Moscow, ending at Danilov Monastery. We toured the grounds, the church, the residence of the Patriarch (or portions thereof), with a very sweet Russian tour guide who specializes, among other things, in the history of Russian church bells.

He told us that the bells of the Danilov Church were removed by the communists and thrown onto the bank of the Moscow River. An American businessman a few years ago saw them and bought them for a few rubles for scrap metal, and then resold them in the U.S. at an enormous profit. Somehow they ended up at Harvard, where they chime the time.

Meanwhile, the monastery took some bells from a non-functioning village church, and the church now wants them back. But Harvard wants 2 million dollars, and won’t sell the monastery bells back for less.*

After the Danilov tour, a visit with Sunday School staff at a Sunday School across the street, staffed by monks and a lay teacher. We listened to one of the monks speak about the problems of the school, then had a question-and-answer session with him and a deacon and another monk—all in full garb—beside him.

The second monk was interesting: young (20s?), exceptionally thin, with wan color, steel-rimmed glasses, eyes seemingly focused elsewhere than on this world. When we came in, he had a rosary (the Orthodox kind) in one hand, and prayed as people spoke. At one point, as the priest spoke, the young monk both read from a book before him, and prayed his chaplet. But he clearly was also listening, because he would often look up, and then return to his book.

All this made me feel strange. First, it was as if were seeing Russian Orthodox monasticism before the communist period—as if it had never been interrupted (or changed) by that period. The monk could easily have been living in 1892 rather than 1992.

Second, the otherworldliness of the monk’s eyes and actions troubled me. Was it real or specious? It seemed so mannered, so self-conscious. But, then, such practices must be mannered and self-conscious before they become routine.

But above and beyond all that, what troubled me most was the implication that this fraternal meeting with colleagues from a foreign land seemed less important than praying. Where were the warm greeting, the brotherly kiss of peace? Maybe I felt this way most of all because the ethereal quality of the monk’s eyes seemed coldly ethereal, as if he were looking down at all of us from some sublime height that made us look slightly ridiculous.

I’ve encountered this “otherworldliness,” with its implied judgment that non-Orthodox people are mere barbarians, several times. At the Sergei monastery, our guide had us cross a place where the procession was shortly to occur. As I did so, a huge burly priest came along and shouted at me in Russian. Then when the guide brought us up to another church (this time in the Danilov monastery) as a service was going on, a woman tried to intervene and stop us.

She was a typical church-going Russian woman, scarved, in drab clothes, long black skirt, boots. She was also rather funny looking, with beady, suspicious eyes—almost malicious looking, but comic nonetheless. All the while we were at the church, she eyed us as if we might invade and desecrate the sanctuary.

I chalk all this up to a certain xenophobia on the part of some Russian Christians—a sense that they alone represent the holy church. The years of isolation before and after the revolution have fed this, and it was there before particularly in the Holy Russia motif, with its sense that Russia was the last, best hope for Christianity as it faced the Eastern hordes.

Other impressions of Danilov: the beauty of the various rooflines, the low cloister wall with its green tin roof, and the gold onion spires of various heights above. The mix of old and new—the patriarch’s house is all new, of white marble, built in the late 1980s of donations from the faithful. In fact, the whole place has been virtually restored in recent years.

We ate in a brand new pilgrim hotel at the monastery. The dining room overlooked the whole thing—long floor-length windows that showed cloister and churches in a rare bit of sunshine.

The room had an elaborate 19th-century ceiling with designs, swag curtains, Mozart, and the meal far and away the best we’ve had thus far: for zakuskies, a stuffed mushroom, black caviar on a small roll, smoked fish with a soubise sauce, and I don’t know what else. This followed by a mushroom dish in a small pot, then borscht, then veal on skewers, with peas and fried potatoes. All this followed by ice cream with raspberry sauce, a cranberry, and a mint leaf. All this with vodka, white wine, cranberry juice, and water.

The 19th-century thing: it’s striking how all the places we’ve been that aspire to the old word elegance before the revolution, Russia’s moment of faded glory.

*And, in one of those strange coincidences that keep us always on our toes, I happened to read only yesterday a 13 June article about the bells in Christian Science Monitor. In her "Russian Monastery Anticipates the Toll of Ancient Bells," Amy Farnsworth reports that Harvard is sending the bells back to Danilov.

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