Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Sergey Averintsev, vlastitel' dum

Philip Harvey

"The present is so important because through it the mysterious depth of the past and the mysterious breadth of the future reveal themselves through an encounter with one another".

By chance I received a copy of Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Secondhand Time’ recently and “haven’t been able to put it down”, as the saying goes. The author pieces together interviews and conversations with contemporary Russians so they sound like perfect spoken narratives. Every side of the Soviet story, before and after 1991 (annus mirabilis or horribilis depending on the speaker) is given space. Such is the dense detail and emotion of each chapter, one could easily miss the name Sergey Averintsev on page 22 of the Random House edition.

A librarian responsible for collecting Orthodox Spirituality will notice the footnote on that page: “Sergey Averintsev (1937-2004) was a philologist, cultural historian, translator, poet, and specialist on antiquity and Byzantine culture. He lectured on Russian spiritual traditions.” Alexievich’s book discloses that he worked in the Philology Faculty of Moscow State University.

“Why had I not heard of him before?” as the saying goes. An Amazon search declared one book in English with his name attached. Blessedly, the Library already held this book (‘The Rublev Trinity’ by Gabriel Bunge, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007); Averintsev wrote the foreword. And that’s it?

Googling provided other reasons for taking this author very seriously. He has a department of Russian Studies named after him at Durham University. The homepage raised the stakes considerably.

But who really was Sergei Averintsev? It would be easier to say who he was not. In the field of the humanities he was almost everything that a person can be: a philologist, a philosopher, a theologian, a cultural historian, a literary theorist, a translator, and a poet. He was a man of encyclopedic erudition that covered Greek and Roman antiquity, the New Testament, Middle East, Byzantium, European Middle Ages, classical Russian literature and philosophy, Russian Silver Age, and 20th c. Western literature and religious thought. He was a philosopher in the deepest dense, a seeker and lover of wisdom. As probably nobody in Russian humanities he interpreted cultural phenomena in multiplicity of their intertextual and interdisciplinary projections. He was a most broadly thinking humanist but with a very firm standing in humanistic and religious foundations of Russian and European culture. His thinking was opposed to totalitarianism of any kind, be it communism or fascism, religious fundamentalism or technocratic pragmatism. His credo was a combination of faith and freedom. He could repeat after St. Augustine: "Believe in God and do what you want".

Averintsev was born in 1937, in the year when Stalin planned to exterminate completely religion in the USSR and tens of thousands of priests were killed and tens of thousands of churches destroyed or turned into warehouses. Averintsev has done more than any other Russian intellectual to restore the connection of our contemporaries with the spirituality of the past thus opening the way to the spirituality of the future. Since the late 1960s, with publication of his articles in the five volume Phiolosophical Encyclopedia and his book The Poetics of Early Byzantine Literature (1977), he established himself, as they say in Russia, as vlastitel' dum, the ruler of the minds of Russian intelligentsia. He reversed the relation between politics and culture in the minds of many intellectuals. Under Soviet regime, culture was believed to be a tool of politics. For Averintsev, politics was only one small segment of culture, inscribed in larger and spiritually more rich segments, such as literature and language, philosophy and theology. He can be considered, along with Mikhail Bakhtin, who belonged to a previous generation and whom Averintsev admired, a founder of Soviet and post–Soviet culturology, an integrative, multidisciplinary approach to culture. 

Once Averintsev said: "The present is so important because through it the mysterious depth of the past and the mysterious breadth of the future reveal themselves through an encounter with one another". This quote is used on the department’s site as a guiding principle, saying “Let this Averintsevian openness to the past and the future through the medium of the present be our guide in all our scholarly and teaching endeavors.”

Averintsevian sayings became my abiding interest. In an interview with the translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in The Millions online (2009) they say,And there is the fine essayist and “culturologist” Sergei Averintsev, one of the most important Russian thinkers of recent times, a brilliant and witty writer. A few of his essays have been translated into English, but nothing like the substantial collections available in Italian, German, and French,” then add, “the French publisher Cerf has recently commissioned a translation of Averintsev’s complete works.” If there are no books by him in English, does the internet give glimpses of the thought of this vlastitel' dum? My searches found a few. I quote two of them here, but the search continues.

“This, too, is one of the hallmarks of Russian culture. A century later, the journalist Vladimir Korolenko declared that at the gates of heaven every Russian writer would be asked how many years he had spent in prison for the sake of truth. And his contemporary, the literary critic Vengerov, wrote a book with an eloquent title: The Heroic Nature of Russian Literature. From the arrest of Radishchev to the repeated exiles of Pushkin, the conscription of Pozhelayev and the jailing of Dostoevsky, to the execution of Gumilyov and the fate of other twentieth-century writers condemned to the camps, the line runs clear and unbroken ... The Russian people saw the poet primarily as a martyr. How many Russian laments have been composed, from Pushkin to Osip Mandelstam, on the exile of Ovid? But the Roman poet was the victim of the Emperor Augustus, and his fate was less tragic than the fate of those involved in the greater tragedy arising from the tangled web of the Revolution and the rifts caused by its intrinsic contradictions.”

From ‘Poetry, freedom, and revolution”, quoted in Questia online, Unesco courier.

“When I was growing up in the Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet Union, I knew, at least from rumors, that I was a contemporary of some great composers, artists, and writers. Later I also learned about great contemporary philosophers. Shortly before the death of Herman Hesse, I was obsessed with the idea of sending him a letter from Moscow. But the gods passed away one after another, and when I now travel around the world and have a chance to look at any book in a library, I understand less and less whose contemporary I am. Such must be the time we live in. I do not partake of discussions about the imminent end of philosophy, poetry, and other such things. And by not doing it, I do not mean to claim that there will be no such end. I simply do not know. No doubt, we all should realize and remember that someday we will all die. But we should also do our own work based on the assumption, albeit false, that our lives will continue. In a sense, we should be ready to pass away at any moment, but in another sense (which is perhaps not any easier), we should be prepared seriously, substantially, and perhaps even naively and self-confidently to stay and carry on our work. I believe this is what our attitude to life should be.”

From an interview in Day Kiev magazine online, 13th November 2012.


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