Brisbane: A Novel, by Eugene Vodolazkin

Brisbane has to be Vodolazkin’s most ambitious work so far (at least for those of us who have to use translations). It centers on an artist, a musician who plays the guitar. As the story opens, the two themes Vodolazkin wants to think about are presented: life and art. We encounter them as problems, and this creates the novel’s tension. The artist is developing physical problems that take the edge off his art. We begin with life’s problem: old age. And we see that the end of art as the beginning of the end of life.

The problem of life is, of course, how to live it–art being one of the more important aspects of the solution. We make art because we want to live. Art exists for the sake of life, and not the other way around. Right from the start Vodolazkin gives us a stark statement of his theme in the mouth of Gleb, the protagonist, who as he meets his biographer, complains of former biographers that: “There’s no understanding that the musical stems from the human.” In other words, the problem of art, the theme of all art, the purpose of art is fundamentally the quest of life. Life is anterior to art.

In order to twine his two themes, Vodolazkin raises two questions: who is this guy and, what will he do? And so the story is interleaved, leaping back in time to the fortuitous development of the artist while interspersing the deliberative approach to the problem of the present. As we get to know Gleb, he deals with the greatest intersection of life and art: the way one faces death.

Vodolazkin shows that just as life must surrender to God’s providence, art must surrender to life, and be of it and in it. He builds a pyramid that way, an integrated hierarchy at the top of which is that worship which in Soviet Ukraine Gleb acquired from his grandfather. Vodolazkin knows how to put God into a book rightly, rather than in a forced or propagandistic way. He knows how to dramatize the quiet transmission of tradition; it is one of his greatest strengths. I think Vodolazkin has always succeeded most at neither avoiding nor exaggerating the inevitable presence of the incomprehensible in life. In a way, divine incomprehensibility manifested in creation is a fundamental theme for Vodolazkin. Divine incomprehensibility integrates all the mysteries that make life mysterious and without which it would not be life or, as he desires to point out particularly, have art.

Brisbane is a great novel, perhaps eclipsing Laurus. Even the title of the book contains the mystery, artfully played to great effect, the way he did with The Aviator. I have no doubt that Vodolazkin belongs with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn in the pantheon of great Russian literature.

A Conversation

Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson. Amazing! We get:

1 – Penetrating diagnoses of our time. Explanations, prescriptions, example: how should serious people think and reflect on life in this present age, for example. Just look at the title given for the conversation: Apprehending the transcendent.

2 – Bonus observations on music, art, philosophy, literature, and the mercy of God. One of these makes sense out of why Game of Thrones appeals – a story written in the terms in which all books are presently taught: all human interactions are just games of power. Correctives are offered, largely from Russian literature.

3 – Wit: Peterson’s remark when Scruton says he is an example of cultural appropriation of the English ideal of the Gentleman because he endeavors and fails. Dry, understated, and thoroughly amusing.

4 – A conversation with anybody in which Scruton constantly says he agrees–except for once!

Intelligible Reality

How did Athanasius describe the fall of man? He did it in terms anybody who has read Origen would recognize.

“For when men’s mind has no intercourse with the body, and has nothing of the latter’s desires mingled with it from outside but is entirely superior to them, being self-sufficient as it was created in the beginning, then it transcends the senses and all human things and it rises high above the world, and beholding the Word sees in him also the Father of the Word. It rejoices in contemplating him and is renewed by its desire for him, just as the holy scriptures say that the first man to be created, who was called Adam in Hebrew, had his mind fixed on God in unembarrassed frankness, and lived with the saints in contemplation of intelligible reality, which he enjoyed in that place which the holy Moses figuratively called Paradise. . . .

“3. In this way then, as has been said, did the Creator fashion the human race, and such did he with it to remain. But men, contemptuous of the better things and shrinking from their apprehension, sought rather what was closer to themselves—and what was closer to them was the body and its sensations. So they turned their minds away from intelligible reality and began to consider themselves. And by considering themselves and cleaving to the body and the other senses, deceived as it were in their own interests, they fell into selfish desires and preferred their own good to the contemplation of the divine. Wasting their time thus and being unwilling to turn away from things close at hand, they imprisoned in the pleasures of the body their souls which had become disordered and defiled by all kinds of desires, and in the end they forgot the power they had received from God in the beginning.”

Contra Gentes 2-3. Translated by R. W. Thomson.

Contra Gentes is first of a two volume work in which De Incarnatione, today the most recognizable of Athanasius’ works, is the second.

A relevant portion in Origen would be Contra Celsus 4.40, for example, and Peri Archon book 2 would also illuminate what I’m saying. I’m saying that the sort of thinking about things a world devoid of Plato finds weird and that Origen routinely did is found also in Athanasius.

What is also intriguing to anybody who does know something about Plato or Plotinus is the term ‘intelligible reality’ which is the Greek word nous, its association with the divine, the physical as a source of confusion, and the idea of the body as a prison. There is an obvious similarity. There is an advance in thought (and a need for more, obviously): the way Athanasius puts things is not how Plotinus would exactly have put things and not what Plato would have said. But the difference, however great to Origen and Athanasius, is from our perspective minor, and the relationship I think is evident.

My point is not that Athanasius was not a Christian. My point is that committed and robust 4th century Christianity found the categories of Platonism extremely congenial, greatly so. It was how they made sense of things. I don’t think we can understand these Christians without appreciating Platonism better than (in my opinion) many do (e.g. Thomas Weinandy). I certainly think the only crowd that stands to gain form the outdated notion that Greek philosophy corrupted Christian simplicity is that served by a more ambiguous and doctrinally impoverished religion.

And I think Athanasius inherited two things from Origen. With these he approached his lifelong task of figuring how to rid the church of subordinationism. Proof of that is what I’m on the trail of.

Soaring Along

The caterpillars whose gossamer entangled us some weeks ago seem to have become large yellow butterflies, not unlike monarch butterflies, perhaps a variation thereof. They are seen early in the morning in the Fairmount park, usually in couples. There is great joy along the Wissahickon, in the shade of the tulip trees and beeches, below the soaring span of a better age’s bridges.

Early in the morning, about 4AM nowadays, the birds get going. When the traffic is still and the huge setting moon almost on the horizon the waking birds make the world seem to ring with song. The fire alarm flashed and sounded, scaring us awake at 4AM recently. Circling the building, I found out about the moon, the morning, and the birds. Happy mistake.

Summer has come with a bang to Philadelphia. We had enormously hot weather that is now gradually dwindling to something decidedly more pleasant. As in winter when you get a sudden deep cold, what comes afterward is decidedly milder than the long steady descent by increments would be.

Summer projects accomplished: vacation and NT preliminary examination (apologies for the erroneous post on the New Perspective). Quite a bit of concerted attention on the text of 1 John and several books of issues. The chair of the NT dept. assured me there was nothing against being a dispensationalist here (which is fine with me either way), but the reading decidedly tended otherwise. Ridderbos on the Kingdom, Thompson on Acts, Bauckham on Revelation. Reading outside of one’s specialization brings ambivalence; on the one hand is not what one is intent on, on the other it broadens.

We’ll see how the OT preliminary tends. I know the AP preliminary is going to tend pretty strong toward presuppositionalism. Every day said approach grows in my eyes more preposterous. I gather ammunition. I brood and conn and devise. I have observations to make . . . eventually.

John Wain on Samuel Johnson provides welcome relief from evangelical prose. He is not the greatest, but he is considerably better than anything going in academic circles. He can make a collection of words do more than plod, and he has a decided attitude. I love the first sentence of his Note on Sources: There is no research in this book.

Reflecting on what Wain writes, I think to myself I ought to exert myself in literary directions while I have the chance. The summer has its business, not least of which is German, but not unrelieved, unmitigated German. There is ground to cover on many fronts.

Three More

As for George MacDonald, I think Chesterton’s essay says the most. I finished Donal Grant, which has a sad, vague ending. Sweet, sad ending, but a bit vague on resolution. It is rich in that mood, that light of Christian practice, but MacDonald needs more stalwart villains, and he cannot have them on his own terms. It is striking how much justice we want in our conclusions–at least me. Justice must be satisfied. Satisfaction has to do with justice; it must.

I had a tremendous literary experience with Storm of Steel. For all that the writer is a bit artless, his verbs are not always dead on, still he’s good enough and builds up to the climactic victory in which he reveals several things about war. You know how you are always reading in the Bible about these battles with such disproportionate losses? The victors lose a few but the vanquished loose a whole lot more. Junger suggests how it works by describing the elation of those who are prevailing, and how it saps and discourages the defeated. What he did for me was open up an understanding of how these emotions flow like tides through armies during the conflict. What else he says, and what makes his book great and leads to the conclusion, is the understated but undeniably present assertion that however terrible and devastating the calamities of war may be, victory is glorious and honor a reality whose light shines even in those awful desolations. I am not sure what the relationship of victory to glory really is. Perhaps one could say war is glorious, or can be glorious and so can victory, and as we know from Beowulf, so can defeat.

I’ve gotten a good way into Alan Jacobs (The Narnian) and I find he’s thought and mulled over things Lewis said in curious and out of the way places. I think he’s done that much more thinking than McGrath. I think his book is superior, and I’m enjoying it. Jacobs seems also to have read a lot of the parallel literature, to be more immersed in the sort of complimentary things such a biography requires. His stew has simmered longer over the flame of thought. I wish in the early chapters he had not five times said we will hear more of this or that later. Just hint at it without being so heavy handed. There is a bit of a clumsy hearty explaininess, but it is overcome by his saturation with and insight. You know what most surprises me? Lewis lost and then regained all his romanticism, and nobody really goes into that too much at all. It was a deep an important experience, it seems to me, and key. But they’d rather speculate around on things about which there really is nothing to go on. They’d rather talk about his conversion, but not that thing which made his Christianity so interesting. Still, Jacobs is pleasing. I’m pleased so far.

A Chap Must Read

Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel is a good book about the experience of an officer in WWI. We have heard of the horrors of it, but his descriptions are oddly evocative. Oddly because he seems so artless, so little given to suggestion. And yet he makes you understand him, or think you understand him. Part of it is the mix of the routine things of life and its comforts when they can be had with the horrors. A lot of it is that the guy was there and wrote it down. Highly recommended.

I’m still doing the Kierkergaard biography, just like I’m doing Sigrid Undset (in the old translation, which I find so deft). I’m reserving Scruton’s Gifford lectures for when I have a great blank space to do it in, and I am pecking at Wiman’s Bright Abyss. What interests me about that last is that he seems to be expressing belief in modern terms: it seems genuine. One has to puzzle at it (for whatever reason) and one has to persevere at it (because the present sensibility can be so unattractive, so effete as well–though he’s less so and that’s why he’s compelling to me), but I think it is as worthwhile a book as all the rest, and will help me understand his poetry better. Plus, I have an unread Lukacs waiting for its moment.

I’m putting off a going through the whole of Harry Potter. I don’t know how long I can do it, because I’m eager. It’s a whole world, and now that I know the ending there is so much more to be noticed loosing one’s self in it this time through.

I’m rather more diffusely spread than ever, having been back among books long enough to forage and to roam. I have probably a dozen other books with markers in them (Boswell, Bowen, Edda, Anglo Saxon stuff, Edmund Wilson and what have you). I don’t mind moving, but nevermore if I can help it will I be so quick to be out of the reach of plentiful reading.

I’m getting to the end of Donal Grant and have lined up a biography of Coventry Patmore and the Alan Jacobs on Lewis after that. That’s what I read on Sundays and I’m afraid it has put the more difficult matters of Charles Williams on hold (He Came Down from Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins). But not for long.