Monday, January 14, 2019

Eugene Vodolazkin's Laurus

Eugene Vodolazkin's book, Laurus, is a beautifully conceived and gracefully executed novel about life in the middle ages.  Primarily set in Russia, but with short excursions into Lithuania, Poland, Venice, and the Holy Land, Laurus recounts the life of a holy man on the cusp of sainthood. Although the plot would be darkly comic if set in the modern era, the book manages to depict medieval Russia on its own terms, and without so much as a hint of condescension. 

The book offers a rich, almost anthropological vision of a strikingly different worldview from our own. In this world, men and women believe that God permeates almost every facet of the physical world.  In fact, the physical world seems to be only one manifestation of God's magnificence. Reading Laura, one cannot help but think that Vodolozkin is offering a remedy to William James' famous paradox about religious studies outlined in the seminal Varieties of Religious Experience. According to James, neither theists nor atheists can fully understand religious life;  theists lack the perspective required for understanding religious experience with any degree of objectivity, while atheists lack the sympathy required for bearing witness to its powerful emotive force. 

Vololozkin offers a third way.  He asks readers to follow the life of a deeply devout person embedded in a deeply religious culture.  However, his description of this religious journey doesn't require supernatural phenomena to make sense.  By immersing us so deeply in a waters of overlapping religious sentiments, Vodolozkin gives us a glimpse of a world enchanted by faith alone.  In other words, Volozkin demonstrates men and women can be powerfully motivated by religious belief even if no god exists to alter the physical laws of the universe.  In Laurus, characters believe in religious healing ceremonies, local pilgrimages, icons, treks to the Holy Land, and Holy Fools.

Vodolazkin describe a deeply religious society that probably existed across Europe during the Middle Ages.  On the other hand, his vision of life in the Middle Ages seems quintessentially Russian insofar as his lead character's faith leads to a lifetime of almost masochistic suffering in the pursuit of religious ecstasy. 

Laurus is also a meditation on the nature of time.  The one mystical aspect of Laurus is the fact that one holy man is apparently able to foretell the future. His gift is murky, or imprecise, but he does seem to divine the fact that millions of Eastern Europeans will die in the Holocaust one day. However, the point here seems to be less about the reality of God and more about the nature of time.  As the ancient philosopher, St. Augustine, argued, every age is equidistant to God.

In Laurus, Medieval men and women embrace a different concept of time than that of modern men and women.  These Russians believed that the world was likely to come to an end in the near future.  Historians of time such as Reinhart Koselleck have postulated that only modern men and women expect that the future will be different than the past and last indefinitely.  Ironically, Laurus' depiction of Millenarian thinking resonates today.  After all, post-modern men and women have come full circle:  with the advent of nuclear bombs and greenhouse warming, we seem to believe, as our ancestors believed, than history will come to an end in the very near future. 

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