A Curious Novel: Postmodernism and Holy Madness | Dr. Rowan Williams | TEDxOxBridge

why is it that we read novels or indeed write them I suspect that one reason we read novels is that we're all of us aware either guilty or joyfully or gratefully that we discover who we are what we are partly by telling and retelling stories about ourselves we must of us know what it's like to reinvent ourselves as we tell our story and so when we read a novel one of the things that's going on is that we're watching a person a self in the process of being constructed as a story unfolds so one reason for reading novels is sheer curiosity we want to know how stories get told because we like doing it ourselves we want to know because we want to understand a bit better what it's like to turn into a person to become a self but of course a novel isn't just somebody else telling a story of it alone telling a story about themselves we know that the storyteller knows more than the character in the story can ever know we know that there's irony shot through every novel the storyteller may say as some great novelists have said of their characters that they're surprised by what the characters do told story famously said he was astonished when Anna Karenina decided to commit suicide but we know actually they are in control and if at the end of that enormous book Tolstoy had decided that Anna Karenina should live happily ever after he could have done it and Anna Karenina wouldn't be in any position to object so also when we read a novel we're looking at in security at complicated layers of meaning and possibility we're looking not just at a story of how a life unfolds and how a person gets made we're also looking at the very different kinds of meaning the very different kinds of trajectory that could emerge you get sense of the fragility of the oddity of human identity all of which adds up to quite a good set of reasons for reading novels if we're interested in people yourself the world or even in my line of business God so I want to talk a bit about one particular recent novel by a Russian novelist eugene vidal özkan he's a professional scholar of the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe which might not immediately suggest that he's a brilliant novelist but he is and here's his novel called Loris which is about fifteen century Russia I've chosen to talk about this partly because I think it's a a brilliant novel partly because it unfolds some of the issues I've flagged up at the beginning as general questions it's a story about a man growing up in central Russia in the 15th century an orphan brought up by his grandfather trained by his grandfather in traditional healing methods among other things grandfather dies the young man himself becomes a healer he forms a relationship with a young woman who turns up in the village one day the young woman dies in childbirth so does the child and the young man is consumed with guilt and terror and self-reproach about what he might have done and couldn't have done he has to come to terms with his own powerlessness and deserve ignorance an ignorance which has actually caused the death of two other people so in a way he's faced with a question how he can go on being the same self that self is apparently guilty guilty of the death of others what happens next is a very different kind of reinvention from the one we often think of in terms of our own experience or of novels the young man our sin does indeed reinvent himself he decides but the rest of his life has in some way got to be a life that represents in the world the person he has loved lost he's gotta live a life on behalf of Westerner his dead lover and her child you could say he reinvents himself to give space to give room to that lost other person when he reinvents himself he's not trying to make himself more secure more interesting or sexy more powerful he's trying to reinvent himself in order to open up space for another and he does this in various ways he becomes a wanderer the pilgrim he becomes what in Russia was called a euro to be a holy fool somebody who abandons all notion of respectability and success who lives a life which is to all outward appearances stupid outrageous and unconventional but is in its stupidity and outrageousness a kind of selflessness he arrives in a neighboring City the city of scoff in central Russia where there are already two holy fools working hard at it and one of them says this to him be her and be yourself simultaneously be outrageous being pious is easy and pleasant go ahead and make yourself hated don't let the people of this town sleep they're lazy and in curious Amin in other words he's encouraging our singing not only to take on himself the unfinished life of the person he loves but also to be himself in that to find himself in giving room to the dead who steena knowing that in this he will be offensive to many people it'll seem a ridiculous wait live disown your identity says the other holy fool are singing disown yourself completely what in those terms it's a very frightening command but as the novel unfolds you can see how this giving space this reinventing of a self that's not defensive aggressive and anxious is actually a flowering a maturing at the same time we have descriptions of our singing as a healer sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't doctoring experience tells him Metta comments are not the most important part of treatment eseni does not help everyone he hears out the patient but turns away from him when he feels powerless to help sometimes he will press his forehead to the patient's for it and tears will flow from his eyes he shares the patient's pain with him and to some degree his death to our sin his heart fills with grief because he understands of the world does not remain the same after patient passes away but even the patient's arsenie cannot cure feel benefit from interacting with him they think their pain reduces after meeting with our sin and their fear lessons along with the pain in his exploration of pain he gets to the very bottom of things that healing life that life which is grounded in a giving room to the other who's been lost the other who's been frustrated has been crushed by suffering in that giving room Arseniy becomes not only more fully himself but a place where very many others can find life it's a theme that keeps coming back in Russia in the Russian Christian world and in the Russian literary world one of the great 19th century Saints in Russia said of him of Sarov said if you have peace in your heart thousands of people find their healing around you a singing this book is that kind of person he continues his wandering he continues his holy folly he goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem with another holy fool he comes back to Russia he finally becomes a monk and takes the monastic name of Loras in Russian the title of the book he goes on we might say reinventing himself but he goes on reinventing himself in a way that consistently gives more and more space Russian novels of the 19th and 20th century often have figures like this in figures whose withdrawals over others may find life for hope around them who are in the eyes of the world failures or who are in the eyes of the world impossibly eccentric these figures turn out to be the ones who actually bring something new or different into a world where people are constantly trying to reinvent themselves so as to be safer with fewer open doors around them in all the great novels of Dostoevsky you will find this principle coming back again and again figures who somehow change the landscape by refusing to close in on themselves by refusing to defend themselves their stories their novelistic unfolding are stories about those whose reinvention is a kind of self stripping or self denying they become selves by not being the kind of self you expect them to be and behind this is the long tradition in Russia of these holy fools these wild and eccentric figures who appear quite often in Russian chronicles sometimes walking naked through the streets in bin Midwinter sometimes throwing stones at churches and praying in pubs people who constantly run across the ordinary conventions of being holy and by doing that open up something that would otherwise not be there so it's an interesting question to think about in relation not just to this model but to novels as a whole as you read a really good novel what is it you're tracing in the stories the person's their processes of reinvention that shrink and narrow and restrict who people are and what they can be because those are the tragic stories stories where suffering frustration sheer difficulty the sheer difficulty of being human repeatedly drives people not in words but outwards they're not exactly comedies though this is incidentally a very funny book as well as a very serious one what does TF see these books what comedies but not tragedies either narratives of how people become selves become persons not by spraying at the borders of their territory like some animal putting its scent or around but people who understand but the real reinvention the reinvention of matters is a kind of letting go a good novel will raise questions like that for us a good drum also think of Shakespeare's dramas in that light dramas of closing up dramas of opening out dramas that are all about the possibilities and the relationships being shut down one by one dramas that are about unexpected sometimes outrageous moments where new possibilities emerge where boundaries are crossed where what you thought was over returns the person you thought was dead is alive and something opens up drama and fiction are it seems pretty universal human activities Universal have suggested partly because we are fascinated by our own stories much too fascinated mr. time but if we engage with the narrative of drama and a fiction part of what we might hope to draw from it from that engagement and to draw from the really brilliant they're really searching bits of drama and fiction is that question of how we exercise most creatively our creative power telling stories about ourselves do we exercise that power in creating safe the impressive the successful version of ourselves or do we like eseni in this remarkable book go on reinventing ourselves not as the giants and heroes and saints we'd like to be but as those willing to give more and more space for the life of others to come alive in us or around us you

14 thoughts on “A Curious Novel: Postmodernism and Holy Madness | Dr. Rowan Williams | TEDxOxBridge

  1. According to Codex Magica written by Texe Marrs, Rowan Williams is also a Senior Druid Priest. The Church of England like the Catholic Church is just another pagan institution covered with a sprinkling of Christianity.

  2. When a ted x speaker is a retired Archbishop of Canterbury

  3. What a belly! I guess he conveniently missed out gluttony as one of the sins…

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