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The Issue of Man in Modern Secular Culture
What is man that thou are mindful of him?
There is an old Chinese legend: Each time when the Emperor had a wish to know how things were going in the Empire, he invited his musicians and asked them to sing and play for him the most popular songs of the year. He wanted to know what his people preferred to sing at that moment. From the tunes, keys and harmony of the music he could quite clearly realize the actual state of affairs in his country and to guess what was to come next. There is nothing of fortune-telling in his procedure nor any other sort of magic. It is nothing but a form of medical examination. In fact, music (and art in general) besides all the other things which it does is an excellent instrument of diagnostics, a sort of implement, which writes a cardiogram of the epoch: The only problem being to read its writing.

But as soon as we try to apply this ancient method of diagnostics to our current situation, we immediately encounter obstacles which were not as evident in the previous times as they have now become in our postmodern society. First of all, our culture, it seems, does not have any constant and common language of symbolic forms that traditional society has always had, when this or that key, this or that scale of colors, the character of lines definitely meant something, expressed something (fr. Pavel Florensky planned to compile a great compendium of these constant and universal symbolic forms, Symbolarium). In any case, the modern (“actual”) art insists on the fact that the universal symbolic does not exist at all: every system of symbols is suggested now conventional and arbitrary, they all are imposed on us (i.e. they are repressive) and thus we need to deconstruct them. Every attempt to read art in the “medical” (that is, ethical, judging) light looks completely indecent for our enlightened contemporary. And he has reasons to think so. The experience of the XX Century with the prosecutions of the “pathological art” in Germany and the “muddle instead of music” in the USSR taught us to take care in our aesthetical judgments. In order to avoid misunderstanding I must note that I ’m not talking about any prosecution of the art, be it pop-art or the avant-garde, experimental art of our days. What I do propose is just listening to the message of contemporary art, to read the cardiogram of our times. What people sing nowadays in the world.

If we imagine for a second the total sum of what they are singing, playing, showing today, of what would most strike both our eye-sight and our hearing, we would have but to admit – at least to ourselves if not to others: things are going wrong. Why do people want this? What are they looking for in this? Why are they so miserable, as to want it? One of the last classic thinkers of Europe, the spiritual heir of Wittgenstein, having listened to the next opus of some prevalent modern music (that time it was a truly sadistic minimalist oratory) noted: “That must be a truly interesting society that produces a satire for itself as its sole art form”. Satire, parody, grotesque, a distorted copy, a remake pushed to the limits of absurdity… The images of common disintegration and ruin, of total amentia and some nightmarish dulled dreams which have long seized to give freight and became a matter of commerce. Why is this in demand?

Trauma – is one of the central moments of such art: the experiencing of trauma as its main theme, the inflicting a trauma as its form: the inflicting of a trauma upon the hearing, upon the sight, the mind, upon the very “common notions” of the reader–the listener–the spectator. As if the artist and his spectator had never seen anything in this world but trauma, which in the opinion of the modern psychologists is placed at the dawn of the experience: man’s early traumas determine all his future life. The psychologists and sociologists are known to be our augurs, chief interpreters of the modernity; all other humanitarian disciplines had long ago soared down to the plain of psychology and sociology: there they find their last and “objective” explanation of everything. “In the beginning were the ruins” as this mood was expressed by one of the most authoritative voices of the contemporaneity – J. Derrida. If we stop for a second to think that statement over it (as the most part of the popular mot) is totally unrealistic – because nothing begins with ruins, “in the beginning” there should have been something which came to ruin. Just as the early traumas had to be preceded by some untraumatized subject: for we can not inflict a trauma upon something that does not exist. Before one fell one had to have been somewhere whence to fall from. But this is how a man remembers today: starting from trauma, starting from the ruins. Thus he remembers himself and the world. The beginning is something he does not remember, evidently the beginning has never been as fully forgotten as it is today. This is what I think the songs of our Celestial Empire tell us. The end, we should note, is also something they do not remember. Where the real beginning is forgotten the end is also unknown. The finality of man, his mortality are popular themes of the today’s discourse: but this finality is most strange being in no way paralleled with infinitude, while this mortality is never paralleled with death and immortality.

Together with the Beginning in the human experience there also disappears all that has a direct source in the Beginning: attention, depth, concentration, gratitude, marveling, charity, praise, reverence, inspiration, gift, hope for all that seems impossible, trust and the serene melancholy… All which art has always had at its issue – and all that would be just absurd to look for in the songs of our time (I speak of most “typically modern” songs). All those things mentioned and many other things not mentioned will find no place in that space of no beginning and end (“we live after the end” they say, but this can never happen within the domain of life: life is always before the end!). This space without beginning and end, beyond destruction and salvation, beyond sense and senseless, this anti-eschatological and anti-ascetic space is called the mediocrity, the ordinariness, the routine. And the contemporary man is plunged into the routine as never before. This routine is hermetically plugged, all the rest seems impossible and one should never speak of the impossible and it is silly to hope for it.

Touching upon the anthropology of the contemporary secular society (nowadays they speak of the post-secular society) I first and foremost refer to the European world – but that is not to oppose it to Russia: for at least in what they sing those two worlds do not differ much. We belong to the same planetary moment. Only if in the Western context something has long become a routine of the public life it is yet seen as a public scandal within the context of Russia. But this is no childish copying of the West. It is the air of the epoch, only it entered our spaces with a certain delay. Another stream of that very same air – the humanistic sociality – has not reached us yet. And comparing the contemporary society and its “cardiogram” – its art – one can but marvel at their striking contrast. The social life of the contemporary society which is now called the therapeutic or permissive society, is as humanistic as never before. The dignity of man – an individual man – has never been as respected as before. The very idea of the dignity of man, dignitas, the major slogan of humanism, opening up the Modern Age, is of an exclusively Christian origin. No other tradition has ever placed one human soul, its perdition and salvation at the heights of all its values. Here Christianity has continued and reinforced the Old Testament intuition of a somewhat “non-human” dignity of a human being, that which the lines of the Psalms are asking about and marvel. Among those lines is the line which we chose for the epigraph. And without this Christian affirmation of man the classic humanism would just have nothing to lean on, nothing to begin with.

These days they prefer to speak not of the “dignity” of man but rather of his “rights”, the human rights. Yet the deep sense of those “rights”, in effect, is the same: they defend the dignity of a human being against the impersonal institutions. The final affirmation of such rights as an indisputable, common, and now formal norm, came as a ransom for the catastrophic experience of the XX-th century totalitarianism, with its institutionalized annihilation of the value of an individual human being and his life. In the totalitarian world and among its marshallers the question about a man would sound a direct opposite to that of the Psalms: “Who is man that we should think of him – as compared to our plans, and aims, and ideas, to the “historic necessity”, the bright future of the proletariat or the triumph of the Aryan race?” What is an individual man compared to this – or thousands and thousands of such individual men? There are things much more important. And almost all of them are more important than one man. Not even such distant objectives as the bright future and the only true doctrine – but what, for example, is one man to the necessity to build a railroad within the shortest time possible?

As for the lessons of such an experience the Russian universe and the West European one are yet very far from each other. We live – one has to admit – in the society that did not rethink or do away with the cynic cruelty impressed into the generations of men here (enough to say that the word “merciless” was used – and is still used with us – as a positive notion: “we shall fight a merciless fight against something or somebody”). In that “mercilessness”, that “holy cruelty” to the dying enemy people saw something haughty, and heroic and even tragic. They called it “socialist humanism”. “Don’t humiliate men with your mercy! Man – it sounds proud!” – Maksim Gorky, our Nietsche for the poor. Yes, we learned it. Sixty millions in the camps – it sounds proud. Don’t humiliate them with your pity.

The Western universe answered to such catastrophic experience with the repentance brought about in the form of “new humanism”: it’s expressions are the “human rights” put at the head of the common values, and general “therapeutic”, permissive character of the contemporary society which I’ve already mentioned. “We can no longer say of anyone: this is not a man”. This is how we are able to express the lesson drawn by the European culture from the camps of the mass extermination and from the shady adventure of the Uebermensch, “Super-man”. And no one can say this contradicts the evangelic preaching: rather perhaps for the first time after the centuries of the Christian civilization that preaching was taken seriously in its defense of the value of the meek. But what’s next? And the next step is… alas… For the sake of not judging anyone anymore, of reserving the human dignity for that sick, and ugly and mad and perverse and mediocre and ignorant creature we should reject our old notions of health, beauty, rationality, virtue, talent and education. All of these are but repressive norms.

We have to renounce big ideas, designs and plans because they are followed by big massacre: we have to drop religion because it nourishes fanaticism, and divides people into “own” and “alien” etc. We have to renounce anything that has force because force and enforcement, violence do not differ any more. The difference between faith and fanaticism, certainty of judgment and doctrinarianism is felt but vaguely. We have to go lower, and lower and lower to where not much remains. This is the anthropology of the new humanism. “What is a man? It is a traumatized, vulnerable, poor, sick creature devastated by its long history. There is nothing good about him: he, a poor victim, can easily turn into a slaughterer. And it is this creature that is to be preserved. And not asked for anything extraordinary, if possible”. The image of a man as beautiful as cosmos itself, almost omnipotent, free and active, possessing an unlimited ability to learn, that image which inspired the first, classic humanism has been changed into its opposite. The dignity of man is that he just is – such as he is, the dignity of the living is that he just lives. And such is remembered by the Lord, we shall add. But the new humanism does not add this. Its main idea – as expressed by the influential French philosopher Andre Glucksman in his “Eleventh Сommandment” – goes like this: “Remember the evil inherent to you”. Brilliant, this was an age-old doctrine of the monastic pedagogy. Yet there is one thing that was forgotten even more and perhaps it is time to speak about it again: “Remember that there is something good inherent to you”. The very question whether our Lord is mindful of a man or not can’t be put in the space of neo-humanistic agnosticism. “Who are we to pose such a question?” – they use to say now. The new humanists want to remind a human being (properly, humanity: for both the first and the new humanism are rhetoric in their essence, they always address a large audience and a single person as a part of the audience) to be mindful of a human being in its most humiliated, crippled, miserable condition.

This kenotic movement of a kind is the most poetic and serious element of the new humanism. It can originate – and does so at times – a new thought, a new art, which is a poor, quiet and almost soundless and colorless art. It is yet unheard of behind the clamor and the roar of time. But new intensity is being born within such poverty.

And the art which is being heard of everywhere, the art we were talking about is the art of that mediocrity, of that ordinariness which I called the anti-eschatological and anti-ascetic reality. It is anti-eschatological because it just wants to exist “off-the-cuff”, for no particular reason starting from no beginning and ending with no end, no questions asked about the sense and the senseless, ever drifting between the “necessary” and the “entertaining”. I also called it anti-ascetic meaning the asceticism not as a certain system of self-limitations and refusals, i.e. the usual abstinence it is commonly taken for, but asceticism as an open, dynamic reality. I speak of asceticism as a human will -for something else, for that which – given what we are – seems impossible and absurd; for that which a poet calls “the effort of the Resurrection”.

Death can be conquered by
The effort of the Resurrection

This will raise us from the dulled dream of the ordinariness, the routine – something the ancient Syrian “Song of the Pearl” translated by S. Averintsev tells about. A son of a Tzar who forgot in an alien land (in Egypt, i.e. under slavery) both his kin and his task (to extract from a Snake and bring a mysterious pearl to his Father ) gets a saving message from home:

As it was written in my heart
Thus was written in the words of the letter

And I bethought that I was the son of a Tzar
That my freedom craved for its cognate
And I bethought myself of that Pearl
For whose sake I came to Egypt.

The contemporary man bethought himself of being poor and good for nothing, of being a sapless slave: that which classic humanism came to forget, so did the Enlightenment. But such a memory would not be truly faithful if it did not follow till the end, i.e. until the very beginning:

And I bethought that I was the son of a Tzar.

If that man would not remember that he is the one who is remembered: is the one who is endlessly marveled by the Psalmist. “Thou are mindful of man”: in that he is entirely sure: he is astonished but: why? And who is to remind us our Beginning, to write to us the words which were written in our hearts? I think: a saint; and I think: an artist.
 The Issue of Man in Modern Secular Culture
"Non-Mortal and Mysterious Feelings": On Pushkinʼs Christianity
"In the Vestal Abyss of a Line of Verse": On Meaning in Poetry and Meaning in Doctrine
Mediocrity as a Social Danger
The Light of Life. Some Remarks On the Russian Orthodox Perception
The Art of translation. Some remarks
The Morality of Art, or the Evils of Mediocrity
Once again about Childhood, Poetry, and Courage. Answers for Elena Stepanian
Hermes. The Invisible Aspect of Classical Literature
A Discourse on Method
Poetry and Anthropology
On the Nature of Tradition
Freedom as Eschatological Reality
Waiting for a Response
Totus Tuus
In Memory of John Paul II
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