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Mediocrity as a Social Danger
The complete article is published in: Olga Sedakova. Freedom to believe: philosophical and cultural essays. Bucknell University Press, 2010. We are grateful to the Publishing house Bucknell University Press for the permission to use the fragment of the book on this site.
The theme that I plan to discuss with you today is not only strange, but also, if you will, dangerous. I have been thinking about it for a long time. Once in England, several years ago, it was suggested that I compile a list of topics that I could offer for various universities so that these universities could choose what they preferred. Among those offered by me included my theme today – "Mediocrity as a Social Danger." No one chose it! Everyone collectively said: "This theme is too dangerous, we do not want it." They feared that this would be a violation of political correctness. How could you divide people into the "mediocre" and those who are not! A flagrant violation of democratism. So this theme has remained for me only in the form of a title.

From the very beginning I do not want you to misunderstand me, to not understand me the way that, unfortunately, our conventions of word usage force us to understand. First and foremost, I do not suggest that people should be divided into one group or another, mediocre or not mediocre, as my English friends had supposed. I will strive to explain what I have in mind by mediocrity further in the course of my exposition. For the time being I will note that this is not a juxtaposition of certain "ordinary" and "extraordinary" people who are endowed with some special abilities. "Mediocrity" is not an "average person" at all, a "run-of the mill" person, as he is also called, that is someone who is not distinguished by anything exceptional. The habit to think precisely in such a way forces many to torment and to doubt themselves on their own account: Am I not mediocrity? I know many people who would consider themselves bad rather than mediocre. For many, this unhappy love affair with them selves lasts their entire lives: Am I a mediocrity or not, a Napoleon or a trembling creature? So it is not enough that a person suffers from his or her "unexceptionality," his or her "grayness," as they say in Russian: here they also say to him/her that s/he is a social danger in as much ax s/he is not a genius. I assure you that I have nothing of the sort in mind.

With joy I read in the notes of Boris Pasternak, just published in the eleven-volume collection of his works, his discussions of our topic. Pasternak writes: "Under mediocrity people who are ordinary and usual usually are understood. But the usual is a genuine living quality similar to a talent. Persons of genius are the most usual. Nature is usual. What is unusual is in fact mediocrity. Mediocrity is parasitic to the unusual, the cult of the unusual – it is a cult created by it." One of its typical characteristics, Pasternak notes, is the fact that it "scorns ordinary things."

Thus to begin I put aside this conventional meaning of "ordinary people" as "mediocre." The Russian word "mediocrity" can be interpreted in different ways: as "something between good and bad, neither this nor that." But it seems to me it would be more interesting to relate it to the w ord "spontaneity" – and thereby see it as "mediated," not direct, not simple, not the "first," and not entirely the "real." The directness and simplicity of relationships – that is what mediocrity does not know. Here we will understand Pasternak's thought about the fact that an ordinary person – just like one of genius – cannot be "mediocre," just like nature cannot be "mediocre." You will never find any "mediocrity," say, in a house cat or in a tree. You will never find anything "mediocre" in a child, in any pre-school child. Yet at the same time you will not find anything "extraordinary" there! Mediocrity is not an innate quality of a person, this is his choice, and I am going to speak about just such a choice.1

My reflections on the evil of mediocrity are connected first and foremost to art – in as much as I think mostly of art and, in particular, about that lesson that art carries within itself. About the fact that the message of art – is a moral message: "Not paper quires, but messages save people." I first tried to describe this lesson in my article "About the Moralism of Art." As is well known, the moral and art are seemingly antithetical things. In any case, it is accepted to consider it as such in modern times. Just open Georges Bataille's famous book Literature and Evil. In it the French thinker presents his hypothesis: art in its essence is nothing other than an experiment in communication with evil, with that evil, which social morality and daily life categorically forbid. And indeed, in the literature of modern times we will not commonly encounter, as in medieval hagiographical literature, "ideal" heroes, "positive" examples, or examples for imitation. It would be strange in this way to read, for example, the classic novels: behave like Anna Karenina or Raskolnikov! Or like Hamlet! But it is not only the heroes of prose and drama who are far from being examples for imitation. A poet (or his lyric hero) is also in no way a righteous person, and to "imitate" Blok or Baudelaire, as if they were holy ascetics, is hardly appropriate. But in something – we immediately feel this – even a "damned poet" is superior to a "good common man." And, however strange it sounds, I understand this superiority as moral – with that not in the smallest measure showing solidarity with the romantic scheme.

The artist turns his attention to that invisible evil, about which everyday morality forgets or even, generally speaking, promotes this unknown vice – the vice of mediocrity – to develop and feel itself the master of the situation. Unlike Bataille, I think that the purpose of art is not at all the glimpsing into the abysses of evil for the sake of this adventure itself, that it is not "a violation of the limits of the permissible": this is an effort to widen the world, to break out of the enclosed space of "givenness," as out of the barrel in the folktale by Pushkin: "He knocked out the bottom and stepped out." That which art is occupied with can be called the expansion of the heart, the overcoming of one's own givenness. In Dante's second canticle of his Purgatorio, there are three remarkable lines (I cite them in a literal translation):

Have you not noticed that we (that is, the human race) are caterpillars,
Born to become angelic butterflies
That fly toward the fire of justice unshielded by anything?

(Purgatorio, X, 124-26)

The last picture – of a butterfly flying at a fire, of the "blessed longing for fiery death" as an image of the true existence of a person appears in Goethe and ends with the famous strophe:

And until you do not have this,
Precisely this: Die and become! –
You are just a melancholy guest
On the dimly lit earth.

That is what art remembers and reminds us of it, and in this is its moral lesson: the imperative "to die and become." This is precisely what mediocrity does not permit. Thus the matter is not at all in having remarkable talents or their absence, not in "uniqueness" or in the similarity to everyone, not in romanticism or realism. It is a separate conversation why for a European individual such a "farewell with one's self" can appear to be an igret to evil, and I will noit begin it now. I just wanted to explain my point of departure.

I see art and creative process not as some kind of extraordinary experiment, but to the contrary: like the restoration of the human norm that has been distorted by what is called "ordinariness."

Thus not being a sociologist, political scientist or an economist (people expect authoritative pronouncements of relevance from representatives of these professions), I am going to speak about mediocrity as political reality, proceeding from that aspect of interior life with which art is preoccupied.

That which we call interior life, it would seem, is not overly tied to politics, if not entirely, as many think, directly opposed to politics. Alter all, isn't it precisely in turning away from all this vanity, from all this mouselike scurrying and petty intrigues (as the field of politics is usually presented), that a person finds himself in the realm of inner life.

Yes, interior life possesses great autonomy from external circumstances, and at times this autonomy becomes absolute. Artists know how to capture these moments of absolute freedom of the soul from what is occurring. Leo Tolstoy in particular. In War and Peace there is an episode when Pierre Bezukhov ends up a prisoner of the French. His situation is hopeless, they lead him out to be executed by firing squad – and at that moment he suddenly experiences the feeling of absolute freedom from everything happening, a certain incontrovertible knowledge is revealed to him, not even a knowledge, but rather an empirical experience of the fact that he possesses an immortal soul. And he laughs. The entire situation appears laughable to him. "They want to kill me? My immortal soul?" Pierre thinks.

Such moments of absolute autonomy of the interior life occur not only in so called extreme situations: super difficult ones, the deadly dangerous. They can occur entirely in other places. A friend once related to me how he once heard an old recording of Shaliapin: a restored recording in which through the noise reverberated that inimitable living voice. And he – my friend – experienced precisely the same thing: the shock of the direct presence of absolute freedom. He experienced an encounter with true immortality. With the dead – and the living, and the immortal Shaliapin, as he put it, he suddenly met the immortal in his own soul. This provoked in him not an explosion of laughter as in Pierre, but tears, tears of joy.

For various reasons – or without evident reasons we end up in the apace of another dimension: call it the "first" or the "last." Everything else appears illusory compared to it. There is, besides Tolstoy, one other master of the registration of such moments of the "overwhelmed heart" – Marcel Proust.

In such moments we encounter what Goethe called the "old truth," winch is always the same. I will not read it in German, but I will provide an interlinear translation:

The truth has been found long, long ago
And linked in union grateful souls.
Hold tightly onto it, this ancient truth.

The old truth, in which we know everything, without asking anything or explaining ourselves, does not change not only with the change of political regimes, but also with universal cataclysms. As it is well known according to the words of the Gospels: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33; New International Version). Naturally, all the more they will not pass away with the replacement of political regimes.

What is important for me in Goethe's statement is the fact that you do not have to search for this ancient truth. It has been found long ago. The habitual topic of quests, spiritual quests, thereby has been abregated. It has been discovered long ago, as Goethe says, it has linked noble sould among themselves – those who have agreed to believe it. If there is anything to seek, then it is yourself, that self which can enter into that noble union. And this is not easy at all. Precisely on that path, that path of searching for your noble self, in continuing to speak in Goethe's words, we collide with what I call the political.

It would seem that situations such as the one occurring with Pierre Bezukhov are not rehearsed, are not prepared for, they occur contrary to everything: it is as though they fall from the heavens. But in reality much more falls from the heavens than we are able to accept. A place needs to be found in our inner world for this state. There must be some kind of preparedness – perhaps, till that moment in time unknown to that very person – a readiness to accede to that ancient truth. Our resistant to that truth is extraordinary.

One of my friends, a contemporary German woman artist, once told me that for some time she hated the truth. Naturally, she was able to call her emotion in such a way only after she had experienced a radical spiritual upheaval. Till that time she was unable to give a name to her disaffection. But she noticed that genuine painting, both contemporary and classical, aroused in her a sharp, personal hate that she hated, let us say, Rembrandt. However, she willingly accepted average works of art at that. Everything that contradicted this middle level aroused in her a hatred incomprehensible to herself: this can not be, this mixed all the cards, this ruins my world! Only after an inner upheaval did she recognize the fact of how much she was fettered by some kind of a union with the half-truth. This was not some kind of blatant lie, no: this was a half-truth. And everything that did not fit within the borders of the half-truth was absolutely unacceptable for her. It was necessary for her to justify her situation of the "melancholy guest on a dull earth" as the only one possible.2

I suppose that very many will be surprised why on the path to the inner, to the "ancient truth" we, as I mentioned, encounter the political. Really, shouldn't we just run away from politics, from all its vanity and lies, from its thoroughly staged, scripted reality, as we know now particularly clearly, with all its public relations campaigns that Viktor Pelevin has described? Very often the path of escape from all these – and in general from everything "external" (and the politics are seen as the most external thing among them) – is reputed to be the spiritual. As I see it, if this is the path of spirituality, then it is a spirituality of a Gnostic type, which does not at all recognize reality or the value of the world of here.

Politicizing vanity can indeed be a great hindrance, as the tormented Pushkin wrote in his late days:

And I don't care if the press freely
Fools dolts, or if a keen censorship
Limits some joker in his journalistic plans.

(As you can clearly hear from these lines, Pushkin does not sympathize at all with the "joker," who is limited in his intentions, and does not intend to battle both for his rights, and for his freedom "to fool dolts"). But the participation in politics in its original sense (I will remind you that politics is an Aristotelian word, the word of thought of classical antiquity), in politics as the laws of community life, the laws of citizenship is an entirely different matter. We see that such an idea of citizenship is not alien to Christian Orthodox thought in such expressions of liturgical texts as "heavenly abode," "inhabitant of paradise" (a saint is called this way), and others. "Inhabitance" in the Old Church Slavic language conveys the Greek politea, citizenship, participation in the life of the polis. "Inhabitant" in the Slavic understanding is not simply a dweller as it is in the Russian language, but a citizen, that is, one who carries responsibility for the politea, for the city, for his society. And therefore if you start off along the path of divergence from the "inhabitance," from the position of an inhabitant and look at everything happening from the notorious point of view of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis, this will be a very fallacious, crooked path.

Translated by Slava I. Yastremski

1 D. Bonhoffer, in analyzing German society in Nazi times, discovered that stupidity – a quality or a defect that is accepted to be considered innate – is actually the result of a personal choice, and at that a choice which is politically motivated. In certain situations society uniformly "grows stupid": heart and soul it begins "not to understand," "to believe" in something totally improbable (for example, "murderers in white gowns"), etc. We witnessed how quickly our society grew smart just like the tropical forest: as soon as during the years of glasnost many bans were lifted, it turned out that people were significantly smarter than they appeared earlier. That they well understood what earlier, it was assumed, was completely incomprehensible. With anxiety I note in recent years an evident movement toward a new stultification. Once again you can hear familiar retorts: "Who can figure this out! Everybody's lying!" etc.

2 It is interesting to note that an Orthodox ascetic of the twentieth century, Archimandrite Sofrony (Sakharov) witnesses this phenomenon: "People in a strange way choose not the best, but something average. I am not saying – the worse, but average. However this average, when everyone claws at it and doesn't want to widen it, this average becomes confining. Thus our entire life passes in a battle with the confining nature of the human heart. And I will say the thruth, often times I stand on the edge of despair" (Letter).
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"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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