The Andrei Rublev Option
I commend to you Michael Anton’s searing essay in New Criterion, on the rapid disintegration of our civilization. His argument is that the degeneration of America today has no antecedents — not even imperial Rome. Excerpts:
Yet elite enthusiasms extend well beyond mere greed. There is a malice in them atypical to the native despot, one found historically only or largely among the most punitive conquerors. A tyrant fears a healthy population, to be sure, because such is always a threat to his power. This fear typically inspires little beyond efforts to ensure that the population is dependent and unarmed—two aims of our overlords, it need hardly be added.
Tyrants or ruling classes that despoil their countries for personal gain are nothing new.
But our elites also go much further. They seem determined to make the American population fat, weak, ugly, lethargic, drug-addled, screen-addicted, and hyper-sexualized, the men effeminate and the women masculine. Those last two actually barely scratch the surface of the agenda, which includes turning males into “females” and vice versa—or into any one of a potentially infinite number of “genders.” (The number varies depending on which source you check; sixty-three is the highest I could find. Needless to say, no establishment source stops at “two.”)
The regime promotes every imaginable historic form of degeneracy—and then invents new ones undreamt of by Caligula, the Borgias, or Catherine the Great. All these it pushes through every available media channel, social and legacy, in programming and advertising alike, even in books stocked in elementary-school libraries. As I write, the Virginia governor’s race is being roiled by the presence in said libraries of Gender Queer: A Memoir, an illustrated “children’s” book as sexually explicit as 1970s hardcore pornography—and arguably illegal to boot, since it depicts minors. One candidate for governor and his supporters indignantly insist that this kind of material must be forced on your kids at public expense and that only Nazis object. Degeneracy in tyrants is of course as old as the hills, but prior despots had the “decency,” if one could call it that, to restrict their perversions to the satisfaction of their own private pleasures. To force degeneracy on the whole of society, with the explicit intent of bringing the rest us to our knees, literally and figuratively—that, I think, has never happened before.
We may tie these points together under the broad rubric of “education,” though that word is risibly inapt to what is “taught” today. The word’s root is Latin and means “to lead forth”—that is, to coax out of imperfect but improvable human nature that which makes each human being better. Or, as the classics understood it, not merely to impart knowledge but also to form character.
In both respects, our system does the opposite. It teaches lies, attacks and suppresses truth, and encourages people to behave worse. It tells children to hate themselves (or their classmates) because of their race and to hate their country. It encourages boys to declare themselves girls, and vice versa. It badgers kids into professing themselves attracted to members of the same sex, or of all sixty-three sexes, regardless of, or despite, their natural inclination. It firehoses them with sexualized messaging and imagery, always taking care to decouple orgasmic self-indulgence from love and family.
The people who run the system, or many of them, can only be described as sadists. How sick does one’s mind have to be to think it a good idea to teach a black kindergartner (through the taxpayer-financed public education system, no less) to hate his white classmates, or those white classmates to hate themselves? A sane society would call this child abuse.
The system now protects predators at the expense of the vulnerable and attacks parents who object. In Virginia, a boy in a skirt entered a girls’ bathroom and raped a student. The school and the district hushed it up and transferred him to another school—where he did it again. When one victim’s father complained at a school-board meeting, cops roughed him up and arrested him. The superintendent, principal, and all others in authority furiously denied that any assault had ever taken place—that is, except for the father’s impassioned plea, which the school board referred to the Attorney General of the United States, who then ordered the FBI and U.S. attorneys to investigate outspoken parents as “domestic terrorists.” This is not merely insane but deliberately evil. The Carthaginians cast living children into furnaces to satiate their (false) god Baal; we sacrifice our children’s mental heath and adult futures to appease our false god Woki. Plus ça change?
On the permanent woke revolution:
Finally, there is the endless insistence that every new dawn must begin a fresh Year Zero; we must start continually anew. What was acceptable yesterday is anathema today and will be more so tomorrow. All that came before must be swept aside and destroyed with extreme prejudice, on a rolling basis.
The most ferocious revolutionaries of yesteryear didn’t do this. The Jacobins changed the calendar and guillotined a lot of nobles but otherwise allowed France to remain French. The Bolsheviks did not touch the Russian literary or concert canons; to the contrary, they celebrated both. Mao made an attempt to start over—until the more sensible Party bosses realized that the old man (and especially his wife) had lost their minds and were destroying China, sidelined him, and quietly put an end to the Cultural Revolution four years before formally declaring mission accomplished. The Ayatollah did not ban Nowruz or other cornerstones of Persian tradition beloved by the Iranian people, but which predated his puritanical version of Islam.
Our overlords, by contrast, insist on changing everything and will not stop until everything familiar is gone. When this is pointed out, they smirk about the “slippery-slope fallacy” and gleefully lie. That will never happen, they say, until they insist on it, and, once accomplished, move on to the next target. They are cultural locusts devouring everything in their path. If the internal “logic” (if one may use that word in this context) of their passionate hatred is allowed to play out, no statue can be left standing, no traditional holiday observed, no name unchanged. If that outcome does not come to pass, it will not be because those driving toward it have a change of heart, nor is it likely to be because the Right suddenly becomes effective in opposition. It will rather be because the locusts destroy too many of the country’s remaining functioning parts too soon, causing the system to collapse before their program is complete, thereby making further “progress” impossible.
Read the whole thing. It’s important, and there’s much more that I didn’t quote. Anton says that any one of these things taken separately has historical precedent, but all of them happening at once? He doesn’t see it in the past.
Last night I had dinner with a tech industry friend in town on business. His work includes managing anti-porn software for families. He filled me in on what the scourge of pornography means.
He told me about a friend of his who worked this past summer at a camp for Evangelical high school kids. About one in five of the boys there, the man estimated, confessed that he suffers from erectile dysfunction — this, in a discussion about pornography. Can you imagine that?! One in five teenage boys — Evangelicals who care enough about their faith to attend a religious summer camp — cannot sustain an erection. This is entirely down to hardcore porn use. We are destroying the capacity of the next generation to love, to form relationships, and to form families. My friend said that most conservative parents want a tech silver bullet fix, but that’s not possible. You can use tech (like his company’s) to better the odds, but there will never be a perfect tech solution. We are going to have to use laws and technology to fight this evil, but there is no escaping the fact that we have to sustain a cultural change if we are going to survive this as a civilization.
It’s all horrible. But contemplating the Anton essay, I went back to this clip from the 1966 Soviet film Andrei Rublev, the masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, who was a religious believer. The movie is Tarkovsky’s imaginative take on the life of the famous Russian medieval icon painter, of whose actual life we know almost nothing. It is a movie about art and suffering. In this scene, Andrei is grieving in the ruins of an Orthodox cathedral that has just been sacked by Tatars and their Russian allies. He is visited by the shade of Theophanes, his artistic mentor, who comes to him from beyond the grave to give counsel. Watch (it’s subtitled in English):
Andrei, shattered by what he has seen — mass murder, sacking, and even the destruction of all his work in the cathedral — and by his killing of a Russian who was assaulting a woman, says he will take a “vow of silence.” Not only will he never again speak, he also will no longer create icons. The suffering and wickedness of the world is too great. Theophanes gently suggests that this is a bad idea. The two men are standing in front of an iconostasis (icon screen) that has been burned by the barbarians, and Theophanes tells Andrei that the destruction might last forever.
Then, turning to an image of the Protecting Mother of God, the only iconic image on the wall that did not burn, Theophanes says, “Yet how beautiful all this is!”
They turn to look up at the broken dome of the cathedral, through which snowflakes have started to fall.
“Nothing is more terrible than snow falling in a temple.”
He utters those words while Tarkovsky’s camera focuses on Duroshka, a mentally challenged peasant girl, whom Andrei saved from being raped, resting in the ruins:
Then Andrei observes that the heavenly messenger is gone. Notice the one holy image remaining in the ruins, the way the light shines on it here:
What does this have to do with the Anton essay?
I believe that many of us are like Andrei, driven to his knees in the ruins of his world. Note well that for Orthodox Christians, the dome of a church represents the cosmos. The symbolism here is that Andrei’s own sense of cosmic order has been shattered by the wickedness of men. Yet Theophanes, who has gone to the next world, returns to tell him that violence and destruction is the way of the world … but there is still beauty in it. He’s gently telling Andrei that his role as an artist is to keep making beauty, and through beauty testifying to the Truth.
When Theophanes utters his line about snow in the temple, in the original Russian he means “terrible” in the sense of “awe-inspiring”. Why is it awe-inspiring to see snow falling in a temple? Because it means that there has been a terrible breach in the world, and a defilement of what is holy. Yet snow is light and lovely, and graceful. The fact that grace can come through the radical brokenness of the world is “terrible” in the sense of awe-inspiring. It is no accident that Tarkovsky focuses on Duroshka when Theophanes utters these words. She is, for Andrei, the snow that fell through the crack in the cosmos. He saved her from rape, and now he must care for her — and does. She is innocence. This vulnerable, weak, simple-minded girl is holy fool — a manifestation of Christ, and an opportunity for Andrei’s redemption. He cannot repair the world — but he can protect and care for this little one.
At the end of this scene, there are still two more chapters to be told in Andrei’s story. The ending is one of the most glorious things in the history of cinema. In it, Andrei is restored to spiritual health, and comes to recognize his role as an artist in bearing witness to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty amid the ruins of the world.
So, with that in mind, what is the Andrei Rublev Option?
It is to recognize that yes, we live in catastrophically destructive times. The barbarians are sacking the temple, so to speak. Yet beauty has not ceased to exist. God has not stopped speaking to us through beauty, and innocence. We behold the crack in the cosmos, but let’s not fail to see the snow falling through it — that is, the grace that comes to us through the tear in the fabric of the world. Let’s see those who are weak and vulnerable among us, and defend them, and care for them, so that those who would destroy their innocence do not succeed. The lesson of the movie (this comes beyond the scene in the sacked cathedral) is not to withdraw in despair, as tempting as that is, but rather to accept our mission to use the gifts God gave us to keep bearing witness to Him, because we never know what good that will do in lightening the burden of everyone struggling in the ruins, and how it might turn their hearts to the good.
This lesson is going to be a major part of my next book.
I am aware of only one other time in his work that Tarkovsky used snow falling in a temple. It comes at the end of Nostalghia (1983), a film that has changed the direction of my life. The protagonist of that film, a writer also named Andrei, struggles to create, not because he despairs of the world (like Andrei Rublev), but because he is fixated on nostalgia for what he left behind. He is in Italy to do research, but has been paralyzed because he is locked inside his own head. All he can think about is his family back in Russia. He is never fully present in the moment, and is blind to all the grace and beauty around him. At the very end, a sacrificial act for a suffering stranger draws Andrei out of his head, and into the real world. And it kills him. The final image shows Andrei inside the ruins of a church, one that has no roof, with snow falling in the temple. He has in some sense regained home, the image says, and the harmony that eluded him when he lived in time. This wordless scene is a cinematic icon of the terrible grace that came to Andrei through his sacrifice. It is a profoundly Christian image. It tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend, and that to lose your life for love is, in a mystical sense, to gain it.
Some people think my work is defeatist. They are wrong. I believe in fighting as hard as we can to defend what is good, true, and beautiful. But I also believe that what is happening now is the outworking of centuries of processes and forces that cannot be stopped, only survived. Politics has to play a role in this defense, but even an all-powerful sovereign, though he could perhaps stop the worst of it, would still be mostly like King Canute trying to roll back the sea. This is not a call to abandon politics. But it is a call to putting politics into perspective.
We live in a time that may be without precedent in its destructiveness, as Anton observes. Yes, there have been horrific periods in our civilization’s past history, but Anton points to the auto-demolition of our civilization today as being something unique. He may be right; I don’t know. What I do know is that whatever is and is to come, we who love Truth, Goodness, and Beauty have to keep the faith — and that means developing institutions and ways of life that are resilient in the face of this madness. I can’t speak about people of other faiths, but if you are a Christian, I strongly encourage you to find your way to a worshiping community that can read the signs of the times and has within it the strength to endure this apocalypse. “Conservative” is not enough. It is not remotely enough.
A modern Orthodox Jewish friend was telling me recently that his shul is filling up with Jews escaping “woke Judaism.” They aren’t necessarily Orthodox, but they just want to escape politicized religion. They never thought they would end up in a modern Orthodox shul, but there they are, and they are hungry to know more. May God bless them and give them shelter within living tradition!
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