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“On Behalf of All and for All”: The Place of Liturgy in Russian Culture, my Reflections

“On Behalf of All and for All”: The Place of Liturgy in Russian Culture, my Reflections

"On Behalf of All"--Liturgy PosterI should not be surprised; really, it is to be expected. The UCLA campus sits beautifully in the hills of north LA, but the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures sits in the ugliest building on campus–the ugliest building with the best view. To stretch this metaphor to its breaking point, I think this summarizes the conference held there last month–a coarse topic with an outward-looking eye.

“On Behalf of All and for All”: The Place of Liturgy in Russian Culture took a diachronic approach to liturgy’s overt and, more interestingly, tacit role in Russian cultural production. The concession here is that liturgy in Russian culture was/is so profuse as to make its use, its language, and its imagery, if not omnipresent, then at least a lingua franca with which cultural historians and literary scholars can address the mentalities of the people they study. I do not know enough about the field of liturgy to understand whether or not this is a common position, but I do know that in the Russian context very little rivals orthodoxy for its cultural, social, and political importance.

Although the purpose of this conference was to question the historiographical treatment of religion as a knowable, traceable object of truth and focus more on the mentality of liturgical practice as an ever-present, inescapable part of cultural life, the truly profound revelations for me were more methodological than conceptual… more flipped out. By literally approaching a topic from the opposite direction, the conference participants were breathing new life into well-examined texts.

I think Sean Griffin’s (Ph.D candidate, UCLA) paper on “The Liturgical Subtext of Ol’ga’s Baptism in the Povest’ vremennykh let’” does just that. Rather than reading Ol’ga as a Janus-faced figure, who was simultaneously the most pious and most vengeful, Griffin suggests that the text of her story be seen as part of a preexisting and continuing negotiation between liturgical tropes of the early authors and the hands of a new, emerging historical voice. The authors of the Primary Chronicle were creating something new–a text whose purpose was to record the historical development of the Rus’. The only language they had to work with was that of the liturgical texts themselves, the only other written account with which the scholarly world was familiar. In the telling of Ol’ga’s story, they employed this methodology alongside this new voice. He flips the work of previous scholars by starting, not with the Chronicle itself and then tracing backwards, but with the liturgical texts and tracing them forwards towards the Chronicle.

Prof. Nadieszda Kizenko (University of Albany) does something similar in her paper “The Personal is Liturgical:  Govenie in Russian Culture.” Using liturgical exegesis on literary representations of communion throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, she has found that there are certain patterns to its representation–new clothes, for example, fear and trepidation in girls, and an experience with the sublime. This lends credit to the conclusion that there was a sort of expectation, an assumed, experience of this particular liturgical practice. The flip here occurs in seeing the field of these representations across both time and genera, something literary scholars seem hesitant to do.

With all of this conceptual switching or flipping–reading liturgy in literature, literature in liturgy, history everywhere–where does this leave our interpretation of importance? By this I mean are we not diminishing authorial intent in doing so? Is intent even something we need to take into account when dealing with medieval liturgy or modern Pussy Riot protesting? A second, unresolved question regards space. What does the difference in space, both literally and conceptually, of the text mean for this flipped perspective? It all seems a bit messy to me, but I can see how this process allows us to reorganize outr understanding in order to see the bigger, cultural picture with more subtle shades.

The nice part about being in the ugliest building around is that all you can see is beautiful (which is sometimes a blessing in LA). Though I think this stepping back from orthodoxy-as-object and seeing its multifaceted influence on Russian cultural production is a noble goal–something which absolutely needs to continue–the current state of research remains thin. We all know it is there, that there is something beautiful to be seen in this work; however, for now we are still just sitting in an ugly building.