Holy Fools in Russian Literature

by Philip Gorski

Holy Fool, detail from a painting by Surikov

Throughout the history of Russian literature, holy foolishness (iurodstvo) has been a ubiquitous motif. As an evolving theme, it remains challenging and paradoxical, constantly prompting us to reconsider the relations between “sanity” and “madness.” Most profoundly, it represents a powerful renunciation of what St. Paul called the “wisdom of this world,” to which he urged us not to be conformed since this wisdom “has been made foolish by God” (1 Cor. 1:20). I would like to make some brief observations regarding the development of the idea of iurodstvo by examining the compelling and innovative form that it took in the hands of a number of Russian writers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This in turn may suggest further thoughts about what we might mean by the idea of “holy foolishness” today.

Nikolai Leskov (1831-95) is one of the many Russian authors who have explored holy foolishness in their writing. His stories contain numerous subtly drawn examples of holy foolish behavior. One of the best known is “Deathless Golovan,” about a simple and self-sacrificing man who cares for victims of a plague regardless of his own safety, and who amazes his neighbors by giving a Jewish man milk for his children. Elsewhere, in “Singlethought” (Odnodum, 1879), the unpredictable consequences of Bible-reading are examined. Here, the sober minded Alexander Afanas’evich Ryzhov has fallen into the ways of folly after the Scriptures have exerted an unfortunate influence upon him, the most worrying aspect of which is his steadfast refusal, as a provincial police officer, to take bribes or “gifts.” Indeed, his all-round unwillingness to become “businesslike” attracts the attention of the town governor and the archpriest, the latter being particularly worried that he may somehow, in Leskov’s words, be “straying from the truths of Orthodoxy.” Upon making enquiries he is troubled to discover that Ryzhov has “filled his head with Bible reading,” and has even, as he says, “gone as far as Christ.” “In that case,” the archpriest sadly concludes, “it’s all up with him.” For, as Leskov himself remarks,

In our ancient Russian land every Orthodox knows that whoever has read the Bible all the way through and has “even got to Christ,” can no longer be held strictly responsible for his actions, [for] such people are like the well known fools of God.

Ryzhov loves to read the Prophets, and Leskov describes him as “half mystic, half agitator.” The scandalous culmination of this tendency is the spectacle of Ryzhov one day physically forcing the rather disdainful provisional Governor to bow before the icons in Church. The only explanation that a stunned official can give for this is that “Bible reading is not suitable for everybody: among the monks it arouses the passions and among the laymen it unsettles the mind.” Whether or not Ryzhov’s mind is unsettled, it is significant that he remains firmly Orthodox, fasting and going to confession, even though he calmly tells the Provincial Governor – when asked – that the authorities are lazy, greedy and hypocritical, and that the rich rather than the poor should be taxed. He has come to these conclusions, he says, not from involvement in any sect, but from a reading of the Scriptures. And when the Governor tells him that he could be arrested or deported for this insolence, his response is that he has no one to fear except God.

Dostoevsky differed greatly from Leskov philosophically, but nonetheless shared an interest in the portrayal of pravedniki (righteous ones). His most renowned attempt in this respect was, of course, the holy fool Prince Myshkin with whom Dostoevsky aimed at the depiction of “a positively good man.”

There is also, in The Devils, the unnerving figure of Maria Lebedkin, who exhibits a powerful spiritual resilience in the face of continuous male brutality.

But one classically Dostoevskian righteous man, who owes much to the folkloric accounts of the holy fool but who is less well known, is the elderly strannik or wanderer Makar Dolgorukii who makes a fleeting but memorable appearance in Dostoevsky’s novel The Adolescent, and who makes his tranquil entrance by way of his overheard prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us.”

In the feverish activity of the novel, amidst the frantic conflicts of competing intellects, Makar shines out as one who is unashamed to speak of the mysteries of life, which are all the more beautiful because they are mysteries. In his conversations with the adolescent Arkadii he exhibits a calm familiarity with the grand claims made on behalf of science yet remains quietly aware of the limitations of the rationalizing mind. As he says at one point with regard to the invention of the microscope, “There’s nothing to say. It’s a great and glorious thing: everything has been given over to man by the will of God.” And as for the learned, the professors, he says, “We must pray for them, for they are like us, fellow suffering men the same as us. They read and talk all their lives, filled with bookish sweetness, but they themselves dwell in perplexity and cannot resolve anything.” Hence, for Makar, if man in his vanity rejects God, the result is the worship of an idol – “a wooden one, a golden one or a mental one.” Despite all this the amiable doctor Alexander Semtonovich, a true man of science, persists in viewing Makar as nothing more than “a vagrant all the same.”

Makar is no idealized portrait of a “simple” peasant iurodivyi. Arkadii thinks that he notices a rather sly side to his character which enjoys polemic, as if there were a propagandist quietly at work within him. Indeed, his Orthodoxy is of a notable kind. He believes that we are bound to pray tenderly “for all who have no one to pray for them,” for the unrepentant or condemned, and for suicides. Even more worrying, his ecstatic vision of the future “with Christ” is one without orphans or beggars in which, after the giving away of all riches we will become immeasurably rich in love. “This is communism you’re preaching,” Arkadii finally interrupts, before proceeding to expound communist doctrine for him “with great ardor, heedless of anything.” But old Makar is genuinely mystified, indeed shocked, to hear his vision claimed and then rendered in such intellectualized terms. His inspiration was never based upon a theoreticized blueprint, but grew instead out of his own love of God.

Dostoevsky was once described by Maxim Gorky as “an evil genius” whose only possible value might lie in “upsetting the spiritual equilibrium of the European bourgeois.” What Gorky particularly objected to was Dostoevsky’s espousal of Christian forbearance or meekness. The irony here is that Gorky the communist was driven all his life by an insistent spiritual yearning. From an early age, even before his apprenticeship in an icon workshop, Gorky was familiar with what one might call the religious underworld of Russia. And one of the characteristics of his fiction is a fascination with a wide variety of God-seekers, wanderers, monks and holy-fools, revealing a deep affinity with their religious thirst. As Leonid Andreev once said to him, “You speak like an atheist, but think like a believer.” In fact, the believer in him was fully but briefly revealed to the world in his 1908 novel, A Confession. In it a iurodivyi-like hero, Matvei, goes on his wanderings around Russia in search of God, and of what men live by. His journey is one of increasing disillusionment – until he is brought to the realization that the people “are in fact the creators of God, eternally working at the creation of miracles.” He ends with a prayer to mankind: “Thou art my God, the creator of all Gods, which thou weavest out of the beauty of thy soul and the labor and agony of thy seeking.”

A Confession is the artistic outcome of Gorky’s involvement with the group known as “the God-builders” (Bogostroitel’stvo), which attempted a synthesis of religion and Marxism. The holy foolish wanderer Matvei, pursuing a spiritual quest that is happily resolved in a mystical vision of the “God-creating” proletariat, is in fact Gorky reveling in a utopian, aestheticized dream of the communist future. In Ispoved the beautiful future is one based upon grand abstractions; “mankind” and “the people.” Unusually for Gorky, the individuals in this work are thinly drawn, subsumed within the collective and unconvincing. The holy fool Matvei, or rather Gorky, may no longer worship God, but he instead bows down before his own mental idol, in this case “mankind.” And when Gorky finally returned to the Soviet Union, coaxed back from exile, it was presumably, and sadly, as a believer in such seductive abstractions that he ended his wanderings.

To end this brief discussion of holy folly, I should like to consider a prose work by Anton Chekhov, a writer who believed the artist’s task was a spiritual one and who, in the words of one biographer, was a “reverent agnostic.” In his short story, “Ward No. 6,” a complacent doctor, Andrei Ragin, strikes up an unlikely relation- ship with a forgotten inmate of a psychiatric ward, Ivan Gromov, with tragic results. The inmate and the doctor are, I would argue, both very modern holy fools: they are also both encountered in a psychiatric institution – a symbol of rationalist modernity if ever there was one.

The origins of Ivan’s illness lie in his dawning but perfectly sane realization of how easily a person may be wrongfully accused and incarcerated by an impersonal legal machinery. Ivan is also horrified by the readiness with which society can “regard human suffering in a strictly official light” and how lacking in the virtues of mercy and forgiveness it has become. As he exclaims:

Is it not absurd to think of justice when every act of oppression is regarded by society as rational and expedient, and every act of clemency, such as an acquittal, is greeted with an outburst of unsatisfied revengeful feelings?

The blameless Ivan has become genuinely terrified by what he feels may happen to him and so he shuns society and leads an increasingly hermit-like existence, finally falling into a state of such distress that “he felt that all the violence in the world had accumulated behind his back and was chasing him.” The response of the doctor is to consign him to the asylum, where he is rapidly forgotten.

Some time later this same doctor, the fatalistic and bored Andrei Efunich, is cheered to rediscover this articulate and bookish man amongst his patients – a university man, no less, with whom one might discuss the life of the mind! Ivan however, seethes with anger, both over his own treatment and over the state of the world outside. As he says, “There are scores of madmen enjoying their freedom only because you are too stupid to distinguish them from normal men. Why then must I and these wretches be cooped up here for the sins of others like so many scapegoats?” The doctor attempts to console him with talk of the Stoics, of Logic and of “the triviality of external things,” but to no avail for as Ivan cries out, “I must be an idiot, for I suffer, am discontented and am continually amazed at human baseness!”

Despite his protestations that God has created him with warm blood and nerves, Ivan becomes gradually entangled in the web of the doctor’s easy rationalizations veering off into a discussion of Stoic philosophy which leaves him “rubbing his head in vexation.” Until, that is, his sudden remembrance of Christ. For Ivan, Christ’s example is not one of indifference, or of mere passivity, he is fully, even awkwardly, alive. As Ivan says, “Christ reacted to reality by weeping, smiling, mourning, flying into a rage and grieving.” Once Ivan remembers Christ in the Garden of Gethsemani, praying that the cup might pass, he laughs and can sit back down on his bed. And in this moment the isolation and agony of this self-confessed idiot is eased by his certain knowledge of the grief and sorrow of Christ himself. And it is at this point that he asks the doctor if he has ever really, suffered. In particular, was he ever, like Ivan, beaten as a child?

The answer is “no,” but the doctor is now about to experience sufferings of his own. He is gradually becoming a seeker after truth, rather than a seeker after diverting conversation. His dissatisfaction with his own life has led him to inadvertently overstep psychiatric convention by engaging – in however limited a way – with what the patient thinks and feels. Not only this, he is eventually overheard telling Ivan how he, too, has become sick of what he calls “universal madness, mediocrity and stupidity,” and is also seen sitting with Ivan, head bowed in silent, mournful and human sympathy. This is regarded by his colleagues as evidence of questionable sanity and so he is relieved of his post – although by now he is indifferent to this – and he is then subjected to well-meant but fatuous attempts by friends to distract him and cheer him up – the result of which is his passionate, unstoical outburst in which he tells these “fools” to “go to the devil.” Clearly, no one in their right mind would commit such a series of wilful acts of folly, so into the asylum he also must go. This is where he dies, during an ecstatic vision of freedom, of a herd of reindeer “rushing past him, extraordinarily beautiful.”

Leskov once famously said that Chekhov’s story “Ward No. 6,” with its madman-fool “singing,” as Chekhov wrote, “an incoherent, clumsy blend of songs which have not yet been sung to the end, is Russia. There is a sense, however, in which each nation might also be viewed as a “Ward No. 6,” each with its own indigenous inmate-fools, derided, vilified or simply ignored and unknown, their childlike and pilgrim minds unconformed with the world. And as new ways are constantly sought to diagnose or label behavior which is inconvenient in the sight of the worldly wise, so also the foolishness which may in fact be wisdom is constantly renewed and revealed, as St. Paul wrote, in “the lowly things of this world, and the things which are despised” (1 Cor 1:28).

Philip Gorski is studying for a Ph.D. in Theology at Nottingham University. This is an extract from a paper written for the International Christianity and Aesthetics Conference at the University of Utrecht in June 2004. The complete essay was published in the February 2006 issue of Sourozh, journal of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain.