Mikhail Epstein. Cries in the New Wilderness:
From the Files of the Moscow Institute of Atheism.
Trans. and intr. by Eve Adler. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002, 236 pp.
                        (hardcover and paperback)

                         From Part 2. Philistine Sects.

                            [Atheistic Preface]
 The term "philistine" may be puzzling to believers. Since “philistinism” is an apathetic, stagnant, profane way of life, how can it be combined with "spirituality," that is, with religious faith? The point is that when religion starts losing ground in contemporary life, it can easily turn into that very "philistinism" that it had once so heatedly denounced. Let's say a man "fools around," cheats on his obligations, lets the fellows down at work; but still he wants to justify himself in his own eyes, and not just somehow-or-other, but in light of the loftiest considerations. So it turns out that he is not a cheat and a parasite but a "Foll"—something like a contemporary version of a Holy Fool. He purposely "plays the fool," making obstacles for the "godless" regime and its rational projects. He turns the usual understanding of things inside out, confuses and distorts information "absent-mindedly," because "the folly of this world is divine wisdom." No, Folls are not wreckers, as they would have been called in the thirties; they are "connivers," giving an opening to chaos everywhere, making not the slightest attempt to curb it.

 It wasn't so long ago that the provinces did their best to imitate Moscow; but now Muscovites and other city people are trying to pass for provincials. One might say, "So what if fashion makes these zigzags, especially among young people!" But here too we observe the same paradox, the same equivocation, as in the case of the Folls: the so-called "Provs" take it for a virtue to be poor in dress, poor in speech, poor in spirit. Instead of tattered tunics, the Holy Fools of our times appear in the streets in outsize caps, fishermen's boots, the whole getup of the provincial general store. And their behavior is not without a certain provocativeness: it's as if they are saying, "Our clothes are a mirror of your soul. Look upon your own drabness!" In the words of the proverb, it's hard to say where, in all this, humility crosses over into pride.

 And now, into the arena (of history, no less!) file the "Greys." Yes, the Greys. In the past we’ve had plenty of whites, greens, browns, blacks . . .  But apparently these are the first Greys. Without the least bit of shame, they declare that their own poverty of spirit, their passivity, their compliance, is the "sacrificial cup of redemption" that history must drink to the dregs before "history comes to an end." It’s as if all history were one continuous liturgy in which they, the "passivists," take upon themselves the role of suffering for the sins of humanity and are "crucified together with Christ." By the logic of the Greys, it is not the heroes and champions but the drab philistines who express the spirit of history and raise it "to the rank of mystery," since "he who is defeated is always right." Such is this unprecedentedly frank theology of defeatism.

 The Philistine sects must be distinguished from the Everyday sects. The latter profess values that can be acknowledged as universally human, although on such a low, material level (food, home, things) that it's only by a considerable stretch that they can be taken for "religious."  “Philistines,” on the other hand, profess anti-values, turning inside out everything that goes under the name of "plain human moralit." (Marx) Therefore, the best critique of this “spiritualized” Philistinism is the appeal to those authentic values that are immediate and meaningful for all men: reason, courage, beauty, justice.

          The Greys insist on calling their sect a "party" and claim that this unknown party, invisible to the world, has won all the decisive battles of history. The combatants were whites and blacks, reds and greens—but the victors were always the Greys. Their party has a special strategy that enables it to rule from the so-called "open underground." This strategy, known as passivism, distinguishes them from the activists of all other parties.

Those who seek victory always lose, while the winners are those who remain passive in defeat. Passivism itself is always and everywhere victorious. Our precept is: Don't struggle, don't resist, don't win!… Passivism is not entropy—it is not universal leveling, dissipation and heat death. It is the warmth of life. It preserves the energy spent by the activists. It is the eternal battery to which activists turn for energy. (G.L., "Heat Life or Heat Death?")

          The Greys attach great importance to their emblem, the color grey, which, they say,

 speaks to the soul as expressively as the color of the sky on an overcast day. Neither pitch darkness nor blinding sunlight, but a monotone smoky greyness hangs over our life. "Well, so be it," we say to ourselves, giving up all hope of a nice day. And so it is. What would become of us if the world were strictly divided up into light and darkness, or broken up into bright, gaudy colors? Fortunately, our beloved color Grey invisibly wafts over everything, giving it a soft, melancholy tinge. It’s capable of a slight gleam, a melting glimmer, like mother-of-pearl— but  it gets absorbed in itself, preserving its dignified mystery. It soothes us and, like a sudden silence in the midst of a stormy quarrel, gives us the feeling of complete, unutterable truth.

  . . . Look around you, look at all the grey people, the grey, tired faces! Be grateful to them: this is the silence of your words, this is the grey canvas of your pictures. This is the foundation on which all thoughts and paints are applied. When you scrub down to this substratum, you find an even, gentle luminescence that will last for all eternity. All your flare-ups are momentary, while the luminescence of the grey faces is inextinguishable. If there is eternal life, it is in these grey faces. At bottom, the world is like a grey day when the sun never comes out and the clouds never gather into a storm. That's why it is eternal. . . .

 And since the light nonetheless did come into the darkness, and since the darkness nonetheless did not swallow up the light, what remains to us now except this pearl-grey, ash-grey, earth-grey, cloud-grey shade, in which light is mixed with darkness in such a way that both remain themselves? Sometimes you cannot even notice this color, because it's the element you breathe: it is your secret being. Just as you don't feel the air beating against your hands, so you do not see the greyness that embraces and caresses you. (M.P., "The Light of Our Life")

 Other parties paint their banners red, green, blue…. But under all these paints there lives and breathes the color Grey. We expose it—simple and vital as bread, the color of the stuff itself. The idea of our grey banner coincides with its material base. Down with paints! A painted banner is a conventional sign; it conceals the truth of the grey stuff, which we expose. There has to be at least one party that speaks in the honest language of the things themselves, incapable of deceit. In the words of our poet, whose blood stains your banner: "Nowhere can you find a ground / Purer than the truth of the untouched canvas." … (R.V., "The Bare Banner")

 Closely related to the party of the Greys are the Passivists, who take an even more subjectivist view of history and justify their nonactivity by appealing linguistic and liturgical parallels. We will cite here an excerpt from their manifesto, which they call "The Passive Voice of History":

 All active constructions in the course of history turn into passive ones. Those who are acted upon turn out to belong to history, while those who act turn out to be superfluous. Christ was crucified by the Romans. But the Romans were only extras in the sacred history of Christ. The genuine subject of history is not he who does it, but he to whom it is done. The passive is the voice of victory, not only morally but grammatically as well. All historical events revolve around the passive voice. He who was sentenced, crucified, and humiliated continues to act in history, while he who did the sentencing and crucifying turns out to be merely the object of a disdainful or maudlin curiosity….

 History is an endless sacrifice, a liturgy in which the bread of laborers and the blood of warriors is consumed. Those who bring the sacrifice make history, while those who consume it—those who imagine themselves the victors—are merely the communicants at this immense mass, where salvation is meted out to the repentant and eternal judgment to the proud. The victor consumes the holy offerings of the defeated and becomes a communicant of the invisible Temple that arises on their blood. Wherever there is suffering there is a place of communion, where the victor obediently accepts someone else's sacrifice….

 In this Temple of History an invisible service is getting under way at this very moment.  The vanquished will appear on behalf of the victors, redeeming the victors' murdered souls with their own murdered bodies, healing and resurrecting them with their own wounds. When the victors finally confess their guilt, let them not say it was their will that prevailed. No, it was the impotence and vulnerability of their victims. For the strong are only shadows of the Light, which has summoned them to itself in order to suffer the darkness and dispel it. History is a round-the-clock liturgy at which the sacrifice of the Lord's flesh and blood is brought for the salvation of the world. The Passivist is the agent of history, understood as suffering and redemption. (Cited from G.P., "History in the Passive Voice")

 Copyright 1993, 1994, 2001 Mikhail N. Epstein
 Copyright 2002 Paul Dry Books, Inc.
                            All rights reserved