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On the Format of the Divine


Legal proceedings, sermons, and the creative industries; the universal applicability of law, the consensus of the flock, and corporate ethics. All of them require that you forget or repress something, that you pay a price for the (im)possibility of joining the fold. But what if you are in a court of law, or maybe listening to a sermon, or sitting at an office, and you can’t afford the fee? You start to suspect that the silent majority around you has already paid up, that they have become one with the laws of the state, God, or commerce, and this stirs your soul with anarchist protest: your imagination calls for riot and transgression. You want to subvert the serenity of all those present, all those who agree.

“There is so much of the repressed in this painting,” Sasha Novozhenova told me in front of The Venerable Sergei in His Youth, at an exhibition by Mikhail Nesterov in the Tretyakov Gallery: a scrofulous lad in a monk’s habit once again rolls his eyes ecstatically in the midst of Russian Nature, nothing but a frail vessel for the grace of God to fill his pretty boy’s body, as he waits with pale, clammy palms … It’s better to stop here, lest we give rise to too copious a stream of perverted fantasies and garbled fragments of the returning repressed: sex, femininity, and violence. It isn’t very hard to poke fun at Nesterov’s religious masterpieces at the exhibition “In Search of My Russia,” just like it isn’t hard to poke fun at Tikhon Shevkunov, the shifty archimandrite rumored to be Putin’s spiritual mentor. Yet neither are simply examples of an obscurantism utterly alien to this article’s enlightened readers. Instead, both are symptoms of modernity, a symptom of a condition that is very much our own--that we all have in common.

At a “creative meeting” with Archimandrite Tikhon at the Russian Academy of the Fine Arts, I could observe the production of consensus, a conservative consensus in this case. Tikhon managed to formulate all of his messages to this cultivated public in the most obvious, mediocre terms, as affirmations so rife with compromise that they would seem beyond the shadow of a doubt to anyone. It would seem that you’d heard all the twists and turns of his inquisitor’s reasoning many times before: Nikolai II was a saint as a family man, though not as a statesman; the USSR was a great power but lacked spirituality; Marx is Lenin’s forerunner and Lenin was the worst of villains (much worse than Ivan the Terrible!), but God will be his judge, and so on. These are the kind of banalities that you cannot question because you do not even notice them, though they mask a rigid and brutal structure of injunctions sometimes called ideology.

Shevkunov wove a subtle web, answering all of the audience’s questions with the reconciled omniscience of a universal man of God. He knew the essence of art (God vested man with the need to create, and man must realize this divine gift, praising his creator, etc.). He had grasped the logic of history and the meaning of human existence. Such an urge to cover all of human reality with a system of coordinates has its analogy in the legal system as it strives to systematize and account for all nuances of human behavior, becoming a totality, which is why Shevkunov’s speeches reminded me so much of a prosecutor’s argument in a court of law.

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