"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, May 21, 2012

You Damned Fool!

Earlier I drew attention to a new book about holy fools in Russia. Holy Foolishness in Russia: New Perspectives.

I've had a chance to interview Svitlana Kobets about this book and here are her thoughts:
AD: Tell us a bit about your background, research interests, and other publications.

Both I and my colleague and co-editor of the present volume, Priscilla Hunt, have a shared background in Slavic and medieval studies and a long-standing research interest in the phenomenology of holy foolishness.

Ever since my graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the phenomenology of holy foolishness and its versatile adaptations in Russian literature and culture have been in the focus of my research. My doctoral dissertation, entitled Genesis and Development of Holy Foolishness as a Textual Topos in Early Russian Literature (UIUC 2001), as well as my post-doctoral LMS thesis, The Prophetic Paradigms: the Fool for Christ and the Hebrew Prophet (PIMS 2009), place Russian foolishness in Christ within the context of medieval Russian literature, popular culture, and the socio-cultural history of Byzantium, Kievan Rus', and Russia.  As I continued my research, I compared (in several articles) the Russian holy fool with his counterparts from other cultures and discussed various aspects of the paradigm of holy foolishness in several other articles. Holy foolishness, the Middle Ages, and Christian ascetic traditions also provide the methodological edge for my literary critique and the venue for an exploration of contemporary literature. 

My recent article "Holy Foolishness and its Hellenistic Models: Serapion the Sindonine or Serapion the Cynic?" (forthcoming in a compilation Rewriting Holiness [KCLMS, UK]), explores the impact of the Cynical movement on the Christian hagiographic traditions about holy foolishness. My contribution to the present compilation discusses the clash and the reconciliation of historical and textual realities in the vita of the first Kievan—and later on Ukrainian and Russian—fool for Christ, Isaakii of the Kiev Caves Monastery. 

As for current projects, I am working on a monograph entitled The Holy Fool in Russian Literature and Culture, in which I explore cultural idiosyncrasies of Russian foolishness for Christ, its relationship to the Byzantine prototype, and its textual evolution in Russian religious and secular literature.

My colleague and co-editor, Priscilla Hunt, has a wide range of research interests (medieval Russian literature, theology, iconography) including the phenomenology of holy foolishness

Hunt’s innovative study of Ivan the Terrible’s holy foolery entitled, "Ivan IV’s Personal Mythology of Kingship," offers a versatile and most comprehensive treatment of the issue of Ivan’s orientation toward the behavioral paradigm of foolishness in Christ. Another subject of her research, Archpriest Avvakum, is an important cultural figure who extensively relied on the behavioral paradigm and theology of holy foolishness. In her scholarly work Hunt examines a variety of texts, including hagiography and iconography to understand how poetic structure embodies culturally specific models of the self, the state, history, and the world. She wrote widely on the autobiography and other writings of the Archpriest Avvakum in the 17th century; works from the age of Ivan IV and the ritualized behavior and writings of Ivan IV himself; Wisdom icons from the early 16th and 15th centuries as well as the Wisdom iconography of light as it evolved from the fifth to the fourteenth century to reflect the symbolism of a sphere of light in the works of Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neo-Platonic tradition. She is currently working on a monograph entitled Wisdom Builds her House: A Study in the Poetics of Russian Identity. In her contribution to this volume, an article entitled "The Fool and the King: The Vita of Andrew of Constantinople and Russian Urban Holy Foolishness," Hunt examines the holy fool’s show vis-à-vis a liturgical spectacle, involving the imperial ritual of the Elevation of the Cross, approaching the latter as the key to the former.

AD: Your book is entitled Holy Foolishness in Russia: New PerspectivesPerhaps you might start off by telling us just what is meant by "holy foolishness."

Iurodstvo o Khriste, or foolishness in Christ, is a peculiar form of Eastern Orthodox asceticism whose practitioners feign madness in order to provide the public with spiritual guidance but eschew praise for their saintliness. It has been noted on several occasions that iurodstvo is seminal for the understanding of Russian national self-perception, that implicitly and explicitly it provided material for the country’s aesthetic self-expression, and that it is momentous for Russia’s religious and philosophical worldview. While religious thinkers regard holy foolishness as a unique form of non-institutional asceticism, their secular counterparts perceive this phenomenon as a defining characteristic of the Russian religious tradition, the one which distinguishes it from the religious traditions of the West. 

Another seminal characteristic of the fool in Christ is that, as a liminal figure, in the cultural as well as the social sense the holy fool is simultaneously oriented towards sacred and profane values, norms, and models. Moreover, through his appearance, discourse, and behavior he simultaneously affirms and challenges the stability and the very reality of the existing social order and its values. In the figure of the holy fool the central antinomies of the old and medieval Russia (folk culture/Christian culture, blasphemy/piety, the individual/the public, the irrational/the rational) are brought together and dynamically reconciled. The claim that the whole of Russian culture, as well as the Russian people’s collective sense of self, had been markedly influenced by this phenomenon, has been advanced on several occasions.

AD: What led you to work on a book about holy fools?

This book is a collective effort of scholars who share interest in the phenomenon of Russian holy foolishness. Most of the articles found in this book were first presented as papers at thematic panels dedicated to different aspects of holy foolishness, which took place at a number of international conferences, including the Medieval Congress in Leeds, UK (2007), the International Congress of Slavists in Ohrid, Macedonia (2008), the annual meeting of the Association for Slavic, East European and Euroasian Studies (2009) and the Conference of the Canadian Association of Slavists, Ottawa (2009). These panel discussions not only brought together colleagues from different spheres of Slavic studies but also brought to the fore diverse and dynamic character of contemporary scholarship dedicated to holy foolishness. Our volume brings their interdisciplinary and innovative research to the broad reader.

AD: Your subtitle of course refers to "new perspectives." What is new in the study of holy fools today?

In the last two decades the subject of holy foolishness, its phenomenology and history as well as its adaptations in Russian literature and culture came to the scholarly focus with renewed intensity. Sergei Ivanov’s ground-breaking monograph Byzantine Holy Foolery [Vizantiiskoe iurodstvo] (1994) (expanded and translated edition Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond (Oxford Studies in Byzantium), became the first scholarly history of the phenomenon of Byzantine iurodstvo, making possible a more informed dialogue about its various cultural meanings. 

At the same time, there appeared works of literature and art that draw in a variety of ways on the phenomenology of holy foolishness. A number of dissertations, articles, and book-length studies on the subject followed. Studies of holy foolishness and its literary/artistic adaptations go hand in hand, delving into new aspects of the phenomenon and its different national endorsements by Russian and Ukrainian cultures. 

Our volume presents the most recent scholarship on the subject of holy foolishness. Pioneering in several respects, it offers the first and only English translation of the classic study of holy foolish phenomenology, “Laughter as Spectacle,” by A. M. Panchenko, who was the last century’s foremost Russian researcher of holy foolishness; new discussions of miniatures accompanying the text of St. Andrew’s vita; innovative explorations of hagiographical, historical, poetical, and liturgical aspects of writings about such seminal holy fools as Andrew of Constantinople, Isaakii of the Kiev Caves Monastery, and Kseniia of St. Petersburg; and new discussions of the adaptations of the holy fool’s phenomenology by modern and post-modern literature and culture. Further, it addresses foundational moments in the institutionalization of holy foolishness: the Church-calendar commemorations of holy fools inherited from Byzantium; the first Russian narrative describing holy foolishness as a form of asceticism; the first Russian holy foolish vita with verifiable facts about the protagonist’s life; the first Russian canonized female holy fool, Kseniia of St. Petersburg; and comprehensive treatments of holy foolery’s cultural significance for Leningrad underground poets, Soviet and post-Soviet performance art, and postmodern thinkers.

AD: Would you say that we have seen an evolution in the "type" of holy fool over the last several centuries? In other words, are there fools today, and are they different from historic fools like St. Isaak of the Kievan Caves, St. Basil the Fool, or St. Kseniia of St. Petersburg?

There are ‘yes’ and ‘no’ parts in the answer to this question. On the one hand the great variety of holy foolish types described in early Byzantine texts did not become outdated and accounts for the contemporary holy foolish types just as well. On the other hand, as a live phenomenon enduring in changing socio-historical circumstance, holy foolishness cannot but change and assume new forms, both in liturgical and artistic spheres.

When we talk about the types of holy fools, evolution of this cultural paradigm and the phenomenology of holy foolishness in general, we have to keep in mind that fools for Christ of late antiquity, of the medieval period, and even of early modern times are available to us only through their textualizations--mostly hagiographic portrayals. Hagiographies of such famous holy fools as St. Andrew, St. Isaak, St. Basil, and St. Kseniia are hardly dependable portrayals of historical individuals. As I argue in my article about St. Isaakii, the tale about this holy fool, at least in part, was based on factual materials, but foremost it is a textual construct. Isaakii’s hagiographer was most likely dealing with a case of real mental derangement rather than with an ascetic feat of feigned madness. However, he successfully dealt with this problem as he interpreted Isaakii’s bizarre personality and aberrant behaviors in terms of the intentional provocation of abuse and voluntary martyrdom of a holy fool. 

St. Basil (Vasilii) the Fool of Moscow can be found in the municipal records of the early sixteenth-century Moscow and there is evidence that Kseniia of St. Petersburg was a historical person as well. Although, just like in the case of Isaakii of Kievan Caves Monastery, 
there is no evidence that the latter two were iurodivye. At the same time, there are vitae, which reflect verifiable records of holy fools’ lives. Such is the vita of Simon of Iurievets, which Sergei Ivanov discusses in his article, "Simon of Iurievets and the Hagiography of Old Russian Holy Fools." Ivanov argues that the hagiographical account of Simon of Iurievets’ life was tailored by his contemporaries to fit the literary paradigm of holy foolishness.

Thus, we might as well be talking about two types of accounts of holy foolishness, one that is represented by hagiography and iconography and another one that bases itself on historical records and verifiable facts. These two overlap, diverge, and rely on each other. Both of them served as an inspiration for artistic creations, which represent yet another side of the story about Russian holy foolishness. Therefore, when we talk about the evolution of the “type” of the holy fool and the continuity of the tradition of holy foolishness, we need to account for hagiographic, historical, and literary aspects of the this tradition. All of them have their idiosyncrasies and all of them had an impact on the contemporary Russian scene. Ivanov’s article about Simon of Iur’evets, Shtyrkov’s article about Kseniia of St. Petersburg, and my article about Isaakii of the Kievan Caves Monastery all discuss interconnections between factual and literary components in these saints’ canonized images and their differences vis-à-vis their Byzantine models. Marco Sabbatini’s article offers an insight into the intricacies of the interactions of the tradition of Russian holy foolishness as a consciously adopted behavioral model. He explores its role as an inspiration for poetry as well as quest for liberty and protest in the Leningrad underground of the 1970s. Laura Piccolo discusses emulations of holy foolishness as well as its parody by contemporary Russian performance artists. These articles show that the holy fool endures in Russian culture both as an artistic derivation and a religious type. 

Since we are talking about the holy fools today, I would like to note that the iurodivy is presented seemingly only in hagiographies whereas in real life it is always a controversial, sordid, and even appalling figure, which does not make acceptance of his message easy for the onlookers. This year’s performance of the Russian punk feminist group Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow is the most recent example of a holy foolish disturbance, an ugly yet called for spectacle. 

The show of the young women, who sang a prayer “Mother of God, chase away Putin,” thus protesting against Putin’s recent election to presidency, indeed brings to mind the audacity of the holy fool vis-à-vis the tyranny of those in power. Pussy Riot triggered an upsurge of heated discussions of holy foolishness and its relevance for today’s Russia. The fact that for their unorthodox performance the young women are facing criminal charges and up to seven years of imprisonment tells us the harsh truth about today’s Russia’s rejection of their iurodivye.

AD: After the collapse of the East-Roman or Byzantine Empire, the holy fool disappears among almost all Eastern Christians except for the Russians and Ukrainians. Why has this figure retained such a place among East-Slavs? Is there something unique about East-Slavic culture that seems to allow for the on-going place of fools that other cultures may have lost?

The intriguing question about reasons for Russia’s unique predilection for holy foolishness has been ever popular and hypotheses are many. The majority of them, however, are speculative. For example, an American scholar, Ewa Thompson, finds the explanation in Russian “national character.” A number of Russian and Western scholars are in agreement. Another hypothesis by a historian of Russian culture, George Fedotov, holds that the holy fool appeared on the Russian socio-historical arena to reinstate Russia’s spiritual balance, which had been severed after the decline of saintly princes. In my recent study of the role that the model of the Hebrew prophet played in the formation of the paradigm of holy foolishness, I trace the connection between these two cultural paradigms. I suggest that in Russia these two cults went hand in hand and that the former informed the latter. I believe that prominence of the Hebrew prophet in early Russian Christianity was an important contributing factor to the emergence and escalation of the cult of the iurodivyi. I also believe that there were a number of factors that brought about the holy fool’s prominence in Russian culture. At this time, however, there is no comprehensive study that would account for a variety of reasons for the holy fool’s importance to Russian culture and the question why Russians and no other Christian nation have had a canonical category of fools for Christ’s sake remains open.

AD: Are there major differences between Slavic fools (such as St. Basil, after whom the famous Kremlin cathedral is named) and their Byzantine predecessors --people like St. Andrew of Constantinople, or St. Simeon Salos?

Here again, we are talking about texts and hagiographic types rather than real individuals. One of the differences between the two traditions is the superior craftsmanship of Byzantine hagiographers. The explicit description of the holy fool’s folly is an important distinct feature of the Byzantine hagiography, which stands in sharp contrast to Russian iurodivy’s down-played foolery. Russian vitae almost never present the iurodivy as a blasphemer (St. Basil’s destruction of an icon is a rare exception) nor are there any colorful descriptions of the holy fool’s transgressions. Scenes with prostitutes comparable to those found in vitae of Simeon of Emesa or Andrew of Constantinople or instances of the fool’s defecation in the street are unthinkable in Russian vitae. Another distinct mark of the Russian tradition is that the holy fool’s madness often received an essentially new interpretation: it would be seen as real, yet would be invested with divine connotations. Hellenistic influences, which we discern in the Byzantine vitae are important and prominent whereas Russian hagiography of holy foolishness mostly drew on the Hebrew tradition.

AD: Some Orthodox theologians such as Kallistos Ware have suggested that fools blur the boundary between eccentricity and insanity, raising the question: are these people really mad or not? Ware suggests we do not need to be too concerned about psychoanalyzing fools so much as listening to their message. What are your thoughts on the use of modern psychology in trying to understand iurodstvo?  

Kallistos Ware points to the very core of holy foolishness. The iurodivyi is indeed a madman and a sage, a prophet and a pariah who always vacillates between sacred and profane realms. I believe that the attempts to psychoanalyze the holy fool would not bring us any closer to understanding of this phenomenon or its cultural role. Practitioners of psychoanalysis usually chastise Russia for its odd cult and condemn the holy fool as an aberration. For example, an American Slavist, Rancour-Laferriere, considers both the holy fool and by extension the Russian nation that worships him, practitioners of masochism. I think the scholar’s goal should be to explore, describe, discover rather than condemn. I totally agree with Ware that the holy fool’s insanity should not be of any concern to his audiences. The paradigm of holy foolishness dictates that the holy fool feigns madness and that the question is not whether he or she is really insane but how the onlookers react to his alleged madness. By presenting himself to the world as a feeble-minded, marginal individual, the holy fool exposes himself to society, to its cruelty or mercy. The holy fool’s hagiography and mythology posit that he is a sinner in the eyes of the sinners and a holy man in the eyes of the righteous ones, yet the drama of recognition plays itself out over and over again. The iurodivyi has always been—and remains today—the benchmark of the society’s mores and each individual’s personal ethos.

AD: Your introduction to this volume notes that fools were especially common in 15-16th centuries. What was it about that time that made fools so popular and prevalent? What was it that caused their revival, as you later note, in the 19th and early 20th centuries?

The 15th and especially 16th centuries yield the biggest number of holy fools’ canonizations and largely because of that are considered centuries of the climax of the holy fool’s popularity as Russia’s saint. I believe that there were several probable contributing factors. Among them is the popular recognition of the holy fool’s messianic role as a prophet. In the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), which was the time of unrelieved tyranny and oppression, the holy fool’s audacity vis-à-vis the tyrant supposedly solicited him favor among common people. It is during the 16th century that the Russian mythology of the holy fool sees a new development and his hagiography gains a new topos: the holy fool starts being portrayed as the mouthpiece and protector of people. The canonization of St. Basil the Fool of Moscow became yet another contributing factor to the furthering of the holy fool’s popularity. 

In the end of the 16th century, the Russian Church pronounced St. Basil the Fool Russia’s national saint in order to support Russia’s claim to the status of an independent patriarchate in the Orthodox world. (I discuss this issue in my upcoming monograph The Holy Fool in Russian Culture.) In the nineteenth century, the revival of the cult of holy fools went hand in hand with such socio-cultural developments as Russia’s search for national identity and the revival of the Church. The same factors are at play today, in the twenty-first century. In the present volume, Swedish scholar Per-Arne Bodin addresses the question of the renewed popularity of the holy fool and holy foolishness in post-modern culture. I would also like to observe that in today’s Russia the phenomenon and behavioral model of holy foolishness remain as urgent as ever. An unfortunate yet telling trigger for the urgency of the solo protest staged by the holy fool proceeds from a number of characteristics that contemporary Russia shares with medieval Muscovy. Just like in the Middle Ages, there is today a deep gap between the government and the people—the corruption and self-serving position of the former and the subdued status and suppressed rights of the latter—that calls for the brash voice and intervention of the holy fool.

AD: Until the recent canonization of St. Kseniia of St. Petersburg, holy foolishness seems to have been the almost exclusive province of men. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

It is true that St. Ksenia of St. Petersburg is the only Russian canonized female holy fool and that male holy fools figure much more prominently in Russian hagiography as well as in scholarly discussions. At the same time, the first portrayal of the holy fool, the anonymous nun in Palladius’ Lausaic History (nun by the name of Isidora in the rendition of Isaak Syrian) is that of a female. We also have historical evidence about female holy fools from the notes of foreign travelers (Massa, XVII c.), sketches of Russian ethnographers (Pryzhov, XIX c.), and accounts of contemporary church historians (Hieromonk Damaskin [Orlov], 1992), all of whom describe a number of female fools for Christ. One of the most famous nineteenth-century holy fools, Pelagiia Ivanovna Serebrennikova, spiritual daughter and follower of Serapion Sarovskii, awaits canonization. As we learn from her vita about hardships and hindrances, which she encountered on her way to holy foolishness, we come to appreciate how difficult it was (if not next to impossible) for a healthy, mentally normal woman of a child-bearing age (both before and after her marriage) to undertake the ascetic exploit of holy foolishness. Nonetheless, female holy fools have always been a part of the tradition of holy foolishness. If they are fewer in numbers and less noticeable than male iurodivye,  it was probably because they, just like the Desert Mothers, have always been in the shadow of their male counterparts. Nevertheless, the canonization of St. Kseniia of St. Petersburg in 1988 marked the importance of this cultural type for the post-Soviet era and the contemporary Russian world. 

AD: Much of your introduction very helpfully reviews the state of the literature about fools in various languages. Are we seeing a revival in scholarly study today of holy fools?

Yes, we are certainly seeing a revival of scholarly interest in the phenomenology, history and textual appropriations of holy foolishness, which is evident from the sheer volume of publications of primary and secondary texts on this topic. The articles included in the present volume are not only representative of a wide thematic scope and multi-disciplinary nature of contemporary approaches to holy foolishness but also provide commentary on its enduring urgency for today’s Russia.

AD: You conclude by noting that this new volume marks the "bicentenary of scholarship devoted to holy foolishness." What areas do you think still need further exploration today and in the years ahead?

Holy foolishness still has a lot in store for its researchers, both historians (including comparative, church, and art historians) and scholars of literature and culture. A major lacuna in the studies of holy foolishness lies on the junction of Byzantine and Russian traditions. It is yet to be explored through what venues and in what forms (languages, redactions) Byzantine texts relevant to the tradition of holy foolishness were transmitted to Eastern Slavdom. While researching texts, which were instrumental to the formation of the Russian tradition of holy foolishness, it will be also of great interest to see how the same texts had an impact on other Christian, especially Western European, cultures. Moreover, the venues of transmission to the Slavic world and Russia of the seminal for the tradition of holy foolishness text, The Vita of Simeon of Emesa, remains almost completely unknown. 

Overall, Slavonic and Russian translations of Simeon’s vita, their availability to and influences on the Russian tradition of holy foolishness remain unstudied. Illuminated vitae of holy fools have received very scarce attention--as did Russian iconography of fools for Christ. Our compilation features two pieces on the illuminations of the Vita of St. Andrew of Constantinople (Bubnov, Kobets). Other important yet virtually unstudied issues include holy foolishness in Ukraine; the holy fool’s place within the tradition of Russian Old Believers; ethnographic accounts of contemporary holy fools and the popular/folk dimension of the tradition of holy foolishness. Meanwhile, the protean figure of the holy fool and his diverse phenomenology continue to inspire artists of all genres, creating new layers of the contemporary culture imbued with familiar spirit yet always new imagery of holy foolery. In the light of this situation it will not be an exaggeration to say that studies of holy foolishness have a lot in store for scholars that will not be exhausted in the foreseeable future.


  1. "...the question is not whether he or she is really insane but how the onlookers react to his alleged madness...as a feeble-minded, marginal individual, the holy fool exposes himself to society, to its cruelty or mercy." Interesting. I have long thought that the poor of Winnipeg among whom I live with my family, if Christ can truely be said to identify with them, are the great spiritual Rorschach test.

  2. Great interview, but the female punk band that got arrested for blasting its song in Christ the Savior cathedral are not in the tradition of folly for Christ's sake. Holy fools used their folly to draw people to Christ and wake them up to the reality of the Kingdom of God, not to score political points and drum up international ire against the "oppressive" Putin regime.

  3. of course they are! pussy riot is following in the path of the cynics, who are the prototype for holy fools. they could very well bring many young people to orthodoxy and help peel away the garishness associated with the modern church and restore it to it's proper humble glory.


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