Petr Mamonov as holy fool? (Holy-Foolishness in Russian Culture: Part Four)

Both ‘Taxi-Blues’ and ‘The Island’ movies (refer to my post on holy-foolishness here, here, here, and here)  acquire an additional meaning when one learns about the life of the main actor who played Lyosha and Anatoly, as one can rightly argue that in both movies the actor played himself.

As the character of the movies, Petr Mamonov had and has an unusual life, marked by extravagancy, creativity, unusual and weird behaviour, and a deep spiritual search for meaning and for Christian faith.

He was born in Moscow in 1951, and was expelled twice from a secondary school because he was constantly organising ‘a circus’. He loved dancing, music, and was showing quite remarkable talent in the way he danced. He came across some Western music, including the Beatles, and it marked him profoundly, pushing him to explore different musical genres and performance. While being considered a hippy, he used to distance himself from the group and would often find himself in a conflict or even a fight. In one of such fights he was very badly wounded by a knife, and almost died, but was saved by the doctors and recovered after spending days in a coma.

His behaviour was exuberant and bizarre, he could sometimes walk around with a handle from the toilette seat, or pretend that he would run at full speed and collude with a wall, just to lie down and watch people assembling around him.

His professional path was also very unusual, where in a matter of ten years he changed numerous jobs, and attended a university but without finishing it. He worked as a typist, as a corrector in a journal ‘Pioner’, as a massage therapist, elevator operator, moving man, as well as a translator of poetry from English, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish languages. He experienced moments of desperation and loneliness, when he would be without any job or any money. During sad periods of his life, he would write his own poetry, and would later use it for his songs.

In the 1983 Petr launched his music group, called ‘Zvuki Mu’, which immediately attracted controversy due to unusual, and often absurd lyrics, playfulness, and quite dramatic presence on the stage by Petr. He would dance, make weird gestures, exhibit eccentric, artistic behaviour. The fact that many of his songs seemed to reflect the absurdity of that times, the total chaos at the political and economic levels, only attracted more attention to the group. For instance, in his song and video clip ‘Coyz pechat’, Mamonov clearly makes fun of the political uncertainty then, but in a subtle, provocative way. He tells us about going to ‘Kiosk’, which could refer to both a small shop selling newspapers, but also to small shops which started to appear at that time, reflecting the ideological switch from socialism to capitalism, selling everything from Mars chocolate bars to cigarettes and spirits. He sings with a background of Saint Vasilii The Blessed Cathedral, as a sign of trying to find new meaning among instability and uncertainty of the years which preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union and immediately after. Interestingly enough, Mamonov, by positioning himself in the background of the most notorious Russian Orthodox Cathedral dedicated to the most famous Russian Holy Fool, foresaw how he would be perceived later in his life, where he is often referred to in Russia as a ‘holy fool’ (Ruvinsky, 2011).

In 1988 Mamonov made his first appearance in movies by playing a drug lord in ‘The Needle’ (Igla), which became a cult Soviet film. In 1990 he played Lyosha, the saxophonist in Taxi-Blues, where some parallels can be drawn with Mamonov’s real life. It was a turbulent period for former Soviet Union and its people, and ordinary people struggled to find meaning in the chaos of that time. As Mamonov, his character is unpredictable, slightly ‘mad’, talented, artistic and eccentric.

Following the dismantling of his music band, Mamonov had a long period of depression, which he managed to overcome by turning to Christianity and by finding an absolute faith in Jesus. He moved with his wife to a remote village in Moscow region, where he would spend his days on farming and praying, making only very rare appearance at public. He had to be convinced several times to appear as Anatoly in ‘The Island’, where, as it is commonly agreed, he played himself.

Whether we can call Petr Mamonov a ‘Holy Fool’ is, of course, embedded in the current discourse on madness and at how we look at eccentricity. Many Russian Orthodox sites themselves refer to him as a true representative of Russian holy-foolishness. Mamonov was a devoted Christian, who had a highly unusual life. As holy-fools in the past, he also battled with madness, having spent some time in a psychiatric hospital, due to his problems with alcohol. He had periods of deprivation, and sadness, and where, ultimately he turned to Christian faith to find his own personal meaning in life.

Mamonov, when he made his rare public appearances, remained a controversial figure. When he talked about faith, he often used the same lyrical language he used in his songs. When he received the Russia’s award for best actor following his role as Anatoly, the Christian hermit in ‘The Island’, he came to the ceremony dressed in jeans, an odd cardigan, and sneakers, and proceeded to tell the public that it failed to address real problems in Russia:

“Do you expect Putin to solve these problems? Putin is a wimp, an intelligence officer, what can he do? We should do it ourselves.” (Ruvinsky, 2011).

Understanding Mamonov as a modern holy fool requires understanding of the Russian culture, and its long tradition of the unique phenomenon of holy-foolishness. Russia always looked at manifestations of weirdness and eccentricity as an obligatory trait of national character. Russian culture always had a penchant for the grotesque, for the unusual, embedded in the history which has never been linear, but characterised by changes of regimes, revolution, political and economic uncertainty. Russian people tried to find answers in searching for the meaning, where laughter and weirdness provided a respite from daily problems, gave hope and a new perspective. Ivan the Fool, positioned in Russian folklore, is one of such characters, giving us hope, but also making us laugh, but also Holy Fools, real personalities in Russian history, gave people the possibility of a different interpretation of reality, by using bizarre behaviour and talk in order to highlight the problems of the society and ruling class. The resurrection of Christian faith in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, gave a new justification and reverence for the phenomenon of the Holy Fool.

Mamonov was very popular in Russia today because he was a typical example of someone who overcame the difficulties of the change in regime and political ideology. As many other Russian people, he had difficult moments in his life, where he also experienced deprivation and periods of total hopelessness.  He resorted to Christian faith as many other Russian people, to find new meaning and hope, and uses his popularity and fame in order to tell others about God, while also using his influence to point to the short-coming of the government.

In this respect, we can argue that holy-foolishness is embedded In Russian character and culture, where it is a recognised Christian phenomenon, positioned outside the mental health discourse on madness. Mamonov could be considered as ‘mad’, but because he was Russian, where ‘madness’ is accepted as eccentricity, he managed to channel his eccentricity into a higher purpose, where his madness is used to cherish artistic talent, and educate others about faith.

As Mamonov told us himself:

“We all choose byways. In this respect, I am a very good example; I often choose the longest way round. Thanks to God, He led me to the right spring….” (Ruvinsky, 2011).

(post updated following the death of Petr Mamonov)

Modern Holy Fool (Holy-Foolishness in Russian Culture: Part Three)

The image of a Holy Fool (read about who is Holy Fool here and here) found its new popularity following the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the main reasons is, of course, the recognition of Russian Orthodox Christianity as the official religion, but also the collapse of the beliefs of the socialist regime, when the country as a whole found herself in a momentary chaos, becoming, one can argue, a prototype for holy foolishness as a search for meaning.
The holy fool found a renewed interest in Christian studies, but also in academia. However, it is in the popular forms of media, such as films and even music that the holy-fool found a new ‘fame’, he came back to be yet again a spiritual hero, but he also acquired a new angle, the one of controversy in terms of his ‘madness’. What does lie behind his madness? And can we call someone mad, individually speaking, when the whole society can be considered as mad, especially if we look at what was happening in Russia since the late eighties of the last century? The old regime collapsed, reversing the ideology of communism to the ideology of capitalism in a matter of a couple of years. Old government structures were sold as vouchers to the Russian population, to be immediately bought back by those running these companies for a penny, because the population was suddenly starving, making them oligarchs. Shops got empty, there was shortage of food and clothes, and a total disarray in terms of a spiritual direction of the nation. While Russian Orthodox churches were emerging from their oblivion, Tarot readers and palm readers would sit in their proximity and promise the passers-by some hope for a better life. Hypnotist Kashpirovsky got a prime spot on the TV to hypnotize an entire nation, feeding tales from the national TV in 1989.
It was absolute and total madness, and it found its way into popular art, where painters, artists, and film-makers, would resort to the character of a holy fool to make sense of something which didn’t make any sense.
Russia is often referred to by Russians themselves as a country of fools, and the changes that the country witnessed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, could be delegated firmly in the domain of total madness, where the only way to show the light at the end of the tunnel, was to resort to laughter and the grotesque, as a way to manage the deep spiritual malaise. As Heller and Volkova ask, in relation to the fascination of Russian culture with holy-foolishness: “A question arises: is there something deep inside the Russian mentality that correlates with the state of insanity?” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 153) Some changes that Russia has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union left many Russians at a loss, where they were asked to adjust to a new ideology, new beliefs and new rules, and the popular art showed us the difficulty of the transition, by resorting to holy-foolishness and the character of a holy-fool in order to negotiate the incomprehension and deep spiritual uncertainty that the country and her people experienced then.
During the years of Perestroika, the image of holy-fool became the one of a dissident, adopting the weird behaviour of holy-fool to show the plight of many individuals who struggled to adapt to the changes in Russia on an economic and political levels. We can see this theme clearly in Taxi-Blues by Pavel Lungin, a film which was released in 1990, and which portrays us the reality of Russia at that time.
The film focusses on the life of two protagonists, a taxi-driver, Shlykov, and Lyosha (played by Pyotr Mamonov), a saxophonist. They meet on a ride in a taxi, when Shlykov takes Lyosha and his friends as passengers, but Lyosha doesn’t pay for the ride, after which Shlykov manages to track him down. Both characters then develop a truly bizarre friendship, which becomes a main story on the background of the madness of the country then.
The madness of that time starts from the beginning of the movie. The hypnotist Kashpirovsky greets us on the screen, by delivering his slogan promise: ‘Everything will be calm’. It immediately shows us the absurdity of that times, when ordinary people couldn’t find work, when hard-core communists quickly established their new capitalistic businesses, and when, in the ultimate feat of total absurdity, Mikhail Gorbatchev abolished alcohol, driving many Russians to either create a black market, or resort to the home production of alcohol. Kashpirovsky was put on the national TV in order to try to calm the nation down.
The lives of the two main characters show us how ordinary people managed life at that time. Thus, Shlykov, as it appears, adapted better to the new changes, by working hard as a taxi-driver. He has a room in an apartment, a girlfriend, can afford nice food, and from exterior it looks like a good life. Only by watching the narrative do we discover that he is not really happy in himself, that he doesn’t have many friends, that he struggles to find the spiritual meaning in life. And the aim of the film is also to show that all those who just continued hard-work couldn’t dream of acquiring the same richness that nouveu riches managed to accumulate. Hard-work and integrity were all the values that became suddenly obsolete, not cool and not needed.
On the other side of the spectrum, Lyosha, the saxophonist by profession, refused to adjust. He just goes with the flow. Despite the fact that saxophonists are nor longer needed and struggle to find any employment, Lyosha refuses to change anything, and gets by, by either singing on the streets, or by pure luck, such as meeting Shlykov in a difficult moment in his life and being helped by him. And while Shlykov helps Lyosha on a material level, Lyosha gives Shlykov a new spiritual meaning, found in laughter, unpredictability, and love of grotesque. Lyosha reminds Shlykov to sometimes let go, do something unexpected, believe in the fate.
The character of Lyosha, played by Pyotr Mamonov is often compared to that of a holy fool, but transformed into a modern version of it. We can disagree, however, with that meaning, because while during the whole narrative, Lyosha does exhibit all the characteristics of a holy fool, he fails in the end of the movie to fulfil the ultimate obligation of giving. Lyosha meets a famous American saxophonist at some point, and gets an opportunity to perform in the United States, which re-launches his musical career. Shlykov watches the newly found fame of his friend from a distance, and is desperate to see Lyosha again. He misses the playfulness and cheerfulness of his friend, and he doesn’t understand why Lyosha fails to come and see him when he is back in Moscow. Eventually when Lyosha comes to see him, he brings with him a band of new friends and absurd presents, such as a big doll. We can see that he breaks the heart of Shlykov and lets his old friend down.
But while one can argue whether Lyosha can be compared to the character of a holy-fool, it is the narrative itself that is representative of holy-foolishness positioned at the fall of the Soviet Union. The film shows us how the modern world changed to the worst, where the goodness of character, kindness and empathy are replaced by greediness, strive for material goods, and desire to become famous. It is the story itself that leads us to ask the eternal spiritual questions: but what is the meaning of life if one is lost completely in the material side of it? Should we remain humble even if we get further in life, and still remember those who helped us at the most difficult part of our journey? Shouldn’t we cherish friendship and simple things in life, such as sharing warm soup with friends, laugh even when life is difficult, appreciate people rather than goods?
It is in his next movie, The Island that Lungin returns to the question of deep spiritual meaning. The Island appeared in 2006, quite a few years later after Taxi-Blues. In it we see a story of a modern fictional Russian orthodox monk, played yet again by Pyotr Mamonov.
It starts during the second world war, when sailor Anatoly and his captain, Tikhon are ambushed by the Germans, somewhere at the shore of the white sea. As a grotesque joke, the Germans present Anatoly with a choice: either to shoot Tikhon and live, or die. Anatoly shoots Tikhon after which the Germans blow up the ship.
Anatoly survives and is rescued by the monks from a local monastery, where he stays. It is many years later that the new life of Anatoly is presented to us. He works as a stoker at the monastery and acts as a local ‘wise’ man. It is to him that ordinary people come for advice, prayer and also in order to heal.
The parallels with the holy-fool are much more striking in The Island. Anatoly is a deeply spiritual man, who constantly prays to God. He has a gift of a prophet and of a healer. He sees the future and can predict it. He gives wise advice. At the same time, his behaviour is extremely weird. He rarely washes his face, makes fun of the monks, is always late for the Church services, where he shows up in a truly bizarre attire, one day marching with one foot in a boot, another dressed in a sock.
But while watching the character, we can’t help but fall in love with him and his way of thinking and doing. His faith in God is so beautiful and sincere, that the viewer hopes that he will be forgiven for his ultimate sin. And we are relieved indeed when right before his death (that Anatoly foresees himself several days in advance, by organising his own coffin), we learn that Tikhon had survived. He brings his daughter to see the remote monk due to rumours of his healing gift, and meets Anatoly. Anatoly reassures Tikhon that his daughter is not mad but is possessed by a demon, preforms exorcise, after which she is healed. After that Anatoly tells Tikhon who he is, but Tikhon tells him that he was only wounded in the arm, and that he had forgiven him.
The movie, while basing the character of Anatoly on holy-fool, presents us a different façade of holy-foolishness than the one we have seen in ‘Taxi-Blues’. It reaches a deeper spiritual meaning where we are confronted with the true meaning of holy-foolishness: one has to have faith in God and Jesus, and then and only then, one can become a holy-fool, while renouncing also worldly conventions and material aspects of things. It also shows us Russia as it changed in the years after the turmoil of the uncertainty following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It became quieter in its own spiritual search, firmly embracing Christianity, and by going back to its roots preceding the revolution. The country might still experience turmoil at a political level, but spiritually, it found a new meaning.

Holy Fool in Russian literature and art (Holy-Foolishness in Russian culture: part two)

The Holy Fool, to remind you (please, refer to part one), was a person who became mad for the sake of Christ. It was a well-known, recognized phenomenon in the old Russia. It was a man or a woman who would often wander the streets of old Rus and remind people to live their lives based in Christian values. They would often appear as ‘mad’, as ‘insane’, but several of these Holy Fools were recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church as saints, with one of the most famous Holy Fool being Saint Vasilii the Blessed. It was after him that the most famous Russian Cathedral, the Cathedral of Saint Vasilii The Blessed (Saint Basil) was named.

From the beginning the character of the Holy Fool has fascinated Russian writers and we can find this personage in several writing and also paintings. Behind it, is the interest in the unexplainable, in the grotesque, in the spiritual domain, but where things always remain mysterious. It is the fascination with unpredictability, as long as good outweighs the evil, Russian people have been driven to explore the human soul, and the human misery, throughout the history, which can be seen in literature and art.

For example, Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), based his character in ‘Deathless Golovan’ on holy-fool, where the main protagonist is a simple man who takes care of those affected by a plague, despite danger for his own health. He also gives milk to a Jewish man, stupefying his neighbours. In his other writing, ‘Singlethought’ (1879), the main character, a police officer based in a provincial town, becomes slightly ‘mad’ after reading scriptures of the Bible. The reading has such a profound impact on him, that he starts to behave strangely, such as refusing bribes and gifts at his job, as was the custom then. The story highlighted the corruption of the power at that time, but also raised the more important spiritual questions. Who is really a fool here? A simple man who refuses to be corrupted, or the society as such, driven by corruption? And shouldn’t we rather abide by Christian, moral values in our daily life? As in holy-foolishness, the story also contains many grotesque, ‘hilarious’ moments, such as then Ryzhov, the main character, forces the mean Governor of the town to bow in front of the icons in the Church.

Other Russian writers explored the theme of ‘holy-foolishness’ either basing their character directly on holy-fool, or by building a story around the theme of holy-foolishness, where madness always takes on an additional meaning. It is never an ‘illness’, but something deeper, a battle of one’s soul, where the hero, while being ‘mad’, is more connected with God and spiritual aspects of life, than the laypeople, preoccupied with the material sides of things. Gorki explored the theme in ‘A Confession’, Chekov built his short story ‘Ward No. 6’ around holy-foolishness, where both protagonists, a long-time staying psychiatric inmate and his treating psychiatrist share remarkable traits with holy-fools, but also Bulgakov, it can be argued, based his ‘Master and Margarita’ on the motifs of holy-foolishness. The main character, the master, who ends up disillusioned by this world, is a modern ‘holy fool’, but unlike in the Moscovite Rus, he has problems to adjust and adapt to the requirements of the modern world, which in the Soviet Union, was characterised by omnipresent bureaucracy, corruption, ridiculous rules, and greediness, despite the fact that one of the slogans of the socialist regime was an equal society. The story of the Master runs in parallel with the story of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), and some obvious conclusions can be drawn from the novel. There is a deep spiritual need nascent in all humanity, but it is often compromised by scepticism and inability to think outside the box, because of being under too much influence of materialistic world. Many ridiculous, hilarious scenes in the Soviet Moscow of Bulgakov draw a direct parallel with the weirdness and ‘laughter’ of holy-fools.

The image of Holy Fool can be also encountered in numerous paintings, where painters depicted the fascination and also certain reverence towards the character. He can be seen on numerous paintings of Nesterov, and also Syrikov, showing his firm place among laypeople, and not just being a character of Christian writings.

For a Russian culture, the holy fool has a deep meaning. It shows the possibilities of a spiritual domain, reinforces one’s faith, and reassures one that good will always outweigh the evil. Thus, the character of Holy Fool is deeply embedded in Russian culture and tradition.

A God’s Fool Sitting on the Snow, by Vasily Surikov, 1885)

A Peek Inside the Modern Asylum

The psychiatric hospital of today might appear as a foreign, scary object to the mind who has never visited the institution. It represents the unknown, the territory that one is terrified of, but at the same time attracted to with natural human curiosity. Let’s be frank here: we want to know what is inside and who is “hiding” there.

In the eighteenth century, in Europe, many mental institutions called “asylums” were open to the public. In exchange for some entrance money, interested visitors could have a peek: they could stroll in the corridors and observe the patients inside. It was a popular destination by all accounts. People found “madness”—or rather, what is assigned to the term—interesting and irresistible.

Michel Foucault wrote about it extensively, presenting a picture of a typical Sunday morning in Paris for a middle-age couple. They wake up, have breakfast, and then go for a visit to a local asylum for entertainment. Doors were open to the eager public, and the asylums never lacked in visitors. It is indeed interesting, and probably more attractive than going to a theatre or the modern cinema. People aren’t acting there, and they are real.

William Hogarth’s 1735 engraving depicts visitors gawking at patients at Bethlehem Hospital, also known as ‘Bedlam’ @The Trustees of the British Museum

Today, that same curiosity about manifestations of “madness” is satisfied via books or, more often, via movies. It isn’t by accident that such movies as Girl, Interrupted and A Beautiful Mind were such a big success: “madness” has always been fascinating, and will always attract and terrify the human mind at the same time.

But let’s look at the psychiatric institution of today. It isn’t by accident that doors to it are closed to the curious mind, and only those who are unlucky end up being inside, on the wrong side of the equation—being a patient. The psychiatrists are the ones who walk really free there, looking, observing, analyzing, and then administering the cocktail of modern drugs. We read some stories, we get some news, but it is all presented to us as “mental illness,” part of the bigger discourse on “mental health.”

These stories hide the truth of the modern psychiatric narrative: that real, nice people end up there, and the psychiatric experience is likely to ruin one’s life for good. The drugs they prescribe don’t help with anything, and the stigma which gets attached after one receives a label or diagnosis is forever a scarlet letter on one’s life CV.

I have been unfortunate enough to deal with the psychiatry from “inside” and thus, am an unfortunate witness to the horrors behind the machine. I am also an academic and thus, am interested in the narrative—how my own personal story becomes part of a bigger picture. My story is unique, as are many others, but we all become just statistics in the psychiatric tale. We are all “patients” and we are all “insane.”

The mental health narrative of today is the continuation of the history of the psychiatry, beginning with the age they call “enlightenment,” when the doors were closed to the curious, and only the patients and treating “doctors” were allowed inside. I am not sure it was done out of good will, because it banned the witnesses of the injustices happening there. It is really taking the truth out of the terrifying tale hidden in the modern mental health narrative. People are often held against their will inside these institutions, though their only “crime” is that they dared to have weird thoughts or hear voices.

The modern mental health narrative is the recycling of the psychiatric song to present it to us as something innocent, mundane and even good. Yes, we should think about the sanity of our minds, take care of our bodies, sleep, eat well, and exercise our bodies and minds. However, this tale that appears innocent hides the fact that it simply scares people into a pattern of normality. A pattern where everyone should be the same, behave the same way, and do the same things as everyone else: think about which car to purchase, where to spend the next holiday, and whether to swipe left or right on Tinder. Once you start questioning the so-called normality of student loans, paying mortgages, marriage, kids, gym membership and the like, you will exhibit “abnormal” behavior, I can guarantee you that. You will start questioning things and stop and wonder: Why are there so many homeless people on the streets? Why is Africa so poor? How can I think of the next holiday when there is so much poverty in my otherwise rich land?

Your weird thoughts will scare you, and you might become what they call “depressed.” Depression is definitely not an illness, but it is a fact. It is nothing else but a natural reaction of a mind that wants more from life than the boring tale of “normality.” If you dig deeper, you might even get onto the scale of what they call “bipolar,” and if you embrace your weird thoughts with zeal, and voices finally reach you (the real spirit world hiding behind our “normality” narrative disguised as “the age of reason and enlightenment”), then you might get the label of “schizophrenic.”

All these labels are just words invented by the twisted tale of psychiatry to deceive our minds and prevent us from thinking and behaving differently. There is no mental illness, and there never was. People simply get unwell, and bad things happen in life.

But the psychiatric institution of modern times, with its closed doors, lingers on top of our minds as the forbidden bad fruit that no one should touch, terrifying us and scaring us, because let’s be frank and honest here: no one wants to end up there. And not because one is afraid to become “ill” (we are all prone to “madness,” let me assure you), but because of the narrative of mental health.

Trump demonstrated the scariness of the narrative to perfection when he condemned all “mentally-ill” people. He showed how strong the stigma is and that the slogan “mental illness is like physical illness” is just words into the air. Trump demonstrated the real attitude toward people with “mental illness.” He simply doesn’t know who they are, and what is really taking place—behavior and thought control by the psychiatric institution.

And only a few of us know and see the truth.

The psychiatric institution is mostly an abstract body hanging over our head, sort of a bad headmaster telling us what to do and how to act—a behavioral control manager. It terrifies us with its promise of inflicting a label on the innocent mind, but at the same time, lures us for a peek inside.

Today we don’t have the possibility for a peek inside, but we remain, nevertheless, very curious. We do wonder what is taking place inside, who is held inside, and what it looks like. Mental health patients are your biggest celebrity story, hidden behind the bars of the psychiatric system, which doesn’t want to reveal its badly written script.

I was once inside and thus, am inviting you to have a look. I will take your hand, and encourage you to join me, on an exploration of the inside of the psychiatric institution.

Let’s open the door.

Once we manage it (and it isn’t easy as the doors are really locked), we proceed along a corridor. Psychiatric hospitals operate according to the principle of the panopticon, as Michel Foucault describes in his brilliant book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. He tells us about the emergence of the modern prison system, operating according to the principle of surveillance. “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication,” Foucault tells us, referring to the fact that in our current behavior surveillance system, we act like everyone else due to fear of being observed and punished if we do something wrong. The panopticon has a structure: you have a central vintage point through which you can see everything, scaring the subjects into compliance. The subject is always observed.

Modern psychiatry operates according to the same principle, and so do its facilities, such as mental health institutions. In each long corridor of its facilities you have a central point, where psychiatric nurses hold their watch. It is indeed a watch, and if you think that they provide care and show love, then you are wrong. Most of the time they write notes and if we glance inside the notes we will see the following: “Today M dressed more appropriately and was nice to the staff,” or “This morning G stopped his uncontrollable laughing and showed some insight into his behavior.”

Trust me, school is a piece of cake to pass in comparison to what is happening in the notes and observation techniques of the staff in psychiatric hospital, and none of them ever shows any insight or comprehension into their own idiocratic stance. They simply don’t know what they are doing and why, because of the system of the psychiatric establishment. Those who show any weird thought pattern or exhibit strange behavior should be put inside the mental health institution and be re-trained as to how to behave normally.

The nurses sit at their central point, visibly bored and annoyed. They don’t like the patients who come with constant demands, which are always the same and don’t change. “Can I go out, please?” “Can I have a bath?” “Can someone, please, take me on a walk?” “Can I call my friend R?” “When can I see the doctor?” “When will I be discharged?” These are the irritating demands of the patients, taking the attention of nurses away from their notes—and notes take most of their time and attention, because of someone out of their mind who invented psychiatry: it isn’t the patient that matters, but what is written about him/her in the notes. The notes are shown to the treating psychiatrist and stored on shelves, although no one will ever glance a second time into the books and volumes describing us, describing the behavior of those unfortunate enough to step outside the scales of normality.

But let’s move away from the central post and look at the room next to it. It is a room with a phone, where patients queue (when they are allowed) to make a call, and where the treating psychiatric consultant deals with the patients, if other rooms are occupied. It is a small, stinky room, with a closed window, where both the consultant and his patients feel suffocated and mal-at-ease. The doctor doesn’t want to be there, it is the patient who asks to see him again and again, with the same annoying demand as always: “When can I go home?” she asks.

You might think it is funny, but it isn’t funny at all for the patient on the wrong side of the equation. The power machine is firmly in the hands of the consultant psychiatrist and only he can decide on your fate. And it is indeed a fate: one day longer and the patient can be driven to such a despair that he will try to take his life. And if this happens, the cycle becomes much longer, because in that case, the patient is proclaimed as a risk to himself, and is kept behind the doors for much longer. Then it is just survival instinct that might save the patient and give her the strength to endure it all longer.

Let’s walk away from the room and have some fresh air—in the garden that is usually present (thank god) in the facilities. The garden is used for the patients to have a cigarette and to pray. It is here that most interesting conversations take place, away from the observational post of the nurses. It is here that they dare to quickly exchange their own thoughts, such as sharing the voices they hear and the visions they see. It is here that they also get advice from someone who is more advanced in their knowledge of the panopticon, such as, “Don’t say all this to the doctor.” One needs to comply, behave as normal as possible, and not reveal one’s mind to the psychiatrist. Following the rules also means being extra-nice to the nurses who are not nice back to you, wearing presentable clothes, and acting like you are at an office meeting, definitely not as if in the hospital, oh no. I feel much more relaxed in my working place than I ever was inside a psychiatric hospital.

The psychiatric hospital of today, to conclude my narrative, is a panopticon, a modern prison for the daring mind and for weird behavior. We had a small peek, but in reality, it is much more distressing for the one who is being observed. In some hospitals they have cameras in the rooms to supervise the “patient,” and in some establishments, there are people who stay there for years, injected with drugs against their will, losing all hope and desire for living.

It isn’t funny, it isn’t entertaining, and it is bad.

But all who are lucky enough not to end up there march past this monstrosity, oblivious to the torture of the mind happening behind those walls.

(This article was first published by me on Mad in America website and can be found here.)

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(Picture of me, taking a picture: I like to observe)

Holy-foolishness in Russian culture, from holy fool to the modern god-driven eccentric (Part One)

Holy-fool was a well-known ‘character’ in Russian culture. A firm image of the mediaeval times of the old Rus, he was a ‘wondering’ Christian, a mad in appearance vagabond who would renounce the world for the sake of Christ. The justification of the ‘holy fool’ can be found in the Bible, and 36 known holy fools of Russia were proclaimed as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The interest in the phenomenon of ‘holy-foolishness’ has been growing in Russia in the past years. This can be explained by the turbulent times that the country has experienced before and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, by the uncertainty on the political and economic levels, and by the phenomenal rise of the Christianity. The ‘Holy-Fool’ has become an image of Christianity but also a peculiar symbol of Russian culture, where nothing is certain, but one always believes in the fate of God, and in something more profound than the materialism of this world.

This character has found a new profound interest in both Christian and academic literature, but also in the modern cinema, and even music. The films of Lungin (Taxi-Blues, the Island) burrow and even base their story line on the Russian ‘Holy Fool’. Looking at these movies and the actor who played the main role in both movies, Pyotr Mamonov, this paper argues that the character of ‘Holy Fool’ is still alive and present in the modern days in Russia, re-adjusted, however, to the current age and current discourse on madness and eccentricity.

Who is a Russian Holy Fool?

One of a very known visual symbols of Russia is the Cathedral of Saint Vasilii The Blessed (Saint Basil), which is situated at the prominent place on Red Square in Moscow. Also known as Pokrovsky Cathedral, it was built from 1555 to 1561 under the reign of Ivan The Terrible, to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. The Church was erected over the grave of Saint Vasilii, who was a very known local Russian Holy Fool, ordained as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1580. “Thus, in a sense, the main symbol of Russia may be called the Cathedral of the Holy Fool.” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 153).

But who was the Holy Fool, and why is it a particular cultural phenomenon of Russia, being depicted in paintings, books, and more, recently, in movies, and seeing a renewed interest in it in the past few years?

The origins of Holy Fool are embedded in Eastern Orthodoxy. It originated in monastic tradition of Byzantium and Rus, and became a recognised cultural phenomenon in Moscovite Russia in the sixteen and seventeen centuries.

The Holy Fool could be either a female or male person, wondering the streets of Rus, often naked or semi-naked, and acting often weirdly. The Holy Fool would confront the public, laugh at it, and expose the absurdities of this world. The Fool was ‘Holy’ because he was not just a simple vagabond, without a particular aim for his wonderings, but acting in the name of Christ, being a very religious person, spending considerable time on praying.

The justification for acting in the name of Christ can be found in the Bible. We can witness two different interpretations of foolishness in the Bible. Thus, in some instances, the fool is defined as someone who has no wisdom, and foolishness is considered to be a sin. However, another interpretation can be found in the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, where he says that the wisdom of this world is not real, and the true wisdom can be only found in Christ. “Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (Corinthians 3:18). And in another passage, we can read the following: “We are fools for Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are honored, but we are dishonored. To this very hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.…” (Corinthians 4:10).

This interpretation of a Fool who is a Fool for the Christ’s sake formed the basis for the tradition of a Holy Fool in Orthodox Christianity. (Heller & Volkova, 2003).

The Holy Fools acted for ‘Christ’s sake’ by first, showing the same humility as symbolised by the Cross, and secondly, by trying to influence others to go back to Christ, by exhibiting the contradictions of this world. The Holy Fools would often take gifts as beggars from wealthier parts of the population, to immediately give it back to the poor. It was a sort of militant edge behaviour, the holy fools appeared as humble, but at the same time, refused to abide by the rules of this world, often confronting the tsars and the powerful, and laughing openly at their short-coming and deeds.

Saint Basil, whose name is now associated with one of the most known cathedrals in Russia, was one of the Holy Fools, and he is probably one of the most famous ‘iyurodivy’ of Rus, a Russian word for ‘Holy Fool’, having its origins in ancient Greek word ‘iurod’, which meant ‘stupid’, ‘mad’. In Russian language, ‘iurod’ means ‘the ugly one’. In reality, the Holy Fool would only appear as mad, walking on the streets and pointing towards the sins of this world. His exterior appearance, of being indeed dressed in ugly clothes, or no clothes at all, served as a metaphor for humanity’s sins, and for failure to go beyond the materialistic domain towards Christ, and seek spiritual gains, rather than earthy ones.

“The fool’s naked, dirty, ugly, strange and indecent appearance has a metaphor for humankind’s soiled, ‘naked’, sinful soul that has lost its ‘wedding garments’, its innocence. Becoming insane, becoming ‘a fool’, humanity has lost its divine likeness and lost its God. The holy fools look the way human beings really look in a spiritual sense. They become spiritual symbols – strange and almost disgusting in appearance, but tragic and attractive from a spiritual point of view. The holy fools’ disgraceful behaviour carried the message of judgement. Those who understood the message started to cry; those who did not laughed at the fools and threw stones at them” (Heller & Volkova, 2003, p. 155).

Thus, holy-foolishness was considered as a spiritual gift.

Saint Basil, or Basil the Blessed, was born to serfs in a village near Moscow. He was first an apprentice shoemaker, exhibiting often weird behaviour. He would steal but then immediately give it back to the poor, pointing towards the problems of inequality and the burden of life of those in need. He would walk around naked and put chains on himself. Typical of holy-fool’s behaviour, it was odd, and controversial, but with deep meaning behind. Signs of visible madness were glorified and considered as a symbol for sanctity.

Basil the Blessed was a holy-fool who started a real following of holy-foolishness. In the sixteen century, they became popular figures, adored by laypeople, who looked at them as a link between God and earth, as a spokesperson who had gotten his voice directly from God. They were viewed as figures of authority, who could even oppose the tsar.

However, by the eighteen century holy-foolishness started to be used for gain or entertainment, and even, in order to advance one’s causes. Some authors would write stories around holy-fools for the purposes of lobbying for various interests or in order to undermine the political power. Some vagabonds and poor people would also fake madness to appear as holy-fools to obtain favours and monetary gains. As a result, by the eighteen century the figure of holy-fool started to be associated with charlatans, and the Church didn’t look favourably at holy-foolishness. The image of holy-fool became compromised.

It was Peter the Great who outlawed holy-foolishness in the beginning of the eighteen century, and holy-fools were persecuted.  Peter the Great saw holy-fools as mostly scandalous figures who wanted attention and had little respect for the Church and authority.

“Any sensible person can see how many thousands of such lazy beggars can be found in Russia…who devour the labour of others with their impudence and their feigned humility…and who drive ordinary simple people insane…They slander high authorities, yet they themselves take on no Christian responsibilities. They go into church but think it has nothing to do with them, so long as they can carry on their shrieking in front of the church.” (Polnoe sobranie postanovlenii po vedomstvu pravoslavnogo ispovedaniia Rossiiskoi imperii, 1879, p. 30.) And the example of such a monstrous act can be found as recently as when the Pussy Riot entered and sacrileged the Russian Orthodox Church (as it seemed), built on tears and real suffering of the whole Russia, trying to deal with the impossible. My beautiful native land. They dared to enter, I totally avoid that church.

Peter the Great moved the capital of Rus to St. Petersburg in 1712, a city he had named after himself. He is famous for his reforms and for ‘Europeanizing’ Russia, where after his numerous visits to Europe, he introduced radical changes, including in architecture, where his love for baroque architecture can be seen across modern St. Petersburg.

Interestingly, despite the ban of holy-fools, some of them survived the reign of the tsar, like was the case of a famous holy-fool, St. Xenia, who lived in St. Petersburg in 1731-1803, and achieved a considerable cult following. As other holy-fools, she was a highly controversial figure. Widowed at the age of 26 she renounced all her possessions, including her house, and would wonder the streets of St. Petersburg, dressed in her late husband’s clothes. As other holy-fools, she would beg for money and goods, to immediately give it back to the poor. She appeared as if she had lost her mind, due to the death of her husband, and insisted that others called her by the name of her late husband, Andrei Feodorovich. However, “These eccentricities were not indicative of a loss of reason, however, but signified a complete disdain for earthly goods and human opinion, which places them at the center of existence. Thus, Xenia of Petersburg took upon herself the difficult podvig (feat) of foolishness for Christ’s sake. (Orthodox Christianity).”

Xenia would spend all her might on praying, going into a field, where she would stay awake in order to communicate with God. Once a new church started to be built, in Smolensk cemetery, Xenia would secretly transfer bricks at night, to help to build the church.

Thus, despite the official ban on ‘yurodiviis’, some of them still prospered, and St. Xenia was a popular figure during her life, attracting adherents of her renunciation of earthly goods, and seeing her as a noble representative of the tradition of holy-foolishness. Her popularity during the time of persecution clearly demonstrated the fascination of Russian society with the boundary between the ‘normal’ and bizarre, where some things could never be explained, and were in the hands of the spiritual domain.

Holy-foolishness in Russian folklore and literature

The holy-fool and holy-foolishness could always be found in Russian folklore and Russian literature. One of the most famous characters of Russian folklore is Ivan the fool, who can be called as a genteel equivalent of holy fool in folklore.

Ivan the fool is usually the youngest brother of three, born in a peasant family. He is presented as  simple-minded at the start of the story, but it appears later on that he is actually the smartest of all three brothers, because he thinks with his heart, rather than his mind, where his wisdom is more spiritual rather than earthly one. He ends up being deceived by his brothers, because he voluntarily gives them his possessions when they struggle, being always kind and caring, and never greedy. Ivan the fool has a heart on his sleeve, and ends up fighting villains, where one can see a parallel with the fight between the good and the evil, as in the Bible. At the end of the story Ivan the fool is always a winner, rewarded with love of a princess and half of the kingdom, and where his simplicity emerges as deep spiritual wisdom.

Ivan the fool, as holy fool, symbolises important traits of Russian culture, such as deep intuition, belief in the unknown and that things always turn out for the best. It is intuitive reliance on fate, on God’s will.  Sometimes, Ivan the fool appears as lazy, but his laziness is a disguise. He is simply not interested in pursuing accumulation of materialistic goods like all others around him, and is looking for things that belong to the domain of the heart, such as love, kindness, compassion, justice for wrong-doing. All stories around Ivan the fool also contain the element of grotesque: chimneys can start walking and talking, pots can sing, carpets can fly. This element of absurdity, of laughing despite the seriousness of a situation, is a trait of Russian culture, where holy-foolishness, and ‘foolishness’ as such is embedded in deep spirituality, but presented as ‘laughter’ and ‘spectacle’ to bring the maximum impact about some causes. If holy fool was acting in the name of Christ, to point out to the short-comings of the human nature, Ivan the fool acts in the name of universal goodness, and appeals to the heart, to the moral qualities of his public. Ivan the fool appears as ‘fool’, as slightly ‘stupid’ to show humility. Holy-fools would adopt the same attitude: “The urban fool becomes an apostle of the crucified Christ by living within the city as a vagrant and an outcaste. He or she assumes a guise of madness in order to be misunderstood and persecuted. The fool behaves in an uncouth way in public places to earn rebukes and blows. Thus the fool humbles his own pride and exposes the pride of those who subject him to rebuke. When failed Christians increase their own separation from Christ by persecuting the fool, they unwittingly enter into a provocative scenario aimed at opening their eyes to spiritual Truth” (Hunt, 2011, pp. 3-4).

Holy-foolishness can be traced also in later writings of Russian authors, where parallels can be drawn between holy-fool (and also Ivan the fool) and usually the main, more modern character. One such character we can find in Dostoevsky’ ‘The Idiot’, where it is often argued that the main protagonist was based on ‘holy-fool’.

The parallels indeed speak for themselves. The main hero, referred to as ‘the idiot’, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshki, comes to St. Petersburg from a Swiss village, where he spent four years in a mental institution. He is presented to us as simple-minded, with an open good heart, which leads to believe those around him that he lacks intelligence. He is deliberately positioned in the middle of an earthly society, the elite of St. Petersburg, driven by greediness, materialism and conflicts. The readers are left to see whether such a character can survive. The idea, as Dostoevsky explained in one of his letters to his friend, was to “depict a completely beautiful human being” (Mills Todd, 2014, p. xxiiii).

Prince Myshkin has a passionate Christian soul, is very kind, and innocent. His life and character have many details borrowed from the lives of holy fools. He even speaks weirdly, and is often called by people around him, ‘the idiot’. Like a holy fool he emerges as a controversial figure, that invokes deep emotions of our psyche. Unlike the holy fool though, he doesn’t play on laughter but rather on pity, where the aim, nevertheless, remains the same: he appeals to those who understand the deep spiritual meaning of life.

We can find the theme of holy-foolishness in many other writings, as well as paintings. The fascination with holy-foolishness is embedded in Russian culture and character, where Russian people were always driven to explore the line between sanity and insanity.

(Continuation on the theme can be found here, here, and here)

References

Mills Todd, W. (2004). Introduction, The Idiot. Penguin Classics.

Polnoe sobranie postanovlenii po vedomstvu pravoslavnogo ispovedaniia Rossiiskoi imperii, I, St Petersburg, 1879, p. 30.

Orthodox Christianity (2019).  THE LIFE OF ST. XENIA OF PETERSBURG, at: http://orthochristian.com/44559.html

The Ship of Fools and our society

It was at the end of the fifteen century that Hieronymus Bosch painted his amazing painting, called the ‘Ship of Fools’. I wrote about it here, but want to come back to this piece of art once again.

ship of fools

(Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch)

The painting as such was based on what was happening to the people proclaimed as ‘mad’ at that time. ‘Madness’ as such incorporated the same elements as today, such as calling all people exhibiting weird behavior or showing weird thought pattern, as ‘not normal’. These people were put on the ship and sent in the middle of nowhere, but still attracting large crowds of people in order to see them off or when they would embark in another town on their journey. The human curious mind always liked the spectacle because it simply shows us the possibilities of a quest of the human soul: some people simply go beyond the gates of ‘normality’.

Later the ships were replaced by asylums where those, deemed, as ‘insane’ have been kept away from the general public, and not because they pose any danger (it is a grotesque lie) but because our society, using psychiatry as its biggest weapon, doesn’t want to be confronted bluntly with possible ways and thoughts which can deny us of our mediocre thinking, such as dwelling about the next ski holiday, which car to buy, and how to stock on toilet paper because of a very bad flue. All those who start thinking that there is more to life, and question things, usually acquire one form of ‘madness’ or another. But the psychiatry doesn’t want these people, because more people think – more there is a possibility of a revolution for our society which has lost totally its values, with so much poverty, hunger and unhealthy competition where it is no longer a life for the common good (including for the sake of our humanity) but an individual fight in the big manipulation machine where it becomes a battle about who earns more money and drives a better car.

It was several centuries ago that Bosh painted his oeuvre but it is more than still relevant today. On this painting we can see several nuns and a priest instead of the crowd of fools, as the title hints to us when we first see the depiction. There is one single fool, at the end of the painting, in the background, just to reassure us that it is indeed the ship of fools that Bosh is talking about. But by putting the self-proclaimed ‘sane’ members of the society at the front Bosh asks and answers a prominent question at once: but who is really mad here, an innocent ‘fool’ or those, who, behind tales of morality, hide their own sins?

The painting is speaking to me today because it is precisely how I see the society. I don’t witness any high moral values and any strive for the goodness of all. I see rather greed, fake love behind Tinder apps and the like, chase for better gadgets, and thoughts in the head of people that make me wonder as who is insane. I can see the thoughts in the minds of people around, it is written on their faces: how to manipulate someone, how to outsmart someone, how to be more competitive in the already overdriven by competition earth. Rare are those who still look for true friendship, true love, and don’t always think about money. Money is a tool which can make one’s life more comfortable but its place in today’s society got at a higher platform than the one for God.

Those who ask and wonder usually get a mental health diagnosis or get depressed. The depression of today is a normal reaction of our minds to reach for something higher in a place where there is no longer anything higher, hidden behind the fake normality which hides in its turn just greediness and strife in our over-competitive world. It is a normal reaction of our higher selves that revolt in the fakeness of love, fakeness of friendships and betrayal of God, where one can believe in something, but God forbid, when one actually sees the manifestations of God him/herself. All exhibitions of aspiring for something higher than what is dictated by those in power, telling us what and how to do from  their vintage points of offshore accounts, are suppressed immediately by the scare of the psychiatric tale. The psychiatry is a weapon to make us all the same, which puts all those who aspire to be different, behind closed doors of the asylums of modern times. Nothing nice is happening there, and no one gets healed, because there is nothing to heal. All the ‘success’ stories you hear are provided by those who feel relief that they are back in our fake normality and can function like everyone else in our robotic society. The psychiatric drugs simply mask the problems of our sick competitive material sphere, and eventually all those on psychiatric drugs, realize that they are not healed and never were, because there is nothing to treat or heal in the first place. Depression is a sane reaction when one wakes up in our sick society, and so are all other ‘psychiatric’ symptoms.

But we are not allowed to voice all this aloud, and only pieces of art such as ‘The Ship of Fools’ remind us of the sad truth that few dare to voice out. It is not those who see the truth that are sick, but those who punish others when they see and hear what is real, hidden behind the narrative of normality, presented to us as ‘caring’ for our mental health.

Let’s turn away from the painting of Hieronymus Bosch and face its portrayal in reality, all around us.

What do you see?

srceam

(The Scream by Edvard Munch)