The novel Laurus as a manifesto of Russian traditionalism

The novel-life, a 'non-historical novel' as the author Evgeny Vodolazkin (doctor of philology, specialist in ancient Russian literature) calls it, is a description of the destiny and inner development of Arseny the healer. After receiving medical training from his grandfather Christopher, Arseny enters life with all its complexities, temptations and trials. From the beginning, Arseny's profile betrays a man called in spirit and marked by a special gift, an unusual charisma. He is mobilised by a higher power to serve people. He is not of this world, but he serves people of this world. Already in this we can see the plot of suffering and pain.

During a plague, Ustina, a poor girl whose village has been hit by an epidemic, arrives at Arseny's house. The young healer welcomes her as he welcomes all those in need of help and succour, those who are in distress and have nowhere else to go and no one to turn to. Arseni lets her into his home, takes her in, gives her shelter and... they grow up together. Too much. And above all - without the sacrament of the church obligatory for a man from Old Russia. This means their union is sinful and brings with it pain, suffering, death and a dark end. Ustina becomes pregnant, but for fear of censure and reproach, Arseni does not take her to the wedding. Moreover, it is not clear how to explain that she was saved from the plague. So love turns out to be a sin, the child is the result of a fall, and on top of this complicated situation before the birth, which Arseniy himself is forced to take, Ustina does not receive communion, because how to explain her situation to the confessor?

And so the worst thing happens. Ustina dies during excruciating labour, the baby is stillborn. Arseny almost loses his mind with grief and the knowledge of his complicity in the horror that has occurred. Ustina and her stillborn child, who was not baptised, do not even deserve a proper funeral by the standards of the time; the woman in labour was not married and the child died unbaptised. Both are buried in the Bogedomk, a special place outside the Christian cemeteries where the corpses of vagabonds, ophi, sorcerers and clowns are thrown. Together with Ustina, the previous Arseni dies and a new one is born, Ustin, who takes as his name the male version of the name of his beloved, his victim and his sin. Thus the hero begins his path: the path of repentance, heroic deeds and suffering to overcome the enduring spiritual and metaphysical pain of his youth, detached from the axis.

Arseny-Ustin later becomes a famous herbalist and healer, his fame spreading throughout Russia. But this is only a stage. Then comes the time for a new 'transition'. And he moves along the chain of ancient Russian spiritual figures: madman, old man, prophet.  The madman Thomas gives the hero a new name - from now on it is Amvrosy, and in turn he undertakes the feat of madness, achieving holiness and impassibility in voluntary humiliation and atypical - sometimes provocative - behaviour.

This is followed by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the Italian monk Ambrose and, on his return from the arduous journey, the assumption of the rank of monk and so on, all the way to the highest monastic order, the schema. Thus from Arseny Ustin was born Laurus - from the pain of the soul, seeing the body of his beloved Ustina thrown into the goddess; from witnessing the death of the monk Ambrose; from observing the elements during storms, in which sailors perished; from the general injustice of the world and the quagmire that covered Russian (and non-Russian) lands; from the infinite Russian spaces and souls, beyond the comprehension of both foreigners and Russians themselves.

"What kind of people you are," says the merchant Siegfried. - A man cares for you, he devotes his whole life to you, you torment him all his life. And when he dies, you tie a rope to his feet and drag him, and you are in tears.

- You have been in our land for a year and eight months already,' says the blacksmith Averky, 'and you have understood nothing of it.
- And you yourselves understand it? - Siegfried asks.
- Do we? - The blacksmith hesitates and looks at Siegfried. - Nor, of course, do we understand it ourselves.

Milestones of human life Traditions
Arseny - Ustin - Amvrosii - Laurus

Laurus' life, which in his hagiography is divided into several cycles - childhood/youth/maturity/old age and 'sannyasa' (the life of a hermit who completely renounces the world) - the life of a man of the Tradition.

In the description of Laurus' ascetic life, the Indo-European canon of the life of a man of Tradition (vividly described in the Manu-smriti and other Hindu scriptures) striving for liberation, consisting of four cycles, is manifested. The novel, like the life of Laurus, is divided into four parts: 'The Book of Knowledge', 'The Book of Renunciation', 'The Book of the Way' and 'The Book of Rest'. According to the Upanishads, liberation becomes possible if one lives the three ashrams (three stages of life) with dignity:
1) Study of the Vedas, discipleship (brahmacharya) - the first stage of Arseni's life - learning from the wisdom of his grandfather Christopher
2) Home and sacrifice for wife and family (grihastha) - Arseniyya's family, Ustina's death and further acceptance of her in herself - constant dialogue with the deceased lover
3) The years of hermitage in the forest (vanaprastha) - both herculeanism and wandering and the journey to Jerusalem
4) The last ashram period (sannyasa) - associated in Hinduism with withdrawal from worldly affairs and full devotion to spiritual development, it is a period of meditation and preparation for death. In Hindu tradition, it was very important to die homeless, naked, alone, an unknown beggar. This is how Laurus dies, after being slandered.

It is important to note that at each of these stages of life in the Tradition there was a change of name. Thus, we readers witness a sequence of 4 characters - Arseny, Ustin, Ambrosius and Laurus - each manifesting 4 different stages of human formation in Indo-European tradition.

"I have been Arseny, Ustin, Ambrosius, and now I am Laurus. My life is lived by four different people who have different bodies and different names. Life is like a mosaic and it falls apart,' says Laurus.

Being a mosaic does not mean falling apart, Innocent replied. You have broken the unity of your life, you have given up your name and identity. But even in the mosaic of your life there is something that unites all its separate parts, it is the aspiration to Him (God - author's note). In Him they will be reassembled,' replies Elder Innocent.

Four different lives, stages, images, faces-personalities merge into one face.  The passage of the four stages of life in the novel is the successive ascent of man from the lowest to the highest, from material manifestation to the highest realisation - the theurgic sacrament. What is described in Laurel is the Neo-Platonic experience of the soul's return to its source, the Good, the One. The novel can be considered in the Neoplatonic scheme of the ascent of creation to its ineffable source.

These four periods in the protagonist's life also have a social, caste dimension: the ascent from one stage to the next is also a change of social status. From disciple to 'husband', from 'husband' to hermit, from hermit to monk and hermit. All this is a movement along the vertical axis of social strata: while in the first part Arseny has a house, books, herbs and a small territory, at the end of the book he has no walls and his refuge is the stone vaults, the trees and the forest. Thus, moving on to a new phase, Arseny also separated himself from Christopher's books. The new hero, the philosopher and guardian, is not fit to have any private property. He cannot have anything, because the possession of something means weakening the tension of contemplation of the high. At the end of the novel, Laurus has nothing, all his food is that of birds and beasts, he no longer even belongs to himself. He belongs to the Absolute.

The problem of time and eternity in the novel Laurus

One of the novel's main themes is the problem of the interpretation of time: material time in Laurus, following Platonic topics, is understood as "the moving simulacrum of eternity". Two dimensions seem to coexist in the novel: a linear time leading to the end (the eschatological line of the novel comes from the West - Ambrose comes to Russia to find the answer to the question of the date of the end of the world), a Judeo-Christian dimension and an eternal-mythological dimension, originating in the ancient tradition, which in Christianity has become a dimension of the circular cycle of worship, which simultaneously appears as a spiral and turns into a paradox: Reproducible events - the festivals of the Church - which occur 'again' each time, come true as if they had never happened before. Each time, events similar in meaning appear different (a conversation between Laurus and Elder Innocent: 'Because I love geometry, I liken the movement of time to a spiral. It is a repetition, but at a new and higher level'). Even the narrative itself, the life of Arseni Arseny us reproduces the spiral - many events in the novel are similar, but each time they occur at a new 'higher level' (e.g. at the end of his life - Arseny, formerly Laurus, gives birth again, this time the mother in labour does not die, and the baby survives).

'There are similar events,' the elder continued, 'but from this similarity comes the opposite. The Old Testament is inaugurated by Adam, but the New Testament is inaugurated by Christ. The sweetness of the apple eaten by Adam is revealed to be the bitterness of the vinegar drunk by Christ. The tree of knowledge leads man to death, but the tree of the cross gives man immortality. Remember, Amvrosius, that repetition is given to us to overcome time and our salvation.

The coexistence of the two dimensions - temporal and eternal - is also evident in the very structure of the narrative: in Lavra, the descriptions of medieval Russian life are intricately interwoven with contemporary episodes, the protagonist lives with the dead - he constantly talks to them, discusses them, talks about his experiences. This structure is largely related to postmodern novels. Vodolazkin is certainly a postmodernist in his technique. However, by filling the 'collage' with plots from different milestones, he places the deep traditionalist meanings above the technique. In the novel, the coexistence of several epochs is shown in a particularly subtle and vivid way: we find ourselves in medieval Russia, then we move into the modern world with researchers, book lovers and historians, then we find ourselves witnessing Soviet terminology - Vodolazkin has succeeded in a very clever and organic way in showing synchronism, the parallel existence of several epochs and dimensions. Just as different slices of time coexist in the novel, so in us today there is both the archaic and the future. We today are our ancestors, watching the rapidly changing world through our eyes, and our future children.

The novel 'Laurus' is a large-scale manifesto of Russian traditionalism, an embodiment of the Russian paradox of the coexistence of time and eternity in us, of this Indo-European canon of hagiography dressed up as medieval znakhar, of this myth of eternal return and cutting through this myth with the arrow of time, heading towards the end of the world. 'Laurel' is a manifesto of the vertical movement. The one we have forgotten behind the frenzy of everyday life. And it manifests itself so clearly in times of pestilence. Then and now.

"Isn't Christ the general direction?" the elder asked. What direction are you still looking for? And do not be carried away by the horizontal movement beyond measure. And of what?" asked Arsenius. Vertical movement, replied the elder and pointed upwards. 

Translation by Lorenzo Maria Pacini