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Клермонтский собор (3)

June 12, 2010

If someone said that “Клермонтский собор” was a one-sided and forgettable poem, I wouldn’t argue much.  It does, however, have moments timeless enough that they seem to weirdly anticipate commonplaces of twenty-first century rhetoric.

The broad Christianity-vs.-Islam passages are depressingly familiar on one level, but amusingly reversed on another: not all that long ago, it was a Christian character in a Russian poem (granted, one set in the eleventh century) who was urging holy war against the infidels, promising martyrs who died fighting them a heavenly reward.

But if you abstract away from particular religions and nationalities, the structure of Maikov’s poem makes it very like a different kind of discourse: the appeal for humanitarian intervention.

In the poem there are three groups of people:

1) Turks/Muslims, presented as evil;

2) Christians suffering under their rule, presented as victims; and

3) Christians in the West, whose indifference to the suffering of group (2) is outrageous, but who are fundamentally good and would stand up for group (2) if only they could be made to see what is really happening.

Plug “the international community” into slot (3) and any number of pairs into (1) and (2), and you’ll find a familiar argument (which may or may not be convincing to you, depending on the case).  Try “Hamas” as (1) and “Israelis” as (2), or “Israelis” as (1) and “Palestinians” as (2), or “Janjaweed” and “Darfurians,” or “Hutus” and “Tutsis,” or “Russians” and “Chechens,” or any number of others, past and present.

I am not trying to equate these conflicts with each other, or to say that there is never a morally worse side.  My point is that the rhetoric of urging intervention tends to become the same.  If the evilness of the evil side is tempered in any way, there is no reason to mention it, and likewise there is no reason to downplay the suffering of their victims.  Letting these things get complicated only makes the desired intervention less likely.  Those who might intervene, on the other hand, must be painted in a nuanced way.  They have to be rebuked for letting group (1) hurt group (2) when it was in their power to stop them.  But they have to be flattered as well-meaning and capable of great good, since simple criticism would make them defensive or, worse, perversely sympathetic to group (1).

It is true that Maikov valorizes the passive suffering of group (2) in a way that is common enough in certain branches of Russian culture, but not in the modern appeal for humanitarian intervention I am thinking of.

I first learned of this poem from Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859.  He quotes a passage in translation that I think must have been removed between the original 1853 publication and the 1858 one I have read (see p. 224), but I haven’t tracked down the 1853 text, and I no longer have Frank’s book handy.  In any case, the poem, for all its faults, was considerably more interesting and better executed than its mention in Frank led me to expect.

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