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October 23, 2021

Suffering or joy? (II)

The idea that Othodoxy is the land of assumed joy seduces many westerners. But it is only a cliche, the Orthodox civilisations like Byzantium sometimes being more repressive than western ones. Let’s give a recent example. A contemporary Greek philosopher, Christos Yannaras, a critic of western mentalities and a partisan of the cultural specificity of Orthodoxy was denunciated by the monks of Athos Mountain (a prestigious authority of the present-day Orthodox world) as ‘a corruptor of the youths,’ an accusation that operates in Greece since the times of Socrates. His guilt? Having criticised an Athos monk from the middle of the 18th Century, Nicodemus (Nicodemus Aghiorites), a prolific author, who in a book of moral guidance wrote that Christians are forbidden: adornments, dances, jokes, theatres, instrumental music etc. The reason of such a strict stance is the prophylactics of ‘debauchery.’ The punishment for those who infringe the interdictions: ‘your children will die, instead of living.’ It seems hilarious, but the reality of the Orthodox pastoral care of today relies on an excess of restrictions which some would describe as ‘medieval,’ a cultivation of fear from punishment and a hysteria of the ‘war against devils’ (the case of the murderous exorcism performed at Tanacu few years ago is suggestive). This certainly pertains to eminently Christian themes, but the issue is how they are interpreted.
An ‘atheist preoccupied with religion’ such as Lars von Trier is more convincing when he speaks of ‘the war against devils’ than most of the occasional Orthodox preachers. Because he does not convince mothers, like the confessors of the Church of ‘joy,’ to cover mirrors in their houses or forbid their daughters wearing beads from fear of a premature display of sexuality, but treats with irony the pretentions of even the secular psychology of curing from addictions by constituting a securitising environment. It is not the shameful abandonment of the person frightened by the uncomfortable implications that represents the honest way, but a bold assuming of the condition of a sexed being. Christianity too often saw sexuality as an affliction, an embarrassing accident of a fallen humanity. And the post-modern world that sees it, once it diluted the old romantic illusions, as oil fit for lubricating the human mechanism, is reminded by the Danish film director about its destructive potential. The difference is given by the accents of these visions, which are – all in all – equally pessimistic. If Christian purists want to completely throw sexuality overboard from the ship of ‘redemption,’ the others want to get rid of it through abuse, like in a gladiatorial fight, which ends with the death of a combatant.
After so much excess, the nymphomaniac has hopes of an extirpation, because the ‘soul’ alternative must remain pure. The murder of the old man is symbolic, because sexuality is already compromised and the schizoid attitude is insurmountable. It is an almost monastic solution. Why is Eros condemned to death anyway?
Sinking in sexual promiscuity, Lars von Trier reaches a conclusion that is convergent with that of another northerner, Swedish religious scholar Anders Nygren, who saw an incompatibility between Eros, the specifically pagan love, and Agape, the specifically Christian one. A Romanian religious personality even combatted the protestant scholar, insisting on an ‘erotic’ specificity of Orthodoxy. Some mystics even talk of ‘divine eroticism,’ and integrating the ‘body’ within spiritual experiences is commonplace to church rhetoric. But all these have too little to do with ‘human eroticism’ so the ‘joy’ so often invoked has little in common with the usual human aspirations. The ‘church of joy’ is only a seductive advertising cliche, rather than a real ethical alternative. Let’s take an example starting from the threat of the aforementioned author, Nicodemus, and Orthodox saint. The most fashionable ‘spiritual father,’ whose tomb is the site of grandiose pilgrimages (he died in 1989) and for whom pressures are made to be declared a saint, had a dark theology of the way sin is transmitted to successors. Some sort of Orthodox karma. So, what are the prerequisites of ‘joy?’ Atonement, obedience, extirpation and much suffering. Not very different from the stigmatised old Catholicism.
Unlike the ‘Antichrist,’ in which he had explored the ‘murky female irrational,’ in ‘Nymphomaniac’ von Trier is overtly feministic. Why wouldn’t a nymphomaniac be equivalent to the joyful Don Giovanni or Casanova, whom we appreciate for the grace of their countless conquests? ‘Only in Spain there are 1003’ (seduced women), says the famous aria of Leporello, the servant of the former, in Mozart’s opera. We are not scandalised. We even appreciate as manly virtues the criminal challenges of Don Giovanni. Thus, let’s not pass a hasty judgment on the heroine of the movie as belonging to the family of ‘the grand prostitute’ of The Revelation (the association is – ironically – made by the director himself). She is like any human being, torn between a compromised joy and the ambiguity of suffering.

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