ABSTRACT: Valerii Shevchuk’s recent work, Eye of the Abyss, (1996) is a dystopian novel, which through the lens of mythological events from Ukrainian pseudo-historical past ponders post-soviet dilemmas. The novel’s themes include a utopian quest for happiness and totalitarianism, the value of true knowledge and the consequences of unawareness, a search for self-awareness and conformism. The quest of the four main characters, who set out on a pilgrimage to a famous saint, Mykyta of Pereiaslavl in pursuit of faith and cultivation of high selfhood, provides the framework for the novel’s major discussions. Although the novel’s ostensible thematic concerns are presented in terms of ecclesiastical and theological issues, they reveal relevance to the problems urgent for the post-Soviet Ukraine. While a religious utopia is at the center of the novel’s discussion, its realized Soviet antipode is implied in the subtext. The narrator, as a self-appointed hagiographer of Mykyta, the pillar saint of Pereiaslavl, seeks the truth about this acclaimed miracle-worker as well as cure for his own spiritual despondency and creative void. Eventually, the hagiographer’s task supersedes itself and turns into its opposite. He ends up writing an anti-hagiography of the fraudulent saint, which acquires the significance of a dystopia. Indeed, the narrator’s account of the false saint’s criminal deceit translates into an allegorical criticism of the mythology, transgressions and eventual collapse of the Soviet utopia. Thus, the narrative exposure of the fraudulent saint provides a venue for contemplating Ukraine’s dystopian soviet past.
One of Ukraine’s most important prose-writers, Valerii Shevchuk (b. 1939), thematically occupies a special place in Ukrainian literature as in his works he continuously engages the theme of selfhood. In a variety of allegorical settings he deals with the issue of the Soviet legacy and traces paths for overcoming it. In his recent work, Eye of the Abyss (1996),Shevchuk again places the quest for selfhood at the center, making it the focal subject and a fulcrum for uncovering the narrative’s other thematic layers. Furthermore, he textually establishes an inherent interconnection between the archetypal human quests for selfhood and utopia, endorsing them as a dystopian pursuit which allegorically ponders the Soviet legacy. This pursuit is presented in the text as the main characters’ search for selfhood in the setting of a medieval Christian utopia.
This utopia is portrayed as a segregated colony of Christian sectarians which bears uncanny similarity to the classical—Thomas More’s—prototype, as it is also located on an island, has lofty foundational ideals, features a strict hierarchy, is characterized by a complete lack of freedom of its inhabitants and severely punishes those who attempt to escape. Shevchuk’s well-known penchant for contemplating the Post-Soviet legacy in allegorical settings enables us to see this utopia as an allegorical allusion to its Soviet counterpart. Indeed, in the colony established by an acclaimed—though eventually exposed as fraudulent—saint Mykyta of Pereiaslavl, we discern a number of attributes of its Soviet model. These include a totalitarian ideology and dogmatism, crafty indoctrination strategies of the ruling elite and slavery of their duped subjects, as well as the rulers’ claim to righteousness and sainthood. These intimated pointers invite an interpretation of the text as a dystopia that bridges realms of the medieval Christian and Soviet utopianism. This article offers such an interpretation. It will uncover in Shevchuk’s novel an intimated code for contemplating, through the medieval prism, the issues urgent for contemporary Ukraine. The novel’s implied subtext suggests a model in which the sect created by Simeon stands for the Soviet ruling elite, the pillar saint Mykyta stands for a counterfeit ruler and the island’s crippled population represents the Soviet people, whereas the defiant and inquisitive pilgrims stand for the Soviet dissidents. Mykyta’s island in its entirety then epitomizes the Soviet utopia and parodies it. Finally, the four pilgrims’ quest for truth about St. Mykyta of Pereiaslavl adumbrates the dystopian quest of the post-Soviet individual for recovery of selfhood. In the novel this quest comprises several important dimensions—including the pursuit of spiritual wholeness, the cultivation of self-awareness, resistance to brain-washing and indoctrinated truths—all of which are crucial for its success. Furthermore, the pursuit of truth will be seen not only as a universal and a-temporal quest but also as an integral part of the post-Soviet individual’s quest for selfhood.
In the novel, the quest for selfhood is dramatized as a journey of four Christian pilgrims seeking assistance of an acclaimed saint, Mykyta of Pereiaslavl. The narrator, the calligrapher and illuminator of the legendary Gospel of Peresopnytsia, Mykhailo Vasyliovych, sets out to seek a remedy for his apathy and loss of artistic inspiration, opting to overcome his spiritual and creative crisis by gaining self-knowledge. “Each of us has his own dark cloud … And each of us must know and contend with his own dark cloud,” (E 28) he says to his traveling companions, deacon Sozont and friar Pavlo, who also seek remedies for their deficiencies. The learned monk Sozont aspires to observe and document the life and miracles of the acclaimed pillar saint, Mykyta. This project comprises a part of his penance of compiling a new Menology by witnessing and documenting miracles of contemporary saints. Yet he also seeks a cure for his “intellectual arrogance,” which is revealed through his constant speculations and doubts and boils down to his lack of faith. “My sin lies in my attempts to verify verity, rather than trusting in faith,” (E 25) he admits to his friends. The third companion, the epileptic monk Pavlo, seeks exorcism, remarking that a miraculous cure of his condition by saint Mykyta is his last hope (U 33). Another no less important reason for Pavlo’s pilgrimage is—just like those of Mykhailo and Sozont—intellectual. The narrator describes his ailment as an obsession with questions to which he cannot find answers (E 25). Monk Kuz’ma, who opts to find out the truth about St. Mykyta, becomes the fourth companion.
In the onset of the pilgrimage, the companions are inspired by their hopes, yet when they reach their destination, they find themselves in the hostile environment of Mykyta’s camp, where they are confronted by the saint’s grim teachings and an imminent threat to their lives. The heroes’ arrival marks the beginning of the dystopian denouement as their pilgrimage results not in the anticipated cures, but in their brutal deaths at the hands of the alleged saint and his disciples. The only survivor of the ordeal, the narrator Mykhailo, conveys for posterity a philosophical tale of their pilgrimage, endowing Mykyta’s anti-hagiography with a dystopian meaning: he closely scrutinizes Mykyta’s personality and teachings and ultimately debunks his sanctity.
The four main characters’ quest for selfhood is an ascetic endeavor which brings to the fore an important ascetic dimension of the novel. Indeed, all the central characters in the novel—including four pilgrims-petitioners, their “saintly” host, and his disciples—are ascetics, the most ardent Christian seekers of selfhood.
With ascetics central to the narrative, asceticism is among its foremost themes. The concept of asceticism has a broad range of forms and doctrines, yet most commonly it is identified as a religious practice. In this sense, its ideology can be roughly summarized as the personal quest of a devout individual, who, by rigorous self-discipline and continuous prayer uncovers and cultivates his/her higher self, opting to attain unity with the divine—enlightenment, nirvana, satori, logos, grace—the ultimate goal of a spiritual self-fulfillment. The vast majority of ascetics withdraw from society, yet according to a prominent scholar of asceticism, Kallistos Ware, ascetic quest can hardly be viewed as an anti-social venture. Ware posits that the ascetic “… serves society by transforming himself through prayer and by virtue of his own transfiguration he also transfigures the world around him.” This statement brings to the fore two important aspects of asceticism: the ascetic quest for self-perfection has an underlying utopian idea, the idea of human perfectibility.
Indeed, the core of asceticism, the concept of human perfectibility is essential both for religious and political utopias and was ideologically endorsed as the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God and as the communist ideal of a man-made Paradise. Communist and Christian ideals significantly coincide in their goals of universal happiness yet also in their totalitarian means, as neither ideology allows alternative positions. Neither a Christian nor a communist paradise would be attainable to a human being as s/he is but rather to his/her amended—perfected—version. These utopian visions showcase the Christian and communist understanding of reality as transient and provide a basis for the futuristic aspirations of both.
Despite the fact that the Soviet state regularly transgressed against the principles of Christian ethics, its structural elements reveal contiguity with the ascetic Christian ideal, whereas its foundational principles can be traced to scriptural sources. Just like the early monastic communities, Soviet society was founded—at least in theory—on the idealistic principles of goodness, freedom, and equality, which were incessantly reiterated by the media, propagated by educational and other institutions, and documented in the state constitution. Ascetic principles of self-denial, refutation of family ties, and sacrificial life for the sake of the communist future were invested with the highest ethical value and proclaimed the ideological pillars of the Soviet society. Yet the Soviet state inevitably distorted the initial utopian claim for equality by its claim for power, creating an oppressive totalitarian regime and proving yet again the incompatibility of utopia with the reality of life. On the other hand, monastic communities also had many examples of failure to live up to their saintly ideal. Shevchuk endorses in his novel one such case.
Shevchuk’s markedly negative portrayal of a famous ascetic, Nikita the Stylite of Pereslavl (d. 1186), by no means amounts to a criticism or denunciation of the validity of the ascetic worldview. After all, in the novel he offers both positive and negative portrayals of asceticism. It also has to be noted that controversial saints have always been an integral part of the Orthodox Christian tradition, where we find transvestites, holy fools, tax-collectors, prostitutes, and saints who visited brothels. At the same time, the genre of sacred parody, which thrived in the Middle Ages—and was tolerated by the Church—yields a wide variety of subgenres ranging from mock prayers, psalms, testaments, and church services to jocular gospels and Lives of saints.
Shevchuk’s novel, however, is not an ironic stylization in the vein of parodia sacra, but rather a post-modern deconstruction. As such, it should be seen in line with a post-Soviet campaign of questioning and dismantling the sacred idols of the Soviet past. In post-Soviet Ukrainian literature this campaign was unfolding within an ongoing discussion of the issue of Ukrainian identity and its post-Soviet redefinition. This preoccupation of post-Soviet literature was often endorsed as derision of the Ukrainian sacred icons (e.g. mocking of Cossaks by Bu-Ba-Bu) and by transcendence of the taboos set by classical Ukrainian and later Soviet literature (e.g. textual transcendence of sexual taboos by such authors as Oksana Zabuzhko, Iurii Andrukhovych, Valerii Shevchuk). Shevchuk’s debunking of a canonized Orthodox Christian saint is also geared toward the regaining of post-Soviet Ukrainian selfhood and identity and therefore should be considered in line with these post-modern literary pursuits.
One of the most prominent post-modern features of Shevchuk’s dystopian endeavor is his revisiting of the Middle Ages whose colorful scene serves as an a-temporal setting for discussing questions of both eternal and modern importance. After all, the role of the Middle Ages as the arena for staging contemporary battles has long been established. The major contributor to this discussion, the Italian writer and literary scholar Umberto Eco, posits that the Middle Ages continuously interest us and appeal to our imagination because they are the real cradle of our (i.e. European) civilization. He goes on to say that the origins of all the contemporary problems of the Western world can be traced to the Middle Ages (64). “Thus,” he concludes, “looking at the Middle Ages means looking at our infancy, in the same way that a doctor, to understand our present state of health, asks us about our childhood, or in the same way that the psychoanalyst, to understand our present neuroses, makes a careful investigation of the primal scene.” (65) The scholar outlines ten different approaches to and uses of the Middle Ages in contemporary literature, the first of which, “The Middle Ages as a pretext,” describes in a nutshell the authorial intent in the pseudo-historical novel Eye of the Abyss.
Indeed, Shevchuk evokes the Ukrainian Middle Ages opting to stage there the spiritual and moral battles of contemporary urgency. The issues under discussion—including Christian faith, the value of knowledge, power, ethics, selfhood and truth—reveal striking relevance to concerns facing post-totalitarian and post-colonial Ukraine. Rigid medieval truths, fanaticism, and an inhuman attitude towards the individual inevitably bring to mind the recent totalitarian rule of the Soviet state. After all, unrelieved censorship and propaganda, spiritual slavery and brain-washing, as well as oppression and terror typify not only the Middle Ages, but all tyrannical regimes. At the same time, the medieval setting is a perfect habitat for the spiritual and ideological battles of Christian ascetics.
Although the novel’s main characters are ascetics, their understanding of the ascetic imperative differs dramatically. The four pilgrims belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, adhering to the Christian tenets of humility, chastity and prayer, and none of them have any claims to extraordinary asceticism or sanctity. In contrast, Mykyta’s asceticism is shown as an inhuman, arrogant and dubious endeavor. Emulating the ascetic exploit of Simeon the Stylite of Syria (d. 459), Mykyta is practicing pillar-standing, which later in history gained a rather negative reputation and was not a recommended practice within Christian asceticism.Shevchuk aptly chooses this practice to emphasize the transgressive nature of its practitioner’s asceticism. In the disconsolate glory of his rotting body, his self-inflicted wounds, pretentious self-discipline, and showy austerity, the voluntary martyr St. Mykyta is portrayed as an abomination while his exploit is presented as a senseless, masochistic endeavor, a parody, rather than a spiritual feat. His is an unnatural asceticism which was defined by Ware as an endeavor to seek out “special forms of mortification that torment the body and gratuitously inflict pain upon it.” The scholar underscores the importance of differentiating between natural and unnatural asceticism, juxtaposing them as “divine and royal asceticism” and the “tyrannical and demonic.” As opposed to unnatural asceticism, its natural counterpart “reduces material life to the utmost simplicity, restricting our physical needs to a minimum, but not maiming the body or otherwise deliberately causing it to suffer.” Only the latter—natural—kind of asceticism facilitates one’s quest for selfhood. It is by means of these two varieties of asceticism that Shevchuk defines his characters and juxtaposes their goals and pursuits. Furthermore, as the pilgrims progress in the cognitive dimension of the narrative, they come to a realization that Mykyta’s asceticism is rather a power trip.
Indeed, relying on the early Christian paradigm of the saint’s powerMykyta derives his authority from his extraordinary asceticism and from its accompanying reputation of sanctity. This paradigm of authority reveals congruence with the Soviet model as it is mirrored in the sanctification and veneration of Soviet leaders. Indeed, the alleged saintliness of the latter proceeded from their ascetic self-abnegation and unconditional devotion to the cause (we can recall here myths of Lenin and Stalin working around the clock and or their ascetic abnegation of family ties). Furthermore, parallels between Christian and Soviet paradigms of sanctity embrace numerous spheres of human activity ranging from the realm of ethics (self-sacrifice and sacrifice of one’s family ties) to the claims to ultimate knowledge; from the veneration of the relics (cf. Lenin’s Mausoleum) to a heavy emphasis on the ritual (cf. incessant Soviet celebrations and parades); from the strict censorship and requirement of Orthodoxy to the enforcement of canonical artistic and literary principles (such was, for example, the official artistic method of Socialist Realism which can be paralleled to the cannon of Christian hagiography).
At the same time Mykyta’s asceticism has discernible national markers which point to the Russian, rather than Ukrainian provenance of Soviet utopianism. Shevchuk chooses St. Nikita of Pereiaslavl (d. 1186) as a questionable saint for emphasizing the imported—Russian—character of the Soviet utopia, perfectly adopting this saint to the Ukrainian setting: he has a Ukrainian name, Mykyta, and a Ukrainian biography. The city of his ascetic feat is readily identifiable as a Ukrainian city of Pereiaslavl. Yet the canonized saint, Nikita of Pereiaslavl historically belongs to a quite different cultural tradition. He comes from the Muscovite lands and the city of his ascetic life and fame is an ancient Russian city Pereiaslavl-Zalessky which, like Moscow, was founded by Prince Iurii Dolgorukii. The importance of Nikita’s cult in Russian history and culture as well as his veneration by a number of Russian stately figures, most notably Ivan the Terrible, makes this unusual saint quintessentially Russian. Within the allegorical reading of the novel’s utopian subtext, St. Nikita’s Russian origin is symbolic of the Russian rather than the Ukrainian provenance of the Soviet utopia. Yet Shevchuk’s textual subversion of Mykyta’s authenticity—and therefore sanctity—is not obvious inside the narrative. Thus, Mykyta’s identity as a saint is challenged only when the pilgrims arrive on the island in pursuit of miracles.
Hagiographic stories about miraculous healings occupy an important place in the Lives of Christian saints, demonstrating their divine grace and serving as a ground for their post-mortem canonization by the Church. These stories usually close the narrative signifying the climax of the holy man’s saintly life crowned by power and grace. Yet in Shevchuk’s Eye of the Abyss stories about miracles are tightly intertwined with other events. Significantly, all the accounts about Mykyta’s remarkable deeds and miracles are taken from the Life of Simeon the Stylite, bringing to the fore the pressing question about Mykyta’s legitimacy as a saint. Quite in line with the Christian tradition, Mykyta’s miracle-working ability becomes an infallible benchmark for the authentication of his sanctity, or, more precisely, for refuting his sham.
The very first “miracles” that pilgrims witness on the island are murders. The treacherous murder of Kuz’ma (a punishment for his presumable lack of faith in Mykyta’s sanctity) and the ruthless slaying of a penitent bandit (who seemingly asked for such “help”) shock the pilgrims. Soon they realize that the ostensible miracles are nothing but hoaxes and that they are caught in the “saint’s” skillfully arranged trap. Their suspicion is corroborated by dwarf Musii, who mockingly comments on Mykyta’s miracle-working ability:
[Sozont] “Have you been here for a long time?”
“Yes, for lo-o-ong! I like it here. I don’t have to beg. They feed me just like that! A good life! You guys don’tt want to beg either, do you?”
“No, we came here to heal ourselves,” said Pavlo
“Then you wasted your trip. Look how many of us are here, but saint Mykyta hasn’t cured a single one! He says that he will cure us when we die, ha-ha!”
“Did he say it himself?” Sozont asked.
“No, Mykyta sits in his hut. The ones who are with him did.”
“How often do people come here?”
“Not that often. It’s hard to get here! Yet the ones who come here don’t always go back. That’s it!”
“What happens to them?” Sozont asked.
“O-o, saint Mykyta helps them!”
“How?” Pavlo asked.
“Grabs them by the tail and in the bag they go!” The dwarf grabbed himself by the neck.—Rat-a-tat—and one’s gone, ha-ha! And then to the Eye—plonk and plop!” and he started gurgling as if he was rinsing his throat.
“You mean he drowns and kills them?” The surprised Pavlo asked.
“No, he does not kill them… He helps them…That’s it! (U 99)
The pilgrims see on the island crowds of crippled individuals whose pleas for miraculous healing were denied. Not a single one was cured by the alleged saint! Nonetheless these hapless petitioners remained on the island creating its gullible, inert and oppressed community. The destitute condition of this community strongly recalls that of the Soviet population. Furthermore, both communities eagerly participate in and whole-heartedly support their leaders’ mythmaking. Just like the impoverished Soviet people eagerly promoted the myth of the prosperity of their state, Mykyta’s crippled congregation supports the myth of his miracle-working.
Having learned about Mykyta’s inability to perform miracles, the pilgrims come to recognize the grotesque and preposterous nature of his ascetic pursuit and ultimately see him as a brazen murderer, a pretender, and a pride-stricken heretic. Ultimately, Mykyta turns out to be a horrendous creation and a puppet of the sect’s de facto ruler, Simeon, who masterminds the “saint’s” Life and orchestrates its documentation in a strictly censored vita of the famous Syrian stylite, whose name, Simeon, the sect’s leader assumes. The new Simeon (formerly Stepan) satisfies his thirst for power by establishing a new utopia and subjugating to his authority a miracle-seeking community of the cripples.
As the pilgrims are confronted with the pressing need of discovering truth about Mykyta, their search for selfhood becomes inseparable from the search for truth. To be sure, the possibility of their cure depends on the authenticity of Mykyta as a miracle-worker, hence the importance of truth about his personality, teachings and deeds. The mortal danger accompanying this quest underscores its vital importance.
Foremost, the theme of truth develops in the narrative as the pilgrims’ pursuit of textual truth, which is juxtaposed to fabrication or “parable-telling” (baikotvorennia). The main concerns of this discussion are authenticity and the epistemological value of hagiographic texts, and first and foremost of Mykyta’s life. Yet the latter is not the exclusive subject of discussion as the narrative abounds in numerous imbedded hagiographical stories. Indeed, each of the four pilgrims creates for himself a story based on the vita of his chosen hagiographical character and attempts to convince his audience of the tale’s authenticity. The narrator is the only exception, as his character is based on a historical figure. Shevchuk debunks these hagiographic claims to truth, allowing the learned monks to unmistakably identify the literary sources of each other’s tales and to expose each other’s myth-making strategies. Yet the characters’ hagiographic pursuits are not condemned. They are identified as creative ventures—parable-telling—and legitimized as such. The narrator, who comes from the aesthetic vantage point, takes this argument even further, placing creativity at the core of humanness:
What would become of man if he would say “no” to parables? Would he be able to elevate himself above the animal? Would he [be able to] know God, when even his God is very often just one of his parables? Making of parables is nothing short of creativity. And everything that comes into existence has [the right] to live and to sustain its life… (U 119)
The question of parable-telling becomes one of the major themes of the novel, the theme of creativity and art, and even further ramifies into motifs of freedom of expression and censorship. In this discussion the strictly censored, and basically fraudulent, vita of Mykyta figures as a work of Socialist Realism. Its falsehood is consistently exposed along with its role as a piece of propaganda and a major agent in the implementation of the sect’s utopian intent. Furthermore, the different interpretations of Mykyta’s teachings and asceticism amount in the narrative to several contrasting worldviews or several different claims to truth, which fledge as different views of asceticism, selfhood and humanity.
The first claim to truth comes from the sect’s secret leader, Simeon/Stepan, who masterminds Mykyta’s scam and advances ideology readily comparable to the Soviet one. Indeed, quite in line with the Soviet utopian venture, Simeon creates a self-contained totalitarian society, compelling the crippled congregation to unconditionally accept the sect’s leadership and to worship unquestionably their custom-made idol, Mykyta the Stylite. Simeon claims to uphold high Christian ideals, yet in order to assure his sect’s power, he skillfully manipulates the Holy Writ, justifying transgressions against the essential Christian commandments. In order to attain his goals, he—not unlike the Soviet rulers—resorts to unscrupulous means, enforcing terror and repeatedly resorting to murder. Through his mouthpiece, Mykyta, Simeon proclaims death to be the most important part of the Christian worldview, positing that, since illness puts the afflicted individual in close proximity to death, it draws him closer to God. This eschatological claim is the core of Mykyta’s, or rather Simeon’s teachings, which proclaim ars moriendi (the art of dying well) the most important Christian objective and experience.
On the one hand this claim does not contradict the Christian worldview which views death as the entrance to the eternal life. Yet on the other hand it is essential for discerning the heretical nature of the sect. Indeed, similarly to heretical apocalyptical sects, including Gnostics, Syrian Monophysits, Bogomils and flagellants (khlysts), Simeon’s sect categorically denies the validity of personal love, family, creativity, joy, and beauty (U 108), convincing the congregation to live in unrelieved gloom and slavery under their misanthropic religious regime. Therefore, Mykyta’s chilling call to love death (U 125) both parodies Christian memento mori and calls for the submission and spiritual slavery of the congregation. As such it counters the fundamental Christian aspiration to seek freedom through learning the truth (cf. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (John 8:32)). At the same time it parodies the very nature of utopia, which by definition stands for an ideal, happy life and therefore should proceed from ars viviendi, rather than moriendi.
The sect’s emphasis on death brings to mind the total disrespect for human life professed by the Soviet authorities, who not only eradicated millions of their citizens, but also opted to (and successfully did) replace actual lives of the Soviet people with utopian aspirations for the distant goal of communist Paradise. On the one hand, the reality of the communist futuristic pursuit was translated into the deplorable circumstances of the Soviet life with its constant shortages, poverty and lack of freedom, and on the other hand into apathy, lack of motivation and low work ethics of the Soviet citizens. These predicaments of the Soviet people are mirrored in the miserable existence of Mykyta’s crippled congregation, whose inability to discern the truth about their situation figures as their most fundamental failing, providing a stark contrast to the truth-seeking pilgrims. It is Simeon’s apocalyptic denial of the validity of life, creativity, and humaneness that is methodically questioned throughout the novel, building momentum for the narrator’s epiphany.
The viewpoint of the pilgrim Sozont seemingly counters that of Simeon, yet the narrator aptly discerns striking similarities in their positions. Both Sozont and Simeon are intellectuals and theoreticians and both venture to hold their own opinions about the Christian creed. Yet most importantly, both of them are intolerant. Simeon’s intolerance translates into tyrannical censorship, ruthless suppression and murders of his adversaries; while Sozont’s intolerance is revealed in his un-Christian judgment and eagerness to punish the culprits.
The discussion of judgment and retribution—the issue significant in the post-Soviet debate—is offered in the novel within the framework of Christian ethics, acquiring the significance of a benchmark of humaneness i.e. high selfhood. By granting Simeon’s sect his understanding and sympathy, the narrator passes the test of Christian compassion with honor, suggesting by his position a new venue for a post-totalitarian quest for selfhood. His companion Sozont, on the other hand, fails this test as a Christian, exhibiting lack of empathy and intolerance. Mykhailo understands that Sozont’s position would not offer a remedy for the doings of Simeon’s sect yet would result in more blood and ultimately in another totalitarian solution:
Deacon Sozont … did not want to sympathize with these people and wasn’t concerned with their salvation. He was carried away by the hunt, pursuing them with puffed up nostrils. He was happy that he figured out and exposed their hoax, and was ready to stab his victim with an imaginary knife or spear. Yet while uncovering their evil-doings, he himself adhered to evil—Eye of the Abyss—thereby dooming himself [to perdition]. He was convinced that his own understanding of truth was the ultimate one, thus transgressing against the limits set up for humans. And this [arrogance of his] frightened and alarmed me. (U 118)
At the same time, even though both Simeon and Sozont are representatives of Orthodox Christianity, their views exhibit striking differences which amount to nothing less than the cultural discrepancy between the Christian East and West. This contention further translates into an opposition between Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, Sozont’s spirituality, which is representative of Ukraine, reveals a strong admixture of Western values. Educated in the West, he is a proponent of the Western viewpoint and adheres to humanism, intellectual pursuit, and moderate asceticism. At the same time the somber teachings of Simeon (presented as Mykyta’s) represent Russian Orthodoxy and reveal misanthropy, tyranny, self-denigration, and extreme asceticism. In the light of the juxtaposition of these two viewpoints, the antagonism between the Western adherence to intellect and Russian predilection for simplemindedness acquire a meaning of the divergence between the folly of ignorance and wisdom of self-awareness. This discussion questions the validity of the essential Eastern Orthodox concept of simplemindedness (epitomized as Russia’s unique bias for holy fools) which has been often viewed as the cornerstone of Russian spirituality.
In the novel, meekness and simplemindedness are presented as rather dubious virtues. Shevchuk’s revealing portrayal of thoughtless, inert and apathetic cripples sharply poses the question of their own responsibility for the unrelieved doom of their existence. Their ignorance and lack of self-awareness are presented to a large degree as a consequence of their spiritual laziness and reluctance to think or act on their own. Their debilitating condition reflects the spiritual bankruptcy of the Soviet people, testifying to the fact that just like the novel’s thoughtless cripples they provided a perfect foundation for the self-serving, ruthless rulers. After all, in both cases, the enslaved masses were not just an easy prey but also eager supporters of their oppressors.
The third claim to truth is offered by dwarf Musii, who, being far from an extraordinary personality, stands out among the submissive cripples as the only one who dares to go against the sect’s “ascetic” rules. His life-affirming and markedly anti-ascetic argument in favor of following rather than suppressing one’s nature is presented as a trivial, albeit deadly, “love affair.” Unable to produce a proof that his mate is his lawful wife, the hapless dwarf Musii is charged with fornication and sent to his death to the sect’s own Eye of the Abyss—an enigmatic area in the surrounding island swamp which presumably can differentiate between the sinners and the righteous ones, and which would mercilessly swallow the former.
The title of the novel introduces an enigmatic and ever-present entity, the image of the Eye of the Abyss. An immediate incentive for the narrator’s pilgrimage, it figures prominently throughout the narrative, challenging the reader to decipher its multiple meanings. The narrator describes the Eye of the Abyss as an ineffable entity, saying that man cannot perceive its real meaning (U 101), yet his own attempts at grasping it continue throughout the novel. As he contemplates its different aspects, including those of the ultimate measure and meaning of human life, it transpires that the Eye of the Abyss symbolically represents many facets of the protagonists’ spiritual quest. Foremost, the Eye of the Abyss is memento mori of religious contemplation, an omniscient Eye overseeing the hero’s quest for selfhood and truth. It is representative of one’s spiritual imbalance and of one’s yearning for spiritual wholeness, of God, and of one’s quest for God, of ascetic endeavor, truth, and death, to mention just the most important of its meanings. The many connotations of this multidimensional image reveal themselves gradually, yet its primary meaning of death is paramount. “…it is, finally, like Death—that link between life and eternity…,” (E 2) the narrator concludes. If in the beginning of the novel the Eye of the Abyss sends the narrator on his quest of self-fulfillment, later on it functions as an agent of murder set up by the sectarians. The sectarians’ Eye of the Abyss swallows Kuz’ma, Musii and Sozont, leaving the survivors horrified and prompting the allegorical reading of these deaths.
Whereas the deaths of monk Kuz’ma, pilgrim Pavlo and the penitent brigand allegorically refer to Stalin’s purges and overall suppression of the pursuits of truth by the dissidents, the savage punishment of the ill-fated Musii brings to mind show trials of the Great Terror. Musii indeed is charged on false pretenses and his execution is orchestrated as a spectacle, which is supposed to prove the rightfulness of the rulers, thus strengthening their position, and at the same time to intimidate the congregation, coercing their obedience.
Even after Musii is ruthlessly silenced, the argument in favor of natural human happiness continues to resurface throughout the novel. It assumes the role of a powerful counterargument to the sect’s misanthropy, negation of life and blindness to the world’s beauty. It comes forth in the debate about original sin, challenging the pilgrims with the dilemma of Adam and Eve’s guilt and evoking yet again human incompatibility with utopian bliss. It is exemplified by the harmonious singing of priest Ivan’s happy family, and can also be seen in Martha’s yearning for Simeon’s love. The conclusion to this discussion is drawn at the end of the book by Mykyta’s blind disciple Theodorite, who recognizes the equal validity of the ascetic utopian quest for self-perfection and a counter-ascetic quest for natural human happiness. This claim resounds in Mykhailo’s vision-dream, in which he returns to the sect’s island and finds out that Simeon fled fearing retribution, that Martha and the other disciples followed him, that Mykyta died shortly after, and that following these events the crippled congregation abandoned the island. Only Theodorite stayed behind hoping that his beloved Martha would return to the island and that they would live happily ever after. In case she would fail to return, however, Theodorite planned to resume Mykyta’s exploit of mortifying his flesh on the pillar!
The fourth worldview fledges as the narrator’s epiphany. He is the only character who in the end recovers his creative drive, gains self-awareness and, most significantly, becomes the carrier of a powerful anti-utopian argument. His new dystopian worldview is expressed in several insights. First of all, Mykhailo offers a potent argument against absolutizing any claims to truth and consequently against intolerance, totalitarianism, slavery and idolatry. Secondly, he argues in favor of a free choice of creed, and, importantly, underscores that one’s choice of religion (i.e. worldview) is immaterial in attaining the high ideal of goodness (U 119). And thirdly, he introduces in the narrative the tone of tolerance and openness to a discussion when, instead of blaming the sectarians for their transgressions, he treats them with understanding and compassion, comprehending their offenses, yet not aspiring to punish them:
Yes, they are creating a parable of life, which, as any parable, is not entirely true. Yet, as they do so, the parable itself starts creating them. Thus, having created the parable of life, they started living in accordance to it, in other words, they lost control over their lives, whereas their parable gained it. They attempted to go beyond the limits of human nature. They aspired to elevate themselves to the unattainable, fantastic level, forgetting that man cannot jump over his own head. As a result, they got into a trap, which they had set up themselves. They fell into the hole, which they had dug themselves. They turned into Pharisees, who say one thing and do another. And this became their curse because they know but too well that they oppose God’s will and contradict human nature [which was designed by God]. This means that God, to whom they dedicated themselves, won’t have mercy on them, but will throw them into the Eye of the Abyss. They became creators of their own hell. They tried to escape the Eye of the Abyss, which is this world, yet created another Eye of the Abyss and started worshiping it as a pagan idol, zealously protecting their idol like a pack of guard dogs. (U 118)
Thus the narrator arrives at a post-modern realization that texts influence not only other texts, but also the reality of life, and this realization provides the key to his dystopian vision. As it explains the tragedy of Simeon’s sect, it provides commentary on the failure of the Soviet utopianism. Mykhailo sees the sectarians’ predicament in the discrepancy between their uplifted goal and its abject realization, remarking that it is yet another failed attempt on the part of the humanity to live up to its utopian dream. In the conclusion he sees Simeon and his sect as confused fellow-human beings, who were trapped by their own utopian dreams and—unlike retribution-seeking Sozont—posits that the sectarians deserve empathy and concern, rather than un-Christian judgment and punishment.
Countering the negative stance of Simeon’s sect and the lifeless intellectualism of his companion Sozont, Shevchuk’s protagonist carries out his ascetic quest for self-knowledge and self-fulfillment. His newly discovered truth takes him beyond the passive expectation of miracles, spiritual slavery to canonized truths, and allows him to comprehend—and therefore accept—God’s world (U 118) and thus sets him free from the haunting doom of the Eye of the Abyss. As the latter loses its grip, God’s world ceases being a baffling place, overshadowed by suffering and death. Mykhailo expresses his epiphany as an acceptance of God’s will and world and as readiness to respect its enigmas without fear:
We would not understand the day if not for the night and the other way around. Everything [in this world] is interconnected, creating an astonishing symbiotic union, where things and phenomena highlight and elucidate one another. This is the truth, not the abyss, yet the human mind is incapable of seeing its bottom. Its bottom is God’s enigma and it is unknowable. (U 192)
Mykhailo’s acceptance of God’s world is interconnected with his realization, that there is no need for a man-made utopia. He comprehends that one needs to gain his own understanding of the enigma of God’s creation rather then defy God’s plan by utopian constructs. This realization facilitates his ability to counter any intolerance and, most importantly, to recognize the legitimacy of any faith. Furthermore, he understands that openness and tolerance are instrumental in the individual’s quest for self and God which does not have to be confined to Christian doctrine:
I thought that faiths are not divided into genuine and false ones, and that rituals—or the rules of playing into adherence to any particular faith—by no means authenticate them. Eastern or Western, found in sects—such as, for example, this sect of semionides—or among Muslims, or any other creed—all faiths are true. It is faith that matters, because faith is true, while the lack of faith is false. The only thing that matters is that mystery which is or is not in one’s soul. … I knew that they [these thoughts] were not evil, because they were based on tolerance. Evil, on the other hand, begets intolerance. (U 119)
Thus, the protagonist’s quest for self-realization and truth is epitomized in his self-aware, renewed self and dystopian vision. Independent thinking, open-mindedness and tolerance are the key human values that make the narrator’s quest for selfhood successful, rendering him immune to pride-stricken leaders, arrogant teachers and false saints. Resistance—a crucial ascetic faculty and virtue!—to imposing and enslaving conventions and dogmas is proposed in the end as the vital agent for one’s spiritual self-fulfillment. Initially, utopia did succeed in luring the narrator but in the end it was rendered powerless by his enlightened self and was unable to either dupe or seduce him. And it is the restored, invigorated self of Shevchuk’s protagonist that enables him to pass through the impenetrable swamps surrounding Mykyta’s island and to leave the utopia behind.
The happy ending of regained and enlightened self is an open one though. Will the protagonist continue progressing on his path? Will he be able to achieve high selfhood? These are open questions. His lot is that of every seeker after the truth, whose quest is always in progress. Therefore the conclusion implies that only an unflagging self-awareness—an ultimate goal of the ascetic—can enable one’s discernment and successful conquest of illusions, taking the individual beyond the enslaving utopian dream to the truth of self-fulfillment.
This thematic direction has been identified by a number of Shevchuk’s critics (see below) and was aptly termed by Marko Pavlyshyn as Shevchuk’s creative urge for restitution of the sacred.See Marko Pavlyshyn, "Mythological, Religious, and Philosophical Topoi in the Prose of Valerii Shevchuk," in: Slavic Review 50:4 (1991). Also see discussions by Marko Pavlyshyn, “Thaws, Literature and the Nationalities Discussion in Ukraine: The Prose of Valerii Shevchuk,” in: Marko Pavlyshyn (ed.), Glasnost’ in Context: On the Recurrence of Liberalizations in Central and East European Literatures and Cultures.” New York: Berg, 1990; Anna Berehulak, “The Critical Aesthetic: Reappraisal of Ukrainian Literary History in the Works of Valerii Shevchuk,” Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies 33. May 1992; Svitlana Kobets, “Discovering the Universe between the Feminine and Masculine: Valerii Shevchuk’s Hunchback Zoia.” In: Canadian Slavonic Papers, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, March 2002. In Ukrainian see Марко Павлишин, Канон та Іконостас: Українська модерна література, Київ: Видавництво «Час», 1997; Анна Йосипівна Горнятко-Шумилович, Інтелектуалізм прози Валерія Шевчука, Львівський державний університет імені Івана Франка, Львів – 1999; Анна Йосипівна Горнятко-Шумилович, Боротьба за «автотентичну людину»: проза Валерія Шевчука. Львів, Каменяр, 1999. Тетяна Борисівна Жовновська, Онірично-міфологічний дискурс прози Валерія Шевчука, Одеський державний університет, Одеса, 2000.
Utopia per se—including religious, fictional and political/scholarly varieties—has always been conceptualized as a perfect society, a society of happiness and goodness. Paradise, the Promised Land, Champs-Elysees and Eldorado are among the religious and mythological utopian models, whereas Plato’s Republic and More’s Utopia belong to the first fictional pursuits of the extremely prolific idea of social utopia. For the discussion of literary utopia refer to the following: Bronislaw Baczko, Utopian Lights: The Evolution of the Idea of Social Progress, tr. Judith L. Greenberg, New York; Paul G. Hashak, Utopian / Dystopian Literature: A Bibliography of Literatary Criticism, Metuchen, 1994; Robert C. Elliott, The Shape of Utopia: Studies in Literary Genre, Chicago, 1970; Gary Saul Morson, The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevskii's Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia, Evanston, 1981.
In his works, Shevchuk reveals a clear predilection for an ascetic type, which densely populates pages of his works. Such characters as the monk Athanasii Pylypovych, the protagonist of the novella To the Maw of the Dragon (V pashchu drakona, 1993), the monk Khoma Usufiv, the main character of the short story The Tree of Memory (Derevo Pam’iati, 1995), Patriarch Heremia, from the short story The Mission (Misiia, 1995) and the protagonist of the short story The Beginning of Terror (Pochatok Zhakhy, 1995), the monk Mykhailo Vovchans’kyi, are just a few of them.
In both these senses, asceticism and ascetic imperative are among Shevchuk’s most prominent topics as his oeuvre engages both explicitly and implicitly religious, cultural and ethical dimensions of asceticism. See, for example, short stories and novellas in Shevchuk’s selections У Череві Апокаліптичного Звіра (In the Stomach of the Apocalyptic Beast, 1995) and Біс Плоті (The Demon of Flesh, 1999). Besides the works which contemplate asceticism as a religious development, Shevchuk’s narratives employ its universal—lay—dimension of self-discipline and resistance to temptation and evil in a stoic sense. Thus, the narrator in the short story Snake-Woman (Zhinka-zmiia)—albeit a lay person—champions abstinence, celibacy, and seclusion. Another example of secular asceticism can be found in the novella Hunchback Zoia (Horbunka Zoia), whose protagonist both attempts to withstand the pressures of society and to resist his attraction to the beautiful hunchback.
A commonplace ascetic refutation of the family ties, including the famous examples of Alexis the Man of God and St. Simeon the Stylite, can be compared to the betrayal of his parents by the Soviet cult figure Pavlik Morozov and to the purging of his own family by Joseph Stalin. For the discussion of ascetic topoi in the Soviet literature see Marcia A. Morris, Saints and Revolutionaries: The Ascetic Hero in Russian Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Examples of failed ascetics have been documented in a number of hagiographies, including those of Isidora the Fool of Egypt (d. 369) and Isaak of the Kiev Cave Monastery (d. 1090). At times, vitae criticize individual ascetics; at other times they criticize the hostile environment and the profane mentality of monasteries and convents. Yet the majority of vitae give examples of perfect (or textually perfected) lives of canonized saints. See Kliuchevskii’s argument that the objective of a hagiography is the creation of a Christian ideal, rather than a true reflection of history, in Kliuchevskii, Drevnerusskie Zhitiia Sviatykh: 363.
These saints belong to the category of secret sanctity, a specifically Orthodox Christian variety of saintliness. For the discussion of controversial sanctity see Sergei Ivanov, Vizantiiskoe Iurodstvo. Moskva: Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia, 1994.
For a discussion of the extreme character of stylitism see Ieromonakh Aleksii (Kuznetsov). Iurodstvo i stolpnichestvo: religiozno-psikhologicheskoe izsledovanie. S-Peterburg: tipografiia V. D. Smirnova, 1913. Also see Ware, who cites pillar standing in the same line as self-castration, and other macabre practices of self-inflicted torture, positing that “such actions surely display a curious disrespect to God as creator; for we are not to disfigure the gifts that God confers on us.” (10) Ware emphasizes that the goal of the ascetic is not killing the body, but rather conquering its addictions and wrong predispositions and concludes that the “the aim of the ascetic … is not to suppress… passions but to reorient them.” (12)
For the discussion of different versions and copies of St. Nikita’s life, its place within hagiographical literature of the sixteenth century and about the saint’s canonization see V. O. Kliuchevskii, Drevnerusskie Zhytiia Sviatykh kak istoricheskii istochnik. Moskva: “Nauka,” 1988: 43-50. The discussion of the emergence of St. Nikita’s cult and its place in Russian history can be found in Gail Lenhoff, “The Cult of Saint Nikita the Stylite in Pereslavl’ and Among the Muscovite Elite.” In: Fonctions sociales et politiques du culte des saints dans les societes de rite grec et latin au Moyen Age et a l'epoque moderne. Approche comparative. LARHCOR, Warsaw, 1999: 331-346.
See, for example, the discussions of repentance and retribution offered in Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance (1987) (note the Medieval imagery especially!) and in Oksana Zabuzhko’s novel, Field Research in Ukrainian Sex (1996).
Russian predilection for simple-mindedness and humility was recognized by a number of Russian as well as Western creative writers and scholars. This cultural bias could be seen in Russian veneration of the holy fool. For the discussions of this issue see, for example, Fedotov, Gerge. Sviatye Drevnei Rusi, 10-17th st. New York: Izdanie russkogo pravoslavnogo Bogoslovskogo Fonda, 1959: 191; Ieromanakh Ioann (Kologrivoff), Ocherki po Istorii Russkoi Sviatosti (Essays on the History of Russian Sanctity). Brussels: “Zhizn’ s Bogom,” 1961: 243; Ewa M. Thompson, Understanding Russia: The Holy Fool in Russian Culture. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987; Jostein Børtnes, Visions of Glory: Studies in Early Russian Hagiography. Oslo: Solum Forlag A/S & New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1988; Lotman, Ju. M., Uspenskii, B. A. “New Aspects in the Study of Early Russian Culture,” (transl. by N. F. C. Owen), in: Lotman, Ju. M., Uspenskii, B. A., The Semiotics of Russian Culture. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1984.