Introduction to “The New Middle Ages” by Eugene Vodolazkin
by Ryan L. Shelton
According to my reading of the “History” page on the Academy of Inventive Literature website, the goal of this academy is a renewal of invention and delight in literature. This renaissance requires an examination and understanding of what literature needs to leave behind and what it is aiming toward. A First Things article entitled “The New Middle Ages” by Eugene Vodolazkin offers an answer to both of these questions. His central thesis is intriguing (even if his argument doesn’t fully convince you) and harmonizes with the ideas expressed on the “History” page.
Too often, reading an essay like this, I find myself mentally formulating arguments even before I have finished. I urge you not to be like me; read Vodolazkin's essay with an open mind. While he illustrates his points with specific examples that could tempt the reader to seek counter-examples, his thesis is grand and far-reaching. Sit a while with his ideas.
Finally, Vodolazkin's description of what lies ahead is an optimistic forecast that provides a healthy counterweight to the various dooms pronounced by conservative commenters and critics. The pessimism of these cultural critics may seem more in line with reality, but I am beginning to see it as merely the reverse of the same coin that has “progressism”* as its obverse. Vodolazkin's essay is important for understanding the questions of renewal this Academy seeks to address: specifically, “renewal from and into what?” However, even more vitally his vision of hope** is the better way to respond to the progressive-utopian-cum-dystopian-anti-humanism toward which we seem to be hurtling.
If like me, you are limited to three free First Things articles per month, I will try to summarize Vodolazkin's main points.
Vodolazkin, following Nikolai Berdayev, believes we are passing from the modern age into a new epoch characterized by its similarity with the Middle Ages. Since he is a literary historian, he discusses how literature of the medieval, modern, and post-modern eras each express the features and values of that era. Vodolazkin focuses on the ways medieval literature reflected the medieval understanding of the connections between events, persons, and the broader world. His conclusion is that post-modern literature is expressing the same things that characterized medieval literature and he hopes this signals a renewal of the sense of wonder in creation and a God-centered humanism.
As an aside, this essay could serve as an excellent introduction to his novel, Laurus, wherein Vodolazkin practices the very things he describes in "The New Middle Ages."
* I hope the reader will forgive me a neologism. “Progressive” and “progressivism” carry baggage that I prefer to avoid. Since there is a parallel with “scientism" I use the word “progressism” to indicate the belief itself in progress as the ultimate paradigm of reality.
**Another example of this hopeful vision is expressed by Khouria Krista West in her presentation to the Annual Pan-Orthodox Lenten Retreat at the Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco, California. I highly recommend listening to her address at Ancient Faith Radio.