Flowers of the Mind 5. Asvina (week 3) 2021

Dominic Lieven’s Russia against Napoleon (2009) is full of brilliant insights. He discusses at one point the Russian historian, Nikolai Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia. Karamzin (1766-1826) was appointed court historian by Alexander I, the Tsar who defeated Napoleon and was scattered among the flowers of the mind last week. His ten-volume history of Russia was both a historical and literary foundation of Russian culture. Nationalist, learned in traditions, and conservative, he also brought French prose style to leaven the heavy sentences of Slavonic tradition, even experimenting with the comic sentimentalism of Laurence Sterne in Russian literature. No culture is sealed within its borders.

The Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia is one of those fascinating texts in a tradition created by what I once called “private intellectuals”. Karamzin never intended the Memoir for publication; it was presented to Alexander I in 1811, on the cusp of the war with France, as the Russian state and elites turned against the broadly liberal political and social changes introduced by the bureaucratic genius, Mikhail Speransky. The Memoir was the private briefing on grand strategy by the most expressive, thoughtful exponents of the conservative, “Old Russian” grouping at the court when the Tsar was choosing a fateful course.

Americans, such as Richard Pipes, often present the Memoir as part of the tradition of Russian Autocracy. Lieven clarifies that the Memoir does advocate autocracy, a strong and unified sovereignty, but not despotism. Rather, Karamzin urged the Tsar to control a strong state harmoniously with the aristocracy and the gentry after the fashion of Catherine II the Great. Lieven also comments that the institutions of the Imperial Russian state did not develop through the nineteenth century as envisioned by Karamzin, as father of conservatism or apologist for autocracy. Rather, the Imperial Russian state developed into a bureaucratic monarchy, poorly rooted in society, incapable of working harmoniously with aristocracy, gentry and other social forces.

Lieven’s observation on pre-democratic Russia may generate an hypothesis about our own post-democratic societies. Are we not developing into a bureaucratic oligarchy, separated from society by all manner of fragmenting forces and alienating energies?


I dipped into Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, composed in the period between 1745 to 1750, with allusions to Dante and Petrarch. The poem can be further investigated at the wonderful Thomas Gray Archive. Three stanzas speak to our benighted, locked down world.

The opening stanza evokes the absurd curfew that still applies in Melbourne.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
         The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
         And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

The ninth stanza (lines 33-36) speaks to the humiliation of the COVID Zero Zealots.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

The nineteenth stanza (lines 73-76) speaks to our universal seclusion and loss of any experience in being in a physical crowd, but also shows the noiseless tenor of resistance to the virtual crowd.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
         Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
         They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.


Many years ago I heard on Jaroslav Kovaricek’s program on contemporary experimental music a strange composition that made use of a cello, cut up sound techniques, and some text from Andrew Marvell’s poem, “The Garden,” composed in the 1650s. This week I read the strange and enigmatic work, and here is a brief section that spoke to my restless mind.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find:

Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas,
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

From Andrew Marvell “The Garden” 1650s


After delays due to our global supply chain chinks, my book order, Birdsong on the Seabed, arrived, and I began to explore a bilingual edition of the St Petersburg poet, Elena Shvarts (1948-2010). I feel a displaced member of the great St Petersburg literary tradition, locked down in the St Petersburg of the South, Melbourne. Already I feel a connection with Shvarts’ imagery and prophetic imagery of an unreliable mind. The pain of the prophet. The religion of the poet. The tradition of an unorthodox faith.

A passage in the introduction by the translator, Sasha Dugdale, makes me think of my own roots in an unorthodox tradition of cultural modernism, laid down in the century from 1860 to 1960, and springing not least from that mystical imagined city of the Neva, St Petersburg. Speaking of Shvarts’ forbidden use of images of souls, angels, paradise (a habit of my own), Dugdale writes:

“But what unites all this imagery is not an orthodox religious faith, but an all-consuming poetic faith. Much like Blake, the imagery is Old Testament, but the belief is in a spiritual pilgrimage and openness to myth and inspiration, which adheres to no particular orthodoxy. Sainthood is not reached by concentration on the ‘righteous’ religious life, but by concentration on the poetic life and on the word.”

Shvarts, Birdsong on the Seabed (2008), trans Sasha Dugdale, p. 16

But unlike Shvarts, perhaps, I am a terribly divided prophet, who moves in and out of the imaginary world, and struggle to renounce my duties to serve the worldly habits of ordinary virtue and to nurse the dying institutions to which my mind is chained.

Image Credit: The Guardian

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