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Prodigal Thinker

Myrna Kostash: Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium, University of Alberta Press, 2010,  $34.95 PB, 337 pages.

Myrna Kostash has been a national treasure in Canada since the 1977 publication of All of Baba’s Children, which gave authenticity and glamour to ethnicity in Canada for the first time. That book was followed by Long Way From Home three years later, an at-once romantic and astute mash note to the New Left values as they applied to Canada. Since then she’s produced a succession of worthwhile books, No Kidding: Inside the World of Teenage Girls (1987); Bloodlines, (1993); The Doomed Bridegroom, (1998); and The Next Canada (2000). The books reflected her dual concerns with socially-progressive Canadian and Slavic culture, and all were uniquely sweet-tempered, well researched and perceptive.

In the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet empire deprived the left—even the un-Marxist and moderate elements—of its core belief that they could provide alternatives to the marketplace and hacking at one another with machetes, Kostash quietly began to search for some sort of sane personal alternative to the now frequently rancourously-entitled left wing nostalgia that emerged from the wreckage of Marxist “science”.  For Kostash, there were, one senses, conditions that had to be met. Any alternative couldn’t abrogate her social democratic values—that sense she has always conveyed that she is on the left because she believes that people ought to treat one another with generosity and be treated decently by their governments. She has been, as long as I’ve known her, a woman with a life-long yearning for human solidarity and community.

Kostash is also a writer who has always known who she is without having to reduce identity to simplifications and binaries. Thus identity, in her, is a place to look outward from. It doesn’t produce rigidity or blind pride but rather, a confident curiosity about the world, along with a willingness to articulate her confusions along with as her insights. This has made her both an unusually competent intellectual, and a slightly unpredictable one, since what she sees isn’t filtered through ideology or a need to appear consistent.

Maybe that’s why, when the left collapsed into irrelevant solidarities, it was almost inevitable that she would go back to her family and ethnic roots, and examine her upbringing in the Greek Orthodox church.  From the beginning, her examination wasn’t simply a matter of reading the gospels aloud or hanging out in church basements making perogies with elderly Ukrainian women, although Kostash, communitarian that she is, has cheerfully done her share of the latter. No, what she did was embark on an open-ended study of Greek Orthodoxy’s history and ritual practices with the same unblinking eye she has brought to everything else.

The result was a not-quite formal but fairly public conversion—or reconversion—to the Greek Orthodox faith. This, I suspect, was going too far in some people’s eyes, particularly for those on the radical left. Left wing social politics and Greek Orthodoxy seem inimical, don’t they?  Greek orthodoxy is intellectually authoritarian, patriarchal and littered with icons. Whereas left wing social politics…

The thing is, see, I’ve watched Kostash walk this tightrope, and I’ve noticed, along the way, how little her new spiritual values have altered her core values. Whenever we’ve been together—about twice a year on average—we’ve had the same wide-ranging and concentrated conversations that have marked our friendship since we met in the 1970s. I’ve been reassured by how little difficulty she has had reconciling where she’d been and where she is now. She is, and remains, all of a piece, with no diminishment of her curiosity and her intellectual acuity.

Still, when I heard that Prodigal Daughter was finished and that she was having trouble getting interest in it from left-of-centre and mainstream publishers, I wasn’t surprised. A spiritual journey in search of the origins and contemporary meaning of a Greek Orthodox saint who was martyred in the 4th century just wasn’t going to be a “saleable product” for today’s stressed-out publishers: I could hear the Chapters/Indigo buyers saying “we don’t see an audience for this” no matter how artfully the book was pitched to them.

Kostash finished the book anyway, and thankfully, the University of Alberta Press has published it. I bought a copy when Kostash launched it at a mostly Ukrainian gathering in Toronto but I confess that I let the book sit for a month before I read it, not dreading what I’d find in it, but as a materialist and a former Anglican, not quite paying full attention because of the subject.

I should have known better.  This is a real book, carefully structured, empirically sound in its observations, with exquisite pacing that gives it vitality and a gratifying immediacy: Kostash keeps her feet on the ground, never letting expressives replace articulation. She’s really intent on delivering St. Demetrius as a living, breathing presence. That’s no minor feat. Along the way, she creates a first rate travel book on a poorly understood part of the world, and a history of a powerful element of Christianity not well known to most Westerners: not small things, either.

St. Demetrius seems to be a figure about whose martyrdom little is securely known except that he was brutally murdered at the orders of Roman emperor Diocletian’s general Maximian Galerius in 304 and buried without ceremony beneath the Roman baths of Thessalonica, presumably for openly being a Christian. This was hardly a unique fate for Christian zealots before Constantine, who became Roman emperor in 312, halted the persecution of Christians (late in life converting himself), called together the Council at Nicene that, in 325, set the texts that would become the Christian Bible, and moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople.

But in the years, and then decades, and then centuries after Demetrius was killed, there were a series of impossible-to-pin-down evolutions. He became the protector of Thessalonica, and was increasingly militarized as various tribes flooded into southern Europe. But somewhere along the line he became more than simply the protector of a single city. He became the protector of many of the mostly Slavic tribes—Serbs, Ukranians, Bulgarians—that attempted at various points to overrun Thessalonica, perhaps because his militarization somehow never quite separated his image from the original murdered boy. “By the time he has migrated to the lands of the northern Slavs,” Kostash writes, “he is a young man wearing a greenish brown tunic and white breastplate with a feather pattern, his cloak is green, he is girded with a towel, in his right hand he has a lance, as well as a scroll on which it is written, o Lord, do not destroy the city and people; if You save the city, I will be saved with them, and if they are lost, I will be lost with them.”

Demetrius remains uniquely sensible (in the deepest definition of that word) no matter where he travels, never quite descending to the George Patton-style let’s-kill-the-bastards militarization of St. George or the brutally pious crusaders of  northern Europe: he doesn’t conquer; he protects. And so, while one part of my mind is thinking that Demetrius was really just a nice kid who was murdered and was then used by a horde of significance-obsessed factions to defend themselves and their gravy against outsiders, another part of me travels with Kostash: yes, there’s something uniquely sweet here, something beyond the reach of cynical understanding, something that ameliorates the violence of human enterprise. Generally speaking, the more you know about human history, the more amazed you are by the ingenuity of human imagination—and the less hopeful you are about our ability to survive one another. In St. Demetrius, Kostash makes a credible case that this isn’t the only way of seeing the world.

I won’t go any further than that  ( I don’t want to give away the detective element of the narrative)  except to say that Kostash’s search for St. Demetrius is a successful one, and that when she delivers her Demetrius, it’s more believable than any of the others her exhaustive research uncovers—and that the delivery betrays none of her values. It’s a very sweet moment in a very good book.

So at this point, I remain puzzled, not about the value of what Kostash has done or about the value of the book, which is considerable, but about the need for faith in the first place, and for a community of believers, whose built-in desire for exclusive truth has historically produced the sort of intolerance and violence that always targeted curious people determined to investigate human reality on their own terms among its first victims, collateral or not?

It seems to me that those of us who live in the global diaspora—which is now partitioned a thousand ways—must always live as rational individuals, however much we may long for a tribe to belong to. We have learned that what most successfully and consistently protects human autonomy and social justice is democracy and the rule of law—and not mistaking the gore-piles that human history has produced with depressing regularity for sandboxes. As the ersatz tribes of the 21st century proliferate, and with them the heedless believers in this or that exclusive truth—whether Allah or God or the Internet’s Singularity—we must keep our wits about us, first and, I think, finally.

Eastern Orthodoxy, which Kostash persuasively argues is among the gentlest of Christian beliefs, is, when all is said and done, an expression of the childhood of human consciousness. As we all know, childhood is sweet, when contemplated from beyond its miseries: the lack of volition, the supervision by arbitrary and often violent authority, the violence of the other children.

What I’m suggesting, I guess,  is that for better or worse, our species has moved beyond its childhood, and the return to religion that is occurring around the world is nostalgia for that childhood. Maybe what we’re currently evolving toward is only humanity’s adolescence, but there, the terrors are distinctly different, and they look more like the difficulties in front of us every day. We have to stare down the oligarchies of testosterone, technologies zooming out of control, and we have to face the knowledge—first delivered by Ivan Karamazov in 1880 and proven throughout the 20th century—that “everything is permitted” and that god, if she or he or it exists at all, is a passive observer, unable or unwilling to intervene in any meaningful way.  We are in charge of this small speck of organic vitality in the cold universe, one that, as the millenarians and the entertainment industry alike like to remind us in differently comical ways, could be obliterated at any moment by some cataclysmic and utterly impersonal cosmic event light years away—or by a whirling 30 square mile piece of rock traveling at random across the solar system.

It may be hard to find the unanswered question in the above sermon, but it is this: how do we integrate this childhood and adolescence into a workable frisson with which we can face the future? I admit that I don’t know. But Myrna Kostash, with Prodigal Daughter, has made a powerful contribution to building a framework that can understand what the question entails.

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1868 words  June 24, 2011

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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