Welcome to day 11 of my “accepting the world” series. Catch up on the rest of the series on its dedicated page here.
Last week, I was absolutely thrilled to receive a preliminary offer from a Russian publishing house concerning a possible translation of my novels. Naturally, I was through the roof. I had no idea that the experience would instead evoke memories of 19th century censorship.
Ilyin’s Idea of Creative Freedom
When I first translated Foundations of Christian Culture, I was a little surprised at how strongly Ilyin spoke against censorship in all its forms: self-censorship, censorship by the state, and even (or especially) censorship by the Church. My first thought was: well, what if a writer does write something that he doesn’t realize is spiritually harmful to others? Doesn’t the Church have a responsibility to stand guard, as it were?
Here’s what Ilyin says to that, though:
I do not think that the current secular and unchristian culture should be entirely rejected or condemned out of hand. However, it should be revisited creatively, then renewed in the transfigurative spirit of Christianity. This doesn’t mean, however, that science should start to include canon law in its working hypotheses and theories, nor that art will become nothing more than traditional iconography and sacred architecture. To think like this would mean to fall prey to literalist legalism, which only destroys. It would also mean forgetting the essential axiom of Christianity, which is that every perfection begins with the heart and is accomplished in spiritual freedom. Neither the Church nor the government can nor should prescribe how the process of Christian cultural renewal should take place. It must be done freely. Of course, it does have to occur within the limits of the Church itself, and only later be handed off to the rest of the world.
The Need for Freedom
What Ilyin says is profound. Basically, the creative process itself should be without external influence or regulation. That creative freedom is absolutely necessary, because if you so much as think about criticism or editing during the phase of creation, you will muzzle your creative flow. You will not create from the heart, as Ilyin says, but from the head. And the head is not a good source of creative or spiritual inspiration.
After all, the new Christian culture for our time, although inspired by the traditions that have come before, must in some way strive to be the inception of a new tradition, firmly within the “school” of the old, but new enough to be able to speak to contemporary desires and problems and joys. And if the Church doesn’t allow that kind of freedom at the point of initial creation, it will encourage not art, but faithful re-presentation of previously created works. A museum, in other words.
If there is so much of a whiff of censorship, it kills creativity.
The Danger of Censorship
Currently, all publishing houses within the administrative structure of the Russian Church must get an official seal of approval from the Synodal publishing office. In effect, there is a kind of censorship office in the literary arm of the Russian Church. This is, of course, absolutely necessary on the one hand. After all, if a book published by an organ of the Russian Church accidentally promotes heretical teachings, there will be serious repercussions.
But there is a flip side to all of this. And that’s what seems to be happening currently to my novels, in terms of the possibility of them being published by a press associated officially with the Church. An editor read the first chapter of my first novel The Song of the Sirin, and could find “nothing Christian about it.” For anyone who has read my book, this should come as a surprise. Many readers will recognize the Life of St. Eustathius, when he encountered the stag in the forest with the cross in his antlers, as the primary inspiration for that first chapter. And the song of the Sirin, which is primarily spiritual in nature, has always been a metaphor in Russian folklore of the call to the spiritual life.
And yet, the reality that there is a kind of censorship office can make people leery of my books. After all, there is no direct mention of Jesus in any of the pages. There are no churches with onion domes. Of course, there are good reasons for all of that. But fear of being censored leads to “literalist legalism, which kills.” Culturally speaking, we know where that goes. On the one hand, it leads to Soviet-era Social Realism, which is not really art at all. On the opposite side, it leads to a fossilization in style and content that allows nothing new for fear of being tainted by unholiness. Both of those are death to the spirit and to culture.
I don’t know how my own situation will end with this publishing house in question. But the fact that this is happening in Russia, the place where Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky wrote the most revolutionary and life-changing fiction of all time, is profoundly sad to me.
And so I agree with Ilyin. To create a new Christian culture that will be able to attract people to the Light So Lovely, we need to have no fear of censorship. Therein lies only spiritual and cultural death.