09.11.01, Response to Denis Crnković's review of David M. Goldfrank's Nil Sorsky

Main Article Content

David M. Goldfrank

The Medieval Review 09.11.01

Goldfrank, David M.. Response to Denis Crnković's review of David M. Goldfrank's . Nil Sorsky: The Authentic Writings. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2008), TMR 09.10.04.
Reviewed by:
David M. Goldfrank
Georgetown University

The Medieval Review recently published a rather lengthy review of my Nil Sorsky. The Authentic Writings (Cistercian Studies 221, Kalamazoo, 2008) by Professor Denis Crnković. He begins by introducing Nil, describing the contents, and acknowledging, maybe too generously, both my "erudition and scholarly care," as well as my "enthusiasm for the project," before taking the book to task for a variety of shortcomings. Some of this criticism is justified, a good deal, I believe, more a matter of preference or taste, and a couple of key points simply wrong.

The indisputable weakness which Prof. Crnković flags is my failure to specify the source of the translations of Nil's shorter texts. He also makes a good case for preferring his choices for translating two words ("instruction" over "tradition" for predanie , and "understanding" rather than "knowledge" for razum ). But sound arguments can be made in both cases either way, and what he argues concerning my handling of particles and conjunctions borders on the arcane.

More important, he is either mistaken or he stretches the meaning of "translation" to allow for adaptation when he doubts my judgment in this regard. In 1885, an archimandrite named Iustin produced a didactic, partially adapted, and also explicated modern Russian translation of Nil's hesychastic treatise (Ustav ). This became the ultimate basis, somewhat mediated by the original, of three related, successive modern "translations:" French (1980--the partial reliance on Iustin so admitted), Italian (1985), and English (2003). My book contains an irrefutable example of one such passage, where Nil's "carrying you on the palms of its hands (dlanekh ruku )," a precise citation regarding grace taken from the Slavic Isaac the Syrian, becomes in succession: "carries you, as a mother her child, in her hands/arms (rukakh );" "carries you, as a mother her child, in her arms (bras , bracchia ), and "upholds you, as a mother carries her child in its arms" (106-108). In addition, both this English "translation" and an earlier abbreviated one (1948) left out Nil's general anathema of heretics from his Predanie and thereby avoided contradicting the assertions by one translator and by the other translator's editor that Nil was laudably mild toward heretics. Despite admitted imperfection, my translations constitute in their entirety the only reliable English version of what all specialists accept as Nil's authentic writings.

Elsewhere Professor Crnković disputes my analysis of how Nil utilized his sources: "Nil was not playing 'footloose and fancy free' with authoritative texts as Goldfrank suggests (82, cf. 85)." But that is not what I wrote: rather, "Nil's adaptive amalgamating extended to the realm of supplications. In recommending a penitential prayer, he played footloose and fancy free with the words, if not the emotions, of established chants. Anyone who knew the Slavic corpus of hymns--and it would have been impossible for a well-trained monk not to know them--could see how Nil created variations on previous composers' themes (which is what these a capella songsters seem have done too)." I never suggested that Nil took such liberties with prose authorities, but indicated, rather, his various modes of utilizing such texts: faithfully or adaptively, separately or combined, sometimes identified, sometimes not. And I also suggested that Nil could have found models for such manipulation in his Greek sources, such as Maximus Confessor's combining two LXX psalms or Gregory the Sinaite's reversal of John Climacus's words (85). No one else has penetrated Nil's relationship to his sources in this precise manner.

Professor Crnković rejects out of hand my attempt to stay close to the original in order to enlighten the target-language reader about the intricacies of the author's literary devices and use of authoritative sources. He also upbraids my failure to state a commonplace literary theory concerning the recycling of authoritative textual matter in "original" Old Slavic compositions. But I can only speak with assuredness of the one literary requirement, which lay at the heart of the monastic reading culture of his time, and which Nil acknowledged and explicitly stated in the introduction to his Ustav and in three of his four extant letters: ascetic texts and all other "divine writings" are designed for meditation (129-30, 215, 246, 250). This consideration, in addition to making Nil's literary devices, not to say his periodic playfulness with words, interesting in themselves, runs smack against Prof. Crnković's objection that all of my footnotes make "unrealistic demands on the reader's ease." So far as I can determine, close reading and analysis of such texts, their terms, and their sources, even when these are presented by skilled writers, demand at least some suspension of "reader's ease."

Professor Crnković's approves my analytical index and the scope of my bibliography, but critiques the latter's "so many subheadings," my references to modern life, and my occasional self-mockery and spiced up writing. So be it. Nil's own verbal wizardry prompted me to attempt "what Nancy Partner called 'serious entertainment'." (87)

At the end of his review, Professor Crnković raises the issue of his own expectation, which my book did not satisfy: to "bring to life the monastic, theological, social and historical world of the 15th century Russian ascetic monk and proponent of 'stillness' for the modern reader." I actually think that this book, as well as my The Monastic Rule of Iosif Volotsky (Cistercian Studies 35, rev. ed., 2000), despite their shortcomings, helps to do just that. But when I consider the totality of the contributions of a host of other scholars, who since the 1860s have produced major monographs and/or published an immense amount of primary material to aid in this great endeavor, I hesitate at the thought of entertaining such an expectation of myself. Rather, I am happy to settle for a sound translation, the introduction to the non-Russian reader of some unknown, relevant texts for Nil's monasticism (and even one never published in Russian), the best analytical introduction that I can squeeze into a hundred pages, and some breakthroughs in sacred-literary Quellenforschung .

Finally, in the light of all that Prof. Crnković finds positive in the book, including "the breadth of... research,...intricacies of medieval Russian, Church Slavonic, and Byzantine Greek," I am surprised that he cannot "find an audience to whom one could recommend this book." If, for example, he or anyone else wants to know, within the limits of reliable sources and reason, how precisely Nil utilized any of his thirty-odd authorities, or something about the literary devices Nil employed, or how he addressed an aspect of stillness such as silence or psalmody, or how he related to any of his associates listed in my "Tentative Top Ten" chapter, or, simply, what precisely he instructed his monks and followers to do, the index to my book and the translations and analysis, notwithstanding my missteps, may just be the best place to start.

Despite our differences, Professor Crnković's review has caused me to revisit some of my thinking. I plan directly to solicit further comments and suggestions from him for my next project. And I wish him success with his new book scheduled for publication this year on the poetics of Croatian Glagolitic texts, which constitute a fabulous and fascinating survival from the earliest, pre-Schism days of Slavic Christianity.

Article Details

Author Biography

David M. Goldfrank

Georgetown University