Bücher | Books - Part 52

posted by PP on 2006/01/16 11:29

[ Bücher | Books ]

Nikolai Vukov from the Institute of Folklore at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences reviewed
Vidka Nikolova: Bogomilstvoto: Predobrazi i idei. Bulgarskoto novozavetno mislene [Bogomilism. Pre-Images and Ideas. The Bulgarian New Testament Thought]. Sofia: IK M-8-M, 2005, 208 pp.
ISBN 954-8177-36-6 (Paperback).
for Balkan Academic News (Book Review 2/2006).
The nature of Bogomilism as a historical, religious and social phenomenon has frequently attracted the attention of Bulgarian researchers and has been a convenient point of probing a diversity of scholarly, intellectual and ideological positions. The socialist historiographic claim as its being exclusively a form of social protest against medieval ecclesiastic and secular authorities has compelled Bulgarian historians to undertake alternative positions for a proper understanding of this phenomenon. Vidka Nikolova's book "Bogomilism. Pre-Images and Ideas. The Bulgarian New Testament Thought" is an attempt to transgress the boundaries of the known interpretations and to approach in a novel perspective the origin and the "pre-images" of Bogomilism in Bulgarian lands. The author's intention is to use these "pre-images" for exploring the proto-sources of human culture and for inscribing Bogomilism within the spiritual continuity in the national culture. Methodologically grounded in the works of the Third Vienese School in psychoanalysis and in the "history of ideas" an interpretative field, the book views Bogomilism as a "logodrama" [19] and regards the cultural path of Bulgarians as a connection between history and Godly life 20]. Finding support in oral folklore sources, medieval writings, and Bogomilistic images, Nikolova interprets the history of Bulgarian culture as following a coherent series of inter-connections and searches for the "genetics of spirit" from the Thracian and Christian times until today.

The first chapter is an attempt to analyze the motif of the "built-in bride," known to all Balkan peoples. Nikolova approaches the linguistic and etymological layer of the song variants, their cultural and historical essence, and the role of the orphic images that have entered the folk songs in the pre-literature stage of the Thracian Orphism. Arguing against preceding investigations on the genesis and development of this motif, she grounds its nature in the Thracian-orphic belief in immortality and regards it as a realization of "pre-New Testament ideas" of resurrection. In spite of the claimed ambitions for an exhaustive novel reading of motifs and its related practices, the chapter suffers from serious omissions both in terms of folk variants included in the analysis and in terms of references of specialized publications on the problem. The critique to all previous scholars who approached the topic seems especially ill intended due to the inconsistent arguments that the author applies and to the misinterpretation (and possibly – misunderstanding) of their theses. The promoted disregard of anything that is to be termed within the "history of ideas" or falling within the achievements of Thracology undermines her claims and fails to fulfill the expectations of a more appropriate scholarly approach.

The second chapter deals with the "Secret book" of the Bogomiles, a Medieval Bulgarian text, known so far in two Latin translations. Nikolova argues against the generally shared opinion of the "Secret book" as a creation of dualistic worldviews and seeks to demonstrate the book's inherent connection to the Apostolic writings and the New Testament spirit. The "Secret book" is affirmed as containing the most-essential of the Christian ideas, which distinguishes it from every other monotheistic idea of the Christian gnosis. A major claim in the book is that, from the perspective of the history of ideas, the "Secret Book" is an early Christian text, dating back to the first to the second century, with a clear ethnic and cultural center – the lands of Thracia and Macedonia. In Nikolova's view "it is simultaneously Christian knowledge of the 1-2nd century, and a Medieval Bulgarian text, i.e. 9th century the earliest" [17, 76]. From such a position, she raises the hypothesis of the Bogomil "Secret Book" as being the author's deed of (sic.) Clement of Rome - St. Pauls' collaborator and friend [76-77]. The lack of coherent historical ground for such hypothesis and the entire dubiousness of approach that transgresses well about nine centuries of history do not prevent the author to leave this issue undeveloped.

The generous series of quotations from the book, parallel to quotations from the New Testament, and especially from St. Paul's epistles, are taken as a sufficient justification of the author's theses. The pre-supposed parallels are deprived of consistent historical analysis, which poses on a very slippery ground all the conclusions made in the text. The innovative idea of putting together in close parallel these two sets of texts belonging to dissimilar epochs and milieus is admirable by itself, but the satisfaction that the author reaches when finding just and only the coincidences between them is discouraging. The opportunity for an open reading between texts belonging to different epochs and contexts has for long been pursued by literary theorists, historians of ideas, and anthropologists, but to use ahistorical tools for the sake of setting a particular historical phenomenon to a "new context" is rather unacceptable, at least in the way that this is being done in Nikolova's book.

The third chapter traces the implications of the Bogomil notions and beliefs in the folk culture. Attention is paid to the motifs of one's serving to God, of taking someone's strength because of a committed sin, hand kissing for a received gift, fire walking and fire dances, etc. However, as in her previous analyses, Nikolova does not concentrate on a thorough analysis of these motifs and practices, but reads them only through their relationship to the system of "pre-New Testament Christian beliefs." The data she can draw upon is enormous, but the limitations of her approach compel her to select only a small part of it, leaving substantial aspects of these motifs and practices out. This deprives them from many of the possible meanings and subdues them exclusively to their function as remnants of a Bogomilist belief system, which is not necessarily the case.

A substantial part of the book is dedicated to the analysis of the tombstones ("stechki") found on the territory of today's Herzegovina, Bosnia, Dalmatia, Montenegro, Western Serbia, and Croatia. Numbering more then 50,000, they have attracted the attention of scholars since the second half of the 19th century, and have lead to the largely unanimous opinion of their Bogomilist character. Nikolova analyzes many of these stechki and tries to decipher the semantics of the major images and figures on them. According to her the fire dancing ("nestinarstvo") is represented on each of these tombstones through the several elements characteristic for this ritual complex – raised hands with palms forward, the images of St. Konstantin and Helen, the elements of the solar cult, the dance motif, etc. The possibilities open for a rigorous analysis remain unutilized however, and the cultural specificity of the stechki is decided exclusively in the propagated interpretation of their Thracian-orphic nature, continued in a "firm" historical continuity in the Bogomilist belief. In line with the widely accepted scholarly opinion on the nature of the stechki, the author sees in these tombstones visual expressions of Bogomilist practices and notions of the afterlife, interpreting them, however, from the perspective of their pre-New Testament nature. The latter appears problematic yet again, not merely because of the stechki's historical dating to the 13-16th century, but rather because of the daring transferal of ideas and images centuries ago and the lack of reliable sources to justify this.

The incentive to read visual material from one epoch in an equalizing manner to those belonging to several preceding centuries obviously meets a serious methodological problem in this chapter too. The belief in the bodily immortality, in the resurrection of the body, and of the eternal life are not only Christian and New-Testament by character, and are not necessarily limited to the set of beliefs and practices flourishing in the Balkan peninsula over centuries both before and after Christ. The resistance to a more attentive historical approach and the neglect to comparative data and alternative interpretative approaches lead to understanding ideas as epiphenomena of all times and all ages, which challenges the very idea of their historicity. In the particular case of this book it has led to understanding Bogomilism both as a universal phenomenon present in pre-Christian and post-Christian times, and as a particular case of extreme realization in the Thrace-Macedonian lands in the times of Christ and the Apostles.

In addition to the critical comments made so far, several points are also worth mentioning. Although finding support in the interpretative area of the "history of ideas", the author neither specifies what is being understood under this label, nor elaborates on the methodological pillars guiding her approach and analysis. The fact that even general theoretical literature is not even mentioned at all is the least of the problems. The lavish and unsystematic use of terms and concepts without a necessary attempt of contextualization and in-depth understanding makes large parts of the book into an ill-founded polemics against a discursive enemy with a vague identity. The general specification of the "history of ideas" as a discursive base and Thracology as a disciplinary framework that the author adheres to are entirely insufficient for construing a well-built argumentative discourse with clearly stated and supported theses. Many of the observations and conclusions are stated in a didactic and quasi-journalistic stance, substituting the distanced and "cold" look by an emotionally "hot" and often exasperate pathos. The preliminary imposed (and generally - remaining unjustified) methodological presuppositions are chosen at the expense of a well founded interpretative position. In addition, the personal overtones in the book undermine the interpretative attempts of the author and put in a rather disadvantageous position a more analytically oriented reader. Furthermore, the polemics that the author carries out with all the scholarly traditions before and all the scholarly achievements before her do not succeed (as aimed) to engage the reader, but rather distance him/her from the position that Nikolova offers.

At the face of this rather unconvincing and scholarly-discouraging representation, it becomes rather difficult for a scholar to perceive and estimate correctly the advantages and the contributions of the work. Still, some of them deserve not to be left of attention. The author recreates the coherent image of Bogomilism, by using not only the complex image system of the verbal texts, but also the meanings of ritual practices, stone and graphic representations. The idea of the proto-(or pre-)New Testament elements in the Thracian and Orphic culture has for the first time found a researcher willing to explore it and to offer it rigorous propagation. Specialists in Thracian studies will certainly agree with me that in spite of being arguable and still rather vulnerable in its points, the thesis is still worth considering as opening grounds for a future (though, hopefully – more thorough) exploration. The investigation of the motif of the "built-in bride" and the attempt to relate it to a wider context of religious thought in its proto-Christian origins also deserves consideration. Furthermore, the author is among the first ones to dedicate attention to the "Bogomilist iconography" and to utilize the abundant visual material of photos and sketches connected to Bogomilist beliefs. And – a point that one can not overlook - the newly-proposed dating of the Secret book of Bogomiles is no doubt a brave (though arguable) attempt in providing an alternative approach to the existing historical interpretations of Bogomilism. Thus, although most of the proposed theses in the book are arguable, it might be of interested for scholars of religious history, history of ideas, ethnology and folklore studies.

Book Review Editors for Balkan Academic News: Jelena Obradović and Cristina Bradatan.


Senior Editor

Seitenwechsel. Geschichten vom Fußball. Hgg. v. Samo Kobenter u. Peter Plener. Wien: Bohmann 2008, 237 pp.
(Weitere Informationen hier)
Transcarpathica. Germanistisches Jahrbuch Rumänien 3-4/2004-2005. Hgg. v. Andrei Corbea-Hoisie u. Alexander Rubel. Bukarest/Bucuresti: Editura Paideia 2008, 336 pp.
[Die online-Fassung meines Einleitungsbeitrags "Thesen zur Bedeutung der Medien für Erinnerungen und Kulturen in Mitteleuropa" findet sich auf Kakanien revisited (Abstract / .pdf).]
Seitenweise. Was das Buch ist. Hgg. v. Thomas Eder, Samo Kobenter u. Peter Plener. Wien: Bundespressedienst 2010, 480 pp.
(Weitere Informationen hier wie da, v.a. auch do. - und die Rezension von Ursula Reber findet sich hier [.pdf].)
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