And the knowledge of names,” Socrates explains to Hermogenes in the Cratylus, “is a great part of knowledge.” An important concomitant of Cratylus’s naturalist account of naming that goes unnoticed in Plato’s dialogue but upon which Scripture fixes attention is that a change in nature seems to suggest, even demand, a change in name. And while it’s an overstatement to narrate conversion in terms of a change in nature—Abram’s becoming Abraham doesn’t imperil the integrity of his human nature; nor still Sarai’s becoming Sarah, or Jacob’s Israel, Saul’s Paul, and so ever on—equally slippery is gross understatement, or intimating that nothing of metaphysical interest happens upon conversion. No, there gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit, as the scholastic axiom goes. Marking grace’s presence by bestowing a name is the usual thing for Christians (consider confirmation or holy orders), making attention to names fundamental to and constitutive of any Christian pattern of life.
Eugene Vodolazkin’s latest, Laurus, is a book of names. In his second offering, freshly translated into elegant and unwrinkled English by Lisa C. Hayden, Vodolazkin recounts the mystical itinerary of a medieval man who passes from healer to holy fool, from monastic to hermit. Passage into each new berth is ceremonially marked with the giving of a fresh name—four in total—until at last he rests.
As Laurus opens, it is 1440. The protagonist, born into a Russia palsied by plague and nursed by Orthodoxy, is given the first of his names. Arseny. An unidentified and presumably modern-day narrator can only hint at Arsenius the Great as namesake, though this is mostly conjecture grounded in Arseny’s and the anchorite’s shared penchant for silence. After pestilence steals his parents, Arseny is raised by his grandfather Christofer (note the name’s etymology), a renowned herbalist and healer. He commits most of the herbalist’s notes to memory and, when his grandfather dies, assumes the role of village “doctor.” But then something happens, something that proves the novel’s mise-en-scène: he heals a plague-stricken and orphaned young woman, Ustina (whose name is derived originally from the Latin Iustinus), darlings her, impregnates her, possesses her, and, eventually, inadvertently kills her and their child during labor. The child remains nameless.
Arseny takes the name Ustin privately after the dead Ustina’s instruction in a dream, though the process of becoming Ustin publically is harder won. He resolves with a monk’s blessing to offer his life as atonement for his beloved and their child. Arseny’s asceticism demands of him first that he treat the plague’s victims without remainder in nearby hamlets; next it asks him to shed his medical celebrity and put on the sloven life of a vagrant; finally it prescribes holy foolery. He is now Ustin, a cemetery-dwelling ecstatic, beaten and adored by villagers with near liturgical repetition. The Christic irony of his name betrays that of his station: “[A Russian] knows a holy fool should endure suffering so he goes ahead and sins to supply him with that suffering.” Through his beatings Ustin (“the just one,” at least in Latin) atones for all. Ustin then becomes Amvrosky—a Cyrillic calque, an abbott tells Ustin, of the Italian Ambrogio and the Latin Ambrosias—after a tragic pilgrimage to Jerusalem separates him from an intimate friendship with an Italian of the same name, who initially expatriates to Rus’ in order better to calculate the world’s gathering end. Amvrosky is the monk, the same abbott explains, that Arseny and Ustin always were.
Then there’s Laurus. Without committing spoilers, I’ll say only that the repose Ustin-turned-Laurus eventually enjoys is unlikely to soothe readers with any sugary piety; the novel ends on a lurid note, as beautiful as it is macabre. But so it is with all Christian death, of course, whose ambivalence flows from the arresting brutality and terrible glory of a peasant’s cross. Here the reader is abruptly abandoned, left to brood over the double connection Arseny’s final name yields. The first and most obvious is to the laurus nobilis, whose aromatic leaves serve as a salve for wounds; such recalls Arseny’s herbalist beginnings and petrifies his asymptotic transformation into the woodland. Another connection is possible, I think, one that draws upon the Attic tradition of crowning the victor of the Pythian games with a laurel wreath and, more likely still, its Christian acception, symbolizing death’s defeat in Christ. Whether the Russian lavr carries this double connection too I do not know and so cannot say; I can only celebrate its happy and, one must think, more than fortuitous rendering in English. Arseny finally becomes who he always was on exactly the two scores Orthodox paean requires: he is all at once both created and not.
I thought as I read Laurus of Maximus Confessor. About how, for example, Maximus thinks that contemplation eventually gifts the saint with a divine angle of vision, wherein the fabric of time itself—as Ustin whispers to Ustina—unravels. About how for Maximus Arseny’s office as healer belongs to humankind in full as a cosmic priesthood. But mostly I thought about naming. Maximus submits that if the deified can no longer be adequately named “by the property of the things they have abandoned,” then they are better named by “all the qualities of God” (Amb. 10). It’s no rhetorical embellishment. Maximus’s picture of deification glows almost brazen as he risks outstripping analogy by insisting that saints “become the Lord Himself, if such an idea is not too onerous for some to bear” (Amb. 21). Christian naming, then, like deification, follows a Chalcedonian pattern: the name itself bespeaks two natures in a single person.
It’s unclear whether Vodolazkin intends to cut a figure of Christian naming with such theological subtlety. In the end I suspect it matters little; the icon of sainthood so written by Maximus is the same one Vodolazkin venerates. And while it’s true that his book manages to make the coarse, expansive, and frozen universe of the medieval Russia he reconstructs a seductive alternative to ours, this isn’t yet where it shines. Laurus shines where it’s able to depict in vivid shades that elusory place where language and grace are indissolubly—even hypostatically—one.
Justin Coyle is a PhD student in historical theology at Boston College “First Things“