Folly Without Holiness: Ivan the Terrible and the Paradigm of Holy Foolishness

Svitlana Kobets, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Already in the sixteenth century textualizations of holy foolishness [a type of Orthodox Christian asceticism] were no longer limited to hagiographic texts depicting holy foolish ascetics. The holy fool (Russ. jurodivyj) was no longer perceived solely in the religious context of the Orthodox Christian kenotic tradition. As the writings of Ivan the Terrible show, the paradigm of foolishness in Christ started being transferred to the secular context.

In the contemporary Russian language, the word jurodstvovanie denotes a secular type of behavior, where its practitioner shapes his own demeanor in accordance with the extrinsic features of holy foolish phenomenology. The external similarities between jurodstvujuščij and jurodivyj are obvious: they both display insanity, self-denigration, and outrageous and shocking behavior. Yet there is a major difference between the two: while the jurodivyj is an ascetic and a saint, the stance of the jurodstvujuščij is neither saintly nor even religious.

In my paper I discuss one of the first documented examples of secular (and literary) application of holy foolish paradigm, jurodstvovanie, found in the writings of Ivan the Terrible. This ruler, who came to epitomize absolute power in Russia, not only acknowledged spiritual authority of holy foolish ascetics and drew on the kenotic “philosophy” of foolishness in Christ in order to sanctify his stance of a car′ and a sinner, but he also mimicked the holy fool’s behavior both in his writings and in real life. His secret pen name, Parfenij Jurodivyj, is indicative of this fact. This penchant of Ivan’s has attracted the attention of such scholars as Lixačev, Lotman, and Uspenskij, who have considered Ivan’s behavioral and stylistic peculiarities in the context of holy foolish paradigm. On the other hand, Priscilla Hunt discusses Ivan the Terrible’s personal “mythology of kingship” in the light of holy foolish paradigm of sanctity.

Ivan the Terrible’s orientation toward the holy foolish complex of behaviors and paradigm of sanctity, presents on his part a powerful statement that cannot be overlooked. It offers a productive angle for the analysis of Ivan’s complex, often impenetrable and seemingly disunified personality. I argue that Ivan’s play-acting at being a holy fool was triggered by his compulsion to reconcile antagonistic sides of his personality as well as by other psychological needs. Eventually jurodstvovanie became not simply part and parcel of his writing and behavioral styles but also a powerful means of arguing in favor of supremacy of his power. Ivan’s play-acting at being the holy fool is prominent in his writings. In my paper I analyze Ivan’s epistles, paying special attention to his correspondence with Prince Kurbskij. As Ivan the Terrible puts on a mask of the (pseudo) fool in Christ, he chastises his opponents, mimics and ridicules them. Play-acting the holy fool gives Ivan the ultimate liberty of the madman and the saint, allowing him to manipulate facts and situations.

The behavioral paradigm of jurodstvovanie came to be regarded as uniquely Russian. It yields a great number of exponents both among Russian public figures and literary personages (e.g. Archpriest Avvakum, Leonid Rozanov, Ščedrin’s Ijuduška Golovlev, Dostoevskij’s Svidrigajlov, Fedor Karamazov, and many more). Later on religious connotations of this behavioral paradigm lost their distinct Christian references. The analysis of Ivan’s play-acting at being the holy fool enables us to explore the Orthodox Christian roots of the phenomenon that were very prominent during his epoch.