Rustaveli’s Cultural Revolution
Who do I complain to? Rustaveli is dead!
It’s so good that Rustaveli is a metro station and Tsereteli is an avenue
Whose praises I have uttered forth in well-chosen words.
A man must look after his work, else he comes to grief
Francois Villon and David Tserediani
- What was going on in Georgian literature before Rustaveli?
- Rustaveli’s poetic revolution
- Rustaveli’s Cultural Revolution
In 1840 English writer Thomas Carlyle published a book titled “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History”, in which he wrote that, among other things, a nation is nothing without a distinguished writer – one whose work binds the citizens of that country together. In his opinion, Dante united the Italians with his literature better than the Tsar did the “dumb” Russians with his Cossacks. After the publication of that book, every nation started to search for distinguished writers among their ranks who would be able to compete with Dante in Italy, Shakespeare in England and Goethe in Germany.
Georgians didn’t have to deliberate and debate about this issue for too long. Rustaveli was beyond competition from the 12th century onwards. Not everyone, though, agreed with Rustaveli’s undisputed primacy among Georgian writers. King Teimuraz I tried to compete with him, Catholicos Anton wrote that Rustaveli’s endeavors were in vain, and some even preferred the writer Chakhrukhadze. But in the end, Rustaveli still came out on top. Whenever Georgians demonstrate national pride, they always mention that they are children of the same nation as Rustaveli. In doing so, they seek to underscore the antiquity of their culture and to hint that a nation that could write such an epic poem back in the 12th century (as if we all had a hand in writing it) shouldn’t be taken lightly. In 1947, Shalva Nutsubidze wrote a book in Russian entitled “Rustaveli and the Oriental Renaissance”, the gist of which is that Georgians experienced a cultural renaissance much earlier than the Italians did – a renaissance sparked by Shota Rustaveli.
Rustaveli has turned into one of the principal national symbols of Georgia, an embodiment of its level of culture. But despite all this, we know surprisingly little about the man himself. In fact, we know so little that we can’t say with any certainty who he was and when he lived. Even the greatest representatives of Georgian philology didn’t have a single unified view on Rustaveli’s identity and the dates of his birth and death. In the first edition of his History of Georgian Literature the academic Korneli Kekelidze put forth a hypothesis according to which Rustaveli was in fact Sargis Tmogveli. It wasn't long before the Communist Party and country’s authorities made him change his mind.
In 1917 another academic, Niko Marr, claimed that Shota Rustaveli could be a 14th century Muslim author from Meskheti. There were other assumptions and even more conjecture. Pavle Ingorokva – a fine philologist with too much imagination even wrote Rustaveli’s biography, which contains more fiction than historical fact. He even went so far as to include information about the young Shota’s school grades and the surname of his chemistry teacher.
We don’t even know what Rustaveli looked like. His portrait, which was disseminated by the photographer Roinashvili, based on a painting by Grigory Gagarin, and which now adorns our 100 GEL bills, was the source of irritation to the academic historian, Ivane Javakhishvili, who said that the portrait depicted some Persian person and using that portrait for Rustaveli’s anniversary celebrations would be a national embarrassment. Later, people likened the portrait to British model Richard Biedul. People say we have his fresco in Jerusalem’s Monastery of the Cross, but the only connection that the fresco has with the author of the Knight in the Panther’s Skin is the name “Shota” written above it.
This lack of knowledge about our main cultural hero’s biography has resulted in three celebrations of Shota Rustaveli’s anniversary between 1937 and 2017. The first anniversary was celebrated when Joseph Stalin realized that proletarian writers would not be much of a success, so he ordered the rehabilitation of classical writers. That’s how Pushkin’s anniversary came to be marked with great pomp and ceremony all over the Soviet Union in 1937, followed by a more subdued celebration of then-rehabilitated Ilia Chavchavadze’s anniversary and, later, a nationwide major celebration of Rustaveli’s 750th anniversary. Who could argue with Stalin and Beria about whether Rustaveli was indeed born in 1187? In 1966 Rustaveli turned 800 years old and, exactly 50 years later, UNESCO made 2016 the year of Rustaveli. For some reason, the Georgian government decided to celebrate Rustaveli’s 850th anniversary in 2017, and so this year Rustaveli is birthday boy again, and I’m also seizing this opportunity to write about him.
While Georgians of all ranks and sections of society are united in unanimous recognition of Rustaveli, something strange has happened over the years. His wonderful book, which manages to tell us a story of love and friendship in a way that is lively and engaging to this day, has been split up into aphorisms and small sections that must be learnt by heart by school pupils. This process has gone so far that this famously hot-blooded text has now become as cold as a marble statue.
We all know that “the sweetly discoursing tongue lures forth the serpent from its lair,” or that “the lion's whelp is a lion, be it male or female" and based on this aphorism we surmise that equality between the genders has been fully implemented in Georgia since the 12th century. We know that “to do true justice makes even a dry tree green”, but we forget that with these words, Nestan is actually justifying the murder of her fiancé, Khvarazmsha’s son.
There was a well-known and amusing story that circulated during the first years of the rise of the national movement in Georgia. At that time, they started to replace posters like “Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!” and the like with national proverbs and sayings. As a result, for quite a long time you could see a banner in Kakheti that read: “They saw a certain stranger knight; he sat weeping on the bank of the stream.”
This widespread popularity of Rustaveli was not only brought about by the fact that he’s a great poet - one we often describe as “peerless”. Whoever Rustaveli was and whenever he actually lived, he was the definitive revolutionary of Georgian national culture. When I say “revolutionary”, I mean that he laid an absolutely new foundation for Georgian culture, and one on which we still stand today. And as long as we’re still standing on this foundation, Rustaveli has nothing to fear.But I also want to write a few words about this new foundation.
2. What was happening in Georgian literature before RustaveliGeorgian literature, as well as the Georgian alphabet, was created in order to spread the new religion of Christianity, and its original purpose was to facilitate the translation of the New and Old Testaments into the local tongue. Until the 10th century or thereabouts, Georgian literature was composed almost exclusively of ecclesiastical books, translations and original hagiographic and hymnography texts.
During the 9th to 11th centuries, the major monastic centers that sprung up in Georgia and elsewhere (including Palestine and Mount Athos) undertook huge amounts of translation into Georgian. Some pieces of scholastic literature existed in the Georgian language as well. Plato’s and Aristotle’s texts, as well as parts of the Iliad (at least its later, Byzantine version), were also translated into the Georgian language. The monastic centers of translation significantly enriched the means of expression for the Georgian literary language, if not actually creating them.
The establishment of secular literature in Georgia can also indirectly be credited to these monasteries. At the turn of the 1st millennium, the monk Ekvtime Atoneli translated The Wisdom of Balahvar from Georgian into Greek. This text was a Christianized version of the life of the Buddha, which had been translated to Georgian from Assyrian. As it turned out, it was the biggest contribution made by a Georgian language book to European literature, as numerous translations of Balahvar’s biography (starting with an Icelandic and ending a Russian version) are all based on Atoneli’s translation into Greek.
However, the birth of secular literature in Georgia is also associated with a different tradition. In particular, it’s connected with the “renaissance” of Persian literature during the 11th century. Several very important Persian literary pieces were translated into Georgian at that time, including the dramatic, erotic poem “Vis and Ramin” by the 11th century Persian poet Fakhruddin As'ad Gurgani (presumably a key inspiration for “Tristan and Iseult”), Nizami Ganjavi’s love poem “Leili and Medjnun” and the pearl of Persian poetry’s golden age , the “Shahname” of Ferdowsi.
The first Georgian secular texts (for example the “Amiran-Daredjaniani”) were so clearly influenced by Persian literature that the academic Niko Marr even considered them to be translations from Persian sources. Marr was also the first to try to look at Georgian literature not within its narrow, national boundaries (as everybody else was doing at the time), but to read it within the context of two great cultural influences on Georgia (Byzantium and Persia).
The appearance of secular literature in Georgia was also most probably brought about by the establishment of the court of a united Georgian kingdom and Georgia’s gradual emancipation from the Byzantine Empire from the end of the 11th century. During that period, Georgian kings (starting with David IV) were looking for forms of courtly life that were free of Byzantine influences, and this they found in Persian culture. At that time, Georgian literature already had quite a long tradition behind it, but the only thing that was missing was its secular aspect. The importation of this secular content from Persian heroic poetry occurred during this period.
Rustaveli’s poetic revolution
This was the literary and cultural context within which Rustaveli introduced his poetic and cultural novelties. On the one hand, he perfected the language used during the translation of Persian literary works, his language being very close to the spoken language used at the time, and still largely intelligible, even for modern readers. On the other hand, he invented a poetic form called shairi - a concept derived from an Arabic word, which in Georgian means “verse”, but which also has a broader meaning, signifying a long “heart-piercing” story told in quatrains of 16-syllable lines.
In the prologue of “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”, a shairi is described as “one segment” of wisdom (therefore equal to philosophy and theology) that was called “divine” and which was to be listened to “in a divine manner”, which, before that, was absolutely unimaginable and would have been totally out of place (pun intended). Poetry can be used to convey complex subject matter in a concise and short form. However, as Rustaveli tells us, a poet is not just someone who is skilled in versification and the rhyming of two or three words with each other, but is rather one who can tell a long and sequential story through verse.
Along with shairi Rustaveli also recognizes two poetic forms: “secondly lyrics”, which are inferior to shairi in both content and expression and which are not suitable for conveying “high” (heart-piercing) stories (“I may liken them to the bad bows of young hunters who cannot kill big game”). Rustaveli also acknowledged “third lyrics”, which may not be lacking in perfection of expression, but which are nonetheless unsuitable for telling long and sequential stories.
In fact, Rustaveli established a new literary law in the space of his prologue to “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”. In other words, he created a new hierarchy of genres, someone which had previously been based only on a Georgian version of Byzantine rhetoric.
We don’t have solid proof that Rustaveli knew the classical rhetorical tradition well, and yet “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” includes ample evidence that he knew Neoplatonist philosophy. The most famous scholar and propagator of Neoplatonism in Georgia was Ioane Petritsi. He was a student of John Italus and rector of the Academy at Gelati. Petritsi translated and commented on Proclus’ “The Elements of Theology”. According to some sources, he also translated Aristotle’s works, which unfortunately haven’t been preserved to this day. It seems Petritsi was also a founder of the Georgian school of rhetoric.
500 years after Rustaveli, Catholicos Anton I tried to revive the old rhetorical tradition, which had been completely forgotten by that time and had been succeeded by Georgian poetry with strong Persian influence. He called his rhetoric “Well-ordered Poetry” (“Tskobilsitkvaoba”) and wrote his works using the forgotten iambuses. Anton wanted (in my opinion at least) to establish the literary law that had been introduced by Rustaveli and which had been dominant without any competition in Georgian literature for 500 years.
The literary priorities of Catholicos Anton are clear: in the 7th part of “Well-ordered Poetry” he names first clerics and then laymen. Unlike Petritsi, to whom he dedicated 12 enthusiastic iambuses, he praises Shota Rustaveli with only one iambus. Anton says that Shota could be “higher than a theologian” when he wanted to be, but “his efforts were in vain, which is lamentable”. In other words, Anton believes that Shota’s efforts were pointless because he didn’t use his talent and wisdom for “theology”.
For Anton the subject matter was more important than the form of expression. Only the contents mattered for him when evaluating the literary worth of an author and genre and the contents were defined by the subject of the literature. Complete compatibility with Christian Orthodoxy is the key criterion for Anton. It seems that this “high style” was attributed only to philosophers before Rustaveli and philosophy was identified as theology at the time. Rustaveli changed this established hierarchy of genres with his shairi, but why was this shairi “divine, to be listened to divinely?” Let’s go back to Rustaveli and pay attention not only to the poetic forms he introduced, but also to the contents that are closely associated with them.
- Rustaveli’s cultural revolution
Rustaveli didn’t just tell a heroic story through verses. He found a new subject that he connected with his “high style”. That subject was “midjnuroba” (romantic love).
Shairi and midjnuroba both hold places of honor in the prologue to “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”, which as the reader remembers well, presents a theoretic program of the poem’s form and contents. Out of the 31 stanzas of the prologue (Pavle Ingorokva considered only 15 of them to be authentic) 7 are dedicated to shairi and 13 are dedicated to midjnuroba (love).
Rustaveli distinguishes two types of love: A “higher”, divine kind of love (“It is heavenly, uprising the soul on pinions''), which cannot be described with words (“the tongue will tire, the ears of the listeners will become wearied”). At the same time, there’s a “lower” kind of love, which is an imitation of the “higher” one. The word “lower” is used to denote “earthly” and “worldly” things in old Georgian. For example, the word combination “lower citizenship” refers to the worldly affairs of the kings in “The Georgian Chronicles'', which while being dignified, is still differentiated from holy activities.
In order to distinguish the second kind of love from the first one (which, for Rustaveli, bore a religious connotation) he introduced a deverbative, “midjnuroba”, from the Persian word “madjnun” (crazed, berserk). Therefore, “midjnuroba” is a Georgian version of an Arabic word, meaning “crazed with love” and is featured in the Persian poem “Leili and Medjnun”.
It’s absolutely certain that Rustaveli introduced this new subject from the Persian world. Back in the 9th century there was a well-established Arabic love discourse (I refer here to a worldly, earthly kind of love). There was “Kitab al-Zahrah” (The Book of the Flower) by Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Abi Sulaiman Dawud Al-Isfahani, “The Ring of the Dove” by Ibn Hazm and other works too. These books were very well assimilated into Persian poetry. We don’t know whether these books ever reached Georgia, but Persian love poetry (both in original and translated forms) was easily accessible to high-born Georgians in the century before Rustaveli.
However, “Vis and Ramin” , distinguished for its sensuality and eroticism, must have been shocking for Georgians raised on a Christian literary repertoire. Rustaveli dared to transform this carnal love into the subject of high literature and style in a Christian environment. Before Rustaveli, high literature and style had been applied exclusively to Christian theology.
Rustaveli’s “midjnuroba” is worldly and carnal, but it still needs to be distinguished from the love depicted by Al-Isfahan, “Vis and Ramin”, Ibn Hazm and “Leili and Medjnun”. This is not the polygamous love described in “Vis and Ramin” or the unrealized love described in “Leili and Medjnun”.
As Rustaveli tells us “midjnuroba” is “beautiful”, but “difficult to understand”. It shouldn’t be confused with only carnal connection or fornication. This means that “midjnuroba” is carnal, but at the same time monogamous, and is realized as a type of love that needs to withstand important and difficult tests. Only through this can “midjnuroba” be of this “higher” sort - an earthly icon of divine love.
In summary, Rustaveli shook the foundations of the Byzantine school of rhetoric, which until then had applied high style only to theological discourse. Rustaveli also introduced shairi – a strong poetic form to counterbalance the iambuses so characteristic of the high style. Shairi was perfectly suitable for the expressive narration of long and sequential stories. Just as iambuses were firmly associated with theological topics, shairi came to be associated with new, secular subjects. This subject had been imported from Persian literature, but Rustaveli elevated it to the rank of a new, secular ethic. This new, secular ethic enabled laymen of Rustaveli’s era to give their lives a meaning that would be as important as that of the lives of priests, monks and nuns. These clerical ways of life had completely defined the horizons of one’s life before Rustaveli.
Rustaveli elevated “midjnuroba” to the earthly imitation of “higher”, divine love. His shairi as a poetic form transcends only poetic classification and it is a symbol of new, secular life that is free from the grip of secular philosophy and religion.
Therefore, Rustaveli truly matches Renaissance-era authors in his importance. His literary language is not based on ancient foundations (as Shalva Nutsubidze so wrongly thought). Rustaveli’s “renaissance” finds its origin in Persian-Arabic pre-Islamic culture, which he translated into Georgian, changed its content and purpose and, in so doing, created the foundation of the Georgian culture on which we still stand to this very day.