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Speros Vryonis,Jr.

On Lowell Clucas

From the preface of "The Byzantine Legacy in Eastern Europe", edited by Lowell Clucas. Publ. East European Monographs, Boulder.

It remains for me to say something about the genesis of the conference. The Byzantine Legacy in Eastern Europe from which these papers have emerged. The conference, both as to its conception and execution, was the product of the thoughts and activities of the late Lowell Clucas. In stating this fact I enter into the domain of his scholarly formation and life so tragically terminated by death at the moment of the full bloom of his intellectual powers and their scholarly realization. This conference, the fruit of his thoughts, indicates the strength and comprehensiveness of intellect, and shows clearly that the development of his thought and vision was dynamic. Having been trained as a Byzantinist he soon realized that Byzantium did not die in 1453 and so he began to try to reconstruct the historical rhythms of this civilization in Eastern Europe at a time when first the Ottomans and then the Russians appeared on the scene as the heirs to the political testament of the Byzantine state. Thus as a Byzantinist he was forced also to become a Balkanist or East Europeanist. This has been the fate of a restricted number of Byzantinists who have stopped to ask what happened after 1453. This concern sharply differentiates Byzantinists even today, when Russia has become such a given in our world outlook. Lowell Clucas was aware of the profundity of the Byzantine influence and particularly of its longevity. Having arrived at this state of mind, he decided to pursue the matter in a conference, which would try to draw a sharper or newer focus on the problem of Byzance après Byzance.

I first came to know Lowell when he matriculated at UCLA and where he took the BA degree in German language and literature in 1966. During the senior year he had enrolled in the survey course on Byzantine history and for reasons, which were never clear to me, he made the fateful decision to dedicate his life to the study of Byzantine civilization. I can only surmise that the richness, extraordinary variety, and the 'exotic' character of this civilization fascinated him. At that time I suggested to him that he should go away for a period of time and study classical Greek, as this would be essential for such a dedication on his part. He quietly agreed, enrolled at San Francisco State where for three years he turned to the study of classical Greek, history (with a special interest in the Islamic World thanks to the presence of the Orientalist Prof. Gerard Salinger). At the end of the three years he had mastered the fundamentals of classical Greek, could read the basic texts, had studied and learned to speak modern Greek, and took the master's degree. In 1969 he returned to UCLA where for the next few years he continued to study classical Greek and had the seminars in Byzantine texts with Professor Milton Anastos and myself. During this period of intense work on Byzantium Lowell had already displayed his great philological dexterity and his intellectual brilliance, particularly in the realm of Ideengeschichte. By 1975 his doctoral dissertation, The Hesychast Controversy in Byzantium in the Fourteenth Century was submitted, accepted, and he received his doctoral degree. The dissertation was a massive work, steeped in the complex texts of the Hesychast and anti-Hesychast circles, some of the texts still accessible only in manuscript form. Unlike much intellectual history this work was based on a simultaneous analysis of the intellectual debate of the times and of the social, economic and political factors, which were fast, sucking Byzantium into the vortex of political disintegration and destruction. These two features remained characteristic of all Lowell's publications, research, and historical thought, resulting in the book, The Trial of John Italos and the Crisis of Intellectual Values in Byzantium in the Eleventh Century (Munich, 1981). Having begun with the clash of mystical and humanistic strains in Byzantine intellectual life and culture during the Palaeologan era (in his dissertation) he went back in time to this crucial trial of Italos to mark a mile stone in the strengthening of the mystical or perhaps one should say the "revealed" basis of Byzantine intellectual life. Lowell, throughout his mature life, was exercised by the life of the mind, its freedom, and the history of its release from the historically imposed fetters on the mind, which in the European tradition goes back to the monotheistic revelation and its predominance over the ancient belief in the priority of human reason.

Lowell was also a poet of very considerable merit, and though Plato might have decried the presence of the poet in his ideal society, nevertheless the first historian, Herodotus was greatly affected by the tradition of epic poetry. So also in Lowell we see the union of the historical and poetical tastes and gifts. In the beginning he published his poems individually on single sheets, which he then circulated to his friends and of these I am fortunate to have six in my files. He then published in such poetic journals as The Blue Cloud Quarterly, a magazine of Indian themes, and in Hard Pressed. Many of these poems, as well as newer ones, were published in the volume An Indian Triptych and other Poems, The Red Chrysanthemum Press (Berkeley, 1984). He also published a historical drama entitled The Death of Alexander (Oakland, 1982). I have read and reread his poems and have been moved not only by his gift of poetic language but also by his sensitivity to time, to the earth, mountains and streams of California, that is to nature, and by the sensitivity which he shows to the destruction of America's first inhabitants and our great historical innocents, the American Indians. During the final phase of his struggle with death Lowell spoke to me frequently and in our conversations, which in texture, force, velocity and clarity were not unlike the cascading mountain streams of the California mountains which he so dearly loved, his ongoing involvement with poetry received equal attention with this work on Byzantine intellectual history. He was determined to face death bravely, quietly, and to maintain the quality of his intellectual life at the same high level which he had always attained. Thus the conversations interchanged between his two primary concerns: intellectual history and poetry. I can think of no more fitting sample of his poetic and historical mind than to let Lowell's poetry speak for him.

The American River, Sacramento
(Sacramento, 1975)

You don't see any more Maidu Indians
down highway 50

beside the American River flowing west
towards Sacramento

Sacramento from sacramentum

what should be a communion
shared in common

a deep draught of this water
sliding toward dusk

between cottonwoods.

They are gone now, driven out
because we came, because,
as Pizarro growled to Atahualpa
we suffer from a disease of the heart
“that can only be cured
by gold".

In a second poem Lowell contemplates time the eternal.

Palo Colorado Canyon
(in Hard Pressed, No 3, Sacramento 1977)

I look up at stars
over towering redwoods

and wonder what ages
layered branches count:

I listen to the far off
murmur of water

and wonder what tales
a man could tell

who held all time
in his hand

like a stone
from a lost creek.

In a third poem we see Lowell's personal feelings.

Winter Passage
(Sacramento, 1980)

Bones of trees
wash into the sea
or break into soil.

They scatter seeds
on the forest floor;
new shoots have already
sprung from the ground.

And at your laughter
beside me, as we speak
in a stillness

over the rusing torrent

the little gods of death
regard us quizzically

they fold their feathers,

they fall silent and
sit still at attention.

I stand on the bank
and look up the ravine:

groves of pine, laurel
and taller redwood
rise up green
upon green

in the cold mist.

I close by calling to memory this extraordinary human being, so gifted, intense, and above all creative. We recall his memory fondly and sadly: the wife her husband, the parents their son, the scholars their colleague, the muse her poet, and the teacher his student.

Los Angeles 1987

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