an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

English, #33, 1996

Stephen Ludger Lapeyrouse

Stephen Lapeyrouse

Dear Readers, we of the First of September’s weekly supplement English, think that it is appropriate to make you more acquainted with the our author of American Reflections and colleague Stephen Ludger Lapeyrouse. He has been writing and working with us for a year now, and we wanted to present him to you in this interview. (This interview was done with Vera G.)

Stephen, please say a few words on your background and origin.

Well, I must say to begin with, Vera, that I have a rather complicated, unusual life story, which is rather long to explain, and has various layers and themes. And it is not a typical American biography – at least not most of it, and certainly not that which is engaging, interesting and painful. So that, in this short interview, I can only give a very simple sketch of it, some general sense of the story...

When I was about 18 years old, I was sure (or so I thought) – as were my family, friends and community – that I knew the basic future course of my life. But if it had indeed gone that way, I would certainly not be talking to you now, living in Moscow, and the author of (the hopefully serious and thought-provoking contents of) American Reflections. I knew where I would live; pretty much how rich I would be; in which exclusive area I would build my big house; what large business I would eventually become the president of until my leisurely retirement – even where I would be buried! This was, obviously, a rather well-planned scenario, fairly typical in the USA for people of my personality type and capacities, social position and possibilities. But that was before I began to think and question. For you see, typical, young, popular “Southern Gentlemen” though I frankly was, and even though I was baptized in the Christian church (Episcopal) which was next door to my home (and in which I served as an acolyte), I really had been given no Weltanschauung, no view or understanding of the world and life in my youth. In this sense my life and condition were absolutely typically American: I merely passively and unreflectively assumed and lived in the slightly upper-middle-class culture of my family and community, unconsciously assuming that the entire world and history was built like and lived the “American way of life” in which I unquestioningly lived, breathed and had my being (to quote St. Paul, but on a mundane level.) But various events in my own life would shatter this unconscious, unreflective engulfment in American culture, and my passive acceptance of it. And once I began to question and think seriously even just a little; whatever meager ideas I may have had of life at that time soon fell to pieces – not a very pleasant experience by the way. I soon recognized how profoundly ignorant I was of any serious ideas, culture, history, etc. I had been in an expensive private school in the USA – even graduated “Most Outstanding Senior”; I had had two confused years of university study, before I recognized how really uninformed and uneducated, in fact really ignorant I was.

Anyway, it was after I had traveled around the United States hitch-hiking, and living like a semi-hippie for about a year, that I eventually returned to university study with a very clear idea of my intellectually-blighted condition, and requirements to alter this. I was going to educate myself, “to catch up with time”, as I said it in those years. The Vietnam War was still going, and shaking American society. The President, Nixon, was caught lying to the US people and eventually had to resign. And while I was not unaffected by these and other social-political events; I was more interested in understanding the deeper questions, conditions and problems of American life, and the life of humanity – of America’s position in the world and history which I found around me. Soon I estimated that it would take me about 15 years to do the study I needed to do: five years for Western History, five years to study the history of Western religious thought, five years for the history of philosophy. (And it in fact turned out to be a pretty good estimate!) Whether I was a student, or doing odd jobs to survive, my “work” as I called it, was to do this necessary basic education of myself – to redeem the one I had not been given in years of school. When I began I was really psychologically compelled; I often studied 10-12 hours a day, and even forgot the day of the week.

My student friends were, contrariwise, not similarly so newly troubled or interested; most thought I was either wasting my time, or that my goals were strange, or impossible in any case. Nonetheless, out of personal necessity and real life-crisis, I determined that I would at least learn what the greatest and deepest ideas of the greatest individuals had been in trying to understand human history, the story which led up to the condition of mankind today. It is important here that it be understood that I was an America in America, in the sense that the USA is not an old original culture and nation; it is derivative in most all of its ideas, culture, customs, people, etc. So that, in order to understand the social conditions, theories and ideas in the USA, I needed to study European history, which itself of course required Greece and Roman history, Jewish and Christian – in short, I soon realized that I could not understand America, without understanding Western civilization’s greater story from the beginning. (Only years of study later would I be able to understand and evaluate this as beginning – as other scholars see, and as I have written in American Reflections – in the Indo-European time.)

Most historians (at least in America) begin Western civilization with Greece, which is in fact not serious or deep. For example the very idea of “Christus” came from the Jews (who understood it as the “messiah”) and they in turn had taken the idea from the Persian teachers (the concept of saoshyant) during the well-known “Babylonian captivity”. (By the way, the concept of the Maitreya Buddha in the Orient seems to have the same source!) In other words, if one merely decides to trace the history of ideas back to the first beginnings, then in order to understand Western history – and, in my case, from the view of America in world history – and one traces ideas to their very beginning, they go back, as did Pythagoras and many other Greek philosophers, far back beyond Greece. For you see, America (also like older Russia) in fact, has ideas of man and society, nature and God which go back far beyond what most Enlightenment-influenced teachers wish to consider the beginning of (rational) Western Civilization.

So, your first intention was to understand America as it is and as it was.

Yes. It is not in fact actually possible to understand ideas actively used in American society and culture today, without knowing their history and origins. But this requires years of hard, serious work and study, dedication and belief. My personal priorities soon became very different from that of the majority of people around me who were pursuing the popular American dream of material riches – and of what my plans had been: to be a wealthy businessman. I had personally realized, at about 21 – in the midst of my already established life-pattern heading to a successful life, as I have described it – that I was intellectually impoverished; and I determined to try to change this condition (to get rich inwardly in knowledge and understanding). Most of my friends (and fellow Americans), continued to accept and live the unreflective “American way of life” with its goals and ideals of material wealth, happiness, riches and pleasures. Neither they nor I (at that time) knew of the origin of James Truslow Adams’ original noble idea of the “American Dream”, nor, for example, of Jefferson’s idea of man and life in his conception of the "American Creed": “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Millions of American at this very moment unreflectively use these ideas to understand and explain their lives. This is unconscious living in history. It took me a decade and a half of education to discover and understand these facts. (Strange as it is Vera, I am certain that more Russians (those who have read the American Reflections essay “The Search for the American Dream” know the origin of the expression “American Dream” than Americans!)

Apparently you didn’t see many people holding the same views around you, did you?

No, I did not; very painfully few. One does not need to know much of anything deep or serious about human (or American!) history, culture, literature, philosophy, religion – or Jefferson or James Truslow Adams – in order to become very rich and successful in the USA. Adams himself, who I quoted in #42 of 1995, said that if the trends he saw in the 1920’s continued, America could appropriately be called a barbaric civilization. Harsh words! They are his – but I agree with him. There are very many so-called leaders, “role models”, in American society who are profoundly ignorant and not interested in even America’s own intellectual, cultural history: politicians, experts, “intellectuals”, television and film “super stars” (who is a real “superstar” in human history: Schwarzenegger or, say, Dostoyevsky?), rock musicians, athletes who make multi-millions, corporate billionaires, et al. One does not need to be cultured at all, in order to be rich, famous and influential in the USA. And this cultural malaise is increasingly revealing a sick society. I am not a radical about this malaise; anyone who knows conditions in the USA today knows that what I am describing is a broadly acknowledged condition. (Though various social observers of course understand and evaluate the causes, conditions and solutions in differing ways.)

The university life in the USA tries to tell someone to specialize in say Late Ancient Greek Political History, the Early Renaissance, the German Second Reich, etc., etc. I faced my studies – and this is what distinguishes my life as an independent scholar and historian from many if not most academic professors – with an attitude and position that I am only interested in trying to understand the story of mankind sub specie aeternitatis, in relation to the greater questions of human existence. I am not interested in learning the history of Greece or Christianity in order to sell my intellectual knowledge to a university as a hired teacher. The story of human history is a story of mankind on the earth in the cosmos and we are all a part of this story, however unconsciously or unreflectively. Whatever jobs specialists of various types of knowledge may have in the world’s various academic intellectual institutions; the greater questions of human existence are above them all. But I said this in the essay on the “Lost Cosmos of American Culture”.

One of the results of my long years of education was rather profound I must admit. For I found that as I seriously studied the greater story of mankind – what I now called “anthropography” (the biography of mankind as a unified story, an idea I had fifteen years before I was able to construct this word) – and its deepest ideas of man and God, history, nature and cosmos, as really a personal not a career quest for knowledge and understanding, the more I became not a mere citizen of the USA, but a real participant in the greater story of mankind. I found myself inwardly gradually surpassing the limited cultural psychology and national character I had been born and raised with in America. I found myself in ideas and soul transcending my limited national character. If I was not becoming a member of the greater cosmos, I was nonetheless more and more consciously, knowledgeably and with understanding of the great ideas underlying human culture and civilization, becoming a conscious observer, member and participant in human history. I don’t want this to sound too grand; yet it is really vital to understanding not just my own personal story (and American Reflections)– but what is possible after a devoted acquirement of knowledge. On the other hand, this left me increasingly severely alone in the USA; I recall realizing that I had become really incomprehensible to most of the American people around me who were still unreflectively sleeping in the common American mentality and culture.

So that is some of the two decades life background and work that goes into American Reflections.

How did you become and independent scholar?

Well, my first degree was in a special college of my state university called New College. This special college allowed me to do an “interdisciplinary program” (as they call such things there) with a mixed study of religion and philosophy. My second degree was with the old, well-known, liberal American college called Antioch, founded in 1852 by the educational reformer Horace Mann. There I did a special individualized study program on the intellectual origins of Western Civilization – actually I did all of my two years of study in Europe, living some of the time in the old German University town of Tübingen (founded in 1477, where such figures as Melanchthon, Kepler, Hölderlin, Schelling and Hegel had been), doing a 6-week serious travel-study through Greece, plus other adventures.

My thesis – my first serious, more mature work – was accepted in 1981, and entitled: “In Quest of Incarnation” (which dealt with questions similar to those in Tolstoy’s Confessions). By the way, by way of comparison, a close friend of mine also finished his Master’s Thesis at about the same time. His was more characteristic of typical university requirements and limitations; he did a large study on “classroom smiling behavior” of, it seems to me, something like 4th and 5th grade students. Such minuscule, irrelevant “scientific study” I could never tolerate. I wanted to learn and understand mankind in living human history, not study such small, idiotic things as required filming children’s “smiling behavior” as if they were mice or something. When it came to the time for a Ph.D., as I considered applying to a top-level university program in California, I was confronted – as innovative Antioch College’s program had not – again with the ruling academic mentality of skeptical, rational, narrow specialization in study and writing. And when I understood that I would need $40,000-$50,000 to get a diploma to hang on my wall, after kow-towing for 4-6 years to professors whose skeptical views I fundamentally disagreed with, I made a life choice to continue my education on my own. (Now that same diploma costs around $120,000!)

I always deliberately lived near major universities, so that I had huge libraries at my disposal for my personal studies – especially at the University of California Berkeley. So, for many years, I studied quite on my own amidst and surrounded by the academic environment and its activities – which I partook of as it suited me. In this way I have been able to experience lectures, conferences, events, etc. given by many famous, leading historical, social and world personalities – while I continued my self-education towards becoming an independent scholar attempting to stand knowledgeably, deeply in our time in the history of our time.

My small, pioneering book on America and Russia: Towards the Spiritual Convergence of America and Russia (1990) was in a way my own independent equivalent to Doctoral dissertation.

You write a lot on religion, are you a religious person?

You know Goethe writes in his autobiography Aus meinem Leben, Dichtung und Wahrheit (From my Life: Poetry and Truth), that as a child he was deeply shaken in his simple childhood beliefs (of the creedal, benevolent, loving Father-God) by the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake which happened on All Saints’ Day during the time of religious services there. As many as 60,000 people were killed; and the news of this catastrophe which eventually spread over Europe deeply affected many people (including e.g. Voltaire) calling forth much disagreement and discussion as to its “meaning” and the role of God in it. I was similarly shaken both by the private plane crash which killed my father, an uncle, and an adult neighbor (of which I was the sole survivor at age 12) and of the Christian responses and explanations of this accident. This, plus the ultimate questions inherent to human existence, when added to my needing to build up, beginning at age 21, a world-view from scratch, would have me answer you in the affirmative, that I am indeed “religious”, in the usual sense of the question – though I neither regularly go to any religious services (Protestant, Russian Orthodox, or other), nor will I ever be able find the consolation of mind, as well as heart, that I sometimes nostalgically wish were possible. My inner life is now inescapably too complex from life, from years of study of theology, philosophy, history, etc. It is impossible for me, perhaps unfortunately, just to believe and accept some religious service, doctrines, or such. I am not perhaps “tormented”, like Dostoyevsky wrote, by the question of God; but I have been sufficiently troubled for me, for most of my life. The plane crash was a sort of serious introduction to the questions of human life and meaning.

How did it happen that you decided to come to Russia?

In my studies over the years, I had become interested in certain themes in history dear to me, one of which was the theme of “Sophia” – which, as I am sure you know, was rather alive and influential in Russia, both in the Orthodox Church and in pre-Soviet independent philosophy here (e.g. V. Solovyov, Lossky, Florenskii, et al.) I had for years been fascinated by the history of the Palladium, Greek symbol of Athena, of wisdom. After an adventurous trip to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (as I still tend to call Istanbul), and then also to the site of ancient Troy in Turkey, I needed to follow the legend of the Palladium, the theme of the Sophia, and the idea of the “Third Rome” to Russia.

The Vladimirskaya has been called the Palladium of Russia more than a couple of times in written literature. So I was very deeply pleased when, on my first trip to Soviet Russia, in 1986, when the Intourist guide insisted that we see the Uspenski-Sobor in the Moscow Kremlin first of all sites here. The very place I wanted to go. (Only when the Tretyakov Gallery had a temporary showing of the icons in the early 1990’s, did I first have a chance to see the original Vladimirskaya icon by a Byzantine artist. There is much else here to say.) I came following these themes; but I was soon astonished by the Russia soul, which I soon saw beneath the Soviet-mask around me here. After about one week in Russia, I knew I had entered a very different world than anywhere else I had been from California’s Golden Gate to the Iron Curtain. Completely different social psychology (to speak in abstract social-science terms now prevalent in the USA today, about this mysterious reality). It attracted me immediately, though it took me several trips here to even begin to understand it – or, to agree with Tyutchev, to believe in it.

I recall saying to myself after only one week’s experiences here (and that after many trips to Western Europe) that I would always visit Russia in my life; I could not then know that I would come to need to live here. (By the way, I have no Russian ancestry; it is purely a kinship of soul.)

Stephen, you have lived in Russia for quite a while now. What do you like about it?

Well, you know Vera, I want to write about that at some point in my American Reflections. But let me simply say here that Russia – Russians – have been a great, deep, even saving help to me in my life and biography. When I could no longer tolerate the kaleidoscope society in California, when I could no longer endure the mass, unreflective, “culturally-illiterate” American pursuit of material wealth and “consumer culture” (by the way, this expression, so easy to say in the USA, is surely a new, symptomatic combination in human history!), the ‘isolation of heart and soul’ due to excessive individualism in society (already discernible by De Tocqueville in young 1830’s USA), I came to Russia to live amidst its often deeper soul, its remaining community traditions, its respect for deep culture and knowledge, and its love of discussing the meaning of earthly life, suffering and its “kitchen philosophy”, if you wish. I shall write more in time.