Renowned as both a leading religious thinker and an innovative Russian stylist, Vasilii Rozanov has often been called the most remarkable writer among Russian philosophers.
His first published work, O ponimanii (1886; On the understanding), was a neo- Slavophile philosophical tract. His literary reputation, however, was established with the publication in 1891 of the long essay Legenda o velikom inkvizitore F.M. Dostoevskogo (Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor), which dealt with the implications of Ivan Karamazov’s parable for modern Russia, whose current historical experience and fate Rozanov conceived in apocalyptic terms. After this initial success, Rozanov expressed his philosophical, political, and religious ideas almost exclusively in essays and in shorter, more topical journalistic articles, principally in Suvorin’s conservative newspaper Novoe Vremia (The new times), but also in papers of different political stripes under numerous pseudonyms.
Rozanov’s ideas, particularly his mystical religious understanding of sexuality and procreation as man’s main link to God and the transcendent world, appeared in his oeuvre from the late 1890s on, giving it a kind of internal consistency. Nevertheless, his essay production and the often contradictory ideological positions he espoused, often within the same essay, led to his being accused of what for the Russian essayists of the period were the greatest of sins: lack of all principle and intellectual dishonesty. Rozanov was considered dangerous for the reader by such diverse figures as Leon Trotskii, Petr Struve, and Vladimir Solov’ev because the volatility of his ideas was expressed in often beautiful and always hypnotic verbal magic.
Not only were Rozanov’s ideas fresh and even outrageous, he, like Lev Shestov, had a genius for aphorism, and his often paradoxical and humorous witticisms make his oeuvre a gold mine for the compiler of quotable quotes. Realizing this near the end of his life, Rozanov created in Russia what was hailed by some as a new genre—a species of free-form writer’s notebook in which he claims to register his immediate thoughts, to give the words that ceaselessly flowed through his mind full and immediate expression.
These late works—Uedinennoe (1912; Solitaria), Opavshie list’ia (1913–15; Fallen Leaves), and Apokalipsis nashego vremeni (1917–18; “The Apocalypse of Our Times”)—contain a variety of materials, from aphorisms and anecdotes to personal letters and short stories, as well as a number of brilliant short essays. They were hailed as surpassing literary achievements, albeit of a new kind, and have secured Rozanov’s reputation as one of the greatest writers of the Silver Age (1890–1920), a period of unparalleled brilliance in Russian arts and letters.
Called the Russian Nietzsche in part because of his aphoristic and fragmentary writings, Rozanov was the pioneer of the fragmentary literary form in Russian Modernism. Its influence has been great in the 20th century—on Aleksei Remizov, Velimir Khlebnikov, the experimental prose of Osip Mandel’shtam and Viktor Shklovskii, Andrei Siniavskii (Abram Tertz), and most recently the late Soviet and post- Soviet cult figure Venedikt Erofeev. In the English-language tradition Rozanov most strongly influenced D.H.Lawrence in his writer’s notebooks. Almost all these writers have acknowledged Rozanov’s direct and decisive influence on their writings, most in essay form, Erofeev by making Rozanov a literary character.
Besides their fragmentary character, these last works are undoubtedly polyphonic. The mode of writing is not only “motley,” as some have claimed, it is the often cacophonous colloquy of at least eight discrete voices, each with its own point of view, peculiar language, and recognizable style. These Rozanovian personae can be categorized as: the Prophet of Doom—poetic mouthpiece of Rozanov’s Old Testament affinities and
apocalyptic foreboding; the Fervent Mystic—a voice of religious, often pagan ecstasy; the Mentor—formulator of morals often in aphoristic form; the Objective Critic—the standard, restrained, serious essayistic voice; the Confessor—source of all manner of intimate detail about Rozanov’s feelings and personal and family life; the Homebody— Rozanov’s version of the views and feelings of the lower-middle-class Russian Everyman; the Gossip—an often vicious ad hominem critic of contemporary people and events; and the Buffoon, who is Dostoevskii’s Fedor Karamazov, or Lebedev from Besy (1872; The Possessed), suddenly let loose in a literary essay (Anna Lisa Crone, 1978). Rozanov appears to have taken literally Montaigne’s claim that he was a different person at every moment, and to have realized its implications in these last texts, as well as in the unfinished Mimiletnoe (Fleeting things).
Yet the voices combining in a free-for-all in Rozanov’s late works were already familiar to the Russian reader from his essays. In his earlier essays in the 1890s his prose was dominated by the authoritative, often erudite voice of the Objective Critic; only the ideas were polemical, provocative, or new. As time went on he increasingly flouted the decorum of the essay genre with the introduction of everything from irrational mystical outbursts, to emotional and “unseemly” attacks on societal mainstays such as Russian
Orthodoxy, Christ and Christianity, and marital and divorce laws, to gossipy attacks on respected cultural figures (Solov’ev, Lev Tolstoi, Nikolai Chernyshevskii). The very manner of writing became as controversial as the contradictory collection of ideas Rozanov espoused.
Reading Rozanov from the late 1890s on, one senses the presence of two or more voices in his essays—usually both ideologically and stylistically incompatible. Rozanov claimed he respected all ideas and believed there was a grain of truth in all positions; he enjoyed “giving expression” to these various Russian points of view, all of which he wanted to feel and experience. In a modern way Rozanov comes close to saying that his whole essayistic and literary enterprise was only about writing, about the music of words, their articulation and resonance, and that he had a physiological need to converse, mutter, and commit his verbal rambling to written form. He built a mysticism around the individual’s word, his voice, pronunciation, and even handwriting being expressions of unrepeatable personality. A poet’s sense of words as bearers of a unique human spirit far outweighed interest in the word as a tool for other ends; Mandel’shtam was the first, after
Rozanov himself, to point out that placing too much emphasis on the semantic aspect of Rozanov’s words was the surest way to misunderstand him. Rozanov, of course, thrived on selfcontradiction, an almost baroque clashing of opposing ideas. Yet his essayistic prose does not submit well to structural analysis in terms of mere binary oppositions.
Cavalier in his attitude toward fact and fiction, truth and lies, and all manner of serious moral categories, Rozanov sets up oppositions dialectically in essays and proceeds to subvert and destroy them himself. This makes the mature Rozanov a prime subject for deconstructionist treatment as he often takes the first steps at deconstructing the meaning and form of his utterances himself. Truth for Rozanov was “an omelet”; the more ideological and/or semantic “eggs” one cracked and mixed into it, the better. Subverting a dialectical opposition, Rozanov shied away from satisfying or elegant synthesis or resolution. For him it was enough to challenge received ideas and provoke an open dialogue inside his reader’s mind as long as the language in which he did so was powerful and satisfied his aesthetic requirements.
Rozanov wrote in this internally contradictory way about almost every issue of interest to Russians in the period between 1891 and 1919. The briefest list of his essay collections reveals an almost unprecedented variety of topics. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to subject almost every received notion to doubt and negative scrutiny and to expose the relativism of most ideas and judgments. This exposé of the emotional and irrational motives behind even the most rational of human thoughts was coupled with his constant elevation of the mystical and irrational sides of the human psyche. For this Rozanov was idolized as the messenger of a new, deeper Russian truth and detested as a cynical nihilist. He was so hated by the Left that he was rendered a nonperson in Soviet Russian letters, and his works and studies about him went unpublished from the early 1920s to the later 1980s. Since 1988 this fascinating essayist has been published in Russia again, generating considerable public and scholarly interest in his work.
Unlike Shestov, who used rational argument and systematic means to demolish rationalism, Rozanov began as a more standard essay writer and slowly through a proliferation of voices and multiple points of view came to a complex and intermittently rational/irrational relativism. But whether one deals with the serious Rozanov or the more scandalous and outrageous Rozanov, his polyphonic style was so unique that Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, quoting him in Bol’naia Rossiia (1910; Sick Russia), could say with conviction: “These lines were written anonymously. But there is no need to name their author, because every reader knows that there is only one man in Russia who could have authored them—Vasilii Vasil’evich Rozanov.”
ANNA LISA CRONE
Vasilii Vasil’evich Rozanov. Born 2 May 1856 in Vetluga. Studied history and philosophy at Moscow University, graduated 1880. Taught at gymnasiums in Simbirsk, Elets, Belyi, and Viaz’ma, 1880–1893. Married Apollinariia Suslova, 1880 (separated, 1886: she refused to divorce him); companion of Varvara Rudneva, from 1889: five children. Worked in the Office of State Control, 1893. Contributor to various journals, from 1893, including Novoe Vremia, Mir Iskusstva (World of art), Russkii Vestnik
(Russian herald), Rosskoe Obozvenie (Russian review), and Novyi Put’ (The new way).
Died in Sergiev Posad, 5 February 1919.
Essays and Related Prose
O ponimanii, 1886
Mesto khristianstva v istorii (The place of Christianity in history), 1890
Legenda o velikom inkvizitore F.M.Dostoevskogo, 1891 (in periodical); 1894 (in book form); as Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, translated by Spencer E.Roberts, 1972
Teoriia isoricheskogo progressa i upadok (The theory of historical progess and decline), 1892
Sumerki prosveshcheniia (The twilight of enlightenment), 1893 (in periodical); 1899 (in book form)
Literaturnye ocherki (Literary sketches), 1899
Religiia i kul’tura (Religion and culture), 1899
Priroda i istoriia (Nature and history), 1900
V mire neiasnogo i nereshennogo (In the world of the obscure and unsolved), 1901
Semeinyi vopros v Rossii (The family problem in Russia), 2 vols., 1901
Okolo tserkovnykh sten (Around the church walls), 2 vols., 1906
ItaViamkie vpechatleniia (Italian impressions), 1909
Kogda nachal’stvo ushlo (When the authorities went away), 1910
Tiornnii lik (The dark face), 1911; part as “Sweetest Jesus and the Bitter Fruits of the World,” translated by Spencer E.Roberts, in Four Faces of Rozanov: Christianity, Sex, Jews and the Russian Revolution, 1978
Liudi lunnogo sveta, 1911; as “People of the Moonlight,” translated by Spencer E.Roberts, in Four Faces of Rozanov: Christianity, Sex, Jews and the Russian Revolution, 1978
Uedinennoe, 1912; as Solitaria, translated by S.S.Koteliansky, 1927
Opavshie list’ia, 2 vols., 1913–15; vol. 1 as Fallen Leaves, Bundle One, translated by S.S.Koteliansky, 1929
Literaturnie izgnanniki (Literary exiles), 1913
Sredi khudozhnikov (Among artists), 1914
Oboniatel’noe i osiazatel’noe otnoshenie evreev k krovi (The attitude of the Jews toward the smell and touch of blood), 1914
Iz vostochnykh motivov (From Eastern motifs), 1916–17
Apokalipsis nashego vremeni, 1917–18 (in periodical); part as “The Apocalypse of Our Times,” translated by S.S.Koteliansky, in Solitaria, 1927, and by Spencer E.Roberts, in Four Faces of Rozanov: Christianity, Sex, Jews and the Russian Revolution, Four Faces of Rozanov: Christianity, Sex, Jews and the Russian 1978 Revolution, translated by Spencer E.Roberts, 1978
Collected works edition: Sobranie sochinenii, edited by A.N. Nikoliukina, 1994–(in progress).
Gollerbakh, E., in V.V.Rozanov: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo, Paris: YMCA Press, 1976 (original edition, 1922)
Crone, Anna Lisa, Rozanov and the End of Literature: Polyphony and the Dissolution of Genre in “Solitaria”, Würzburg: Jal, 1978
Crone, Anna Lisa, “V.V.Rozanov and the Russian Art of Autobiography,” in
Autobiographical Statements in Modern Russian Literature, edited by Jane Gary Harris, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990
Gulyga, Arseni, “‘The anguish of being Russian’: A Note on the Life and Works of Vasilii Rozanov,” Glas: New Russian Writing 6 (1993):184–200
Hutchings, Stephen C., “Breaking the Circle of the Self: Domestication, Alienation and the Question of Discourse Type in Rozanov’s Writings,” Slavic Review 52, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 67–86
Kaulbach, Z.K., The Life and Works of V.V.Rozanov (dissertation), Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, 1973
Poggioli, Renato, Rozanov, London: Bowes and Bowes, 1957; New York: Hillary House, 1962
Putnam, George F., “Vasilii V.Rozanov: Sex, Marriage and Christianity,” Canadian Slavic Studies 5 (1971):301–26
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