Even disregarding short book reviews, Andrei Belyi’s total output of articles and essays numbers close to 300. The essay is central to his oeuvre, providing a versatile form which can be used to address the reader in a wide variety of ways, and on a wide variety of topics. It is possible to classify Belyi’s essays into three broad categories, but individual works frequently straddle the boundaries of different types. Some early essays are close in form to his lyrical prose fragments, while others expand to the dimensions of monographs. He wrote half his output of essays between 1902 and 1910; they are predominantly on literary and philosophical subjects. Even here the manner in which he addresses his reader varies widely between the academic and the lyrical. After 1910 he wrote many pieces about his travels; they are unified by a concern with discovering the inner impulse and identifying the spiritual essence of the cultures he observed. The death of Aleksandr Blok in 1921 stimulated Belyi to write memoirs and autobiography, the third category of essays which accompanied the other two, in the last decade of his life.
Belyi’s first substantial essay was “Formy iskusstva” (“The Forms of Art”), published in Diaghilev’s journal Mir Iskusstva (The world of art) in December 1902, where he outlined a theory of the hierarchy of art forms closely modeled on Schopenhauer, and reached the lyrical conclusion that all art is moving inexorably toward its highest manifestation—music. Throughout the decade he published extensively in all the major symbolist and allied journals and almanacs—Novyi Put’ (The new path), Zolotoe Runo (The golden fleece), Svobodnaia Sovest’ (The free conscience)—but above all in the flagship journal of the Moscow symbolists, Vesy (The scales). His essays covered every aspect of symbolist theory, ranging between neo Kantian epistemology and brash internecine polemics. In 1910 and 1911 the most important of his essays were republished, along with a number of new works, in the three volumes Simvolizm (1910; Symbolism), Lug zelenyi (1910; The green meadow), and Arabeski (1911; Arabesques).
Simvolizm contains the most important of Belyi’s philosophical and literary-theoretical essays, ten of which had not been published previously. These include “Smysl iskusstva” (The meaning of art), “Emblematika smysla” (“The Emblematics of Meaning”), “Magiia slov” (“The Magic of Words”), and a series of essays on the analysis of verse rhythm, in which Belyi was a pioneer. Arabeski and Lug zelenyi contain both literary-critical works and a range of essays that express the broader cultural hopes of the symbolists for a total transformation of humankind, culture, and society, such as “Simvolizm kak miroponimanie” (“Symbolism as a World-View”) or “Apokalipsis v russkoi poezii” (The apocalypse in Russian poetry).
Belyi continued to write on these topics throughout his life. The teleology of culture is the subject of many works written later, such as Tragediia tvorchestva (1911; The tragedy of creativity), Revoliutsiia i kul’tura (1917; Revolution and culture), and the three long essays under the general title Na perevale (1918–20; At the watershed). His literarycritical studies include a series of essays on contemporary writers (Aleksandr Blok, Viacheslav Ivanov, V.F.Khodasevich) and culminate in his monograph, Masterstvo Gogolia (1934; Gogol’s craftsmanship). The study of language is continued in “Zhezl Aarona” (1917; Aaron’s rod) and Glossolaliia (1922.; Glossolalia), in which he set out his ideas on the intrinsic meaning of the sounds of human speech in all languages. The rhythm of poetry formed the subject of a number of shorter pieces in the immediate postrevolutionary period, and found its fullest expression in Ritm kak dialektika i “Mednyi vsadnik” (1929; Rhythm as dialectics and “The Bronze Horseman”), in which he sought to interpret Pushkin’s poem on the basis of a dialectical tension between the surface semantics and the rhythm.
The genre of travel notes first makes its appearance in Belyi’s oeuvre after his visit to Italy and North Africa in 1910–11. Short newspaper pieces were published in 1911, and two longer sections on his sojourn in Egypt appeared in the journal Sovremennik (The contemporary) in 1912. Book-form publication had to wait until the appearance of Ofeira: Putevye zametki, chast’ pervaia (1921; Ofeira: travel notes, part one); some sections never did appear in his lifetime and were published only in 1984. The interest of his notes lies not merely in his detailed observation, but in his sense that every cultural monument he describes contains and still exudes the spirit of the culture that created it.
There is no dividing line between his work on cultural history and his personal observations in these notes. The same is true of the newspaper articles he published in Birzhevye Vedomosti (The stock exchange gazette) in 1916 about his impressions of Europe at war, gained from his vantage point in Switzerland. Later works in this genre were Odna iz obitelei tsarstva tenei (1924; One of the mansions of the realm of shadows), a damning indictment of postwar Berlin, and Veter s Kavkaza (1928; A wind from the Caucasus) and “Armeniia” (1928; Armenia), in which he tried to adapt his vein of cultural criticism to the new Soviet reality.
Memoirs are one of the genres for which Belyi is best known, and the three volumes he published toward the end of his life (Na rubezhe dvukh stoletii [1930; On the border of two centuries]; Nachalo veka [1933; The turn of the century]; Mezhdu dvukh revoliutsii [1934; Between two revolutions]) are perhaps the most important single source for the study of the period. These grew out of the original Vospominaniia ob A.A.Bloke (1922– 23; Recollections of Aleksandr Blok) and went through several revisions, not all of which have been published. Also related to the autobiographical novels Belyi was working on before Blok’s death, the memoir genre includes sketches of the Moscow of his childhood, such as “Arbat” (1923; The Arbat). Contemporaries often speak of Belyi as a man whose mercurial temperament resisted complete expression in any of his literary works. It is in his essays that his extraordinary range and versatility, his protean ability to vary voice and stance, come fully to the fore.
A reliable picture of Belyi will never be attained without his essays. And without such a picture it is doubtful whether Russian symbolism as a whole is to be understood. Belyi embodied its spirit like no one else, and his essays are an indispensable—and almost inexhaustible—source for any student of the period.
Born Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev, 26 October 1880 in Moscow. Studied at the Polivanov gymnasium, 1891–99; science, philology, and philosophy at Moscow University, 1899– 1903, degree in natural sciences. Began using the pseudonym Andrei Belyi with the publication of his first prose work, 1902; reviewer and writer for many periodicals and journals, 1902–10. Close friendship with Aleksandr Blok began through correspondence in 1903, developing later into a painful triangular relationship with Blok’s wife; despite personal conflict they retained a deep and sympathetic awareness of each other’s spiritual quest until Blok’s death in 1921. Associate editor, Vesy, 1907–09; associated with Musagetes publishers, 1909–10. Traveled in Italy and North Africa, 1910–11; lived mostly in Western Europe, from 1912. Married Asia Turgeneva, 1914 (separated, 1921).
Became interested in the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, from 1912: helped with the construction of the Anthroposophical Temple in Dornach, Switzerland. Returned to Russia to join the military reserve, 1916, but was never called up. Archivist and librarian during the revolutionary period; founder and lecturer, Vol’fila (Free philosophical society). Returned to Western Europe, 1921, but was not well received by his wife or Rudolph Steiner; lecturer in Berlin, 1921–23; editor, Epopeia, 1922–23. Returned to Russia, 1923. Married Klavdiia Vasil’eva, 1931. Died in Moscow, 8 January 1934.
Essays and Related Prose
Lug zelenyi, 1910
Tragediia tvorchestva: Dostoevskii i Tolstoi, 1911
Rudol’f Shteiner i Gete v mirovozzrenii sovremennosti (Rudolf Steiner and Goethe in the philosophy of the present age), 1917
Revoliutsiia i kul’tura, 1917
Na perevale, 3 vols., 1918–20
Ofeira: Putevye zametki, chast’ pervaia, 1921; later section published as “Afrika zhdet menia (iz Afrikanskogo dnevnika A. Belogo),” in Vstrechi s proshlym, 1984:150–69
Sirin uchenogo varvarstva (The siren bird of scholastic barbarism), 1922
O smysle poznaniia (On the meaning of cognition), 1922
Poeziia slova (Poetry of the word), 1922
Vospominaniia ob A.A.Bloke, 1922–23
Odna iz obitelei tsarstva tenei (One of the mansions of the realm of shadows), 1924
Veter s Kavkaza, 1928
Ritm kak dialektika i “Mednyi vsadnik”, 1929
Na rubezhe dvukh stoletii, 1930; revised edition, edited by A.V. Lavrov, 1989
Nachalo veka, 1933; revised edition, edited by A.V.Lavrov, 1990
Mezhdu dvukh revoliutsii, 1934; revised edition, edited by A.V. Lavrov, 1990
Masterstvo Gogolia, 1934
Selected Essays, edited and translated by Steven Cassedy, 1985
Other writings: six novels (Serebryanyi golub’ [The Silver Dove], 1909–10;
Petersburg, 1916; Kotik Letaev, 1922; Moskva, 1926; Kreshchenyi kitaets [The Christened Chinaman], 1927; Maski, 1932), and collections of poetry.
Collected works edition: Sochineniia, edited by V.Piskarev, 1990.
Benina, M.A., “Andrei Belyi: Bibliograficheskii ukazatel’, 1976-avgust 1986,” in Andrei Belyi: Problemy tvorchestva, edited by S.Lesnevskii and A.Mikhailov, Moscow: Sovetskii Pisatel’, 1988:806–29
Bugaeva, K.N., and G.Nivat, “L’OEuvre polémique, critique et journalistique d’Andrej Belyj,” Cahiers du Monde Russe et Soviétique 15 (1974):21–39
Elsworth, John, “Bely Studies Since the Centenary,” Scottish Slavonic Review 12–13 (1989):69–98
Russkie sovetskie pisateli: Poety: Biobibliograficheskii ukazatel’, vol. 3, part 1, Moscow, 1979:114–96
Cioran, Samuel D., The Apocalyptic Symbolism of Andrej Belyj, The Hague: Mouton, 1973
Elsworth, J.D., Andrey Bely: A Critical Study of the Novels, Cambridge: Cambridge Unversity Press, 1983
Keys, Roger, The Reluctant Modernist: Andrei Belyi and the Development of Russian Fiction, 1902–1914, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996
Malmstad, John E., editor, Andrey Bely: Spirit of Symbolism, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987
Peterson, Ronald E., editor and translator, The Russian Symbolists: An Anthology of Critical and Theoretical Writings, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1986
Pyman, Avril, A History of Russian Symbolism, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994
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