Viacheslav Ivanov was a major poet, philosopher of culture, critic, and translator, who played an important role in literary history as the leading theoretician of the Russian symbolist movement. Using dense, highly suggestive polyphonic prose, Ivanov in his critical essays and philosophical essays expanded the metaphysical school of criticism begun by Vladimir Solov’ev. Although he always regarded his essays as an elaboration or elucidation of intuitions first communicated in his poetry, his prose works were in fact the primary channel through which his ideas about art and religion made their impact on European as well as Russian culture. The frequently cited description of Ivanov as a true “European Russian” reflects the wide erudition displayed in his essays, resting on a deep scholarly knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin, and on a close familiarity with the languages and cultures of Russia, Germany, Italy, France, and England.
Before emigration Ivanov published numerous essays and reviews in leading Russian journals; many of these were collected in the three volumes of his essays which appeared in Russia (1909, 1916, 1917). His essays on Dostoevskii dating from the same period were later published in book form in a German translation in 1932. and in English in 1952. From 1926 he was a less frequent but nevertheless substantial contributor to European journals (German, Swiss, French, and Italian), and to Russian émigré journals from 1936; most of these later essays were reprinted in his Sobranie sochinenii (Collected works).
In terms of subject matter, his essays can be divided into five main groups, reflecting the gradual development of his interests and preoccupations over the years. Although Ivanov’s essays on the religion of Dionysus (1904, 1905) originated in his years of research as a scholar of classical antiquity, the philosophical, religious, and cultural issues they raise go far beyond the boundaries of academic discourse, preparing the ground for his later work by setting out his views on the relationship between pagan antiquity and Christianity, and more generally between mystical experience, religion, and myth.
The early essays on aesthetics, poetry, and drama, first published in symbolist journals and later collected in Po zvezdam (1909; By the stars) and Borozdy i mezhi (1916; Furrows and boundaries), are concerned with establishing an aesthetic platform for the movement of religious symbolism, either by drawing up a tradition of literary precedents (ranging from Dante and Goethe to Tiutchev and Solov’ev), or by elaborating a theory of symbolist art, based on the difference between “great art” and “intimate art,” between “realist” and “idealist” symbolism. This distinction depends on whether the artist’s vision is regarded as mirroring the macrocosm of the universal order, and therefore as having particular ontological significance, or as a purely private and solipsistic illusion.
Ivanov’s critical essays on individual writers contribute to the same endeavor. They usually provide a highly original, stimulating reading of a classical, European, or Russian author in the light of symbolist aesthetics. Russian writers are frequently related to the classical tradition (Dostoevskii’s novels are shown to be structured according to the principles of Greek tragedy, Gogol’s The Government Inspector is linked to the drama of Aristophanes and the choral principle in Greek tragedy), Pushkin and Lermontov are discussed in relation to their intuition of spiritual truths, and Petrarch, Schiller, Goethe, Novalis, and Byron are interpreted through the prism of the symbolist world view.
A more limited number of essays deal with aspects of Russian national identity. An early essay of this type, “O russkoi idee” (1908; On the Russian idea), later became well known in Europe through its translation into German in 1930. Ivanov’s interest in this theme reached a peak at the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution, resulting in a number of articles on Russia’s historical destiny, relation to Europe, and religious mission in the light of current events. Several of these essays were collected in Rodnoe I vselenskoe (1917; Matters native and universal).
After the Revolution Ivanov’s essays display an increasing concern with the fate of culture in the modern world and with its relation to the Christian tradition of humanism.
He cultivated the genre of the letter as a form of essay in Perepiska iz dvukh uglov (1921;
Correspondence Across a Room) with Mikhail Gershenzon, in his letter to Charles Du Bos with its detailed exposition of the reasons for his conversion to Catholicism (1930), and in his letter to Alessandro Pellegrini on his view of culture as a form of “docta pietas” (1934).
One of the most salient paradoxes of the symbolist movement was the gulf between its obscure, esoteric content and its professed ideal, the revival of a universal art form which would express the national soul and convey a vital message to the people. Despite these claims, the contemporary audience of Ivanov and his fellow symbolists Aleksandr Blok and Andrei Belyi remained confined to a small group of like-minded poets, critics, and disciples. Outside this circle, responses to their work mostly emanated from socially oriented critics and were largely negative.
Although Ivanov’s output as an essayist was not enormous, it was nevertheless extremely influential. The breadth and depth of his essays, as well as his role as the major theoretician of religious symbolism, had a great impact on the beliefs and poetics of the next generation of post-symbolist poets, particularly on the Acmeists and Futurists.
Writers (such as Osip Mandel’shtam) who did not accept all the philosophical and religious premises of Ivanov’s world view nevertheless often retained in their prose works some of its stylistic characteristics (a multi-strand argument developed through a highly allusive use of image, metaphor, and myth, woven together into a polyphonic chorus), or returned to engage in debate with it in their later lyrics (Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva).
While poets were flexible in their ability to absorb elements of Ivanov’s system selectively, philosophers of a religious orientation (such as Nikolai Berdiaev and Lev Shestov) became increasingly impatient with his all-encompassing syncretism and attempted combination of religious and cultural values. According to one critic, Ivanov tried to reconcile too many different roles; to poets he appeared a prophet, to philosophers an artist, and to orthodox believers, a priest without God and without a church.
Ivanov’s reputation as an essayist has undergone many fluctuations in the course of the 20th century. In Europe, his fame has rested almost exclusively on his essays, which have attracted the attention of prominent intellectuals such as Martin Buber, Ernst Robert Curtius, Gabriel Marcel, Du Bos, and Pellegrini. In Soviet Russia, he was marginalized for many decades, in part because of political circumstances, but also because his critics could not or would not recognize his view of culture as memory as the foundation of his
distinctive voice. His legacy, transmitted through thinkers as varied as Mikhail Bakhtin, Lev Loseff, and Sergei Averintsev, has attracted a marked resurgence of critical interest since the mid-1980s.
Born 16 February 1866 in Moscow. Studied at the First Moscow Gymnasium, graduated 1884; history and classical philology, Moscow University, 1884–86; University of Berlin, 1886–91. Married Dar’ia Mikhailovna Dmitrievskaia, 1886 (divorced, 1896): one daughter. Lived in Europe, including Berlin, Paris, Rome, and Geneva, from 1886.
Married Lidiia Dmitrievna Zinov’eva (pseudonym: Zinov’eva-Annibal), 1899 (died, 1907): two daughters and three stepchildren. Returned to Russia, 1905: lived in St. Petersburg, hosting the literary salon at Bashnia (Tower); founder, Ory publishing house, and the Poetic Academy. Lived in Switzerland, France, and Italy, 1912–13, and Moscow, 1913–20. Married his stepdaughter Vera Shvarsalon (died, 1920), 1913: one son.
Professor of classical philology, University of Baku, 1920–24. Emigrated to Italy, 1924, converting to Catholicism, 1926; lived in Rome, 1924–26, 1934–49, and in Pavia, 1926– 34, lecturing and teaching in both cities. Died in Rome, 16 July 1949.
Essays and Related Prose
Po zvezdam: Stat’i i aforiztny, 1909
Borozdy i mezhi: Opyty esteticheskie i kriticheskie, 1916
Rodnoe i vselenskoe: Stat’i (1914–1916), 1917
Perepiska iz dvukh uglov, with Mikhail Gershenzon, 1921; as “A Corner-to-Corner Correspondence,” translated by Gertrude Vakar, in Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology, edited by Marc Raeff, 1966:372–401; as Correspondence Across a Room, translated by Lisa Sergio, 1984
Dostojewskij: Tragödie—Mythos—Mystik, 1932; as Freedom and the Tragic Life: A Study in Dostoevsky, edited by S.Konovalov, translated by Norman Cameron, 1952
Esse, stat’i, perevody (Essays, articles, translations), 1985
Predchuvstviia i predvestiia: Sbornik (Premonitions and portents: a collection), edited by S.V.Stakhorskii, 1991
Lik i lichiny Rossii: Estetika i literaturnaia teoriia (The face and masks of Russia: aesthetics and literary theory), edited by S. Averintsev, 1995
Other writings: eight books of poetry (Kormchie zvezdy: Kniga liriki, 1903;
Prozrachnost’: Vtoraia kniga liriki, 1904; Eros, 1907; Cor Ardens, 2 vols., 1911–12;
Nezhnaia taina: Lepta, 1912; Mladenchestvo, 1918; Cheloυek, 1939; Svet vechernii,
1962), two plays (“Tantal,” 1905; Prometei: Tragediia, 1919), and two books on classical antiquity (De societatibus vectigalium publicorum populi romani, 1910; Dionis I pradionisiistvo, 1923). Also translated Aeschylus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Bacchylides, Pindar, Dante, Petrarch, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leopardi, Byron, Baudelaire, and Novalis.
Collected works edition: Sobranie sochinenii, edited by D.V.Ivanov and O.Deschartes, 4 vols., 1971–87 (in progress; 6 vols. projected).
Davidson, Pamela, Viacheslav Ivanov: A Reference Guide, New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan-Hall, 1996
Belyi, Andrei, Sirin uchenogo varvarstva: Po povodu knigi V. Ivanova “Rodnoe I vselenskoe”, Berlin: Skify, 1922
Il Convegno issue on Ivanov, 8–12 (1933–34)
Davidson, Pamela, The Poetic Imagination of Vyacheslav Ivanov: A Russian Symbolist’s Perception of Dante, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989
Egorov, B.F., “Viach. Ivanov i russkie slavianofily,” Russkii tekst 1 (1993):43–57
Jackson, Robert Louis, and Lowry Nelson, Jr., editors, Vyacheslav Ivanov: Poet, Critic, and Philosopher, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 1986
Un maître de sagesse au XXe siècle: Vjačeslav Ivanov et son temps, Cahiers du Monde Russe 35, nos. 1–2 (1994)
Malcovati, Fausto, Vjačeslav Ivanov: Estetica i filosofia, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1983
Malcovati, Fausto, editor, Cultura e memoria: Atti del terzo Simposio Internazionale dedicato a Vjačeslav Ivanov, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 2 vols., 1988
Potthoff, Wilfried, editor, Vjačeslav Ivanov: Russischer Dichter—Europäischer Kulturphilosoph, Heidelberg: Winter, 1993
Pyman, Avril, A History of Russian Symbolism, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994
Shestov, Lev, “Viacheslav Velikolepnyi: K kharakteristike russkogo upadochnichestva,”
Russkaia mysl’ 10 (1916):80–110
Stammler, Heinrich A., “Belyj’s Conflict with Vjačeslav Ivanov over War and Revolution,” Slavic and East European Journal 18, no. 3 (1974):259–70
Tschöpl, Carin, Vjačeslav Ivanov: Dichtung und Dichtungstheorie, Munich: Sagner, 1968
Venclova, Tomas, “Viacheslav Ivanov and the Crisis of Russian Symbolism,” in Issues in Russian Literature Before 1917, edited by J.Douglas Clayton, Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1989
Viacheslav Ivanov: Materialy i publikatsii, edited by N.V.Kotrelev, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 10 (1994)
Wachtel, Michael, Russian Symbolism and Literary Tradition: Goethe, Novalis, and the Poetics of Vyacheslav Ivanov, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995
Wachtel, Michael, editor, Dichtung und Briefwechsel aus dem deutschsprachigen Nachlass, Mainz: Liber Verlag Mainz, 1995
West, James, Russian Symbolism: A Study of Vyacheslav Ivanov and the Russian Symbolist Aesthetic, London: Methuen, 1970
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