Ivanov, Viacheslav Ivanovich (1866–1949)

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A major poet and theorist of the symbolist literary movement in Russia, Viacheslav Ivanov left an elaborate and influential body of work on art, culture, and religion. To the chagrin of his contemporaries, he never formalized his protean and wide-ranging ideas as a philosophical system. However, Ivanov's writings can be divided into several core areas, which succeeded each other at the center of his attention: the ritual roots of tragedy; the artwork as symbol of the transcendent; the role of art in creating historical myth; and the prospects for a religious revival in modernity. Despite his protean views, Ivanov can be seen as a philosopher in the hermeneutic tradition for whom the world reveals itself as an historical continuum of discrete acts of expression and understanding.


Born in Moscow, Ivanov was educated as a classical historian and philologist at the universities of Moscow (18841886) and Berlin (18861891). In 1895 he abandoned his academic career and devoted himself to poetry. This awakening was instigated by his move to Italy, his adulterous affair with Lidiia Zinov'eva-Annibal (who became his second wife in 1899), and his discovery of Friedrich Nietzsche. Ivanov entered into contact with the philosopher Vladimir Solov'ëv, who approved some of Ivanov's poems and the title of his first book of poetry Kormchie zvezdy (Pilot Stars, 1902). Ivanov followed up on his poetic debut with a series of lectures for Russians in Paris called Ellinskaia religiia stradaiushchego boga (The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God, published 1904; continued in 1905 as Religiia Dionisa [The Religion of Dionysus]).

After completing another book of poetry, Prozrachnost' (Transparency, 1904), Ivanov moved to St. Petersburg in the revolutionary year 1905. Between 1905 and 1912, Ivanov hosted weekly symposia at his "Tower" apartment which attracted many major writers, artists, and thinkers. The first session, for example, was devoted to the question of "Eros" and chaired by philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. Ivanov was also active at the St Petersburg Religious-Philosophical Society. His essays from 1904 to 1909 were gathered into the volume Po zvezdam (By the Stars, 1909). After his wife's sudden death in October 1907, Ivanov commemorated her in an elaborate poetic cult, the highpoint of which is marked by the two-volume book of poetry Cor Ardens (19111912).

In 1912 Ivanov married Lidiia's daughter from a previous marriage Vera Shvarsalon, who gave birth to a son Dmitrii; these events inspired Ivanov's 1912 collection Nezhnaia taina (The Tender Mystery). Moving to Moscow in 1913, Ivanov became active in the Moscow Religious-Philosophical Society and became close to such "neo-Slavophile" philosophers as Pavel Florenskii, Sergei Bulgakov, and Vladimir Ern. Ivanov identified himself closely with the memory of Fëdor Dostoevsky, on whom he wrote extensively. He also became a friend of the mystical composer Aleksandr Scriabin, on whom Ivanov wrote a series of poems and essays.

During World War I Ivanov published two books of essays: Borozdy i mezhi (Furrows and Boundaries, 1916) and Rodnoe i vselenskoe (Matters Native and Universal, 1917). In the latter Ivanov's strident political tone reflects his enthusiastic embrace of the February 1917 revolution and his initial opposition to the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917. However by late 1918 Ivanov had assumed an important position in the cultural organs of the fledgling Soviet state and published two earlier works: the autobiographical narrative poem Mladenchestvo (Infancy, 1918) and the drama Prometei (Prometheus, 1919).

After Vera's death in August 1920 Ivanov moved to Baku, where he taught at the new Azerbaijan State University for four years. In 1921 Ivanov defended his doctoral dissertation, Dionis i pradionisiistvo (Dionysus and Pre-Dionysianism, 1923), a more rigorous elaboration of his earlier ideas about Greek religion and tragedy. The Baku period was comparatively barren of original work, especially poetry; Ivanov wrote only a satirical drama Liubov'mirazh? (Is Love a Mirage?, 1924). In 1924 he emigrated to Italy, where in 1926 he became a Roman Catholic. From 1926 to 1935 Ivanov taught at Collegio Borromeo in Pavia.

Ivanov achieved some renown in European intellectual circles between the wars. Most notably, Perepiska iz dvukh uglov (The Correspondence from two corners), which Ivanov coauthored in 1920 with cultural historian Mikhail Gershenzon, was translated into numerous languages beginning in 1926. In 1932 he reworked and translated his essays on Fë Dostoevsky as Dostojewkskij: TragödieMythMystik (Dostoevsky: tragedy, myth, mysticism; translated as Freedom and the Tragic Life [1952]), the single best introduction to Ivanov's thought. In 1939 he published Chelovek (Man), a philosophical poem written mainly between 1915 and 1919. In 1944 he kept a lyric diary which was included in his posthumous book of poetry Svet vechernii (The fading light, 1962).

Ivanov's Thought

Influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and by Nietzsche, in his early metaphysics Ivanov viewed the physical world as a veil of Maya or nonbeing, which can be overcome only in cathartic ritual or ritual-like tragedy. In Ivanov's initial aesthetic statements, the ineffable transcendent event resisted concrete expression, and so the emphasis fell squarely on the psychological transformation of artist and beholder in mimetic performance. Following Richard Wagner, Ivanov projected the renewal of tragedy as a synthesis of the existing arts that would lead to a religious revival. In particular Ivanov equated the rebirth of the tragic chorus in art to the achievement of sobornost', the spiritual unity of the believing community or nation. Ivanov christianized Nietzsche, identifying the suffering god Dionysus with Christ and ancient tragedy with the Christian liturgy.

In politics Ivanov elaborated a theory of mystical anarchism, predicated on the expectation that the community would be unified inwardly by common ritual practice in symphonic unanimity, or sobornost', instead of by formal legal and political structures. He constructed a cyclical theory of cultural history in which periods of critical or classical culture alternate with organic periods of barbarian (i.e., Scythian, Anglo-Saxon, and Slavic) energy. Ivanov counted the impending rebirth of tragedy, the synthesis of the arts, and the revolutionary tumult of 1905 among the symptoms of a new organic era of mystical activity that would lead to a just society and a reinvigorated church.

By 1908 Ivanov had shifted his attention from tragic and ritual performance to its concretization in aesthetic symbols and religious dogma. His aesthetics became increasingly metaphysical, drawing especially on Plato and Vladimir Solov'ëv, from whom he took the term theurgy to denote the artist's transfiguration of phenomena into an ontologically higher reality (the symbol) that approximates the divine prototype. Ivanov described artistic creation and reception as an ascent a realibus ad realiora (from the real to the more real). Adopting linguistic terminology, and referring to neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert, Ivanov claimed that any proposition is based on the verb "to be" and is a normative projection of being as value. In religious terms, any proposition imbues reality with an assertion of divine being. Therefore Ivanov posited that the statement "Thou art" actually elevates the being of both speaker and addressee through the energies of God contained in language itself.

Ivanov's concepts of catharsis and the linguistic symbol led to a communicative philosophy that took its final shape around the time of his move to Moscow in 1913. In "On the Limits of Art" (1914), a major restatement of his aesthetics, Ivanov described the aesthetic process as a continuum of expressive and receptive acts, in which art stimulates individuals to further creativity, leading to the gradual transfiguration of reality through human agency (instead of through semimagical theurgy). Ivanov still attributed a central role to the artist in guiding the individual's transformation; however, he was now eager to describe how the transcendent revelation of the art work is transcribed into a narrative myth that communicates memory and projects future human action.

At this time Ivanov also integrated his aesthetics with an account of history. In a series of articles on the history of literature, Ivanov described how Byron's texts contributed to the development of individual consciousness in Russia, which in turn allowed Pushkin and then Dostoevsky to re-appropriate Russian history and spirituality from within modernity. Defining Dostoevsky's major works as "novel-tragedies" allowed Ivanov to explain both their cathartic grip on readers and their ideological influence. In his philosophical and artistic prose, Ivanov elaborated a new myth of Russian history, which he hoped would result in the country's transformation into a truly Christian empire.

In a 1909 essay "On the Russian Idea" Ivanov described the complex interaction of understanding and action in terms of an Aristotelian triad: catharsis (cleansing), mathesis (learning), and praxis (action). This hermeneutic standpoint received its most accomplished expression in The Correspondence from Two Corners (1920), an epistolary exchange between Ivanov and Mikhail Gershenzon. Surrounded by the ruins of their former world, both authors grappled with their own lives by inscribing their projected identities into a text, which is immediately read and answered by the other.

In his Italian exile Ivanov adjusted earlier ideas and constructs in the light of his Roman Catholicism. Like Solov'ëv, Ivanov explained his conversion to Catholicism as an affirmation of the Roman Catholic Church as a historical symbol of divine unity. He adopted some of Jacques Maritain's neo-Thomist vocabulary, for example defining art as transparentia formae.

In his heyday, Ivanov's intellectual constructs enjoyed broad renown and were key influences on such thinkers as Nikolai Berdyaev, Pavel Florenskii, Sergei Bulgakov, Aleksei Losev, and Mikhail Bakhtin. His views on tragic performance as a social panacea influenced the public celebrations in the early Soviet Union. His impact has also been felt in Orthodox theology, which has sometimes adopted his formulations of the symbol, the idea of aesthetic ascent and descent, and the primacy of ritual experience in generating sobornost'. His conception of culture as a historical continuum of creative acts remains an underappreciated aspect of his work.

See also Hermeneutics; Russian Philosophy.


primary works

Sobranie sochinenii. 4 vols. Brussels: Foyer oriental chrétien, 19711987.

With Mikhail Gershenzon. Correspondence across a Room. Translated by Lisa Sergio. Marlboro, VT: Marlboro Press, 1984.

Freedom and the Tragic Life: A Study in Dostoevsky. Introduction by Robert Louis Jackson. Wolfeboro, NH: Longwood Academic, 1989.

Selected Essays. Translated and with notes by Robert Bird, edited with an introduction by Michael Wachtel. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001.

secondary works

Bird, Robert. "Martin Heidegger and Russian Symbolist Philosophy." Studies in East European Thought 51 (3) (June 1999): 85108.

Bird, Robert. The Russian Prospero: The Creative Universe of Viacheslav Ivanov. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming.

Davidson, Pamela. Viacheslav Ivanov: A Reference Guide. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.

Gogotishvili, L. A. "Mezhdu imenem i predikatom (simvolizm Viach Ivanova na fone imiaslaviia)." In Viacheslav Ivanov: Arkhivnye materialy i issledovaniia, edited by A. A. Gogotishvili and A. T. Kazarian, 303382. Moscow: Russkie slovari, 1999.

Jackson, Robert Louis, and Lowry Nelson Jr., eds. Vyacheslav Ivanov: Poet, Critic, and Philosopher. New Haven, CT: Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 1986.

Marchenkov, Vladimir. "Vladimir Solov'ëv and Vjačeslav Ivanov: Two Theurgic Mythosophies. " In Vladimir Solov'ëv: Reconciler and Polemicist, edited by Wil van den Bercken, Manon de Courten, and Evert van der Zweerde, 211221. Leuven, Paris; Sterling, VA: Peeters, 2000.

Meerson, Michael. The Trinity of Love in Modern Russian Theology: The Love Paradigm and the Retrieval of Western Medieval Love Mysticism (from Solovyov to Bulgakov). Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1998.

Rizzi, Daniela, and Andrej Shishkin, eds. Archivio russo-italiano III: Vjačeslav Ivanov Testi inediti. Salerno: Europa Orientalis, 2001.

Stepun, Fedor. Mystische Weltschau: Fünf Gestalten des russischen Symbolismus. Munich: Carl Hanser, 1964.

Wachtel, Michael, ed. Vjačeslav Ivanov: Dichtung und Briefwechsel aus dem deutschsprachigen Nachlass. Mainz, Germany: Liber-Verlag, 1995.

West, James. Russian Symbolism: A Study of Vyacheslav Ivanov and the Russian symbolist aesthetic. London: Methuen, 1970.

Robert Bird (2005)

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Ivanov, Viacheslav Ivanovich (1866–1949)

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