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The Russian Prospero

The Creative Universe of Viacheslav Ivanov

Robert Bird

Publication Year: 2006

Viacheslav Ivanov (1866–1949), the central intellectual force in Russian modernism, achieved through his work an original synthesis of Christianity, Platonism, and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. His powerful intellect exerted an immeasurable influence in modernist Russia and the early Soviet Union, and after emigrating to Italy in 1924 he played an important role in intellectual debates in Western Europe between the wars. In recent years, Ivanov's manifold contributions have been recognized in all major aspects of Russian culture, including poetry, literary theory, philosophy, and theology.

In The Russian Prospero, Robert Bird uncovers the foundations of Ivanov's poetic and theoretical universe, traces its evolution, and explores its connections to cultural and intellectual currents in international modernism. Blending a close reading of Ivanov's work with a thoughtful analysis of his place within twentieth-century thought, Bird finds that Ivanov's ecstatic creative psychology leads directly to a consideration of history as a continuum of human interpretive activity, and to a conception of art as a historical force. He emphasizes and dramatizes Ivanov's quest to harness the power of art and apply it to concrete life-situations. It is the dilemma of Prospero, who must liberate his attendant spirit Ariel in order to restore full sovereignty over his own creative self and to regain ethical agency. The productive tension that resulted from Ivanov's struggle was a remarkable force in Russian modernism and remains a powerful spur for our own reflections on modernity.  
Outstanding Academic Title, Choice Magazine

“[Bird’s] clear explanations of Ivanov’s ideas and his informed, insightful, astute readings of the poetic works make this book required reading for anyone interested in modern poetry, intellectual history, cultural studies, and philosophy of early 20th century Russian and European thought. . . . Essential.”—Choice

“[Bird] makes a welcome contribution to our understanding of Russian modernism in its broader European context . . . . In this undertaking he has not only succeeded admirably, but will undoubtedly inspire others to follow him.”—Pamela Davidson, The Russian Review

“The most comprehensive overall treatment of Ivanov’s work to date.”—David N. Wells, The Slavic and East European Journal

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

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pp. ix-xi

My study of Viacheslav Ivanov is the most comprehensive account to date of the artistic and intellectual universe of this major Russian modernist poet, critic, and religious philosopher. Acknowledging the broad and intricate design of Ivanov’s creative endeavor, I have addressed all of the majorfields and periods into which his works are customarily divided. ...


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pp. xiii

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Introduction: From Biography to Text

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pp. 3-43

Viacheslav Ivanov was a man of the cusp, an archetypal fin-de-siècle figure, heralding the dawn of a new age by wrapping himself in the faded robes of the past. A dissenter against modernity, he became the mistrusted mentor of the remarkable last generation of Russian...

Part I Prospero and Ariel: Categories of Discourse

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1. Lyric, Ritual, Symbol

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pp. 47-86

In this chapter I introduce Ivanov’s lyric poetry and demonstrate how it achieves its intervention in ritual. While many of the concepts I explore later are already present here, it is important to begin with Ivanov’s lyrics insofar as they served as the origin of his narrative and theoretical constructs. ...

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2. Epic, Myth, Allegory

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pp. 87-121

The symbolic power of Ivanov’s lyrics was sometimes blunted by his Prospero-like attempt to control their interpretation through allegory. In chapter 1 I argued that Ivanov’s mature lyric poetry resolves this tension by limiting the allegorical references to such extratextual factors as arrangement, dating, and dedication. ...

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3. Ivanov’s Theory of Discourse

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pp. 122-149

The tension between lyric and epic in Ivanov’s poetry was typical for Russian symbolism, which came to prominence in the 1890s through the lyric poetry of Valery Briusov, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Konstantin Balmont, and others. These bold lyric voices resounded strongly, issuing a challenge to the prose writers who dominated Russian literature at the time, from Lev...

Part 2 Hermeneutic Themes in Ivanov's Theoretical Universe

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4. Catharsis

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pp. 153-174

Ivanov announced his theoretical program in terms of a return to a “mythological period”: “Regardless of the veracity of metaphysical insights, it is important to establish that they are of the same nature as myth” (1904: 48). In Ivanov’s conception, myth is formed to communicate an inexpressible truth, which it envelops in narrative, just as nocturnal dreams are compre-...

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5. Mathesis

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pp. 175-198

The Apollonian cult of form that began to displace Dionysian chaos at the heart of Ivanov’s aesthetics around 1908 was centered on the concept of the symbol. The latter, however, proved singularly malleable and elusive. In his 1906 article “Portents and Presentiments” Ivanov proclaimed: “Our symbols are not names; they are our silence” (SE 97; Coll. Works 2:88). ...

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6. Praxis

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pp. 199-225

Despite having been a student of the great Theodor Mommsen, Ivanov’s earliest published works linked him to two of Mommsen’s bitterest enemies, Johann Jakob Bachofen and Friedrich Nietzsche. Ivanov thereby threw in his lot with a philological school of historiography that dealt more with the aesthetic expressions of culture than with its material organization. ...

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Part 3 Afterglow

Unlike Auden’s Prospero, who is daunted by the prospect of a final journey, Ivanov portrayed his permanent exile as a return to “his native home,” as he wrote in the first of his 1926 Roman Sonnets (Coll. Works 3:578). Although in emigration he was left with nothing but his memories and his family,...

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7. Ivanov’s Emigration

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pp. 229-262

Ivanov’s mature theoretical stance in the 1910s entailed a certain humility before history. His emigration in 1924, by contrast, revealed a quite different attitude. There were, of course, many personal reasons prompting him to emigrate. ...

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pp. 263-264

In a letter to Viacheslav Ivanov dated 1 April 1915, the priest and philosopher Pavel Florensky wrote: “What does V[iacheslav] I[vanov] really know? A lot; but everything that he truly knows is near the origin [okolo rozhdeniia].”1 ...


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pp. 265-291


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pp. 293-304


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pp. 305-310

E-ISBN-13: 9780299218331
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299218300

Publication Year: 2006