Hall Center For The Humanities


Maria Carlson
Slavic Languages and Literatures

"Why Some Russians Don't Like Kant"
Past Seminars : Philosophy & Literature Seminar

Mon., Jan. 26, 2004, 3:30pm - 5:00pm
Location: Hall Center Conference Room
Maria Carlson, Slavic Languages and Literatures
January 26, 2004
3:30-5:00 p.m.
Hall Center Conference Room

Commentaries to Andrei Belyi's Commentaries to Symbolism
(A Footnote on Belyi's Unfinished ?System of Symbolism?)

Andrei Belyi (1880-1934) was a leading representative of the Russian Symbolist movement. He was the author of seven important modernist novels; four ?symphonies?; scores of essays and articles on literature, philosophy, art, music, and esotericism; hundreds of poems; several monograph studies of writers and on writing; reviews and lectures without number; film scenarios; and several volumes of autobiographical materials and memoirs. He also left some half-dozen manuscripts best termed ?speculative mysticism? or ?esoteric philosophy,? and much other material that is not easily categorized by genre (fragments, prose poems, lyrical essays, glossolalic experiments, etc.). He was a profoundly creative personality.

Belyi belonged to the second generation of Russian symbolists, who were influenced less by French aestheticism and more by German idealist philosophy. A representative of the God-seeking intelligentsia with a pronounced gnostic tendency and an obsession with system, Belyi early became involved in Theosophy and remained an Anthroposophist until the end of his life. In some ways (in his artistic innovations and experimentation), he is representative of his avant-garde generation of writers and poets; in other ways (in his philosophical preference for pre-enlightenment thinking), he is not.

The article I present for discussion, ?Commentaries to Andrei Belyi's Commentaries to Symbolism,? not surprisingly has a Belyi-like genre problem. It is not an article, exactly, and neither is it a bibliographic essay. It examines 176 pages of unusual and eccentric footnotes that Belyi wrote for his 1910 collection of essays, Symbolism. They form an untraditional ?text? of their own, almost completely independent of the works about which they purport to comment. It is my contention that they are the bits and pieces of an ambitious book that Belyi planned to write, but never did (since it could not be done). He planned to call his volume ?The System of Symbolism,? and it was to explicate Symbolism not only as a literary and artistic school, but as a holistic, complete, universal world view.

In this work, I attempt to reconstruct, using the footnotes in Belyi's Commentaries, what his ?System of Symbolism? might have encompassed and how he might have structured it. The Commentaries provide a valuable window into Belyi's ?alchemical? laboratory: by seeing what he chose to read (and what he ignored), how he interpreted what he read, and what philosophical lines he chose to follow, we can partially reconstruct his theoretical system of Symbolism as a world view. At the heart of his system stands a refutation of Kant and a rejection of Enlightenment thought: a surprising position for 1910, and one that encourages us to rethink the nature of Russian Symbolism.
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