Apollonianism and Christian art: Nietzsche`s influence on Acmeism

verses/508/In The Joyful Brotherhood (Veselye brat’ia), an unfinished novella written by Nikolai Gumilev around 1917, the central figure is an urban intellectual who submerges himself in the life and religion of provincial Russia. Motivated by curiosity and the desire for adventure, and confident that his higher education will help him make important ethnographic discoveries, he sets off on his adventure taking provisions for his journey — a toothbrush, cigarettes, and a volume of Nietzsche.1

For Gumilev and the other Acmeists, Nietzsche was as basic an intellectual commodity as he was for the emblematic hero of this curious story. They absorbed Nietzsche’s ideas, along with the philosophy of Bergson and other fashionable ideologies, from the intellectual atmosphere of the Symbolist period. In distinction to Russian Symbolism, however, Acmeism contributed an original interpretation of Nietzsche that emphasized the Apollonian principle over the Dionysian in style and philosophy. By developing Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian, Acmeism was able to reconcile Hellenism and Orthodox Christianity in a poetic valorization of reality.

Acmeism was a post-Symbolist poetic movement. Its adherents rejected theurgy and mysticism; their esthetics emphasized craftsmanship and earthly reality. The theoretician and leader of the Acmeists was Nikolai Gumilev (1886-1921), and the movement’s outstanding poets were Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) and Anna Akhmatova (1888-1966). There were also three minor poets who called themselves Acmeists: Sergei Gorodetsky (1884-1967), co-founder of the movement and author of a manifesto of Acmeism, Vladimir Narbut (1888-1944), and Mikhail Zenkevich (1891-1969). Though the active, public life of the movement was short (its manifesto is from 1912 and the group remained intact only until the beginning of World War I), Mandelstam and Akhmatova continued to develop the basic elements of Acmeist esthetics throughout the Soviet period. Because their emphasis on esthetics, individualism, and the primacy of the word conflicted with the tendencies of Soviet politics and culture, the movement was proscribed under Stalin. Gumilev was executed by the Bolsheviks, Mandelstam died in a Stalinist camp, and Akhmatova was denounced in 1946 and prohibited from publishing for long periods. The work of the major Acmeists began to appear in the Soviet Union only with the relaxation of political-cultural repression in the 1960s, and the rehabilitation of Gumilev began only in 1986. Throughout the Soviet period, however, the Acmeist poets were known and admired by lovers of Russian literature for the uncompromising moral determination and “manly will” that Acmeism brought to poetry.

The basic doctrine of the movement was set forth in Gumilev’s and Gorodetsky’s Acmeist manifestos, published in the first 1913 issue of the journal Apollo (Apollon, 1909-17). Mandelstam clarified and redefined Acmeism in his essays “The Morning of Acmeism” (written in 1913, but not published until 1919) and “On the Nature of the Word” (1922). Characterized by clarity of language and a visual orientation, Acmeist poetry depicts concrete objects from nature and art, in opposition to the Symbolists’ emphasis on abstract and otherworldly subject matter. Acmeism was grounded in traditional world culture and defended basic Christian ethical values: love of God and one’s neighbor and the moral courage to uphold God’s commandments. Though the initial pronouncements stressed poetic ideals (form, equilibrium, and concrete imagery), Mandelstam defined Acmeism more broadly as “a moral force,” “a social phenomenon,” and “a yearning for world culture.”2 Of the Acmeists, perhaps Akhmatova was least affected by Nietzsche’s philosophy. Still, her poetry has been praised for “showing man in a heroic light,”3 and certainly her dedication to art and memory in the Stalinist period reflects the values of “courage, steadfastness, and determination” (muzhestvennost') that Acmeism appropriated from Nietzsche. As this capsule summary of the movement’s theory indicates, Acmeism stressed the Apollonian principle, as elaborated by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, adapting it and combining it with other elements of Nietzsche’s life-affirming philosophy, while rejecting the Dionysian essence.

This essay will examine the adaptation of Nietzsche in the development of Acmeist theory, and will therefore concentrate on the work of the theoreticians of the movement. Gumilev and Gorodetsky had undergone an intensive period of Nietzscheanism in the early years of their careers.4 In his search for a world-view, Gorodetsky turned to mystical anarchism, which was heavily influenced by Nietzsche.5 His first collection of poetry, lar' (1906), named for a pagan deity created by the poet, had as its central theme a poeticization of the elemental strength of primeval man. Deriving his inspiration from ancient Slavic folklore, Gorodetsky created original mythical images which echoed pagan beliefs, traditions, and customs and, in the spirit of Nietzschean individualism, glorified self-affirmation and self-determination. His heroes demonstrate superhuman strength and innate morality as they cheerfully combat the forces of nature in a world free of the restraints of government, law and social convention. Written in a fresh and playful style similar to that of folk poetry, Gorodetsky’s first book was a reflection of the Nietzschean impulse behind mystical anarchism, which purported to reconcile individual freedom and social harmony. Viacheslav Ivanov acclaimed it “a literary event.”6 Though Gorodetsky’s association with Acmeism was short-lived and of questionable impact (he subsequently accommodated himself to the Soviet regime and renounced his attachment to Acmeism), his early attraction to Nietzsche was undoubtedly one of the sources for the primitivist element of Acmeism, which became known by the name of Adamism.

In contrast to Gorodetsky’s interest in mystical anarchism, Nietzsche’s impact on the early Gumilev manifested itself not as a coherent doctrine, but as an amalgam of ideas and attitudes. Nietzsche’s appeal to the leader of the Acmeists seems to have been personal and esthetic, and Gumilev utilizes Nietzschean themes and images throughout his work. The sun, arrows, fire, eagles, lions, and superman-like heroes are most predominant in the early poems, but they persist through his mature poetry. Nietzsche’s emphasis on creative individualism and personal freedom is reflected in Gumilev’s conquistador persona and in his favorite themes of valor and adventure. Moreover, the Superman posture Gumilev liked to affect in his own life has been attributed to the influence of Nietzschean ideals. According to Irina Odoevtseva, who knew him in postrevolutionary Petrograd, Gumilev assimilated many of Nietzsche’s precepts. She quotes him as saying, “It is possible that if I let myself, I would be kind, but I don’t allow myself that ... Kindness is not a masculine quality. One must be ashamed of it as of a weakness.”7 Compare Zarathustra’s comment in the section “On War and Warriors”: “They call you heartless: but your heart is true, and I love the modesty of your kindheartedness. You feel ashamed of your flow, while others feel ashamed of their ebb” (Z, p. 74).

In addition to the profusion of Nietzschean imagery, there are direct echoes of Nietzsche in the poetry of Gumilev’s first collection The Path of the Conquistadors (Put' konkvistadorov, 1905): “The Song of Zarathustra” (“Pesn' Zaratustry,” SS I, p. 5), “To the People of the Present” (“Liudiam nastoiashchego”), and “To the People of the Future” (“Liudiam budushchego,” SS I, p, 35). Note, for example, the following stanzas from an untitled poem, where the poet’s persona, “a forgotten, abandoned god,” is counselled by a vague voice from above:

My tired and pale brother, to work!
Sacrifice yourself to the earth,
If you want the mountainous heights
To burn in the midnight gloom.

If you want the bright distances
To unfold before the ailing people,
Take the days of silent and burning sorrow
Into your powerful soul.

Be a light blue, pre-dawn sacrifice...
In the dark abyss soundlessly burn...
And you will be the Promised Star,
Heralding the coming dawn.

(SSI, p. 40)

Compare Zarathustra: “I love those who do not first seek beyond the stars for reasons to go down and to be sacrifices: but who sacrifice themselves to the earth, that the earth may one day belong to the Superman” (Z, p. 44).

Though Gumilev later dismissed his first collection as juvenile and chose not to republish it with the rest of his work, the warrior pose and conquistador persona for which he became famous persist into his last collection, published posthumously in 1921. Nietzsche’s concept of amorfati is particularly apparent in the strain of virile Romanticism that informs such poems as “My Readers” (“Moi chitateli”) . Here the poet characterizes his readers as “strong, vicious, merry,” choosing examples from his actual experience — an exotic tribal chieftain, a naval lieutenant, an assassin, those who are “true to our planet.”

I don’t insult them with neurasthenia,
Or embarrass them with heartfelt warmth.
I don’t bore them with significant hints
About what’s left in an egg when it’s eaten;
But when bullets whistle all around,
When waves crack into ships,
I teach them not to be afraid,
Not to fear, and to do what they must.

And in their last hour,
When a red mist clouds their view,
I will teach them to recall straight away
All of cruel, lovely life,
Our beloved, alien earth,
And, standing before God
With wise and simple words,
To await calmly His judgment.
(SS II, p. 60)

Gumilev’s dedication to the Apollonian principle is apparent here in his basic agreement with Nietzsche that it is this element in art that enables man to face the horrors of existence without becoming “rigid with fear” (BT, pp. 22, 104). Many additional examples of Gumilev’s attraction to the idea of amor fati can be found in his poems and stories, as well as in his biography. The most famous are those in which he seems to prophecy his own violent death (SS II, pp. 10, 14, 48; IV, pp. 141-52), accepting it (“It is an incomparable right to choose own’s own death,” SS I, p. 55), as Nietzsche admonished:

One perishes by no one but oneself. Only “natural” death is, for the most contemptible reasons, an unfree death, a death at the wrong time, a coward’s death. From love of life one ought to desire to die differently from this: freely, consciously, not accidentally, not suddenly overtaken. (TI, p. 88)

For the development of the artistic philosophy of Acmeism, though, it is Nietzsche’s insistence on loyalty to the earth that is most important. The poem immediately following “My Readers,” the closing poem of Gumilev’s last collection, repeats those ideas expressed in the Nietzschean poems of The Path of the Conquistadors. “Starry Terror” (“Zvezdnyi uzhas,” SS II, p. 62) depicts the demise of a primitive tribe’s superstition against looking directly at the night sky for fear of the demons who, it is believed, inhabit it. Enlightenment comes through the experience of a child, who is brought as a sacrifice to the sky dweller, but who comes away unscathed, seeing nothing more threatening than stars. Finally, the entire tribe looks up to the sky, “And the whole tribe / Lay down and sang, sang, sang.” However, the poet’s sympathy seems to be with the old patriarch, for whom the end of the superstition is the loss of a meaningful illusion, and for whom the people’s fascination with the sky signifies a betrayal of man’s proper realm, the earth. He grieves for the time when people looked

To the plain, where their herds grazed,
To the water, where their sail skimmed by,
To the grass, where their children played,
But not to the dark sky, where there sparkle
The inaccessible, alien stars.

This recalls Gumilev’s justification of the Acmeist rejection of mysticism: “The whole beauty, the whole sacred meaning of the stars lies in the fact that they are infinitely far from earth and that no advance in aviation will bring them closer” (SS IV, p. 174). Even more closely it recalls Zarathustra’s exhortation to “remain true to the earth” (Z, p. 42). This particular teaching of Nietzsche’s is in accord with the basic postulates of the Acmeist program. Acmeism, said Gorodetsky, is “a struggle for this world.”

This world made of time, volume, and form, this planet — the earth. By filling the world with “correspondences,” Symbolism essentially transformed it into a phantom whose importance is determined only by the degree to which other worlds are visible through its translucencies. Symbolism depreciated its great intrinsic worth.8

Since the Acmeists developed this world view as a rebuff to Dionysian Symbolism, they instinctively identified it with the Apollonian. Their connection with the journal Apollo, which for a time was considered an organ of Acmeism, made the opposition explicit. Gumilev’s sympathies are revealed as early as February 26, 1909, in a letter to his mentor Valery Briusov (1873-1924): “I have been to see Viacheslav Ivanov three times, but have not fallen into the Dionysian heresy.”9

The relationship of Acmeism to Viacheslav Ivanov is a complex topic requiring further study, but a comment is relevant here in view of Ivanov’s well-known attraction to Nietzsche. The relationship between Ivanov and most of the future Acmeists goes back to the founding of the journal Apollo in 1909. Of the composition of the editorial board, the founder of the journal, Sergei Makovsky, states simply, “It is curious that both of my senior associates in the creation of the journal, Viacheslav Ivanov and Innokenty Fedorovich [Annensky], were at heart zealous adherents not of Apollo but of his antipode Dionysus.”10 Their participation in the new journal may well have been more pragmatic than principled. Makovsky needed their reputation and professional expertise, while Annensky and Ivanov needed a forum to express their ideas and expand their influence, since the older Symbolist journals The Scales (Vesy) and The Golden Fleece (Zolotoe runo) ceased publication in 1909. Ivanov, for example, soon moved his customary poetic “evenings” from the “tower” with which they had long been identified to the editorial offices of Apollo, giving them a more professional character as meetings of the “Society of Zealots of the Artistic Word” (Obshchestvo revnitelei khudozhestvennogo slovd), known by the “Apollonians as the “Poetic Academy.” With the addition of Blok and Kuzmin to the editorial board, Apollo effected a remarkable unification of Petersburg poets, which, however, proved to be short-lived. Before the year was over, Apollo was the scene for what has become known as the “crisis of Symbolism. Prompted by Ivanov’s well-known essay “The Precepts of Symbolism” (“Zavety simvolizma”), presented at the Poetic Academy in March and published in the May-June, 1910 issue of Apollo together with Blok’s accompanying article “On the Contemporary State of Russian Symbolism” (“O sovremennom sostoianii russkogo simvolizma”), the open debate that ensued over the goals of Symbolism marked the dissolution of the movement. When Briusov’s polemical response, “About ‘Servile Speech,’ In Defense of Poetry” (“O ‘rechi rabskoi,’ v zashchitu poezii” 1910) was published in the next issue, it won the allegiance of Gumilev and the rest of the editorial staff. This was the end of Ivanov’s active role in Apollo. According to Makovsky he had never wielded great influence, since the younger generation reacted reservedly to his poetry and responded more favorably to Annensky (Portrety, p. 276). A further quarrel with Ivanov in 1911 over Gumilev’s poem “Prodigal Son” (“Bludnyi syn”) and its relation to “myth-creation” prompted Gumilev and Gorodetsky to create the Poets’ Guild in opposition to Ivanov’s “Poetic Academy.”11 The declaration of Acmeism as a doctrine and a school was announced in December 1912 at the Stray Dog cafe and published in Apollo in 1913.

In spite of the differences in their poetic philosophy, however, Ivanov and the Acmeists shared a personal affection and mutual professional admiration. Ivanov came close to making a trip to Africa with Gumilev in 1909, and, in the words of Olga Deschartes, Ivanov “all his life ingenuously and unalterably loved the three representatives [of Acmeism].”12 The dispute between them centered around Ivanov’s acceptance (and the Acmeists’ rejection) of Nietzsche’s notion of Dionysian self-transcendence. In this sense, the essence of the Acmeist revolt against Symbolism can be understood as an argument over Nietzsche. To be sure, Nietzsche has a prominent place in Gumilev’s Acmeist manifesto, “Acmeism and the Legacy of Symbolism” (“Nasledie simvolizma i akmeizm,” 1913, SS IV, pp. 171-76). Since this was the primary manifesto for the movement, I will analyze it in some detail, including comments from the other theoreticians of Acmeism as appropriate.

The very terminology used by Gumilev alerts the reader to the Nietzschean subtext. In the introduction of the manifesto he presents the issue as a “revaluation of values and reputations that were not so long ago indisputable” (SS IV, p. 171). The phrase as used by Gumilev is deliberately ironic, since the values being revalued here are largely Nietzsche’s, as popularized by the Russian Symbolists.13 Acknowledging Acmeism’s debt to Russian Symbolism, Gumilev recognizes their common ancestor in French Symbolism, but he discerns in the latter what he calls a “non-Romanic, non-national, alien base.”

The Romanic spirit is too beloved of the element of light, which separates objects, which draws lines clearly and precisely; but this Symbolist merging of all images and objects and the changeability of their appearance could have arisen only in the misty shadows of Germanic forests. (SS IV, p. 172)

Echoing Nietzsche, he goes on to suggest that Symbolism in France is a direct result of the Battle of Sedan. However, whereas Nietzsche nationalistically saw the German victory in the Franco-Prussian war as a liberation, “the elimination of everything Romanic” and the return of the German spirit to itself (BT, pp. 138, 121), Gumilev expresses the point of view of the vanquished Romanic spirit, deploring the imposition of Germanic ideals on French culture.

Aligning Acmeism firmly with the French or Romanic spirit, he announces, albeit in rather vague terms, some of the formal principles of Acmeism: a new, freer verse, a new vocabulary with a stable content based on living, popular speech (as opposed to “the imitation of music,” BT, p. 54), and a “lucid irony, which does not undermine the roots of our faith” to replace “that hopeless German seriousness that our Symbolists so cherished” (SS IV, p. 173). (Here Gumilev also alludes to the anti-Christian nature of Nietzsche’s ideas as incompatible with the philosophy of Acmeism, a notion he expands in the ideological core of the manifesto.) Finally, in a transparent jibe at Viacheslav Ivanov, he rejects the emphasis on the symbol in favor of Appollonian balance, “the full coordination” of poetic devices through careful craftsmanship. Thus, he declares, “It is more difficult to be an Acmeist than a Symbolist, just as it is more difficult to build a cathedral than a tower” (SS IV, p. 173). As Ivanov’s “tower” characterized the Symbolist stage of Russian poetry, the equilibrium of forces in the unity of the architectonically complex Gothic cathedral was to become emblematic of the Acmeist poetic style.

Apart from its rather vague references to poetic form, Gumilev’s manifesto was considered deficient (by contemporaries and in subsequent scholarship) as an expression of the new movement’s philosophy. Though stated in an authoritative tone, his desultory maxims do not readily form a coherent argument. A recognition of the Nietzschean subtext, however, fills in some of the apparent gaps in the exposition of the manifesto’s philosophical core. In fact, to a certain degree the manifesto can be read as one side of a debate, with Ivanov and the Nietzsche of The Birth of Tragedy as silent interlocutors.

Gumilev mentions Nietzsche as one of the “forefathers” of German Symbolism, which posited an “objective goal or dogma” for man in the universe. According to Gumilev,

This showed that German Symbolism did not sense the intrinsic value of each phenomenon, which needs no justification from without. For us, however, the hierarchy of phenomena in the world is merely the specific gravity of each of them, the weight of the most insignificant being still immeasurably greater than the absence of weight, non-existence, and for that reason, in the face of nonexistence, all phenomena are brothers. (SS IV, p. 173)

Gumilev is obviously objecting here to the Dionysian emphasis on “fusion with primordial being” (BT, p. 65). The collapse of individuation that results is, according to Gumilev, a corollary to Nietzsche’s famous dictum that “it is only as an esthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified” (BT, p. 52). To this Gumilev responds that there is no need for justification. Existence is justification enough, and as an Apollonian artist, he takes pleasure in the very existence of the phenomenon, in the principium individuationis, of which Apollo himself is “the glorious divine image” (BT, p. 36). As Mandelstam put it, the Acmeist poet stands in awe of the law of identity, A = A. “Love the existence of the thing more than the thing itself and your own existence more than yourself: that is Acmeism’s highest commandment” (“The Morning of Acmeism,” CCPL, p. 64).

This insistent belief in the existence and dignity of individual things is in direct contrast to the Symbolists’ emphasis on mysticism, their tiheurgical understanding of art, and their (especially Ivanov’s) refusal to “accept the world.” Nietzsche’s theories on esthetics played an enormous role in the development of the central idea of Russian modernism, that is, the importance of art in bringing closer to consciousness the mysteries that lie beyond the corporeal world.14 Of course, the Symbolists’ position represents a certain transposition of Nietzsche’s thoughts, blended as they were with ideas of Soloviev, Merezhkovsky, and various occult philosophies. Rather than disentangling the various strains of influence behind the principle to which he objected, Gumilev found it convenient to simplify his argument by identifying theurgical Symbolism wholly with Nietzsche. The Symbolists’ concentration on the Dionysian element in Nietzsche to the virtual neglect of the Apollonian made it easy for Gumilev to reject Symbolism and Nietzsche together, even though Acmeism identified with many of Nietzsche’s life-affirming principles.

The Acmeists, then, insisted on the intrinsic value of each phenomenon and, like Zarathustra, accepted experience in its totality.15 Accepting no externally imposed system of value, the Acmeists, as Apollonians, still speak of a hierarchy of phenomena, but a hierarchy based on nothing more than the “specific gravity” of each phenomenon. That is, Acmeism emphasizes the weight and corporeality of phenomena and accepts the Apollonian restraint represented by the force of gravity. Gumilev seems to identify Zarathustra’s aspirations toward escaping gravity by dancing and flying with Symbolism’s allegorical flight into abstraction and another world. In Zarathustra’s song on the Spirit of Gravity, he says, “He who will one day teach men to fly will have moved all boundary-stones; all boundary-stones will themselves fly into the air to him, he will baptize the earth anewas ‘the weightless’” (Z, p. 210). As if in answer, Acmeism took the boundary-stone as the base of its edifice, and Mandelstam claims, “Acmeism is for those who, inspired by the spirit of building, do not, like cowards, renounce their own gravity, but joyously accept it in order to arouse and exploit the powers architecturally sleeping within .,. We cannot fly, we can ascend only those towers which we build ourselves” (“The Morning of Acmeism,” CCPL, p. 62). Man’s role in the world, then, is to struggle against nonexistence by creating structures of buildings and poems, and in this conscious, laborious effort mankind is united, not in a spontaneous, self-transcending mystic oneness, but in a universal brotherhood of phenomena. In Mandelstam’s words, “There is no equality, there is no competition, there is only the complicity of all who conspire against emptiness and nonexistence” (“The Morning of Acmeism,” CCPL, p. 64).

The next, central, paragraph of Gumilev’s manifesto is interesting for its argumentative content and the combative style of its assertions, which seem almost to be hurled at a silent interlocutor.

We would not dare to force an atom to bow to God, if this were not in its nature. But, feeling ourselves to be phenomena among phenomena, we become part of the world rhythm, we accept all the forces acting on us and, in our turn, we create forces ourselves. It is our duty, our will, our happiness, and our tragedy to guess each hour what the next hour may be for us, for our cause, for the whole world, and to hurry its coming. And as our highest reward, which never for an instant escapes our attention, we dream of the image of the last hour, which will never come to pass. However, to rebel in the name of other conditions of existence here, where there is death, is just as strange as for a prisoner to break down the wall, when in front of him there is an open door. Here ethics becomes esthetics, expanding into the latter’s sphere. Here individualism at its highest tension creates community. Here God becomes a Living God, because man has felt himself worthy of such a God. Here death is a curtain, separating us, the actors from the audience, and in the inspiration of the play, we disdain the cowardly peeping into the future, the “what will happen next?” As Adamists we are partly forest beasts and in any case we will not give up what is animal in us in exchange for neurasthenia. But now it is time for Russian Symbolism to speak. (SS IV, pp. 173-74)

As though with a great sigh, Gumilev finishes his tirade directed at the Dionysian emphasis of Nietzsche and turns to a discussion of its heritage in Russian Symbolism, the use of the national adjective serving to stress the thematic transition. Before following his train of thought, however, the arguments presented here beg for elucidation. Again, a recognition of the subtext is helpful.

Gumilev begins with an acceptance of the natural world as a “given” and man’s place in it as “part of the world rhythm.” While the Dionysian spirit’s perception of reality is accompanied by a “striving for the infinite” (BT, p. 141), the Apollonian response to the natural world is to accept its limits and to act, to become a force among others, and to live on to see what life has in store. There are echoes here of the concluding section of The Birth of Tragedy. “In [Apollo’s] name we comprehend all those countless illusions of the beauty of mere appearance that at every moment make life worth living at all and prompt the desire to live on in order to experience the next moment” (BT, p. 143). However “the next moment” for Gumilev is but one in a progression leading to “the last hour, which will never come to pass.” This understanding of time sounds similar to Nietzsche’s notion of “eternal recurrence,” in that it motivates an extraordinary heightening of the importance of each moment of existence. However, in rebuttal to Nietzsche’s recourse to esthetics, Gumilev’s “justification” of the world involves a Christian understanding of time in which each moment holds the potential for an eschatological fulfillment. Though on the surface Acmeism’s increased sensitivity to the texture of existence is similar to Nietzsche’s, it arises from an opposite source.16

Gumilev goes beyond the “esthetic” justification of the world to the ethical, since in his world, “here where there is death,” ethics has expanded into the realm of esthetics, that is, art must be justified ethically as well as esthetically. He had expounded this theme in an earlier essay “The Life of Verse” (“Zhizn' stikha,” 1910), which was in part a response to Viacheslav Ivanov’s “Precepts of Symbolism.” In this, his first published essay, Gumilev upholds an extreme Apollonian view of art, accepting the proposition, perhaps from Nietzsche, that “purity is suppressed sensuality, and it is beautiful.” But he insists that any attitude toward art must be “chaste.” He defines the concept of chastity (tselomudrennost') idiosyncratically as “the right of every phenomenon to be valuable in itself, not to require justification of its existence, and another, higher right - to serve others” (SS IV pp. 158-59). Thus, the phenomena of the world, among them art and literature, are justified intrinsically, but also by the ethical principle, here stated somewhat vaguely, of service to others. That these two “rights” are one and the same is explained by Mandelstam.

In the Middle Ages man considered himself just as indispensable and just as bound to the edifice of his world as a stone in a Gothic structure, bearing with dignity the pressures of his neighbors and entering the common play of forces as an inevitable stake. To serve meant not only to act for the common good. In the Middle Ages a man unconsciously recognized the plain fact of his own existence as service, as a kind of heroic act. (“Francois Villon,” CCPL, p. 59)

This is consistent with the Apollonian world view, in the sense that Apollo is the “ethical deity” (BT, p. 46), and the Acmeists more than once reproached Symbolism for its “amoralism.”17 However, in the manifesto in which he announces the movement to replace Symbolism, Gumilev refers to the ethical justification of art and existence only in passing. Of greater interest here is the eschatological justification, and this is his ultimate refutation of the otherworldliness of Symbolism. He claims that there is no need “to rebel in the name of other conditions of existence here, where there is death.” That is, the focus on and the justification of life in this world is possible not as an escape from death, but because “here there is death.” Gumilev is being deliberately provocative with this seemingly paradoxical statement. He does not elucidate any particular Acmeist understanding of death in his manifesto, but there are relevant hints of such a philosophy elsewhere in Acmeist writings, particularly in Mandelstam’s essay “Pushkin and Scriabin” (1915).

This essay, which Mandelstam at one time considered his most important article,18 was characterized by Nadezhda Mandelstam as a “certain polemic with Viacheslav Ivanov-Nietzsche and his (sic) Dionysian understanding of art.”19 Jane Gary Harris describes it as “a more mystical-religious-philosophical statement of his basic esthetic tenets, indeed of his Acmeist views juxtaposed against the esthetic tenets of Symbolism ... Mandelstam focuses on the experience of‘illusion’ or esthetic consciousness and poetic craft as opposed to the religious experience and ‘pure music’” (Jane Gary Harris, commentary to Mandelstam, “Pushkin and Scriabin,” CCPL, p. 598). Harris comments that Mandelstam seems to be invoking Annensky’s tradition while opposing Ivanov’s, but one might also say that he is invoking the Apollonian principle as opposed to the Dionysian.

Mandelstam specifically characterizes Scriabin’s talent as Dionysian. He sees Scriabin as “the most extreme revelation of
the Hellenistic nature of the Russian spirit possible . . . a mad Hellene” (Mandelstam’s italics, “Pushkin and Scriabin,” CCPL, p. 91), and goes^ on to discuss Scriabin’s music, which allows an apparent, though unstated, correlation with Nietzsche. Noting the fear and distrust of music among the ancients, Mandelstam focuses on Nietzsche’s recognition of the practical impossibility of purely Dionysian music. Such pure music would be shattering in its evocation of primordial universality and its unbearable representation of suffering and pain, which is the Dionysian truth about the world. Hence, the chief function of the Apollonian element of tragedy is to shield the spectator against the full impact of the music (BT, pp. 125—26). Mandelstam recognized that Scriabin’s music approached the Dionysian, particularly in the “wordless, strangely mute” chorus of Prometheus (CCPL, p. 91). Scriabin’s biographer E. A. Hull describes the musician’s aspirations in his famous orchestral tone-poem “Prometheus: Poem of Fire” as follows: “[Scriabin] is apparently striving to obtain by means of his music that state of ecstasy which the true mystic realizes can only be obtained when a perfect union with the divine has been achieved.”20 By analogy, this striving for Dionysian transcendence in Scriabin is the basis for Mandelstam’s Acmeist condemnation of Nietzsche’s Dionysianism and Viacheslav Ivanov’s theurgical Symbolism.

Though Mandelstam’s sympathy is clearly with the Apollonian rather than the Dionysian principle, like Gumilev he agrees with Nietzsche that it does not provide a sufficient justification of the world and of art. What does provide justification for Mandelstam, as for Gumilev, is the existence of death, but Mandelstam goes beyond Gumilev to provide an explanation, however obscure, of how death alters the Apollonian-Dionysian duality.

The Christian world is an organism, a living body. The fabric of our world is renewed through death. We must struggle against the barbarism of our new life, for in the new life which is flourishing, death is unvanquished! As long as death exists in the world, Hellenism will exist, for Christianity Hellenizes death ... Hellenism, impregnated with death, is Christianity. (Mandelstam’s italics, “Pushkin and Scriabin,” CCPL, p. 94).

To inject the concept of death into the Hellenic world is to infuse it with the understanding of grace, redemption, and salvation which is part of the Christian world view. As Gregory Freidin writes, “The Greeks, who had realized the ideal of beauty, were unaware of the beauty and special significance of death known to Christians.” In his definition of Christianity as “Hellenism impregnated with death,” Mandelstam “was trying to combine the best of both worlds.”21 The Christian world does not fear the Dionysian spirit, because it is confident in its salvation, as Mandelstam explained once again through the analogy of music.

Pure music was unknown to the Hellenes; it belongs completely to Christianity ... Christianity did not fear music. The Christian world smiled as it spoke to Dionysus: “All right, try it, just order your
Maenads to tear me to pieces: I am wholeness, I am individuality, I am indivisible unity!” (“Pushkin and Scriabin,” CCPL, p, 94).

Even in this polemic with him, the inescapable impact of Nietzsche is evident in the fact that the “Christian world” here opposes Dionysus with distinctly Apollonian traits of integrity and individuality.

In the final analysis, both Mandelstam and Gumilev perceived Nietzsche’s unstated hostility to Christianity in The Birth of Tragedy and answered this and his subsequent anti-Christian arguments with a defense of Christianity in art. Gumilev does so tacitly, describing the Christian world as “here where there is death.” Here we see the merging of ethics and esthetics and the creation of civic society (obshchestvmnost', not sobornost', that is, an architectonic organic system rather than a mystical community), taking place in the realm of the Living God, not in the world of Zarathustra where God is dead. As a result of the existence of death, the “play of life” as seen by Gumilev is one in which there is a definite separation of actors and audience, not the “great sublime chorus of dancing and singing satyrs” that Nietzsche saw in Greek tragedy (BT, p. 62). Nietzsche’s reaction to Greek drama — “we felt as if only a parable passed us by, whose most profound meaning we almost thought we could guess and that we wished to draw away like a curtain in order to behold the primordial image behind it” (BT, p. 139) — is answered by Gumilev’s refusal to “peep into the future.”

Acmeism adamantly refuses to look behind the curtain, because this is, in fact, not a world of dissonance and ugliness that requires a veil of Apollonian illusion to be made bearable, nor is the Apollonian transfiguration “mere appearance,” as Nietzsche would have it. Acmeism revises the Apollonian perception of the world as offered by Nietzsche by “impregnating” it with death, or grace. To the Acmeists, the beauty of the phenomenal world is metaphysical truth because a living God is present in it, and not beyond or above it. As Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote, “For the Christian, the link between the empirical world and the higher one is ensured not by means of symbols, but through revelation, the sacraments, grace, and - most important of all - through the coming of Christ. Christ is not a ‘Symbol’.”22 Thus, the Acmeists had a sacramental view of the earth as a “God-given palace” (“The Morning of Acmeism,” CCPL, p. 63), since Christ had lived on it and sanctified it. That is, Acmeism counters Nietzsche and theurgical Symbolism with the basic Orthodox belief that God is the author of the created world, which is beautiful and significant because of his presence. And Gumilev finishes his polemic with Ivanov/Nietzsche by alluding to the alternate name by which the Acmeists were known, Adamists, its Biblical origin countervailing against the Greek akme.

In “Pushkin and Scriabin,” Mandelstam explicitly describes the features of “Christian art,” with implicit references to Nietzsche’s view of tragedy as redemption (BT, p. 125).

Christian art is action, always based on the great idea of redemption. It is an “imitation of Christ” infinitely varied in all its manifestations, an eternal return to the single creative act that began our historical era. Christian art is free. It is “art for art’s sake” in its fullest meaning. No necessity of any kind, not even the highest, darkens its bright inner freedom, for its prototype, that which it imitates, is the very redemption of the world by Christ. Thus, neither sacrifice, nor redemption in art, but rather the free and joyous imitation of Christ is the keystone of Christian esthetics. Art cannot be sacrifice, because a sacrifice has already been made; it cannot be redemption because the world, along with the artist, has already been redeemed. (CCPL, p. 91)

Mandelstam’s use of the phrase “eternal return” here is provocative, since this passage from “Pushkin and Scriabin” radically reinterprets Nietzsche’s concept. The “redemption” of the past, which Nietzsche finds in eternal recurrence, is superfluous in the world of Christian art, as is the justification of the present. Redemption and sacrifice were achieved by the Son of God during his sojourn on earth, and the role of man and the artist is to imitate him by accepting the limits of the world, and rejoicing in its beauty as a God-given gift. As Gregory Freidin notes, from this point of view, poetry is also a form of the imitation of Christ. “In the symbolic and anagogical sense, it is the poetry of resurrection. In this art form ... such an indisputable fact as death endows one’s art with the ultimate meaning and sanction.”23

That this “Christian” attitude to art and the world bears more than a slight similarity with the Apollonian principle is not coincidental. If Viacheslav Ivanov wanted to reconcile Christianity with Dionysianism, seeing Dionysus as a precursor of Christ, the Acmeists sought no such synthesis. They understood Christ as a true person who shared their own humanity and their own world. Nonetheless, his attitude toward and acceptance of that condition (as they understood it) was essentially Apollonian, and their role was to imitate Christ, In that sense, though they themselves would undoubtedly reject any hint of religious syncretism, one might say that the Acmeists saw Orthodox Christianity as the fulfillment of Apollonianism.

The balance of Gumilev’s Acmeist manifesto is directed at the otherworldly aspirations of theurgical Symbolism, to which Gumilev responds with the famous assertion that “the unknowable, by its very definition, cannot be known” (SSIV, p. 174). In contrast to Western theology, which attempts to justify the existence of God, Gumilev appeals to Orthodox apophatic theology, which forbids positive or rationalistic explanations of the deity and which requires that He be defined only by negation. The insistence on the impossibility of describing the absolute transcendence of God thus preserves an element of ineffability in God’s relation to man. This is entirely consistent with the Apollonian orientation, which is presented by Nietzsche as more orderly than its Dionysian antipode, but not, strictly speaking, any more rational.24 In the context of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, Gumilev’s emphasis on accepting the unknown and relishing “the feeling of not knowing ourselves” may also represent a defense against the charge of Socratism.

There are many other aspects in which Acmeism opposes Nietzsche’s Dionysian principle and its manifestation in theurgical Symbolism. It exalts masculinity. It accepts social, ethical and political responsibilities, like the virgins of Apollo who “remain what they are and retain their civic names, as opposed to the dithyrambic chorus, “timeless servants of their god who live outside the spheres of society” (BT, p, 64). (Mandelstam viewed Acmeism as a social phenomenon, as opposed to the cosmic aspirations of Symbolism.) Acmeism values “domesticity” over mystery, appreciating Euripides as a “domestic writer” (“On the Nature of the Word,” CCPL p. 127), rather than reproaching him for the degeneration of tragedy (BT, pp. 79-86). Finally, the Acmeists insist on the adequacy of language, opposing the primacy of music with the power of the word. All of these topics deserve treatment in a more detailed discussion of the relationship between Acmeism and Nietzsche, with further elaboration of the separate effects that the ideas of Nietzsche had on the individual Acmeist poets. However, Nietzsche’s greatest impact on Acmeism was in the impetus he provided for the formation of a world view and esthetic philosophy that opposed theurgical Symbolism. The other elements of influence, easily apparent in the imagery and thematics of their poetry, are the logical outcome of that position.

The well worn volume of Nietzsche packed in the traveling bag of the adventuresome hero of Gumilev’s Joyful Brotherhood was soon lost, along with his toothbrush and his intellectual arrogance (SS IV, p. 124). The Acmeists made a great show of their ostensible rejection of Nietzsche because of his identification with the Dionysian world view and Viacheslav Ivanov’s brand of Symbolism, and his hostility to Christianity. Still, by emphasizing the Apollonian, the Acmeists appropriated and reworked the elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy that appealed to them, and, paradoxically, they come closer to the essence of Nietzsche’s life-affirming philosophy than the Symbolists, whose one-sided adherence to the Dionysian fueled their rejection of the material world.

Gumilev comments on relationships of influence in a late poem entitled “The Master Artists’ Prayer” (“Molitva masterov,” SS II, p. 56), where he agrees with Nietzsche that the only followers worth having are those who resist their masters.

We welcome those who insult and abuse,
But to flatterers we say, “No!”
Fawning reviews and the crowd’s acclaim
Are useless for the creation of sacred things.

The Acmeists were indeed resistant followers, but the critical stance they took to Nietzsche’s teachings proved to be highly productive for their art and a significant step in the development of Russian literature.


1. N. Gumilev, Sobranie sochinenii, ed, G. P. Struve and B. A. Filippov, 4 vols. (Washington, 1962-68), IV, p. 103. Henceforth cited parenthetically in the text as SS.

2. Osip Emilievich Mandelstam, “On the Nature of the Word” (“O prirode slova”), The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, ed. Jane Gary Harris, trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link (Ann Arbor, 1979), p. 131. Henceforth cited parenthetically in the text as CCPL.

3. N. V. Nedobrovo, “Anna Akhmatova,” Russkaia mysV 7 (1915), repr. Anna Akhmatova, Sochineniia, ed. G. P. Struve and B, A. Filippov, 3 vols. (Paris, 1983), III, pp. 473-95.

4. A study of the influence of Nietzsche on the poetry of Gumilev is sorely wanting. For Nietzsche’s influence on Gumilev’s drama, see two articles by Elaine Rusinko: “An Acmeist in the Theater: Gumilev’s Tragedy The Poisoned Tunic” Russian Literature 31 (1992), pp. 393-414, and “Rewriting Ibsen in Russia: Gumilyov’s Dramatic Poem ‘Gondla,’” The European Foundations of Russian Modernism, ed. Peter Barta (Lewiston, NY, 1991), pp. 189-218. The impact ofNietzsche on Mandelstam is complex; see Glare Gavanagh’s chapter on Mandelstam’s view of history in this volume.

5. See B. G. Rosenthal, “The Transmutation of the Symbolist Ethos: Mystical Anarchism and the Revolution of 1905,” Slavic Review 36 (December 1977), pp. 608—27.

6. Cited in S. I. Mashinskii, “Sergei Gorodetskii,” Sergei Gorodetskii, Stikkotvoreniia ipoemy (Leningrad, 1974), p. 2.

7. Na beregakh Nevy (Washington, 1968), p. 114. Odoevtseva states that she was introduced to Nietzsche by Gumilev, who lent her his own volumes of the philosopher’s works. She recalls, “Nietzsche had an enormous influence on Gumilev. His affected cruelty, his scorn for the weak, and the tragic heroism of his world view was appropriated from Nietzsche” (p. 72). There is also evidence of Gumilev’s attraction to Nietzsche in the biographical notes compiled by Pavel Lukhnitskii, published in Vera Lukhnitskaia, Nikolai Gumilev: Zhizn' poeta po materialam domashnego arkhiva sem’i Lukhnitskikh (Leningrad, 1990), pp. 9, 37, 66, 80.

8. S. M. Gorodetskii, “Nekotorye techeniia v sovremennoi russkoi poezii,” Apollon 1 (January 1913),'-?. 48-

9. N. S. Gumilev, Neizdannye, ed. Gleb Struve (Paris, 1980), p. 60.

10. Sergei Makovskii, Portrety sovremennikov (New York, 1955), p. 128.

11. Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, trans. Max Hayward
(New York, 1974), pp. 38-39

12. O. A. Deschartes, commentary to Viacheslav Ivanov, Sobranie sochinenii (Brussels, 1971), I, p. 848. For the relationship between Ivanov and the Acmeists, see Sheelagh Graham and Michael Basker, commentary to Nikolai Gumilev, Neizdannoe i nesobrannoe, ed. M. Basker and S. Graham (Paris, 1986), pp. 253-56.

13. In the same spirit, to support the Acmeist dedication to the traditions of world culture, Mandelstam proposed that “Affirmation and justification of the real values of the past is just as revolutionary an act as the creation of new values,” “Storm and Stress,” in CCPL, p. 176.

14. Ann M. Lane, “Nietzsche Comes to Russia: Popularization and Protest in the 1890s,” Nietzsche in Russia, ed. B. G. Rosenthal (Princeton, 1986), p. 63.

15. This aspect of Acmeism is best represented by the two lesser known poets, Vladimir Narbut and Mikhail Zenkevich. Zenkevich’s 1912 collection Wild Purple (Dikaia porfira) was praised by Gumilev for the poet’s “contentment with the earth” (SS IV, p. 290). Both poets demonstrate a “genuine fascination with ugliness” and are relentless in their glorification of the grotesque (SS IV, p. 300). Still Gumilev insists that they express in such poetry “vigorous life-affirmation, celebrating as Nietzsche did, in the words of John Burt Foster, “the fullness of being that can result from any open-eyed avowal of the negative aspects of life, Heirs to Dionysus: A Nietzschean Current in Literary Modernism (Princeton, 1981), p. 8i. A discussion of this “primitivist” aspect of Acmeism can be found in Elaine Rusinko, Adamism and Acmeist Primitivism,” Slavic and East European Journal 1 (1988), pp. 84-97.

16. Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence was salient for Akhmatova’s and Mandelstam’s artistic use of poetic memory and synchronic understanding of history (cf. Mandelstam’s joy of recurrence, CCPL, p. 114). But the Acmeist concept is a Christian transposition of Nietzsche’s idea. See Gregory Freidin’s discussion of Mandelstam’s Mnemosyne as “a Christian cousin of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence” in A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and his Mythologies of Self-presentation (Berkeley, 1987), p. 80.

17. Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope against Hopei trans. Max Hayward (New York, 1970), p, 278; O. E, Mandelstam, “On the Nature of the World,” CCPL, p. 131; Gumilev, IV, p. 321.

18. N. Mandelstam, Hope against Hope, p. 175.

19. N. Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, p. 126.

20. E. A. Hull, A Great Russian Tone-Poet: Scriabin (London, 1921), cited in CCPL, p. 601. See also Ann M, Lane, “Bal'mont and Skriabin; The Artist as Superman,” Nietzsche in Russia, ed. Rosenthal, pp. 195—218.

21. Freidin, Coat of Many Colors, p. 72.

22. N. Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, p. 44.

23. Freidin, Coat of Many Colors, p. 80.

24. M. S. Silk and J. P. Stern, Nietzsche on Tragedy (London, 1981), p. 162.