Between God and Ubermensch: Viacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov and His Vacillating Struggle with Nietzsche

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At the end of the nineteenth century, a considerable part of the Russian intelligentsia became acquainted with the works and thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche, which for many of them was both a source of inspiration and a challenge to further reflection. One of these young intellectuals was Viacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov (1866-1949), who was to become a major poet and leading theoretician of the Russian symbolist movement. (1) In 1886, Ivanov left Moscow and went to Berlin to study classical philology and history. During his stay in the German capital, he took part in Theodore Mommsen's famous seminar on Roman history and most probably got in touch with a number of Nietzsche's writings, which had been arousing quite some excitement in selective intellectual circles from the early 1870s on. (2) In his "Autobiographical Letter," written in 1917 at the request of the literary critic S.A. Vengerov, Ivanov relates how he left Berlin in 1891 and went to Paris, packed "with volumes of Nietzsche, about whom people started talking" (SS, II: 19). Although he did not indicate exactly which books he took with him and whether or not he had really read them, it is beyond all doubt that Nietzsche's thought exerted a decisive impact on the young scholar's intellectual development--"Nietzsche became increasingly and ever more powerfully the master of my thoughts" (SS, II: 19)--and even influenced the course of his personal life. (3) Ivanov admits that he was particularly struck by Nietzsche's first monograph, Die Geburt der Tragodie, which was first published in 1872, but came out with a new foreword and a new subtitle in 1886. This book, focusing on the dynamics of artistic forces crystallized in the duplicity of the "Apollinian" and the "Dionysian," prompted him to shift the focus of his academic attention from Roman to Hellenic history and to spend a year in Athens to study sources and remnants of Dionysian cults. (4) The specific intention of this move was, however, not to pursue the philosopher's hypothesis on the relationship between religion and literature in Greek antiquity, but "to overcome Nietzsche in the issues of religious consciousness" (SS, II: 21).

Although Ivanov's preoccupation with Nietzsche was relatively short-lived, it was intense and gave rise to the author's unceasing appreciation, in particular with respect to the figure of Dionysus. Nevertheless, his reading of Nietzsche's texts cannot be characterized as a form of indiscriminate copying or unquestioned epigonism. On the contrary, Ivanov accepted Nietzsche's aestheticized notion of the Dionysian--as derived from the ancient godhead, but completely disrobed of any religious connotation--with gratitude, yet only to use it as a stimulus to deepen his own religious insights. For him, Dionysus was not solely an artistic principle, but rather a genuine religious and metaphysical being. In order to deal with this contrast, Ivanov felt compelled to study the roots of "Dionysianism" and its relation to Christianity. He elaborated his viewpoints in two longer essays, "Ellinskaia Religiia stradaiushchego Boga" ("The Hellenic Religion of the suffering God," 1904) and "Religiia Dionisa: Ee proiskhozhdenie i vliianiia" ("The Religion of Dionysus: its Origin and Influence," 1905), and in the monograph Dionis i pradionisiistvo (1923).

Intersecting Biographies

It is important to notice that for Ivanov, as Stammler points out, Nietzsche's philosophy was fundamentally embedded in the developments of his biography: "Nietzsche's entire life was a profound mystical experience in broad, occasionally sublime, outlines, ending tragically in an abrupt collapse" (300). During the time Ivanov lived in Berlin, the nomadic philosopher was at first no more than an obscure publicist, relatively unknown to the general public. After his mental collapse in January 1889 and a short internment in mental hospitals in Basel and Jena, Nietzsche was cared for first by his mother in Naumburg, later--after his mother's death in 1897--by his sister in the famous "Villa Silberblick" in Weimar. …