previous sub-section
The Russian Tradition from Potebnia to Shklovsky, with Some Poets in Between
next sub-section

The Value of Formalism and the Formalism of Values

Everything came together for Bely in 1909, if you can call what happened that year "coming together." It came together in the sense that Bely wrote most of his greatest theoretical works in a stupendously concentrated period of activity. He claims to have written his crowning article on the theory of symbolism, "The Emblematics of Meaning," in a week (the article is close to a hundred printed pages long). After writing his trend-setting article on metrics, "Lyric Poetry and Experiment," Bely wrote three accompanying pieces on metrics and his famous "Magic of Words" in a single month, then in two additional months dashed off the two-hundred-odd pages of commentary to his collection Symbolism and reread Potebnia.[15]

Bely's concern for the previous twelve years or so had been a theory of symbolism, something to define the cultural and philosophical era of which he was a part. Symbolism is the monument to this whole period since in it are collected Bely's most important theoretical pronouncements. But the book has a strangely schizoid character that would appear to make nonsense of any superficial attempt to find a unified vision in the different things Bely says. Bely himself knew this and wrote about it toward the end of his life in his memoirs. This "heap of screamingly contradictory articles," he says of Symbolism, was a reflection of his "stormy and agonizing personal life" at the time.[16]

It's true that the articles are "screamingly contradictory." There are articles proposing purely formalistic and scientific systems of aesthetics; there are the articles on metrics, which rely on the extensive use of statistics for verse analysis; and there are the difficult idealist articles on theory of symbolism, like "The Emblematics of Meaning" and "The Magic of Words." It's not true, however, that all these contradictions are simply the reflection of Bely's personal life. They are the reflection


of a deep division in Bely's thinking, one that arguably lasted his entire adult life.

Less self-conscious remarks that Bely made about his theoretical writings will show what I mean. For both in the period when the essays were written and later on, in his memoirs, Bely seems confused about the true orientation of his studies. One moment he appears to think that the secret to a theory of symbolism lies in the direction of Kantian epistemology, or what he calls criticism (since Kant arrives at his epistemology through a critique of pure reason), and the next moment he appears to think that it is some sort of religion. In the introductory footnote to "The Emblematics of Meaning," for example, Bely states that the theoretical foundation for a theory of symbolism (a foundation, incidentally, that has not yet been established, he says) is to be found "in the context of a critical reappraisal of the basic epistemological premises concerning reality."[17] In his memoirs he speaks of the "epistemology of symbolism" and how he had wanted his theory to be critical (in the Kantian sense) rather than mystical.[18] But in the preface to Symbolism Bely unabashedly writes that symbolism is "a certain religious creed, having its own dogma," that this is the positive side of a doctrine of symbolism whose negative side alone he has given in "The Emblematics of Meaning." He then goes on in a bizarre and rambling paragraph to explain that theory and dogma are irreconcilable because "dogma is the Word become Flesh." About this, he continues, it is best to read in the Gospel according to John (S, p. ii).

Bely has good reason to be confused. His readers have been confused for more than half a century. It is at least to his credit that he later recognized just how chaotic the contents of this book were in subject, method, and, most of all, ideological orientation. My own view, however, is that there is a great deal less confusion in it than even Bely thought. To be sure, it is difficult to reconcile the contradictory things Bely says about his aims in approaching a theory of symbolism. But that difficulty assumes one takes him seriously when he characterizes his own work. As it happens, in spite of the breadth of knowledge that came from his desultory nature and amazing eclecticism, Bely showed an extraordinarily narrow understanding of what he himself did. His theory of symbolism can't be completely defined by being identified as a form of religion any more than it can be completely defined by being described as critical. It has the ability to encompass both forms of knowledge, because for Bely a theory of symbolism is a universal theory of


meaning. It accounts for all types of signifying objects and thus can be used to analyze, say, religious icons as well as words in a poem.[19]

This universality has to be recognized before any sense can be made of Bely's theory of symbolism. But once it is, then that theory takes on a tremendous number of implications for our study of the theory of language, for a theory of language necessarily becomes a subset of a theory of symbolism. Bely's confusion then falls into place as another symptom of a transitional age. Like Potebnia, Bely was in the process of abandoning the traditional myths but was unwilling to let go entirely.

The essay where Bely presents what might plausibly be characterized as a theory of language is "The Magic of Words." Bely's rhetoric sounds as if he had lifted it directly from the pages of Potebnia, and this is not especially surprising since Bely had reread Potebnia (whom he mentions repeatedly) and written his review of Thought and Language in the same period when he wrote "The Magic of Words." He evokes the myth of origin, for instance, in terms largely reminiscent of Potebnia. "In the beginning (pervonacal'no[*] ), poetry, the process of cognizing, music, and speech were all one and the same," he says in a passage strikingly similar to the one in Thought and Language where Potebnia asserts that poetry is the first expression of the aesthetic life of a people (S, p. 431).[20] He refers at one point in the essay to inner form, without mentioning either Potebnia or Humboldt, and speaks freely of representations, images, contents, and all the other terms that Potebnia had established as integral parts of his theory. The entire second part of "The Magic of Words," in fact, is borrowed (in this case with appropriate attribution) from a posthumously published work by Potebnia called Notes on the Theory of Literature .[21]

The central concern of the essay is Bely's poetry-prose distinction. Poetic speech for Bely is "living" speech, and the thing that distinguishes it from prosaic, or "dead," speech is that it is generative, creative. "The word creates a new, third world: a world of sound symbols by means of which both the secrets of a world located outside me and those imprisoned in a world inside me come to light," Bely says. "The aim of communication is to kindle, through contact made between two inner worlds, a third world that is indivisible for those communicating and that unexpectedly deepens the individual images of the soul. . . . The original victory of consciousness lies in the creation of sound symbols. For in sound there is recreated a new world within whose boundaries I feel myself to be the creator of reality" (S, p. 430; SE, p. 94).

But only the poetic word is creative in this sense. In opposition to it


stands the dead and deadly "word-term." Such is "the common prosaic word," which "has lost all its sound and pictorial imagery." It is a "fetid, decomposing corpse," says Bely. Word-terms come about as the result of a process of abstraction like the one Potebnia describes. As in Potebnia, the process begins in the mythical era with the poetic word and ends with the abstract term. In fact, Bely outdoes Potebnia by presenting the process as a kind of genesis of human knowledge: "The word begot myth; myth begot religion; religion begot philosophy; and philosophy begot the term" (S, p. 440; SE, p. 103).

Although Bely's rhetoric sounds a great deal like Potebnia's, and many of the terms of his discussion are borrowed from Potebnia, there is a significant difference of emphasis. Bely has restored to Potebnia's philosophy of language the geneticist orientation of Humboldt, but with a modification that firmly establishes Bely's modernity. Language is certainly an organic and creative force for Bely, just as it had been for Humboldt. But Bely is concerned more immediately with the individual act of speech; Humboldt had seen the creative force of language at the level of a whole people and a whole language. And because Bely focuses on the individual act of speech, his interest is attracted to the ontological dimension of language and speech. He even uses this term at one point in a discussion otherwise lifted from Potebnia. Speaking of the creation of a metaphor, Bely says that in a metaphor, which joins two images into one figure of speech, a new, third image is generated from the combination of the two original images. This third image, he says, is independent of the two images that "engendered" it because "creation endows it with ontological being independently of our consciousness" (S, p. 446; SE, p. 109). Where Potebnia had sought to account for the representational powers of language, Bely seeks to account for language's ability to generate being.

Even Bely's reformulation of Potebnia's derivation of the poetry-prose distinction shows this difference in orientation. For Bely, it is not enough to point to a historical (or mythico-historical) process that begins with poetry and ends with prosaic abstraction. He insists that the steps of this progress are linked by the generative force of the word: each step begets the next.

Another aspect of Bely's essay shows a reorientation that is distinctly Belyan if not specifically modern. Bely repeatedly uses the word cognition without saying clearly what he means by it. In "The Emblematics of Meaning" he develops at great length a polarity between cognition, by which he essentially means ordinary scientific understanding, and


creation, by which he means the sort of power he attributes to speakers of poetic language in "The Magic of Words." Both are forms of knowledge; hence language for Bely is a form of knowledge. This is why he says at the beginning of "The Magic of Words" that "cognition is impossible without words" (S, p. 429; SE, p. 93). Words are the vehicles of knowledge—word-terms for scientific knowledge (cognition) and poetic words for creation.

Recognizing that Bely's orientation in "The Magic of Words" is toward issues like ontology and theory of knowledge has the effect of knocking the wind out of his visionary rhetoric. In fact, one can easily come around to the view that the magic Bely talks about and the myths he evokes are meant in a figurative sense. Words have the power to generate being by a process analogous to that by which a magician would generate being, if there were such things as magicians. The analogy, of course, is limited to the idea of generating being and does not suggest that the being that is generated is material, as it is in magic.

Why, then, does Bely write in the style he does, and why does he insist on invoking the same old myths of origin as Potebnia? Something strange is certainly happening, and it all looks even stranger in the light of what Bely says about Potebnia in his critique of Thought and Language . There Bely accuses Potebnia of practicing a form of mysticism. He refers to the distinction between geneticist theories of language like Humboldt's, according to which language is always being created in the present, and nativist theories, according to which language was already handed down in perfect form at some point in a mythic past. Because of his regressive reinterpretation of inner form, Potebnia was not the Humboldtian geneticist he considered himself to be, Bely says, but had returned to a mystical, nativist conception of language.

But Bely offers an explanation for this shortcoming on Potebnia's part, and it confirms the view that Bely is using Potebnia's rhetoric in "The Magic of Words" for some other purpose than to propose a mysticism of his own. What Potebnia is really presenting in disguise, according to Bely, is a theory of the value of the word in which the word is considered "from the point of view of its irrational content." The problem for Potebnia was that he allowed himself to become entangled in all kinds of contemporary psychological theories, thus losing sight of what he was really doing. He lacked an understanding of values as an epistemological problem; but then that was not his fault, Bely says, because the problem had not been articulated at the time Potebnia wrote.[22]

Bely doesn't articulate it here either, but he had made it the basis for


his most extensive statements on the theory of symbolism in "The Emblematics of Meaning." That essay too, like "The Magic of Words," is filled with mystico-mythical rhetoric, but in the end it proposes a formalistic theory of meaning. What are values, and why is their presence in a theory of meaning an indication that that theory is formalistic rather than mystical?

In "The Magic of Words" the emphasis is on the creation of meaning. In "The Emblematics of Meaning" the emphasis is on epistemology, which is to say the reception of meaning. I will speak at length of "The Emblematics of Meaning" in chapter 5. For now, all that needs to be said is that Bely uses the analogy between objects of meaning (a generic category that includes words) and religious icons. Religious icons in the Russian theological tradition are seen as embodying an essence that we might refer to as divine grace. What Bely does is to replace the theological conception of the icon with a secularized conception by substituting "value" for the essence that is embodied in an icon. Value is a term that had gained currency in the recent writings of neo-Kantian philosophers like Heinrich Rickert (1863–1936). In a book called Der Gegenstand der Erkenntnis (The object of cognition) Rickert had sought to redefine Kantian epistemology by asserting that every act of ordinary cognition, instead of merely proceeding according to rules prescribed by the structure of the mind (Kant's Categories, or Pure Concepts of Understanding), contains an element of will, a kind of positive, ethical affirmation of truth.[23] The object of this affirmation is a value, and a value is simply something that the human subject, again by will, esteems. Rickert's system thus provides a means for eliminating the strict separation that Kant had made between practical reason, which has to do with morals, and ordinary scientific understanding, which has to do with the way we organize experience in the physical world.

Rickert's philosophy served Bely particularly well because even though it blurs the boundaries between scientific understanding and something as nasty and metaphysical as morals, Rickert proposed his own system as entirely free of any metaphysical implications. The valuebased theory of knowledge is a purely formal system, both because values are not metaphysical objects (according to Rickert) and because the focus is on the process of cognizing. Thus when Bely adopts the Rickertian notion of value and integrates it into an otherwise theological structure where it takes the place of divine grace, he too is adopting a formal system.[24]

Bely's assertion that Potebnia was proposing a theory of the value of


the word and at the same time was considering the word "from the point of view of its irrational content" should now be clear. The problem in Potebnia is the "irrational content." Had Potebnia had the benefit of neo-Kantian value-based epistemology, he could have elaborated a theory that was free from the irrational elements that in fact contaminate what he wrote. And if we now consider Bely's theories in this light, then his own quasi-mystical and religious rhetoric appears all the more either to be the result of some sort of schizoid confusion or, more likely, to serve as an analogy in a structural description of something that resembles, but isn't quite, mysticism and religion.

Bely described the key notion of his theory of symbolism years later in a passage striking for its concreteness. The passage comes from a work with the ungainly title Why I Became a Symbolist and Why I Never Ceased Being One in All the Phases of My Intellectual and Artistic Development, and if ever there was evidence to support the assertion that Bely's theory of symbolism was attempting to be formalistic, it is here. The account Bely gives is credible both because it has the advantage of distance from the symbolist period (Why I Became a Symbolist was written in 1928) and because it was written at a moment when Bely had a spiritual commitment different from the one he professed to have during his earlier period. The purpose of this memoir is to show that the central idea of symbolism, what he calls here "symbolization," was a constant in his career that saw him through such ideologically diverse periods as the symbolist period and the current period, when he claimed allegiance to a system of thought known as anthroposophy.

Symbolization is the process by which a symbol comes into being. To demonstrate the universality of the process and its lifelong presence in his own life, Bely evokes a childhood experience. The whole thing begins with a state of consciousness, in this case fear. Here is how a symbol comes to be:

Wishing to reflect the essence of a state of consciousness (fear), I would take a crimson-colored cardboard box top, hide it in the shadows, so that I would see not the object but the color, and then walk by the crimson spot and exclaim to myself, "SOMETHING PURPLE." This "SOMETHING" was the experience. The purple spot was the form of expression. The two, taken together, constituted the symbol (in the process of symbolization). The "SOMETHING" was unidentified. The cardboard box top was an external object bearing no relation to the "SOMETHING." But this object, having been transformed by the shadows (the purple spot), was the end result of the merging of that (imageless) and this (objective) into something that is neither


THIS nor THAT, but a THIRD. The symbol is this THIRD. In constructing it I surmount two worlds (the chaotic state of fear and the object given from the external world). Neither of these worlds is real. But the THIRD world exists.[25]

Bely does not use the vocabulary of value philosophy here, but the process is unquestionably the same as the one he outlines in "The Emblematics of Meaning." A vague state is embodied in a physical object, with the result that the physical object becomes a symbol, thus generating a "third" state of being that is independent from both the vague state and the physical object. This is symbolization, and Bely would have us believe that it fits all the different systems of belief (and there were many) that he adopted in his career.

Future generations of critics and poets would ridicule Bely for espousing an aesthetics, and a worldview underlying that aesthetics, that always pointed towards the otherworldly. The poets known as Acmeists, whose most famous representatives were Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam, prided themselves on their rejection of the symbolist commitment to mystical ideals. As early as 1913 the Acmeist Sergei Gorodetsky, in his manifesto titled "Some Currents in Contemporary Russian Poetry," describes the "battle" between Acmeism and symbolism as a "battle for this world."[26] The characteristic attitude of antiaestheticism that so many members of the Russian avant-garde adopted in Bely's day allowed little sympathy for the supposedly mystical orientation of symbolist poets. And, of course, it was part of the polemical posture of Formalist critics like Viktor Shklovsky to reject symbolist notions of mystical and allegorical content in favor of a "scientific" pursuit of functions and techniques in language.

But to call Bely a mystic is entirely unfair because it ignores the most basic characteristic of his thought and his personality. Bely was a man of conflicting temptations, and his favorite thing seems to have been to place himself in various systems of thought, explore all their twistings and turnings, but remain at a distance from the center, where the unwary wanderer might find himself trapped into actually believing something. This is why Bely fits so neatly into our story. His spiritual diffidence, his tendency toward formalism, and his ironist's pose in his "adoption" of different religious and mystical systems of thought all indicate the struggle with myth characteristic of this age. Yet the perpetuation of these systems, even if they present themselves only as temptations, is evidence that Bely's escape is not complete. As far as theory of language


goes, we can see Bely caught in the same conflict as everyone else I've mentioned. In "The Emblematics of Meaning" his theory of meaning is formalistic (this is his "fracture"), but the entire formal edifice of his thought is borrowed from Russian Orthodox theology. And when he comes to talk about poetry in "The Magic of Words," we find him succumbing to the alluring power of the poetry-prose myth just as Potebnia and everyone else before him had.

previous sub-section
The Russian Tradition from Potebnia to Shklovsky, with Some Poets in Between
next sub-section