“A Journalist with the Soul of a Metaphysician and Mystic”

Such is the title of an article by V. A. Fateev on Vasily Rozanov (1856-1919) that was published in Russian Studies in Philosophy, vol. 47, no. 3 (Winter 2008-9), pp. 7-33.  The piece had originally appeared, in Russian, in the 1995 two-volume Russian work, Vasilii Rozanov: Pro et Contra, which was edited by Fateev.  The English translation of it for Russian Studies in Philosophy was done by Stephen D. Shenfield.

The quality of articles in academic journals varies a lot, of course.  Some are frankly not worth the trouble of reading; most are workmanlike, and worthwhile, but hardly inspiring; and a few – precious few – are golden.  This article by Fateev on Rozanov is in the latter category.  When I find academic writing this good, I feel like an antique dealer must feel when stumbling upon some overlooked treasure at a yard sale.  If you only read one article on Rozanov in your life, this is the one to read.  Besides offering a brilliant overview of Rozanov’s life and career, it’s full of insights that are clearly the result of many years of close contact with, and deep reflection on, Rozanov’s works.

Here are two paragraphs from Fateev’s article:

But Rozanov is recognized not only and not so much for his bold negations, but mainly for his success in lifting the curtain on the darkest and most mysterious nooks and crannies of natural human existence.  Rozanov is, above all, a metaphysician and mystic who is interested primarily in “the imperceptible, the colorless, the invisible, the undocumented” – in what cannot be touched or measured.  And his close attention to “the world of the unclear and unresolved” enabled him to find a new point of view on the most usual things, to acquire a vision in which the whole of life, the whole history of civilization appeared in a quite unusual light.  Rozanov was a very sharp critic of contemporary civilization with its excessive rationalism, isolation from nature, and loss of a religious foundation.  . . .

When we speak of Rozanov, all boundaries between professions and genres are erased.  He is one of a kind: a philosopher–journalist and thinker–artist who carries us away with the dynamism of his unpredictable turns of fantasy and with the stormy outbursts of his constantly seething subjective thought.  He has proven extraordinarily in tune with our century’s heightened interest in a philosophy unfettered by the dogma of a rigid system and unblinkered by passionless objectivism.  Rozanov, with his strikingly individual, impassioned, and even partial vision of the world, has become one of today’s most widely read thinkers. His works attract readers with the most varied and often opposing views.  “Here there is enough food for thought for everyone,” as the thinker wrote in the preface to one of his books.  In Rozanov each person finds what is especially close to his heart.  This tells us that his work, like any real classic, is marked by wealth and polysemanticity of content.  Even though many regard one or another aspect of his views as categorically unacceptable, his ideas have the special property of exerting a powerful stimulating influence on the reader’s own thinking; as the astute L.A. Murakhina writes, they “electrify” him.  Practically no one still disputes the lofty place of Rozanov in Russian literature and philosophy.

If anyone would like to sample Rozanov’s best writing, in English, I recommend The Apocalypse of Our Time, and Other Writings by Vasily Rozanov, edited by Robert Payne (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1977), which although out of print is readily available used (and via interlibrary loan).  Here, it’s the “other writings,” i.e. Solitaria and the two Fallen Leaves collections, that actually show Rozanov at his most electrifying, in my opinion.

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