The Letters of K. D. Bal'mont

Rodney L. Patterson, State University of New York, Albany

THE PROBLEM: There are striking contradictions between and among various versions of what Bal'mont was like in real life. After Brjusov (on respectable literary grounds though also with a desire to settle scores) declared that Bal'mont was defunct in 1903, critics and literary historians began to repeat certain charges against Bal'mont, for example: that he did not "work" on his writing; that he mindlessly "sang" whatever came into his excessively musical mind; that he was constantly drunk; that he was not sane in general and quite ridiculously insane as regards women; that he was irresponsible and led a disorderly life; that he had no coherent worldview; that he was a graphomaniac; etc.

MY THEORY: My research over the past 30 years consistently reveals that the negative ideas above are not very accurate. Bal'mont's true nature and life are obscured by rumor, gossip and selective remembering of an unfriendly sort. Occasinally Bal'mont's public behavior and his poses encouraged some of these charges, but in general they are grossly exaggerated, especially after Belyj, in his highly impressionistic memoirs, tried to destroy a god that failed. Other distortions can be traced back to people like Gor'kij, whose views on Bal'mont were colored by politics. Good writers with more tolerance and independence (e.g., Cvetaeva, Voloshin, Pasternak, V. Ivanov, Èrenburg) offered much more positive (and correct) accounts of Bal'mont's nature and writing.

Mostly on the basis of his vast (mostly unpublished) correspondence, I will show that Bal'mont was not as a rule psychologically unbalanced, nor a score-keeping Don Juan, nor an irresponsible writer and person, and was "on the wagon" most of the time. He made enemies because he had a true Decadent's disdain for "accepted norms" of behavior, consistency, and conformity (even to the "school" Brjusov tried to build around him)--he strongly believed in complete personal freedom. I will show how that freedom, especially, caused him to err sometimes as a writer, colleague, husband, father and lover. Nevertheless, he had a naturally childlike sincerity and credulity, was remarkably honest, and constant in love and friendship. He loved most profoundly his second wife, their daughter and one of his commonlaw wives. Taken as a whole, however, the letters reveal that he loved few people more than he loved Brjusov and he loved no human beings the way he loved Nature and the Ultimate Source of life.

MY EVIDENCE: With invaluable aid from two of Bal'mont's daughters, N. K. Bal'mont-Bruni and S. K. Shales, who shared their memories of their father, I acquired a great number of letters from Bal'mont to their mothers. Furthermore, I have spent about three years in Russian archives, studying and copying other letters by hand. These letters allow me to dispute misconceptions about what Bal'mont was like in real life. In amending his portrait, I will account for a few of the odder characteristics of his letter-writing, e.g.: the letters of this world-traveler contain almost no detail about what he saw en route and have almost nothing about the personality or character of friends and enemies. Furthermore, they indicate his quite marginal participation in the formation, development and defense of literary schools and theories. They also provide some grounds for speculation about the nature of the insanity which began to darken his life from 1933 until 1942.