Cvetaeva’s Ethics of Individuality: An Idiosyncratic Adaptation of Nietzsche’s Thought

Ute Stock, Cambridge University

Well acquainted with his work, Cvetaeva saw Nietzsche as a kindred spirit. Yet this view depended on a highly selective, idiosyncratic reading of him. Analyzing Cvetaeva’s essay “Iskusstvo pri svete sovesti ”(“Iskusstvo”), which demonstrates the seminal influence of her ethical thought on her aesthetics, I highlight significant parallels between her thought and that of the younger Nietzsche. However, Cvetaeva’s refusal of Nietzsche’s later rejection of the transcendental—she actively misreads his last letters, signed as “The Crucified,” as an indication of his longing for the metaphysical—is crucial for an understanding of her ethics.

Cvetaeva’s description of inspiration as a Dionysian, intoxicating visitation by the elemental, as the bliss of surrendering one’s own subjectivity, recalls Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Yet, stressing the supernatural source of creative energy, Cvetaeva resembles Nietzsche’s “superstitious” creator, the humble mouthpiece of an otherwordly force. Cvetaeva openly admitted her reluctance to share Nietzsche’s denial of the transcendental. Although she was not a spiritual person, Orthodoxy played a significant part in her self-definition as a Russian poet; she saw religion and morality as inextricably linked. Accepting the need for the existing moral standards, she never undertook a Nietzschean wholesale critique of morality, not even in “Iskusstvo.” Yet the insight into the fleeting nature of truth led her to experiment with provisional, individual ways of moral evaluation.

In “Iskusstvo”, Cvetaeva undermined her own argument of an overwhelming creative force, by pointing to the poet’s potential for resistance. Locating a salvational element in art, which evokes Nietzsche’s Apollonian moment in tragedy, she recognized the poet’s responsibility, constrained only by the reader’s freedom of interpretation, which Nietzsche neglected. Extraordinary and isolated, Cvetaeva’s poet and Nietzsche’s sovereign individual are alike; they experience both disdain for others and the need to teach. Nietzsche’s master is distinguished by the wish to explore all aspects of human experience, Cvetaeva’s poet by the desire to transcend it, bridging the empirical and the metaphysical realms. Hence Cvetaeva’s readiness for self-sacrifice, clearly recalling the image of Christ.

Unwilling to negate the transcendental, Cvetaeva nevertheless doubted the poet’s ability to access it. Destabilizing the categories of good and evil, the violence of the Revolution and the Civil War had rendered the transcendental unknowable. The concept of truth had become problematic: it could no longer depend on an absolute for justification. Instead of abolishing moral evaluation, Cvetaeva put forward an individual way of judging, strongly reminiscent of Nietzsche’s emphasis on the personal nature of evaluation: judgments needed to remain open to revision in the light of further insights into the truth. Her entire oeuvre constitutes a performance of this ethics of individuality: in its elusive character, it enacts the fleeting nature of truth. Cvetaeva’s emphasis on her own self cannot be disqualified as subjectivism; it demonstrates the multiple nature of individuality, prevents it from becoming a static absolute, and constitutes an overt protest against the subjugation of the individual by claims to universal truth. This acquires a political significance in Cvetaeva’s age of totalitarianism and the cult of the collective: much of Cvetaeva’s work is marked by a political engagement out of ethical necessity.

Cvetaeva’s ethics of individuality is not without its difficulties: the relation to the Other remains problematic throughout, and Cvetaeva disregards the need for a passage from an ethics of individuality to an ethics of community. From a Nietzschean viewpoint, her desire for the transcendental prevented her from affirming the indeterminable nature of human existence in this world. However, Cvetaeva’s need for metaphysical certainty stems rather from the conviction that she is ultimately unable to solve ethical problems without it. Despite the contradictions in her ethical thought—respect for the Other and the need for self-affirmation, art for art’s sake and the poet as prophet, desire for and suspicion of the otherworldly—, Cvetaeva must be admired for her readiness to explore these contradictions to their full depth, regardless of the tragic personal cost.