Portraiture by Contrast: Andrej Belyj on Three of Aleksandr Blok’s Contemporaries

Virginia Bennett, University of Hawaii

Vospominanija o A. A. Bloke (Epopeja Edition, reissued as Vospominanija o Bloke represents a new stage in the evolution of literary memoirs, for it brings a number of innovations to this sub-genre of autobiographical discourse. Among them is Belyj’s revival of the Plutarchian approach of contrastive portraiture. Whereas Plutarch focused upon national traits as he saw them embodied in notable Greeks and Romans, Belyj contrasts Aleksandr Blok with a number of Russian symbolists. I believe that this was a deliberate choice on the part of Belyj to stress Blok’s historical significance. My paper will discuss three chapters of Vospominanija, dealing with Sergej Solov’ev, Valerij Brjusov, and Dmitrij Merežkovskij.

Vospominanija is the longest of several versions of memoirs of Blok published by Belyj within several years after Blok’s death. Written for the most part in Berlin, these recollections are the freest from the restrictions imposed by Soviet censorship upon later volumes of Belyj’s reminiscences. In this edition, Belyj tries to portray Blok as the finest poet of the symbolist era in Russia. He elevates him to the status of the Platonic poet-seer and depicts him as a transcendentally inspired spokesman for his epoch and the embodiment of Russian Symbolism. Belyj chose the approach, because he was deeply disturbed by the many obituaries and post-mortem assessments of Blok’s role in contemporary literature which either ignored his historical role or disproportionately focused upon his post-revolutionary works, especially The Twelve. (Andrej Belyj, “Dnevnikovye zapiski,” Literaturnoe nasledstvo, 92-791-2).

It is with history in mind that Belyj sets out to establish Blok as the leader of the Russian Symbolist movement. He emphasizes time and again Blok’s profound intellect, poetic superiority and genuineness. Belyj speaks of Blok’s impatience with the rhetoric, posturing, and pretentiousness of several of his contemporaries who considered themselves spokesmen of the literary and philosophical movements in Russia during Blok’s lifetime. (Belyj’s contrast of himself with Blok is a topic already discussed elsewhere.)

Aside from amply illustrating Blok’s genius and intellectual prowess, Belyj contrasts Blok with many of his fellow poets, but he only spends several pages on them. However, whole chapters are given over to three of Blok’s contemporaries, who, Belyj seems to have believed, represented Russian Symbolism in important ways. The contrast is achieved through a number of literary devices which emphasize the negative traits and diminish the importance of those chosen for contrast. Belyj’s favorites among these devices are hyperbole, depersonification, diminution, and rendering his subjects grotesque. My presentation will offer a number of examples of these techniques. Finally, the veracity of these contrastive portraits and the success of Belyj’s contrastive approach will be evaluated.