Art in spite of Polemics

Zinaida Hippius: An Intellectual Profile

by Temira Pachmuss
Southern Illinois University Press, 491 pp., $12.50

The Life of a Useless Man

by Maxim Gorki, translated by Moura Budberg
Doubleday, 240 pp., $6.95

The Commissariat of Enlightenment: Soviet Organization of Education and the Arts under Lunacharsky

by Sheila Fitzpatrick
Cambridge University Press, 380 pp., $13.50

The White Guard

by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Michael Glenny, with an Epilogue by Viktor Nekrasov
McGraw-Hill, 320 pp., $7.95

Zinaida Hippius, who lived from 1869 to 1945, is considered one of Russia’s finest poets, perhaps her greatest religious poet. D. S. Mirsky speaks of the major cycle of her lyrics as “unique in Russian literature…so original that I do not know anything in any language that resembles them.” Pure in diction, unique in form, they are a despairing lament on the soul’s failure to conquer pettiness, on what Mirsky calls “the Svidrigailov theme” (the idea which, in Crime and Punishment, Svidrigailov tries out on Raskolnikov, that eternity itself may be nothing more than a dusty bathhouse filled with spiders). There is, for example, in a lyric called “She,” a sense of evil and self-hatred even more harrowing, because more articulate, than Svidrigailov’s:

She is gray as dust, as earthly ashes,
In her shameless, despicable vile- ness.
And I am perishing from just such nearness,
From this inseparable bond which joins us.

And she is scabrous, yes, and she is prickly,
And she is cold. She is a serpent too.
And her repulsive, searing, over- lapping
Snake scales have wounded me as few things do.

If only I could feel a sharp sting twinging!
But she is flaccid, still, with dull veneer.
She is so like a lump, so very sluggish.
One cannot get to her; she cannot hear.

Coiling around me, stubborn, insinuating,
She hugs and strangles me, crush- ing me whole.
And this thing that’s so dead, so black, so frightful—
This wretched, loathsome thing is called my soul.
(translated by Merrill Sparks)

As a novelist, short story writer, and literary critic she is less remarkable. She was the wife of Dmitri Merezhkovsky, much better known but far inferior to her as an artist. In pre-revolutionary Russia and abroad she was also the exponent of a religious philosophy of her own devising; and it is with this philosophy that Professor Pachmuss is chiefly concerned, not with her art—about which there is just enough to suggest its flavor—nor with her biography.

The “philosophy” of Zinaida Hippius, one gathers, was a highly cerebral religious scheme, based on a faith in the mystic significance of numbers, especially of the holy number three, which was an attribute of the world and humanity as well as of the godhead. History was divided into three periods, the Old Testament and the New in the past, and the Third Testament of the future. Ethics was threefold: personal, sexual, and social. And the sexual act could be represented by an isosceles triangle, of which the horizontal line stood for the “earthy” union of man, the left corner, and woman, the right, while “an invisible vertical line” that ascended “from the middle of the base” to the apex symbolized their “spiritual journey” to Christ. (Without this imaginary line to Christ, the apex, men and women would be no more than beasts.)

Though Hippius adored St. Theresa, her own faith took rise not in ecstasy and visions but in a doctrine …

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