The Heart of Reality:
Essays on Beauty, Love, and Ethics
By Vladimir Sergeyevich Soloviev
Edited and translated by Vladimir Woznuik
University of Notre Dame Press, pp. 264, $35.00.
Review by Anthony D. Baker
Russian philosophical theology from the end of the nineteenth century comes to the twenty-first century west as though from a different planet. In some ways it was: Russia was still reckoning with its shift out of a feudal economy, digesting European philosophy and Darwin’s great book as it navigated its own political and intellectual path forward, looking to its great novelists and poets as well as its church and saints for guidance. This is not our world. And yet one does not have to be a Russophile like me to be deeply moved by what ones finds there.
Vladimir Soloviev (sometimes written Solovyov, but the translator opts for the -iev ending, following the philosopher’s own way of signing his name when he used the Latin alphabet) is the towering figure of Russian intellectual culture between the end of serfdom and the rise of the Bolsheviks. A mystical poet, philosopher, devotee of Orthodoxy, and mentee and friend of Fyodor Dostoevsky, he achieved celebrity status with his public Lectures on Divine Humanity in St. Petersburg in 1878. With the printing of this collection of translated essays in paperback, the University of Notre Dame Press has provided general readers with a hospitable and moving entry into his work. For those to whom he is already familiar, this printing puts some of his essays in front of us in a more affordable way.
The guiding theme of these essays on aesthetics is the lodestar of all his work across genres. To put it in a single phrase: the integration of all things into a transcendent unity. Sex is not just for the sake of reproduction, visual art is not just for art’s sake, and poetry is not just a means of expression of the genius of the poet. Rather, all the complex particularities of the animal kingdom, human bodies, and artistic media incline toward the truth of creaturely community in the presence of the infinite God. “Beauty is embodied idea” (p. 38), and this is why a diamond or the song of a nightingale holds us spellbound, while a lump of coal or the mating sounds of cats do not. Bodies can express themselves as nothing more than bodies, or they can exceed their own natural demands in the way that they catch light or invoke a celebration of musicality. When the latter happens, something beautiful is at work, calling creation toward divine excess.
Among human artists, whether of the visual, musical, or literary sort, this work of embodying the single integral idea of all creation takes on an intentionality. Soloviev’s distilled rubric for evaluating beauty in art is deceptively profound: when individual elements do not exclude one another, when they do not exclude the whole, and then the whole gives freedom to these elements, the artist has made something beautiful. All true art, he says — in a line that was as controversial in his world as in ours — has a religious, prophetic, eschatological vocation. It makes present a beauty that is dormant, “daydreaming” (p. 53) in our world.
The opening three addresses on Dostoevsky would make this collection worth reading all on their own. All were written in the months after his mentor’s funeral, and Soloviev’s preface to the addresses includes his own words from the graveside as well as the moving lines of Tolstoy, from a private letter, who says he always counted Dostoevsky as a friend he would someday meet, and on the news of his death “I cried and I still cry” (p. 3). “Beauty will save the world” (p. 16), these addresses remind us, because beauty in Dostoevsky’s novels works as a summons toward integration that catches our spirits and transforms human desire itself, and so changes what his very human characters ask of the world. It is hard not to hear an eerie prescience in Soloviev’s handling of the great social and political question that had by then become an idiom of the era, and a ubiquitous question in the novels: “What is to be done?” Without the transforming power of beauty “a clear and definite answer is obtained: Kill all the opponents of the future ideal order, i.e. all defenders of the present” (p 20). But the noncoercive move toward what is most beautiful is also a movement toward truth, as the death of beauty is also the death of truth. Dostoevsky, Soloviev says, was standing within a culture that had forgotten its catechism, and gently showed them (and us) that “the essence of reconciliation is God” (p. 26).
The longest and most far-reaching essay in the book is “The Meaning of Love.” Here the guiding light of integration toward transcendence allows him to take this insight about reconciliation — which comes from and moves beyond his close reading of Hegel — and ask what it is that humans are doing when they fall in love. Love involves idealization, since I see this one differently, as if I am observing them in a light that is beyond the visual spectrum. Yet if “this amorous light soon vanishes…does it follow from here that it was false, that this was only a subjective illusion” (p. 104)? Soloviev suggests that it does not; rather, this idealization is instead the clue to reality that we only see in these heightened moments. If we are blind to such transcendence most of our lives, this is because we have habituated ourselves to the immanent, even the egocentric.
The beloved draws us out of our ourselves, out of a world without transcendence, and calls us to a way of life that even changes what we think we know of ourselves: “In perceiving the truth of another not abstractly, but materially, in love, in transferring the center of our life beyond the boundaries of our empirical self in practice, we by the same token manifest and realize our own truth, our unconditional significance…” (p. 97).
Here still, beauty is the embodied idea, the integration of material beings with divinely given form. So the bodiless angels of Renaissance art and modern brothels are two sides of the same coin: idealizations of idea on the one side, body on the other, that resist the integration of the latter into the former. “Faithful love” is distinct from both, in that it, like true beauty, allows an economy of particularity and universality: the whole gathers the parts, and the parts achieve a lasting freedom in the gathering. The ethics of marriage is for him — like that other critical Hegelian, Soren Kierkegaard — itself a stage on the way to mystical love, that gathering of all in an ecclesial and celestial community that has the shape of, but exceeds, the sexual bond of two. Soloviev describes this mystery as the eternal feminine, a common invocation of his poetry and theology.
A brief essay on Pushkin demonstrates the tragedy of dis-integration in the face of transcendence. The greatest of Russia’s poets had a double foundation, in his native genius and his Christian faith, that could have called him to become the sort of person who lived faithfully to the beauty of the whole. Instead, he chose the path of “mere humanity” and died senselessly in a duel — and one that was not even up to the honor codes of the age. Soloviev’s conclusion about Pushkin is a conclusion about Christian fate: fate is supreme goodness and supreme reason which call us to share in their supremacy with our lives and choices. Pushkin’s denial of his muse means that his ultimate end came the only way it could have: he died as a man broken by his own rejection of salvific beauty.
The final essays and appendices show a literary intellectual at the height of his powers, with assessments of popular Russian literary figures that move from deeply suggestive to bitingly witty. He suggests, for instance, that Mikhail Lermontov only used his gifts to fall more deeply in love with himself, and so, whereas Pushkin’s poems are like a swallow drifting gracefully just a fraction of an inch above a mossy pond, “the pornographic muse of Lermontov is like a frog that has plunged and firmly settled there in the slime” (p. 193). The Symbolist poets especially come in for Soloviev’s critical ire, and his series of reviews of multiple editions of a collection of their poems is some of the most hilarious literary spoofing I have ever read. “Without knowing Mr. Briusov’s age,” he says, referring to one of the poets in the collection, “it is not possible to pronounce a sweeping judgment against him. If he is no more than fourteen years old, then a fair poet may yet come of him” (p. 208). He ends the final review with a three-verse bit of doggerel, imitating the worst of the poems.
Like the rest of the essays in the volume, a context that is strange to most of us can still reveal a brilliant insight, or at least the question that might generate such an illumination. Here it is the same one that all Soloviev’s works ask, at some level: how might the ways that we live, that we communicate, that we find one another, and that we attempt to make beautiful things, call us to embody together the grand and mystical idea that first called the world into being?
Dr. Anthony D. Baker is the Clinton S. Quinn Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seminary of the Southwest, and the author of Diagonal Advance: Perfection in Christian Theology (SCM 2011), Shakespeare, Theology, and the Unstaged God (Routledge, 2020), and Leaving Emmaus: A New Departure in Christian Theology (Baylor University Press, 2021).