Decadentism and Mystical Realism


Decadentism and Mystical Realism

(1907 – #138(4))

Decadents readily pass themselves off as mystics, and frequently they express mystical pretensions. Russian decadentism especially gravitates towards mysticism, it speaks about the mystical. The approach is to jumble together decadentism and mysticism in certain of the literary circles, but the academism and mystifications get entangled along the way and hinder the decadentism from passing over into an authentic, a real mysticism. In the select, the cultured, the refined literary circles they speak much on mystical themes, they employ mystical terminology, but they speak in too literary a fashion, they display too historico-philological an attitude. The experts can speak about Medieval mysticism or the mysticism of antiquity, they employ in line with the character of their specialty a mystical terminology, which was learned via an historico-philological faculty, but does this indeed mean, that these people have a real attitude towards mysticism, does it mean that they are full of mystical hopes and expectations, a mystical faith and love?

Certainly, no. They are positivists perhaps, they do not believe in the real-mystical, yet they can academically examine the interesting theme of the past, the mystical outlook of the old days. But lift away the literary historico-philological veil, speak the language of your soul, of your experience, your real hopes and beliefs, speak about the modern, about our mysticism, then we shall see, of what sort is your authentic and vital attitude towards mysticism. For indeed, the mystical in history can only be taken up in a non-dead and real manner only in connection with the contemporary mystical, with the mystical stirrings and hope of our own day. It is necessary to grasp not at the outward historical thread, but rather at the inner, the truly real mystical thread, connecting us both with the Middle Ages and with antiquity, in their mystical activity, in their eternity, and not in their temporality. The academic, the archeological attitude is as though towards a corpse, with it there is so little to be learned, everything remains superficial and a matter of mere words. The danger of an academic, a literary attitude towards mysticism — is in its full the absence of realism. I would the more give credence to the realism of the mystical words of whatever the physicist or economist, rather then the literateur coming from the historico-philological school, since in accord with their specialty the physicist or economist would find it quite perplexing dealing with the academic and exclusively literary approach towards mysticism; there would be no correspondence of terminology at their disposal, often they would not know the words, denoting things mystical in the past, and for them the mystical proper would not be a matter of words only. And it becomes strange, when one ceases really to differentiate mystical words from mystical activity, when one fails to distinguish literature from being, the refined positivists from the genuine mystics, when everything is veiled over by a cloud, when the foggy mist of clever positivism is passed off as mysticism. It is important instead to establish the genuine distinctions, since then only can there be established any affinity and correlation. The distinctions however can be sharpened only upon the basis of a realism on mysticism, a real relationship to mysticism. Every mysticism, and ours modernly also, strives towards a new way of being, and not towards a new literature only, and the distinctions connected with it — are of a way of life itself, and not of mere literary words.

I shall speak not about decadentist art, but rather about the decadentist condition of the human soul, about the decadentist world-perception and world-concept. My theme is not literary aesthetic, but religio-philosophic. I have to caution beforehand, that the “decadentist” literature and art I deal with here is only as a symptom of an illness of spirit and it is only under this one point of perspective that I shall investigate this illness. I say “illness of spirit”, although I set a very high store on the so-called decadentist art, and I regard it the sole genuine art in our era.

The decadentism has been criticised from various points of view, and accused of many a transgression: some have seen in it foolishness and an outrage against healthy thought, others have decried its immorality, a third group — its non-societal aspect, and a fourth group have found in it an infraction of aesthetic norms. It is impossible to say, whether all this customary criticism of decadentism has demonstrated any especial effect or proven any danger for decadentism. In the majority of instances the criticism has tended to miss the mark. But the decadentist world-view and the decadentist state of spirit can be criticised from an altogether unique point of view, quite rarely put forth. The terrible aspect presented by decadentism, its authentic tragedy — is in its loss of the sense and awareness of realities, in its extreme anti-realism. Decadentism is the reflection of the illusory aspect of being. Therefore it is not without basis that they should term decadentism as a neo-romanticism: in it there is anguish over being, but not the reality of being.

Analysing the relationship of decadentism to the real, to the mystical-real, we first of all have to take note of its extreme anti-individualism, its hostility to person. It would be very superficial and erroneous to see an individualism in decadentism, to suggest its pathos as serving to the affirmation of person. In the decadentist experiences, the person is disintegrated into momentary instants, impressions, fragmented conditions, with the loss of the centre for the person and its own organic connections to life. Decadentism has no right to speak about individuality, since it denies to deny the objective reality of such. For an affirmation of individuality there mustneeds be a pulling oneself together, a concentration around the centre, and not a disintegration into momentary fragments. The idea of person — is normative, person is not some aggregate of whatever the favorable condition, without any sort of bearings to some objective centre. In order to sense the limits of person, in order to set it apart from all the world, in order for the person not to be disintegrated and blasted to bits across the dimensions of the universe nor narrowed down within the dimensions of the lower forms of being, there has to be an objectivity and realism, there mustneeds be an objectivity of distinction, the sensing and awareness of the realities of the world in their inter-relationships. The decadentist attitude towards the person is illusory; decadentism senses individuality as a disintegration of being and it snatches at the morsels, the fragments, in the experience of the moment it seeks after all fullness, and in having despaired of any real fullness of person, it does not believe in the attainability of being.

Having lost its own sense and self-awareness of person, decadentism herein by this loses the sense and awareness of all the realities of the world, of all the objective distinctions of being. The decadentist world-perception jumbles together the “I” with the “not-I”, it mixes together that, which is, with that, which is not. The decadentists are as it were afraid of real encounters, they want to reserve for themselves the possibility to say, what is not reality, what is nothing, they have an aversion towards a connectedness with anything real. The decadentist experiencings too much reckon upon the possibility of enlarging the extent of the person, by an acknowledging of illusory being, having abolished all the boundaries of the fictitious but not of the real, surmounting these limits in a transient mindset and word, but not in an eternal actuality. The decadentists have hopelessly confused mysticism with a psychological subtlety of refinement, with the discovering of new empirical states, and upon this jumbled confusion they have based their mystical pretensions. The decadentists have ceased to be able to differentiate the light of the moon from the light of the streetlamps. The London and the Peterburg fogs have provided many a new experience, they have enriched experimental psychology, but in them was hidden and dissolved a mystical sort of being, a mystical realism was misted over. Upon decadentism, like a curse, lies the seal of its derivation from naturalism: the naturalism has become refined, has decomposed imperceptibly and passed over into its opposite. Both in the coarse lineage of naturalism and in the most refined lines of decadentism there is alike a triumph of illusionism and not the reflection of absolute mystical being. The positivist naturalism is also at the root of all an illusionism and anti realism. From this taproot it is difficult for the decadentists to tear themselves away, and they all confuse as mysticism the refinements and pretty flowers, sprouted from this selfsame root.

It is impossible to confuse the mystically real with a mere experience, with a testing of factual conditions, with a subjective given. The most vivid, the most powerful, the most irrational experience is still not reality and is still not mysticism. The experiences in a certain sense are all in general undifferentiated; the experience is set in opposition to nothing, is not distinct from it. And in the experiences, in the subjective states there can reign a total illusiveness of sight, it can be that there is not a single drop of reality to it. Realism enters in only then, when the experience, the subjective testing is applied towards objective centres, towards existing monads, when there are established distinctions in objective being. The most intensive experience — is illusory, if it is directed at an object, not endowed with reality. An objectless experiencing, a sundering of experience from objects makes them illusory, non-real: the experience of love cannot be without object, the experiencing of freedom cannot not have an object of striving. Each experience, in order to become a genuine actuality, ought to have a bearer, ought to be connected with an existing centre. Mysticism, real mysticism, enters in only then, when the experience is applied towards absolute being.

Decadentism in the darkness grasps at being and strikes up against the illusory, upon the torn off fragments of reality, upon mere splinters of being, — in the darkness it is difficult to distinguish that, which is, from that, which is not. They seize hold the first thing they stumble upon in the darkness, they clutch at it convulsively, they want to get a feel of its depth, but too often they embrace only emptiness. The decadentists are not hospitable to empirical reality, they sense its insipidness and they thirst for a mystical reality. But the decadentist attitude towards mysticism is so frightened by this, that it thus readily substitutes for it a mysticism of mystifications. Decadentist mysticism is replete full of mystifications. It is tempting indeed in the absence of a real mysticism to console oneself with a mysticism not real, illusory, contrived. The mystification only is thus also reprehensible, in that within it there is not attained the reality of being. The non-real, the as it were “idealistic” mysticism is also mystification, since that it is too real a mystification to become mysticism. With the decadentist world-outlook the boundary line, separating mysticism from mystification, almost without notice too much tends to fade away: the decadentist mysticism to a remarkable degree is a mystification, it is non-real, in it there is not quite yet the sense, that it is but a bad joke, but then the decadentist mystification sometimes comes close to mysticism, it would seem a mystical reality, unaware of the danger of playing with fire. Within the bounds of decadentist experience there can never be an awareness of all the infinitude of difference between mysticism and mystification, between reality and illusion. Decadentism remains in a fatal manner within the closed-in circle of subjectivity, it is tempted by solipcism, it refines and gets entangled in the human, but it does not unite with the Divine. Mysticism is always a rupturing of the boundaries of subjectivism, a surmounting of the human, an uniting with a supra-human reality. Decadentism has taken upon itself the torment of longing for mystical reality, for supra-human being, it has reflected within itself the loss of taste for the everyday world, but it suffers the illness of impotence to attain to the reality of being. The frightful aspect of decadentism is in this, that nothing is attained, that there are no joyful encounters. This new romanticism is situated at far greater a remoteness from being, than was the old romanticism.

Decadentism denies truth as an objective reality or else it accepts a multitude of truths, all which are equivalent with their negation. Truth however is something binding, it empowers and compels, it does not permit for itself an attitude of mystification. Only an objective acceptance of truth — is real. To know the truth — means to have a real object, to be merged with a real object. The decadentist world-attitude has wanted as though to preserve an illusory freedom from truth. i.e. from reality. Decadentism has wanted as though to reserve for itself the possibility to spurn every reality, to step back upon some happy remoteness from real being, to call an halt before the truth, i.e. before the having of reality, before a merging with reality. The decadentist sense of feeling is directed upon itself, and not upon the world, and therefore it fails to unite with it; the mystical sense of feeling unites with other existents, it penetrates into the intimate being of the world, it is as it were — conjugal.

Mystical realism is connected with an acknowledging of the distinctions within objective being. Real mystical experiences presuppose a certain light, a gnosis, they cannot transpire within total darkness and blindness. In order to mystically experience the real, it is necessary to know truth, i.e. to have mystically-real objects of being, to be merged as it were conjugally with that, which is authentic. The sensing and awareness of mystical realities is a sensing and awareness of real existents, of a real being with its own proper name. Mystical realism enters in only then, when we call all and everything by its own name, when we recognise the existents, from which the world is comprised, when we can say: this here is such and so, and there — is that such and so. The dogmatism, this unacceptable, repulsive wicked dogmatism is also, perhaps, the recognition, the sharpening of mystical insight, a calling by their own names the real objects of the world. In this sense mystical realism always is dogmatic, it wants to know the realties, to name them, to be involved not with the experiences only, but also with existents. The indeed real is not the experiencings, the only real are the existents, — the conveyors of experience. Mystical realism presupposes an intuitive comprehension of being, the grace of an absolute reality, entering into the human being and as it were ravaging him. In decadentism there is not yet this dawning light, since the decadentists are caught up only with themself, and are not yet given to involvement with universal being.

In the decadentist world-approach there is no intuition, no entering of an universal reality, this world-approach is closed in within its own human subjectivity. Mysticism always involves a graced element, always includes within itself intuitive knowledge, in it the Divinity is immanent to the human soul. A refined positivism can with great ease pass itself off as mysticism, since it is all — the same colour, all jumbled together, if there is no objective criterion, if there is no objective norm for the establishing of realities, for the distinguishing of being from non-being. Positivism at present has gotten quite refined and has become so liberalised, that it is ready to recognise even the sphere of mystical experiences. It never alone avows any sort of positivism, or any sort of subjective psychologism — the mystical reality it never avows, whereas the mystical illusions it already avows. Within the sphere of mystical literature there can circulate the cultural and refined positivist, and here there can be the academic and archeological interest, but ultimately still the positivist is unable to enter into the sphere of mystical being. Decadentism furthers the jumbling together of a refined positivism with mysticism, it obscures the differences, and does not sharpen them in focus. And if mysticism for us is the striving towards new being, then we ought to avow an absolute norm, distinguishing being from non-being, a norm not logical and not moral, but rather an ontological norm, a norm of being. Only in accord with this norm will the decadentist world-approach become mystically real. Mysticism is first of all a discipline of will.

Decadentism lives now through a crisis, it wants to transcend itself, to pass over to mystical realism, but it cannot, it is lacking in powers to sense reality, it is afraid to get bound up with being. This powerlessness, this inability to pass over to real mysticism finds expression in the “mystical anarchism”, — begotten of the crisis of decadentism. Mystical anarchism — is not mystical realism, it is too fearful of truth, it does not want to accept the binding realism of truth. Mystical anarchism keeps itself at a remarkable distance from the realities, at a distance, amidst it is impossible to call any one reality by its own name, and it is impossible to sense the existents, which comprise being. The mystical anarchist reserves for himself the possibility to deny every reality, he desires that being should only depend upon his arbitrary will, and he thus guards the darkness, in which so little can be discerned. In this — is the anti-realism and anti-mysticism of mystical anarchism. In the mindset of the mystical anarchist freedom is set in opposition to all the entirety of being and therefore it is an empty freedom, bereft of real content, and in its wont for illusion it is hostile to the perception of mystical realities. Mystical anarchism does not overcome, but only intensifies the decadentist feeling of freedom, as a desire for that which is without object and without content, as non-being set in opposition to being, frightened at its connectedness.

Decadentism opens up the sphere of the subconscious, it expands the circle of possibilities and provides an experimental tool in the struggle against rationalism, it lifts from life the fetters of rationality. But the subconscious is only an element, in which there ought to begin movement towards realities, towards new, different, non-disgusting realties. The subconscious element can be dawned upon by light, issuing forth from real being, wherein it proceeds as a revelation of absolute activity, and thereupon the subconscious becomes supra-conscious, supra-rational. Rationalism is conquered not by blindness and darkness, but by the ultimate and absolute light, the phantasmic and loathesome aspects of empirical being are conquered by absolute real being.

Decadentism is faced by the threat of degeneration and vulgarisation, should it not find the strength to conquer subjectivism, illusionism and irrationalism. Decadentism remains totally in a negative opposition to the acceptance of the values of this world, to the staleness of empirical being, but it is time already to turn round to the values of the other world, to the depths of mystical being. At the summits of its consciousness, our epoch stands beneathe the standard of a passing over to objectivism, realism, universal meaning.

Decadentism confuses mysticism with aestheticism, it mistakes aesthetic experiences for the mystical, in the aesthetic perception it seeks a mystical activity. A religion of aestheticism, — here is what decadentism comes to approximate, here is by what it comforts itself. In this transformation of aesthetics into a religion, in this confusion of aesthetic illusion with mystical reality it expresses most of all the anti-realism and illusionism of the decadentist world-approach. Between the aesthetic experience and the mystical experience there is an enormous difference, there lies between an impassable chasm, and it is not so difficult to determine, in what consists this difference. Mystical experience is distinct in this from the aesthetic, in that it real, i.e. it is accompanied by the sense and awareness of the reality of the object, of the object of its striving; the aesthetic experience, abstractly taken, — is illusory, since that it does not yet relate to any particular reality. The object of aspiration of every aesthetic experience is beauty, but it remains uncertain, whether there actually is beauty, whether it is being, whether it is reality. Mystical experience likewise can strive towards beauty, can perceive beauty, but here the beauty — is reality, beauty — is being, beauty — is absolute an activity. The decadentist religion of aestheticism was disillusioned in the seemingly stale “realities” of positivism, it was stung by the monstrously empirical, but it can only oppose to this world a phantasmic non-real world of beauty, since it cannot accept mystical beauty as an existent. The religion of aestheticism arrives only to a new literature, and not to new being; this is a bad, pitiful, unreal religion and it predisposes its followers to live, to be in ugliness. We want to accept the absolute active beauty of the world, we want being as beauty, and beauty as being, and not merely an illusional experience of beauty. Beauty is not only in art, not only in our experiences, phantasmic and foggy, — there is beauty, but in being itself, in the very existence of the world. The revelation of the Cosmos, of God’s creation, is a revelation of beauty. Beauty is a supreme and authentic reality, an actuality, but the approach to it can only be mystical, and not abstract aesthetic.1  Aestheticism remains in the sphere of the seemingly apparent, mysticism leads across to the sphere of the real. The inward punishment of every experience of an aesthetique transformed into a religion lies in this, that being is not attained, that the thing most desired, most loved — beauty, — is not sensed as a reality, that having been saved from the ugliness of being, they remain in a beauty of non-being, wherein life is transformed into literature. It is not necessary to abolish the aesthetic, but rather to overcome its self-satisfied and smugly abstract character, to subordinate the aesthetic to the mystical organism, to pass over to a mystical aesthetics, in which beauty is not only accepted and experienced, but also is endowed with reality, beauty — is of a vital existence, and not only of literature. Beauty will save the world.

“Decadentism” — is the sole thing now in our literature and our art. Only in the camp, signified by this indefinable word, can there be found both talent, and a genuine love for art, and creative impulses. There is apparently already the time, when disputes over literary trends will be decided by this fact, that there will be no sort of art for us besides the decadentist, and therefore there will no longer be even a “decadentist” art. There will be a new art, long wished for, but meanwhile yet situated in a condition of potential being. Inside the decadentist camp there will result a crisis, a decomposition, a self-determination. Decadentist art of an inner dialectical necessity will dissociate into an academic, Parnassian, classical form, and into a mystical, religious, theurgic form.2  Classical art is a very venerable and fine art, possessing its own mission in the world, it rests upon the abstract ideal of artistic beauty and lacks for any mystical pretensions. Not to have mystical pretensions, when one cannot fulfill them, — is a fine quality and from this perspective the trend of decadentist art towards academism and classicism (Valery Briusov) can be hailed.

Mystical art has theurgy as the goal of its striving. Theurgic art posits as its aim the creation of new being, of a new mankind. This — is the practising of a mystical realism. In the final end there are only two directions in art — the classical and the theurgic, everything else is but a transitory state. The so-called realism in art has merely been pseudo-theurgic. Classicism is the ideal of a self-sufficing art, of art as an abstract principle, an ideal of literature, but not vitally of life. I repeat, that by this I do not want to condemn it, I highly value classical art. Theurgy however is the ideal of religious art, transfigurative of being, creating the new man, an ideal vitally of life, and not only literary. Theurgic art is already a religious activity, and it existed always in the organic periods of the life of the people. Art is born of an insufficiency, a failed reach of being, in it there is filled up the emptiness of this world with the riches of the other world. And within the scope of mystery the creation of beauty by art coincides with God’s creation of the cosmos.

Decadentist art, insofar as it is a genuine art, stands higher than a decadentist religion, in it there have been authentic insights and there is the potential of a theurgic art. Still, in Russian great literature there have been genuine mystical realists, filled with expectation, — Tiutchev and Dostoevsky. In modern Russian poetry (of the “decadentist” camp) there is many a talent, but no one still can compare with Tiutchev in his power of mystical realism. There is the strangest desire, that a new Russian literature might find expression: let it be sought, just like in its great past, not only in life, but also its meaning, i.e. that it be religious, theurgic. Then only will the crisis of decadentism result in an happy end. But God preserve us from a false understanding of the tasks of religious art: not upon assigned religious themes and not from a religious tendency ought the artist to create. Most of all it mustneeds be understood, that it is not a matter of religious themes, since all themes, all themes without exception — are religious. With the artist there ought not to be religious tendencies only, but rather a religious world-feeling, and then in his art will be manifest the religiousness of everything in the world, the religious depths of everything being disclosed in this. The decadentist world-sense hinders the artist from immersion into the depths of the religious mystery of the world and only great artistic talent can catch sight of the religious realities, despite the decadentist rendering asunder from being. Authentic genuine art is as it were a photo-imaging of absolute activity, a reflection of eternal ideas. It is necessary most of all to be rid of that prejudice, that religion is of something else, some sort of special sphere. Religion — is everything, religion — is in everything, or it — is nothing. The religious world-feeling reveals the depths of being in everything, it as it were is an opening to the mystery of creation.

Mystical realism inevitably bears a religious character, it becomes religion, does not remain mysticism. Once it becomes clearly apparent, the connections namely of the mystical realities, then only but a religious attitude can be established towards them. The mysticism is an as yet imperfect and transitional form of religion, this is a religion blind and as yet insufficiently real. Religious mysticism is not something connected only with fictitious experiences, but with the facts of world life. The religious stirring is bound up only with universal realities, with that, which — is being within history. With the traditions of being, of being and not of lifestyle, mystical realism cannot and ought not to split, for it continues the universal line of authentic being.

Anti-realist decadentism dwells with the fluctuating tastes over decades, over years and months, and not eternity, it yields to the enticements of fads and the interests of the season. In this is an inward punishment of decadentism and the danger of its vulgarisation. Decadentism is a transition of flesh into word, of being into literature; mystical realism is a transformation of word into flesh, the creation of new being. One might say: every literature is a transformation of flesh into word, and therefore one would want to abolish literature in revolting against this. What I want to say is not this: let flesh be transformed into word in literature, since a fine literature is born of this and great is the significance of this literature, but let it not be transformed into life, into being itself, flesh into the word. Decadentism has an inclination towards the transformation of flesh into word within life itself, and not only in literature, and in this is its anti-realism.3  And the eternal criterion of distinction, the light determinative of this distinction, is neither literary nor academic, but rather of existence and of life, it remains an attitude towards the historical accomplishing of the Incarnation of the Word. Those, for whom the Incarnation of the Word occurred not symbolically only, but mystically-real, and who believe in the real Resurrection of the Word, such only can be mystical realists, striving towards new being, and for the anguish regarding Heaven is transformed into a thirst for the new real flesh of life. Mystical illusionism either passes over into mystical realism or it degenerates and becomes vulgar, extinguishing being.

Nikolai Berdyaev


©  2003  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1907 – 138(4) -en)

DEKADENTSTVO I MISTICHECKII REALIZM. Published originally in periodical Russkaya mysl’, jun. 1907, No. 6, p. 114-123, (Klep. #138).

Article was included and republished thereafter within the 1910 Berdyaev book, “Dukhovnyi krisis intelligentsii” (“Spiritual Crisis of the Intelligentsia”) (Klep.#4, Sect. I, Ch. 1). My translation is made from the 1998  Moscow “Kanon” republished edition of the “Dukhovnyi krisis intelligentsii”, p. 22-34, — and whether this follows the pagination of the original 1910 text is not clear. I have not reproduced the scholarly footnotes of the 1998 editor, since my intent is to preserve and present the integrity of Berdyaev’s own original text; also as not to infringe copyright rights of the 1998 editor’s (V. V. Sapov’s) own work, at this interim point in time.

1  Schelling in his “Philosophie der Kunst” [“Philosophy of Art”] says: “Schoenheit ist das real angeschaute Absolute” [“Beauty is the real contemplatible Absolute”]. Vide Schellings Werke. Dritter Band [Vol. III], 1907, p. 46. This is a very profound definition, from which is evident, that the contemplative extent of absolute being is beauty.

2  Its most imposing representative for us is Vyacheslav Ivanov.

3  The transformation of flesh into word was characteristic of the Alexandrian epoch.