Once, in 1905, at the peak of his literary success, Dmitry Merezhkovsky complained that “in Russia they did not like me and upbraided me; abroad they like me and praised me; but equally here and there they failed to comprehend ’what is mine.’” Indeed, most writers, in their darkest moments, will bewail what they consider the low comprehension levels of critics and the general reading public; few, however, are caught doing this at the time of their triumph, and perhaps, in a circuitous manner, this very complaint provides an insight into the complex and often tumultuous art and life of Merezhkovsky. How does one finally interpret his phrase “what is mine”? In the final analysis, one must conclude that he does not mean his fiction, poetry, or criticism, but rather his religious beliefs and his messianic attempt to give the world what was in his opinion the true means for its salvation.
This discovery of the absolute religious truth was the motivating force behind all of Merezhkovsky’s work. At the beginning of his career, he valued above all else the “liberation of life through Beauty” and dreamed of Hellenic perfection. Over time, however, this worship of the beautiful narrowed, away from the general sense intended by most idealists, toward a more limited definition—a more sensual and erotic one in which beauty came to mean the aesthetics of the leisured class. Merezhkovsky’s other beliefs and theories also narrowed as his age increased, so that eventually he cut himself off from all but a very select group of initiates—and finally from them also.
What makes an understanding of Merezhkovsky’s life and art even more difficult is that, though his search for truth was unswerving, his choice of vehicles for that search swung wildly from one end of the pendulum’s arc to the other. He first sought truth through the populist ideal of service to the people; soon, however, he discovered that this would be an impossibility, because at heart he never could love individuals. Again and again this problem springs up in Merezhkovsky: He is more enamored of generalities, the “big ideas,” than he is of “little truths” or individuals. In even his best works of fiction, his main characters are not characters at all, but rather embodiments of ideals.
After populism, Merezhkovsky swung to the opposite extreme. He extolled the classical virtues and posited a Nietzschean “superhumanity” as humankind’s ultimate goal. Eventually, he would abandon even this, concluding that this system denied God. Merezhkovsky would always be torn by these swings in his philosophy and allegiance—his love for Russia and Europe, for God and humanity, for the old and new, for Christian spiritualism and Hellenic hedonism—and never reconciled the fundamental duality of his nature.
Up to a point, this duality informs and strengthens his work; after that point, when his religious beliefs finally gelled, this same duality tore his creations down. The dividing line seems to be the early 1990’s, before the publication of Peter and Alexis, and indeed it is only his first two novels, The Death of the Gods and The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, which are still read today. After that, his writing became too polemical, too mystical, and finally too hysterical and arcane to be enjoyed or even understood, increasingly bogged down in a gamesmanship of Hegelian dialectics in which he tried unsuccessfully to reconcile his dual truths—so much so, in fact, that one seems to be reading a new type of philosophical formula writing.
The Death of the Gods and The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci are masterpieces of historical romance, however, and the international renown that sprang from them was well deserved. Though sometimes clumsily constructed, the two novels do possess a kind of raw power in the depiction of the historical panorama, usually executed in mosaic form. Original documents, excerpts, quotes, and other historical tidbits are employed to re-create the life and spirit of fourth century Rome or fifteenth century Italy: Merezhkovsky was even dubbed by one critic as the “Napoleon of Quotes.” Oddly enough, though his protagonists Julian and Leonardo seem little more than abstractions, his minor characters—Caesar Constantius, Gallus Flavius, Arsinoe, Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli, Pope Leo X, Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), and others—all live. Once again, this is indicative of the fact that when Merezhkovsky tries to prove a thesis, he stumbles, but when he simply writes, hisnarrative flies.
Christ and Antichrist trilogy
Merezhkovsky’s trilogy Christ and Antichrist, which includes the novels The Death of the Gods, The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, and Peter and Alexis, presents in partly Nietzschean, partly mystical terms the advance of European history as an ongoing battle between the forces of paganism and Christianity....
(The entire section is 2032 words.)