The relatively obscure term of “titanism” is at the heart of a complex debate involving prominent Russian and Czech intellectuals of the first third of the twentieth century. Used initially by Nikolaj Berdjaev in his Origins of Russian communism (1937, written in 1933) and by Tomáš Masaryk in his philosophical interpretations of Goethe’s Faust (Masaryk 2000 ), it was taken up by literary scholar František Xaver Šalda and his student Václav Černý (1934), and again by the philosopher Jan Patočka in his critical engagement with the work of these masters (Patočka 1936). Where Masaryk saw in Goethe’s character the definitive symbolic representation of the modern “Superman” and his “egoism”, Černý objected to this identification of Faust with the Titanic Superman and insisted on the latter’s creative potential. Moreover, titanism is not limited to this specific filiation from Masaryk to Šalda, Černý, and Patočka. Rather, “The use of the word titanism in Czech is rooted in a specific Central-European aesthetic and philosophical tradition, largely based on the appropriation of German romanticism and its philosophical, social and political implications.” (James 2021, 4-5).
In Prague, debates on titanism were moreover stimulated by the large presence of Russian and Ukrainian émigrés such as Alfred Bém, Dmytro Čyževs'kyj, or Boris Jakovenko, who – often in reference to Dostoevskij, Nietzsche and Hegel – all took up this theme to rethink the relation of the individual to society in an era of revolution, nation-building and the crises of values. The connection of titanism with Russian and Ukrainian emigration also means that its reception history took on a truly European dimension, blossoming also in Berlin (e.g. through the works of Ivan Ilin or Vladimir Nabokov) and especially in Paris (thanks to Berdjaev and to the very significant French reception of Dostoevskij linked among other to Merežkovskij, Gide or Camus), where it possibly constituted an overlooked backdrop to Kojève's reading of Hegel and thus resonated in post-war French Hegelianism as well as in contemporary political and critical approaches to phenomenology.