Communities of Dialogue Russian and Ukrainian Émigrés in Modernist Prague

Conference | Paper

Dmytro Chyzhevs′kyi, Titanism, and the Modern Critique of Abstraction

Christian Zehnder

Thursday 23 May 2024

14:30 - 15:15


This paper aims to show how a particular thread in Tomáš Masaryk’s thought reverberated among émigré intellectuals from the former Russian Empire in interwar Prague and provided a common ground for their meeting with Czech intellectuals, namely Masaryk’s rejection of “modern titanism.” As the Dostoevsky and Pushkin scholar Al′fred Bem noted in 1933, Masaryk, in his lifelong grappling with Goethe, had proceeded from a “condemnation” of the “German Übermensch” to the postulate of “overcoming” Faust as a “Slavic task.” While the historical context of Bem’s concern might have been Hitler’s Machtergreifung, other émigré philologists, philosophers, and theologians were able to articulate their recent experience of the October revolution through the titanism metaphor. Thus, Sergii Bulgakov had arrived in Prague with the image in mind that the architectural genius of the Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Constantinople had “overcome titanism.” Dmytro Chyzhevs′kyi devoted his contribution to the festschrift for Masaryk (Prague 1930, ed. by Boris Iakovenko) to the concept of the Übermensch. Moreover, in his studies on Dostoevsky, Chyzhevs′kyi explained the destructive nature of some of Dostoevsky’s heroes by the lack of concrete “places of their own” (eigene Stellen), that is, by excesses of abstraction. In his later work, Comparative History of Slavic Literatures, Chyzhevs′kyi would dwell on romantic titanism precisely by recalling a Czech literary scholar, Václav Černý. Through the titanism trope, this paper explores basic patterns, tensions, and political ambivalences in the anthropological outlooks and cultural criticisms of these émigré intellectuals and some of their new interlocutors in Prague.