Communities of Dialogue Russian and Ukrainian Émigrés in Modernist Prague

Czechoslovak and Russian Discourse on Titanism

(Patrick Flack, Christian Zehnder)

The relatively obscure term of “titanism” is at the heart of a complex debate involving prominent Czech intellectuals of the first third of the twentieth century. Used initially by Masaryk in his philosophical interpretations of Goethe’s Faust (Masaryk 2000 [1934]), it was taken up by literary scholar František Xaver Šalda and his student Václav Černý (1934), and again by Patočka in his critical engagement with the work of these masters (Patočka 1936). Whereas 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. Czech symbolist art is strongly anchored in this cultural legacy, as is the culture of independent Czechoslovakia after 1918” (James 2021, 4-5).

Otto Greiner, Prometheus, 1909

The discourse about titanism, in this reading, is a structuring feature of interwar Czechoslovakia, and constitutes thus in itself a useful gateway to understanding the intellectual constellations of Prague Modernism and its profound interrogation of the possible new identities of Man and his relation to the changing spheres of politics and culture. But the relevance of titanism is not limited in Prague to its Czech or German background: it also functioned there as a meeting point, i.e. a topos with which Russian and Ukrainian emigrants, in particular Čyževs'kyj, Bem and Jakovenko, were able to connect in vibrant ways. Evidently, these émigrés did so under the impression of the recent October Revolution and its goal of bringing about a Socialist Superman (Lev Trockij). Moreover, they kept vividly in memory the transformations of Nietzsche’s Superman within the culture of the Silver Age in late Tsarist Russia. They frequently referred to Masaryk, both in their intense internal discussions and in their exchanges with Czech philologists and literary theorists such as Jíří Horák, Pavel Fraenkl, or Otokar Fischer (all disciples of Masaryk). Because it brings into dialogue the whole spectrum of Prague Modernism’s national diversity (Czech, German, Jewish, Russian, and Ukrainian), many of its notable intellectual traditions (Masaryk’s positivism, Jakovenko’s neo-kantianism, Patočka’s phenomenology, Čyževs'kyj’s neo-hegelian formalism) and disciplines (philosophy, literary theory, literature itself) as well as a strong liberal, anti-utopian political sensibility, the titanism discourse was a kind of intellectual laboratory that provides a compelling example not only of the interdisciplinary, cross-cultural dimension of interwar Czechoslovakia, but of the direct, reflexive engagement of its actors with the limits of (social, political, cultural, or personal) identity in that context.

In order to study this discourse and to provide a broad picture of its impact and significance in the double contexts of Prague Modernism and the Russian and Ukrainian emigrations, several specific strands will be investigated through close textual, interpretative analysis, the use of archival resources such as unpublished correspondences or the documents of the Dostoevskij Society and the Hermitage of Poets, and a general methodological reflexion on the form of intercultural and dialogical exchanges it embodies. The following five aspects, which will constitute the chapters of a thematic monograph on Titanism by Christian Zehnder, will be studied:

• Čyževs'kyj’s philology of exile – In his writings on Dostoevskij of the late 1920s and 1930s, Čyževs'kyj describes titanism as lack of “concreteness”. The Titans’ ignorance of their neighbours, by the same token, causes a lack of “places of their own” (Čyževs'kyj 1931, 44, 37). This spacializing trope shows in a nutshell how Čyževs'kyj’s preoccupation with titanism suggests a philological practice and theory of exile as a problematisation of “place”, which he develops in confrontation with some of Masaryk’s followers (Hromádka, Horák, Fraenkl or Otokar Fischer) as well as with Losskij or Gessen.

• Šalda, Černý, Patočka: titanism as cultural theory – Elaborating on his teacher Šalda, Václav Černý (1934) argued that the titanic hero of French and English romanticism was not a self-destructive vitalist like Faust, but rather an ethical subject guided by a sincere concern for the improvement of the human condition. The young Patočka (1936) took sides with Černý, turning his literary argument into a philosophical one. In coordination with module B (Dialogues of value) we will explore the hypothesis that this twist in Patočka’s thought was mediated by his contacts with Russian and Ukrainian émigrés.

• Masaryk, Bem and the “Overcoming of Faust”: In his 1933 essay “Osuždenie Fausta (Ėtiud k teme ‘Masarik i russkaja literatura’)” (The condemnation of Faust [a study on the subject “Masaryk and Russian literature”]), Bem grounds the “Slavic solution” of the Faustian problem, hinted at by Masaryk, in Russian literature. The political implications of this programme of overcoming Faust will be explored in the context of the 1930s, namely the totalitarian developments both in Germany and the Soviet Union.

• Jakovenko, the critique of titanism and the ethicization of literature – Boris Jakovenko (1930, 137) mentions the danger of an “ethicization” (Ethisierung) of philosophy through its commitment to the practical sphere of action, which is typical according to him of modern philosophers including Masaryk himself. In the case of Masaryk’s anti-titanism and its international and multilingual reconsideration in Prague around 1930, we are dealing with a case of an extreme ethicization of literature. In this chapter, titanism will be explored as a topos that allows for a theoretically sound and historically informed case study in literature and ethics.

• Petr Boraneckij, a missing link in the debates over titanism? – Russian émigrés, when encountering Czech titanism, were possibly reminded of certain “Cosmist” conceptions, a syncretic titanism in its own right that was virulent both in post-revolutionary Russia and in emigrant circles. In this context, we will investigate the role of Petr Boraneckij’s short stay in Prague at the end of the 1920s. Boraneckij later agitated in Paris as an agent of a “Promethean-Titan” Russian messianism (Hagemeister 1989, 448-453).