Bryusov’s Fiery Angel.

I’ve had a beat-up copy of the famous symbolist novel Огненный ангел (The Fiery Angel) for a couple of decades now — it’s one of the many books I grabbed when the late lamented Donnell Branch was selling off its stock as fast as it could deaccession it — and it seemed the obvious follow-up to Merezhkovsky’s Leonardo, so I finally read it. As I read, I kept changing my mind about it.

Going in, I knew two things: that it was about philosophico-mystical goings-on in 16th-century Germany, and that it was a roman à clef about a love triangle (notorious at the time) between Bryusov, Andrei Bely, and the “Symbolist groupie” (as Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal called her) Nina Petrovskaya. The first interested me not at all, but I had read Khodasevich’s “brilliant book of memoirs,” Некрополь (Necropolis), with its heartfelt account of the affair — catastrophic for poor Nina (a friend of his for many years) — and I was curious to know how Bryusov treated it. And of course it took place immediately after Leonardo, and it also involved witches.

It starts with a fake publisher’s preface of the sort commonly found in the works of playful authors, but this one is neither funny (as in Gogol) nor artistically significant (as in Nabokov) — it merely drops a bunch of names like Ulrich Zasius and Jean Bodin, which seems superfluous given that the novel itself is crammed full of them. Then we get a preface by the purported author of the “truthful tale,” Ruprecht, who drops a bunch more such names (the Doctrinale of Alexander of Villedieu, Lambertus de Monte’s Copulata [commentary] on Peter of Spain); all of this, it has to be said, is exceedingly dry and does not inspire eagerness in the reader who is not already hungry for such matter. But then we’re into the story itself: Ruprecht, recently returned from a successful spell as a mercenary for the Hapsburgs in New Spain, is returning to his childhood home in Losheim to show his parents that their runaway son amounted to something after all when he runs into Renata, the heroine, in a ramshackle country inn on the road to Neuss. It’s a 16th-century meet-cute: he’s trying to get some sleep when he hears what sounds like a woman being assaulted in the next room; full of knightly ardor, he grabs his sword and runs in, only to find a young woman disheveled but alone. It turns out she’s been fighting off demons, and she tells him a tangled tale of how she had loved the “fiery angel” Madiel since she was a child, how when she grew up and started having romantic feelings he had appeared to her as a gorgeous young man, Count Heinrich von Otterheim, with whom she ran away and lived in his castle on the Danube, and how he had suddenly rejected her and expelled her to wander penniless and undefended. This is shown to be a pack of lies the very next morning, when the landlady tells him, among other things, that the count actually lives not far south on the Rhine, but Ruprecht is smitten and swears eternal fealty, accompanying Renata to Cologne and fulfilling her every desire.

One of her desires is that he join her pact with the devil, for which purpose he smears himself with ointment and flies off to a witches’ sabbath, just as in Merezhkovsky; he wakes up in his room with no sign that he actually went anywhere, so he’s not sure what to believe. He also plunges into magical studies, buying book after book from a specialist in the field and finally meeting the great legal scholar and occultist Cornelius Agrippa. All of this is fairly tedious unless you’re as absorbed in such things as Bryusov was. But the description of Ruprecht’s tormented love for Renata, who alternately clings to him and rejects him, constantly rubbing her passionate love for Count Heinrich in his face (she makes him promise not only to help her get him back but to love him as much as she does), and eventually gives herself to him physically before once more violently rejecting him and running away, is very well done; anyone who has ever been in the clutches of such a passion will recognize the symptoms with a pang.

Once she leaves him for good, he decides he can’t stay in Cologne. As he’s taking his farewell tour of the city (where he’d attended the university a decade back), he is accosted by two men who ask him to show them around, since they’re new in town; these turn out to be Faust and Mephistopheles, which made me groan and wonder if we were going to be subjected to every famous person in the Germany of that time. The picture Bryusov draws of the two is amusing and enjoyable, but it’s basically a pointless diversion, like Merezhkovsky dragging in everyone from Raphael to the pope in his own heavily researched magnum opus. But just as I was deciding the book had gone to hell, there’s a brilliantly managed transition that brings Ruprecht face to face with Renata again — she has joined the nuns at a convent, where she is causing so much dissension (some say she’s a saint, others that she’s in league with the devil) that the Inquisition is called in. This, needless to say, upsets Ruprecht, who has to be restrained from suicidally intervening by a friendly nobleman who helps him concoct a deeply implausible rescue plot straight out of a boy’s-own adventure novel; he actually succeeds in getting into the dungeon where she’s being held, but she refuses to be rescued, calling him names and saying she wants to be cleansed in fire. When he tries to carry her out by force, she fights back, then has what he recognizes as a faint of death (!); she opens her eyes and has just enough strength to say “Dear Ruprecht, I’m so glad you’re with me” before expiring. What a load of hooey! Did people take it seriously in 1907?

At any rate, I’m glad I read it, and I guess the obvious follow-up is Sologub’s Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon), which came out around the same time and also involves the demonic. But I’ll take a breather before diving back in to those murky waters.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Reminds me a bit of John Crowley’s Aegypt series, which irritated me so much I posted my longest review EVAH about it on Amazon and then promptly deleted.

    This was actually after I had read all four volumes, with some enjoyment. It is very well done, but for reasons I cannot really pin down it also annoys the hell out of me. Partly the pillock hero, partly the pervasive gnosticism, I think.

    What made me think of it particularly in this context is that nothing actually unequivocally supernatural ever happens in the entire series, which Crowley fans, at least, regard as subtlety. I suppose it is, but I felt a bit short-changed.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    @David: pervasive gnosticism

    What do you mean here by “gnosticism” ? What does anybody mean by “gnosticism” ? (answer optional to this second question).

    I once read, and still “own”, a learned yellow two-volume work by Sloterdijk and Macho with muchos excerpts from Famous Gnostics. My conclusion, in your words: “It is very well done, but for reasons I cannot really pin down it also annoys the hell out of me.”.

    Aeons, angels with weird names and worlds beyond worlds. What is the cash value of this ? What can I buy with the word “gnosticism” ?

    Two yellow volumes

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    What does anybody mean by “gnosticism” ?

    Good question. (Pity I haven’t got an answer …)

    It certainly means lots of very different things. I actually have a colleague who belongs to the last remaining genuine historical Gnostic group (the Mandaeans), and they seem to be a very different proposition indeed from the modern Western dilettante type that read the Gospel of Thomas and think it’s profound. (Apart from anything else, the Mandaeans have survived two thousand years of being persecuted by everybody from the Zoroastrians onwards, which entitles them to respect, whatever else.)

    It’s the hippy-dippy religion-as-self-gratification-technique modern Gnostics that get up my nose. (You may see a pattern in my ex cathedra pronouncements on such issues.)

    When it comes to literary manifestations of Gnosticism, I much prefer the rigorously miserable take of A Voyage to Arcturus. (CS Lewis was sufficiently upset by this work that he described it as demonic, and also slagged off the literary style. I doubt if he’d have done either with Aegypt.)

  4. Stu Clayton says

    Thomas Macho is an Austrian philosopher and “culture scientist” (Kulturwissenschaftler, sounds more impressive in German, does it not ?). The “ch” is pronounced at the back of the throat, as in Loch Ness Monster.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    hippy-dippy religion-as-self-gratification-technique modern Gnostics

    Aha ! You object to the painless frippery and lack of self-discipline. Was nichts kostet, ist auch nichts. I am in secular agreement. I hold with the school of hard knocks.

  6. My two-penny summary of gnosticism is that the world is evil, created by an evil sub-god, and the real (good) god is off somewhere paring his fingernails; our job is to find sparks of the good stuff floating around and use them to make contact with the (good) Divine. But that’s probably about as accurate as saying Lutherans worship Martin Luther.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Yeah, it’s another spinoff of the tribal fantasies that are called religious belief. The world’s creator is only a local boss, his boss is in Las Vegas.

    I occasionally wonder who’s behind Trump. He’s too stupid for the buck to stop at him.

    As a kid I thought the sign on Truman’s desk said “The bus stops here”.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    about as accurate as saying Lutherans worship Martin Luther.

    They don’t? I may have been labouring under a serious misapprehension here …

    I agree that the sine qua non of Gnosticism is the doctrine that the Creator is either wicked, or at least, seriously incompetent. (One can see the logic.) The various schools of Gnosticism seem to have varied a lot in what conclusions they drew from this premise. The more dramatic types interpreted all the Old Testament heroes as villains and vice versa (again, one can see the logic.)

  9. Stu Clayton says

    The more dramatic types interpreted all the Old Testament heroes as villains and vice versa

    The film Scandal Sheet was based on it, despite what the WiPe says.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Truly, the tentacles of Gnosticism have spread far in our degenerate modern world. Root them out! Root, I say!

    Give this film a low rating on IMDb! This must not stand!

  11. The current series ‘Dispatches from Elsewhere’ on AMC is extremely gnostic, plus stuff from ‘The Magus,’ or so it seems from the first two episodes. The gnostic soul is informed that she is higher born of better stuff, sunk into a delusion from which she must be guided home.

  12. I remember reading Огненный Ангел in Almaty in about 1994, on the recommendation of a friend. It felt a bit weird, sitting in Kazakhstan and reading a novel about the familiar Cologne / Lower Rhine area, written by a Russian writer from the start of the century. Similar to you, my impression of the book varied between interest and tedium. The edition I read also had Bryusov’s Юпитер поверженнвй, an unfinished novel taking place in late antiquity, which I found even more pointless.

  13. Thanks for saving me the bother of trying to read it! Bryusov has a fine prose style, but style isn’t everything.

  14. I remember it having some detailed descriptions of everyday life in ancient Rome, but I even back then was past the age when such things alone were able to keep my interest; for reading a historical novel, a writer needs to spin a good yarn, or make me care for the persons involved or for what is at stake, which Bryusov didn’t. As far as I remember, the main protagonist is a larmoyant ex-jerk who found religion (Christianity in his case) and now regrets how much of a jerk he was. Maybe I missed some background because I never read the novel to which this one is the sequel, but a good novel should capture the reader on its own.

  15. John Cowan says

    I think it’s Frye who points out that both gnostic and agnostic are dirty words in the mainstream of Christianity. It’s as if knowledge is somehow not the point….

    I love this bit from Ricoldo Pennini da Montecroce, who wrote a report on the Mandeans around 1290. “They live only near a few rivers in the desert. They wash day and night so as not to be condemned by God.”

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s as if knowledge is somehow not the point….

    Well, yes. It really isn’t. But anyway:

    “Agnostic” is a self-designation in conscious opposition to mainstream Christianity, so it seems a bit captious to call it a “dirty word in mainstream Christianity.” Cet animal est très méchant. Quand on l’attaque il se défend.

    Admittedly, there are (or were, anyhow) Gnostic groups who would stoutly maintain that not only are they true Christians, but they are the only true Christians. Quite right too: no self-respecting serious-minded heretic regards himself as a heretic. However, it seems reasonable for mainstream Christians (not to say Jews and Muslims) to be permitted a few reservations about groups which teach that the Creator is evil or stupid or both.

    “Mandaean”, of course, actually means “gnostic.” But everybody here knows enough Aramaic to have worked that out for themselves.

  17. OED: < Mandaic mandaia Mandaean layman (after ancient Greek γνωστικός Gnostic (see gnostic adj. and n.) < manda gnosis < Aramaic mandʿa, emphatic form of mandaʿ knowledge < yĕdaʿ to know) + -an suffix.

  18. AHD: Mandaic mandaya, having knowledge, from manda, knowledge, from earlier Aramaic manda’, madda’, infinitive of yəda’, to know; see ydʿ in the Appendix of Semitic roots.

  19. Odd that Wiktionary doesn’t take it back to Semitic.

  20. Semitic etymology:
    Number: 621
    Proto-Semitic: *yVdVʕ-
    Meaning: ‘know’

    Akkadian: edû
    Ugaritic: ydʕ
    Hebrew: ydʕ
    Aramaic: ydʕ
    Mehri: wēda
    Harsusi: yōda
    Soqotri: edaʕ

  21. Harsusi: yōda

    Interesting the Harsusi is!

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m afraid that it does not surprise me in the least that that underminer of all that is good and right, George Lucas, should plant this clear Gnostic symbol in the heart of his oeuvre. The sheer shamelessness of it!

    On a happier note, yuada in Kusaal is “penises.” The connection with “carnal knowledge” is obvious; yet another secure etymology for Proto-World!

  23. After Thomas Huxley coined agnostic in 1869, he wrote that, “It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” Another wag (I do not recall who—or whether who said it is even known) claimed that Huxley was really just tired of being called an “atheist.”

    My personal favorite formulation of Huxley’s statement (which I have quoted here before) is the envoy from John Godfrey Saxe’s “The Blind Men and the Elephant” (1872):

    So, oft in theologic wars
    The disputants, I ween,
    Rail on in utter ignorance
    Of what each other mean,
    And prate about an Elephant
    Not one of them has seen!

  24. January First-of-May says

    So, oft in theologic wars
    The disputants, I ween,
    Rail on in utter ignorance
    Of what each other mean

    From essentially this idea, but more recently, came the so-called doctrine of ignosticism, which can be roughly summarized as “it doesn’t make sense to talk whether a deity exists or not if we hadn’t even accepted a common definition for what a deity even is“.

    (Or, in Wikipedia’s words, “the view that a coherent definition of a deity must be put forward before the question of the existence of a deity can be meaningfully discussed”.)

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    I think I may be an oligognostic. I see that paragnostic is already taken. Bummer. Arketognostic?

    (Must go to bed soon to prepare for being a diagnostic again on Monday.)

  26. @January First-of-May: I have to say, claiming we cannot talk about the possible existence of a deity without a precise definition of what a deity is sounds like sophistry to me.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Not so much “precise definition” as “what do you even mean by that”. Theism vs. deism vs. pantheism, singular vs. plural vs. indefinite, omnimax vs. not are among the easily overlooked distinctions that have made people believe they agree when they don’t remotely.

  28. @David Marjanović: Every time I have encountered the “ignostic” viewpoint, the proponent thereof has used it to try to shut down any discussion of religion. They would try to stop people from discussing whether god can be benevolent, for example, by constantly objecting that a precise definition of god is first required. Since that kind of precision is basically never on offer, accepting their premise means cutting off discussion.

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    The “problem” of needing to define terms precisely before even embarking on a discussion is not really fundamentally different for “God” than for (say) “Moses.”

    If you ask, for example, “Did Moses really exist?”, you could quite legitimately entertain the possibility that there was indeed a charismatic leader of the people who later became the Jews who led a large-scale migration to Palestine, but that he wasn’t in fact called Moses and didn’t start from Egypt (Radio Yerevan Moses, if you like.)

    In fact, you can smugly shut down discussion of virtually any topic before it begins by loudly insisting that your opponents haven’t defined their terms precisely enough for it to be possible for you to communicate meaningfully with them. (Moreover, as St Ludwig points out, that isn’t how language really works anyway.)

  30. PlasticPaddy says

    You may be being a little unfair to ignostics, it would be unfair to say to Christian apologists that they invariably confuse faith-based arguments with logical or legal ones, apply dubious analogies, or impute feelings or motives to atheists without sufficient grounds. However the “define your terms and prove that you are right or that I cannot be right” approach is often employed by the PCT brigade (they seem to be a large class of Gnostics but do not identify as such) to frustrate or paralyse debate.

  31. the PCT brigade

    Pacific Crest Trail? Patent Cooperation Treaty? Pennsylvania College of Technology?

  32. Lars Mathiesen says

    Political Correctness Terrorist?

    I regard (religious) faith as a personal matter, beyond argument much less proof. But that doesn’t make a good base for societal power structures, so of course there will be an official line to toe.

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    Pro-Cthulhu Tendency. They get in everywhere in these religious debates.

    I can’t abide their “my god is elder than your god” line, personally.

  34. PlasticPaddy says

    Sorry for the TLA☺
    PCT = Paranoid Conspiracy Theory/ Theorist

  35. David Marjanović says
  36. R’lyeh wgah-nagl fhtagn!

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    The link to the diagram in Erin Wolf Chambers’ “Computing Interesting Topological Features” seems to be broken. Perhaps that is for the best …

  38. Lars Mathiesen says

    My god, there were two!.

    Theorem 4.3.3.  For any g ≥ 2, there is an orientable combinatorial surface M_g of genus g, without boundary, whose unique shortest splitting cycle (up to orientation) crosses a shortest path g and (therefore) cannot be decomposed into fewer than g shortest paths and edges.

    My B.Sc. thesis was supposed to be in Morse theory, but this is beyond me.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder if I am alone in detecting a somewhat eldritch quality in the name of the author?

    The Facts in the Case of Erin Wolf Chambers …

  40. Stu Clayton says

    I like the parenthetical “therefore”. It encourages the reader to believe that what he has just read, and possibly failed to understand, implies something with which he is already familiar – although he may not understand that either.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    I thought it was a bit snooty, pointing out the obvious like that.

  42. Stu Clayton says

    I call such people Impertinenzbestien. It’s my snooty, more aggressive German version of “impudent puppy”.

  43. Lars Mathiesen says

    Well, I left out a times, as you probably guessed — with that restored the remark is probably obvious. Erin is just being helpful here, pointing out what the point of the theorem is.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    It is good that the young people try to help us in our sunset years. They are not to know that we were familiar with homotopic Fréchet distances when they were babes in arms. It were part o’ t’ O Level Topology when I were a lad.

  45. Stu Clayton says

    Aha! “Crosses a shortest path g times”. But that only occurred to me because I had looked at the diagram at the link. I still don’t know what all this Cthulhu business is about. Like Minty Pylon it seems to appeal to those who have retained their youthful tastes.

  46. Lars Mathiesen says

    Two Elder Ones in some sort of mutual penetration cum kinky ropeplay. Cannot be unseen.

    You only had to take Topology, David? Those kids getting off easy because of Mom’s illuminati friends, tsk.

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    The Dead Parrot, dreaming in lost R’lyeh …

    those kids getting off easy

    You leave my mothers out of it. What sentient being doesn’t want the best for its hatchlings, anyway? Even a mammal should appreciate that. As I myself do, for one.

  48. R’lyeh wgah-nagl fhtagn!

    to which the congregation responds: olé biscuit barrel

  49. David Eddyshaw says


  50. ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn

    Lovecraft showed impressive linguistic awareness in writing “the word-divisions being guessed at from traditional breaks in the phrase as chanted aloud”. Lots of writers would have had characters hear something in an unknown tongue and just write it down complete with spaces, not recognizing that if you don’t know the language, it’s difficult to impossible to detect word boundaries in speech. (David Shariatmadari’s story about overhearing his dad speaking Farsi illustrates this.)

  51. Excellent point!

  52. John Cowan says

    Was nichts kostet, ist auch nichts. I am in secular agreement. I hold with the school of hard knocks.

    Whereas the whole experience of my life has been “If it’s hard (or it hurts), you’re doing it wrong.” If I find something hard to understand, I either put it aside or look for a simpler and clearer explanation. Professionally, I am an adherent of “smart data, dumb code” and stand with Fred Brooks: “Show me your [algorithms] and conceal your [data structures], and I shall continue to be mystified. Show me your [data structures], and I won’t usually need your [algorithms]; they’ll be obvious.” (ObPedantic: he actually said “flowcharts” and “tables”.)

    They would try to stop people from discussing whether god can be benevolent, for example, by constantly objecting that a precise definition of god is first required.

    It’s things like this that got Socrates poisoned by the free-speech Athenians and convinced philosophers that democracy was E-Vul for the next two millennia. (Tolkien, notoriously a conservative, said that the problem with the concepts ‘democracy’ and ‘equality’ is that they were attempts to mechanically realize spiritual truths.)

  53. Socrates was one of the most annoying philosophers ever. I realize that this was by design, the whole gadfly thing, but I confess I would have been tempted to poison him myself.

  54. Stu Clayton says

    Hard knocks are not conundrums or tasks.They do not need to be understood or executed. Their purpose is to kickstart thought. Just like Verfremdung in arts and crafts.

  55. Stu Clayton says

    Socrates was one of the most annoying philosophers ever.

    My sentiments exactly, Senator.

  56. John Cowan says

    Well, of course there are Americans for whom the invocation is a comforting childhood prayer. Naturally, we have treated the them badly: sent them to military prisons in 1927-28 and concentration camps (along with Japanese Americans) in 1942.

    (Who knew that Aleuts were interned in WWII as well? It was to get them out of a war zone, to be sure, but they ended up being maltreated just like the Japanese, except that they had nothing that anybody wanted to steal. No apology and compensation bill for Germans and Deep Ones has yet passed Congress, unlike the acts for Japanese, Aleut, and Italian Americans and their alien parents.)

  57. Lars Mathiesen says

    Stu would be one for applying the hard knuckle that causes the Grails devotee to be enlightened.

  58. Stu Clayton says

    “What is the sound of one knucks striking?”

  59. Lucian, Icaromenippus 29 (tr. A.M. Harmon):

    There is a class of men which made its appearance in the world not long ago, lazy, disputatious, vainglorious, quick-tempered, gluttonous, doltish, addle-pated, full of effrontery and to use the language of Homer, ‘a useless load to the soil’ [Iliad 18, 104]. Well, these people, dividing themselves into schools and inventing various word-mazes, have called themselves Stoics, Academics, Epicureans, Peripatetics and other things much more laughable than these. Then, cloaking themselves in the high-sounding name of Virtue, elevating their eyebrows, wrinkling up their foreheads and letting their beards grow long, they go about hiding loathsome habits under a false garb, very like actors in tragedy; for if you take away from the latter their masks and their gold-embroidered robes, nothing is left but a comical little creature hired for the show at seven drachmas.

  60. David Eddyshaw says

    If you have loathsome habits, it seems only basic consideration for others to hide them under your false garb. Nobody wants to see your loathsome habits.

  61. John Cowan says

    If the habit is loathsome, the skin below may be far more attractive. Or the heart below that.

    ‘You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way that servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would — well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.’

    ‘I see. […] I look foul and feel fair. Is that it?’

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