ALMOST THERE | ISSUE ONE
The Quest for Divine Wisdom
The remarkable life of Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900).
Part One: Beginnings
I first came across the name Vladimir Soloviev* many years ago in the pages of Russian Poetry for Intermediates, an obscure anthology, long out of print. Soloviev’s sole contribution was this short untitled poem:
Милый друг, иль ты не видишь,
Что все видимое нами -
Только отблеск, только тени
От незримого очами?
Милый друг, иль ты не слышишь,
Что житейский шум трескучий -
Только отклик искаженный
Милый друг, иль ты не чуешь,
Что одно на белом свете -
Только то, что сердце к сердцу
Говорит в немом привете?
The following translation is rather loose, but hopefully it captures some of the tenor of the original.
My Darling,** can’t you understand
That everything we see around us
Is but a glimmer, a mere shadow
Of the realm we cannot see?
My Darling, can’t you understand
That the harsh clamour of everyday existence
Is just a distorted echo
Of triumphant harmonies beyond our ken?
My Darling, can’t you understand
That the only thing that matters in the whole world
Is what passes from one heart to another
In silent communion?
The poem fascinated me; I was intrigued by its allusion to another, higher reality beyond the banality and the crassness of the here and now. Equally intriguing was the short biographical sketch of Soloviev given at the back of the book. Apparently this ‘philosopher, mystic, scholar and poet,’ had had a profound influence on the development of Russian Symbolism, and had died of ‘general exhaustion’ aged only forty-seven. But I think what fired my imagination most of all was the remark that Soloviev had been visited by Sophia, the feminine principle of divine wisdom, in three remarkable visions. The first of these encounters had taken place while he was still a child. The second occurred in adulthood, while he was in London studying rare religious and esoteric manuscripts at the British Museum. On this occasion Sophia spoke directly to the poet, and said he should go and seek her in Egypt. He duly obeyed and there, out in the desert, he was to have his final and most complete vision.
I have recently revived my interest in Soloviev, and in this and the next few issues of the blog I will be sharing a little of what I’ve learned of this remarkable man’s life and works. Much of this will be drawn from Judith Deutsch Kornblatt’s excellent study Divine Sophia, the Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, though this was by no means the only reference work consulted.
Vladimir Sergeevich Soloviev (Volodya to family and close friends) was born in January 1853 into a large comfortable professional family. His father, Sergei Mikhailovich, was a distinguished historian at the University of Moscow. Presumably it was he who not only helped inspire his son’s great love of learning, but also taught him how to harness meticulous research and rigorous analysis to support the insights of a highly intuitive intellect. That is not to say the future philosopher’s upbringing was characterised solely by dusty tomes and long hours of study. The Soloviev household was, by all accounts, a happy and lively place, with the upbringing of Volodya and his eight brothers and sisters largely in the hands of their mother, Poliksena Vladimirovna. She appears to have been an inspirational figure, who liked to entertain her children with a seemingly endless array of fairy tales, poetry readings, accounts of Russia’s heroic past and stories from the Bible. She was also very devout and strict religious observance was an integral part of the children’s daily lives.
Another figure that loomed large in Soloviev’s childhood was his paternal grandfather, Mikhail Vasilevich, an Orthodox priest. This ‘remarkable, saintly man,’ whom the boy viewed with a kind of reverential awe, added a deeper, more mystical dimension to his grandson’s already strong religious beliefs. It was he who instilled in Soloviev the belief that the spirit world was real and always close at hand, and that it was possible to communicate with the inhabitants of that world as naturally and easily as one person speaks to another in ours. When he was nine years old Volodya Soloviev was to experience the truth of this first hand.
That experience came one bright spring morning in 1862, while he was attending a church service with his nanny. The mass was reaching its climax: the Royal Doors of the iconostasis (the tall screen that separates the altar from the nave in an Orthodox church) had opened and the priest was about to pass through, when the young boy suddenly saw that everything around him starting to dissolve, then disappear altogether. And then, right before his eyes, appeared the vision of a beautiful young woman enveloped in a dazzling aura of azure and gold. Sophia (for he immediately knew it was she) looked down at him, smiled, then slowly faded from view, leaving him transfixed in a state of transcendental bliss.
As far as we know Soloviev did not tell anyone about his vision. He only referred to it publicly for the first time more than thirty-five years later, when he published an account of this, and his other two visions, in the narrative poemThree Meetings. But though his mystical encounters were very much a personal matter, Soloviev was determined to use the insight they gave him to achieve what he believed to be his mission in life: the spiritual emancipation of all mankind. He was convinced that the human race was trapped in a state of intellectual and spiritual paralysis, which had been caused by the false but almost universally held belief that the two fundamental views of the universe—the rational and the mystical—were irreconcilable. In the divine wisdom of Sophia Soloviev saw a power capable of taking us beyond this narrow dualism and on to a new era of unity, harmony and happiness. Put another way, he believed that through Sophia, there was the very real possibility we would be able to create Heaven here on Earth.
* There are several possible spellings of Soloviev’s surname. Solovyov gives an idea of how it is pronounced in Russian and is a common variant; Solov’iev is the form I would normally favour, but the internal apostrophe would mean little to those unfamiliar with the conventions of Russian to English transliteration. I have opted instead for the slightly idiosyncratic Soloviev.
** The original opens with Dear friend, but I have purposely gone beyond this in my translation. The poem was written to a certain Sophia Martynova, with whom Soloviev was deeply in love at the time. He wrote her number of tender love poems in the early 1890’s.