Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Fiery Angel

Set in Renaissance Germany and the world of  magic and occult arts, ever since its first publication in 1907, Valery Bruisov's novel ‘The Fiery Angel', has been controversial. It’s full title is indicative of both its subject matter and stylistic tone

The Fiery Angel or a True Story in which is related of the Devil, not once but often appearing in the Image of a Spirit of Light to a Maiden and seducing her to Various and Many Sinful Deeds, of Ungodly Practises of Magic, Alchymy, Astrology, the Cabbalistical Sciences and Necromancy, of the Trial of the Said Maiden under Presidency of the Eminence of the Archbishop of Trier, as well as of Encounters and Discourses with the Knight and thrice Doctor Agrippa of Nettesheim, and with Doctor Faustus, composed by an Eyewitness. 

Written in an archaic style as if a Gothic romance or Renaissance adventure travelogue and with meticulous attention to historical detail, the story of Renata is narrated by the Knight Ruprecht, recently returned to Germany from his travels in America. Ruprecht recollects his tale from his first encounter with the beautiful Renata who is in a frenzied state. He tells of their relationship, study of the occult together and quest for the fiery angel of Madiel. Eventually the Inquisition are summoned to investigate Renata’s disturbed behaviour at a convent where an outbreak of collective hysteria erupts.

The three-cornered relationship between Renata, an attractive young woman who experiences visions, the Knight Ruprecht and Madiel, the fiery angel who manifests himself as the red-headed Count Heinrich and with whom Renata has an obsessive relationship, was in fact mirrored in the real-life menage-a-trois  between the novelist Bruisov himself, Nina Petrovskaya, a young 19-year old girl and fellow symbolist-decadent author, Andre Bely.

The Russian literary critic and novelist Valery Bruisov became a leading figure amongst Decadent and Symbolist artists of his time. He attended seances, spiritualistic meetings and lectures by scholars of the esoteric and became familiar with leading authors of occultism. Popular interest in the occult, the writings Madame  Blavatsky, founder of the theosophy movement and Rudolph  Steiner were enormous throughout Russian society during the first decade of 20th century. Bruisov's own complete knowledge of esoteric topics is evident throughout the novel which is in essence, like  Andre Bely’s ‘Petersburg’ (1916) a major  novel of  Russian Symbolism. 

It's often during epochs of intense socio-economic upheaval that Apocalyptic prophecies and visions proliferate along with revived interest in the occult arts. The early years of 20th century Russia were no exception to this phenomenon. The artistic movement of Russian Symbolism emphasised the  transcendent aspects of the arts to near religious status. 

Russian symbolist art’s messianic role is exemplified in Mikhail Vrubel's  'Six-winged Seraph' of 1904 (above painting). Composed as a kind of inner vision to the artist, reminding him of his mission and utterly Symbolist in theme and creed, Vrubal’s painting endeavours to rouse its audience from the trivia of everyday existence to awareness of spiritual phenomena. Moving in the same artistic circles, its impossible Bruisov was not aware of Vrubal’s  painting.

In brief, in the absence of social and political reform in Russia, the arts became imbued with religious fervour. The artist Kandinsky in his essay ‘Concerning the spiritual in art' (1911)  stressed this  religiosity of art, stating-

‘Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will someday reach to heaven’.

                                       Valery Bruisov 1873-1924

In Bruisov’s novel the heroine Renata falls victim to religious intolerance and an all-too-literal interpretation of a single line of Biblical scripture, Thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live. ( Ex. 22 v. 18) This single verse tragically endorsed genocide throughout Renaissance Europe. Over-zealously interpreted by an exclusively male legislative and judiciary it resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of lives, mostly single women, especially those who were young and attractive, or old and ugly, throughout Europe over three centuries.

In essence the subject-matter of ‘The Fiery Angel’ is that of the complex relationship between sexuality and spirituality. Written only a few years after Sigmund Freud’s seminal work of psychoanalysis ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1900) psychiatry eventually abandoned concepts such as female hysteria. Today the heroine Renata would be diagnosed as perhaps suffering from a bi-polar disorder or  old-fashioned existential angst. 

'The Fiery Angel' has a precedent in the French Symbolist writer Joris-Karl Huysman’s  novel La Bas (1891) with  its description of  a black Mass. Aspects of its subject-matter are also echoed  in Aldous Huxley’s novel,  'The Devils of Loundon' (1953) with its depiction of religious hysteria. More importantly the general theme of the occult along with the Passion of Christ also occurs in Mikhail Bulgakov’s  masterpiece ‘The Master and Margarita’ (1940).

Incidentally it's a curious cultural coincidence that the Russian craze for occult learning during the pre-revolutionary years of the 20th century coincides with a similar cultural phenomena in 1650's England. Both historical  epochs were  characterised  by political instability and uncertainty. Following the civil war, execution of Charles I and establishment of the Protectorate of Cromwell  large portions of English society, unsure of direction, apprehensive of an impending apocalypse, searched for new knowledge and spiritual guide-lines. The same social phenomena occurred  in Russia centuries later. While England experienced the trauma of civil war, deposition of Monarch and a radical change of Government and then engaged in popular interest in esoteric affairs, early 20th century Russian interest in the occult preceded the horrors of world war, regicide, radical change of government  and civil  war. 

Bruisov fleetingly alludes to the city of Norwich in 'The Fiery Angel'  and there exists a curious connection between  Czarist Russia to Norwich worth exploring; for the actions of the archetypal historical character associated with the occult, the charismatic, haemophiliac-healing 'Mad Monk' Rasputin can be linked to a 17th century Norwich resident.  Among the alchemical manuscripts Rasputin is recorded to have stolen from the Romanov Czar’s Imperial Library were those by the English physician Arthur Dee when resident  physician to Czar Mikhail circa 1614-30 in Moscow. When Arthur Dee, eldest son of the Elizabethan magus John Dee, left Moscow he eventually settled at Norwich where he befriended the physician Thomas Browne.

When Arthur Dee died in 1651 a flood of esoteric literature began to  pour from British printing-presses. Many important esoteric titles made their first appearance in the English language during the 1650's decade,  including those of  the magus Cornelius Agrippa, author of 'Three books of occult philosophy' who makes a significant appearance in the action of  'The Fiery Angel'.

Arthur Dee’s close associate Thomas Browne confidently defended a belief in  angels in his Religio Medici declaring -

Therefore for Spirits I am so farre from denying their existence, that I could easily beleeve, that not onely whole Countries, but particular persons have their Tutelary, and Guardian Angels: It is not a new opinion of the Church of Rome, but an old one of Pythagoras and Plato; there is no heresie in it, and if not manifestly defin'd in Scripture, yet is it an opinion of a good and wholesome use in the course and actions of a mans life, and would serve as an Hypothesis to salve many doubts, whereof common Philosophy affordeth no solution. R.M.Part I:33

 Edition consulted -

'The Fiery Angel' by Valery Bruisov published by Dedalus  2005  with an  afterword by Gary Lachman
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