(This is a revised version of one of my thesis papers.)
The Mysterium of Alexander Scriabin
Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915) was an early 20th century Russian composer, pianist, poet, philosopher, and attempted savior for humanity who hoped to destroy and renovate the entire universe by means of his unfinished final work, a theosophical synthesis of all the arts which he called the Mysterium. The essence of the Mysterium can be best demonstrated by a quote from the man himself:
There will be a fusion of all the arts, but not a theatrical one like Wagner’s. Art must unite with philosophy and religion in an indivisible whole to form a new gospel, which will replace the old gospel we have outlived. I cherish the dream of creating such a ‘Mystery’. Forit, it would be necessary to build a special temple – perhaps here, perhaps far away in India. But mankind is not yet ready for it. Mankind must be preached to, it must be led along newmpaths. And I do preach. Once I even preached from a boat, like Christ.
Scriabin is most widely known for his compositions, not only because they are more beautiful than his poems or his ideas, but also because he never went out of his way to publicize his poetry and he never published any philosophical writings, preferring to share his ideas verbally. He was trained as a musician, having undergone no formal study of philosophy, prose or poetry, and recognized that music was his main field of expertise. Nevertheless he took his ideas very seriously, giving them an equally important place in his heart as his music held, and hoped to share them with the entire world. This would be a prerequisite for the creation of the Mysterium.
Neither Scriabin’s philosophy nor his messianic ambitions were taken seriously by many, but this seemingly did not diminish his confidence. While the exact mechanics of the Mysterium were never explained, its creation does not seem like such an impossibility in the context of his ideas, revolving around the Mysterium as they do. The idea of a perfect and total synthesis of the arts came from Wagner and his gesamtkunstwerk, while Scriabin’s confidence in the unlimited power of his own genius had its roots in Nietzsche’s will-to-power. Later, when he came under the influence of Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy, he placed his Mysterium within the framework of a Theosophical cyclical cosmology. Yet in essence his ideas were original, for when he drew ideas from various sources he always adapted them to his own schemes and never became too entangled in their original context. Originally the Mysterium was conceived of as a one-man act, a personal creation of Scriabin’s, but as time went on he realized the necessity of involving the whole of mankind. For the Mysterium to be created, mankind would need to be both intellectually and spiritually awakened. The Mysterium would, in fact, be essentially religious in character, because to Scriabin all true art was inherently religious. So he preached his ideas, and even though he was always revising the details, the fundamental goal of dissolving the universe in ecstasy through the power of art remained the same.
SCRIABIN’S MUSIC AND IDEAS AND THE RELATION BETWIXT THEM
Before he conceived of the Mysterium, and before he fell under the influence of atheist philosophers, Scriabin was a Christian. His early music from the Christian half of his life is Romantic and has always been described as reminiscent of Chopin. Chopin’s music is very beautiful and charming, and it is also robust, passionate, blocky, wavy and congealed. It is like a field of beautiful flowers. Listening to his music is like looking through a window into his soul, and into the parts of your own soul that are like the parts of his soul that are expressed in his music. I don’t think his whole soul is expressed in his music, but a lot of it is. And this is also how Scriabin’s early music is: it is very beautiful and charming, and it is also robust and passionate, and chunky and wavy. Furthermore, it is giddy and goofy and youthful. It is like a field of beautiful flowers. Scriabin’s early music has also been compared to Liszt’s music, but I think it is much more similar to Chopin’s.
After Scriabin fell away from Christianity his music became increasingly strange and, by the end of his career, atonal (or pan-tonal). His later music is, in my estimation, heavenly–– that is to say, not expressive of Scriabin’s human individuality, nor even of anything distinctly human, but instead, of heavenly realities that he encountered during his mystical episodes. And it is not my intention to flatter Scriabin of course–– the same can be said of any other divinely inspired composer or musician whatsoever, though their experiences of this inspiration were all quite different. What makes Scriabin’s case so peculiar is the contrast between his falling away from God and descent into egomaniacal delusion with the simultaneous ascent of his music into heavenliness.
Scriabin’s profoundest music is much too profound to have been the result of his confused ideas, and the relation between his music and his ideas remains quite mysterious to me. His ideas, at least from the point where he conceived of the Mysterium onwards, definitely served as one motive for him to write the music. Another motive was a desire for money and fame. But in reality his music is a transcendentally profound gift from God proceeding from His Beneficence and Genius, and not Scriabin’s. And many have said that Scriabin’s ideas are reflected in his music, but I myself prefer not to attach too much importance to this for fear of tainting my listening experience; if I regarded them as inseparable, then I would hear blasphemy, confusion, and Scriabin himself in his music instead of beauty, and I might be veiled from its inherent goodness.
I think the relation between Scriabin’s ideas and his music can best be explained as the result of the psychological origins of his philosophy. His creative process consumed him and permeated most or all of his mind, and thus his ideas are, to a large degree, a reflection of this creative process rather than the expression of actual knowledge. His music also reflects this creative process, having come into existence through it. So his music and his philosophy have a common origin, and one can observe a parallelism between their development over the course of his life.
In spite of this they are very far apart because Scriabin’s music is only causally related to this creative process, while spiritually it rises above and beyond the whole realm of existence in which this process took place. His music came from above in a form of genuine inspiration, whereas his philosophy proceeded from his individuality. His philosophy is confused and garbled and therefore limited to the realm of confused and limited human individuals. If his music “expresses the inexpressible”, as he put it, then his philosophy can be said to express his desire to express the inexpressible. But it must be emphasized that this desire could just as well have existed and reached its fullest development without having been thusly expressed in his philosophy, and that therefore his ideas ought to be regarded as completely peripheral to his music.
As for the Mysterium, it was founded on delusions and therefore bound to fail. It could not possibly have been achieved except with divine assistance, the provision of which for such a cause may have seemed a possibility to some during Scriabin’s lifetime but certainly seems like it would have been an out-of-character thing for God to do, at least if His character is judged according to any major sacred text. Insofar as the Mysterium is more than a fantasy, it can be regarded as a perverse misunderstanding of Judgment Day, or an unwitting mimicry of the Zoroastrian doctrine of frashokereti, ‘the final renovation of the universe’.
SCHOPENHAUER, WAGNER, NIETZSCHE & SCRIABIN’S APOSTASY
The development of Scriabin’s original ideas began in his early twenties as he lost his faith in Christianity and in God, and replaced these respectively with philosophy and himself. For the first twenty or so years of his life he was, by his own account, quite religious. He had full faith in the Bible and the priesthood, in Christ and in the Father (Bowers II 138). As time went on he became more fixated on the Father, perhaps a sign of his increasing feeling of God’s distance and ineffability. The first event that shook his faith was the hand injury he developed at the age of twenty from practicing the piano too much. (Bowers II 168). At the time of this injury he prayed fervently, but his hope faded away as his hand failed to recover. In a letter to his sweetheart Natalya, he writes,
Oh, if only I could see some light ahead. If it were possible to believe blindly in the future! Then, then can a man take firm and steady steps towards the goal he loves. Then, life unfolds enticingly. Alas, there is too much in life that destroys faith, no matter how much I want to believe. (Bowers II 75)
It was in fact only a matter of years before Scriabin achieved this ‘blind faith in the future,’ and he would later go on to say, “In general, I live only in and for the future…” (Bowers II 332). When Scriabin overcame this injury he attributed it to his own willpower and his newfound faith in himself. Around the same time, in 1893, Scriabin had his first encounter with philosophy in the form of Schopenhauer. He must have read Schopenhauer’s main work, The World as Will and Representation, but it is not known how much of it he read. Schopenhauer’s philosophy and aesthetics definitely had an influence on Scriabin, but this influence may have been through Nietzsche and Wagner, who were also greatly influenced by Schopenhauer, more than by a direct assimilation of Schopenhauer’s ideas.
Schopenhauer probably had a destructive effect on Scriabin’s faith given the non-theistic and extremely pessimistic nature of his ideas. But the ultimate death-blow for Scriabin’s Christianity came when he became enamored of Nietzsche’s ideas and consequently became an atheist (Schloezer 136, 162, 169). Scriabin was greatly influenced by Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in particular the idea of the Superman and the idea of God “being dead”, which Scriabin would later interpret very literally as he developed a form of pan-deism. Scriabin’s conception of ecstasy was also derived, in part at least, from Nietzsche’s ideas in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Birth of Tragedy. But before going into Nietzsche’s influence on Scriabin I would like to look at the origins in Schopenhauer of Nietzsche’s ideas.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy revolves around Will and Representation, which are respectively the inner and outer aspects of the world. Will is the force that compels us to live and to struggle, while representation is merely the form that everything takes in our minds. Phenomenal reality is only the objectification, the representation, of the Will. Yet neither can be said to cause the other, for the Will operates outside the laws of time, space and causality. Rather, Will and Representation are the two parallel aspects of the world: every representation is the expression of some will, and every act of will alters the arrangement of the representations.
What makes Schopenhauer’s Will so different from God is that it is said to be blind and stupid, struggling against itself and devouring itself as it manifests in the world as so many different beings with conflicting goals. For this reason Schopenhauer advocated the denial of the Will as the only true path to salvation. Perhaps Scriabin was moved by this. In 1895, four years after he discovered Schopenhauer, Scriabin wrote in a letter to his publisher, “I want to renounce everything and live a simple life, but I can’t.” (Bowers II 206).
In general Scriabin did not like denying his will. This is probably what kept him from embracing Schopenhauer more wholeheartedly, and also a significant factor that led to his apostasy from Christianity. Though Schopenhauer advocates the denial of the will, he rejects the notion of free will, with the result that, in his view, those who deny themselves cannot help but do so because it is in their very nature, and that inversely those who indulge their every lust also cannot do otherwise. The result of all this is a worldview in which almost everything is held to be vain and all activity futile. This apparent nihilism of Schopenhauer’s probably did contribute to Scriabin’s occasional sentiment that life is meaningless, and it paved the way for him to accept Nietzsche’s idea of all meaning being created by man.
Schopenhauer’s nihilism is not total, however, because he cherished beauty and art. The third portion of The World as Will and Representation is concerned with aesthetics. Schopenhauer’s aesthetics revolve around Platonic Ideas for the most part. In his view all the arts, with the single exception of music, work their magic on us by temporarily making us into pure knowing subjects of Ideas. In this state we are detached from our egos and temporarily liberated from the pain of constant willing. This is likely where Scriabin first encountered the idea of art as a liberating force, only in Scriabin’s conception this liberation could be permanent.
Concerning music, Schopenhauer holds that it is “as immediate an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself is, indeed as the Ideas are.” (Schopenhauer 257). The other arts express the Will through Ideas and Ideas through images and concepts, whereas music is simple and pure. Unlike the other arts, it is direct and has no dependency on the phenomena of the world. Thus music serves as a beautiful parallel or mirror of the whole world. (Schopenhauer 256-264).
It seems plausible that this conception of the world and music as parallel expressions of the same thing could have helped Scriabin reach the conclusion that music has the power to transmogrify or even destroy the world. Just as music is, at least on the level of appearances, contained and produced in the world, one could inversely view the world as being contained and produced in music. This notion accords well with the idea of angelic ‘vibrations’ being the most primordial level of created existence: the physical vibrations of music could be said to be a lower manifestation of these angelic ‘vibrations’, and the music we hear with our ears of flesh could be said to be a symbol, of which the music of the heavens (heard with the ears of the heart) is the archetype. Perhaps Scriabin, in his fits of ecstasy, confused the symbol with the symbolized, and felt that by making musical ‘images’ of things he was actually creating them.
For young Nietzsche, who was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer, art was the only true justification for existence: “Only as an esthetic product can the world be justified to all eternity”. In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche outlines his own aesthetic theory, which revolves around the Dionysian and Apollonian spirits. These correspond loosely to Schopenhauer’s Will and Representation, but they are described through analogy more than logic and described not as the true nature of reality, but as artistic drives. The Apollonian spirit is associated with dreams and is expressed through images, both mental and physical. It is, like Schopenhauer’s ‘representation’, dependent on the principle of individuation, which is said to be symbolized by Apollo. The Dionysian spirit, on the other hand, is associated with intoxication, with harsh or ecstatic reality experienced independently of this principle. Without individuation the logical boundaries between things fall apart and everything becomes as one, and thus the Dionysian spirit corresponds to Schopenhauer’s Will.
The Apollonian spirit is expressed in the plastic arts, while the Dionysian is expressed exclusively in music (Nietzsche 19, 22). These two spirits and the arts expressing them bring two forms of salvation; the Apollonian spirit redeems us in illusion and protects us from the harshness of Dionysiac reality, while the delight of Dionysian ecstasy frees us from the tiresome emptiness of Apollonian illusion (Nietzsche 20-23). Thus Nietzsche took Schopenhauer’s idea of liberation through art and expanded it into the supreme and ultimately the only form of salvation. It seems that Nietzsche’s contempt for asceticism and lack of faith in religion left art as the only plausible alternative to salvation through self-denial. In Nietzsche’s own (translated) words, “Art alone can turn those thoughts of disgust at the horror or absurdity of existence into imaginary constructs which permit living to continue.”
The theses of The Birth of Tragedy are that in the ancient Greek tragedies the Apollonian and Dionysian spirits were united, that this Apollonian-Dionysian unity was desirable and produced ideal works of art, and that, thanks to German geniuses such as Kant, Schopenhauer, Goethe, Beethoven, and Wagner, this ancient and perfect genre of art was being revived. Nietzsche saw Wagner’s operas as the beginning of an Apollonian-Dionysian revival, after a long period in which the Socratic, Scientific spirit reigned uncontested.
It is not known to me when Scriabin read The Birth of Tragedy, or if he read it before or after Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but he did confess (in Faubion Bowers’s paraphrase) his “indebtedness to the book for its elaboration of the Dionysian concept of abandon, pleasure and rapture.” He also said that it “strengthened his doctrine.” (Bowers III 214-5). It was this Nietzschean influence which led Scriabin to embrace everything in life, both good and evil, pains and pleasures alike (Bowers II 318).
The other character in this somewhat confusing circle of famous people influencing each other is Wagner. He was inspired by Schopenhauer and had a great influence on young Nietzsche, whose ideas in The Birth of Tragedy can be viewed as a synthesis of Wagner’s and Schopenhauer’s ideas. Wagner, like Nietzsche, was a hellenophile and had an idealized view of the Greek tragedies, though he explained the source of their perfection differently. Rather than attributing their wonderfulness to the union of the Apollonian and Dionysian Spirits, Wagner held that the Greek tragedies were perfect because of the loving, sisterly, communistic harmony between the three ‘primeval sister arts’ of dance, music and poetry. This artistic harmony was, in his view, only the natural result of the social harmony experienced by the communistic ancient Greeks. For this reason Wagner thought that a social revolution would have to take place for the Greek Tragedies to be revived, in which people would not only become more brotherly and loving, but would also overcome their slavish love of fashion and come to understand the necessity of only patronizing truly worthy art. He called this ideal work of art the Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning total or all-encompassing work of art, and tried to reach this ideal with his own operas while at the same time expressing reservations about the achievability of his goals given the poor taste of the art-going public.
Wagner had a great influence on Scriabin, both musical and intellectual, though the extent to which Scriabin acknowledged this is unclear. Scriabin was well-acquainted with his music, having attended a ‘Seminar against Wagner’ when he was at the Moscow Conservatory (Bowers II 163), and though he did not read any of Wagner’s theoretical writings, he learned of their contents through conversation. Wagner and Chopin were among the only other composers whose music Scriabin expressed any real appreciation of, yet he was known to have discredited Wagner’s music on several occasions (Bowers II 163, III 118). On the other hand, Schloezer says that Scriabin held Wagner in high enough esteem that when he read Nietzsche’s attacks on Wagner, this caused him to moderate his enthusiasm for Nietzsche (Schloezer 168).
Concerning the desirability and plausibility of creating a gesamtkunstwerk, Scriabin, Wagner and Nietzsche were in agreement. But for Nietzsche and Wagner this gesamtkunstwerk would only be a revival of the ancient Greek tragedies; the idea of it being so powerful as to destroy the entire universe was an original addition of Scriabin’s. He also expanded its scope and totality by including every sense, including taste and touch, and a light-show of flashing colors of variegated shapes, and moving architecture. But all these difficult to implement elements remained purely hypothetical. When Scriabin finally began working on the Mysterium in the form of the Prefatory Act, these components were left out.
Scriabin encountered the ideas of other writers as well, sometimes by skimming through their works but more often through conversation. Among them were Vyacheslav Ivanov (Bowers III 239), Jurgis Baltrushaitis (Ibid.), Novalis (Bowers III 58), Vladimir Solovyov, Sergei Trubetskoy (Bowers II 319), Dmitri Merezhkovsky (Bowers III, 170, 239), Ernest Renan (Bowers II 165), Wilhelm Wundt (Bowers III 55-6), Georg Hegel (Bowers II 317, III 47), Johann Fichte (Ibid.), and Friedrich Schelling (Ibid.). The symbolist poets had perhaps the greatest influence on Scriabin in the end, but early on in his life he was more moved by Nietzsche and Wagner.
The overall state of Scriabin’s philosophy after reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche can be gauged by looking at the projects he undertook around the turn of the century. Judging from the lyrics of the final movement of Scriabin’s first symphony, published in 1899, one gets the impression that he had already encountered The Birth of Tragedy at this point. It is a hymn to art, beginning thusly:
O wonderful image of the Divine,
Harmony’s pure Art!
To you we gladly bring
Praise of that rapturous feeling.
You are life’s bright hope.
And ending thus:
Your spirit, free and mighty,
Man lifted by you
Gloriously conducts the greatest feat.
Come, all peoples of the world,
Let us sing the praises of Art!
Glory to Art,
The idea of art as an image of the Divine was vital to the later development of Scriabin’s doctrine, as he developed the belief that God currently existed only as an image in art, and needed to be resurrected through the Mysterium. But before he fully developed these ideas, he went through a Nietzschean phase in which he was inspired by Thus Spoke Zarathustra more than The Birth of Tragedy. This influence can be first observed in Scriabin’s unfinished opera, and it is also evident in a number of secret journals he wrote from 1903 to 1905.
THE ACT OF THE LAST ATTAINMENT
Scriabin’s opera, which he began working on around 1901, was titled The Act of the Last Attainment. Shortly after the birth of this project, or perhaps at the same time, Scriabin first conceived of the Mysterium (Schloezer 162-3). By 1903 he had written a good portion of the opera’s libretto and some sketches of the music, but his interest in the project waned over time and, looking back in 1907, he spoke of it as a “preliminary sketch,” which was “immature” but not without value (Schloezer 164). The Mysterium was in fact only an expansion of the opera and an attempted actualization of its events.
The libretto is incomplete, but in his book Schloezer fills in a number of details that Scriabin summarized for him in person. The opera begins with a description of a luxurious feast and the beautiful daughter of the King who is present there. The guests lavish praise upon her but she rejects their praise and instead wants freedom through knowledge. Schloezer says that she represents the “Eternal Feminine” and the cosmos (Schloezer 170).
The hero enters now, a philosopher-poet-musician based on Scriabin’s ideal image of himself and inspired by Nietzsche’s Superman (Schloezer 168), and he enlightens the king’s daughter with his wisdom, then elopes with her. The hero represents the “Eternal Masculine,” and this consummation symbolizes Scriabin’s desire to, as he put it, “take the world as one takes a woman” (Schloezer 131, 168). This cosmic romance would later become more explicit in the Prefatory Act of the Mysterium.
In an unwritten scene related by Schloezer the hero is captured by his foes, who interrogate him as to what his intentions are, and he responds to all their questions with the single word ‘freedom!’. The hero then announces to the festive guests his intention to liberate them from all their sufferings through the boundless power of his genius and love. And in the last scene written, the people acknowledge him as their savior as he glorifies himself. The hero was to die in the end, having reached the ultimate summit of victory and beatitude (Schloezer 166).
The reasons for Scriabin’s replacement of the opera with the Mysterium may be related to an increasing aversion towards theatricality. He sometimes enjoyed theatrical productions, but disliked theater in general on intellectual and spiritual grounds. He saw theater as a mere masquerade of intoxicating illusions which create false paradises and only serve to distract people from greater spiritual realities. Schloezer describes the Mysterium as an overthrow of all theatricality (Schloezer 186-90). Nevertheless, the symbolic and pantomimic aspects of the Mysterium in its later development could easily be construed as a form of theater; perhaps Scriabin was averse to theater because he feared that the Mysterium, as he tried to actualize it, might be reduced to a mere theatrical spectacle.
But the most likely reason for the abandonment of the opera was Scriabin’s desire to live its plot out himself. Instead of theatrically portraying the liberation of all mankind by a ‘Superman’, Scriabin decided that he was this ‘Superman’ and would do this liberating himself, in real life. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche posits the Superman as a supreme goal for mankind, by which man would be overcome. This idea is presented in the context of atheistic evolutionism, and it is said to be the next step in evolution. Zarathustra’s first words in Thus Spoke Zarathustra are “I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All creatures hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and do you want to be the ebb of the great tide, and return to the animals rather than overcome man?”
The Superman is said to be better than man and capable of creating his own goals and values rather than copying the values and fulfilling the goals of others. In Nietzsche’s view there are no objective values, there is only will-to-power, so the creation of one’s own values is an admirable thing rather than an aberration from the truth. Scriabin’s created value was his own philosophy and its final goal, the Mysterium. In accepting these ideas Scriabin finally and completely abandoned Christianity. This is clearly shown in an aria from the opera, sung by the hero:
My reason is free always
And it affirms:
You are alone
You are a slave of cold chance
You in the power of the Universe
Why do you entrust your destiny
O pitiful mortal
You can and you must of yourself
Bear on your radiant faces
The glorious imprint of victory.
In addition to abandoning God, he also abandoned concrete notions of good and evil and deemphasized the importance of the distinction between pain and pleasure. Sabaneyev, a close friend and biographer of Scriabin, recalls how once Scriabin was arguing that pain could become pleasure, and then went on to say that “there are times in the life of mankind when murder is a virtue and to be murdered the greatest pleasure.” (Bowers, I, 318).
This rejection of morality was not merely theoretical. Around the same time Scriabin drifted away from Christianity and became enamored of philosophy, he became an alcoholic (Bowers II 164). He also began to engage in premarital and even adulterous relations with women. He abandoned his first wife (Vera Ivanovna) for no good reason and adopted a common-law wife (Tatiana Schloezer) in her place. And in his letters to his wives he said some very rude things to them. Moreover, he became a solipsistic egomaniac around the same time he apostatized from Christianity and he would often display a profound arrogance.
SOLIPSISM, PANPSYCHISM AND ECSTASY
Scriabin’s opera and the Mysterium were both inspired by his feeling of divinity and desire to conquer all, sentiments that arose in him around the turn of the century as he discovered Nietzsche and apostatized from Christianity (Schloezer 167). In place of his faith in the Father he developed a boundless faith in his own creative power. Whereas his former faith had been supported by the Gospels, this new faith was sustained by a form of megalomaniacal solipsism. In general his music from this period is characterized by an increasing level of dissonance and deviation from the norms of Western classical music.
The nature of his solipsism can be discerned from the secret journals he wrote from 1903 to 1905. In one of the journals, from 1905, he summarizes his understanding of the relation between his consciousness and those of other people:
The growth of human consciousness is the growth of consciousnesses of geniuses. The consciousnesses of the remaining people are splashes and sparks of the same consciousness.
There is only one consciousness. That is mine.
The genius contains all the play of colors and feelings of other people. He embraces the consciousness of all those people contemporary to him. (Bowers III 63).
Scriabin was really only half-solipsistic: he believed that the consciousnesses of others were vastly smaller than his and included in his, but that inversely his consciousness was not a part of theirs. This is very reminiscent of monotheistic conceptions of how God’s consciousness stands in relation to ours. According to Schloezer, he reached the peak of his solipsism around 1901, when he began working on his opera, and he adds that “solipsistic individualism was to him only the means to an end, not the goal in itself.” (Schloezer 120).
Scriabin’s feeling that the world was his own creation which he could change or destroy at will was at the root of his confidence in his ability to create the Mysterium. In his initial conception of the Mysterium, it was to be a total and final destruction of the universe, after which there would be nothing but ecstatic, timeless non-being, or absolute unity, the two being identical in Scriabin’s view. This was not an imperative from above, nor a necessary consequence of eternal cosmological laws, but a personal decision and goal set by Scriabin (Schloezer 232-3).
His solipsism was extensive enough that he felt that the entire history of the universe, both past and future, was his invention; in 1904 he wrote “with this caprice, this passing wish, I create all history as I create all future.” (Bowers III 54-55). He felt that his life and works were the ultimate end and aim of all existence, and at the same time he also felt that his life and works contained the entire history of the cosmos within themselves.
These claims of his gave rise to some humorous anecdotes. For example, once when Scriabin was walking on a bridge with his friend Georgi Plekhanov (an influential Marxist thinker), he stopped, and said “…There are no obstacles to manifesting our wills. The law of gravity does not exist. I can throw myself from this bridge and I will not crack my head on the stones. I will float in the air. Thanks to will power.” But when he was asked to demonstrate he declined. On another occasion Plekhanov greeted him and sarcastically thanked him for the wonderful morning, the beautiful sky, and the vast sea. Scriabin got the joke but accepted the thanks “as if he deserved them” (Bowers III 96).
This solipsism was limited and eventually surpassed by an increasing awareness of the distinction between the individual soul and the atman, to borrow a term from Hinduism. This is shown in this journal entry cited by Schloezer: “In time and in space I obey the laws of time and space, but these laws are formulated by my greater ‘I’. It seems to me that the only reason events do not follow my wishes is that I am concentrated on my little ‘I’, which must be subordinated to the laws of time and space created by my greater ‘I’.” (Schloezer 125).
Scriabin often conflated these two selves with each other however, and the similarity between his declaration ‘I am God!’ with the Hindu maxim ‘atman is brahman’ seems less striking when one considers that Scriabin did not concede that anyone or anything other than himself was God. He refused to acknowledge God outside himself. In Scriabin’s mind tat tvam asi, ‘thou art that’, took the form of ‘that is thy creation’. This is because Scriabin was, in this period at least, an actualist rather than a substantialist. He held that action alone is real, and considered all action to be creation.
In accordance with this idea, he considered himself to be not only the creator, but also the created, which he held to be only an aspect of his existence, the microcosm of which he was the macrocosm. And as was shown by the above quote concerning his attitude towards the past and future, he felt that it was not his timeless, impersonal, transcendental and unindividuated Self which was responsible for the details of the world, but rather it was his individual self, subject to capriciousness and instability. But these may well have been passing moods more than firm convictions.
In another 1905 journal, Scriabin gives a much more reasonable description of consciousness:
Individual consciousnesses differ only in their contents, but the bearers of these contents are identical. They are beyond space and time. We are faced here not with a multiplicity of conscious states, but with a universal consciousness that experiences a multitude of states of consciousness vertically (in time) and horizontally (in space).
At the present moment, at a given point in space, I am an individual conscious of myself, but
I am also an act defined by my relationship to the external world. But in the absolute, I am
God; I am a consciousness simultaneously experiencing all other consciousnesses (Schloezer, 124).
The universal consciousness is God, whom Scriabin describes as “an all-embracing consciousness, a free creative impulse”. But even after his solipsism faded away he still felt that he had been specially chosen by the Divine to bring about the end of the world. He remained an egoist to the end of his life, convinced, it seems, that he was the greatest person in the world, perhaps even the greatest being in the universe, and the only person capable of bringing the Mysterium to fruition (Schloezer 153).
This is clearly related to his unique personal experience of ecstasy, which was for him simultaneously a revelational experience and the ultimate goal of all existence. Scriabin’s concept of ecstasy, as has been said, was inspired by Nietzsche’s idea of Dionysian ecstasy and perhaps his talk of ‘joy wanting eternity’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Ecstasy was the universal state of being that was to be brought about by the Mysterium: a single, eternal moment that would encompass and contain within it the entire past and future. It was his own conception of the absolute, the supreme source of meaning: “All moments of time and all points of space will acquire their truthful definition, their true meaning, at the moment of universal fulfillment.” (Schloezer 231).
This was the final ecstasy, the aim of the Mysterium. But Scriabin also experienced ‘miniature ecstasies’, which were the fount of his inspiration and precursors to the final ecstasy. It was in these moments that he received his music, which he experienced as an omni-sensory transcendental revelation and had to simplify in order to express musically (Schloezer 85-6). He once said of his 5th sonata as he was composing it in 1906-7, “I am but the translator” (Schloezer 86). For him, composition was simultaneously a creative and revelatory experience. His music ‘enlightened’ him in its omnisensory ecstatic form, and by converting it into mono-sensory music he was only trying to share his inner experience with the world. In his own words, “The purpose of music is revelation. What a powerful way of knowing it is!”
His creative process was merely a gradual passing-down of musical ‘revelations’ from his timeless higher Self to his individual composer-self, and through his composer-self to the whole of mankind in a sensible form accessible to everybody.
It was not only his own work which was religious to him; as I have said, to Scriabin all true art was inherently religious, and as such he found the idea of art as a mere amusement to be abhorrent (Schloezer 234). Art was in fact his only religion during the period between his apostasy from Christianity and his adoption of Theosophy, and even after this ‘conversion’ he adapted Theosophy to his own art-religion.
Scriabin discovered Blavatskian Theosophy in 1905 (Bowers III 52). First he read The Key to Theosophy, and it immediately appealed to him. He went on to read Blavatsky’s principal work, The Secret Doctrine, many times, marking the most important parts in pencil (Schloezer 71). He saw a great affinity between his ideas and Theosophy, and, looking past the differences, he adapted his own ideas to Theosophy while at the same time adapting Theosophical ideas to his own. He also read the writings of later Theosophists such as Annie Besant and Leadbeater, but their influence on him seems negligible.
Blavatsky’s writings are markedly anti-Christian due to her total rejection of the Personality of the Absolute. In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky claims to be elucidating the esoteric doctrines of the ancients, of which she says all modern religions are mere misunderstandings. Though this claim is most definitely incorrect, Blavatsky’s writings do contain some truth due to their being derived from more authentic doctrines such as those of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Kabbala. It was through Theosophy that Scriabin became reunited with religion and found again a spiritual terminology and doctrine to ground himself in.
[[The following information on Theosophy is paraphrased from Santucci, James A., “A Brief Overview of Theosophy”, Blavatsky Study Center, April 28, 2014 (http://www.blavatskyarchives.com/santuccitheosophy.htm).]]
The central tenets of Theosophy are as follows. The first is the one absolute, infinite, eternal, and utterly ineffable Principle or Reality. The universe is the manifestation of this Principle. All manifestation is cyclical and consists in ebbs and flows. It is also progressive and perpetually evolving, rather than repetitive in nature. Everything in the universe is arranged in groups of seven–– thus the individual is divided into seven parts, and there are seven ‘root races’ that man evolves through, seven planetary cycles, and so on. Each period of cyclical evolution is called a manvantara, and the period of dissolution and nothingness in between cycles is called a pralaya. All this evolution takes places synchronously.
As for individual beings, there are many different types, and they, rather than the unknowable Supreme Principle, are said to run the universe. Everyone is reborn through karma after death, and progressively advances to higher and higher states of being. But Scriabin probably did not take great interest in this aspect of Theosophy because he had no intention of dying before the Mysterium.
The Mysterium was originally conceived of as an act that would bring about the final consummation and dissolution of everything, after which there would be no more multiplicity and no more cosmos. It was to be an absolutely final and permanent return to blessed unity in nothingness (Schloezer 177, 199). But this clearly contradicts the Theosophical doctrine of endless evolution. So Scriabin conceded that his ‘final dissolution’ would only end the current seven-cycle period and that there would be no eternal return to nothingness, though according to Schloezer he was not consistent in this and would sometimes in conversation revert to his original faith in the total uniqueness and finality of the Mysterium (Schloezer 199).
Even with this concession made, there remained the fact that according to Theosophy we are currently in the fifth manvantara. There remained the sixth and seventh cycles between Scriabin and his final goal, each of which would have to have their own separate total dissolutions and recreations of the entire cosmos. Scriabin could not accept the idea of his Mysterium being such a small and trivial event, so he held that the cosmic evolution of the universe would be accelerated by the Mysterium, which would cause time to contract. This would be simultaneous with a process of involution in which the seven manvantaras would be repeated again backwards. Thus the Mysterium would contain many epochs within its seven-day span, and the sixth and seventh manvantaras would be precipitated and essentially usurped by the fifth manvantara (Schloezer 215-16).
Another conflict between Scriabin’s and Blavatsky’s ideas is highlighted by Schloezer, who pointed out to Scriabin that Blavatsky’s ideas were substantialist rather than actualist. Blavatsky held that substances are real, even describing God as a substance, whereas Scriabin asserted that only actions are real. To reconcile this contradiction, Scriabin said that “Blavatsky used the terminology of substantialism only as a concession to the traditional mode of reasoning” (Schloezer 192).
Scriabin also developed a form of pan-deism which reconciled his anthropocentric worldview with Theosophy. He believed that God and man could not exist at the same time. According to his belief, in the process of creation God tore Himself apart and from then on only existed as a memory in the mind of man. This is clearly nonsense, because something that is not made up of parts cannot be divided into them. According to Scriabin, this memory of God is expressed and progressively developed through art, which impresses the image of unity on the mind of man and brings him closer to the ultimate goal of “resurrecting God”. This resurrection would be simultaneous with the total dissolution of man in God, who would then exist alone for a period, only to “dissolve Himself” again in order to recreate man (Schloezer 208, 219, 227-9).
In spite of the sheer blasphemy of these ideas, they are a clear sign that Scriabin had, in part at least, grown out of his atheism. In 1910 during his tour of the Volga he exclaimed, upon hearing a church-bell ringing, “O religion! O holy faith! What worlds of beauty and delight lie in such confidence and trust in God!” (Bowers III 214).
It seems worth noting that, according to Schloezer, Scriabin was eventually “driven away” from Theosophy altogether due to his disillusionment with Theosophists and their poor taste in music as well as their lack of appreciation for art in general (Schloezer 68-9). Given the theme of the Mysterium, however, it would seem that this was not entirely the case; perhaps what Schloezer meant is that he had adapted Blavatsky’s ideas to his own so thoroughly that they were hardly recognizable.
It was only after Scriabin discovered Theosophy that he began to outline the Mysterium in detail. He hoped to finish it within a few years, but its projected time of completion kept getting pushed back. In the meantime he composed a number of momentous works and perfected his harmonic technique, achieving what he called the ‘unity of harmony and melody’ in his 8th sonata and his last symphonic work, Prometheus. In Prometheus he included a part for the ‘light-organ’, and this is the only surviving indicator of how the lighting of the Mysterium might have worked. The light-organ part is written in the score on a regular staff, with different notes corresponding to different colors. There are two ‘melodies’ for the light-organ. The first is a slow part based on the spiritual program of the piece, with the ‘spiritual colors’ of purple (F♯) and blue (B) descending into the ‘earthly colors’ green (A), red (C) and brown (F) and then returning again. The second is a faster part which is based on the tonal structure of the piece and circles around the slow part in minor thirds. For the Mysterium Scriabin also wanted to have more complex light effects, such as ‘rays’, ‘clouds’, ‘lightning’, and so on.
Before the Mysterium could take place, its enactors, who would number about two thousand,were to undergo rigorous spiritual and artistic training. This preparation could take place anywhere; Scriabin thought of establishing a school somewhere in Europe and publishing a periodical which would discuss the Mysterium. But the final phase of the Mysterium’s preparation would have to take place at the site of the Mysterium itself, which was, in the words of Schloezer, “to be preceded by a series of ‘preliminary acts’ corresponding to the ancient purification rites. These acts were to include the physical, moral, aesthetic, religious and philosophical training of the participants and also incorporate the landscaping of the area and the building of a temple.” (Schloezer 263).
Scriabin also hoped to travel to India and undergo some sort of spiritual training in preparation for the Mysterium, but this never came to pass. He would half-jokingly call himself a ‘true Hindu’ (Schloezer 281), recognizing the affinity between Hinduism and his own ideas. He even began studying Sanskrit, desiring to ‘return to the origin of speech’ for the Mysterium, but came to the conclusion that Sanskrit was not sufficiently primordial and instead considered creating his own language, which would be, according to Yuri Engel, “not so much a word-language as a language of cries, sighs and interjections.” (Schloezer 259) (Calvocoressi 484).
Scriabin originally intended the Mysterium to take place in the foothills of the Himalayas or in the tropical south of India, but he later decided that any tropical location would do. There was originally only one temple, but Schloezer suggests the possibility of there being many temples. The architecture of the original temple had been sketched out in detail by Scriabin: it would be a hemispherical structure formed of concentric arcs with a high cupola atop it, situated next to a lake so that the temple’s reflection in the water would form a full sphere. In the center would be an altar, and around the edges would be balconies. Around the temple Scriabin planned to build terraced gardens (Schloezer 264) (Calvocoressi 494).
He also wanted the architecture to come alive, if not through the power of Orphic enchantment alone then through technology: “In order to realize this ‘architectural dance,’ as Scriabin phrased it, he envisioned luminous mirages of buildings produced by special projectors. He also imagined fragrant curtains of haze, with pillars of incense rising to the sky, and transparent surfaces made visible by beams of light directed toward them at an angle.” (Schloezer 265). The Mysterium was to incorporate every art form, involve every sense, and bring the forces of nature itself into the rite: stones would defy gravity and partake in the Mysterium, the sounds and scents of nature would adapt themselves to the rhythm of the Mysterium, and even the gustatory elements would be contrapuntally intertwined with the whole (Schloezer 255-7, 264, 265).
The audience-performer boundary would be destroyed. Every spectator would be a performer and every performer would be a spectator; if there was a passive element to the Mysterium it belonged not to the people present at the rite, but to the world which was to be transfigured. Nevertheless, because not all of the performers would be equally spiritually advanced, some people would be situated in the balconies or around the edges of the lake, moving from rank to rank but generally not occupying the center (Matlaw).
The subject of the Mysterium was to be the spiritual evolution of man, with the seven days of the Mysterium corresponding to the seven root races of Theosophy. But the exact number of days was uncertain. Schloezer suggests that it might have lasted for any multiple of seven days, and if entire epochs were to transpire within these seven days it is clear that they were not ordinary days (Schloezer 263). The first four days would symbolize the descent of spirit into matter, while the last three would symbolize and then realize the ascent and final dissolution of matter into spirit. The participants were to take on the characteristics of the root races until, on the fifth day, “a symphony of sounds, colors, motions, forms, and caresses was to be raised to the highest possible degree of spontaneity, the finest perfection of design, leading to an ultimate fusion in a disembodied, phantomlike mirage.” (Schloezer 265).
At this point the process of involution would begin and the past would be illumined, beautified, and imbued with the image of oneness. At the same time the sixth and seventh root races would be revealed and passed through “in the shortest possible time” (Schloezer 266). The finale of the Mysterium was to be determined during its performance, and the final result of the Mysterium would be the ‘awakening in heaven’ of its participants and ultimately the whole of mankind, who would be permeated by the Mysterium and reborn through it even if they weren’t present at its performance. The precise nature of this post-Mysterium existence was not clearly articulated by Scriabin because he did not know exactly what it would be like, but only that it would be dramatically better and more beautiful than our current condition. According to Schloezer he “harbored expectations of a new earth, a new heaven,” (Schloezer 96), but this seems to contradict Scriabin’s idea that “the flesh was something inferior and coarse, something that had to be overcome and eventually discarded.” (Schloezer 132).
THE PREFATORY ACT
Around 1913 Scriabin began writing the text for the Mysterium. But this text quickly became the foundation of a much smaller and less ambitious work, the Prefatory Act (Schloezer 291, 332). According to Schloezer this was because Scriabin “had to admit that he was spiritually unprepared for the Mysterium” and “harbored a secret fear that he would not be vouchsafed enough time and strength to achieve the creation of the Mysterium.” (Schloezer 332).
This last statement, if true, implies that Scriabin had acquired some vague notion of his fate not being entirely in his own hands, and of there being a gap between the intentions of his fallible individual self and his Divine higher Self. Schloezer says these doubts were detectable through his need for moral support; he would ask Schloezer questions such as:
Does not the fact that this mystery was revealed to me prove conclusively that I, and no one else, have the power to bring about this fulfillment? It is unthinkable that another person would be able to follow my design, to understand my central purpose! I was the first to behold the ultimate vision, and I must be the one to reveal it! (Schloezer 146)
In spite of Scriabin’s near-certainty in his ability to create the Mysterium, he never made much progress on it and his predictions as to when he would complete it were always overly optimistic. In 1908 he told his publisher Koussevitksy that he would have it done in at most five years (Calvocoressi 483). It was approximately five years later, during which time he made no progress, that Scriabin began the Prefatory Act.
The Prefatory Act was to be a preliminary rite which would prepare mankind for the Mysterium. It is unclear what the relation between this and the above-mentioned ‘series of preliminary acts’ was; perhaps this was to precede the other preliminary acts, but more likely it was intended to replace them. The Prefatory Act was essentially an abridged version of the Mysterium, with the more difficult to implement elements removed, the result being something akin to Wagner’s operas or, in Schloezer’s estimation, a cantata or an oratorio (Schloezer 295). It still had the unique feature of not involving an audience.
Scriabin wrote much of the text for the Prefatory Act and completed a semifinal draft before his death. He also wrote some musical sketches, but they are scattered and fragmentary. At some point Scriabin told his publisher B.P. Jurgenson that he had the music “all ready in his head and could finish it in eight months” (Calvocoressi 496). In all probability he would have finished it before long, but it has also been suggested that he may have given up on developing the sketches into a complete score, and instead wanted to use them as mnemonic cues to aid him as he improvised the music for the Prefatory Act on the spot.
Scriabin’s close friend Leonid Sabaneyev, who heard a fairly long (and unwritten) portion of the Prefatory Act, describes his impression of it in his biography:
There were secretive, slow harmonies, full of an unusual sweetness and spice, shifting against a backdrop of standing fifths in the bass…. I listened with a feeling of paralysis. There were several entirely unanticipated transitions and modulations… One might best define its style as being between the first and second Op. 74 Preludes, sometimes the fourth (evidently these small fragments arose from the composition of the big sketches). At times it recalled the “Garlands” from Opus 73, a tender, fragile, sonic fabric, where something mighty, almost painfully heated, sounded. …It seemed to me that I’d descended into an ocean of new sounds… Much was similar to the aforementioned pieces, but much was entirely new….
For the text, which would seem to be Scriabin’s most meritorious work of poetry, he received the advice and apparent approval of his symbolist poet friends Vyacheslav Ivanov and Jurgis Baltrushaitis. It is the only substantial remnant of the Mysterium.
All in all, Scriabin’s ideas and works are not terribly important. They have been of great personal value to plenty of people, but their influence on society at large has been much more limited than Scriabin intended. As a musician and composer he was superbly successful, but in his greater ambitions of liberating mankind and destroying the universe he had no success. His ideas and designs were made ineffective when he died because he never systematized them or wrote them down in detail, and nobody carried on his work after him.
As for the ideal of the gesamtkunstwerk, considered independently of the apocalyptic and salvific goals Scriabin associated with it, I think it is unlikely that it will be reached any time soon. Even if there were a substantial amount of people who wanted to create a gesamtkunstwerk, they would probably fail for the very same reasons Wagner thought creating a true gesamtkunstwerk was so improbable: the miserable state of the modern societies in which there exist such conceptions, and the lack of a unified sense of beauty and aesthetics.
Bowers, Faubion, Scriabin: A Biography (New York: Dover Publications, 1996)
Bowers, Faubion, The New Scriabin: Enigma and Answers (New York: Dover 1996)
Calvocoressi, M.D. & Abraham, Gerald, Masters of Russian Music (New York: Tudor Publishing Company 1944)
Santucci, James A., “A Brief Overview of Theosophy”, Blavatsky Study, April 28, 2014 (http://www.blavatskyarchives.com/santuccitheosophy.htm)
Schloezer, Boris, Scriabin: Artist and Mystic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), trans. Nicolas Slominsky
Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation (New York: Dover Publications 1969), trans. E.F.J. Payne
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy (1871), trans. Ian Johnston
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals (New York: Doubleday 1956), trans. Francis Golffing
Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Middlesex: Penguin Books 1969), trans. R.J. Hollingdale
Matlaw, Ralph, “Scriabin and Russian Symbolism.” Comparative Literature 31, No. 1 (1979)
Morrison, Simon, “Skryabin and the Impossible.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 51, no. 2 (1998)
Robert Rimm, The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and the Eight (Hong Kong: Amadeus Press 2002)
Vanechkina, I.L., “THE “LUCE” PART AS A CLUE TO SCRIABIN’S LATER HARMONY”, “Prometheus” Institute, 4 May 2014 (http://prometheus.kai.ru/luce_e.htm)