Monthly Archives: February 2023

Scriabin and the concept of ‘Universal Consciousness’ in the context of pre-Revolutionary Russia.[1]

Among the sayings of Alexander Scriabin recorded by his friend, the musical journalist Leonid Sabaneyev, was the following: ‘Our thoughts are external to us[…]they only seem to be ours, but in fact, of course, they are general…’[2] Scriabin’s conception of a trans-personal mind  occurs several times in his notebooks, most completely in the notebook of 1905­­–6:

            […]for a person who as such represents from within himself one of the states of the universal           consciousness, it is impossible to perceive other people only from the aspect of their relation to the external world.[…] The universal consciousness as such does not experience [‘live through’] anything, it is life itself, it does not think anything, it is thought itself, it does not do anything, it is activity itself. God, as a state of consciousness, is the personality which is the bearer of this universal principle. [3]

For Scriabin, creative activity and the Divine principle were identical, and he associated the creative part of himself (which contemporary thought might interpret as the unconscious mind, and Greek philosophy as the daemon) with a higher, Divine principle. Hence the exclamations ‘I am God!’ in the notebook of 1904–5[4] and Scriabin’s way of expressing himself in his letters to his partner Tatyana Schloezer about the creative process of writing the Poem of Ecstasy:

            My enchantment, I bow down before the greatness of the feeling which you grant to him who dwells in me. He is great, though I, small as I am, am sometimes poor, little, weak, and tired.[5]

The idea of a portion of the individual personality or identity as divine is found in Indian thought as the purusha. C. Shandra defines the purusha as ‘pure Consciousness [,] the soul, the self, the spirit, the subject, the knower.’[6] Scriabin read of this concept in the Katha Upanishad, which was published in Russian not long before he died.[7] As with many things in his reading which interested him (Blavatsky’s ‘Theosophy’, for example) this came as a confirmation of his own thought. The final entry in the notebook of 1905–6, previously cited, continues: ‘Personal consciousness is an illusion which occurs when universal or individual consciousness identifies itself with lower principles […].’

It was Sabaneyev’s usual method to present Scriabin’s thoughts as unprecedented, mystical aberrations. In the context quoted above, Scriabin’s dictum is delivered after speculations on the ‘astral’, rather than ‘physical’ atmosphere in India and other ‘spiritual’ countries, and in a ‘mysterious’ tone.[8] But this thought can be clearly related to a strand in the Russian philosophy of the period.

In his early twenties, Scriabin’s philosophical mentor was Prince Sergei Nikolaevich Trubetskoy. Trubetskoy published his first, extended philosophical article on consciousness in 1890: ‘O prirode cheloveskogo soznaniya’ [‘On the nature of human consciousness’]. In this work, Trubetskoy refers to a Socratic basis;[9] but he reasons that individual consciousness is conditioned by a collective element.

            As it affirms the reality of activity, and consequently in its true nature, consciousness possesses a definite, living universality. Thus, there is no opposition between the abstract principles of ‘general’ and ‘private’, between ‘the race’[10] and ‘the individual’; in reality, one    does not exist without the other. There is no consciousness without a conscious individual, and no absolutely subjective consciousness. In contemplating consciousness, either from the exterior, as regards the progressively developing phenomena of life, or from within, in the light of psychological analysis, we become convinced of its organic universality, in the ideal sobornost[11] of consciousness.[12]

To strive towards universality in consciousness, and thus towards knowledge of truth and the ‘perfect society’, is the purpose of life:

            The human spirit is objective only in society and in activity within society, together with intelligent beings ­– in a place where they exist in truth, not only in and for themselves, but also in and for others, and where others exist in and for the spirit, as it itself indeed does. For this reason the human spirit can be completely objective only in a perfect, absolute society.  And one may say that to strive towards such a society is to strive towards true spiritual life,          towards immortality and resurrection. […] is consciousness individual, is it subjective or, rather, is it collective (sobornoe)? In the first case the soul cannot have any substantial objectivity, any universal significance and existence; […]. In the second case, if human consciousness is essentially collective, if it is the possibility of the consciousness of all in one, then its subjective I (я) can possess general, objective existence in this collective consciousness; its self-knowledge receives objective, universal authenticity. [13]

For us in the third decade of the twenty-first century this faith in the perfectibility of society, familiar from the conversations of Chekhov’s characters, seems distant and alien; but for Scriabin, brought up in a bourgeois, conservative and military family, these must have been intoxicating concepts. He would have read a few pages earlier that ‘every truly artistic work is an image of general humanity […].’[14]

There seems little doubt, then, that the philosophy of Trubetskoy, carefully and methodically reasoned as it is, and devoutly Orthodox as Trubetskoy was, was a factor in the radical transformation of Scriabin’s originally Orthodox thought. According to the reminiscences of Scriabin’s Aunt Lyubov’, her nephew began to associate with Trubetskoy, a leading figure in philosophical Moscow, late in 1895.[15] In 1892 Scriabin, then an ardent churchgoer, had started to read Schopenhauer;[16] in 1900 he wrote down a declaration of his rejection of God.[17] In the notebook of 1904–5 he begins to think about his own version of ‘collective consciousness’: ‘Once there is no real multiplicity, there is no individual consciousness, which is a relation to other individual consciousnesses and indeed exists only as a relation to them.’[18] Scriabin, though, moved away early on in his reasoning from Trubetskoy’s final assertion,  that ‘perfect, divine Love’ proposes ‘the union of God and Man, or the Church’.[19]

In Scriabin’s Preliminary Action a divine being, ‘the Pre-Eternal’, is evoked, but the emphasis, in the long final chorus, is on a mingling of human souls and of feelings in the ‘unified wave’ of a new stage of existence.[20] The common element between these widely different concepts is the old Russian idea of unity, sobornost’.

Simon Nicholls


© 2021

[1] Scriabin’s ‘general’ or ‘universal’ consciousness and Trubetskoy’s ‘collective’ consciousness may be regarded as the same thing, allowing for their very different attitudes to transcendence. These words express a consciousness which is ‘transpersonal’ (my phrase, which neither of them uses: both transcend the individual.)

[2] L. L. Sabaneyev: Vospominaniya o Skryabine [Reminiscences of Scriabin] [1925] Moscow: Klassika-XXI 2003 p. 307.

[3] Simon Nicholls and Michael Pushkin, trans. and ed., The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin [1919]. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2018 p. 113 and 115.

[4] Notebooks p. 70.

[5] Notebooks p. 239. Letter of 15/28 December 1906.

[6] Chandradhar Sharma, A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1960/2016 p. 155-157.

[7] Notebooks p. 193. Scriabin could have encountered the concept of the purusha as the origin of the advaita (non-division) in Henri Barth’s Les religions de l’Inde (1879). English translation: The Religions of India, 5th ed., London: Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1921, p.72. Boris de Schloezer confirms that Scriabin had this book. Boris de Schloezer: Scriabin: Artist and Mystic. N. Slonimsky, trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 69.

[8] Vospominaniya  p. 306. ‘You see, there the atmosphere itself is of course not physical, but astral, so that there clairvoyancy and all the faculties can unfold.’

[9] Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak, Sergei N. Trubetskoi: An Intellectual Among the Intelligentsia in Pre-Revolutionary Russia. Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1976 p. 36.

[10] It is clear that Trubetskoy means the human race in general – we might write ‘the species’.

[11] The origin of the concept of sobornost’ is religious, and in this sense it can be translated as ‘cathedrality’,

from the root sobor, ‘cathedral, synod’; but as its use exceeds the religious sphere, it may be taken as ‘collective’,

with a particular emphasis on freedom within collectivity.

[12] S. N. Trubetskoy, ‘O prirode cheloveskogo soznaniya’, in Sergei Nikolaevich Trubetskoy, Sochineniya [‘works’]. Moscow: Mysl’, 1994. p. 575­–576.

[13] Trubetskoy, ‘O prirode’, p.576–77.

[14] ‘O prirode’, p. 572.

[15] Notebooks, p. 12.

[16] Notebooks, p. 11.

[17] Notebooks, p. 50.

[18] Notebooks, p. 94.

[19] ‘O prirode’,  p. 592.

[20] Notebooks, p. 158.