Thursday, October 21, 2010

Petersburg: Beyond the wall, beyond the mirror

How terrible is the fate of an ordinary, perfectly normal man: his life is resolved by a vocabulary of readily understood words, and by the practice of exceedingly clear actions; those actions carry him into the boundless distance, like a little boat rigged with words and gestures that are entirely expressible; if, however, that boat should chance to founder on an underwater reef of quotidian incomprehension, then, foundering, the boat is shattered, and in a trice the simple-hearted sailor drowns… Gentlemen, at the slightest jolt in their lives ordinary people are robbed of their understanding; no, madmen do not know such risks of damage to their brains: their brains must surely be woven from the lightest ethereal substance. For the simple brain everything that these brains penetrate is quite impenetrable: the simple brain has nothing left but to be shattered; and shattered it is.

Since the previous evening Sergei Sergeich Likhutin had felt in his head a most acute cerebral pain, as though he had banged his head at speed against a wall of iron; and while he stood before that wall he had seen that the wall was not a wall, that it was permeable and that there, beyond the wall, there was some light he could not see and some laws of the absurd, just as there, outside the walls of the apartment, there was light and carriage traffic… Then Sergei Sergeich Likhutin bellowed deeply and gave a shake of his head, feeling the most acute ceregral effort, such as he had not known before. Reflected lights crept across the wall: no doubt that was a boat chugging by along the Moika, leaving bright stripes upon the water.

Sergei Sergeich Likhutin bellowed again and again: again and again he shook his head: his thoughts were conclusively confused, as was everything. He began his cogitation by analysing the actions of his unfaithful wife, but at the end he caught himself in senseless drivel: perhaps it was only to him that a solid plane was impenetrable, and rooms reflected in the mirror were genuinely rooms; and in those genuine rooms live the family of some recently arrived officer; he would have to cover the mirrors: it was awkward to be examining with inquisitive glances the behavior of a married officer with his young wife; you might come up against all kinds of drivel there; and Sergei Sergeich Likhutin started catching himself out in such drivel; and he found that he was himself engaged in drivel, getting distracted from the essential, the absolutely essential thought (it was a good thing that Sergei Sergeich Likhutin had switched the electricity off; the mirrors would have been a terrible distraction to him, and at this moment he needed all his strength of will to discover in himself some train of thought.

(pages 257-258, Petersburg by Andrei Bely, Pushkin Press, 2009, translation by John Elsworth)

One of the things I hope I have conveyed about Petersburg with the excerpts I have posted is the other-worldly feel, soulless by nature. I completely misunderstood the term “symbolist” that is usually applied to Bely and see that he blends the conscious and unconscious of his characters to form a symbolic reality. The unrelenting horrid descriptions of Petersburg combined with the repetitive nature of the text forms a poetic hell through which Bely’s characters wander to and fro. Bely combines his characters with the city to create a third type of being…one constantly droning in a dark, otherworldly fashion as we see what lies beyond the walls and mirrors. Petersburg becomes a symbolic character that the characters are both a part of and pitted against.

The following excerpt highlights some of these thoughts. Senator Apollon Apollonovich wanders through the Petersburg streets after leaving a party where several discordant events occur. To make matters worse, he has just been informed that there is a plot for his assassination.

Apollon Apollonovich adjusted his top hat and straightened his shoulders, as he passed into the putrid mist, into the putrid life of the man-in-the-street, into this network of walls, archways, fences, all full of slush, subsiding pitifully, limply, in short—into that ubiquitous, worthless, rotten, empty universal latrine. And now it seemed to him that even that blind wall hated him, even that rotting fence; Apollon Apollonovich knew from experience that they hated him (day and night he walked enveloped in the mist of their malice). But who were they? A negligible little bunch, noisome like them all? Apollon Apollonovich’s ceregral play erected misty planes before his gaze; but all the planes blew up: the gigantic map of Russia rose up before him, who was so small: could it be that there were his enemies: his enemies were the gigantic totality of all the peoples living in these spaces: a hundred million. No, more…

(pages 267-268)

I hope to have more on Chapters Two through Four this weekend.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...



There's much in the world that you can't explain.
It's revealed for you to remember
by the whispering voice of a distant train
or a midnight rain in november.

Horizon within! You can always find
the keys to Enigma. Let's mention
one basic Truth: of spirited Mind
is Nature naught but extension.

Internal expanses! In dreams, ridden
by fear and longing you roam
that deep Southeast in your soul hidden
...on your random journey back home.


As a native Swede, I am particularly proud of my love poetry suite Sonnets for Katie.

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