Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Petersburg: The terrible import of his soul

To make up for light posting and little time to read, I wanted to share a passage from Petersburg that I found fascinating. I realize it is an overlong excerpt, but I found I couldn’t cut anything out of it and retain its power. To set the stage: Nikolai Apollonovich (Kolenka) has just returned home in the early morning after a disastrous party. He found out during the party that a package given to him contains a bomb that he should use to kill his father, senator Apollon Apollonovich. The father/son relationship, defined by embarrassment most of the time although affection shines through, reached a breaking point that morning after word was received that Apollon’s unfaithful wife has returned after a thirty-month absence. It doesn’t help that Apollon has also just been informed that his son is part of a plot to harm him. Nikolai retreats to his room to inspect the bomb, packed in a sardine can and equipped with a timing device. He sets the bomb to explode in two hours and then slips into a dream-like state.

Once Nikolai turns the key on the bomb, everything in the story rushes along, propelled by the irrevocable, impending explosion. His dream, an updated delirium from Dostoevsky, highlights the sense of doom and destruction that has been lying just below the surface of the action so far. But there is a change in how real everything feels—how actions chosen and decisions made will impact not just what happens to the characters next but to a wider range of people and for quite a while. OK, so we know it isn’t any more real than earlier…it’s still part of the author’s “idle cerebral play” as the narrator reminds the reader. Yet there is humor as well. A sardine can? Really?

(A couple of additional notes: Pepp Peppovich Pepp represents the name he gave to an expanding ball that Nikolai would see during childhood deliriums. Each turn of the key on the sardine can represents an hour on the bomb's timer.)
The Day of Judgement was at hand.

Bygone dreams were here in reality; the cycles of the planets ran their course here in reality—in a wavelength of a billion years: there was no Earth, no Venus, no Mars, only three nebulous rings ran round the Sun; the fourth had only just exploded, and great Jupiter was about to become a world; only ancient Saturn raised from its fiery centre aconian waves: nebulae swept by; and Nikolai Apollonovich was cast down into the immeasurable by Saturn, his parent, and nought but distances flowed by.

At the close of the fourth kingdom he was on earth: at that time the sword of Saturn hung as an unquenched thunderstorm; the continent of Atlantis had collapsed; Nikolai Apollonovich, Atlas, was a depraved monster (the ground beneath him did not hold—it sank beneath the waters); later he was in China: Apollo Apollonovich, the Emperor of China, commanded Nikolai Apollonovich to slaughter many thousands (which was done); and in those relatively recent times, which thousands of Tamberlaine’s horsemen flooded over Russia, Nikolai Apollonovich came galloping from the steppes to that same Russia on his steed; later he became embodied in the blood of a Russian nobleman; and took up the same old business: just as he had slaughtered thousands then, so now he planned explosion: he planned to throw a bomb at his father; to throw a bomb at swift-flowing time itself. But his father was Saturn, the cycle of time turned upon itself, and closed; the empire of Saturn returned (from sweetness here the heart may burst).

The flow of time ceased to be; for thousands of millions of years matter had been ripening in the spirit; but he had craved to blow up time itself; and lo, everything was perishing. “Father!”

“You planned to blow me up; and therefore everything is perishing.”

“It was not you, but…”

“Too late: the birds, the beasts, people, history, the world—everything is collapsing: it is all falling back to Saturn…”

Everything was falling on to Saturn; the atmosphere outside the windows darkened, turned black; everything came into its ancient molten state, expanding beyond measure, all bodies ceased to be bodies; everything revolved the other way—revolved terribly.

Cela…tourney…” Nikolai Apollonovich howled in utter terror, finally bereft of his body, but not noticing…

“No, Ça… tourne…

Bereft of body; still he felt his body: some invisible centre that had previously been both his consciousness and his ‘self’, turned out to posses a semblance of the former, burnt to ashes: Nikolai Apollonovich’s logical premises turned into bones; the syllogisms around these bones wrapped themselves into rigid sinews; the content of his logical activity developed flesh and skin; and so the ‘self’ of Nikolai Apollonovich again displayed its bodily form, although it was not a body; and in this non-body (in the exploded ‘self’) someone else’s ‘self’ was revealed: this ‘self’ had rushed in from Saturn and to Saturn it returned.

He sat in front of his father (as he used to sit before)—without a body, but in a body (a strange business!): outside the windows of his study, in utter darkness, a loud mumbling could be heard: turn—turn—turn.

This was the calendar running backwards.

“What calendar are we in?”

But Saturn, Apollon Apollonovich, replied with loud laughter.

“None at all, Kolenka, none at all: time, old chap, is at zero…”

The terrible import of Nikolai Apollonovich’s soul revolved restlessly (there, where the heart should be), like a whistling top: it swelled and expanded; and it seemed: the terrible import of his soul—a round zero—was turning into an agonizing sphere; it seemed: there was the logic—the bones would be blown to pieces. This was the Day of Judgement.

“Oh, oh, oh: what does “I am” mean?”

“I am? Zero…”

“Well, and zero?”

“That, Kolenka, is a bomb…”

Nikolai Apollonovich understood that he was only a bomb; and he burst with a bang: from the place where a semblance of Nikolai Apollonovich had just arisen in the armchair and where there was now nothing to be seen but a tawdry broken shell (like an eggshell), a zigzag of lightning flashed, tumbling into the black, aconian waves…

Then Nikolai Apollonovich awoke from his dream; with a shudder, he realized that his head was lying on the sardine-tin.

And he jumped up: a terrible dream…But what kind? He could not remember the dream; his childhood nightmares had returned: Pepp Peppovich Pepp, swelling up from a little ball into a colossus, had evidently fallen quiet there for the time being—in the sardine-tin; his age-old childhood delirium was returning because
--Pepp Peppovich Pepp, this little ball of terrible import, was quite simply a bomb belonging to the party: it was ticking away there inaudibly with its hairspring and its hands; Pepp Peppovich Pepp would expand, expand, expand. And Pepp Peppovich Pepp would burst: everything would burst…

“What is it…am I delirious?”

Again things started revolving in his head with terrifying speed; what was he to do? There was a quarter of an hour left; turn the key again?

He turned the little key another twenty times; and twenty times something wheezed there, in the tin-can: the age-old delirium withdrew for a while, so that the morning might remain morning, the day might remain day, and the evening—evening: but when the night came to an end no movement of the key could postpone things further: something would happen that would make the walls collapse, and the purple-lighted skies split asunder, mixing with spattered blood into one leaden, primeval darkness.

(pages 319-322, Petersburg by Andrei Bely, Pushkin Press, 2009, translation by John Elsworth)

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