Thursday, November 04, 2010

Petersburg: Why am I—I?

Yet another extended quote from Petersburg. Many of the themes and motifs I mentioned in the first post continue to surface. Early in Chapter Six, the crowd in the streets is described as a wave, made up not of people but parts of bodies and articles of clothing. Bely captures the feeling surrounding the loss of individual existence in such a crowd, or is it really a separate being?
Beards, moustaches, chins: that abundance comprised the upper extremities of human torsos.

Shoulders flowed by, shoulders and shoulders; all together, the shoulders formed a pitch-black porridge; all the shoulders formed a slow-flowing porridge of extreme viscosity; and Alexandr Ivanovich’s shoulder immediately became attached to that porridge; stuck to it, you might say; and Alexandr Ivanovich Dudkin followed that self-willed shoulder, in accordance with the law of the indivisible wholeness of bodies; thus he was disgorged on to Nevskii Prospect; and there he was compressed like a single grain into the porridge that flowed with blackness.

What is a grain? It is both a world and an object of consumption; as an object of consumption a grain—of caviar, say—does not represent in itself a satisfactory wholeness; that wholeness—is caviar: the aggregate of grains; the consumer is not aware of grains of caviar; but he is aware of caviar; that is, the porridge of grains of caviar. Spread on a proffered sandwich. In just the same way the bodies of individuals who emerge on to the pavement are transformed on Nevskii Prospect into the organs of a communal body, into the grains of the caviar: the Nevskii pavements are a field of sandwiches. Exactly the same happened to the body of Dudkin as he emerged here: exactly the same happened to his persistent thought—to the thought of a huge, many-legged creature that ran along the Nevskii.

They left the pavement; multitudinous legs were running there; and they stared speechlessly at the multitudinous legs of the dark porridge of people as it ran past: the porridge, incidentally, was not flowing, but creeping: creeping and shuffling—creeping and shuffling on a tide of legs; the porridge was composed of many thousands of tiny constituents; every tiny constituent was a torso: and the torsos ran on legs.

There were no people on Nevskii Prospect; what was there was a creeping, clamouring myriapod; a miscellany of voices—a miscellany of words—was pouring out into a single moisture-laden space; coherent sentences clashed against each other and broke; and words flew apart there senselessly and terribly like the shards of empty bottles, all broken in a single spot: all of them, mixed at random, were woven together again into a sentence that flew for all infinity, without beginning or end; this sentence seemed senseless and woven from fantasy: the unalleviated senselessness of the sentence thus composed hung like black soot over the Nevskii; the black smoke of fantastic tales enveloped all its space.

And the Neva, swelling now and then, roared at those fantastic tales and beat against the massive granite walls.

The creeping myriapod is terrible. Here, along the Nevskii, it has been running for centuries. But higher up, above the Nevskii—it’s the seasons that do the running: springs, autumns, winters. There the sequence is changeable; but here—the sequence is unchanging in its springs, summers and winters;; through springs, summers, winters the sequence is the same. And, as we know, a limit is set to periods of time; and—period follows upon period; after spring comes summer; autumn follows upon summer and passes over into winter; and in spring everything thaws. There is no such limit to the human myriapod; nothing takes its place; its segments may change, but it—is forever the same; somewhere over there, beyond the railway station, its head bends round; its tail protrudes into Morskaia; but along the Nevskii its segments, the legs that are its members, shuffle by—with no head, no tail, no consciousness, no thought; the myriapod creeps past as it has always crept; and as it has crept, so it will go on creeping.

(pages 342-344, Petersburg by Andrei Bely, Pushkin Press, 2009, translation by John Elsworth)

Just a few lines later, Alexandr Ivanovich confirms the loss of consciousness when immersed in the myriapod as he tries to gather his thoughts “after immersion in the thought-collective it [his thought] had become an absurdity itself…”. Alexandr Ivanovich had earlier asked Nikolai Apollonovich “Why am I—I?”, questioning not just his existence but also what that existence means. Each character feels caught up in something in something greater than himself and Nikolai now understands him. Intrigues and events take surprising turns as the novel continues to rush along toward…well, whatever idle cerebral play deems.

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