Monday, April 25, 2011

Profiting from Prophecy 

Somewhere between serendipity and synchronicity, the repetitive sci-fi mantra of contemporary culture is chanted as follows: the fantasies found in the works of yesterday’s science-fiction become the pioneering and fringe sciences of today become the everyday amenities of tomorrow. Somehow many of those technological innovisions and advancements found in the other-worlds or manifold futures frequently explored in science-fiction take a foothold into our reality and—whether out of desire or destiny—into our imaginations. Furthermore, in a culture fueled and forged by conspicuous consumption, obsolescence, and fad technologies, this sci-fi providence materializes more so out of consumer demand and the almighty dollar than simply out the often thankless scientific method and such lofty ideals as the betterment of humanity. Such is the nature of the technological beast… and such examples of this beast can be found in the communicator/combadge of the Star Trek franchise, the videophone from the film Blade Runner, and the interactive television snippets interspersed throughout the movie Starship Troopers.
The first of the three, the communication devices employed by Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets in its various chronological incarnations in the Star Trek universe (the communicator in the original series and the combadge in Star Trek: The Next Generation and thereafter) is a “communication device used by many species for person-to-person, person-to-ship, inter-ship communications. Communicators usually transmitted on subspace frequencies” (, and “served purposes beyond basic communication. For example, communicators were often used to allow transporter locks for beaming, thus acting as homing transponders” ( In the Star Trek timeline, by the 24th century—and by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation—Starfleet has already introduced the combadge which is a compacted combination of the Starfleet insignia badge and the communicator. Moreover, the combadge expands upon the communicator’s capabilities by configuring it “to act as universal translators” (
Although the ‘subspace frequencies’ utilized by the communicators/combadges in Star Trek are out of grasp within the foreseeable future—mostly, due to the fact that “what subspace is has never been revealed on screen” (—the interpersonal communicative, homing transpondent, and universal translative capabilities of the device are very much a part of our contemporary culture. Our current cellphone devices are, for all intents and purposes, the handheld, person-to-person communicator devices of the series, which is “oft-cited as a Star Trek invention” (, but it goes much deeper than that. The cellphone of today “was invented by a team led by a Motorola vice president named Martin Cooper. Cooper has said in interviews before that the Star Trek communicator was his inspiration for inventing and developing mobile phone technology…Star Trek gave us cell phones” (  
There’s no denying that the modern cell phone has been assimilated into our contemporary culture to the point of it becoming an accepted norm and not a technological fad or curiosity, and its list benefits are manifold. One advantage is the ability to “stay connected with our loved ones in any part of the world and anytime. Gone are the days when we used to stand in queues to make an STD or ISD calls” ( Another beneficial service the cell phone provides is SMS (Short Message Service), which permits users to converse during “situations in which a person can’t attend a call, so all you have to do is simply send an SMS and without talking your message is delivered” ( Yet another benefit cell phones offer is during emergency situation: “The benefits of cell phones in emergency situations is undisputed. The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 74 percent of Americans say they’ve used a cell phone in an emergency” ( Lastly, the modern cell phone works as a miniature PC/laptop, “equipped with windows and internet facilities. So you don’t need to wait for the newspaper! You can simply access the internet on your cell phone and get to know about the latest news, your e-mails, movie shows and a lot more” (
Additionally, the Star Trek communicator’s ability to be utilized as a homing device is comparable to a cellphone’s GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking capabilities: “Cellphones have had GPS locators in them since 2005…Manufacturers are always on the lookout for new ways for customers to use their cellphones and there seem to be few limits on the applications. Smartphones already make the old 'communicator' that once seemed so slick on Star Trek look like a kid's toy” ( GPS tracking allows its users to “keep track of your children, post your location to Facebook or find a lost phone” ( Likewise, the universal translative capabilities added to The Next Generation’s combadge device are currently being worked on as we speak and I type: “Google Conversation, so far only available to translate between Spanish and English, generated excited headlines speculating that a true universal translator -- an idea popularized by "Star Trek" -- might be just around the corner” (; thereby, breaking down the language barrier.
The videophone in Blade Runner is yet another example of sci-fi fantasy materializing into everyday reality. Although “the concept of videotelephony was first popularized in the late 1880s” ( and not the sole creation of the FX-wizards of the film, with webcams adorning PCs everywhere and the built-in cameras found in most laptops—not to mention, such pixelated platforms as Skype Blade Runner had its celluloid finger on the futuristic pulse. Considering that the film is set in the year 2019, Ridley Scott & co. weren’t too far off the mark. With that in mind, even though the laptop and PC have become the main source of such audiovisual, communicative endeavors and not the videophone, it still has a marketable niche in contemporary culture. For example, the ASUS AiGuru SV1 videophone is geared towards “the grandma/grandpa/computerphobic set” (, which permits certain contingencies of society either confounded by or wary of the personal computer to have real-time access to the faces and voices of their loved ones separated by distances both great and small.
Likewise—and in the same vein as the Star Trek combadge’s universal translator—the videophone serves as a translator for the hearing-impaired “and makes the phone as useful a tool for the deaf as for the hearing” (  The Sorenson VP100 is a video relay device “clear and free of the graininess and jerky playback...These are important factors when trying to follow signing and observe facial expressions” (, and is part of a federally-funded program “aimed at providing equal telecommunications access to the deaf and hard of hearing. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, all long-distance telephone companies are required to pay a percentage of money collected from phone customers into a national telecommunications relay services fund” (  Since video relaying occurs in real-time, it allows its subject “to introduce tone and expression into the conversation” (, resulting in a congruity and harmony unfelt in other devices for the hearing impaired. 
Finally, the interactive television of Starship Troopers is also no longer the telecommunication device of some distant future, but one of today: “When Starship Troopers debuted, the Internet was still in its early phases as a mass-consumer communications device…Today, however, broadband speeds allow for the interactive television experience through Web video as seen in the…movie. Actual Online video sites like youtube allow users to completely customize their viewing experience, watching only what they want and linking to related videos automatically” ( Moreover, the instantaneousness and simultaneousness of interactive TV will enable “a geographically dispersed population [to] be reached immediately, irrespective of location… which allows information to be given to all remote areas at the same time, regardless of distance from the source” ( Additionally, ITV relies “on the ability, particularly of satellite technology, to reach anywhere within its footprint, irrespective of distances or geographic obstacles” (, making it infinitely more accessible than the passivity of regular television.
Surprisingly—or, perhaps, unsurprisingly—the science-fictitious advancements of yesterday have become the technological innovations of today. Other than the calendar year being incorrect, all three of these works turned out to be correct on some level and even inspired others to take the initiative to make  science-fiction science-factual. This creative inspiration can be seen as a sort of future-past paradox, enticing some within our sociocultural construct to submit to the nostalgic state of action-reaction-creation; thereby, paying homage to youthful reminiscences of  science-fiction through human ingenuity and its subsequent implementation. Cellphones, GPS tracking, universal translators, videophones, and interactive TV all have their detractors. Much is the case with just about every fresh gaggle of hi-tech gadgetry flooding department-store shelves and e-tailers with a sometimes daunting—other times, desperate—tenacity for consumption by tech whores and impulse shoppers alike. Of course, there will always be cons to progress; however, ultimately, the advantages in the above-mentioned cases outweigh the negatives. With the tactile implementation of these sci-fi fantasized technologies into mainstream consciousness, their subsequent realizations, and overall practical application in contemporary culture, it becomes quite apparent that certain percentages of society—unable and/or hesitant to participate and communicate with the greater communal whole—have now been enabled to make the transition from a 20th- to 21st-century mindset. This switch in states of mind would never have occurred if it weren’t fro science-fiction and its admirers who took yesteryear’s future-fantasy from fictitious conjecture to utilitarian advancement; thus, making the inaccessible accessible, the impaired empowered, and  the immediacy of emergency to applicable exigency.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Revenge of the Horseman

“4,320,000,000 years of human reckoning—constitute a single day of Brahma, a single kalpa…Such a day begins with creation or evolution (sristi), the emanation of a universe out of divine, transcendent, unmanifested Substance, and terminates with dissolution and re-absorption (pralaya), mergence back into the Absolute. The world spheres together with all the beings contained in them disappear at the end of the day of Brahma, and during the ensuing night persist.”
                                 Heinrich Zimmer, from Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization

In his final psychological work, Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung wrote, “The general function of dreams is to try to restore our psychological balance by producing dream material that re-establishes…the total psychic equilibrium…The dream compensates for the deficiencies of their [people’s] personalities, and at the same time it warns them of the dangers in their present course. If the warnings of the dream are disregarded, real accidents may take their place” (p.34). Jung’s observations concerning the symbolic significance in dreams seems uncannily descriptive of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, which was written almost fifty years prior to Man and His Symbols. Conjointly, Carl Jung’s Fabian policy to heed the symbolic and metaphorical elements contained within dreams as a forewarning also permeates its pages. These prescient symbols often have multiple meanings to the conscious and subconscious lives of the characters encapsulated in Petersburg, and are often escalated into a subjectified state of personal interpretation. Intermixed amongst this the phantasmagorical fogs, the glazed regality of ornamentation, the pulsating flashes of wisplike lights, and the cyclical spatiotemporality of fluctuating spheres, Petersburg is a novel imbued with imagistic potency. The power of this hypnogogic state trumpets its clarion call within the dreams of three of the novel’s main characters: the dreams of Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, his son Nikolai, and Alexander Ivanovich Dudkin. It is within these characters’ minds (and their incessant pursuits of ‘cerebral play’) that Bely attempts to evoke and infuse the five senses into attaining a state of textual Nirvana. The result is a world in constant flux between the extremities of chaos and order and the pursuant subjugation to interchangeable symbolism, dimensional paradox, and temporal displacement.
Within the hazy labyrinthine gray matter of St. Petersburg, Bely first introduces the reader to Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, a gentleman “of venerable stock” (p.3), a prominent senator, and “head of a Government Institution” (p.5). Apollon is predisposed to the clarity that only logic, reason, and structure can provide and is prone to episodic lapses into ‘cerebral play’ whenever stressed by discord of daily life: “Proportionality and symmetry soothed the senator’s nerves, which had been irritated both by the irregularity of his domestic life and by the futile rotation of our [Russia’s] wheel of state” (p.10). In such moments, Apollon would escape the harsh realities of a chaotic Russia: “by an act of his will, [Apollon] shifted the center of his consciousness” (p.19
Exhibiting a somewhat psychological addiction to this ‘shifted center of consciousness’, Apollon seeks out the conditions necessary to facilitate his cerebral play. As the senator prepares for bed, he anticipates his entrance into this twilight realm and “would pull up the blanket in order to embark upon a journey, for sleep is a journey” (p.93). Arriving at his dream-state destination, Apollon would deconstruct the ornamentations and excesses of the tactile and corporeal into their basic geometrical states and occlude reality altogether: “Ableukhov’s eyes saw bright patches and dots of light, and iridescent dancing spots with spinning centers. They obscured the boundaries of the spaces. Thus one space swarmed in the other space” (p.93). As Apollon continues his spiraling descent into sleep, he becomes aware that “the bubbling vortex suddenly formed into a corridor stretching off into an immeasurable expanse. What was most surprising was that the corridor was an endless continuation of his head…he…was not Apollon Apollonovich, but something lodged in the brain, looking out from there…With the opening up of the sinciput [the forepart of the skull], something could run along the corridor until it plunged into the abyss” (p.93). The narrator further details that this intangible, fragmentary world the senator has entered was his ‘second space’.
It is here that Apollon dreams of fragmentary, foreboding events and false awakenings. Furthermore, it is also here that the reader is introduced to the first of three momentous dreams that appears in Petersburg and interwreathes itself amongst later ones by Apollon’s son, Nikolai, and the mustachioed Dudkin. Almost from the start of his arrival into this ‘second space’, Apollon finds himself “in armor, like a little knight” (p.94), which parallels the imagery of the Ableukhov “coat of arms: a unicorn goring a knight” (p.9). This idiosyncratic familial crest is a rarity amongst such noble emblems and unicorn lore, although it appears repeatedly throughout Petersburg.
During the masquerade ball, a mock battle is re-enacted for the entertainment of the guests; here, the reader is confronted yet again with the imagery from the Ableukhov coat-of-arms as well as the allusion to Apollon as ‘a little knight’: “Cutting across the ballroom was the wizened little figure of a knight…From among the maskers and Capuchins a one-horned being hurled itself upon the little knight” (p.112); however, in this instance, these icons of chivalry (the knight) and purity (the unicorn) are being lampooned rather than revered and, as the reader will discover, Petersburg is rife with symbols possessing multiple meanings and/or antithetical extremes …the Ableukhov coat-of-arms being no exception. To a lesser extent, the silvery specter of Apollon as a knight is echoed in the antiquated weaponry adorning the Ableukhov estate: “On the walls glittered a display of antique weapons: a Lithuanian helmet glittered beneath a rusty green shield: the hilt of a knight’s sword sparkled” (p. 33). Though, much like the masquerade ball’s lampoonery of medieval legends, these weapons of war are simply trophies now—parodies of their former power--stripped of their totemic virility while collecting dust.
The symbolism in Apollon’s dream isn’t solely ironic or paradoxical, but ominous as well. As the senator continues his slumber, he hears the repetitious tapping sound, “Tk-tk…tk-tk-tk…” (p.94), which, as the reader will later discover in the novel, is an allusion to the explosive device encapsulated in a sardine tin, being harbored obliviously by Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov (Apollon’s son), and meant to assassinate the senator himself. The bomb is also the symbolic crux unifying Petersburg’s three main characters in the waking world: Alexander Ivanovich Dudkin (bearer of the bomb), Nikolai (keeper of bomb), and Apollon (the bomb’s target). However, during Nikolai’s dream he transmogrifies from the explosive’s custodian into the makeshift armament itself: “Nikolai Apollonovich was an old Turanian bomb” (p.166); Of course, at this juncture, Bely—in his grandiloquent, circumlocutory manner—has identified the word ‘bomb’ with that of a ‘Turanian’ or Mongol. This syntactical identification and interchangeability between the two words is echoed elsewhere in the novel.
Most notably, the Mongol invader is emblematic of the Ableukhovs’ ancestral origins, ‘the Kirghiz-Kaisak Horde’ which—as the reference notes contained in the back of book explain—“were descendants of the Mongols who had once dominated Russia” (p.298). This fact also represents a great father-son irony in Petersburg: Apollon’s shame and/or embarrassment his family’s ancestral origin manifests itself as disgust toward the Mongol menace, while Nikolai desires to explore and embrace his Asian heritage. Apollon’s disgust for the Mongol manifests itself during his dream, “The clatter was the clicking of the tongue of some worthless Mongol with a face he had already seen…it was Nikolai Apollonovich” (p.94). It should also be mentioned that Bely’s use of the word ‘clatter’ to describe the Mongol, is later used during Alexander Ivanovich’s delirious dreamlike state: “A weightily sonorous clatter swept across the bridge to the Islands. The Bronze Horseman flew on” (p.210). The Bronze Horseman, of course, is the domineering bronze statue of Peter the Great located in Petersburg’s Senate Square and from Aleksandr Pushkin’s phantasmagorical poem titled The Bronze Horseman.
However, In Petersburg, Bely bestows upon the bronze statue of the Russian tsar a symbolism, which is closely entwined with that of the Mongol invader’s: the dissolution of Russia. In Bely’s eloquent, mellifluous style, the symbolic fusion between these two seemingly disparate visages—that of a Russian tsar notorious for his Westernized attitudes and the lowly Mongol barbarian bent on wreaking his Asian brand of chaos across the fatherland—materialize and intermingle in the mind of Dudkin. Lost deep in thought and during his own brand of cerebral play, Alexander Ivanovich envisions the, “The metallic Horseman had galloped hither, when he had flung his steed upon the Finnish granite, Russia was divided in two. Divided in two as well were the destinies of the fatherland” (p.64).  This vision is an obvious reference to St. Petersburg’s Western influence clashing with Russian tradition. The imagery of the mysterious Mongol invader takes this clash a step further by raising it to revolutionary heights: “Alexander Ivanovich had preached burning the libraries, universities, museums, and summoning the Mongols” (p.203). The Mongol as a chaotic, uncontrollable, and unknown element materializes during Dudkin’s fever-ridden nightmare. Ironically, Alexander Ivanovich summons forth the phobias surrounding and effigies of the Eastern-Asian stereotype, which was assumed be an accurate depiction by a majority of Russians during the late 19th and early 20th century—especially, since “Japan had just proved victorious in a war that Russia was supposed to have won” (p.xii)—then symbolically intertwines Russian revolutionary with Mongol invader.
This Russian disgust for all things Asian, is embodied  in the character of Apollon whose dreams continue to be plagued by the Mongol: “according to his [Apollon’s] calculations the Mongol…was stealing toward him…pulling his consciousness out through the blue sincipital breach: into that which lies beyond. Something scandalous had taken place” (p.95). The senator’s nightmarish ominations of ever-looming scandal are catalyzed by the Mongol invader whom, as I have previously mentioned, Apollon has associated with his son. This omen serves a dual symbolism in the novel, both concerning Nikolai: that of Apollon’s son’s cupidity and stupidity concerning Sofia Petrovna and the red domino, and  that of his son’s witless harboring of the sardine tin with the ‘horrible contents’. Obviously, the senator is unaware of the latter of two until the final chapter of the novel, but as I’ve already discussed, Carl Jung  that serves as an omen of his to liquidate Apollon himself. To the reader, it should become quite apparent that Bely has masterfully intertwined the characters (and ensuing dreams) of Apollon, Nikolai, and Dudkin, while methodically and melodically interlacing prescience with symbolism with the supernatural with societal scandal.
The image of the Mongol appears in Nikolai’s dream as well; however, the symbolic significance of this Asiatic invader has transmuted its meaning from that of threat to that of heredity. After the masquerade ball where he has discovered that the package delivered by Dudkin is actually housing the ‘horrible contents’ of a bomb, Nikolai Apollonovich falls under the spell of sleep—albeit, on top of the sardine-tin-encased explosive—and dreams of his ancestors: “His Kirghiz-Kaisak ancestors had maintained relations with the Tibetan lamas. They swarmed in the Ablai-Ukhov blood in goodly number. Was that not the reason why he had a tender feeling for Buddhism? Heredity told. In the sclerotic veins heredity throbbed in millions of corpuscles” (p.165). Nikolai’s embracement of his Eastern Asian heritage is the antithetical extreme of his father’s disgust over the Mongol scourge; thereby, infusing the Mongol otherness with interchangeable significance between the father’s and son’s perceptions of the self and their progenitors.
As Nikolai’s dream progresses, the mythic imagery of the mystic Orient materializes once again. This time, in the form of “sharp-beaked, golden, winged miniature dragons” (p.165); these miniaturized draconic imps are echoed later in Petersburg. After Dudkin has awakened from his dream, the peasant Styopka remarks to him, “You’ll drink yourself silly until you start seeing a Green Dragon” (p.215). In the reference notes following the novel, the ‘Green Dragon’ is explained, “In the context of this passage…the expression also takes on apocalyptic overtones (the Dragon of Revelation 12 who threatens the ‘woman clothed in the sun…)…which Bely emphasizes by capitalizing the words” (p.347). Again, the image of the dragon appears later in Nikolai’s dream: “The Ancient Dragon was to feed on tainted blood, and consume everything in flame” (p.166). Much like the father-son duality of double-meaning pervading the term ‘Mongol’, the dragon embodies both the infernal facet of apocalyptic leviathan and the antidotical formula to purge the Western influence and purify the Mongol bloodline.
While subconsciously incarnated in the body of an ‘age-old Turanian’ Mongol, Nikolai is illuminated by peering through the ageless, omniscient lens of enlightenment: “He was nirvanic man. And by Nirvana he understood Nothingness” (Bely, p.165-166). In Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Heinrich Zimmer further elaborates on the concept of Nirvana, “which is beyond all concepts and forms…beyond all earthly and celestial forms… beyond limiting, qualifying attributes and characteristics, has become…Buddha out of Nirvana, the anonymous void” (p.200). Zimmer’s association of Nirvanic enlightenment with the ‘void’ is paralleled countless times throughout Petersburg; not to mention, all three significant dreams in the novel embrace, acknowledge or accept this nothingness of the endless void. Although Apollon’s somnolent encounter with the Nirvanic is similar to Nikolai’s, “he hung suspended over a timeless void” (p.93), the senator stops short from referring to his twilight enlightenment as anything beyond logical: “Apollon Apollonovich always saw two spaces: one, material…the other, not exactly spiritual” (p.93).
Conversely, Dudkin’s encounter with the void—though still enlightening—is anything but pleasant, “Had he at that moment been able to stand aside and take a look at himself he would no doubt have been horrified: he would have seen himself clutching at his stomach and straining his throat as he bellowed into the void in front of him” (p.207). Furthermore, Alexander Ivanovich’s entanglement with the abyssal nothingness is transmogrified into living shadow; thereby, imparting a sinister meaning into the void’s vivification. The therapeutic ‘two spaces’ of Apollon’s dream metamorphosed into a living entity in Dudkin’s and given a name, Mr. Shishnarfne, “who was growing ever more subtile. A man of all three dimensions had entered the room. He had…become a contour (or, two-dimensional), had become a thin layer of soot…this black soot had suddenly smouldered away into ash…And there was no contour” (p.207). Here, the Nirvanic nothingness of the void has now transmuted from enlightenment into something sinister in the dark of Dudkin’s room.
Not only is Mr. Shishnarfne a dual-dimensional living shadow, but he’s also the harbinger of yet another of Bely’s paradigmatic shifts in symbolic interpretation and antithetical duality; at this juncture, the void of enlightenment from previous interpretations has been twisted into the abyssal void of deviltry and revelation. As Dudkin lucidly dreams his conversation with Shishnarfne, Alexander Ivanovich soon realizes the pitch-black has diabolical intentions: “’Shishnarfne—Shish-nar-fne…’ From his vocal apparatus came the reply: ‘You summoned me…Here I am…’ Enfranshsish had come for his soul” (p.208). The idea of a shadow representative of the devil or demons is nothing new. In the book, Dictionary of Symbols, the following line is given under the entry for ‘shadow’: “As the antithesis of light, the Devil was himself a shadow” (p.181). With this in mind, it seems Bely was drawing from symbolic sources of shadow as devil during Dudkin’s nightmare.
A demonic manifestation is but the first of Alexander Ivanovich’s visitors riddling his fever-ridden dream; the Bronze Horseman himself pays a visit. The statue of Peter the Great is symbolic in many senses, but before I delve into the manifold meanings, let’s consult the Dictionary of Symbols once again for the metal ‘bronze’: “An alloy of copper and tin…symbolizing force, power and hardness, sacred to the lame Hephaestus, who in Greek mythology, fashioned from it the bronze giant Talos” (p.30). Beyond the patinated luster of St. Petersburg itself, the elemental components of bronze appeared previously in Petersburg; in particular, both appeared in the Likhutin house in the shape of Sofia Petrovna’s ‘phoo-phoo’ box. As the notations in the back of the novel point out, Angel-Peri’s copper collection box “was tin only a few paragraphs earlier. We [the editors] cannot decide whether this…is a careless slip on Bely’s part, or whether he deliberately pokes fun at the inconsistencies so common in many of the long Russian nineteenth-century novels” (p.318); I say it is neither. Considering that both copper and tin comprise the bronze alloy, I believe this to be an omen of future events. Furthermore, the fact that the box is meant for guests to deposit coinage every time they utter a vulgarity—or, if you will, pay for their sins—suggests another indication that the ‘phoo-phoo’ box can be paralleled to that of the visage of the Bronze Horseman in Dudkin’s dream sequence.
The narrator also refers to the Bronze Horseman as “The Metallic Guest” (p.214), which, when looking at the notes of the back of the novel, “alludes to both [Pushkin’s] “The Bronze Horseman”  and to The Stone Guest” (p.347) Further notations reveal that Pushkin’s play, The Stone Guest was about “the Stone Commendatore, that emblem of retribution and doom, of the Don Juan legend. A huge stone funerary figure of the man the Don has killed, he leaves his grave at the Don’s defiant challenge and drags him down to Hell” (p.336). This suggests that the Bronze Horseman is the embodiment of the grim reaper and has taken his duties to cull the dead. However, the Bronze Horseman—as a symbolic manifestation of the Grim Reaper—has not come to collect Dudkin’s soul, but rather to bestow his phantasmagorical powers and duties onto Alexander Ivanovich himself. This transference of otherworldly powers is indicated after Dudkin awakes from his dream: “He felt a coppery sensation in his mouth” (p.215).
Yet another signifier that Dudkin is now the possessor of the grim reaper’s duties, not only resides in Alexander Ivanovich’s “business which brooks no postponement” (p.215)—the liquidation of Lippanchenko—but also in his choice of weapon to commit the murderous act: a pair of scissors. Bearing in mind that the Grim Reaper carries around a scythe to harvest the dead to the afterlife, and that scythe and scissors have a common “pseudoetymological association with Latin scindere (to cut or cut with)” (, it becomes more apparent to the reader that the Bronze Horseman has become the Grim Reaper has become Alexander Ivanovich Dudkin. I would also like to make mention of the fact that, according to the Dictionary of Symbols, the entry for ‘sickle/scythe’ notes, “The curved sickle was a lunar harvest symbol of the agricultural-god Chronos (in Roman myth, Saturn)… sometimes personified as Father Time or the Grim Reaper” (p.182). With this in mind, it would appear that Bely has deftly interwoven several meanings and symbols into the guise of the Bronze Horseman and supplanted them into that of Dudkin.
Taking all of this into account, let’s take another look at the Grim Reaper’s symbolic origin in the Greek myth of Chronos—or his Roman counterpart, Saturn—and how he fits into the symbolic equation of Petersburg. The child-devouring Titan appears several times throughout the novel; most notably, during Nikolai’s dream: “his [Nikolai’s] father was Saturn. The circle of time had come full turn. The kingdom of Saturn had returned” (p167); here, Bely has masterfully suffused Apollon Apollonovich with the god of time. Although, it would appear that Apollon—named after Apollo, the oracular god of Greek myth and charioteer of the Sun—would much rather be likened to Zeus—Chronos’ son, Apollo’s father, and king of the Olympian pantheon. During his forays into cerebral play, the senator muses that he “was like Zeus: out of his head flowed goddesses and genii” (p.20). Bely has masterfully blurred the lines between perception and self-perception; in this case, Nikolai’s choice of linking Apollon to the aged Saturn, and the senator’s observations of himself not as the dethroned, tyrannical Titan but as Zeus. Furthermore, Bely has also entwined the antagonistic father-son relationship between Nikolai and Apollon with that of the hostile father-son relationship between Zeus and Chronos.
While on the subject of Saturn, the Titan’s planetary equivalent and namesake, is also mentioned several times throughout Petersburg: “We feel the seething of Saturn’s masses in the spine. The stars of constellations eat their way into the brain” (p.262). Yet again, Bely has interconnected and exchanged symbolic meanings; thereby, linking the fates of his characters with the stars. Saturn is not the only celestial body inhabiting the night sky that’s enumerated in the novel. Ironically, during Dudkin’s liquidation of Lippanchenko—the mastermind behind the plot to assassinate Apollon Apollonovich, the revolutionary loses consciousness and falls into his fateful/fatal abyss, “His consciousness expanded. The monstrous periphery of consciousness sucked the planets into itself, and sensed them as organs detached one from the other. The sun swam in dilations of the heart; and the spine grew incandescent from the touch of Saturn’s masses: a volcano opened up in his stomach” (pp.263-264). Lippanchenko’s body symbolically exchanges identifiability with the cosmic body of the universe.
Considering this symbolic exchange between the human body and the universal one and since I started this examination into Petersburg by quoting Jung, I’d now like to exchange one Carl for another and quote the astronomer and astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, from his book Cosmos: “There is the deep and appealing notion that the universe is but a dream of the god who, after a hundred Brahma years, dissolves himself into a dreamless sleep. The universe dissolves with him—until…he stirs, recomposes himself and begins again to dream the great cosmic dream. These great ideas are tempered by another…It is said that men may not be the dreams of gods, but rather that the gods are the dreams of men…These profound and lovely images are, I like to imagine, a kind of premonition of modern astronomical ideas” (p.214). Sagan’s remarks are significant to Bely’s Petersburg not only because the noted cosmologist mentions the gods, premonitions, dreams, and the universe in one fell swoop, but because he references the cyclical, fluctuating nature of everything encapsulated within the cosmos. Likewise, I find this to be Andrei Bely’s overarching theme and commentary on the state of early 20th-century Russian society and beyond: the cycles of discord and order are universal, infinite, and unavoidable.  Petersburg is but a city in Russia is but a country on a continent on a planet orbiting a star that is but one of billions of stars in the spiraling arms of a galaxy that is but one of billions of galaxies comprising the universe that —over many hundreds of billions of years of expansion and contraction—is annihilated then re-animated from nothingness, which starts the process all over again; thus, making Petersburg a work of illumination that reaches far beyond its 293 pages.
Bely, Andrei. Petersburg. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978. | Free Online Dictionary for English Definitions. 1 Apr. 2011. <>.
Jung, C. G., and Marie-Luise Von Franz. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell Pub., 1968.
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Ballantine, 1985.
Tresidder, Jack. The Dictionary of Symbols. London: Watkins, 2008.
Zimmer, Heinrich Robert, and Joseph Campbell. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. [New York]: Pantheon, 1946.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Darker Side of Science 

Though differing in mass and size, both Godzilla, Tokyo’s favorite colossal lizard, and the doubly-dentigerous xenomorphs in Alien are monsters cut from the same miscreant mold in many other respects. With that in mind, even though these twain terrorizers of the cinema screen were created from divergent cultures both share the common traits of science gone astray and technology run amok in their inceptions and subsequent storylines . These two ‘horriferous’ abominations also arose as reactionary anamneses in the aftermath of 20th-century wars—in the case of Godzilla, WWII, and that of Alien, the Cold War. As a result, both films share a similar nightmarish vision concerning the meaning of ‘monster’, while the fears behind their inceptions are quite noticeably different. However, neither the otherworldly Alien humanoid/biomechanoid nor the subterranean Godzilla transmogrified by the atom is constrained by the restrained logic and lofty reasoning that the scientific method so heavily relies upon. If anything, both silver-screen classics point a disapproving finger towards science; that is, when science is out of a scientist’s hands.
The term ‘monster’ itself seems like a cinch to ascertain a definition. Who hasn’t been afraid at some point in their lives of what might lurk in the depths of the dark (for myself, it was the Sleestaks from The Land of the Lost and Bigfoot…but that’s the subject matter for an entirely separate paper). A quick Google search for the word ‘monster’ and its definition will result in myriad options. So, let’s take a look at a few. defines the ‘monster’ as “an animal or plant of abnormal form or structure” and as “a threatening force.” defines ‘monster’ as “a legendary animal combining features of animal and human form or having the forms of various animals in combination” and “any animal or human grotesquely deviating from the normal shape, behavior, or character.”  With such descriptions in mind, it’s a no-brainer that Alien and Godzilla are infested with the monster scourge. Both beasts grotesquely deviate from acceptable, contemporary—albeit earth-bound—norms; furthermore, both monsters are a combination of human, animal, and myth.
In the case of Godzilla, the creature is partially-dinosaur and partially-dragon/sea serpent from Japanese myth and legend. In the audio commentary of the film’s DVD, Ed Godziszewski, publisher and editor of Japanese Giants magazine, notes that Godzilla was a combination of “a Tyrannosaurus, an Iguanodon, and…a Stegosaurus.” In the film, the element of sea monster from Japanese legend and lore is addressed when news reporter Hagewara questions the village elder of Odo Island—the location of Godzilla’s initial wrath. He explains to Hagewara that Godzilla is “the name of a monster that lives in the sea. It will come from the ocean to feed on humankind to survive.”  Steve Ryfle, author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star and commentator on the Godzilla DVD adds, “Many movies featured an island or an isolated place where the monsters began as a legend.” Ed Godziszewski also denotes, “The fact that Godzilla’s first appearance occurs during a fierce…further reinforces the idea that the monster is more than just an animal,”
In keeping with this element of myth, the phantasmagorical association of a fire-breathing dragon is evident in Godzilla even to those unfamiliar with the hirsute Japanese variety. Moreover, although the sub-aquatic monster’s hydrogen-bomb exhalations are scientifically explained in the film as a result from nuclear testing in the Pacific and the ensuing exposure to massive amounts of radiation, Godziszewski argues that the inhabitants of Odo island “are cut off from modern society and their customs and lifestyle are still rooted…when people believed in legends. This gives Godzilla a sense of the supernatural and even though we’ll get a scientific explanation for the creature’s appearance later on, it’s really only a theory.” He also adds that “we never really know if the monster [Godzilla] is a legendary beast or a nuclear mutant or both…the creature has a mythical dimension here.”
And what about the sleek specimen from the xenomorphic species found in Alien? Just because it’s extra-terrestrial in origin doesn’t mean it’s absolved of earthly ‘monster’ myths and meanings. The combination of human being and beast is apparent; however, what isn’t as clear is just which animal or animals comprise the beastly half. The anatomical construction of the extra-terrestrial in Alien leaves little room for refutation that there’s a humanoid element thrown into the mix—one head, two arms, an upright torso, bipedalism, opposable thumbs, and a pectoral girdle will do that—but the beast in ‘Star Beast’ (Alien’s original running title) is much harder to pinpoint. This general obfuscation is touched upon in the book Monster Theory where we find editor and contributing writer, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, verbalizing this confusion by stating that the monster in Alien defies “every natural law of evolution; by turns bivalve, crustacean, reptilian, and humanoid…It sheds its skin like a snake, its carapace like an arthropod. It deposits its young into other species like a wasp” (p.6). Perhaps, director Ridley Scott can shed some light on the subject.
Scott mentions in the audio-commentary accompanying the Alien DVD that he envisioned the downed alien spacecraft as “a biological or biomechanoid carrier of lethal eggs inside of which are the small creatures that, actually, fundamentally integrate—in a very aggressive way—into any society or any person.” The Alien director further elaborates that he was inspired by footage from an Oxford Scientific documentary: “They [Oxford Scientific] watched a slice of bark…and there’s a grub underneath the bark…across the top of the bark is crawling an insect [ichneumon wasp] which…feels the grub is there…It…produces a needle from…between its legs and drills through the bark and bull’s-eyes right into the grub and lays its seed…what comes out of the union between the grub and that particular insect, does that become a version of both? And that’s what we basically went along with.”
Ridley Scott expounds on this concept by explaining, “If you [the Alien] land on a human being, you’ll have a resemblance to a human being. If it's dropped on an ostrich, it would look like an ostrich.”  In other words, before the facehugger’s parasitoid impregnation of the host, the victim’s genetic makeup is somehow assimilated into the xenomorph’s composition; thereby, peripherally mimicking the host body. So, what can we gather from these two descriptions? Well, for starters, we can ascertain that the bestial half of the alien species in the film is a cryptic mixture of:
·         metamorphotic insectoid: egg→facehugger→chestburster/warrior/queen
·         mimetic parasitoid: facehugger→host/chestburster hybrid
·         cybernetic organism: biomechanoid
Scott’s use of the word ‘biomechanoid’  rather than ‘xenomorph’—as the species is referred to in sources outside of the film—suggests an even stronger reverence for Alien artist/designer H.R. Giger’s work; namely, his “Biomechanoid” series, which was released prior to his work on the film in the early 1970s. In his book, H.R. Giger ARh+, the artist remarks that his ‘biomechanoids’ works were “a harmonious fusion of technology, mechanics and creature” (p.48) Giger further elaborates that his artwork is laced with a grim message: “gene research will yet teach us fear. Cloning is already…a nightmare” (p.48). The allusions to the extra-terrestrial species in Alien possibly being a cybernetic organism with adaptive, assimilative abilities during its metamorphotic stages coupled with the beast’s unknown planet of origin, generates a level of fringe-scientific mystery comparable to Godzilla’s rather ambiguous origin (ie- Is he the result of nuclear testing, a mutated prehistoric dinosaur or some mythical sea-serpent worshipped by the inhabitants of Odo Island?).
Aside from shared contextual meanings and mysterious origins, the 50m-tall irradiated reptile and the biomechanoid life-form also have similar altercations with the ‘darker’ side of science. These scientific discoveries—and their sinister applications—aren’t in the hands of scientists but warmongers nations and their myopic governments.  It’s alluded to in Alien that the biomechanoid species is one that has not evolved on some distant planet over hundreds of millions, but, rather, one specifically created and/or modified as a weapon of war by some other extraterrestrial race. In the commentary, Ridley Scott remarks, “I think the space-jockey [the alien giant found by members of the Nostromo crew] is, actually, somehow the pilot and he’s part of a military operation, if that’s the word you want to apply to his world and, therefore, this is probably some kind of carrier. A weapon carrier.”
Likewise, on the audio commentary of the Godzilla DVD, Ed Godziszewski notes that “Godzilla is a stand-in for the [atomic] bomb,” while Steve Ryfle remarks, “When he [Godzilla director, Ishiro Honda] returned to Japan after the war [WWII], he and his fellow soldiers travelled through the decimated city of Hiroshima and…This experience haunted Honda and he often claimed it had a major influence on the way he directed Godzilla. To Honda, Godzilla was not so much a metaphor for the bomb, but actually a physical manifestation of it.” Thus, Godzilla’s duality as innocent, prehistoric denizen of the deep caught in the crossfire of hairless apes and as harbinger of holocaustic retribution upon the civilization that dared a dalliance with the atom. Thus, Honda has deftly entwined social commentary with cautionary tale.
Honda’s fortified belief that the exploitation of science by personages bent on utilizing its applicative potential not as a tool to build but as a weapon to destroy is echoed in Godzilla’s other empirical tinderbox: that of the Oxygen Destroyer. Dr. Serizawa, the scientist responsible for its invention, describes the Oxygen Destroyer as “a device that splits oxygen atoms into fluids,” and further explains, “I came across an unknown form of energy…I discovered a powerful force that scared me beyond words…Used as a weapon, this would be as powerful as a nuclear bomb. It could totally destroy humankind!” In the commentary, Steve Ryfle notes that “Serizawa has been compared to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who spearheaded the Manhattan Project…many of the physicists whose research led to the atom bomb actually started out searching for ways to apply Einstein’s theories to develop new sources of energy and eventually it was discovered that this energy could be used as a powerful weapon.”  However, Ryfle further states that, while there are many similarities between Serizawa and Oppenheimer, there are also differences. Unlike the physicist behind the Manhattan Project, Serizawa viewed the Oxygen Destroyer as a scientific aberration and, because of this, has elected to keep it a secret from the rest of the world rather than pursuing any further experiments into its destructive capabilities.
Ryfle also indicates that Ishiro Honda, “placed more faith in men of science than the government of the military” and that, via the character of Serizawa, the Godzilla director was urgently “pleading with the scientific community to stop this madness of the Arms Race, and if you [the scientific community] do inadvertently invent another doomsday weapon, it’s your obligation to never reveal it.” Ultimately, Serizawa is persuaded into revealing his mysterious device to the world in order to eradicate the irradiated thunder-lizard, but only after he sets fire to his life’s work—the documents and paperwork containing the Oxygen Destroyer’s cryptic equations and schematic designs: “This will be the first and last time that I will ever allow the Oxygen Destroyer to be used,”
Unfortunately, the scientist in Alien isn’t as honorable or conscientious as Dr. Serizawa is, but he does keep his secrets. As the film progresses, we learn that Ash—resident science-officer of the commercial towing spacecraft the ‘Nostromo’—has a secret: he isn’t human but an android…an android programmed to follow through with the ‘Special Order 937’. The Nostromo’s owners and the crew’s employers, The Weyland-Yutani Corporation, has planted Ash amongst the towing starship’s crew, rerouted the Nostromo to rendezvous with the downed spacecraft housing the alien eggs on planetoid LV-426, and ordered the android to: “Investigate life form. Gather specimen. Priority one. Insure return of organism for analysis. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.”
Throughout Ash’s scenes in the film he is performing duties and task befitting a scientist; however, the android has his orders…even if it means lying to the crew members about the results of his empirical experiments, withholding any accurate information that he has gathered, and treating his fellow crewman as test subjects when he deems it necessary. After Ash’s hidden agenda has been exposed and his secret revealed, a confrontational scene between the android and the remaining crew members occurs. Ridley Scott signifies, “This is a great turnabout in the story because really just when you think your main—and only—aggressor is this thing loose on the ship, you now got a much bigger problem. You’ve got two aggressors which raises the paranoia and that of the audience twofold.” With that in mind, unlike Dr. Serizawa in Godzilla who has chosen to suppress his scientific discoveries and volatile device for the betterment of humankind, Ash in Alien is programmed to execute atrocities in the name of science; thus, making Alien have not one but two monsters.
After viewing both Godzilla and Alien, it becomes obvious that both of these science-fiction cinema classics are really nothing more than modern ghost-tales told ‘round the fire. So, what can we ascertain from watching Godzilla and Alien? For starters, both films portray the ‘monstrous’ repercussions of science when it’s used for military gains, to ensure political power, and/or to quench corporate greed. Furthermore, the use of science—or, more often than not, pseudo-science—as an instrument to demystify and rationalize the phantasmagorical element in contemporary cinema isn’t restricted to just Hollywood. It can also be surmised that monsters in science-fiction are re-appropriations of timeless myths and/or religious iconography that are identifiable beyond invisible borders. Perhaps, the language barrier and unfamiliar customs might be perplexing to the viewer at times, but what isn’t is the visual and visceral malevolence these Mephistophelean composites embody as they gnash and snarl and claw across theater screens.
 In his book, The Savage Mind, anthropologist and ethnologist, Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that “instead of contrasting magic and science, [it is better] to compare them as two parallel modes of acquiring knowledge…Both science and magic…require the same sort of mental operations and they differ not so much in kind as in the different types of phenomena to which they are applied” (p.13). In relation to Godzilla and Alien, it could easily be argued that both the irradiated dinosaur with atomic halitosis and the xenomorph with an infinite set of fangs and barbed prehensile tail are spoken in scientific terminology, but they could just as easily be referred to as a wingless fire-breathing dragon and a pointy-tailed “black devil”—as Jeffrey Cohen refers to the xenomoprh terrorizing the Nostromo. This might help explain why both of these filmic fiends evoke fear in their viewers; thus making it that much effortless to suspend one’s disbelief. Both monsters symbolize and are synonymous with terror and danger in any language, to any culture, in any time, and in any size.

Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm. 20th Century Fox, 1979. DVD.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1996. Print.
Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. <>. | Free Online Dictionary for English Definitions. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. <>.
Giger, H. R. HR Giger ARh +. Zurich: Taschen, 1992. Print.
Gojira. Dir. Ishiro Honda. Toho Co. Ltd., 1954. DVD.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.