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.

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