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Bely's Second Space

In Bely's best-known novel, Petersburg, we read this curious passage at the end of the Prologue:

If Petersburg is not the capital, then there is no Petersburg. It only appears that it exists.

However that may be, Petersburg not only appears to us, it also turns up—on maps: in the form of two circles, one within the other, with a black point in the center. And from this mathematical point, which has no dimension, it proclaims energetically that it is: from there, from this point the swarm of the printed book streams out. From this invisible point the circular rushes out headlong.[1]

The first character we are introduced to is Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, whose peculiar feature is that his mind works almost ceaselessly at geometric games. The world for Ableukhov, at least as he would like it to be, is a systematic series of figures, all as regular and orderly as the street plan of the Russian empire's capital city. If Ableukhov likes to play geometric games, the author likes to play ontological ones. The first chapter is subtitled, "in which the story is told of a certain worthy personage, his mental games, and the ephemerality of being." The narrator has explained how Ableukhov's imaginary geometric figures spin off into space and become real. He has told us that when Ableukhov, sitting in his carriage, sees a certain stranger in the street, that stranger exists only because Ableukhov sees him. Things spring from the head of


Ableukhov like Athena from the skull of Zeus. Later in the book we learn of the senator's "second space," a space he sees all the time that is material like the first, everyday space but at the same time spiritual. At the end of the first chapter, we read:

This shadow [of the stranger] sprang up by chance in the consciousness of Senator Ableukhov and received there its ephemeral being. But the consciousness of Apollon Apollonovich is a shadowy consciousness, because it too is the possessor of ephemeral being and it too is the outgrowth of the author's fantasy. . . .

Once [Ableukhov's] brain has been caught up with the mysterious stranger, that stranger is, actually is . He will never disappear from the prospects of Petersburg so long as the Senator exists with thoughts like these, because thought too exists.

So may our stranger be —he is a real stranger! And may the two shadows of my stranger be real shadows!

And these dark shadows will follow, they'll follow in the steps of the stranger, just as the stranger immediately follows after the senator. And the aging senator will pursue, he'll pursue you, reader, in his black carriage: and from now on you will never forget him![2]

Petersburg is one of those highly self-conscious, early twentieth-century novels that are filled with authorial tricks like this one. But Bely is doing more than just playing games. He's asking the reader to reflect on all these things, all the levels of reality associated with his novel, right down to the physical book the reader is holding. The miracle Bely describes in his playful way is a miracle of language and of being. It's the miracle of how a thing springs into existence because language makes it do so.

Petersburg was not the only place Bely expressed himself on this subject. I mentioned earlier the ontological dimension of Bely's language theory in "The Magic of Words." In that essay he says:

If words did not exist, then neither would the world itself. My ego, once detached from its surroundings, ceases to exist. By the same token, the world, if detached from me, also ceases to exist. 'I' and the 'world' arise only in the process of their union in sound. . . . Thus consciousness, nature, and the world emerge for the cognizing subject only when he is able to create a designation. Outside of speech there is neither nature, world, nor cognizing subject. . . . The original victory of consciousness lies in the creation of sound symbols. For in sound there is recreated a new world within whose boundaries I feel myself to be the creator of reality. Then I begin to name objects, that is, to create them a second time for myself.
(S, 429–30; SE, 93–94).


Later in the essay Bely speaks of how creation endows an image with "ontological being independently of our consciousness" (S, 446; SE , 109).

Most of all, Bely's ontology has to do with the status of signifying objects and the presence in them of a prototype (called value ). The mode of being of such objects is to a considerable extent determined by the epistemological stance of their observer, something I described when I talked about icons. Like icons in the Orthodox conception, signifying objects inhabit two worlds: the material world, and an invisible world that peers into the material world through the intervening barriers of iconic objects. For Bely, ontology and theology are hardly different.

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