Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

Chapter Twelve— Into the World of Names and Out of the Museum

Chapter Twelve—
Into the World of Names and Out of the Museum

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.

More Unique, Difficult Being in Khlebnikov, and Khlebnikov's Book

It's striking how similar Khlebnikov and Mallarmé are in some respects. In speaking of Khlebnikov, I could almost repeat what I said in the previous chapter, substituting Khlebnikov for Mallarmé . Mallarmé's notion of language had led us back to its "unique, difficult being," to use Foucault's expression, because the evacuation of meaning (traditionally conceived) and the disappearance of the author had "yield [ed] the initiative to words," to use Mallarmé's own expression, and left us confronting plain language. Khlebnikov's theories do the same thing. I have talked about the two conceptions of zaum' language and about how both had the effect of objectivizing language. The first, "nativist" theory of zaum' language saw the poetic word as sharing in the existential autonomy of the object that it ideally designated, whereas the second theory saw the poetic word as existentially autonomous because it was the point of departure from the reality it created. Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh had spoken repeatedly of the word "as such," as if their ideas about poetic language, like Mallarmé's, had left us in the presence of these objects in all their naked existential isolation. (See above, pp. 54–57.)

Khlebnikov was fascinated with numbers, in part because of the comparison he saw between them and words. Much of what he wrote about numbers suggested that he saw them as fulfilling the function that words can never quite fulfill, namely the function of ideally signifying. Khlebnikov was also interested in the mode of being of mathematical entities, as he indicates in a peculiar notation from a series of thoughts collected


under the title "Proposals." Each "proposal" is written with its main verb in the infinitive because it is a proposal to do something. "Keeping in mind," he says, "that nO is the sign for a point, that n1 is the sign for a line, and that n2 and n3 are the signs for area and volume, to look for the spaces of the fractional degrees: n1/2 n2/3 n1/3 , where are they?"[3] Tzvetan Todorov quotes this passage in an essay he wrote on Khlebnikov and included in his book Poétique de la prose . He, too, sees the movement in Khlebnikov toward a conception of language as independent; and he believes that Khlebnikov's reflections on numbers and words are what led him to this conception. Precisely because words fulfill their function less well than numbers, says Todorov, paraphrasing Khlebnikov, they can "assume the function that really is their own: to be autonomous words."[4] Signifiers of all sorts were thus a source of ontological speculation for Khlebnikov.

Something else is true of Khlebnikov that was true of Mallarmé. Mallarmé's theory of language had a way of forcing us to confront language from an ontological perspective. But this is more a historical comment than it is a characterization of Mallarmé's views. Once again for Khlebnikov, as for Mallarmé, we find that those views themselves are ontological in nature. In the introduction to what used to be the standard English-language anthology of Khlebnikov's works, Edward J. Brown drew a distinction between Khlebnikov's theory of language and the Russian symbolist theory of language. For the symbolists, he says, language was a "vehicle for transcendental experience." For Khlebnikov, however, it was a vehicle "to discover the world." Brown feels that the world, "our own world," is always "vividly present" in Khlebnikov's poetry and prose.[5] I don't agree that language is always a vehicle for discovering the world in Khlebnikov, nor do I think that our own world is always present in his works. Brown's comment applies more to the first of the two versions of zaum' than to the second. But he is right to bring the world into the discussion. The theory of language we find in Khlebnikov (and Kruchenykh), with all of its complexities and ambiguities, begins to look a little bit like a pre-Heideggerian ontology. Certainly any investigation of language will bring up questions of the world, but Khlebnikov's theories, like those of many of his contemporaries, blurred the traditional sign-referent conception so much as to lead us and him into a probing of the mode of being of word and world.

Khlebnikov also dreamed of a book not entirely unlike Mallarmé's "Livre." There is nothing in Khlebnikov quite like the essays or manu-


script notes by Mallarmé, but the notion occurs with surprising frequency in short, mysterious passages that show the same ontological perspective as Mallarmé's writings. Khlebnikov often referred to nature and the world as a book. Notations he made here and there show him pondering the idea of the world as a manuscript or poem. He also apparently dreamed of creating a book of nature, or a book of life, like the Bible or the Koran. One of Khlebnikov's commentators, Raymond Cooke, has shown with many examples that this was a forceful mystical aspiration of Khlebnikov.[6] Of course, the book of nature raises the same issues we find in zaum' theory and the same ones Gerald Bruns raises when he talks about Mallarmé's Book. The view of the poetic work as coextensive with the world, either because it created that world or because it simply "writes" the world, shows a view of language that, if nothing else, must be characterized as ontological. Language is confronted with the very idea of being and is made to be identical to it. This is certainly not the same notion we find in Heidegger, but the orientation of the thought behind it is quite similar.

Bursting the Boundaries of Being

Mathematical speculation appears to have given rise to much of Russian avant-garde aesthetics. Many Russian artists of the period were fond of producing artworks that belonged to more than one art form. The arts in Russia seem to have plunged headlong into an examination of their own ontological boundaries by constantly testing the traditional limits. The tremendous number of paintings containing printed words shows the most common attempt in this era to break down the barriers between two art forms. The effect is to make the reader-viewer wonder exactly what sort of object a particular artwork is and why. El Lissitzky's "narratives," formed from a combination of pictures and words and gathered into a book, force us to ask not only what the nature of El Lissitzky's painting-books is but also what the nature of painting is and what the nature of books is.

One document from this era assigns clearly extraliterary values to the constituent parts of words. An untitled section of the almanac Sadok sudei (Hutch for judges), signed by David and Nikolai Burliuk, Elena Guro, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ekaterina Nizen, Khlebnikov, Livshits, and Kruchenykh, proposes "principles of artistic creation," including this: "We understand vowels as time and space, . . . consonants as col-


oring, sound, smell." In fact, the entire document represents an attention-getting attempt to destroy traditional notions about language, writing, and literary texts. "We characterize nouns not only as adjectives . . . but also as other parts of speech, such as individual letters and numbers," they say at another point in their proclamation. They go on to say that an author's erasures and doodlings are an inseparable part of a literary work.[7] This text, of course, is not unique. Almost all the manifestos published in the period of the Russian avant-garde contain similar statements. Many appear to be motivated solely by a desire to shock the reader. But it is no accident that the mode of being of artworks is one of the primary subjects that are chosen for their shock value.

If artists of all sorts in this era thought that mixing up genres and forms was shocking, they clearly thought it was even more shocking to mix up art and life. Larionov and zaumnik Il'ia Zdanevich published a manifesto in 1913 called "Why We Paint Ourselves." And paint themselves they did. Larionov and Zdanevich were not the only ones. There is a famous photograph of David Burliuk dressed in formal attire, complete with top hat, and sporting on his right cheek a painting of a bird in a tree. The point was to break down the barrier between art and life, something that would become commonplace later in the twentieth century, when artists started displaying latrines in museums alongside the other objets d'art . The artists of the Russian avant-garde, however, were more interested in taking art out of the museum than they were in bringing life into it. A young man in public with a painted face—isn't that the perfect way to show that art and being-in-public are really the same thing? And so Larionov and Zdanevich proudly proclaim, "We have joined art to life. After the long seclusion of the masters, we loudly called out to life and life made an incursion into art, now it is time for art to make an incursion into life. The painting of faces is the beginning of the incursion."[8] As the avant-garde movements continue, we find more and more expressions of the desire to take art out of its separate space and put it into "real space." The sculptor Vladimir Tatlin made a special point of working with real space, using recognizable materials from ordinary life to make artworks that would inhabit that space. The whole concept of the object becomes increasingly problematic in the work of artists who were as concerned as these artists were with the margins of aesthetic thinghood. El Lissitzky and Il'ia Ehrenburg (1891–1967), who was to become a central figure in Soviet literary life, founded a magazine in 1922 called Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet (Russian, German, and French, respectively, for "thing" or "object"). The purpose of this publication


was to promulgate the aesthetics of Constructivism, a movement devoted to producing industrial, real-world, material artworks. The object side of an art object was of primary importance to the artists of this movement; hence the title of their journal.

The Constructivist movement had a political purpose, too. Art in the immediate postrevolutionary era was seen as having a social function: the more concrete, the closer to life it was, the better it could reach out to the masses. The art-into-life aesthetic, which was proposed with such vigor in the years before World War I, ended up serving the postrevolutionary culture in a most convenient way. After the revolution the idea was to bring art to the masses. What better way to do this than to bring them art that didn't look like art, art that no longer lived in its own private, privileged space inside a museum (or a book, for that matter) but lived in their ordinary, prosaic, proletarian space and looked just as drab as they and the things in their world did?

I have given only a few isolated examples of a trend that was so large as to overshadow almost everything else in the cultural scene of the years right after the revolution. I'm not interested here in the social and political role of art. I mention the trend because the artists involved in this kind of activity, wild, obstreperous, and unruly as they all were, were showing their own peculiar ontological perspective on art. Their concern with the space not only of truly spatial arts like sculpture but also of nonspatial arts like poetry is a strong indication that they were wondering precisely about the mode of being of art, that they were asking the same questions as the ones I brought up in chapter 10 when I talked about the professional philosophers in the twentieth century who have written about aesthetic ontology.

El Lissitzky wrote about these matters in the 1920s in a number of writings having to do with a familiar subject of ours, the book. In one such writing he muses about the "book-space" and how it must correspond to the content of the book.[9] In another, titled "Our Book," he gives a kind of capsule history of printed books and then surveys the avant-garde movement in Russia. He talks about the linking of painting and poetry in the publications of Futurist poets and painters. He tells how the revolution led to the bursting of the bounds of the traditional book. "The traditional book," he says, "was torn into separate pages, enlarged a hundred-fold, coloured for greater intensity, and brought into the street as a poster." At the end of his essay he says that the book is becoming "the most monumental work of art" because it is reaching out to the masses in an unprecedented way. Illustrated weekly magazines


prove this, and so does the rise in publication of childrens' books. For some reason, Lissitzky feels that these books are fundamentally changing the way people relate to the world, and he adopts a quasi-ontological language to express a thought that started out being political: "By reading, our children are already acquiring a new plastic language; they are growing up with a different relationship to the world and to space, to shape and to colour; they will surely also create another book. We, however, are satisfied if in our book the lyric and epic evolution of our times is given shape."[10] Is this just an extravagant way of saying that new books are filled with new ideas that will change the lives of their readers? Given the era when Lissitzky was writing, I don't think so.


Chapter Twelve— Into the World of Names and Out of the Museum

Preferred Citation: Cassedy, Steven. Flight from Eden: The Origins of Modern Literary Criticism and Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.