October 26, 2014
ANDREI BELY (Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev, 1880–1934) was born in the ferment of late-nineteenth century Russia to a father who was an accomplished mathematician, natural scientist, and positivist philosopher. His charismatic mother eschewed these engagements; she favored the arts. At university, Bely began organizing a loosely structured group, dubbed the Argonauts, of writers, philosophers, scientists and others who collectively set “life-creation” as their goal. Intentionally overdetermining his psyche with this rich selection of cerebral inputs, Bely allowed his own creative work to go off the rails in fantastic and startling ways. He was exceedingly interested in the thematic, emotional, and moral resonance of sound and meter, exploring the subject in essays, novels and poems, including Glossolalia: “Glossolalia is a sound poem. Amidst the poems which I have written…, it is the most successful one. I ask that you accept it as such. To criticize me from a scholarly point of view is — absolutely ridiculous.” In Bely’s masterpiece, the novel Petersburg, his characters argue about the relative importance of words including particular back or front vowels (front vowel words are outrageously trivial). Throughout the novel, Bely deploys words containing a long “oo” sound, mimicking the “oo” in revolutsiia which hangs thick in the air of Petersburg in 1905. Here too Bely embodies his interests in the interleaving of the life of the mind and lived experience. A character, Apollon Apollonovich, experiences a world comprised of “squares, parallelepipeds and cubes.” Petersburg’s Bronze Horseman, which is also Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, comes to life and chases Nikolai Apollonovich through the streets. The history of Russia, of Petersburg, of Russian literature, of Bely’s intellectual life, tangles into this snarled behemoth of Russian Symbolism, among world literature’s most untranslatable works. Read it.
MORE ARGONAUTS ON HILOBROW: The Argonaut Folly
READ MORE about members of the Psychonaut Generation (1874–1883).