1. A Universe Akin
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C H A P T E R O N E A UNIVERSE AKIN 1. O RI G I NA RY ECONOMIES The main character of Andrei Bely’s 1916 novel Petersburg, Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov, has his father’s ears—oversized greenish ones that protrude from either side of his head. On a literal plane of reference, of course, this statement is bizarre. The ears are patently Nikolai Apollonovich’s own. Moreover, if we open the floodgates of figurative meaning, then those ears turn out to be implicated in literary as well as paternal genealogies. The elder Ableukhov, a large-­ eared political functionary with a philandering wife named Anna, has inherited all these qualities from the cuckolded husband in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. What seems at first to be a stock metaphor of genetic identity in fact refers us beyond biological relations to fictional ones. In the process it asks hard questions about inherited traits, monogamous marriage, and other supposed guarantors of kinship. The pinnacle of Russian avant-­ garde prose, Petersburg is grounded in tropes of parent-­ child identity that open the perceived transmission of identity across generations onto theoretical issues of rhetorical exchange and the creative imagination. Alongside his career as a poet and novelist, Bely was a theorist of symbol and metaphor who blended the Aristotelian categories of figure with the system expounded by the nineteenth-­ century Russian theorist Aleksandr Potebnia.1 Bely parses the metaphorical process in his 1910 essay “The Magic of Words,” which provides “the moon-­ white horn in the sky” as an exemplary trope invoking the crescent moon. For Bely the substitution “indicates (1) the determination of the genus through the species (horn through white horn) and (2) a qualitative distinction between objects (a moonlike horn is qualitatively distinct from any other kind of horn).”2 Referring Bely’s own schema back to the metaphor of a child having his father’s ears, we can easily discern both the generalizing movement between species and genus (the epithet “father’s ears” encompasses other large greenish ears, not the father’s alone) and the individuating distinction made between objects 14  C h a p ter O ne (these ears distinguish this child from the children of other fathers, whether their ears are large and greenish or not). A system of potentially unlimited exchange obtains between these generalizing and individuating tendencies.Metaphor is the essential postulation of identity out of difference; in logical transcription, Bely notes, metaphor would appear simply as A = B.3 A sociological aspect of the process of hereditary identification through a metaphorically grounded system of substitution and exchange is also in play in that, to use Claude Lévi-­ Strauss’s summation,“every society desires first to reproduce itself; it must thus possess a rule to assign children the same status in the social structure as that of their parents,” whose places they take as their forebears pass away.4 Discourses like genetics and law might shy away from examining the figurative basis of systems of equivalence and exchange, but literature revels in it. For Bely,metaphor is the stuff that art is made of.His essay stresses that the“actual substitution of objects (metaphor)” creates “an irreducible unity” that “is the goal of the creative process. . . . We find ourselves standing on the boundary between poetic creation and mythic creation.”5 The mythopoetic thrust of his theory,which insists that metaphoric thought creates new entities that are irreducible to any literal synonym,anticipates more modern developments in the philosophy of cognition and involves itself in a larger problematic of personhood. The interplay between metaphor and family structure plays a prominent role throughout Bely’s writing, but I focus here on his masterpiece, Petersburg.6 A unique attempt to conjoin heredity and metaphor into a single complex system, the book’s two major editions,in 1916 and 1922,bracket the Russian Revolution— an event that coincided with a flurry of experiments in both family structure and artistic convention. The novel’s first chapter begins with a wry interrogation of kin identity’s limits. Parodying the eighteenth-­ century convention of introducing characters in genealogical terms, Bely informs us that “Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov was of venerable stock: he had Adam as his ancestor.”7 The statement is funny, to be sure, and on the face of it absurd, but the heredity theme running through the whole novel warns us against discounting its significance. An inventive, stylistically venturesome account of a young man commissioned by a revolutionary...


Subject Headings

  • Families in literature.
  • Kinship in literature.
  • Modernism (Literature) -- Russia -- History -- 20th century.
  • Modernism (Literature) -- Soviet Union.
  • Bely, Andrey, 1880-1934. Peterburg.
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