Beyond the Mirror: Liminal Discourses in Petersburg and Poem without a Hero

Colleen McQuillen, Columbia University

Neither Andrej Belyj nor Anna Axmatova is famous as a playwright. However, their respective masterpieces, Petersburg (1916-1922) and Poem without a Hero (1940-1968) display a deep creative, esthetic and philosophical interest in theater and performance. Axmatova dreamt of transforming Poem into a ballet libretto and made several unsuccessful attempts; Belyj, in contrast, did produce a full-length play based on Petersburg entitled Death of a Senator (1925). Even without recourse to Belyj’s dramatic version of the novel or Axmatova’s libretto drafts, we vividly see the writers’ interest in the shaky boundary between reality and non-reality (dream, illusion, fantasy) embodied in theatrical performance. Additionally, their mutual concern with literary self-creation and self-inscription into tradition emerges in both works. 

In this essay, I will use Nietzsche’s ideas on the origins of dramatic performance and Baxtin’s ideas on its semiotic function, both of which are rooted in the Greek Dionysian tradition, to interpret the centrally positioned masquerade ball scenes of each work as moments that reveal the artists’ symbolist construction of the self and reality. These two approaches will enable a cogent reading of the imagery and themes that pervade the works, such as mirrors and masks; the shaky divisions between reality and dream, life and death, present and past; and the relationship of artists to their work and to literary tradition.

This paper will also consider how the elements of theatrical performance that interest Axmatova and Belyj (namely, the determinacy and stability of identity, time and space) were undermined to a large extent in the modern era by the ideas of Einstein and Freud. Einstein’s theory of relativity (published in 1906) showed that the “truths” of Newtonian physics were not absolute standards, but instead were relative to the viewpoint of the observer. Freud similarly shook the foundations of intellectual thought by unsettling the belief in an absolute, stable and integrated consciousness. The questioning of “reality” and the despair over language’s inadequacy for expressing this elusive state led to the idea that music as a more truthful, organic means of expression. Nietzsche anticipated this crisis and gave priority to drama precisely because of its origins in the Greek chorus; Baxtin, many years later, read the semiotic system of performance as a type of direct, non-verbal communication which, like Nietzsche’s theater, united the performers with the audience. The theoretical contributions of Nietzsche and Baxtin help us to understand the themes of existential liminality and artistic creation that modern, self-aware writers like Axmatova and Belyj address.