The Language of Adam: Heredity and Metaphor in Andrei Bely’s Petersburg

Jacob Emery, Harvard University

The first chapter of Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg begins, “Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov byl ves’ma pochtennogo roda: on imel svoim predkom Adama” (Peterburg, 8). My paper argues that this sentence, which appears at first blush to be only a heavily ironic banality, in fact signals the great range and importance of the theme of hereditary identity in the composition of Bely’s Symbolist masterpiece.

Literary works, being tissues of tropes, comment self-reflexively upon the metaphorical process of identification that informs their composition. Petersburg's tropological structure, I suggest, contains in kinship an immanent metaphorization of itself with which it can be identified and through which it can be described. Drawing upon the writings of Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner and Vasilii Rozanov as well as upon Bely’s own theories of metaphor and symbolic language in order to read a series of scenes in which Apollon Apollonovich and Nikolai Apollonovich mistake their own reflections for each other, I hope to demonstrate how Bely employs universalized kin identity as a metafictional mirror that replicates and illuminates the novel’s striving after symbolic unity through figurative language.

Throughout the paper I pay special attention to the resonance of the social economy (which achieves continuity by substituting one generation for another) with the novel’s economy of figures (in which Bely effects metaphorical continuity by substituting one word for another). The ideal oneness shared by parent and child, expressed repeatedly throughout the book, is implicitly expanded by the invocation of Adam in the sentence quoted above to include the entire human race; it finds a linguistic analogue in Bely’s attempts to form in his texts what Lotman called a single “great word” (Lotman, 439). As Bely writes in his 1922 sound poem Glossolalia, “da budet zhe bratstvo narodov: iazyk iazykov razorvet iazyki; i—-svershitsia vtoroe prishestvie Slova” (Glossolaliia, 249).

Alongside the constant threats posed to figuratively constituted identity—whether through parricide, which establishes a radical discontinuity between the father and son who are otherwise said to be “absolutely equal,” or through the fragmentation of language itself—Bely suggests a prophetic, symbolic unity of all the novel’s elements, enacted at once through the parallel processes of kinship and language. As my paper demonstrates, the “brotherhood” of peoples and the resurrection of an Adamic language are intimately related propositions throughout the composition of Petersburg.

Works Cited:
Bely, Andrei. Glossolaliia: poema o zvuke. Dornach, Switzerland: Pforte Verlag, 2003.
——. Peterburg. Moscow: Respublika, 1994.
Lotman, Iurii. “Kosnoiazychie Andreia Belogo.” In Andrei Belyi: Problemy tvorchestva, pp. 437-43. Moscow: Sov. Pistatel’, 1988.