Megan Barickman

Bely’s Centaurs


In autumn of 1903, the Russian symbolist poet Valery Briusov wrote in his diary about a meeting with the young Boris Bugaev, also a writer of symbolist persuasion, who had adopted the pseudonym Andrei Bely. The pair talked about the existence of mythical creatures. Bely claimed to have seen a unicorn walking around in his room, and said he had once gone looking for centaurs across the Moscow River. “Afterward,” Briusov writes, “Andrei Bely sent calling cards around to his acquaintances as if from unicorns, silenuses, etc. Some people laughed, some got angry; but Gregory Rachinsky got frightened and went around Moscow raising a fuss. Bely himself became embarrassed and started assuring people it was a “joke.” However, earlier it had been no joke for him, but rather a desire to create an “atmosphere,” to behave as if unicorns actually did exist.” 1

It was a clumsy gesture at best. People, or at least Briusov, might have accepted the poet’s claims to have seen centaurs in Russia. An artist is supposed to see visions while alone in sumptuous creative fits, or perhaps not visions at all, but glimpses of a rarer world, to be revealed in hints. Bely, however, began inserting his unicorns quite forcibly into the social arrangement. And what did Bely want with domestic centaurs anyway? A centaur that sends calling cards must be a centaur that goes calling. And a centaur that goes calling likely drinks tea and talks about something. Under these conditions, the horse-half seems absolutely incidental. One could easily get used to it, and it would cease to matter really.

Bely must not have considered how the recipients would view the absurdity of the cards’ origins, because he understood his manufacturing of centaur artifacts as an act of conjuring rather than of proof or persuasion. In this, he had, perhaps, excessive faith in the contractual features of a social document. The calling cards did not oblige their recipients to see anything except Boris Bugaev bent over his desk, hurriedly dipping his pen in the ink, writing, blotting.

Nonetheless, sometimes things work out: Gregory Rachinsky was running around from house to house, a little sweaty, making his complaints. He was the only one who had taken Bely, in a way, seriously. Russia was near revolution, the police were suspicious, and arrests were being made of participants in secret societies. Faced with the calling card, Gregory Rachinsky saw, no doubt, beyond Andrei Bely to a fictitious and shadowy architecture that he could not understand. What were the implications? What was being asked of him? He had found the center, the hidden formlessness of the thing. Gregory Rachinsky in the streets of Moscow with a centaur’s calling card in his coat pocket anticipates the heroes of Andrei Bely’s later books, who find themselves disoriented in the midst of proliferating worlds, which converge in mundane words and actions.

In Bely’s Petersburg, the revolutionary, Dudkin, wades frantically through the wet and intersecting streets of the city, ferrying a little bomb tucked into a sardine can and bound up in a handkerchief. Forces, more real than he is and which he can only dimly understand pursue him and direct his actions. Under their sway, he slices up the provocateur Lippanchenko like pickled pork. This is not the type of mysticism that allays tedium, but the type to stuff in the yawning gaps of a society in tumult. Still Dudkin’s bomb, which itself has no discernable source, and a multitude of possible destinies outlined in swirling documents, is different. It recalls more closely the unicorns that Bely had dreamed up a decade earlier, an absurd looking thing full with the threat of emptiness.

1 Translation from Langen, Timothy, The Stony Dance: Unity and Gesture in Andrey Bely’s Petersburg. (Northwestern University Press: Illinois, 2005) p. 45.

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