The City as Dialectic: Andrei Bely’s Creative Consciousness, Its Nietzschean Influence, and the Urban Center in Petersburg

Sandra Joy Russell


In Petersburg (1916), Andrei Bely uses the space of the city to examine and attempt to reconfigure the persistent question of identity within the Russian consciousness. Bely’s awareness of St. Petersburg’s historical and national significance as a political nucleus compels him to work within the symbolic, drawing from various disciplines including mythology, philosophy, and mathematics. As Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad suggest in the novel’s introduction, the city’s geographic positioning contributes to its greater cultural uncertainty; it pits the Neo-Kantian reason, structure, and order of the “West” against the alleged irrational, impalpable, and intuitive nature of the “East” (Bely viii). Bely’s urbanized creative consciousness can be contextualized by way of its origins in Western philosophy, particularly its Nietzschean influence and the idea of eternal return. Although his use and understanding of this concept fluctuated over the years, Bely interpreted Nietzsche’s notion of “return” as being creative, using it to describe the circularity of every artistic, philosophical, and literary endeavor (Maguire and Malmstad 103). By approaching Bely’s symbolism via its Nietzschean foundations, a better understanding can be gained regarding his use of the city’s geometric space in establishing a connection with the modern. Bely’s creative reading of Nietzsche facilitates his turn to the symbolic, and more critically, the novel’s enduring significance in his “diagnosis of modern culture” (Maguire and Malmstad 102). The amalgamation of Western philosophy, the modern novel, and the modern city ignited his examination and creation of Petersburg, as within this context, the symbolic rests in the act of creation. For Bely, the city and the text are interchangeable; both behave creatively as developmental centers for the modern. Likewise, his calculated and mathematical re-creation of St. Petersburg within the text allows it to operate as a public space for the articulation of Russia’s political and cultural anxiety.

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ISSN 1920-0323