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Ornamentation is the body of our thought

Elena Vogman

Dynamography, or Andrei Bely’s Rhythmic Gesture

Published: 11.12.2017

The experience of the Russian Revolution transformed both the perception and the epistemic notion of time. It challenged artistic and scientific modes of production with the invention of new models of temporality. Nonlinear, morphological, and materialist models of time seemed to correspond more precisely to the irruptive event of the revolution. These echoed more the new political constellation than a historicist or purely philosophical notion of a homogeneous time as a condition a priori to any experience. New theories in art and science were inspired by alternative methods of time mediation, such as Marey’s chronophotography, Wölfflin’s comparative Bildgeschichte (image history), Nikolai Marr’s paleontological linguistics, or Pettigrew’s morphological museology.

An experimental poetic and visual approach was undertaken by the Symbolist poet, writer, theorist, and mathematician Andrei Bely. His modernist novel Petersburg, written between 1911 and 1918, is often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses or Musil’s Man Without Qualities. For over five hundred pages it deals with two days in the year 1905, providing a close-up of a temporality affected by the revolutionary consciousness of the epoch. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze compared Bely’s topological approach of time to the archeology of Michel Foucault:

“Foucault is not only an archivist in the manner of Gogol, or a cartographer in the manner of Chekhov, but a topologist in the manner of Bely in his great novel Petersburg, which uses this cortical folding in order to convert outside and inside: in a second space the industry of the town and of the brain are merely the obverse of one another.”1

Later, associating this archaeological time- model with cinema, Deleuze writes about Bely’s “method of critical hypnosis,” wherein all kinds of paranoid inversions serve a sensuous diagnosis of the political:

“Andrei Bely’s great novel Petersburg […] is based on what Bely calls ‘the biology of shadows’ and ‘the cerebral game.’ With Bely, the city and the brain are in topological contact […] a continuum is continuously produced between visceral organic states, political states of society and meteorological states of the world.”2

Producing such equivalents between disparate orders, Bely not only inverted the spatial perspectives of inside and outside, of geography and psyche, but also endangered the linear progression of time through hybrid interrelations, creating heterotopic states and provoking temporal hiatuses, dream-like repetitions, and anachronisms. Bely’s lesser-known experimental activities are paradigmatic of this approach, in which he successively unfolds an alternative model of time inspired by the experience of the revolution. His heuristic practice of dynamography can be described as a method of recording movement and simultaneously producing new space-times of experience. In this relation Bely’s dynamographies try to unify poetic and historiographical activity and to redefine temporality as rhythm.

Although conceptually derived from morphological thought, dynamography extends far beyond mere analysis of form, owing to an additional conceptual lineage that incorporates Warburg’s Dynamogramm3and Nietzsche’s concept of untimeliness (das Unzeitgemäße). In dynamographic practice, rhythm appears neither as a homogenous continuum nor as an a priori, but rather as a spatialized and conflictual potentiality. From this perspective, the experience of the revolution symptomatically appears as an opening of time in which the possibility of another history comes into being.

My reading of Bely pursues a double movement. First, it attempts to illuminate an epistemic function and morphological necessity within the poet and theorist’s experimental rhythm studies; accordingly, rhythm manifests itself as a morphological paradigm. Rhythm is neither determined by, nor a transference of, time; rather, it is its fixation. This is because — and this is the second aspect — the rhythmic dynamographies place the varying times in relation to one another. This calls to mind Benjamin’s materialist argument in On the Concept of History, according to which revolution constitutes an “explosion” or “blasting open” of history. In equal measure, the dynamographies expose the copresence of the different temporalities that present themselves in Bely’s graphics — sometimes in the form of archaeological models and other times as lifelines — and ever undermine the linearity and homogeneity of traditional temporal models. In short, this essay explores how these dynamographies simultaneously function as modes of experimental historiography and creative constructions of new time-spaces.

Andrey Bely analyzed the phenomenon of rhythm not just as an attentive reader of Nietzsche and Goethe, but also as a theorist of language, a poet, a writer, and a visual artist. In the 1910 he initiated a “rhythm circle” in Petersburg in which poets and language theorists worked together on an analytic method of poetic rhythm. Called into life after Bely’s lecture “Lyric as Experiment,” this “circle of experimental aesthetics,” as it was originally named, oriented itself toward Fechner’s empirical psychology. It became an avant-garde laboratory for poetic research.

In this time, Bely — in keeping with his empiricist tendency — defined rhythm as “the sum of deviations from the metric schema.”4 This “coefficient of deviations” is mathematically (“arythmically”) and acoustically calculated from a range of examples of classical poems, and diverges from the concept of ’meter’. For Bely, the most important aspect lay in the organic-morphological dynamic of rhythm, which he would later ascribe to the entity of a “rhythmic figure” and visualise in graphic curves.

“We approach the concept of rhythm only when we [...] observe the sum of metric data and that of the metric delimitation in a constant interaction.”5

Yet, since these early studies, Bely was not so much interested in mathematical precision as he was in the rhythmic figuration of movements which he saw evidenced in the graphical qualities of the figure. It is through this perspective that he would henceforth discuss the difference between the schematic meter and the dialectical rhythm.

“Ornamentation is the body of our thought. We can record sound in lines, we can dance it, we can construct it in images”

Correspondences of a complex time

During a 1914 stay with Rudolf Steiner in Dornach that followed a long journey through northern Africa, Bely once again dedicated himself to the research of rhythm. In this year, he produced the study On the rhythmic Gesture, followed by the experimental-theoretical “poem about sound,” Glossolalie, which Bely published 1922 in Berlin. In 1926 he resumed his work on rhythmic curves, which, prior to the revolution, he had undertaken in the “rhythm circle.” Now, however, he recorded not just poetic rhythms but also phenomena of meteorology and cultural history. For instance, he created a “Chart of natural disasters for the years between 1924 and 1926.” In 1926, while working on this morphological curve, which relates parameters from meteorology, astronomy, psychology, and astrology to one another, Bely wrote that “every year is practice for the auditory sense, for the development of rhythm.”6

The complex temporality that rhythm juxtaposes to linear time originates in the dynamic of forms itself. In this sense, the structural affinities between different dynamographic approaches are particularly interesting because they deal in equal measure with medial, visual, and sensuous processes. For instance, productive perspectives open in comparison with Sergei Eisenstein’s scenometric experiments and Aby Warburg’s iconological approaches, both of which can rightfully be called a moving rhythmic morphology. The French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman described Warburg’s thought itself as embodied in the swing of the pendulum between the Dionysian and Apollonian poles, between Nietzsche and Burckhardt, between the intelligible (astra) and sensual (monstra) dimensions of the image.7 The parallels that Didi-Huberman draws to Marey and Meybridge’s chronophotography are especially interesting in this context.

In his 1929 poetological analysis on Rhythm as Dialectic, Bely defines this moving morphology as a “physiological transformism,” and “revolutionary-evolutionary transformism.”8 That same year, in the introduction to the picture atlas Mnemosyne, Warburg, without having ever been aware of Bely’s study, speaks of a “recording science” that “retains and relays the rhythmic arrangement.”9 In this context his concept of the “migration” of expressive values, which Warburg studies in the course of a “biological psychology of an antiquating dynamogramm” and relates to the transference of pathos formulas, appears as particularly relevant. As different as they are, these approaches share the attempt at making expressive behavior visible as a complex of heterogeneities, as an arrangement of form and strength, of intonation and gesture, of memory and expression-value. Each of these cases represents an attempt to recognize a potential for change within heterogeneity. In this sense, dynamography can be understood as a heuristic — simultaneously a medium and tool — which not only localises the configuration of movement but also records its own dynamic relationship as trace. In this context, it is fascinating to see the affinity these practices have on the one hand to scientific, empirical processes, and on the other to the contemporary medial (chronographic, kinematographic, cyclographic, etc.) experiments.

Andrei Bely’s rhythm lines

Comprehending Bely’s bewildering 1920s work Lifeline requires equal parts epistemic and poetic imagination. Both a dynamography and a medium of rhythm, this large-scale color drawing shows a complex assemblage of lines. The two-meters-long document, now preserved in the manuscript archive of the Russian State Library in Moscow, constitutes the last and most complex item in a series that Bely executed in blue and aquarelle ink and considered as “details” of his final life map. While the dark blue lifeline, surrounded by a plethora of differently-colored lines, arrows, and marks, snakes its way across the large drawing, the remaining pieces in the arsenal of the “Lifeline” constitute a sort of work in progress — drafts and studies — leading up for it.

Bely did not give precise guidance on the meaning of these colors, although the study of colors would end up being his last obsession; his analysis in Gogol’s Craftsmanship explored the affective, atmospheric, physical (“gestural”), and morphological impact that Gogol’s use of colors had on the narrative structures. The book appeared shortly after Bely’s death in 1934.

A note located directly underneath Bely’s Lifeline explains:

“This line’s relief (its highs and lows) emanates from a real and an acribic self-awareness of a particular period (the rise and fall of life energy); below are marked all the people who stood close to me (through friendship, conflict, or joint work); above, I tried to determine all cultural influences; on the very bottom, the work epochs on the one or other book.”10

Upon a mere glance at the network of lines, however, the tri-layered structure evoked here appears to dissolve into a multitude of interesting intersecting paths and traversing vectors. To the extent that the work portrays influences, it does so as the expression of their fluidity — that is, the unceasing dynamic of their reciprocity.

Aside from through color, this mapping lets one distinguish between at least two types of lines: curved lines near the middle and straight lines, which chronologically mark segments of Bely’s life, above and below. One may presume that two tendencies are at play here, which can be read in the case of the first as rhythm lines (including the continuous black lifeline in the middle of the page), and in the case of the second as metric incisions which specify points in time or delineate time periods. The years, which are also inscribed along the lifeline, correspond with biographic dates of the author’s in the upper portion, in which sections such as “from fairytale to prose,” “high school,” and “university” appear among others. At the bottom, sections like “epoch of the symphonies,” “epoch of rhythm and novels,” etc. appear. But what does this lifeline reveal? What movement brings about its expression?

Here, two circumstances surrounding this vital cartography emerge as relevant. It was created at the request of the publisher, who wanted to accompany Bely’s publication with a short introduction to the “stages of Andrei Bely’s work.”11 Bely took this as a challenge and, inspired by this auto-historiographic exercise, wrote to his friend, the philosopher and literary critic Ivanov-Razumnik:

“For me, the topic of work stages is inextricable from another: that of life stages. About the latter I have thought much; occasionally I wondered just how wisely life is made, for it gives insights into the rhythm, so that in my life, with 46 years, there clearly appears to me a clavier …12

So it is a musical metaphor that Bely uses for the crossing of a metric sequence of work stages. He does this not only in order to replace them with the at first vague term “life” (žizn’), but above all, to express an experience of correspondence that produces a dynamic between both levels — a rhythm. If one looks as the lines situated in the surroundings of his lifeline, one soon notices that “life” here does not involve a sequence of merely individual or subjective events. Rather, more disparate areas like “Dostoevsky,” “revolution,” “The games of Cooper’s Indians,” “sociology,” “the feeling of powerlessness [bezdarnosti],” and so forth. Hence the waves of the lifeline itself are the result of multiple heterogeneous movements that mark a characteristic of time. Here time appears less in the sense of a linearity or a homogeneity, not as a condition of processes but much rather as a heterochronia, a choreographed rhythm, that may express latencies and complex layerings of events.

What exactly did Bely mean with the visual metaphor of an “insight into the rhythm?” A project undertaken in parallel, which Bely even marks in the bottom-right corner of the line diagram, sheds light on the matter: the work on Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman.” Said long poem already formed the foundation for Bely’s novel Petersburg, which he had composed already ten years previous — in a sense between two revolutions — and later revised multiple times. In the year 1926, Bely resumed the rhythm studies, which occupied him in the context of the rhythm circle around 1910. Sixteen years later he then produced widely different graphs, which for example analyse the weather following the previous evening newspaper Večernjaja Moskva (Evening Moscow)’s forecasts, or relate the past year’s natural catastrophes in relation to one another.13

During a stay in Georgia in 1927, Bely produced a sketch of his large study Rhythm as Dialectic. He presents this as a “rhythmic gesture” in “The Bronze Horseman”:

“These days I am investigating the rhythmic gesture; “The Bronze Horseman”, calculated line by line, is spread across the floor in the form of a sharp zigzag; it takes up over two klafter in length, and I, bent onto all fours, wander across it with my pencil.”14

This passage may at first convey a strange bodily impression: Bely’s figure, bent over an enormous diagram that presumably enveloped his entire office. The question of corporeality can also be asked in a different way: namely, why did he apprehend the rhythmic curve, which was ascertained in poetic language, in the mode of a gesture? This figuration could be thought through in connection to the already-evoked visual metaphor of “insight into rhythm.” “I am astonished by ‘The Bronze Horseman’ writes Bely to Ivanov-Razumnik, “and his rhythmic gesture; [...] with its help, I have glimpsed things in Pushkin that took my breath away. Here, by the way, is a one such insight brought by the rhythmic gesture: the Bronze Horseman is not Peter, but Nikolai I; the flood is probably the Decembrist revolt, and ‘Evgeni’ is already known as Decembrist Evgenii Onegin; they were made known through Ezerski (from the ’Pedigree of my Hero’); the giant on the bronze horse is Nikolai on the Senate Square; the madman, who takes of his hat before him, is the valet de chambre Puškin himself. None of this is new to the literary-historical perspective; it is, however, new and meaningful for me, since I have taken it from the insight of the ’gesture’ - I can’t wait show it to you!”15

Without even being able to approach analysing the complex circumstances of a double dynamic of signification in Pushkin, it appears as perplexing that Bely ascribes autonomy to the rhythmic gesture. It figures something in that it — above or below the content and even the conscious intention of the poet — refers to something. “Is not the entire poem a most meticulous cipher, even if half-conscious, perhaps even unconscious,”16 speculates Bely in Rhythm as Dialectic.

But a cipher of what? Bely answers by connecting a Nietzschean metaphor with a political one: Pushkin placed a “revolutionary dynamite in the imperial topic; following the imperatives of the time he had to mask the rhythmic focus of the poem with a decorative façade.”17 Rhythm here turns into a dialectical medium that “involuntarily” expresses a political content. Introduced as such an ’unconscious revolutionary,’ Pushkin operates by means of a rhythmic gesture, one which Bely traces in his rhythmic curves.

The curve reflects the rhythmic gesture; rhythm is a reflection within the poet of that ’sound’ which he perceives. This ’sound’ is a reflection of that collective, which transfers the poet a radio — through waves not falsified by any critic — an authentic social demand.18


For Bely rhythm is therefore a gesture that makes something visible; it is a poetic indicator of that which, folded or layered within the form, is, as it were, its potential. Therefore, Bely’s studies of rhythm sketch not just poetological, but also archaeological, culture-historical, and biological models, all of which are guided by a fundamental “transformism” — a term which Bely borrows from Lamarck’s biology and Haeckel’s embryology. It is for this reason that, in his introduction to Rhythm as Dialectic, next to the poets Blok, Mayakovsky, Pushkin, and Fet also other key sources like Darwin, Mendeleev, Cuvier, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Marx appear. “The principle of metamorphosis I call the principle of rhythm,”19 writes Bely. The transformative dynamic of the form cannot be reduced to a purely poetological principle — and poetry only suggests this when it is viewed not as a metric schema, but as a living pulsation and becoming. Bely sought to grasp this life of forms in an epistemic continuum of biology and embryology, evolution and morphology, and to analyse the line (not least as “lifeline”) as expression and trace of rhythm.


Notes | 1  Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. 119. | 2 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2. The Time-Image, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. 302. | 3 Aby Warburg, Allgemeine Ideen, London: Warburg Institut Archive, III, 102.1 p. 27. | 4  Andrei Bely, draft for the “Future textbook of rhythm”, in: Rhythm as Dialectic in “The Bronze Horseman” (Ritm kak dialektika i “Mednyj vsadnik”), Moscow: Dmitrij Secin, 2014, p. 252. | 5 Ibid. | 6 D. Toršilov, “Ob istorii knigi” (On the History of the Book), Publisher’s Afterword, in: ibid., p. 304–305. | 7 Georges Didi-Huberman, “Sismographies du temps. Warburg, Nietzsche, Burckhardt”, in Les Cahiers du Musée National d’art moderne, no. 69, summer 1999, p. 4–21. | 8 Andrei Bely, Ritm kak dialektika i “Mednyj vsadnik” (Rhythm as Dialectic in the “The Bronze Horseman”), Moscow: Federazija, 1929, p. 14–15 & 25. | 9 Aby Warburg, “Mnemosyne Einleitung” (Mnemosyne Introduction), in ibid., Werke in einem Band, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2010, p. 628–639, here p. 629. | 10 Andrei Bely, Linia žizni, p. 11. | 11 Ibid., p. 19. | 12 Letter from Bely to Ivan-Razumnik on 1 March 1927 in Andrei Bely and Ivanov-Razumnik, Perpiska 1913–1932 godov, p. 481. | 13 D. Toršilov, “Ob istorii knigi“, p. 305. | 14 Andrei Bely, Veter s Kavkaza (The Wind from the Caucausus), Moscow: Federazija, 1929, p. 149. | 15 Andrei Bely, Perpiska 1913–1932 godov, p. 521. | 16 Andrei Bely, Ritm kak dialektika i “Mednyj vsadnik“, p. 191–192. | 17 Ibid., p. 192. | 18 Ibid., p. 142. | 19 Ibid., p. 19.

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Elena Vogman

Elena Vogman

is a postdoctoral research fellow in the DFG-project “Rhythm and Projection” at the Institute of General and Comparative Literature at Free University in Berlin and free curator. She wrote her dissertation on Sensuous Thinking in Sergei Eisenstein’s theory project Method. She has published various articles on Soviet Cinema, forms of visual thinking, practices of montage and the relations between literature, ethnology, art and science. Together with Marie Rebecchi she curated the exhibition on “Sergei Eisenstein: The Anthropology of Rhythm” at Nomas Foundation, Rome.

Other texts by Elena Vogman for DIAPHANES