Petersburg Squares, Parallelepipeds, Cubes

‘Hey! Hey! …’

That was the coachman shouting.

And the carriage sprayed mud to every side.

There, where only a foggy dampness hung suspended, first lustrelessly appeared in outline, then descended from heaven to earth – the grimy, blackish-grey St Isaac’s; appeared in outline and then completely took shape: the equestrian monument of the Emperor Nicholas;20 the metal emperor was dressed in the uniform of the Leib Guards; by its pedestal a Nicholas grenadier peeped out and withdrew back into the fog like a shaggy fur hat.

The carriage, meanwhile, was flying to Nevsky Prospect.

Apollon Apollonovich swayed on the satin cushions of the seat; he was separated from the street scum by four perpendicular walls; thus was he detached from the crowds of people flowing past, from the drearily sodden red wrappers of the cheap journals that were being sold at that crossroads over there.

Planned regularity and symmetry calmed the senator’s nerves, which were stimulated both by the roughness of domestic life and by the helpless circle of the revolution of our wheel of state.

By a harmonic simplicity were his tastes distinguished.

Most of all did he love the rectilinear prospect; this prospect reminded him of the flow of time between the two points of life; and of one other thing, too: all other cities are a wooden pile of wretched little cottages, and Petersburg is strikingly different from them all.

The wet, slippery prospect: there the houses fused like cubes into a line of life in only one respect: this row had neither an end nor a beginning; here what for the wearer of diamond insignia was only the middle of life’s wanderings turned out for so many high officials to be the ending of life’s way.21

The senator’s soul was seized by inspiration every time his lacquered cube cut across the line of the Nevsky like an arrow; there, outside the windows, the numeration of the houses was visible; and the traffic moved; there, from there – on clear days from far, far away, flashed blindingly: the gold needle,22 the clouds, the crimson ray of the sunset; there, from there, on foggy days – nothing, no one.

And there there were – the lines: the Neva, the islands. Probably in those far-off days, when from the mossy marshes rose the high roofs and the masts and the spires that pierced with their merlons the dank, greenish fog –

– on his shadowy sails the Flying Dutchman23 flew towards St Petersburg from there, from the leaden expanses of the Baltic and German24 Seas, in order here to erect by illusion his misty estates and to give the wave of amassing clouds the name of islands; from here the Dutchman lit the hellish lights of the drinking dens for two hundred years, and the Orthodox folk flocked and flocked into these hellish drinking dens, carrying a foul infection …

The dark shadows floated off a little. But the hellish drinking dens remained. For long years the Orthodox folk caroused here with a ghost: a mongrel race arrived from the islands – neither human beings nor shadows, – settling on the boundary between two worlds that were alien to each other.

Apollon Apollonovich did not like the islands: the population there was industrial, coarse; a human swarm of many thousands plodded its way in the mornings to the many-chimneyed factories; and now he knew that the Browning circulated there; and a few other things as well. Apollon Apollonovich thought: the inhabitants of the islands are numbered among the population of the Russian Empire; the general census has been introduced among them, too; they have numbered houses, police stations, fiscal institutions; the island resident is a lawyer, a writer, a worker, a police clerk; he considers himself a citizen of Petersburg, but he, a denizen of chaos, threatens the capital of the Empire in a gathering cloud …

Apollon Apollonovich did not want to reflect any further: the restless islands must be crushed, crushed! They must be riveted to the ground with the iron of the enormous bridge and transfixed in every direction by the arrows of the prospects …

And now, as he looked pensively into that boundlessness of mists, the man of state suddenly expanded out of the black cube in all directions and soared above it; and he desired that the carriage should fly forward, that the prospects should fly towards him – prospect after prospect, that the whole spherical surface of the planet should be gripped by the blackish-grey cubes of the houses as by serpentine coils; that the whole of the earth squeezed by prospects should intersect the immensity in linear cosmic flight with a rectilinear law; that the mesh of parallel prospects, intersected by a mesh of prospects, should expand into the abysses of outer space with the planes of squares and cubes: one square per man-in-the-street, that, that …

After the line of all the symmetries it was the figure of the square that brought him the most calm.

He was in the habit of giving himself up for long periods of time to the insouciant contemplation of: pyramids, triangles, parallelepipeds, cubes, trapezoids. He was seized by anxiety only when he contemplated the truncated cone.

As for the zigzag line, he could not endure it.

Here, in the carriage, Apollon Apollonovich took pleasure for a long time without thought in the quadrangular walls, residing at the centre of the black, perfect and satin-covered cube: Apollon Apollonovich had been born for solitary confinement; only a love for the planimetry of state clothed him in the polyhedrality of a responsible post.

The wet, slippery prospect was intersected by a wet prospect at a right angle of ninety degrees; at the point where the lines intersected, a policeman stood …

And exactly the same houses loomed there, and the same grey human streams moved past there, and there was the same green-yellow fog. Concentratedly did the faces move there; the pavements whispered and shuffled; were rubbed briskly by galoshes; the nose of the man in the street sailed solemnly on. Noses25 flowed past in large numbers: aquiline, duck-like, cockerel-like, greenish, white: here also flowed the absence of any nose at all. Here flowed ones, and twos, and threes-and-fours; and bowler hat after bowler hat: bowlers, feathers, service caps; service caps, service caps, feathers; a cocked hat, a top hat, a service cap; a kerchief, an umbrella, a feather.

But parallel with the racing prospect was a fleeting prospect with the same row of boxes, numeration, clouds; and the same civil servant.

There is an infinity of prospects racing in infinity with an infinity of intersecting shadows racing into infinity. All Petersburg is the infinity of a prospect raised to the power of n.

While beyond Petersburg there is – nothing.