Henry Adams and Andrei Bely: The Explosive Mind

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ABSTRACT

Although they belonged to different generations, the Russian novelist Andrei Bely (1880-1934) and rhe American writer Henry Adams (1838-1918) were conservative anti-statists who responded in illuminatingly similar ways to the new century. Both framed their anti-statism in generational terms. Both deployed the imagery of chaos and explosion to meditate upon what is often called 'the crisis of European civilization', of which anarchism, the Russian Revolution, and World War I were manifestations. While neither The Education of Henry Adams (1907) nor Bely's high modernist novel Petersburg (1913) attempts to represent anarchism as a political movement, they have related concerns: anarchy and chaos, force and power, the divided or fragmented self, Russia as a 'natural' site for anarchy, an ambivalent fascination with oppositional politics. I call Bely and Adams fellow travellers of anarchism, despite that ambivalence and their self-contradictory political attitudes, because they recognise and invoke the anarchist sublime.

Keywords Anarchism, Dynamite, Henry Adams, Andrei Bely, Russian Revolution of 1905, Peter Kropotkin, Plehve, Alfred Nobel, Madame Curie, Tolstoy

Bombs educate vigorously.

Henry Adams

In 1 864 Emil Nobel and four other people were killed while working with nitroglycerine in rhe explosives factory of Emil's older brother Alfred. The Swedish government closed down the factory, and Alfred resumed his experiments on a barge. Three years after his brother's death, he invented dynamite: a mixture of nitroglycerine and kieselguhr, a porous siliceous earth, safer to handle than pure nitroglycerine, set off wirh a blasting cap or detonator that Nobel perfected. The invention of dynamite made Alfred Nobel a rich man. He patented it in Sweden, Britain and the United States, and improved on his recipe, substituting wood pulp for kieselguhr, adding sodium nitrate, and later inventing a more powerful gelatinous version. A recluse, bachelor, and pacifist, Nobel would leave much of his fortune for annual, international prizes, to be awarded, as he specified, in chemistry, medicine, physics, literature and peace, to those who had contributed to the betterment of mankind.1

Dynamite was widely used during Nobel's lifetime in mining, railroad construction, quarries and other destructively constructive projects. Chemically, it is a 'high' or 'detonating' explosive, as opposed to a 'low' or 'deflagrating' explosive. Nitroglycerine is its 'sensitizer'. High explosives expand rapidly, producing heat and gases; the chemical reaction spreads in a detonation wave, a particular kind of shock wave possessing constant amplitude and velocity. Shock waves in turn are a kind of acoustic wave, which is why dynamite explosions make a loud noise.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries dynamite became associated with the political violence of revolutionary anarchism. It improved the odds, allowing a single worker to strike a palpable blow. In his history of the period, Eric Hobsbawm refers to 'the anarchist epidemic of assassinations in the 1890s, to which two monarchs, two presidents, and one prime minister fell victim'.2 Ordinary people were killed too. Emile Henry tossed a bomb into a Parisian restaurant, later explaining, 'there are no innocent bourgeois'. In Chicago in 1886 working men gathered at the Haymarket for a rally; when the police showed up, someone in the crowd hurled a bomb at them. Eight anarchists were held responsible and hanged. In 1893 Auguste Vaillant threw a bomb from the gallery into the French chamber of deputies; no one was killed, but Vaillant was executed, crying 'Vive l'anarchie!'.

As a metaphor of sudden expansion and violent destruction, dynamite would capture the fin-de-siècle imagination as computer jargon does today. In one of her essays on the drama, Goldman wrote of Ibsen, 'Ghosts has acted like a bomb explosion, shaking the social structure to its very foundations'. …