The Egyptian Stamp as Screen Memory

Julia Vaingurt, Harvard University

In her memoirs, Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda Mandel'shtam confesses her dislike of The Egyptian Stamp, objecting to its exposure of Osip Mandel'shtam's sense of loss and disorientation, a state which in her opinion resulted in his "poetic silence": "the impulse to write [The Egyptian Stamp] came from Mandel'shtam's desire to project back into the pre-Revolutionary years the mental confusion that overtook him in the twenties a sure sign that he had temporarily lost his bearings and his judgment." This criticism, however unintentionally, points to one other consequence of Mandel'shtam's state of disequilibrium an active relocation of the present into the past that characterizes the creative molding of time in The Egyptian Stamp. Part autobiography, part fiction, The Egyptian Stamp is Mandel'shtam's effort to employ the memory of the past to reevaluate such concepts as continuity and predictability.

My intent in this paper is to show how The Egyptian Stamp, originating as an endeavor to verbalize the experiences of external and internal turmoil, concludes with the affirmation of the writer's place in history. One of the most important creative forces that sustains the narrative voice of the text is the legacy of cultural memory, the herald of which Mandel'shtam sees himself to be. I use Freud's elaboration on the functioning of the human mnemonic system to illuminate the structure of cultural memory and the reconsideration of time in the text.

In The Egyptian Stamp, city and literature are two carriers of cultural memory. Comparing the relationship between Petersburg and its marginals in the work and Walter Benjamin's vision of the individual in the modern city, my paper reveals Mandel'shtam's sense of ambivalence toward this sanctuary of cultural memory. In regard to literature, I adopt Freud's concept of screen memories as substitutes for repressed memories to argue that for Mandel'shtam writing is a screen memory that marks the passage of time with its creations. My paper will propose ways of reading The Egyptian Stamp as a text provides a possible solution to its author's vexing problem: "zolotaja zabota kak vremeni bremja izbyt."