In Search of the Petersburg Theme

Jennifer J. Day, Indiana University

This paper is devoted to a re-examination of the so-called “Petersburg myth,” that network of cultural constructs so intimately bound up with the literature in and of Petersburg, with a view toward defining its fate in terms of the entire twentieth century. In their respective works, the two recognized authorities on the subject, Nikolaj Anciferov (Duša Peterburga, 1922) and Vladimir Toporov (“Petersburg and the ‘Petersburg Text’” in Russian Literature, 1984), do not extend their analyses any further than the works of Konstantin Vaginov, whom Toporov considers “the one who closed the Petersburg theme.” Where does it go after the early part of the twentieth century? Solomon Volkov, in his St. Petersburg: A Cultural History (1995), extrapolates his discourse on the Petersburg myth to the present day, but provides no coherent theoretical framework for illustrations of what he calls the “Petersburg branch of literary modernism abroad” or contemporary Petersburg authors. In my discussion I will present my definition of what I will call the “Petersburg theme” in Russian literature; base this definition in standard Petersburg texts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and then go on to apply my findings to later works of Russian literature of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on Acmeist Petersburg, and including those of Vladimir Nabokov, Iosif Brodskij, and Andrej Bitov. I will address the question of whether émigré texts can be considered to participate in the Petersburg theme.

In formulating my definition of the Petersburg theme, I rely to some degree on the approaches of Anciferov and Toporov. If the former designed his study to reveal the “spirit of the city” through its literature, the latter makes the correspondence work in two directions, so that the “spirit of literature” becomes visible in the city, and even aware of itself. First, I understand the term “Petersburg theme” to refer to those texts of Russian literature which depict Petersburg with pointed reference to both its own intertextual tradition and its existential co-dependence on this tradition. Furthermore, I understand this tradition to rest on an essentially dualistic value system characterized by a simultaneous dependence on irreconcilable impulses toward creation and those toward destruction. Such impulses, in their various embodiments from text to text, in this case necessarily lend an ethical dimension to aesthetic representation. Second, the Petersburg theme must operate in terms of a codependence between text and non-text. The implicit and necessary link between the life of the city and the life of the text is understood in terms of a mutual interdependence so well established that it is impossible to separate the existence of one from the other. Because of this dynamic aspect of the theme, my approach to examining texts will also include aspects of cultural semiotics, the framework for which was laid (specifically for Petersburg) by Jurij Lotman in his Simvolika Peterburga i problemy semiotiki goroda, 1984.

Using case studies from Vladimir Nabokov (his novels Mary, The Defense, Pnin, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Ada, Look at the Harlequins! and his autobiography Speak, Memory); Iosif Brodskij (selected poems both from his Russian and American years, as well as his collections of essays Less than One and On Grief and Reason); and Andrej Bitov (Puškin House), I will have occasion to address new problems in characterizing the Petersburg theme for the twentieth century. What happens to the theme when the author is separated in space and time from the physical reality of the city? Here not only must the spatial dimensions of Petersburg as both a real and metaphysical place, but the legitimacy of nostalgia as a foil to memory must be taken into account. Is memory strong enough to function as “non-text” in the necessary interaction between text and non-text that constitutes the theme? Also relevant will be the issue of St. Petersburg’s transformation into Leningrad (and, latterly, vice versa); I will argue that literary treatments of the new realities of Soviet life in Leningrad do not necessarily contradict the fundamental cultural models of the Petersburg theme. Finally, what place, if any, can postmodernism have in the structure of the Petersburg theme? Many of the texts under consideration have formal features or thematic concerns clearly associated with postmodern design. I will maintain, however, that the Petersburg theme, in its association of ethics with aesthetics, does not endorse the true intent of the postmodern mode.