Repellent Intimacy: Petersburg as Unsettled Home in the Twentieth Century

Jennifer J. Day, College of Wooster

"There does not exist a real intimacy that is repellent. All the spaces of intimacy are designated by an attraction. Their being is well-being."
-Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

This paper seeks to pose the problem of Petersburg as unlikely source of creative sustenance for the twentieth-century writer. Proceeding from a poetics of space defined principally by Gaston Bachelard, I will envision Petersburg here as both physical structure (house) and as meta-physical dwelling-place (home) in an effort to provide a hypothesis for why the city persists in its role as "blessed cradle" for the creative self despite its patently unsettled nature. Bachelard (The Poetics of Space) has linked the space of the house to the source of poetic imagination, primarily by emphasizing the values of shelter, protection, and reflective solitude it offers as primal context of self-awareness. Above all, Bachelard's grounding of the creative self in the space of the house assumes a convergence of being with well-being, the state of home wherein the self is nurtured and encouraged in its exploration of the powers of its own consciousness and integral existence.

In contrast to this supportive space, Petersburg has traditionally been the unstable locus of the disrupted, divided, and alienated self--in Baxtin's words, the "man whose consciousness has been torn apart, always a rebel because he is always in spiritual discomfort." In the twentieth century more than ever, Petersburg's ability to provide a constant and protective shelter for the lone self is threatened by identity crisis, revilement, and even disappearance.

In almost every respect, Petersburg is the antithesis of Bachelard's characterization of the house/home as shaper of the poetic imagination. And yet its spaces constantly inspire the creative consciousness, a special intimacy which not only fosters introspection and dreaming, but also charges these dreams with a reality of their own--the phenomenological immediacy which Bachelard claims is the special province of the house-inspired daydreaming centered in well-being. How can Petersburg be a home in the Bachelardian sense? How can we account for the nevertheless undeniable burgeoning of the poetic self which takes place there? In this paper I will address the paradox of the "repellent intimacy" which characterizes the typical connection between twentieth-century Petersburg writers and their city, and from which springs the creative self-grounded, as it were, in insubstantiality or ruin. My examples will center on Silver Age poets, such as Axmatova, Mandel'shtam, and Shkapskaja, in comparison with the 60s generation of Leningrad "metaphysical" poets (Brodskij, in particular).