On the Use and Abuse of Letherburg for Life

You will have had no difficulty recognizing the German crib tacked onto Daniil Kharms's neologism in the title of my remarks. It is Nietzsche's essay "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life," written in 1874 and published in the collection Untimely Meditations. In the essay, Nietzsche warns of the dangers that arise when a self-sufficient sense of history turns excessive. This historical sense tends to degenerate into an uncritical, antiquarian attitude, which undermines contemporaneity and bleeds it dry. It is not only the present that is subverted, finally, but the future as well. Or rather, the very possibility of the future, the future as possibility. We might even say the future-as-possibilityóthat is, the future as a draft, a project(ion) or leap forward that endlessly anticipates the future in the present and thus extends it and insists on it.

As the new capital of the Russian Empire, Saint Petersburg was the name of such a project, such a "great leap forward" (to the West). I say was because the project was canceled and abandoned. The city's present status as ex-capital is completely determined by this abandonment, by this ex-. Despite a series of symbolic steps aimed at restoring the city to its bygone magnificence (including the interment of the alleged remains of the last tsar and his family in the Peter and Paul Cathedral, in 1998), when the capital was moved back to Moscow (in 1918), Saint Petersburg's geopolitical role as center of the empire, with all the consequences attendant upon this status, became a thing of the past. Today, the city has been relegated to the role of a sepulchre, a necropolis of Russian (read: aristocratic, pre-Revolutionary) culture.

Paradoxical as it might seem, this new role was already preordained for the city (renamed Leningrad) by the Bolsheviks themselves. It was they who enabled the counterrevolutionary transformation of the ex-capital into a necropolis by embalming the past and imputing to Russian culture the classically finalized, cadaverous aspect familiar to us from our Soviet grammar school curriculum. The palaces became museums; the gardens, Parks of Culture and Rest; the mansions were turned over to various state organizations and institutes. The new names of bridges, streets, and squares preserved the memory of the old names. No revolutionary rhetoric whatsoever could disguise the mythological features of "splendid Saint Petersburg" that flickered invisibly through the LENINGRAD tacked up on the marquee.

This life beyond the grave triggered a specifically Soviet form of nostalgia. Even the members of the so-called second, unofficial, culture did not escape it since they shared with the city's educated majority the code prescribed by the symbolic order. Conservative in the sense we have noted above, this prescription had deep roots.

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One of Saint Petersburg's unique traits, its paradoxical location on the mental map, derives from the fact that it was a reminiscence from the very moment it was founded. Or rather, a pseudo-reminiscence, a false memory somehow akin to a phantom pain. In appearance it was reminiscent of a new Amsterdam, of a northern Venice, of Paris, Athens, and Rome, but this resemblance was fragmentary and localized. Failing to coincide with itself, the city thus perpetually avoided defining its own essence. As time passed, a certain Egyptitude even shone through its stony visageóa quality so ancient that, viewed against the city's unbelievably young age (particularly in comparison with other European capitals), this decrepitude could only have produced a frightening, grotesque effect. On the whole, Saint Petersburg presented to the outside observer the semi-fantastic, generalized image of a European capital, of "Europeanicity." The city hid, as it were, behind the masks of other cities. It tried on all historical epochs for size at one go: it theatrically re-enacted their topographies and architectures, their monuments and landmarks, their histories and names. It was if Russia had resolved to make up instantly, at hyperspeed, what it had missed. In the guise of Petersburg, it would once and for all experience antiquity, the Renaissance, the baroque, classicism, and the Enlightenmentóbut recollected hazily, as if in a dream.

This frank eclecticism often provoked rather vituperative commentary, especially from Muscovites and foreigners. When the Marquis de Custine visited the Russian capital in 1839, he wrote, "A Kalmyk horde encamped in kibitkas at the foot of ancient temples; a Greek city improvised for Tatars as a theater backdrop, magnificent but tasteless, behind which the authentic and terrifying drama is hidden: this is what strikes the eye at the first sight of Petersburg."

In this passage, a European optics pinpoints the very essence of the city. The Frenchman adumbrates the nervure of what would later become the mental "skeleton" or, in Jungian terms, the archetype of Petersburg: Asiatic barbarity versus Greek porticoes; theatricality, decorativeness, artificiality, foundationlessness. Most important, Saintóthe Catholic vocalization that lends "holiness" to the concatenation of plosives, trills, and gutturals in the second part of the toponymóhas already been confiscated from the city's name (in Russian, Sankt-Peterburg, pronounced sahnkt pehtihrBOORKH). The city is thus refused at one stroke both the right of "Europeanicity" and the right of authenticity. Plus, a mysterious and terrible drama is unfolding behind this façade. What drama?

We can attempt to read the script of this drama in the city's name.

Like all proper nouns, the names of cities are generally not amenable to translation. The name Saint Petersburg, on the contrary, is not only translatable, but also assumes at least two translations. The name is strikingly cosmopolitan. It combines three languages: Latin (Saint > sanctus, holy); Greek (Peter(s) > petros, stone); and German (Burg > Burg, castle, city). In a case without historical precedent, this holy trinity of languages is uttered and transcribed via a fourth language, Russian. When Peter the Great founded a new capital on the periphery of the empire and named it in Babylonian fashion (by confusing languages), he reformed the Russian ear. He fatefully displaced and thus deformed its "center." One of the decisive consequences of this de- or reformation would be that the Russian ear was inevitably retuned to a Baltic (Mediterranean, Atlantic) wavelength.

The built-in foreignness of the new capital could not help but traumatize the patriarchal Russian Orthodox ear or (if you like) spirit. At this point in history, this spirit was quite suffocating and parochial: not only was it enclosed within the Eurasian plains and cut off from maritime trading routes, but it had also been stolen from Byzantium seven hundred years previously. When foreign ways and foreign tongues set up camp within a mother tongue, an inland tongue, they always pose a threat to roots, the threat of deterritorialization. It is no accident therefore that grassroots Russia viewed Petersburg as an apocalyptic city and associated Peter the Great with the Antichrist. The more so because the city's name assumed two possible translations: the city of Saint Peter or Peter's holy city. The apostle was superimposed on Tsar Peter, as it were: this ambiguous, blasphemous figure of speech hinted at the Russian emperor's role as the one who laid the cornerstone of a new faith. By founding a new, fourth Rome on the banks of the Neva, Peter challenged not only the papal throne, but also the Orthodox notion of Moscow as the Third Rome. This ambivalence split Russia's historical destiny in half. Or did it (draw and) quarter it?

The Name Saint Petersburg as a Hermeneutic (Genetic) Code

It was precisely in Petersburg (not Saint Petersburg), which was the manifestation of a new political willóa western-oriented willóthat a new breed of people emerged: while physically remaining in Russia, they mentally immigrated to Europe. Educated in the European manner, they conceived of Russia through political and philosophical concepts that had been born in the West. From the westernizing viewpoint, Russia appeared to be a backward, underdeveloped Asiatic country. At least as far as political and civil liberties (or rather, their absence), the economy, its shameful dependence on serf labor (i.e., slavery), and the organization of the state as a whole were concerned, this judgment definitely corresponded to the true state of affairs. What most horrified the emerging intelligentsia, however, was that western thoughtófor example, Hegel's dialecticóaccorded Russia no place within what the German philosopher called the progress of the World Spirit. From the point of view of geopolitics and historiosophy, their motherland was on the sidelines of the world historical process and the unified spiritual space that bore the name Europe.

Split by the crisis of national identity, the mindset of the intelligentsia found its most accurate reflection in the novels of Dostoevsky. It suffices here to recall Kraft (in A Raw Youth), whose "patriotism" leads him to suicide (because Russia is a second-rate power), or that quintessential Petersburger, Raskolnikov. Identifying himself with the quasi-European and quasi-philosophical figure of Napoleon (Hegel also succumbed to this temptation), he splits the skull of the old woman, who has displaced the mother figure in his unconscious. If we follow the logic of the unconscious even further, we might say that Raskolnikov's Europeanized superego strives to cut the Gordian knot of the incestual relations that bind him to the Mother(land), good for nothing and "tormenting someone's life." This interpretation won't seem such a stretch if we take into account, on the one hand, the "family romance" and infantile traits of Raskolnikov, in whom the mother has invested her entire libido (as we would put it nowadays), and, on the other hand, the political and autobiographical subtext of Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky had been involved in the revolutionary Petrashevsky Circle, for which he was subjected to a theatricalized mock execution and sentenced to exile in Siberia. It is curious that the name of the city's founder (and, hence, of the apostle as well) is present as a phantom in the name of the circle, which came from the surname of the socialist Mikhail Petravshevsky, who had organized its meetings. The nominal thread thus guides us toward political terror and the aesthetic/existentialist underground. Deprived of its Saint, Petersburg becomes the homeland of both phenomena. This lineóthe line of schism (we should recall that Raskolnikov's name alludes both to splitting as such and to the raskolniki, the Russian schismatics)óreaches a sort of paroxysm in Andrei Bely's novel Petersburg, which is rife with bombers and double agents who turn the Russia-West opposition upside down. The classical Petersburg myth and the so-called Petersburg period of Russian history found their culmination in the novel. What followed was the gradual formation of the Petersburg textóits "fossilization" and transformation into an archive, and the parallel deconstruction of this archive in the novels of Konstantin Vaginov and Daniil Kharms's play The Comedy of the City of Petersburg.

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When the original name was restored to the city, in 1991, it was as if a coffin lid had been lifted or (to resort to another metaphor) a frozen corpse had been thawed. A rapid aging process, the decomposition of all tissues, followed in its wake. This process was partly reminiscent of the collapse of the city after the Revolution: according to contemporaries, Petrograd was then transfigured into a beautiful necropolis, a city of the dead. (We should note that all the renamings have attempted to erase, first and foremost, the Babylonian trace, the trace of foreign tongues and otherness in the city's name.) Triggered by a historical cataclysm, like a chain reaction this collapse unleashed a colossal amount of energy, which split the city's traumatic identity nucleus, as it were, and generated a vertiginous transaesthetic phenomenonóthe radical poetics of the twenties and thirties. Embodied by such writers as Vaginov, Kharms, Mikhail Kuzmin, Alexander Vvedensky, and Andrei Nikolev, this aesthetic in many ways anticipated not only the concepts of carnivalism and literary polyphony, as developed by their fellow traveler Mikhail Bakhtin, and the postwar theater of the absurd, but also postmodernist linguistic strategies. Their work could be called "postmodern" not in the trite sense that it sought a compromise between elite and mass culture as a means of achieving success, but because it resisted just this kind of bargain. It resisted contemporaneity, which ratifies literary conventions and obliges us to conform to the consensus of taste.*

This sense of taste (which it would be far too simple to call bad) nowadays dictates that Saint Petersburg should be reassigned the title of capital: the city is referred to as Russia's "northern" and/or "cultural" capital. In the Russian mass media, these adjectives are used interchangeably; they are essentially synonyms and are thus sometimes dropped altogether. They have settled into the collective unconscious, where they have swollen to the dimensions of a fantasmic identity with an inevitably retro tinge. As a result of this massive operation, which contaminates a trope traditionally applied to Petersburgó"the Northern Palmyra"óand the aureole of "capitalness" that once crowned it, a city that for all practical purposes is now a major provincial center has acquired the symbolic value of a "capital." This symbolic capital is then turned into surplus value with the same facility with which national pride has become a branch of the tourist industry.

Nostalgic for bygone greatness, Petersburgers (who are now essentially provincials) are no doubt flattered by this linguistic trick. But one is haunted by the suspicion that Moscow, the authentic capital, is trying to make a peculiar, bashful gesture of symbolic compensation toward its lesser brother. Since the mass media are concentrated in Moscow, it is not hard to guess that, issuing from this source, the rhetorical figure "northern capital" is a euphemism, a belated recognition of the ex-imperial capital's "historical and cultural merits" since it no longer poses any threat to Moscow. When the Bolsheviks transferred the capital and the government to Moscow, this move signaled the end of the Petersburg period of Russian history. The Bolsheviks introduced another euphemism for Leningrad: "Cradle of Three Revolutions." Pronouncedly ideological in character, this catchphrase was primarily meant to appeal to proletarian consciousness, to the "gravediggers of the bourgeoisie." Heard against this eschatological background, the slogan "northern capital" seemingly is emphatically neutral. Deideologized and bereft of political connotation, it fits the recent dominant tendency to lend an innocent, neutral air to utterances meant to camouflage the ideology of a society in the grips of primitive accumulation. Anyone familiar with the historiosophical nitty-gritty of relations between the two capitals will inevitably detect, however, the geopolitical subtext of the "northern/cultural capital" formula: an authentically Russian, rooted, feminine Moscow, located in the geographic center of the country, is opposed to a pseudo-European, artificial, eccentric, phallic Petersburg. In its showdown with Moscow, Petersburg has been defeated on all fronts except the one for which the Ministry of Culture is responsible. This is the message hidden behind the condescending recognition of its status as "cultural capital."

Foisted on Petersburgers by the mass media and designed to raise their own estimate of themselves, this retro-figure of speech is therefore politically motivated. It conforms wholly to the strategy of post-Soviet political discourse, which gives ideology the appearance of something neutral, "natural," self-explanatory. In the present case, we are again dealing with the effect of what Roland Barthes once described as "purloined" language or what Roman Jakobson called a "code." This code attaches itself to the traditional, historiosophical code of Saint Petersburg, which was also in need of deciphering. Beginning with Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman" and ending with Andrei Bely's Petersburg, this decoding was just what Russian literature was busy doing. The fruits of this collective labor would later become famous as the Petersburg text. The irony, however, is that literature never produces a pure deciphering. Rather than merely deciphering, literature decodes and recodes. Hence even after Soviet literature replaced Russian literature, it had inherited enough resources to produce, as early as the twenties, such masterly ironic recodings of the Petersburg text as Mandelstam's Egyptian Stamp and Vaginov's Goat Song.

The coining of a euphemism that so brazenly fetishizes the past proved possible, of course, only because the city was returned its original, full name: Saint Petersburg. To invoke Freud's term, this return was a peculiar form of the return of the repressed. Instead of deep-level analysis, however, we are witness to a remythologization and museumification conducted in accord with an axiomatics borrowed mostly from the arsenal of the pre-Revolutionary period. When artistic and literary workers speak of Petersburg's renaissance, of the rebirth of its classical legacy and traditional values, then what they have in mind is, at best, the decorative aspect of this legacyóthe aesthetics of the World of Art, Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, the poetics of the Symbolists and Acmeists. It as if these values (and, especially, the historicist, humanist, "culturalist" consciousness that generated them) hadn't been shipwrecked in the twenties and thirties. Aside from a fetishization of the past, the desire to relive, to reanimate, the Silver Age also signals a political blindness insofar as it presupposes the inevitable return of what followed hard on the heels of the Silver Ageóthe historical cataclysm whose aftereffects were, perhaps, nowhere so catastrophic as in Petersburg.

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Any recoding is always a translation and retranslation of an existing code. It ensures the code's preservation, albeit in distorted form. A brilliant recent confirmation of this fact is Andrei Bitov's novel Pushkin House. The title refers to the city's Institute of Russian Literatureóthat is, to an archive of Russian literature that is simultaneously a museum of that literature, all housed behind one façade, under one dome. Bottled and capped, as it were. And because this cap is a fool's cap, the cap of Gogol and Dostoevsky, the chapters have talking titles. They talk about what it is like to live within a literature that has become a museum.

Is Petersburg the Name of This Open-Air Museumification?

Museums have replaced temples: whole families visit them on Sundays, as they once would have attended mass. Museumgoing is the final, rudimentary form of ritual in an epoch of desacralized spaces and a dead God. The museum is a crypt, a "sweet Egypt of things" imbued with a seemingly harmless (scholarly) air, with the classifying spirit that labors over the corpse of the deceased past. Vaginov was the first to detect the putrid smell. The dregs of history (life), his characters are the last antiquarians. They are collectors of dreams, fingernail clippings, locks of hair, obscenities, candy wrappers, matchboxes, foul graffitióthe excrement of a culture undergoing rapid lumpenization. These lumpen antiquarians experience themselves as musuem exhibits, one-day butterflies pinned to a Komsomol-red mounting board, to a bored, crude newspeak. Language is mortified and grafts itself to the "Soviet wilding." It is impossible to breathe, and individual utterance is already out of the question. All that remains are anonymous grumbling, eerie whispering. "I don't care for Petersburg; my dream has died," the author of The Goat Song informs us in the preface. Vaginov's tetralogy about the death of Petersburg and its transformation into Leningrad is a genuine ship of the dead, which the tides of post-history have washed up onto the shores of the Neva. This ship has completed a round-the-world voyageóa voyage through the other world.

Or there are the surviving fragments of Daniil Kharms's Comedy of the City of Petersburg. In the play, characters from Russian literature mingle with historical figures; historical periods are jumbled, language mangled. At a certain point in the play a monstrous chronotope, simultaneously chimerical and sublime, emerges: Letherburg. The city of Lethe, of oblivion. The city of letherature.

The sequential renamingsóan endless series of sacrifices and ritual murdersóhave dismembered the city's body. Letherature responds to political terror with idiocy, mumbling, aphasia, with a deliberate derangement not only of all the senses (per Rimbaud), but also of syntax and grammar. It responds to political terror with poetic terror. They are woven together in a deadly embrace.

Saint: The Eternal Return of the Repressed

Filled to the brim with the past, the museum is an aquarium of the collective unconscious. Invisibly present in absolutely all the museum's exhibits, its basic principle rests on a ban. Not a Do Not Touch sign, but rather a much more fundamental prohibition that constitutes the very essence of museumness: the ban on reproduction. It is no accident that violation of this ban is punishable by law. As Boris Groys has demonstrated in the case of contemporary art museums, if a particular painting, photography, installation or architectural project has already "been done," then one is forbidden from drawing (writing, building, photographing, installing) in that way ever again. The museum thus places the artist in the position of a perpetually tardy epigone, a youngest child who is compelled to lead a life of dissipation lest he imitate already existing, recognized masterpiecesóthat is, the ones in the museum. He thus finds himself in a peculiar transcendental trap. Although he consciously avoids imitating particular exemplars, he is simultaneously condemned to imitate the very principle of their exemplarity, to reproduce the general principle according to which they were recognized as exemplars and selected for the museum. Transferred to an urban settingóespecially one as hypersemioticized and replete with literary allusions and historical subtexts as the Petersburg environmentóthe museum principle, captured in the formula "been done," generates a nauseating sensation of endless déjà vu, of the literal, physically palpable overpopulation of the city by the shades of literature.

This overpopulation makes the eyes glaze over, and thus leads to visual aberrations. History paralyzes Petersburgers. It turns them into hysteroid, epileptoid, neurotic bodies, into subjects of Kulturträgerisch terror. Here lived Pushkin. Here lived Gogol. Here lived Lermontov. Here lived Dostoevsky. Here lived Blok. Here lived Akhmatova. And here (oh horror!) lived Brodsky. Even the apparently most recent events and texts (texts as events) are conserved, deposited in the archives right before our eyes. This does not mean they lose their significance for the present. It means, however, that they cease being events and become reminiscences, recollections. They become something that, however lovely, has by definition nothing to do with a living tradition, but that has everything to do with petrified ruins. Shattered into the fragments displayed in a museum display case, history appears to us nowadays as a random collection of such ruins.

In regard to historical education, Nietzsche once wrote, "Youth is made, as it were, to run the gauntlet of the centuries." His sadistic metaphor ought to be particularly congenial to the inhabitants of Petersburg. Here, as we know from our Pushkin, the "spirit of captivity" and a "severe aspect" get along famously. The whiplashed, pulped and bloodied back of the soldier of cultureóof the "little man," the government clerk, the raznochinets, the baptized Jew, the intelligent whom the crowd drags to the Fontanka River to be drownedóis the price of initiation into history, into letherature.

*An amplification is probably in order at this point. By way of such an elaboration and due to considerations of space, I would like to quote from Lyotard's essay "What Is Postmodernism?" This will allow us to examine the problem from a slightly different, less convenient point of view: "A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work and the text have the characters of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author, or, what amounts to the same thing, their being put into work, their realization (mise en œuvre) always begins too soon. Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo)."

Translation of "O pol'ze i vrede Leterburga dlia zhizni." First published in Neprikosnovennyi zapas 3(11) (2000), and Alexander Skidan, Soprotivlenie poezii. Copyright 2001 by Alexandr Skidan. Translation copyright 2007 by Thomas Campbell. All rights reserved.