Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Rereading the Classics [Gogol]
One comes upon Gogol at a considerable distance from the metaphysical rumination of Dostoyevsky, the grand plenitude of Tolstoy, or the reserve of Chekhov. Though his reach may be not so high as the one, as broad as the other, or as tight as the third, though he exiled himself for years and eventually recoiled from his own vision and, under the influence of Father Matthew Konstantinovsky, burned his continuation of Dead Souls, his narratives remain potent in this twenty-first century. Yet, from the very start, his plots are seem either all-but-nonexistent or impossibly bizarre. His characters are often formulaic, like those of Theophrastus or Ben Jonson. It is little wonder that he has been misread so often, not least of all by himself.
Categorized as a regional writer after Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and Taras Bulba, he was later regarded as a realist. Soviet critics liked to claim him as a satirist of decadent Czarist society in spite of his reactionary views in support of the serf system, paternalistic landowners, and an all-knowing Orthodox Church. In fact his portrait of Russian bureaucracy has more in common with Kafka’s metaphysical uses of the Austro-Hungarian administration than with, say, Trollope on what seem in his novels the victimless foibles of the Church of England and the parliamentary system. Gogol’s characters suffer.
Yet his sentimental love for Russia is manifest. Those who call Gogol’s rhapsodies to Russia ironic or burlesque are quite right, yet they miss the genuine enthusiasm, the afflatus that launched his paragraphs to soaring heights. In fact his backward political views reflect the conviction that the system is perfect, however often its agents fail. That passionate love of his country lies beneath his work with Ukrainian materials and his later exploration of the underside of Russia, where most estates are seedy and most landowners twisted enough with self-interest to see neither themselves nor their surroundings. Both within and apart from the text he refers to the novel as a poem and an epic. Belated it may be, but very deeply Russian. The weak and flawed, often morally diseased characters are the rotted fruit, the bitter, ironic reflection of the highest aspirations to spirituality. Gogol is altogether sincere in both his love and his denunciation when he releases a marvelous montage, an out-the-coach-window series of sights, and then declares, “Russia! Russia! I see you, from my wondrous beautiful afar: I see you now. Everything in you is poor, straggling, and uncomfortable . . .” 
At pains to define Chichikov as altogether ordinary at the outset of Dead Souls, our hero turns out to be vain, selfish, dishonest, cowardly, a virtual catalogue of weakness and sin. Yet he blends in well -- so very unremarkable is he that that he produces no reaction when he appears in a remote provincial town. His semi-respectable Civil Service title, his acceptable clothing, all the social clues lead to his acceptance, particularly when he plays to the worse instincts of those he meets.
Though they do not share his shifty character, the feckless heroes of “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” are equally anonymous. They are the invisible people of the modern age. Most are vitally concerned about their reception by others, so the category of poshlust (which might most succinctly be translated “false taste” though it extends even to morality) of which Nabokov makes so much in his excellent book on Gogol. A pioneer of the modern age, he writes “The Diary of a Madman” with total the assumption that we are better than half mad already. When he tries to portray a virtuous character in Murazov, he seems lost, out-of-place, ineffectual.
Gogol practices the low-mimetic as its lover, conveying the secret inner marvels of the ephemeral in spite of its sordidness and arbitrariness. He is himself his “twenty-year-old youth returning from the theatre with his head full of a street in Spain,” who hears vulgar quarrels in the street and “sees that he is back on earth, and even in the haymarket and near a pub, and once more life in its workaday clothes goes flaunting itself before him.”  Note that the everyday has spirit enough to “flaunt,” and so it does in these pages. Gogol ironically praises the traveler who “after a long and wearisome journey with its cold and slush and mud, sleepy station-masters, jingling bells, repairs, altercations, drivers, blacksmiths, and all sorts of villains of the road, at last beholds the familiar roof and the lights rushing to meet him.” , but this is not our author. To him such a sense of secure grounding in place is elusive. It reminds him of those who are praised for their descriptions of moral exemplars, while less successful authors, he among them, dare to “bring into the open everything that is every moment before men’s eyes and that remains unseen by unobservant eyes – all the terrible shocking morass of trivial things in which our life is entangled.” He declares that he is “destined by the mysterious powers to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes, viewing life in all its immensity as it rushes past me, viewing it through laughter seen by the world and tears unseen and unknown by it.” “Let us plunge all at once into life with all its muffled rattle and jingling bells.” [142-3]
The plunge can be exhilarating. Studying the garden of the hoarder Plyushkin, he observes “In short, it was all beautiful, as neither nature nor art could contrive, but as only happens when they unite together, when nature’s chisel puts its final touch to the often unintelligently heaped up labour of man, relieves the heavy masses, destroys the all to crudely palpable symmetry and the clumsily conceived gaps through which the unconcealed plan reveals itself so nakedly, and imparts a wonderful warmth to everything that has been created by the cold and carefully measured neatness and accuracy of human reason.” 
Gogol’s natural ebullience, his celebration of the world, is expressed in his catalogues. His description of the various voices of the village dogs mounts to a grand height, only toward the end to sprout a simile of human singers which gains sudden details only to conclude with an earth-shaking crescendo. 
Such rhetorical thrills can sneak up upon the reader. One is told that a crowd of “black frock-coats” resembles “so many flies,” a potent suggestive image already, but immensely enriched by the set-piece that follows in which figure an “old housekeeper,” a swarm of children, and the flies themselves “already satiated” but unable to resist pestering the servant over the sugar and preening themselves only to exit, “fly out again,, and again fly in with new tiresome squadrons.”  It is no less than a poem embedded in prose.
But, of course, the appeal of Plyushkin’s estate is nothing but the bizarre “beauty” of the individual personality, just as in general, the real delight of the strange spectacle of the world is regularly its characters, however briefly glimpsed: “Before, long ago, in the days of my childhood, which have passed away like a dream never to return, I felt happy whenever I happened to drive up for the first time to an unfamiliar place . . . I stared, too, at some infantry officer, walking by himself, who had been cast into this dull provincial hole from goodness knows what province or at a merchant in his close-fitting, pleated Siberian coat . . . and I was carried away in my thoughts after them, into their poor lives.” 
The intoxication with the ordinary, even the somewhat substandard, is capable of achieving a sort of Zen-like fugue state in Chichikov. When he is unexpectedly delayed due to damage to his carriage “he had the satisfaction of experiencing those agreeable moments which are so well known to every traveler,” and the reader is off considering rubbish on the floor and the stupid curiosity of passers-by. He is sickened, but transfixed. He focuses on killing a fly, and the spell is soon past.
Well aware of the inadequacy of even language, our most subtle instrument, Gogol knows that he, like Sobakevich praising the  powers of his deceased serfs, addresses his reader indirectly. Communication is always under suspicion, and the sense of being slightly pixilated and very likely misled is pervasive. When the whole town is on to Chichikov accusing him of deeds of their own invention as well as those he did indeed cook up, they resemble “a schoolboy who wakes up to find that his classmates, who were awake before him, have stuffed a hussar, a piece of paper filled with snuff, into his nose while he was asleep. Having inhaled the snuff with all the force of a sleeping person, he wakes, jumps out of bed, looks round him like a fool with eyes popping out of his head, and cannot grasp where he is or what has happened to him.”  Gogol’s readers may know the feeling.
After reading him, step into the streets of your neighborhood. “ Seeing the whirligig of men – say what you like, it’s like a living book, a second science.” [II, 309, repeated at 348] You are less susceptible than I if everyone, not to mention the plants and paving stones, doesn’t look both exceedingly odd and ruinously mundane.