When I signed up for the ‘Nikolay Gogol and Metaphysics of Russia’ lecture hosted by Academia Rossica on a Friday evening, I thought it may be a brave move. One thing we can all agree at onset is that Russian literature is not easy going- its gloomy, full of sub-context and frequently feels like a trip into nightmare land. I was pleased to find however, an engaging argument about one of Russia’s greatest writers presented by the acclaimed Professor Ivan Esaulov. Of course, this came with a heavy side of ‘smug’ having not spent the evening in the local pub, unlike most other Fridays.
That gloomy nature and subsequent style of Russian literature, falls not far from the history of the land- something it would seem centuries of generations have reflected on. Gogol for one saw grime, poverty and misery, contrasted by the sinful indulgence and corruption of the state during his lifetime in the Russian Empire.
Gogol, when compared to contemporaries like Pushkin, shows amongst many differences a base disagreement in perceptions of Russia and its people. While Pushkin remains in the Russian romanticism genre, Gogol’s style sits in literary realism bordering on grotesque satire. So while for Pushkin, Russia on the whole remains a Shostokovitch waltz (pardon the time differences) and a wardrobe of fur coats, for Gogol, Russia is something entirely different.
How so? Professor Ivan Esaulov discussed predominantly Gogol’s Dead Souls and its place as a modern day Dante’s Inferno. Probably a true comparison; as result of ‘writers block’ amongst other excuses, only the first and darkest of the three novels is well known. Using the characters and story of Dead Souls, Esaulov dissected Gogol’s perspectives of the world and what the surreal comedy said about the metaphysics of Russia. As Professor Ivan Esaulov aptly contended, to Gogol Russia was a land of ‘dead souls’, who need nothing short of a miracle to be saved as a nation. Of course history proved Gogol quite right, and the Russian Empire walked head first to collapse and social destruction.
This argument is well supported by one of the more famous observations from Dead Souls: “The current generation now sees everything clearly, it marvels at the errors, it laughs at the folly of its ancestors, not seeing that this chronicle is all overscored by divine fire, that every letter of it cries out, that from everywhere the piercing finger is pointed at it, at this current generation; but the current generation laughs and presumptuously, proudly begins a series of new errors, at which their descendants will also laugh afterwards.”
Interestingly Esaulov argued that Gogol wasn’t a religious fanatic, much as he is described in history; Gogol was just trying to give voice to his observations, and describe a state that “seemed ‘fine’ as it balanced on the knife edge of destruction”. Not a religious fanatic then, but certainly a spiritualist; Gogol’s Dead Souls to Esaulov follows a characters path through sin, to death and finally miraculous resurrection.
In all, a fascinating take on a popular and historically important work in Russian history. If you haven’t read any Gogol and feel like a good dark, hilarious and slightly bitter read, Dead Souls or The Overcoat, another classic are great choices. The later has the benefit of being perceived as intellectual while being quite short!