April 01, 1999

Lectures on Russian Literature

“Gogol was a strange creature, but genius is always strange; it is only your healthy second-rater who seems to the grateful reader to be a wise old friend, nicely developing the reader’s own notions of life. Great literature skirts the irrational. Hamlet is the wild dream of a neurotic scholar. Gogol’s The Overcoat is a grotesque and grim nightmare making black holes in the dim pattern of life....

“Steady Pushkin, matter-of-fact Tolstoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irrational insight which simultaneously blurred the sentence and disclosed a secret meaning worthy of the sudden focal shift. But with Gogol this shifting is the very basis of his art ... when, as in his immortal The Overcoat, he really let himself go and pottered happily on the brink of his private abyss, he became the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced.

“.... The absurd was Gogol’s favorite muse – but when I say “the absurd,” I do not mean the quaint or the comic. The absurd has as many shades and degrees as the tragic has, and moreover, in Gogol’s case, it borders upon the latter. It would be wrong to assert that Gogol placed his characters in absurd situations. You cannot place a man in an absurd situation if the whole world he lives in is absurd; you cannot do this if you mean by “absurd” something provoking a chuckle or a shrug. But if you mean the pathetic, the human condition, if you mean all such things that in less weird worlds are linked up with the loftiest aspirations, the deepest sufferings, the strongest passions – then of course the necessary breach is there, and a pathetic human, lost in the midst of Gogol’s nightmarish, irresponsible world would be “absurd,” by a kind of secondary contrast.”

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