Friday, June 22, 2007

Letter to Gogol

Just like Kafka's The Castle and Musil's The Man Without Qualities, the nineteenth century Russian novel Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is an unfinished masterpiece, and like the other two one of my all time favourites too. Also just like the other two, the reasons why it remained unfinished is subject of a lot of historical and literary speculation. Gogol towards the end of his foreshortened career, just when he was working on the second part of his novel, grew increasingly religious and as a result increasingly despondent about his project because he was not able to reconcile the religiously inspired ideal of his motherland "Russia" with the grotesque and ugly realities of life that he found everywhere around him and to which he was inextricably bound by his vocation of being an artist and a writer.

Around this time he published a bizarre pamphlet titled "Selected Excerpts from Correspondence with Friends" in which he praised the institution of serfdom, wrote admiringly of the ideal Russian peasant for his mindless submissiveness towards tradition and authority and said that he regarded the Czar as the agent of the God on earth, whose sole responsibility was to maintain the holy status-quo. Predictably the left wing progressive intellectuals and critics were horrified by this tract. The most famous rebuttal came from the radical critic Vissarion Belinsky who wrote a public letter to Gogol chastising him for reneging on his duties as a committed writer. His letter soon became very famous and was read far and wide by everyone from left to right in Russia. In fact it was because of reading this letter in his circle of radical revolutionaries that young Dostoevsky was sent to prison and awarded the death sentence. It was before the prison life resulted in a similar transformation in Dostoevsky's intellectual life towards a more reactionary worldview. Gogol himself couldn't handle these criticisms and soon after went totally mad. He literally starved himself to death but only before instructing his servant to burn the manuscripts of Dead Souls that he was working on. His last words were, "Ladder! Bring me a ladder!" Perhaps he just wanted to cross to the other side, the ideal spiritual side of Russia, using a "ladder". A kind of leap of faith!

I actually wanted to just link to the famous letter but thought I will just fill up the post with a few words too. There is a brilliant profile of Belinsky in Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers. Berlin beautifully analyses his confusions and struggles with ideas, mainly of Hegel but also of French revolutionaries and socialists, and makes a great defence of politically committed literary criticism as exemplified by Belinsky, even when making his reservations about some aspects of Belinsky's work clear. The letter gets mentioned at many places in the classic russian novels too, specially in those of Turgenev and Dostoevsky. Turgenev was an admirer and a protege of Belinsky. He even dedicated his most famous novel Fathers and Sons to Belinsky's memory. More information about Belinsky from Wikipedia.

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