Nineteenth-Century Russian Novels as Examples of Renewed Epic
In this stage of my argument, my goal is to support the conclusions of the last section by identifying their effects in several examples of the nineteenth-century Russian novel. Rather than create a vast array of brief investigations into every novelist to whom the idea of the renewed epic applies, and in the interest of maintaining a clearly Lukácsian context, I have decided to limit this section to those authors to whom Lukács devotes his attention within The Theory of the Novel: Nikolai Gogol’, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
1. Nikolai Gogol': The Beginnings of Renewed Epic
Lukács’s treatment of the works of Nikolai Gogol’ is mostly concerned with his unfinished final novel, Dead Souls. Lukács also briefly mentions several of Gogol’s plays (The Broken Jug, The Inspector-General and The Parisienne), but as these are not examples of the novel genre, this discussion of Gogol’s place within a view of the nineteenth-century Russian novel as renewed epic will be limited to Dead Souls.
In many respects, it is natural to describe Dead Souls as an early example of the renewed epic; its very subtitle - Poema, meaning epic or long-form poem — attests to Gogol’s intent of creating a nationally-defining work of essence. Its scale and scope, particularly in view of Gogol’s unrealized plans for the second and third volumes, are truly epic in the sense that they make the goal of encompassing the essence of Russian culture a realistic one. Most significantly for the view of Dead Souls as renewed epic, the conditions under which the book was created are completely in line with the meta-consciousness required for the renewed epic’s problematization of interiority and totality: Gogol’ wrote Dead Souls entirely in absence from Russia, during a six-year self-imposed exile in Rome.1 This exile, rather than being born of distaste for Russia, was the expression of Gogol’s search for a vantage point from which his mind and his art could encompass Russia to a satisfactory degree. Before leaving Moscow, Gogol’ described this search in a letter to his friend, literary critic Pyotr Pletyov:
“The nature of my talent is such that my mind can only fully imagine the vivid life of the world when I am absent from it. That is why on the subject of Russia, I can only write in Rome. Only there does it appear to me as a whole, in all its vastness.”2
Given his goal of achieving the epic level of cultural expression, Gogol’ had to reach a perspective and a consciousness of Russia itself; he had to find a point of view from which he ran no risk of being immersed in the context of the “vivid life of the world” he depicted. Furthermore, he describes his talent as “imagining the vivid life of the world” rather than “imagining the vivid life of Russia.” For Gogol’, to leave Russia was truly to absent himself from the world: the atmosphere of Europe was hospitable and pleasing to Gogol’, but so foreign that it did not impinge on his meta-conscious perspective of Russia in the slightest. Gogol’ deliberately imposed on himself a distance (inherently as much a philosophical distance as it was geographical) that facilitated the creation of the renewed epic.
Thus the form and background of Dead Souls mark it as a clear example of renewed epic—but its content greatly complicates this view. As it exists today, Dead Souls is an unfinished fragment of a much larger planned novel; the plot of the extant book consists of Chichikov, the protagonist, making a long, slow journey by cart through the land surrounding an unremarkable Russian provincial capital, buying up deeds of sale on deceased serfs in order to mortgage them to the government as a moneymaking scam; in his travels he encounters a motley assortment of small land-owners and countryside villagers. The problematization of interiority plays a role, definitely; but in the content of the book this is only apparent inasmuch as it allows Gogol’ to avoid creating the impression of interiority almost completely. Most of the characters are largely uneducated provincial people, not in a position to have developed interiority at all. Conversely, totality is a highly conscious and very prominent subject in Dead Souls; but rather than being presented as innocent spiritual tranquility or sincerity of holiness, it appears mainly through negative qualities such as small-mindedness. Rather than knowing “only answers but no questions,” the characters seem to know neither, and are neither disturbed by nor aware of their ignorance. Every word that comes out of a peasant’s mouth is marked by a plodding, oblivious sort of stupidity; most of the landowners manage to be just as dull in every regard even though they are more fully characterized; and of course the entire plot is morally distasteful. Although the work is clearly not Westernist in nature—overtly Western cultural products such as balls and the French language are always treated with derision—the depiction of any sort of distinctively Russian virtue in totality is extremely rare. Dead Souls fits the model of the renewed epic in its conscious discussion of totality, but regarding the motive of this problematization, it is a complete outlier: rather than being the appropriation and adaptation of the European novel into a form compatible with Russian totality, the motive seems to be a patronizing, bemused attitude of satirical disdain.
However, the status of Dead Souls as a fragment leaves its message incomplete, and to flatly assume that the final message of Dead Souls is simple satire is to treat it as a finished work. In fact, Gogol’ was so horrified at the responses to the first part of Dead Souls (most of which treated it as pure satire) that he wrote and published a book, Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, detailing his views on a wide variety of literary, moral, and national topics. Included in this book were four “Letters Apropos of Dead Souls” that outlined the book’s intended reading and response. Selected Passages had a very lukewarm reception and did not do much to change opinions on Dead Souls: it was viewed as an inferior literary achievement and a philosophical reversal, and it has thus been largely ignored as a companion to Dead Souls.3 But many of Gogol’s statements in Selected Passages are both convincing and revealing, and there is no decisive reason to treat it as philosophically incompatible with his earlier works. Furthermore, since in it Gogol’ directly addresses his plans, motivations, and ideological aims for Dead Souls, there is no better commentary when these are the topic of investigation.
In Selected Passages, Gogol’ makes the case that Dead Souls does not truly ridicule Russia, but instead presents a moral cautionary tale. In this interpretation, rather than intending to ridicule Russian totality itself, Gogol’ intended to cause a productive discomfort that would inspire his readers to avoid what he saw as the particular pitfalls of Russian totality: dullness rather than innocence, aimlessness rather than spontaneity, superstition rather than piety. The purpose of the novel’s repeated motif of banal, mundane, everyday vice and stupidity was not intended to present the true nature of Russian totality, but to engender a moral revival in the Russian everyman. From this point of view it becomes clear that the uniform banality of Dead Souls does indeed allow for love of country, and indeed, for the adoration of Holy Russia that would motivate the creation of renewed epic. The fact that Gogol’ accuses Russia not of supreme vice but of banality reveals what he had in mind as an ideal goal for Russia: not a near-blasphemous complete victory over all evil, but a national Russian triumph over insignificance. Russia’s task was not to be simply good, but to be extraordinary. From the third “Letter Apropos of Dead Souls:”
The Russian is more afraid of his insignificance than of all his vices and shortcomings. A remarkable phenomenon! A magnificent fear! The man in whom there is such revulsion towards all that is worthless is, in himself, truly the opposite of such worthlessness and insignificance.4
The petty evil and banality in Dead Souls was not intended as amusing satire, but meant to spur the Russian soul towards action and achievement. Accordingly, Gogol’ had planned two sequels to the first volume, which if completed would have traced a path out of the banality of the first volume:
Because of the plan for Dead Souls that I adopted long ago, for the first part I needed worthless people...Do not ask me why the entire first part had to be banality and why every person in it had to be banal; the other volumes will give you the answer—and that is all!5
Rather than mocking or criticizing the totality of the Russian people, Dead Souls exhorts Russia to greatness within totality; a message that would surely have been more fully expressed with the completion of the sequels. Even within the existing text, this reading is supported by the fact that it is the only one that allows the trenchant, patriotic and unmistakably epic close of Part 1 to read consistently with the rest of the book: in Gogol’s mind, the question “Whither Rus’?” that now lies open-ended was meant to have a resoundingly positive answer, a journey out of banality and into a positive and inspiring new image of national essence. This is what Gogol’ intended to imply with his statement that “all of Russia will appear in it.” Gogol’s true vision for Dead Souls was not to use his renewed-epic perspective to depict Russia as a land of ignorance and ugliness, but to implore Russian totality to focus itself on lofty spiritual goals; to lovingly ask Russia to examine itself and advance in the direction of a grand and noble destiny; this is a message and intent that is completely in keeping with the nationalistic motives of the renewed epic. It is true that awareness of interiority does not make itself problematic and immediately apparent, as it does in later incarnations of the nineteenth-century Russian novel (such as those of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky); but elements of renewed epic are definitely present, and the book can be viewed as a clear predecessor to that form if not its first example.
In The Theory of the Novel, Lukács briefly describes Gogol’s intent in Dead Souls as “truly epic,” recognizing that the work is not simple satire but a much more culturally and philosophically important form. Understandably, though (due to the difference in tone and content between Dead Souls and the works Lukács discusses as renewed epics), his discussion of Dead Souls is not part of his depiction of the renewal of epic. Lukács instead includes it in a discussion of pure novel, in the chapter entitled “Abstract Idealism.” In this chapter he divides the concept of novel into two types, defined by the relationship of their depiction of the “outside world” (of objects, actions and events) to their depiction of the world of “abstract ideals” (the interior world of the soul, concepts, and ideological content): “Either the world is narrower or it is broader than the outside world assigned to it as the arena and substratum of its actions.”6 For Lukács, Dead Souls falls into the first type, in which “the world is narrower;” placing it into a class of novels that strive to force the world of action to adequately express their interior content. Since this type must rely on the behavior of its characters to depict the world of its interiority, any growth in the importance of that interiority means that the status of the principal characters becomes less than primary; “the hero is merely a necessary secondary figure adorning a totality and contributing to its construction, but remaining only a brick in the edifice, never its centre.”7 This “negativity of the central characters,” their marginal position as necessitated by the works’ interiority—rather than central and self-justified as they would be in Great Epic—requires a balance given by a corresponding positive. Lukács declares that “this ‘positive’ counterweight can be nothing else but the objectification of the bourgeois concept of decent behaviour;”8 that in order to merit the focus of a novel in which the importance of the interior content is considerable, the protagonist of the work needs to be nice. Lukács’s conclusion on Dead Souls is that this requirement of balance demands its status as a fragment. Though the character of Chichikov is “artistically speaking, wonderfully fertile and well-realized,”9 his utter lack of niceness is incompatible with his position as protagonist, creating an irremediable lack of balance.
A view of Dead Souls that sees it as a genuine example of renewed epic would counter that the ability of the story to fit within its “outside world” is actually the result of Gogol’s meta-conscious perspective enabling him to deemphasize interiority and instead elect to focus on totality, and that rather than requiring the expression of interior content through the world of action, the book’s philosophical content and its world of action are equally subjects and not truly at odds. The perceived imbalance between the interior content and the strongly “negative” characters of Dead Souls would in this case be a mere result of the incomplete status of the work, not its cause; the characters would doubtless have undergone significant changes over the course of a redemptive plot, with their former repulsive banality serving to strengthen the book’s philosophical import rather than weaken and destroy it. In fact, the fragments of draft that compose the extant second part of Dead Souls seem to indicate that Gogol’ was attempting the necessary changes to achieve this effect; this second part obviously does not have the quality or finish of Part 1, but its general implication is that Gogol’ was moving away from the “negative” banality of the first part in his plans for the second. It is true that this reading of Dead Souls is based largely on speculation, but any conclusion on this book is necessarily incomplete; and with the guidance given in Selected Correspondence with Friends, the conclusion that Dead Souls is in fact an early instance or forerunner of the nineteenth-century Russian renewal of epic has some support.
1 Griffiths, Frederick T. and Rabinowitz, Stanley J. Novel Epics: Gogol, Dostoevsky, and National Narrative
, p. 41. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1990.
2 Gogol’, Nikolai Vasilyevich. Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’ in Letters and Memoirs
, (Николай Васильевич Гоголь в письмах и воспоминаниях) p. 223. Ed. Gippius, Vasily Vasilyevich. Moscow: Federation (Федерация), 1931.
3 Zeldin, Jesse. Introduction. Selections from Correspondence with Friends
, p. xiii. By Gogol, Nikolai. Trans. Zeldin, Jesse. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1969.
4 Gogol’, Nikolai. Selections from Correspondence with Friends
(Выбранные места из переписки с друзьями)), p. 126. St Petersburg: Alphabet Publishers (Издательство Азбука), 2008.
5 Ibid., p. 128.
6 Lukàcs, Georg. The Theory of the Novel
, p. 97. Trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1971.
7 Ibid., p. 106.
8 Ibid., p. 107.
9 Ibid., p. 107.