Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Was Gogol gay? Simon Karlinsky thinks so.

This post isn't about Karlinsky's book The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, which I admit I haven't read. It's only about this article:

Simon Karlinsky argues that Gogol, who never married or had a serious girlfriend or lover, was a homosexual. 
All right. That's possible. 
As we discuss in our segment on Gogol’s antecedents, Karlinsky begins his section on Dead Souls by pointing out that “The one traditional ingredient of the picaresque novel formula that is glaringly missing in Dead Souls is the hero’s promiscuity and his usual numerous sexual adventures.” In Karlinsky’s opinion, Chichikov is “entirely devoid of any sexual instinct” and, like all of Gogol’s protagonists, he lacks a true love, or even lust, interest throughout the entire novel.
The argument seems compelling at 1st. However, I'd like to stress that Chichikov, albeit not just a type, is an incarnation of the poshlost (mediocrity, banality, vulgarity, shallowness, conformity, spurious beauty, spurious importance, pseudo-intellectualism, etc.). He is not devoid of basic human emotions such as joy, pleasure, worry, fear, sadness... but is incapable of anything deeper, stronger, more profound. Indeed, he doesn't have any love interest, but do you think he likes anyone? Definitely not Manilov, Sobakevich and all the people he flatters or speaks highly of, in the town of N. Chichikov's driven by 1 thing, and it makes up the whole of his personality and character. The only strong bond he has is with money.
And it should be pointed out that Chichikov is attracted to the governor's daughter. 
Yet Karlinsky points to many passages that portray this attraction in a very unconventional, misogynistic light. First off, when Chichikov first sees the governor’s daughter he realizes that while she may be pure and attractive in her youth “she will end up a piece of trash,” as all women inevitably do. [...] Yet what is most demonstrative to Karlinsky is the fact that the governor’s daughter is the ultimate cause of Chichikov’s “undoing and disgrace.” Despite the fact that “she is the character on whom the plot and the dénouement of the book hinge” she is, at least to Karlinsky, an anti-heroine who says nothing, has no name, and “all but fades into the wallpaper.” If anyone else but Gogol wrote this novel, Karlinsky argues, “the governor’s daughter would have been the heroine with whom the male protagonist becomes romantically involved,” but instead she is just a featureless nobody who ruins everything for Chichikov.
As I've written above, Chichikov has a shallow mind. A man like that, at his age, is unlikely to fall in love with a girl at 1st sight and lose sleep over her. Thinking "she will end up a piece of trash", he's not out of character at all- he's too materialistic and pragmatic to have high opinions of people and love. Why does Gogol choose not to let them become romantically involved then? For 1 thing, I think he wants to depict, and push to the extreme, the emptiness of Chichikov. Besides, the idea that Chichikov wants to carry off the governor's daughter is just 1 of the dozens of possibilities the members of the town can think of- they come up with various other theories equally groundless and ridiculous, that Chichikov may be a government inspector, or Napoleon in disguise, or captain Kopeikin, etc. To say that "she ruins everything for Chichikov" is too much of a stretch. It's mostly the women that cling to this idea, 1st because they have noticed, and been offended by, his sudden indifference to them all at the party because of her, and 2nd because it's the most exciting scenario. Such a scandal. People like scandals. 
Concerning why she says nothing and has no name, I can only argue that Gogol does so because it doesn't matter. 
Of the five landowners, Karlinsky points out that only two are married.
I don't find this valid. 
The other married landowner, Manilov, is described as being extremely happy in his marriage, yet because of this, all of his business affairs are in a total state of disarray, as he is distracted by his blissful love for his wife, which Gogol’s describes “with more than a touch of malice,” argues Karlinsky.
Their happiness doesn't seem real to me. Manilov always has the appearance of a very kind, affectionate person, but he's mediocre and pretentious. See the names he gives his children? He's also described as lazy and idle. After the deal with Chichikov, he sits there thinking till supper time, doing nothing. The wife is genteel, speaking Russian with the French r. They are both artificial, fake. That things don't work out is no wonder. 
The only major character associated with extra-marital, heterosexual sex is Nozdryov, certainly an altogether unlikable character.
Is anyone in Dead Souls likeable? 
Karlinsky argues that Nozdryov is the only male character that belongs to the “otherwise all-female coalition that causes Chichikov’s fall from grace.” This coalition includes the meddlesome Korobochka, who sells Chichikov out to the town, the aforementioned governor’s daughter, and the two gossips Gogol focuses on in the beginning of Chapter IX. For Karlinsky Nozdryov is merely a tool used by women, because of his aggressive attraction to them, who “betrays other males into women’s hands.”
I've written about the governor's daughter above. About the 2 gossipy women, that's simply because in literature and in life, women are often the ones that gossip and spread rumours. There are lots of such scenes in Anna Karenina. Jane Austen's women also like to gossip. That Korobochka ruins things for Chichikov is also understandable- it's precisely because she's a woman, unaccustomed to business, that she knows nothing and gets paranoid that dead souls can be sold at higher prices in other places. Her actions are as predictable as those of Nozdryov. A big-mouthed man like him can never keep a secret. 
Besides, the male characters "harm" Chichikov as much as the female ones do. 
Interestingly enough, Karlinsky doesn’t even mention the passage of Dead Souls that was to me, the most overtly homosexual in the entire novel: when Manilov and Chichikov “became folded in a strenuous embrace and remained so locked for fully five minutes. Indeed, the kisses exchanged were so vigorous that both suffered from toothache for the greater portion of the day.”
Again, I'm not convinced. They are flatterers. Hypocrites. They talk loudly of a beautiful friendship, and these 2 characters are ridiculous. After all this is supposed to be funny. Twice they keep standing at the door and can't come in normally, simply because each keeps telling the other to go in 1st. Why is this considered homosexual? 

Note: Those who know me know my support for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. It hardly makes a difference to me, whether or not Gogol was gay. I doubt it would affect my interpretation of Dead Souls either. These arguments are simply not convincing. So forced. 
(But then I'm never fond of reading in the light of homosexual studies, or the light of anything at all, such as Marxist criticism, feminist criticism... Reading that way, you have to bend things to fit your "tendencies", which is narrow and which distorts, even ruins, a great work of art).  

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