Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gogol's Magic Chaos

"So what is the incomprehensible secret force driving me towards you? Why do I constantly hear the echo of your mournful song as it is carried from sea to sea throughout your entire expanse? Tell me the secret of your song. What is this, calling and sobbing and plucking at my heart? What are these sounds that are like a stab and a kiss, why do they come rushing into my soul and fluttering about my heart? Rus! Tell me what do you want of me! What is this strange bond secretly uniting us?"

"What does this limitless space portend? And since you are without end yourself, is it not within you that a boundless thought will be born?"

"And pray, find me the Russian who does not care for fast driving? Inclined as he is to let himself go, to whirl his life away and send it to the devil, his soul cannot love speed."

"Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake?"

"Is that my home looming blue in the distance? Is that my mother sitting there at her window? Mother dear, save your poor son! Shed a tear upon his aching head. See how they torture him. Press your poor orphan to your heart. There is no place for him in the whole wide world! He is a hunted creature. Mother dear, take pity on your sick little child...And by the way, gentlemen, do you know that the Bey of Algiers has a round lump growing right under his nose?

Once upon a time I worked in an adult undergraduate degree completion program, With limited space, I shared an office with a fellow English instructor. Our small office also served as a repository for homework assignments and final exams. One science faculty member regularly asked students to turn in a poster-sized description of an ecosystem. The assignment seemed a little juvenile, but almost all of the students turned in carefully crafted visual representations of complex natural worlds, whether they were bogs, forests, prairies, or everglades. Generally speaking, the posters contained about 30 or so separate ecological units or natural entities. We marveled at the type-A personalities who had labored over so many hours to create such beautiful and accurate descriptions of life on planet earth.

And yet, all science students are not created alike. Inevitably, one student's assignment fell far below the standard of the class as a whole, a testament to human inequality and the science of statistics. One such retrograde assignment caught our eye. Where all other students had drawn and labelled dozens of flora, fauna, and biological processes, one student was pleased to turn in a poster-sized picture of a crudely drawn and utterly solitary turtle. Beyond a round circle meant to symbolize a puddle, and a short stick, the turtle sat alone, like some kind of prison tattoo or cosmic Hindu presence. To my mind, the turtle represented failure, but not just any failure. Here was the visual proof that one student had failed to live up to what would surely be the professor's normal academic expectations. Of course, expectations are predicated on context. If the professor had received thirty simplistic "turtle" drawings, perhaps he or she would have accepted this one as "C" or even "B" work. But this hadn't been the case: the turtle stood out as a spectacular example of low performance.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the student's putative ecosystem, the turtle. Did the student who had drawn know she had produced such crap, or did he or she imagine that most of the other students were either incapable of, or unwilling to, create something better? It was hard to say. But anybody who has ever watched American Idol knows how often people live in denial about their competitiveness. Indeed, many American Idol contestants scarcely know they lack an iota of talent even when the celebrity judges are bluntly telling them they are horrendous singers.

The pathetic moment is often captured with plaintive statesments like this one: "I know I am good... At least I think I am....My mother says I could be a star..." Perhaps the man who created the turtle still didn't know he wasn't academically competitive. Maybe the teacher gave him an inflated grade; maybe he thinks that all other students failed the assignment too. More troubling than the student's naivitee, is the recognition of my own. How many "turtle" assignments had I turned in in the course of a lifetime? It's one thing to embrace defeat, but quite another to turn in an assignment or performance without any sense of whether the result will be mocked by those who are charged with evaluating it.

Every time we create we risk churning out a turtle. The trick is ignoring the possibility of failure. Nikolai Gogol turned in few literary turtes in his creative lifetime, though his admirer Vladimir Nobokov isn't shy about denigrating almost everything he wrote except for his masterpieces, Dead Souls, Part I, The Inspecter General, and the Overcoat. Nabokov admires Gogol's creativity, absurdity, and prose, but thinks his talent developed late and ended rather early. Nabokov celebrates neither Gogol's famous St. Petersburg Tales--he thinks them trite--nor his polemical writings, which include surviving fragments of Part II ad Part III of Dead Souls. However, Nabokov's praise for Gogol's masterpieces is unbounded.

As a master stylist himself, his belief that Gogol had created richly complex, almost superhumanly inventive verbal worlds is high praise indeed. "Pushkin wrote in three-dimensional prose," Nabokov wrote, "but Gogol wrote in four-dimensional prose, at least." He meant that Gogol isn't merely funny or clever. He is also not merely a good writer. He's one of the father's of Russian prose, as profound as Russian life, or much more so. He doesn't merely capture the essence of life, he exceeds it, elaborates upon it. Gogol hasn't written literature, he has created "magic chaos," captured rare moments of "irrational perception," and delineated the literary equivalent of the curverature of the space-time continuum. Nabokov writes that the Overcoat, for instances, shows that "parallel lines not only may meet, but they can wriggle and get most extravagantly entangled..."

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