Tuesday, November 12, 2019

'Stands Up for Freedom and Elasticity'

“Comedy is the salt of civilization, its critical voice.”

I have been reading Henri Troyat’s Divided Soul: The Life of Gogol (trans. Nancy Amphoux, 1973). I love his biography of Tolstoy which I read when I was sixteen and again several years ago. Gogol is a radically different sort of writer from Tolstoy, almost a different species. (Please: There is no such thing as a “typical Russian writer.”) As an adjective, I take Gogolian to mean something like gallows humor, absurd but not light and frothy -- morbid, in the comic sense. It’s humor that levels human vanity. Troyat quotes a letter Gogol wrote to his friend Mikhail Pogodin in 1833: “I have always been infatuated with comedy,” which will surprise readers who understand Dead Souls as merely a naturalistic or even satirical portrait of provincial Russia in the nineteenth century.

“The comic spirit is forgiving, stands up for freedom and elasticity, and counters the corrosive power of evil by refusing to acknowledge its claim to dominance over he human spirit. Its real enemy is custom drained of significance; it is the ability of life to assert its claims no matter what social forms dictate.”

The two quoted passages are from Guy Davenport’s essay devoted to Eudora Welty, “That Faire Field of Enna,” in The Geography of the Imagination (1981). Davenport's use of "salt" in connection with comedy is interesting and suggestive. One OED definition is “that which gives life or pungency to discourse or written composition; poignancy of expression; pungent wit.”

1 comment:

Everard O'Donnell said...

Gogol’s “laughter through tears” seems to have poured into existence an alloy of pity and disgust that has not lost its power with the decline of the more extreme forms of the official absurd. Of course, it is found as early as classical drama – the Epistle at the beginning of Troilus and Cressida talks of ‘So much and such savored salt of wine is in his Commedies…’ Feste, Lear’s Fool, Thersites… the closeness of tragic and comic makes heroic pretension absurd.

Alexei Remisov talked of “the rolling peal and clang of gogolian bells” … “do you hear Gogol pealing?”

Gogol in Rome, still carrying his baggage of gloom, with his laughter and his bells fallen to silence, he destroying his books and notes, and his “Russia, where are you flying? Answer me. There is no answer. The bells are tinkling and filling the air with their wonderful pealing; the air is rent and thundering as it turns to wind; everything on earth comes flying past and, looking askance at her, other peoples and States move aside and make way.”

Gogol should be read again.