Acedia and the Noonday Demon in Nikolaj Gogol′’s “Tale of the Two Ivans”

During the winter of 1843–44, Gogol′ wrote (in a privately-circulated text that he urged his closest friends to read carefully and often) that the devil’s true temptation is despondency (unynie), out of which is born “desperation, which is the murder of the soul, the most terrible of all evil deeds committed by man, for it severs all paths to salvation and therefore it is hated by God the most of all sins.” Unynie is actually a Russian rendering of the elusive latinized Greek term acedia, a concept that originated in the fourth century as one of Evagrius of Pontus’s eight logismoi—“passions” or “evil thoughts,” the forerunners of the seven deadly sins—and the one most feared by Christian monastics. In his seventh-century guidebook to attaining the monastic ideal, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which Gogol′ knew well (at least in the 1840s) as Lestvica rajskaja, John Climacus devotes an entire chapter (Step Thirteen) to acedia; echoing Evagrius and others, he characterizes it as “one of eight deadly vices, and indeed the gravest of them all.” In its most typical conception acedia leads to boredom, rudeness, aversion to others, spite, and aggression. Like the other deadly vices, acedia is the property of its own specialized demon who takes advantage of any opportunity to subjugate its victims; acedia’s designated demon is commonly known as the “noonday” or “midday demon,” the daemonium meridianum featured in the ninety-first Psalm in the Septuagint Bible.

That Gogol′ would seem preoccupied with acedia or despondency in 1844 comes as no surprise, given the way in which his increasingly paranoid religiosity and obsession with the devil were evolving during his final decade. What is extraordinary, however, is that ten years earlier Gogol′ had deeply imbued one of his most comic tales, “Povest′ o tom, kak possorilsja Ivan Ivanovič s Ivanom Nikiforovičem,” with a conception of acedia that is, despite its idiosyncratic Gogolian coloration, remarkably consistent with the manner in which the temptation is historically understood in Christian theology. Furthermore, in this tale Gogol′ offers ample clues that strongly suggest he was either quite familiar with the contours of the vice of despondency as described in the theological literature or, possibly, had independently come to an understanding of the vice that uncannily converges with that presented in theological sources.

This paper will examine “The Tale of the Two Ivans” as a burlesque tragicomic parable about acedia and its causes and effects in Christian theology.