Between Paganism and Christianity: Syncretism as Textual Basis in Gogol′’s Creation

The eccentricity of Nikolaj Gogol′’s creation is one of the most enigmatic topics in Slavic literature and there exist infinite ways of interpreting his work. This paper attempts to understand the foundation of Gogol′’s text as syncretic layerings of pagan folklore and Christianity. Despite religious frenzy at the late stage of his life, Gogol′ was basically a writer whose mind was consciously and unconsciously based on primordial pagan culture preceding and underlying relatively new cultural models of Christianity; as known from the letters to his mother, Gogol′ was eagerly collecting Ukrainian folk motives for literary adaptation. In his texts, Gogol′ created fascinating supernatural beings on the background of modern village and urban life.

The dynamic interaction between pagan folk culture and Christianity is a long history of an accumulation, where cultural elements are not only transmitted and accumulated, but also syncretized and reinterpreted until they are transformed. Gogolian syncretism has given birth to unique sets of counterparts, among which the following two sets are ubiquitous in his creation: 1) strict morality versus indifference to moral judgments; 2) the living versus the dead.

1) morality vs indifference to moral judgments

This opposition involves the the Gogolian notion of good and evil. In his early texts (Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, Mirgorod), the notion of evil is indifferent to, or relatively free from the strict moral judgments of Judeo-Christianity. Devils and witches, the reminiscents of pagan dieties, are simply integral parts of Gogol′’s kaleidoscopic world, rather than a nefarious counterforce to Christianity. However, in some texts, such as “The Portrait” and “St. John’s Eve,” a strict sense of Christian morality is detected. These texts border closely with Christian parables about demonic avarice corrupting human soul. In his later works (Petersburg Tales, Dead Souls), Christian good and evil versus folkloric mind on morality maintain the tension between themselves, gradually leading the center of emphasis towards the Orthodox doctrine.

2) the living vs the dead

This category mostly involves the notion of what is animated and inanimated in Gogol′’s text, not solely the physical status of being alive or dead. It has been observed that Gogol′’s objects often become more animated than living people and animals play decisive roles in plot development. Pagan notions of animism and theriomorphism contribute in understanding this point in terms of syncretism: J. Russell explains that Satan was frequently identified or associated with animals, partly because animals had been sacred to the pagan gods, whom the Christian identified with demons. Personified animals and objects in Gogol′’s text reflect the pagan mindset of putting equal emphasis on the human being and his surrounding world, creating an unconventional boundary between the living and the dead in the modern reader’s mind. In Dead Souls, such a problem of marking the boundary between the living and the dead becomes extremely controversial if we keep in mind that Gogol′ was searching for spiritual salvation in Christianity in the second part of the novel, whereas in the first part he vividly illustrates the surrounding world by intensively employing pagan cultural models to interact with the Christian quest for salvation. Gogol′’s tragedy in the late stage of life arises from not balancing the two parts of textual basis, namely paganism and Christianity, and thereby, burying an essential half of his creative world alive.