The Name of the Brother: Community Structures in Gogol''s Ukrainian Tales

Angelina Ilieva, Northwestern University

Gogol''s two Ukrainian cycles, Evenings on a Farm near Dikan'ka (1831, 1832) and Mirgorod (1835), have already been approached as generators of myths: the colonial myth (Berehulak), the Cossack myth (Kornblatt), or the myth of Ukrainian decline (Grabowicz). Using the theories of RenÈ Girard, LÈvi-Strauss, and Zizek, I read Gogol''s tales as foundation mythic narratives. I investigate the structures which posit the spiritual tie in a community as its constitutive element and generate the distinction between order and disorder.

This paper will focus on "Terrible Vengeance" as an interpretative model. Here the Cain and Abel story is re-enacted not in familial terms but through a friendship: Petro murders not a real brother, but his sworn brother. The Bible story establishes the familial bond as the basis for the community through a prohibition against violence within the family: the sacredness of the blood relation should override the aggression engendered by the tensions of sibling rivalry. The institution of sworn brotherhood substitutes an ideal spiritual for the natural bond and thus seeks to eliminate the rivalry inherent to the biological fraternal pair (and by extension the source of conflict within the community) by announcing the absolute equality in the status of the sworn brothers.

The Cossack sacred pair, however, becomes severely polluted precisely by the tension it was meant to avoid, and Petro's transgression entails disorder (which within mythic thought equals evil) for the future community. It brings doom upon kinship structure as well: Petro's clan implodes due to the resurfacing of incestual desires and internal violence. The sorcerer is a father who short-circuits the smooth transition between generations by becoming a rival (-brother) to his daughter's husband. The text's solution to the horror of his downfall is to transpose it onto the Other: through the equation of evil and foreign, and through excising the violence literally, geographically, outside the community. Both Petro's inceptive crime and the last stage of the vengeance take place in a foreign land. (Gogol''s methods in defining geographic boundaries are a topic of another discussion.)

Through this displacement, the terrible fratricide and its vengeance achieve a transcendental position: they bespeak the law of the community. The scene of the sorcerer's bones gnawed by his ancestors has a disturbing effect which resists easy interpretation: the image becomes the traumatic kernel, the unspeakable sublime at the basis of the sacred realm. The story functions as a myth because the internal violence is not cancelled, only isolated (safely) on the fringes of the community; the vivid memory of its horror must serve as a safeguard against a future resurgence of the greatest sin-the murder of a sworn brother.

While other texts do not display the ordering function of the spiritual bond in such explicit terms, a strong tendency can be observed to valorize the spiritual over the familial. The latter is unsettled by an undercurrent of incestuous tensions. The characters disavow their loyalty to kin for the ties of the soul. The family is not projected as a miniature organic model for the community. In its place, Gogol' advances the possession of a quality of the spirit, which cannot be defined but can be sensed. The Cossack society offers a model. Theirs is a brotherhood whose members share the capacity for infinite fraternal love, and whose souls can recognize each other anywhere in the world. The boundless soul emerges as the distinguishing mark of the Cossacks, and, by extension, of the Russian people as well.