Gogol' and the Rage Against Beauty

Gary Rosenshield, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Some of the greatest nineteenth-century Russian writers were beset by anguish over the question of the morality of art or the aesthetic. After his religious crisis in the 1870s, Tolstoj rejected most of his earlier fiction and later formulated an evaluative theory of art based on whether or not art promoted the idea of the universal brotherhood of man. Dostoevskij's own reservations are often revealed through his characters. Prince Myshkin realizes that there is art that undermines faith. Dmitrij Karamazov postulates the existence of the beauty of Gomorrah. And Dostoevskij himself often fulminates against unscrupulous lawyers who employ their artistry to immoral ends. But certainly the most interesting and tragic case of the anxiety over art is Nikolaj Gogol', who after 1842 came increasingly not only to doubt the moral worth of what he had written but to question whether all beauty was not in some form the lure of the devil. The present paper argues that the moral crisis that Gogol' experienced over art is most profoundly and interestingly expressed in the most unlikely of his works, Taras Bul'ba.

I will be using a psychoanalytical approach to uncover (unpack) the author's ambivalence about beauty in its various forms: that is, both his attraction to beauty and his moral qualms over it. No direct statements about inherent moral turpitude of beauty are made in the text. Taras Bul'ba is primarily a literary epic about the Cossacks' attempts to defend the Russian land and the Orthodox faith. But beneath the surface it records the author's fear that the greatest danger to the state is neither the Catholic Poles nor the Muslim Tartars and Turks, but the lure of beauty, a beauty to which the author is almost as irresistibly attracted as those who perish from it. I hope to show that the major characters of the novel, Taras and his younger son Ostap, subconsciously represent the warring sides of the author's psyche over the issue of beauty and its threat to the Russian state and to the Orthodox fate.

Among other things, I show that Taras's rage against women at the end of the novel is not another manifestation of the text's misogyny but an effort to stamp out the manifestations of beauty responsible for the seduction of his son and the betrayal of the Cossack brotherhood. The violence of the rage, however, cannot be explained by hatred alone. The narrator is as attracted to beauty as he is repelled by it; he plays the role of Andrij as much as he plays the role of Taras. Following the vector of beauty in Taras Bul'ba permits the reader to peel away the superstructure novel and see the main novel lying a few layers below.