Kant and Gogol': Judgments of Taste on Nevskij Prospect

Elizabeth Sheynzon, Northwestern University

Although Gogol' has traditionally been underestimated as a theorist and critic of art, several recent studies have shown that he was elaborating a consistent aesthetic philosophy. Jenness's 1995 monograph demonstrates Gogol''s conceptions regarding art to be close to those of early German Romanticism. Kopper exposes the Dikan'ka tales as a conflation of the Kantian phenomenal and noumenal categories.

While the former work explicates Gogol''s aesthetics without juxtaposing them directly with Kantian categories, and the latter brings Kant and Gogol' together but not in the area of aesthetics, I intend to show how their theories of art interact. For that I will analyze Gogol''s "Nevsky Prospect" in light of Kant's Third Critique, the Critique of Judgment. One may safely presume that Gogol' must have been exposed to Kant, even if mostly via Russian transpositions, as Kant's teachings were highly influential in Gogol''s time. Already in 1791, when Karamzin published his Letters of a Russian Traveller with an account of his visit to Kant, the philosopher was well-known to the Russian educated public. German Romanticism also inevitably refers to Kant. In Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends Gogol' speaks of Kant as a great non-religious thinker.

Gogol' developed his views on art not only in his theoretical writings, but in his literary texts as well. In "Nevskij Prospect" he focuses on the problems of aesthetic judgments and their moral reverberations, also central to the Third Critique. Like Kant, Gogol' separates the arts into fine and mercenary ones, and assigns moral responsibility to the fine arts. Both consider the benefits and dangers brought to human judging ability by a developed civilization. Gogol''s humor and play with nothingness correspond to the Kantian definition of a joke as tension resolved into nothing. At the same time, Gogol' goes further in a direction that Kant only sketches, by examining the implications of aesthetic judgments made about human beings, where they serve both as subjects and objects. Kant views moral ought as universal for all humans, and he links this universality to the validity of judgments of taste. Gogol' enters into a polemic with Kant, starting from the same premises and proceeding to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Kantian resolution of the antinomy of taste with humans as objects and God only as a noumenon.

The characters and situations in "Nevskij Prospect" represent Kantian notions and categories, as well as the antinomy and its resolution. Morally responsible fine art becomes embodied in the artist Piskarev, while Lieutenant Pirogov stands for the ethically irresponsible mercenary arts. The story is set in St. Petersburg. The city stands for a developed civilization, which in Kant's view constitutes a necessary condition of acquiring developed taste but at the same time causes estrangement from nature with its beauties. In "Nevskij Prospect" human beings are the only representatives of nature. The plot bifurcates as the two protagonists make their aesthetic judgments. Lieutenant Pirogov's misconception of his object creates tension, which is subsequently resolved into nothing--he does not receive any sexual favors, nor does he suffer much damage from the lady's husband. The incident is rendered in a comic key, and its dynamic, from tension to nothingness, corresponds to the Kantian definition of a joke. The second plot line mirrors the first, but the conflict is brought to a higher level and can only be resolved in the supersensible stratum. The artist Piskarev makes a judgment, in which he directly links the beautiful and the moral, thus acting in the manner prescribed by Kant. Discovering that his beauty is unethical, he seeks to resolve this antinomy on the supersensible stratum, again in line with Kant. When it does not work, he commits suicide, thus not only ending his earthly life, but also destroying all hopes for his soul. The death of body and soul can be seen as the supreme nothingness, and then the resolution of the antinomy in the absence of God becomes an ultimate joke. Gogol' is not satisfied with purely noumenal ties. Having staged Kant's aesthetic antinomy, he demonstrates that its resolution via the abstract idea of supersensible, and not through God, is destructive.