After the disappointing reception of Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, Gogol’ wrote to Žukovskij to reaffirm the primacy of art in his life. In grappling with the question regarding the essence of art, he suggests that “a genuine creation of art contains within itself something soothing and conciliatory” (PSS 14: 37). A work lacking this quality may represent an artist’s “noble, impassioned impulse” and even be “a remarkable phenomenon,” but it “cannot be called a work of art.” Gogol’ then concludes that “art is a reconciliation with life” (14: 37). Gogol’ first systematically outlined his ideas on the reconciling influence of art in the initial 1836 version of Leaving the Theater after the Performance of a New Comedy. Although he continued to develop his ideas on the conciliatory function of art, particularly in his commentaries on The Inspector General, they underwent no fundamental alteration.
This aesthetic credo is an invariant of Gogol’’s mature thought, but the formulation has received relatively little comment in the critical literature. Richard Peace is one of the few critics who have devoted significant attention to this dictum, but he discusses the reconciliation motif within the psychological framework of Gogol’’s life, and he does not examine this concept within the context of the rhetorical, reader-oriented position that Gogol’ emphasizes and that has seemed baffling or misleading to many readers and critics.
In this paper, I will examine the development of this idea in a few key texts with the intent of showing that this credo, rather than underscoring a division within Gogol’ between artist and thinker, pinpoints what he perceived as the key epistemological and ontological functions of art.
The characters in The Inspector General suffer from near-sightedness in a moral and ethical sense. In contrast to their lack of vision, Gogol’ proposes that laughter in particular and art in general are illuminating, designed to provide readers and viewers with a perceptive focal point and the capacity to apprehend the world more completely and with greater discernment. However, Gogol’ insists that cognition must be accompanied by contemplation, that art as an epistemological tool must lead to ontological assessment. His art is a mirror that, though in part reflecting society, is ultimately intended to be turned inward so we can examine our own sense of being. The Inspector General is “without an ending” (4: 128), and we as readers, in the terminology of Iser’s reader-response theory, need to fill in the gaps and indeterminacies in Gogol’’s works. His commentaries on The Inspector General become texts designed to help us as readers discern “the inner meaning” (5: 161) of his works and to fulfill the creative expectations he imposes on us. Gogol’ insists on a dialogue between aesthetics and ethics, between art and life, but it is precisely that dialogue, enhanced by the increased perception that art grants us, that leads to a reconciliation with the task of living.