Wearing The Character Inside Out: Politics of Indecision in Gogol'’s Diary of a Madman

Maksim Y. Klymentiev, University of Southern California

Nikolai Gogol'’s Diary of a Madman (1834) has been consistently considered by critics to be one of his most subtle and complex works. It brings to the fore several major features of the Gogolian narrative – overwhelming self-referentiality, density and irregularity of its verbal structure as well as its centeredness on the themes of writing and mistaken identities. This story seems to be the best example of what has come to be known in criticism as the “Gogol' problem”, or the “Gogol' phenomenon”, which is the combination of unique structural peculiarities in Gogol'’s texts, the uneven quality of the author’s artistic output, and the paucity and unreliability of facts of his life.

My treatment of Diary of a Madman simultaneously attempts to deal with several components of the “Gogol' problem” by subjecting the former to a close analysis that relates the story to the linguistic and rhetorical structures uniquely characteristic of the discourse of Russian bureaucracy. The bureaucracy’s discourse displayed obsessive concentration on evasion, simulacrum of efficiency, and self-interest which imbued its procedures with a stunning degree of self-referentiality. This has larger implications for understanding Gogol'’s texts not only because the story’s main protagonist, Aksenty Poprischin, is a minor clerk but also because the text (the only one written by Gogol' in the first person) provides new evidence for what Donald Fanger called the underlying feature of Gogolian texts, namely, their author’s ultimate indecision about the nature of his vocation (oscillating, as it was, between writing and civil service). In this respect Diary of a Madman emerges as its author’s attempt to visualize his future – in the form of the 42 year old Poprischin - as a member of Russian officialdom. The attempt’s appearingly negative value turned out to be provisional - as the later part of Gogol'’s literary, or rather bureaucratic, career shows. Vladimir Nabokov’s view that the later Gogol' came to resemble one of his characters can thus be proved true by seeing how close the latter’s writings are to Poprischin’s ravings.