Diagnosing Two Madmen: The Case Of Gogol' And Lu Xun

Donna Oliver, Beloit College

Scholars of twentieth-century Chinese literature regularly acknowledge the influence of Russian writers on theliterature of that country, especially on the works of the so-called May Fourth period. Russian literature scholars, on the other hand, have largely neglected this important area of cultural assimilation, which resulted not only in an explosion of translations of Russian texts, but also in an adoption of the notion of literature as a means of conveying social criticism.

China at the turn of the twentieth century in many ways faced problems similar to those found in Russia: its provincial population, steeped in backwardness and stifling tradition, was crushed by poverty, and a significant imperial disconnect gave no promise of progress in bridging the nation’s vast class divides. The goal of the May Fourth movement, which emerged in 1919 in the period following the fall of Imperial China and the failure of the fledgling republic, was to cure the country’s social sickness by pulling it out of its tradition-bound culture and embracing Western socio-political and aesthetic models. China's 4000 years of history, in the view of May Fourth writers, did not represent any kind of superiority of its civilization, but rather an affirmation of its backwardness, its status as a nation and people condemned to stagnation and the repetition of barbaric and traditionally-sanctioned practices through its elevation of classical texts to a kind of absolute truth.

The leading writer of the May Fourth period, Lu Xun, pays clear tribute in one of his most famous works “Diary of a Madman” ["Kuangren riji"] (1918), to the Russian literary tradition — and, in particular, Gogol' — that had so influenced him. As one of the first works of modern Chinese vernacular literature, Lu Xun’s “Madman” breaks with the traditional format of earlier Chinese genres and adopts Gogol'’s confessional narrative style. But in what other ways does Gogol's work, with its typically satiric depiction of rank-consciousness, social alienation, and dehumanization in Russia of the 1830s, resonate in Lu Xun's tale of a young man paralyzed by a paranoid and obsessive idee fixe that all who surround him are engaging in cannibalism?
This paper argues that the connection between the two stories extends beyond their titles and generic form, which is how some Chinese literary scholars have compared the works, and into a commentary on the often stultifying effects of culture on the individual.

Gogol'’s madman unravels in part because he lives in a society that attaches significance to individuals based on their rank, a society in which bureaucracy functions as a value system. The table of ranks creates a preoccupation with identity that, in turn, creates a preoccupation with value. Poprishchin asserts his independence from that imposed identity of his rank by finding a new identity and value in the form of the King of Spain. This new identity and his perceived new value are, of course, not real; his madness obscures the truth. Lu Xun's madman, in contrast to Gogol'’s, actually sees a version of the truth in his madness--not literally (his neighbors and family members are not eating people), but metaphorically (his people are steeped in moribund, backward cultural values). In both stories, madness functions as a kind of rebellion, and both rebellions end in defeat: Gogol'’s madman ends up in an insane asylum, while Lu Xun's, ironically, is "cured" and returns to his proper social role, taking up the position of provincial bureaucrat.

Though the stories' plotlines and the aim of their social criticism differ significantly--as do the madmen themselves--both works nonetheless engage the problem of the constricting nature of culture on the individual. As such, Lu Xun, in his “revisitation” of Gogol'’s “Diary of a Madman,” uses his mad narrator, as does Gogol', to question dominant social norms and to depict madness in general as a form of rebellion against an oppressive and confiningcultural system.