Kantianism in Dead Souls: Toward the Ideal through Nothingness

Elizabeth M. Sheynzon, Northwestern University

Throughout his literary career Gogol' seeks ways to reach what Kant calls noumena: God, pure holiness, and the immortality of the soul. Nothingness is one of the major venues delineated by Kant and explored by Gogol'. Kant speculates that nothingness is akin to noumena, because neither of them can be experienced through the senses. Unlike noumena, however, nothingness can be defined, for it is a negation of something existing. Among the examples of nothingness supplied by Kant are an empty concept without an object (fiction) and an empty object of a concept (the absence of something such as darkness.)

In Dead Souls Gogol' promises nothingness with the title: his hero will deal in non-existent merchandise. Language itself becomes an arena for nothingness in the form of empty talk, tautology, oxymorons, and negations, such as, anti-reading and anti-gossip. These linguistic occurrences of nothingness supplement the main theme of “dead souls.” This is the type of nothingness that Kant deemed as the ultimate one: an empty object of an empty concept, something like a double-sided triangle, which simply cannot exist. From the ontological point of view – as Gogol'’ s very first censors noted – a soul is immortal, and the expression amounts to nothing. And from the practical standpoint a dead soul is also form of nothingness, because, as Chichikov himself indicates many times, it is completely useless and good for nothing.

Yet just as Chichikov plans to build his financial prosperity from the nothingness of dead souls, Gogol' views the hero’s nothingness, his dead soul, as the perfect material to be developed into an ideal human being. This is contrary Kant’s philosophy, which avers that the ideal cannot and should not be depicted in literary works. Kant also reserves holiness for the supreme being alone, leaving to humans virtue, which is merely a constant approximation to holiness. Gogol', however, believed that he could complete the project of Dead Souls by finding holiness in a human being and presenting it in literature. Thus, Gogol'works along Kantian lines when he employs nothingness as a venue to the noumenal, but he parts ways with the German philosopher when he assumes that he can have a literary hero achieve the noumenal ideal state. This simultaneous employment of Kantian and counter-Kantian principles contributes in large measure to the peculiar dynamics of Dead Souls as well as to its ultimate failure to realize Gogol'’ s intention. At the same time, by boldly probing the limitations of Kantian thought, Gogol' establishes a new and fruitful direction for the future of Russian literature.