The Dark Side of the Nose: The Olfactory in Nikolai Gogol’s Works

Maksim Klymentiev, University of Southern California

Nikolai Gogol’s patently long and, in his own words, “bird-like” nose had become for many his most prominent feature and the object of jokes even during his lifetime. He himself contributed to this by introducing numerous references to the organ and its workings in his works as well as by writing “The Nose,” one of world literature’s most famous eulogies to that organ However, virtually no critic has paid attention to the fact that, for Gogol, his nose was not only a rather awkward object on his face but also – and primarily – an olfactory instrument of great power and sophistication that was capable of affecting his writing and thinking in a profound and previously underestimated way.

The latest developments in experimental sciences (such as Axel and Buck’s 2004 Nobel Prize in biology for their pioneering research into the genetics of smell in humans) stress the utmost importance of the sensory modality for a vast number of human activities, including cognition, memory, and reproduction. On the other hand, recent cultural studies on the subject (Corbin, Rindisbascher, etc.) outline the extent to which Western civilization underwent – in the course of the last 200 years – a so-called “self-deodorization,” that is, a consistent project of cleansing, suppressing, and otherwise controlling its own olfactory environment. In this way, the sensory modality, through which humans realize our relationship to the chemical make-up of the universe, has been largely “disabled” in the social and cultural practices of the West. Such a development was accomplished by increasing reliance on hearing and vision, i.e., the sensory modalities that are more liable to introduce abstraction and analytical distance into human perception. In contrast, Russia has always resisted the vast scale of the Western deodorization project exploring and preserving its olfactory environment and in this way allowing it to play an important cognitive and informational role in the country’s culture and social life.

The works of Nikolai Gogol emerge in this context as a unique case study of the writer, who once being arguably Russia’s most olfactory-conscious author, eventually lived to lose his ability to perceive and incorporate the olfactory into his writing by performing the Western deodorization project on himself. The present report (being a part of my general research on the comparative role of smell in Western and Russian cultures) traces how references to the olfactory phenomena first abound in, and exercise considerable influence over, Gogol’s prose and letters, then – after his move to Italy – dwindle, and eventually disappear in his later quasi-religious writings. The nature of these references also changes drastically over Gogol’s literary career: in his Petersburg texts, they tend to describe the olfactory environment of the action by providing literal information about the former. After about 1839, however, their grip on the chemical weakens, and they largely turn into rhetorical figures in the service of the later Gogol’s tendency for value judgement and moralizing. Moreover, Gogol even gradually eliminates references to the olfactory from later versions of his earlier works. Given Gogol’s highly developed sense of smell, I consider his move from the rich olfactory environment of Russia to Italy as a self-imposed strategy of olfactory cleansing that deprived his writing of an important cognitive and cultural dimension. Unlike Mayor Kovalev, however, Gogol never got back his nose, i.e., his admirable ability to incorporate the olfactory into the very fabric of his writing.