“The Nose”: Objectlessness in the Megapolis

Elizabeth M. Sheynzon, Northwestern University

Gogol’s anecdote of a sudden and seemingly miraculous disappearance of a nose from a face has a philosophical background. When Kant discusses divine choice, purposiveness and ordinary miracles, he quotes Voltaire’s “nosaic” parody of the teleological argument: “See, the reason why we have noses is without a doubt to have a place to put our spectacles” (The One Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God, 2:131).

Because Kovalev is solely concerned with his looks, he assigns to the nose aesthetic purposiveness. However, other characters focus on its practical uses, the most important of which is stated by the policeman who finally delivers the nose to its owner: in order to see a nose clearly, one has to wear glasses on one’s nose.

It is quite plausible, therefore, that Kovalev did not lose his nose, but his glasses. This pragmatic and seemingly prosaic explication of the incident puts on display Gogol’s treatment of the theme of ordinary miracles: very much in line with Kant’s thought, he sees them as dubious and having nothing to do with the divine will.

At the same time, Gogol uses “the nose” to imbed the possibility for symbolic readings, and many such readings have been performed. Yet one important implication has not been drawn out until now: in Petersburg Tales, the nose symbolizes the essence of humanity. In “Nevsky Prospect” the nose represents the only human feature of Schiller; in “The Diary of a Madman” the nose is the basis of equality of all men; and the nose acts as a human counterpart of sainthood and devilishness in “Rome.” Without his nose Kovalev feels expelled from humanity; he celebrates his reunion with the human race as soon as the nose is back on his face.

Moreover, “The Nose” explores a situation common to all the Petersburg Tales: the unnaturalness of the city and the extension of this unnaturalness to the human beings who dwell in it. As Kant writes, “peoples of any future age . . . will be ever more remote from nature” (Kant, Critique of Judgment, 232; 5: 356). Lyotard notes that such a situation is attended by an anxiety over the lack of a (natural) object and results in the abuse of aesthetics: “Aesthetics is the answer the megapolis gives to the anxiety born for lack of an object” (Lyotard, Postmodern Fables, “The Zone,” 27). This missing “object” in Gogol’s story is multifaceted. It is the natural self lost in artificial embellishments and to official status; it is the probable loss of spectacles; and it is the fragile human essence unable to survive in the harsh conditions of the city and officialdom. All these losses are expressed and treated through the tangible and, at the same time, nonsensically miraculous loss of a nose.