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Was Gogol Gay?

Simon Karlinsky is convinced that Gogol’s “emotional orientation” was homosexual, and this is what his book is about. In his opinion the topic is of first importance, a “neglected area in Gogol’s life and work,” taboo even in universities. So much so that, as one is shocked to learn, some twenty years ago in Berlin Vsevolod Setchkarev, now of Harvard, was prevented from mentioning it in his study of Gogol by a senior colleague who threatened to ruin his academic career if he did so. Subsequently, several Freudian critics delved into other aspects of Gogol’s sexuality but left this one untouched. So that in the name of scholarship and intellectual freedom alone, the question should be brought to light and examined. But Professor Karlinsky has other reasons as well. He considers the matter to be crucial for an understanding of Gogol’s puzzling nature. “It may provide,” he thinks, “the missing key to the riddle of his personality”; it is “the source and the cause of Gogol’s personal and literary tragedy.”

With Gogol, who seems to be concealed rather than revealed in his writings, it is much more difficult than with other writers to see the link between the man and the work. He has always been a puzzle. Like Chichikov and Khlestakov, the devious heroes of Dead Souls and The Inspector General, galloping off in their troikas, Gogol escapes from you just as you are about to catch hold of him, or he tries to hide away in some secluded corner of his property like his Pifagor Chertokutsky in “The Carriage.” He is indeed more evasive than his creatures. After all, we do know a good deal about Chichikov and Khlestakov, and the unfortunate Chertokutsky is traced to his hiding place and discovered. Gogol, on the other hand, remains secreted and impenetrable. His writings float free of himself, as if he had deliberately snapped the cord of his inspiration and, having set his invented world in motion, had retreated from it, the deus absconditus of his creation.

Professor Karlinsky claims to have solved the mystery, to have tracked Gogol down to the secluded lair of his homosexuality, as Chertokutsky was tracked down to the refuge of his carriage. His thesis, in brief outline, is that Gogol, unable to be himself in a world where homosexuality was proscribed, concealed his inclinations, attempted to suppress his emotions, projected his secretiveness unconsciously in the deceptions, mystifications, and symbols of his stories and plays, and ultimately broke down under the strain, ruining his art and destroying himself. The analysis proceeds not so much from the man to the work, although some relevant biographical data is put to use, as from the work to the man, so that the work takes on the shape and function of hieroglyphics that must be deciphered so the man might be read.

It has long been noticed that “love interest,” which is customary in fiction, is markedly absent from Gogol’s work, and that the women in it are either fairy-tale beauties, or witches, or caricatures, empty-headed figurines or formidable harridans, which has led to the plausible conclusion that Gogol disliked and feared women and was repelled by the idea of marriage. Karlinsky, accepting this view, proceeds to an interpretation that is predictable in its main line of argument but not in the elaborate ingenuity of its development.

When some of Gogol’s stories end in happy marriages, as three of them do in his first book, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, the anomaly must be explained away. This is done without much difficulty: “May Night” is conventionally operatic; “The Fair at Sorochintsy” ends on a mournful note that cancels its mood of happiness; and in “Christmas Eve” the heroine is “perhaps the most detailed portrait of a female narcissist anywhere in Russian literature.” Forgetting, unaccountably, Pushkin’s charming Ludmilla, Karlinsky wonders where, since narcissistic women were “not at all common in the literature of Gogol’s time,” Gogol could have taken his idea for her, and why there was not so much as “a tinge of condemnation in Gogol’s depiction” of her and of others like her in his later stories. The reason, he decides, is that a man need not fear a woman who loves herself: she will make no demands on him and is, therefore, “safe.”

More cunning still is Karlinsky’s analysis of “Woman,” a very early piece that predated even the Dikanka stories, a youthful exercise in Germanic romanticism, in which Plato is made to discourse on woman as an ideal: “She is the language of the gods…. She is poetry, she is thought, and we are only her incarnation in reality.” In Karlinsky’s reading, this “paean to woman’s beauty” turns out to be, on close examination, an encomium of homosexuality. “Woman’s beauty provides men with a yardstick necessary for appreciating the beauty of other men,” and “the physical possession of a woman during the love act” becomes “a vehicle for a divine union of males with other male entities,” an argument that strikes me as a case of special pleading and too clever by half.

But this is nothing to what Karlinsky makes of the nature imagery in “The Fair at Sorochintsy,” “May Night,” and “A. Terrible Vengeance,” the celebrated prose lyrics that depict a languorous summer day, a starry night in spring, a shining little stream, and the dark stretches of a great river. In true romantic tradition, the elements of nature are here personified and, since Russian is an inflected language, are grammatically distinguished by gender: the sky clasps “the fair earth” and holds her “close in his ethereal embrace”; a deeply shadowed pond, in which stars are dimly reflected, is compared to “a feeble old man,” holding “the dark and distant sky in his cold embrace, covering the flashing stars with his icy kisses.”

Karlinsky perceives in these descriptions that Gogol “is careful to see to it than no congress can take place” between the heterosexual components of earth and sky, pond and stars. (What, one wonders, did he expect from images of perfect stillness?) Then there are the rivers, the Psyol in “The Fair at Sorochintsy,” a “self-enamoured beauty who narcissistically bares her ‘silvery bosom,”’ and in “A Terrible Vengeance,”’ the mighty, male Dnieper who “muttered and grumbled, finding nothing that pleased him.” These romantic passages, not so much descriptions as musical tone poems that set a mood, become in Karlinsky’s rendition “a sleeping man, an impotent man, and a grouchy old grumbler…contrasted with…the wide-awake, self-fulfilled and satisfied images of the beautiful summer earth and the beautiful river.” Gogol, prohibited by convention from manifesting his homosexual feelings, obliged to “convey his visualization of sexualized nature in heterosexual terms,” could not keep himself from expressing unconsciously the aversion of which he was not allowed to speak openly.

So too in the very shape of Gogol’s stories and plays, their plots and leitmotifs, Karlinsky unearths a consistent pattern that reveals the hidden, unmistakable foundation of Gogol’s structures. “It is surely significant,” he writes, that in “Saint John’s Eve,” the very first of his horror stories, Gogol “already connected the desire for love and marriage with punishment, retribution, and loss of life.” The rest of the early tales do not contain this theme, but beginning with Mirgorod, the second collection, we find that

Gogol’s male characters who seek love, marriage, or sexual conquest are swiftly and inevitably punished with death, humiliation, and assorted other catastrophes. Andry Bulba is shot by his father; Homa Brut in “Viy” is vanquished by demonic powers; a hopeless infatuation with an unattainable woman drives the hero of “Diary of a Madman” to insanity; Lieutenant Pirogov in “Nevsky Prospect” is humiliated and flogged, his friend Piskaryov loses his life; and the poor, meek Akaky Akakievich in “The Overcoat,” who would not even presume to aspire to love or the possession of another human being, still perishes for daring to desire a substitute wife in the form of a feminine-gender overcoat.

By contrast to these tragic stories, the happy ones end in a man’s escaping either from marriage or from some amorous entanglement: Major Kovalyov, in “The Nose,” manages to get across the border; in Marriage, Podkolyosin, on the verge of his wedding, makes his getaway by jumping from a second-story window, while the scoundrels Khlestakov and Chichikov, although fleeing from arrest, are also escaping possible matrimonial entrapments. “The pattern,” says Karlinsky, “is too significant and too persistent to be accidental.” To which one might reply that, however real and persistent, the pattern is not fundamental, that except for the farcical Marriage, the sexual theme is subordinate in all these fictions to Gogol’s major preoccupations: human helplessness, failure, and humiliation, which are tragic; and the ubiquity of pettiness, which is comic.

That is what, intrinsically, they are about, all of them, even the profoundly erotic “Viy,” which is in essence a tale of superhuman, malign power, in the face of which man’s great, though unavailing, spiritual fortitude is tested, just as, in “Taras Bulba,” by contrast, his physical courage is tested. Even “The Overcoat,” which, as Karlinsky rightly points out, is “the most genuine, touching, and honest” of Gogol’s love stories, is actually but another instance—the most heartbreaking of them all—of a frequently repeated scheme that shows happiness, however undemanding, or aspiration, however humble, to be either out of reach or, if attained, quickly and irretrievably lost. “Diary of a Madman,” as Dostoevsky realized, has to do with human pride and the disaster of humiliation, while “Nevsky Prospect” is about deception, misplaced ideals, rejected desires—the theme is always unavoidable failure and doom.

Karlinsky makes Gogol out to be a man preoccupied with sex, the more intensely so for being unaware of this preoccupation. But Gogol was afflicted by a more profound agony, a burden that, from childhood, oppressed him like an incubus and that he was never able to shake off. This agonizing burden was a constant, pervasive fear of death. And death is constantly prowling about in his stories or lurking in the wings. Karlinsky has ignored it.

But it is very important, as Vladimir Korolenko showed most convincingly in “The Tragedy of a Great Humorist,” an essay which he wrote in 1909 in honor of Gogol’s centenary. He ascribed Gogol’s frequent, puzzling alternations of mood—the finale to “The Fair at Sorochintsy,” with its sudden intrusion of loneliness and melancholy on a scene of joyous merrymaking, is a striking and characteristic example—to an innate predisposition inherited from his father. There was something strange about Vasily Nikolaevich. Happily married, comfortably off, a gifted, good-natured raconteur and writer of Ukrainian comedies, enjoyed by his neighbors for the amusing anecdotes with which he liked to entertain them, he was subject to unaccountable, debilitating states of gloom, attacks of “strange imaginings” and “fierce despair,” as he himself described them. He died in his forty-fifth year, when Gogol was sixteen.

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