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Giving Gogol His Head

The Nose

an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich, directed by William Kentridge
at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, March 5–March 25, 2010

William Kentridge: Five Themes

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, February 24–May 17, 2010; the Jeu de Paume, Paris, July 5–September 26, 2010; the Albertina, Vienna, October 30, 2010–January 30, 2011; the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, March 5–May 29, 2011; and the S
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Mark Rosenthal
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/Norton Museum of Art/ Yale University Press, 263 pp. with DVD, $50.00
obrien_1-042910.jpg
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
A scene from Act II of William Kentridge’s production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, in which Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, performed by Paulo Szot, goes to a newspaper office and tries to place an advertisement for the return of his missing nose. The headline at top says ‘Reputation of the newspaper.’

1.

The South African artist William Kentridge’s production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose—the first time the opera has been staged at the Met—did not conceal the scope of its ambition. Even before the music began, the collage that serves as the curtain juxtaposed enough formal, literary, historical, and personal motifs to fuel a detailed interpretive gloss—a gloss not converging on a central meaning but rather spinning out into disparate lines of speculation. This was merely a prelude to a production whose profusion of moving parts and jarringly unlike elements was scaled to the crowded compression of Shostakovich’s opera, with its sixteen scenes and seventy-plus singing roles filling something less than two hours of stage time.

Nikolai Gogol’s 1837 story is itself only some twenty-five pages in length, but—as Shostakovich and Kentridge resoundingly demonstrate—no less immense for that. The tale of a nose lost and pursued and found again might be the simplest and most senseless story in the world: so simple and senseless that we come to feel we have been granted privileged entry into the heart of some great and maddening secret, an account of the world so contrary to reason—so transparently concocted out of nothing—that it must be true.

Questions of scale are inevitable in contemplating a work grounded—if such a word can be used for what after all is a parable of groundlessness—in such abrupt and incommensurable changes of scale. The nose that at one moment is small enough to be deposited in a policeman’s pocket struts about at other moments in the trappings of a state councillor. A huge cast and an arsenal of special effects are mobilized for a dramatic action eddying around the unaccountably missing item in the face of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov: “that ridiculous blank space again,” as one of the many phrases that punctuate the production has it.

Using the Met stage as it is rarely used, Kentridge establishes from the outset a vigorously multidimensional environment, defined in equal measure by verticals and horizontals, by flat graphic surfaces and the deep space of the rear stage. A barber swings down on a rope from his second-story shop; a crosswalk serves variously as a bridge and as the upper reaches of a cathedral; small dwellings roll in and out with the apparent help of hardworking St. Petersburg residents; rooms are entered upside down through the roof. These rapidly mutating spaces are themselves pocked and crisscrossed by a ceaseless overlay of projected images and words (whether English or Russian), slogans, want ads, swarming crowds, a Rocinante-like horse, graphic effects out of Rodchenko and Tatlin, fragments of Soviet history chopped up and defaced, subtitles sufficiently weathered to be graffiti.

Not to mention the emphatic lighting effects that underscore some of the musical crescendos after the manner of a Sixties rock show: a device not at all inappropriate for the twenty-two-year-old composer’s loud, high-speed score, whose shock effects, abrupt tonal shifts, and brutal underlying pulse were rendered with unflinching force by Valery Gergiev. The force was matched by the principal singers, contending with vocal parts not calculated to show any voice at its most melodious—indeed, the shrill falsetto of the Police Inspector (Andrei Popov), embodying the notion of an authoritarian pipsqueak, is perhaps the most distinctively abrasive effect of the whole opera. Paulo Szot, known to many New Yorkers for his lead role in the recent South Pacific revival, successfully navigated Kovalyov’s brusque mood changes. He extracted a core of persuasive feeling from his self-commiserating monologue at the end of Act II, a scene—really the work’s center—that manages to be at once a parody of operatic tragedy and its unparodic realization.

At least one critic—Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times—felt that Kentridge’s effects, however delightful in themselves, sometimes got in the way of the music (not least during the monologue described above). Undeniably there is often more going on, at any given moment, than one can possibly take in. Shapes and artifacts and messages erupt into view and are as quickly crowded out by others; we can apprehend only a few as they go by, with the sense that infinitely more such bits of loose meaning are swarming beneath and beside and beyond those we are able to take note of.

Peripheral actions and near-subliminal suggestions circulate and collide like the traffic of a great and half-crazed city. The potential for distraction is not occasional but rather a fundamental fact of the world as depicted here: a world that is not simply the hallucinatory St. Petersburg of Gogol’s tale but the space carved out in imagination in the 1920s by Shostakovich and Meyerhold and Mayakovsky and Eisenstein and Rodchenko and Dziga Vertov and countless other Soviet artists, the utopian world of a constructivist optimism whose death sentence had already been written by the time The Nose opened in 1930.

The paradoxical emotion evoked by Kentridge’s production, as seen in the light of the history to which he alludes at every turn, is a mix of fun and muted somberness. The fun is substantial. This heterogeneous collage of a production has a handmade quality throughout that promotes a sense of intimate participation. Those who have seen Kentridge’s short animated films are aware of his penchant for a trickery that lays bare its own methods—in which charcoal drawings, for instance, are successively altered to produce animation while leaving the erasures fully visible, so that we see not only the moving image but, almost palpably, the action of the hand that made it. Far from diminishing the effect, this self-revealed illusion is all the more mysteriously entrancing. Similarly his films 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès (2003) and Journey to the Moon (2003), in paying homage to the original cinematic magician, prove that the old tricks can still astonish and disorient.1

The application of such an approach to the vastly larger dimensions of The Nose succeeds in recreating the sort of theatrical ecstasy we may have imagined in looking at old photographs of, say, Meyerhold’s radical productions of Gogol’s The Inspector General and Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug, or reading accounts of the legendary Eisenstein experiment in which the audience followed the performance by moving from room to room within a factory.2 The old cry for a theater that would throw out luxurious formality in favor of the atmosphere of a circus or fairground or athletic stadium is here to some degree realized, not by some historicist recreation of performances utterly lost to us, but by an appeal to their spirit, or at least to what we can imagine to have been their spirit.

Part of that spirit would involve permission to include anything at all, including any number of comic turns by the errant nose, whether diving into a pool or pirouetting as a ballerina, participating in a 1930s May Day parade or climbing up a ladder and falling down backward as in some black-and-white Felix the Cat short. Such sideshows go on throughout the proceedings. The anarchic busyness is perfectly in keeping with the way Shostakovich’s score lets rip with its great blasts of modernist operatic noise, larded with almost more effects than it has room for: a canon, a hymn, a polka, a mazurka, a plaintive balalaika ballad, police whistles, rude bassoon honks, and an extended percussion ensemble that still sounds surprising. Rather than drawing back to allow space to such formidably overcrowded music, Kentridge has elected to add to the crowding, as if amplifying a cyclone.

Enthusiasm was the title of one of the Russian director Dziga Vertov’s films from the same period. Kentridge wants to draw on the idea of that enthusiasm, admittedly the most elusive wisp of an idea, as if it were the key to a lost world—or more properly a world that was never allowed to come into existence. The somberness that complements the fun has to do with the ghosts who haunt any evocation of that period—ghosts of Mayakovsky (a suicide in 1930), Meyerhold (executed in 1940), and all the others who, even if (like Shostakovich) they survived, were never again able to work with the same freedom. The exuberance of Kentridge’s Nose is shadowed by a funereal sense of what came later. We are invited to share the pleasures of a celebration whose participants have already been marked for arrest.

In I Am Not Me, The Horse Is Not Mine, a talk he first gave at the 2008 Sydney Bienniale and reprised on March 4 at the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with a major retrospective of his work, Kentridge explored in some detail the strands that went into The Nose. “Talk” is a conventional term to apply to what proved a typically ingenious and self-contradicting performance, as much a mixture of media as the production itself. The title is a Russian peasant locution intended to deny all responsibility, and in the space of an hour Kentridge explored various modes of not being oneself. He began with Gogol’s elusive narrative voice—an “I” hard to pin down and constantly hedging on the sources and reliability of its own account—and went on to Gogol’s debt to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and to Sterne’s debt to Cervantes (Sterne and Cervantes themselves both having likewise attributed their words to other sources).

Finally he questioned his own process, reading over his production notes as if they were written by someone else. One such note asked: “Where is our edge?” He spoke of the mind coming up against the incomprehensible, the unreasonable, “a gap between what is outside and what is inside”: and as he spoke his presentation was interrupted by a video duplicate of himself, and then a triplicate, the interplay between the three Kentridges engendering a series of exhilarating silent-movie gags, notably a mesmerizing juggling act involving sheets of paper tossed about and retrieved. (He uses a similar effect to depict the exchange of letters in the last act of The Nose.)

In the midst of the playfulness the mood almost imperceptibly darkened, leading into the paranoia of interrogation suggested by his title. Kentridge ended up reading at length from the questioning of Nikolai Bukharin by the Central Committee in 1937, the interrogators bursting into mocking laughter as Bukharin pleads for his life. All this seemed to be moving further and further away from The Nose, yet he continued to read as though compelled to keep going. Bukharin asserts his sincerity and is told that “not every act of sincerity is correct.” Voroshilov denounces him as “a three times contemptible degenerate.” Fragments of these interrogation transcripts have become part of the Met’s Nose, popping up like perplexing omens in the interstices of the action, along with a drawing of the ever-avuncular Stalin, pipe in hand, and an early call by Lenin for “reliable antifuturists.”

These separate elements of Ken- tridge’s production can be studied at more leisure in the MoMA show, where they take up one room in which eight Nose -related animated films are projected simultaneously. At leisure, but not in isolation: you cannot really watch one screen without awareness of the others around it. Everything impinges on everything else, as indeed is the case throughout the many-chambered retrospective. At first one is aware of the variety of media—drawings, prints, sculptures, films (animated and live-action), theater—in which Kentridge has worked, and then of how ineluctably the different media become intermeshed, as if drawings could not help crossing over into films and films into stage productions.

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Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
A projection of Kovalyov’s nose riding a Rocinante-like horse in Act II of The Nose. The bold text at bottom says ‘You have to print this, please,’ and on the list at lower right are ‘workers, mensheviks, democrats, centralists, degenerates, mercenaries, kulaks, anarchists.’

The rooms are imbued with a similar fairground atmosphere, a sense of attractions jostling one another, sounds leaking from one room into the next, different story lines competing for attention. The room devoted to the Méliès-inspired films recreates the earliest world of movie-viewing not as contemplation among shadows but as chaotic eruptions of light into darkness. The mesmerizing Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005), derived from Kentridge’s production of The Magic Flute—in which, by gazing into a model theater for twenty-two minutes, we are absorbed into a ghost opera involving puppetry, animation, and music—restores a sense of awe at wonder-working machinery: art becomes invention in the fullest sense of the word.

2.

Still, given only the premises and the disparate elements, all this might seem strenuous and theoretical were The Nose not so theatrically alive and, from first to last, so very funny. This is after all Gogol, and the spirit of Gogol, properly channeled, has the power to unleash the most primordial of comic responses, at once infinitely brutal and infinitely subtle. The Nose—story and opera both—has one great and infallible comic device: the repetition of the word “nose” (nas). It recurs with almost liturgical inevitability, a punch line designed to bring us up short and remind us at every turn—just as we were at the point of suspending disbelief—what story we are in.

It’s all about a nose, and only a nose: the grief, the panic, the misdirected rage, the self-pity turning into despair, the deployment of policemen, the appeal to the power of the press and the expertise of the medical profession. By the simple mechanism of removing a nose and leaving a blank spot in its place, Gogol discovered the means to disassemble the world: both the inner world of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, revealed as a gaping void once he has no nose to make him a whole and presentable person, and the outer world of precisely calibrated hierarchies of power whose foundations are called into question by that impermissible disappearance.

In order to tell such a story Gogol must engage in a further disassembling, taking apart ordinary narrative logic to permit bizarre gaps and blackouts, as when he disposes of the initial episode of the barber (who has found Kovalyov’s nose in a loaf of bread) dropping the possibly incriminating organ in the Neva: “But here the incident becomes totally shrouded in mist, and of what happened further decidedly nothing is known.” Much like Kentridge with his process of drawing and erasing, Gogol builds a narrative line, crosses it out, starts again at another point. At any moment the world that he builds sentence by sentence can be taken apart and put back together in a different and not necessarily tolerable shape. Language is something that has the power to make worlds and also the capacity to warp and reverse them, thus a medium of permanent insecurity and, not least, unlimited potential cruelty. Of all Gogol’s stories, The Nose represents the most radical mapping of language’s fault lines, and perhaps in consequence is at once the funniest, cruelest, and most terrifying.

It is a story that can be told only one way, because apart from the way it is told there is no story at all. Shostakovich and his collaborators fully respected this. The opera is not merely based on or suggested by Gogol’s story but in large part a staged and orchestrated recital of it, with bits of other Gogol works woven in (a bit of mother-daughter repartee from The Marriage, the old woman’s announcement of her imminent death from “Old-World Landowners,” some jaded sexual boasting from “The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”), along with a few rough touches (the molestation of the bagel vendor by the police) that were the librettists’ own.3 The enlistment of immense choral and orchestral resources merely extends the essence of Gogolian storytelling at the opera’s center.

As a result we end up feeling, more than with most operas, that we have been watching a play enriched by music, and further enriched by Kentridge’s graphic and gestural extrapolations. It is finally Gogol who is communicating, more or less directly; Shostakovich manages to demonstrate that The Nose was already a great play, unstageable in its time because no such dramatic genre was acknowledged to exist. After all, even The Inspector General and The Marriage were disastrous failures when originally staged, and so far as I know Gamblers was not notably more successful, even though all three conformed at least superficially to the theatrical forms of the day. The Nose, conceived as a play, creates a category unknown then and graspable now as some sort of forerunner of Beckett, Ionesco, and other certified absurdists, even if it resembles them scarcely at all.

Absurdist” in fact seems currently to be the adjective of choice for pigeonholing Gogol, making him the follower of something that he might more accurately be described as having (somewhat unintentionally) invented. The difficulty for Gogol was that there was no school, genre, or convenient philosophical tendency to which he could attach his art. In his moment he was mistaken variously for a jovial farceur and a compassionate social realist; he took himself for a deeply conservative political loyalist, and was eventually duly disturbed by the actual nature of his own writing.

The genius of that writing is to make us believe what is not, to make the impossible real by mere assertion, before we have even had a chance to object: “On the twenty-fifth day of March, an extraordinarily strange incident occurred in Petersburg.” Throughout his telling of the “extraordinarily strange” story, Gogol will continue to undermine its credibility, allow puzzling lacunas to emerge within the narrative, and finally question his own identity as narrator: “But what is strangest, what is most incomprehensible of all is how authors can choose such subjects…I confess, that is utterly inconceivable, it is simply…no, no, I utterly fail to understand.”4 Here as elsewhere Gogol writes out of a void, improvising profusely on nothing at all: a missing nose, nonexistent serfs, a government inspector who isn’t, a marriage proposal by someone who doesn’t want to get married, an overcoat endlessly contemplated but scarcely possessed.

The dramatic force of The Nose is in seeing what mad and uncontainable energy spirals out of a vacancy. All the energy issues from the central absence where Kovalyov’s nose was, a vacuum with a power comparable to that wielded by those maleficent shape-shifting witches who populate Gogol’s Ukrainian stories. It is a story about a curse and the lifting of a curse; but the difference here is that the real curse can never be lifted. Once the nose has vanished, it may always vanish again. The terror of The Nose is that of a thought that, once it has entered the mind, can never be erased. Who could be responsible for the curse but the one who had the thought in the first place, the author who by writing the story has unleashed a destructive force?

Gogol describes a world whose inner and outer realities are alike uncomfortable, indeed impossible. They are undermined in the very act of describing them. One has only to posit, say, the disappearance of a nose, and a universal emptiness is exposed. Kovalyov finds himself in a place where it is impossible to relax because, even if there were a place to relax, there is no person to do the relaxing. Up until that moment, we are led to understand, he has just barely managed to find his way among the markers that define his reality: markers of place and rank and codes of behavior. Take his nose away and he no longer exists in his world, but at the same time that world is exposed as an assemblage of vacuities demarcated by uniforms, official titles, rules of speech and conduct. Before and after, he is a nullity among nullities, fully in the spirit of Gogol’s quite hellish perception of human life. If there is a redeeming intelligence it exists somewhere, if only by implication, in the mind that tells the story, but nowhere in those about whom the story is told.

But the mind that tells the story exists only as a bit of free-floating intellectual energy, scarcely embodied, sustaining itself in an invulnerable force field consisting of language alone. We are always made to feel that for Gogol, words are all he has. Outside of that bubble there is only the terror and bewilderment and self-contempt (sometimes masked as self-adulation) that are the common traits of his characters. To flee or to cower? To weep or to laugh in raucous denial? To fawn, to flare up in self-defeating rebellion, or to slink into the nearest place of concealment like that humiliated Gogol protagonist who is discovered, by the guests he had been so anxious to impress, hiding half-dressed in his own carriage? They are given no good choices.

That Gogol’s vision is unamenable to being enlisted on behalf of collective causes and humanitarian initiatives has never prevented such attempts from being made. The usual method is to cast Gogol as a satirist of outmoded social practices and a compassionate defender of the underdog. In fact the unease with being in the world that he described is unlikely ever to be outmoded in any human society. As for any expression of compassion for others, it is quite elusive, more like something whose presence we hypothesize because, really, it ought to be there. Which is not to describe an absence of feeling: feeling is everywhere in Gogol, implicit in the obsessive precision with which he registers every inescapable surface and banal fragment of speech—the only question, always unanswered, being who it belongs to and for what ends it is to be applied.

If Kentridge’s Nose was so immensely satisfying it was at least in part because of its deep connection to the inexorable, irrational logic of Gogol’s tale, something not to be explained or updated or made more emotionally palatable but (so to speak) to be given its head. At the end of the evening there was a strange impression of having experienced a succession of historical moments—the 1830s, the 1920s, and our own—each contributing its own dense layer of associations and interpretations, but without in any way diluting or muting the original solitary voice.

  1. 1

    An account of these, with some examples on an accompanying DVD, can be found in the exhibition catalog William Kentridge: Five Themes.

  2. 2

    The theatrical approach of Meyerhold—at whose theater Shostakovich worked as a pianist, and with whom the composer would later collaborate on Mayakovsky’s Bedbug—was a major influence on The Nose. Meyerhold meant to direct it before the production was moved from Moscow to Leningrad. See The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera, edited by Mervyn Cooke (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

  3. 3

    The opera’s libretto is credited to Shostakovitch, Georgi Ionin, Alexander Preis, and the novelist Yevgeni Zamyatin, whose dystopic novel We had been published abroad in 1924, and who would be permitted to go into exile in 1931. However, according to Shostakovich’s controversial memoir Testimony (1979), Zamyatin’s contribution was minimal.

  4. 4

    All passages are quoted from Nikolai Gogol, The Collected Tales, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Everyman’s Library, 2008).

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