I'd Love to Turn You On -- Ruminations on Nikolai Gogol's short story: "The Nose"
Author: R.j. hOylE
Date: May 1, 2015
Date: May 1, 2015
Some of the trajectory of Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose," is reminiscent of The Beatle's hybrid song, "A Day in the Life." The song was originally written as two separate and unfinished songs ("A Day in the Life"). Paul McCartney had written a plucky rhyming scheme tune (i.e., "Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head"), and separately, John had worked on a freeform, dreamy, and lyrical tune that contained at times, unsettling, disorienting images. The song begins with Lennon's tale about reading a newspaper story about a "lucky man who made the grade." The second stanza discusses the man's anonymous identity and briefly touches on the issue of status, fame, and celebrity that had been grimly reduced to a rubbernecking event,
"He blew his mind out in a car He didn't notice that the lights had changed A crowd of people stood and stared They'd seen his face before Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords" (Lennon and McCartney)
The song is structured so that the stanzas trade back and forth between the two styles, and Lennon's imagery becomes increasingly surreal. The undercurrent of the mood of the song (because of the images and sound of Lennon's contrapuntal work) pulls one out of an ordinary, normal view of the world. For example, Lennon's drifty story is suddenly cut into by the fast beat of McCartney's pell mell persona who is performing his usual ablutions before rushing off to work. All the while, this persona is unaware that on the other side (or as part of his existence and which is in parallel to his actions) another world and other events are transpiring. McCartney's subject's everyday experiences are then transitioned (by the use of a bridge in the lyrics, i.e., "somebody spoke and I went into a dream"), whereupon his character is jettisoned back into Lennon's off-kilter world full of curious black holes that can "fill up the Albert Hall."
A similar tone of a world of normalcy suddenly and absurdly turned upside-down runs through the plot of Gogol's satirical yarn. The story is set in a Russian city, and it begins with the barber, Yakolevich, a heavy drinking, slovenly fellow discovering a nose buried deep inside his wife's loaf of bread. To his upset, he recognizes the nose long before the nose's owner has had a chance to discover its loss, and Yakolevich fears that he is the cause of the nose's separation from its rightful place (face). In the second part of the story, the protagonist, the self-titled, Major Kovalyov has a very "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day" (Virost) when he awakens without his nose. In a fit of umbrage (more than shock) he decides to hunt down his errant sensory organ. As the story progresses, a complex, satirical theme evolves, and it delves into the tedious world of Kovalyov, a fussy, pristine dresser who strives to increase his social status, yet finds that he continues to be derailed due to his lack of control of a world without reliable rules.
This theme of a society and a protagonist that is drenched in an implacable aura of self-absorption and artificial and limiting proprieties is shown by the travels Kovalyov embarks upon to find his lost organ. And as he searches, he soon finds himself frustratingly enmeshed inside a society that is bureaucratically encumbered with obfuscating and recalcitrant characters, such as an indifferent policeman, a slow-paced newspaper clerk, and so on. During this quest, he encounters these increasingly bizarre events, yet he is too enraptured with his own self-assuredness of his righteous path toward redemption (i.e., getting his nose back) to understand what he is up against.
Basically, his story arc is particularly disfigured because he lacks an ability to see beyond his nose and never comprehends his own short-sightedness in regard to his belief system (such as his officious clinging to proper behavior, obeisance, etc.). So, as this character traipses through the city, unaware of his own superficial behavior, snobbery, and misplaced prejudices, in essence, Gogol, (as the unidentified first-person and unreliable narrator) leads his feckless hero by the nose and drags him through a romp of bizarre "incongruities" (Young, David, and Hollaman 29).
For example, during the second part of the story, Kovalyov's nose turns out to be a man, in fact, he is a gentleman, who rides in carriages and dresses in a gold-embroidered uniform (Young, David, and Hollaman 15). The nose is perfectly capable of speech, because it (he) is cogent and aware of status (i.e., fame and prestige). This is shown in the scene in a church when Kovalyov approaches his nose and attempts to cajole the nose into recognizing him and returning to its (his) rightful place. Because the nose is now of higher social stature than Kovalyov, the nose looks down his nose at his "owner." The nose does this simply because it observes the type of clothing that Kovalyov wears, and the nose has the audacity to declare that there is "no close connection between us" (Young, David, and Hollaman 16).
This kind of situation, i.e., a "reflection looking back at its reflection" twists at the heart of this world now turned inside out and upside down. And too, it creates an atmosphere that is increasingly difficult for the reader to navigate. And this is because Gogol develops a rising tension with the addition one frustrating misstep scene after another. All of Major Kovalyov's aborted efforts during his journey to gain help or seek a resolution keeps a reader on the edge as to whether a rational resolution can occur. For example, the Major tries to engage assistance from people he believes are there to serve him (e.g., the advertising clerk) or who have a level of "respectable" status that may help him, such as the useless official at the Office of Public Order (as an aside, so much for "order" in this tale), and also, a slothful, greedy precinct captain on the take, etc.
Kovalyov even reaches out by letter to an "acquaintance," another person of high-social class (a state councilors' wife) that he is more or less impressed by her only because of whom she is married to. Yet, in a fit of desperation, he accuses her of using magic to remove his nose because he thinks she wants to get even with him for not wishing to marry her daughter.
At every turn, the reader can only wonder whether the nose will return or if anyone will truly take Kovalyov seriously and get excited enough to help him. The responses he gets from everyone he meets are generally vague, half-hearted expressions of disbelief or shrugging acquiescence. "See a doctor if you lost it," the clerk suggests. For all of the active motion of Kovalyov's efforts, there is a sensation of dyspeptic flaccidness beneath the murky swirl he finds himself in. This might be due to a clichėd, broad-stroked description of the morbid, Russian cultural attitude regarding the brutality of life and the lack of any optimistic, let alone Pollyanna, convictions.
For example, one post repurposed Barbara Spier's commentary from her book "Living in Moscow," presented the following description of a somewhat stereotypical bias of the Russian mindset this way,
Because the Russian personality has so many faces, it is difficult to define. Defeated by harsh weather, a tumultuous history and the general malaise that ensued, Russians seem to value the status quo and are reluctant to change. Security, stability, and conservatism were always held in high regard; but at the same time you will see new phenomena such as the absence of concern about the future, free spending and easy and quick adaptation of foreign practices in the younger generations in larger cities. Many foreigners find the Russian people an enigma - surprisingly nostalgic about their past yet cautiously optimistic about the future - patient but curious about the possibilities of freedom. ("The Russian Mind-Set")
So, as the story chugs along, there is a similar back and forth motion of the "reality-into-dream-into-reality" sensation and themes of the Beatles' song because Gogol manages to sweep the reader one way and another with shifting feelings of doubt, belief, confusion, and recognition. And he does this by using his incisive focus to zoom in, like a giant microscope, and shows in harsh detail a culture thickly layered with hypocrisy, bureaucracy, and trivialities. And it is clear, that this tale is an encapsulation of the weaknesses of a society that has banked too much reliance on authority and roles.
One key element that helps make the story uncomfortable and jarring, is that Gogol's characters are all inherently unappealing and antiheroic in their meanderings, e.g., the dolorous yawning precinct captain, or the barber, Yakolevich, who scurries about like a frantic roach as he tries to dispose of incriminating evidence (the nose). With all of this, Gogol paints a lurid and discouraging picture of his bizarrely fated players, and in the end, he turns to the audience and let's loose a flurry of questions, commentaries, and explanations, such as, do you or don't you believe me queries, along with a dig at writers and himself ("they pick such topics) (Young, David, and Hollaman 29), and so on. At one point, the near hysterical pitch of the final paragraph makes one what to reach through the pages and like Cher in "Moonstruck" when she smacked Nicholas Cage in the face and admonished him to, "snap out of it."
Although Gogol's discouraging portrait is of a 19th C. culture adrift in arcane and corrupt practices, one can see that it is a disturbing antecedent to many events we witness today. The theme of how he "plays" his players and the reader at the same time can be witnessed in people's frustrations today who battle with implacable, Leviathan governments, political opinions, and corporate dominance that are rife with impossibly dense and pointless attitudes. That is, the story is still relevant today because of the problem that many societies still wallow in distractions and simplicities (e.g., excessive attention to entertainment news, reality TV, etc.). And too, there has been an unsettling increase in those who bray loudly with xenophobia about their team's, culture's, nations', etc., prestige and competence (e.g., flag waving and chest thumping at inappropriate times).
Yet, despite all the glad standing of the loudest and most obtuse, the main theme and worry they do not see is that so much of this is built on an infrastructure that is unsound and crumbling, and all too often, erected over a house of cards, a house of dreams, a house of body parts . . .
"But I just had to look, having read the book . . .
found my way upstairs and had a smoke . . .
I'd love to turn you on."
(Lennon and McCartney)
"The Russian Mind-Set." EXPATRU. The Moscow Expat Site, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
"A Day in the Life." Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Lennon, John, and Paul McCartney. "A Day In The Life Lyrics." MetroLyrics. CBS Interactive, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Viorst, Judith. "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day." Amazon. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Young, David, and Keith Hollaman. Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology. New York: Longman, 1984. Print.
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