TK Newsletter: The Appalling Death Of An Extremely Strange Genius

In memory of N.V. Gogol, who died 169 years ago today

I turned fifty-one this week. Terror of age is becoming a key comic subtext of my life. The first line of a novel I tried to write recently read, He looked in the mirror and shrieked.

There’s a scene in Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat where the hero, a dim and nervous clerk named Akaky Akakievich, goes to the tailor to try to patch up his ancient greatcoat. It’s coming apart at the seams, the victim of St. Petersburg’s relentless winters and too many years of service. Akaky asks for one last repair job, but the merciless tailor Petrovich, having laid the coat out on a table, quickly pronounces the patient dead.

“No, it can’t be repaired, the wretched garment,” he snaps.

Akaky, in denial, tries to protest: it’s just a bit worn on the shoulders! Petrovich cuts him off. “The stuff is rotten, if you put a needle in it, it would give way.” “Let it give way, but you must patch it,” counters Akaky. “There is nothing to put a patch on,” Petrovich says, and Akaky recoils in horror, grasping the awful truth: we all, eventually, run out of patches.

Gogol, my childhood hero, died 169 years ago today, on March 4, 1852. Fitting for him, it might have been the most preposterously horrific act of self-destruction in literary history.

Gogol was a genius, but a peculiar and probably very unpleasant kind. If Mozart came out of the womb hearing symphonies, the baby born in Sorochintsy, Ukraine in 1809 had a different fate. It was as if God whacked him with a shovel, locking his brain in the moment of hearing the funniest joke ever told. That may sound wonderful, but there’s a reason we eventually have to stop laughing — it hurts. The line between hilarity and terror is a thin one, as people who drop acid find out all the time. Gogol was a depressive who cheered himself up by imagining the funniest situations possible, but his gift in that area was so prodigious that he ultimately scared himself to death.

Take “The Nose,” one of the funniest stories ever written. An arrogant, preening, dowry-chasing bureaucrat named Kovalev goes to the barber for a shave. The next morning, the barber finds a nose in a loaf of his wife’s bread, and Kovalev finds a flat space in the middle of his face. It becomes a detective story as Kovalev, covering himself with a handkerchief, chases a nose in official uniform he’s spotted roaming the streets of Petersburg. In Kazansky cathedral, he confronts the impostor, saying, “You are my own nose.” The nose balks, replying with dignity that he is an independent individual, and moreover, “I can see by the buttons of your uniform that you serve in a different department.” Then he leaves, forcing Kovalev to try to find him again by taking out a classified ad, only to be refused — just the week before, he’s told, another bureaucrat tried to advertise a lost poodle, but the poodle turned out to be a cashier of some department, a libelous error the newspaper was not anxious to repeat.

This nightmare castration fantasy was full of vicious social commentary, depicting Tsarist Russia as a doomscape of corrupt morons, where nothing works and the police are blind — “I mistook him for a gentleman at first, but fortunately I had my spectacles and soon saw he was a nose,” a constable explains. The incompetence of the state was even confirmed in the review of the story by the Tsar’s censor, who missed the obscene insult of the entire plot, instead objecting chiefly to the presence of the nose in church.

Gogol saw with brutal clarity everything that was absurd, ignoble, vain, and ignorant in people, and though his portraits were rendered with extraordinary care and devotion, love even, the results were savage and hilariously unflattering to the society in which he lived — too bad for Gogol, who was desperate to be thought of as a patriot. Raised by a superstitious mother to have a great fear of hell, he also eventually fell under the influence of priests who convinced him his work was degenerate and sinful. This led him to spend something like ten of his last years trying to tell “attractive” stories about “righteous and pious” people, a mission totally alien to his nature that resulted in some of the most amazingly awful writing ever produced.

Eventually, in what was a flash of either artistic insight or self-loathing, he burned those later manuscripts, then refused all food, beginning a monstrous march to death that played out with all the hyperbolic horror of his art. A hypochondriac his whole life — “Man does not believe in God, but he is sure that if the bridge of his nose itches he will die,” he once wrote — Gogol met the most painful end imaginable, consumed with fever, so covered all over with leeches that they fell from his nose into his mouth, and sick from hunger to the point that he is said to have screamed in agony to the touch.

In his last years, he’d become obsessed with the idea that he might be mistaken for dead during one of his “lethargic” spells and buried alive, even trying to arrange to be buried in a coffin fitted with an airhole and a bell. That didn’t happen, but his actual end — a weeks-long ordeal spent writhing in claustrophobic agony in his bed-chamber on Nikitsky Prospekt — exactly simulated the living death of his nightmares. In earlier years, he would surely have laughed at the irony. He was 42.

Gogol would not do well in the modern world, which demands that artists be great people in addition to providing clear moral direction in their work. In life, Gogol was a small, neurotic, excuse-making, deeply silly man with a slate of inexplicable views, and his habit of turning even the characters he liked into flatulent buffoons would have rendered any efforts to produce “positive social commentary” disastrous. He’d have been canceled a hundred times over, and died covered in Twitter trolls instead of leeches.

Reading Gogol is a gluttonous, frenzied, disgusting experience: you laugh until you hurt yourself, then keep going. Incidentally, for a thin man, Gogol wrote about food in shocking quantities. When his characters sat for meals, all pretense of story or narrative would end, and his descriptions of dinners would devolve into maniacal, paragraph-length lists of pastries and meat pies and buckwheat kasha and mushrooms and vodka and other Russian tablestuffs that droned on until you could smell it all.

As one of his characters explained, there’s no such thing as being full. A stomach is like a village church that only seems packed: if the Mayor shows up, a place is quickly found. For all the darkness he saw, Gogol noticed one beautiful thing about us. For the good things in life, especially a laugh, we always find room for the Mayor.

In and around TK News recently:

Fifth Column: How Journalism Got Substack’d: A fun and free-ranging podcast discussion with Kmele Foster, Matt Welch, and fellow Masshole Michael Moynihan.

Are The Days Of The K-Shaped Con Finally Over? A look at the fight over the next pandemic relief bill, in the context of the bailout era.

TK Finance Dictionary: “K-Shaped Recovery” A video explainer of the ultimate “rich get richer” euphemism.

In Defense Of Substack. Responding to claims that the independent media platform is “dangerous” and a “threat to journalism.”

Student Loan Horror: When You Think You Qualify For Debt Relief, Check Again. And Again. A couple learns what many student debt-holders have in recent years: if you think you qualify for relief, you probably don’t.

Even By Democratic Party Standards, Censoring Fox Is An Insanely Bad Idea. The censorship slope keeps slipping, this time via a letter from two California House members.

TK Finance Dictionary: “SPAC” A video explainer about the latest bubble-expanding acronymic monster, the Special Purpose Acquisition Company

Rush Limbaugh, Who Should Have Stayed Jeff Christie. Obituary of the man with the “largest hypothalamus in North America.”

A Friendly Debate About Herbert Marcuse, With R.J. Eskow. A friendly but spirited discussion of the relative merits of the “Father of the New Left.”

Marcuse-Anon: Cult of the Pseudo-Intellectual. An intolerant view on the intolerance of tolerance.

S—t Public Defenders See: The Great Covid-19 Grand Jury Charade. In New Mexico, a D.A.’s office stalls speedy trial rights for safety reasons, while continuing to convene grand juries to indict.

The Bombhole Era. Excerpt of the new edition of Hate Inc., with a documentary explainer made by the excellent Leighton Woodhouse.

The Bombhole Era. For non-subscribers, link to the YouTube version of the aforementioned video collaboration with Woodhouse.