Writing as Exorcism: The Personal Codes of of Punshkin, Lekmontov, and Gogal


"Sometimes it takes a poet to read a poet. In this inspired, idiosyncratic study, Ilya Kutik offers exemplary interpretations of three Russian writers, of the lessons of fatalism, and of the complexities of reading." —from the Introduction

A remarkable literary performance in its own right, this interpretive essay brings a highly original poetic sensibility to bear on the lives and works of three major Russian writers. It is Ilya Kutik's contention that many writers are ...

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"Sometimes it takes a poet to read a poet. In this inspired, idiosyncratic study, Ilya Kutik offers exemplary interpretations of three Russian writers, of the lessons of fatalism, and of the complexities of reading." —from the Introduction

A remarkable literary performance in its own right, this interpretive essay brings a highly original poetic sensibility to bear on the lives and works of three major Russian writers. It is Ilya Kutik's contention that many writers are tormented by secret fears and desires that only writing—in particular, the use of certain words and images—can exorcise. Making this biographical approach peculiarly his own—and susceptible to the nuances of comedy, tragedy, and critical equanimity—Kutik reads works of Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Nikolai Gogol, three Russian writers who were demonstrably subject to the whims, superstitions, and talismans that Kutik identifies. Exposing the conjunction of literary effort and private act in writings such as "The Queen of Spades," Dead Souls, and A Hero of Our Time, Kutik's work gives us a new way of understanding these masterpieces of Russian literature and their authors, and a new way of reading the mysteries of life and literature as mutually enriching.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Bringing a poet's sense of structure and wordplay to the classics of Russian prose, Kutik has produced a work of stunning originality  . . . even dissenters must appreciate the ingenuity and boldness of his interpretations."  —Slavic and East European Journal

"The book's bold curiosity, creative verve, resourceful marshalling of disparate evidence, and modest good humor are infectious. These qualities remind the reader that literary scholarship can be—and should be—driven by the sheer exhilaration of discovery." —Slavic Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810120518
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2004
  • Series: SRLT
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ilya Kutik is a poet and an associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University.

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Read an Excerpt

Writing as Exorcism

By Ilya Kutik
Copyright © 2004

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2051-8

Chapter One Exorcism and "the Extra" in the Text


In 1973, the movie The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, became part of the American horror film classic tradition. In the film, a priest, played by Ingmar Bergman's famous actor Max von Sydow, fights the Devil (who has moved into a young girl's body) with the magic of special incantations, that is, with the power of words. The Devil fights back, forcing the girl to fly over the bed. She responds to the spells with a thunderous voice from lips that bubble with a great deal of artificial green saliva and lifts the priest off the floor like a feather. Naturally, the exorcisms finally succeed in casting out the Devil.

There is exorcism and then there is exorcism. The type of exorcism that I will discuss in this book has nothing to do with special effects and satanic possession of human bodies. However, it does have to do with the power of words, which is what literature shares with classic exorcism. To put it a bit differently, this book is about personal exorcisms, the ones writers perform while fighting on paper with their inner demons, fears, and even fate and death. The writer embarks upon this fight in order either to eradicate these troubles or, on the contrary, to attract desired events. This process is designedly concealed from the audience and is apparent only to the one who performs it, that is, the author. Moreover, I use "exorcism" here as a term not only for the process but also for the result of writing. This result is a text in which an author's exorcising strategy is reflected. The question I am interested in asking here is, why does a particular type of writer write? What does he or she do it for?

Of course, the author's desire for self-expression would be an immediate answer to the question about his reasons for writing. But what does this notorious self-expression specifically mean? What forms does it take inside the text? Is it the text itself? To be sure, many authors write because they simply cannot avoid the process, cannot and do not want to resist the impulse to start writing. Obviously, for such writers the process is in itself a necessity, sometimes a tormenting one. We know that all writers write for others to some extent. But those writers who perform exorcisms, as we will see, also write for themselves. They add something "extra" to their texts, something not meant to be perceived but nevertheless perceivable if one knows how to look. My book is about that "extra" in the text. I call it the psychological dominant, with/against which some authors deal/struggle in a given literary work. A given author's psychological dominant forms the basis of his or her personal code.

This specific type of authorial concern with or struggle against the psychological dominant is present only in a certain group of writers and their texts. In this book I investigate just a few works, all well known, by Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Nikolai Gogol. Although all three authors belong to the Romantic period of Russian literature, that is, to the first half of the nineteenth century, I do not claim that Romanticism as a literary or philosophical movement explains why they use their texts to perform a personal exorcism. To my mind, the ideology or mindset of specific literary periods or schools has almost nothing to do with it. To be sure, certain periods, Romanticism among them, focus the writer's interest in and concern for the psychological dominant, because the very tendencies of a given era may accentuate the uniqueness of the creative personality and provoke a heightened attention to all that is fantastic and transcendental. However, there were undoubtedly many Romantic authors who did not use literature for personal exorcism, just as there are authors in other periods who did. There must be a different explanation having little to do with the overall literary and cultural time period for why only some writers perform personal exorcisms. How can we characterize these writers?

The works under discussion in this book are for the most part prose fiction. Nevertheless, two of the authors, Pushkin and Lermontov, although eminent prose writers, started their careers as poets and remain the most celebrated poets of nineteenth-century Russia. Gogol, who is now known solely as a prose writer, also started his literary career as a poet, although his early verse works were disastrous failures. Moreover, Gogol's complex of failure as a poet was fully mirrored in his approach to prose. Thus, for example, Gogol called his masterpiece, the novel Dead Souls, a poema, that is, an epic poem. The Russian writer Viktor Sosnora has aptly noted about Gogol: "He is very mysterious, without age; at the age of twenty-two he was already writing like Homer." In many respects, Gogol was the first Russian "poet in prose."

Thus, all three writers who are the subjects of this book Wt into the group of authors who approach prose through the lens of poetry. This means that they trust the transcendent power of words no less than they do, for example, their own ability to originate plot, characters, and scenes. In their turn, as we will have abundant opportunity to see, in the works of these authors both plot and characters often grow out of either wordplay or some purely linguistic logic. Moreover, the exploitation of the multiplicity of the poetic word gives the writers in question the opportunity to create in their texts various additional meanings that can be traced, or revealed, only if we recreate the ways in which they were thinking while writing, that is, their associational, often extremely paradoxical and idiosyncratic moves.

The readings that follow are unabashedly idiosyncratic themselves. As a practicing poet, I myself have experienced some of the same desires and used my texts in the ways I claim that Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol used theirs, and I use my poetic intuition to recreate what I believe to have been the mindsets of these authors as they wrote. Thus, in performing the readings presented here, I try to percolate through the text to the author's mentality and, more broadly, into his life concerns. I do believe that my intuitive discoveries lead to provocative readings of the literary works treated. But they do so from the inside out, as it were, beginning from the premise that it is possible to recover, at least in part, the exorcism that an author performs for himself and, perhaps, for God or some metaphysical power, which it is hoped will take into account the author's fears or wishes. Significantly, this type of creative process is fully conscious: the author knows precisely that which he exorcises; the author does not suppress or repress his secret fears or wishes, but, on the contrary, splashes them out on paper and thus struggles with them.

This approach may seem to some readers overly impressionistic. To this I can only reply that I do use standard literary critical approaches, particularly intertextual and biographical ones, and nothing I propose here contradicts the textual evidence available. This is inevitable, since the only material I have for the recovery of a given author's psychological dominant is his own texts and texts by those who interacted with him. Thus, I would say that what some may see as my rights of fancy are merely a recreation of the creative fantasies of three authors of genius.

To give an initial example of what I have in mind, let us turn to Nikolai Gogol.


For his poetic debut of 1829, the long narrative poem "Ganz Küchelgarten," Gogol (full name Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol-Ianovskii) chose the pseudonym V. Alov, whose probable meaning I discuss in the beginning of chapter 3. In 1831, Gogol published three more prose pieces, again under various pseudonyms. They are the fragment "Teacher" (From the Ukrainian novella "A Frightful Boar") under the name P. Glechyk (in Ukrainian, glechyk means "pitcher"); the essay "A Few Thoughts about How to Teach Children Geography," signed G. Ianov; and finally "Chapters from the Novel Hetman" under the strangest nom de plume: 0000.

Speaking about the last of these, Gogol's early biographer P. Kulish explains its oddity by the presence of four os in the writer's first and double-last names: NikOlai GOgOl-IanOvsky. As a visual phenomenon, this explanation looks like an anticipation of a line from E. E. Cummings and at first glance convincingly traces the associational moves that urged Gogol to create this pseudonym. However, it should be noted that when sending the chapters from Hetman to his mother Gogol himself emphasized in the enclosed letter that his prose "is signed by four zeroes," not four os. Why is this important?

In Gogol's case, the difference, I think, is crucial. By using precisely zeroes instead of an articulate human name, Gogol hints at the fact that the writer is a zero himself, that is, that he is a noman. This kind of anonymity leads us to that episode in the Odyssey of Homer (Gogol's favorite author) in which Odysseus answers Polyphemus's request for his name by saying that he is Noman. When the other Cyclopses, in their turn, ask Polyphemus who blinded him, he says that noman did. Probably, by signing his prose 0000, Gogol simply wanted to point out that he, the true literary conqueror, has already come to existence but that he prefers to remain nameless, like Odysseus. Still, two questions remain to be asked here: why are there four zeroes? And why did Gogol wish to remain an undesignated writer?

A conceivable explanation for the former might be connected to the fact that Gogol made exactly four anonymous debuts. Only his fifth prose work, a Romantic fantasia on the antique topic entitled "Woman," came out under his real name. This also happened in 1831, and almost simultaneously with the fourth one, which was signed 0000. However, the latter had already been approved by the censorship in 1830, and thus it is Gogol's fourth published work. Four times running Gogol pretended that he was a ghostwriter; only then did he decide to announce that he was indeed Gogol. Why such a restraint?

The reason, I believe, is a particular mental twist, or psychological dominant, in Gogol: he did not turn to pseudonyms simply because of the fear of being underestimated by his real name, or the shyness of a debutante (although both of these factors may also have been present). In so doing, Gogol behaves as one who understands the Old Testament personally and literally: if God cannot be called by his real name, why should I? This way of reading the Bible-that is, as a literal and personal document-was characteristic of Gogol and is manifest in his last published work, Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends. It also suggests that Gogol treated his own self as a divine one-not a very unusual attitude for a writer, who is after all a creator. However, Gogol goes much further than normal. He is remarkably open and conscious about his self-deification, although only to himself and not to his audience (at least until the time of Selected Passages in which he is openly the Teacher-but even then, not God!).

In 1830 and 1831, the period when he used pseudonyms and finally his real name, Gogol wrote an essay titled "Boris Godunov." Despite the fact that its topic was fashionable thanks to Pushkin's recently published drama, the essay, not published until 1881, remained unknown during Gogol's life-time. Why? Because in it Gogol is completely frank and blasphemous: he is a God, or at least he is God's equal. "If the sky, the sun-rays, the ocean, the fires eating the intestines of our earth, the endless air embracing worlds, the angels, the inflamed planets were all transformed into words and letters-even then I would not be able to express a tenth part of those amazing things taking place in the bosom of the invisible me. And what are they in the comparison with the human soul? with God's embodiment? [emphasis Gogol's]"

Thus, according to Gogol, he is "invisible," that is, a zero, but the invisible everything, that is, a god.

A complementary explanation of Gogol's fear of using his name might be connected to the accident of that very name as such. With his oversensitive ear, it is highly unlikely that the similarity between his own name and that of Gog, the Old Testament precursor to the Antichrist, could have possibly escaped Gogol. According to the book of Ezekiel (chapters 38-39), Gog will arise as Jehovah's rival at the end of the world, predicting the appearance of the Antichrist. As a very pious person, Gogol was most probably afraid of this coincidence. Understanding himself as God's equal, he must have been scared by this coincidence even more.

And here Gogol's exorcism starts. Because he believes in the divine concept of himself yet is fully aware of the theological implications of such an idea, he continually tries to exorcise his pride. He resembles a monk who whips himself because he has sinned or because his thoughts were sinful, although Gogol's self-flagellation takes place only on paper (not for nothing; in The Inspector General we meet a character, though female, who has whipped herself). And even when using his true name instead of various pseudonyms, Gogol nevertheless tries to escape from it, that is, to depersonify it, to melt into something impersonal. Thus, in the finale of "Taras Bulba" we meet the author in a very strange capacity: he is not a person but rather a "golden-eyed duck" (gogol in Russian means "this bird"). Moreover, he gives this duck a special character: "... and the proud golden-eye duck soars swiftly above it [the Dniester river] [emphasis added]." In so doing, Gogol exorcises his name (he is again depersonified, a "zero"), but he cannot resist the sinful characterization of himself as a "proud" man.

Gogol's attraction toward a zero situation is truly amazing. In Dead Souls, landlords trade dead serfs, that is, zeroes, and their purchaser Chichikov is a zero, too. About him, Gogol writes: "The gentleman lolling back in the chaise was neither dashingly handsome nor yet unbearably ugly, neither too stout nor yet too thin; it could not be claimed that he was old, but he was no stripling either. His arrival in the town created no stir and was not marked by anything out of the ordinary." In other words, Chichikov is "neither-nor," that is, a noman. Moreover, the next passage of the "poem" touches on a wheel of Chichikov's chaise, that is, also a zero. A zero arrives in the town riding a zero. Because the work is both comical and prophetic (at least, Gogol planned it this way), in Chichikov he once again exorcises his own pride, this time with laughter. He creates the worst possible zero in order to prove to himself that his is not the only way to be a noman.

I have already said that one of Gogol's psychological dominants was his fear of his own name. We know that Gogol used pseudonyms constantly, and his last one was the most puzzling: 0000. If we use an intertextual approach it will be discovered that, according to his biographer Kulish, 0000 meant four os, while according to the author's own letter they mean four zeroes. Biographically this is reasonable because this was the fourth of Gogol's pseudonyms. However, if we continue with both biographical and intertextual analyses, we find out that Homer was Gogol's favorite author (a biographical fact) and that this fact leads to Odysseus's pseudonym: Noman (intertextuality). Thus, zero is also a noman.

Still, why was Gogol afraid of his real name? From his unpublished essay, we find out that he treated himself as a divine creature (intertextuality). This leads us to the Bible, in which God could not be called by his own name (intertextuality). It also leads us to a book in the Bible in which a kind of Antichrist is called Gog, that is, almost by Gogol's name (intertextuality). Gogol's fear becomes even clearer: he thinks of himself as practically God's equal (we know from the essay), but as a pious man (a biographical fact) he is afraid of himself as an Antichrist. This is his personal code. He was, first, conscious about his self-deification (he wrote about it in the essay); second, he tried to conceal this sinful self-attitude (he did not publish the essay). Because it is sinful and because he is the namesake of the Antichrist, Gogol starts his exorcism on paper-in order to get rid of his fear and pride. However, he is already known by his real name (a biographical fact). That is why, in one of his works of epic character, he shows himself in a homonym, gogol-as-duck (intertextuality), and thus "humiliates" the name. Nevertheless, he calls this duck a "proud" one-the ambiguity of Gogol's approach to himself. He continues to exorcise this pride-of a noman = God's equal. He creates zero-situations and zero-characters, which are the worst possible nomen, and thus a "normal" self-humiliation.


Excerpted from Writing as Exorcism by Ilya Kutik
Copyright © 2004 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Exorcism and "the extra" in the text 3
Ch. 2 Two superstitious men 14
Ch. 3 Gogol's Nausea and Nossea 53
Ch. 4 Rome before Rome 84
Conclusion : musings on modifications of exorcism 118
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