Friday, December 19, 2008
In 1717 Peter the Great, Autocrat of all the Russias, published a manual of etiquette in European manners, in an attempt to drag his countrymen out of the medieval past into modernity. Among the instructions was the admonishment not to blow your nose like a trumpet. He shaved the beards of the Boyars himself. In 1722 he promulgated the Table of Ranks in the new civil service, laying the grounds for his new state.
In 1836 Gogol published his short story The Nose, in which a lowly clerk in Peter’s civil service wakes up to find his nose missing. After many adventures, the nose, who has assumed a rank in the service much higher than the clerk's, uniform and all, is arrested by the police and returned to its owner. At the end of the tale, the narrator comments: 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. In the first place, there is decidedly no benefit to the fatherland, in the second place… but in the second place there is also no benefit. I simply do not know what it… This dissolving haze of ellipses masks a sleight of hand on Gogol's part: the real question is not so much how authors can choose such subjects, but why they choose them.
In 1842, in Part 1 of Gogol’s novel, Dead Souls, the protagonist Chichikov is described like this: there was something solid in the gentleman’s manners, and he blew his nose extremely loudly. It was a mystery how he did it, but his nose sounded like a trumpet. This apparently quite innocent accomplishment, however, inspired so great a respect in the waiter, that every time he heard the sound… he asked the gentleman whether he required anything. In Part 2, Chichikov does the same action, and the narrator comments: sometimes in an orchestra you will find such a cunning rogue of a trumpet that when it lets out a blast it seems to be coming not from the orchestra but from somewhere inside your ear….
This apparently quite innocent accomplishment is not so innocent after all, but the action of a cunning rogue.
For Gogol the nose has a number of significations: a veiled revolt against autocracy, against the past, against what Orlando Figes calls a revolt against the service ethic of the eighteenth century, an assertion of the individual’s right to do with his own body what he pleases, a waving of the flag of Slavophile Russianness under the noses of the Westernizers...