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Gogol, Kharms and Krzhizhanovsky

Erasing the Gogolian Body: Narration, Dismemberment and Decapitation in Russian Literature

BASEES Annual Conference, Cambridge, 28 March, 2009

My starting point for this theme is four texts from the 1920s and 30s which develop similar concepts and imagery. The first text is Kharms’s Golubaia tetrad’ no. 10 (Blue Notebook No. 10, otherwise known by its opening line, ‘Zhil odin ryzhii chelovek…’, ‘There once lived a red-haired man…’), in which, in the space of just under 100 words, we witness the dissolution and disappearance of the red haired man’s body, as his features, limbs, organs etc. are negated one by one. The second (and the least well known) is Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Neukushennyi lokot’ (The Unbitten Elbow, which is about an unnamed man whose sole aim in life is to bite his own elbow, and the philosophical, media and literal circuses that grow up around him (in the latter sense it resembles Kafka’s The Hunger Artist); like many of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, it is philosophically playful, slightly obscure, and a bit gruesome. The third is Bulgakov’s Master i Margarita (The Master and Margarita), and specifically the scene at the beginning of the novel, in which Berlioz slips on the sunflower oil and is decapitated by a tram — not the only instance of decapitation in the novel (the compère at Woland’s variety show also has his head removed, if only temporarily), but the one which, as it were, sets up the theme. The fourth text in this constellation (which I separate from the others for reasons I will discuss shortly) is Vladimir Nabokov’s Priglashenie na kazn’ (Invitation to a Beheading), in which Tsintsinnat, faced, he believes, with execution the following day, fantasizes of a form of escape in which undressing is transformed into bodily dissolution:

Он встал, снял халат, ермолку, туфли. Снял полотняные штаны и рубашку. Снял, как парик, голову, снял ключицы, как ремни, снял грудную клетку, как кольчугу. Снял бедра, снял ноги, снял и бросил руки, как рукавицы, в угол. То, что оставалось от него, постепенно рассеялось, едва окрасив воздух.1

These are far from being the only texts from this period to feature forms of dismemberment. As Lilya Kaganovsky has argued, ‘Stalinist art seems to offer the blinded, limping, paralyzed, and hystericized male body as a new kind of masculinity’,2 and in the future I will explore connections between the texts I am examining today and the characters she refers to — Pavel Korchagin from Nikolai Ostrovskii’s Kak zakalialas’ stal’ (How the Steel was Tempered), Aleksei Meres’ev, the legless hero of Boris Polevoi’s Povest’ o nastoiashchem cheloveke (Tale of a Real Man) and the one-legged Aleksei Voropaev from Petr Pavlenko’s Schast’e (Happiness). I imagine the point of connection will be Platonov, where images of dismemberment in, for example, Schastlivaia Moskva (Happy Moscow), Musornyi veter (Rubbish Wind) and Sredi zhivotnykh i rastenii (Among Animals and Plants) combine the question of fantasy with the production of a specifically Soviet subjectivity.3

However, that is for another day, and for the time being I will stick to my original quartet. Although, as my descriptions suggest, there are significant differences in these four instances, there are also a number of similarities that are worth exploring. Firstly, as my previous comment on Platonov implied, bodily separation in each of these texts is on some level the product of either fantasy — the dismemberment is desired rather than actual — or the subversion of reality. Secondly, in each case this is further connected to some sort of crisis or uncertainty surrounding identity. In Neukushennyi lokot’, the elbow-biter is designated only ‘Blank 11111’, the number of the questionnaire from which his obsession first came to public attention, and the whole of his identity is subsumed in his attempt to bite his elbow; we learn nothing else about him. The erasure of the red-haired man in Golubaia tetrad’, meanwhile, undermines the very possibility of his identity, as is confirmed by the penultimate sentence: “Так что не понятно, о ком идет речь.4 In Master i Margarita, on the other hand, the uncertainty at this stage relates largely to Woland’s, rather than Berlioz’s, identity — the latter becomes an issue when Bezdomnyi is writing his report on the events, when he feels compelled to add ‘ne kompozitorom’ (‘Not the composer’)– but the fact that Berlioz’s decapitation acts as ‘proof’ of the existence of Jesus and the Devil, and therefore confirms Woland’s identity, again firmly connects the image of bodily fragmentation to the question of subjectivity and otherness. The connection of these two elements–the fantastic/fantasized and the subversion of identity–is strongly suggestive of Lacan’s mirror stage,5 in which the fragmented body in dreams is an indication of the subject’s alienated identity as a a result of the shift (or in some cases, I will suggest later, its fracture) from the specular to social ‘I’.

It seems fairly obvious that these references to the fantastic or fantasized removal of body parts can be traced back to Gogol’s 1836 short story Nos. This connection immediately foregrounds the idea of the castration complex, linked primarily to Major Kovalev’s social position, status anxiety, and desire to find a suitable wife to reinforce and advance his place in the rigid St. Petersburg hierarchy; it is particularly telling that Kovalev’s initial assumption is that the mother of a potential match is responsible for his predicament, while the fact that the nose turns up at first in his barber’s bread roll suggests an echo of the biblical story of Samson, who loses his strength when Delilah cuts off his hair (the bread roll here may also suggest a parody of the Eucharist, which makes overt the synecdochical use of the nose to signify the body as a whole). The sexual undertones of the Gogol source text provide a dimension which otherwise appears to be absent in most of the later works I am considering, but on the other hand, it reinforces sexual significance of the escape fantasy in Priglashenie na kazn’, as Tsintsinnat’s sexual anxiety over his wife’s infidelity appears to be related obscurely to the crime of which he has been convicted, and for which he will lose another body part.

Perhaps more significantly, the loss of Kovalev’s nose is also linked to narcissism; as Julian Graffy has noted, Kovalev’s first thought on waking on the fatal morning is to look in a mirror: «Ковалев потянулся, приказал себе подать небольшое, стоявшее на столе, зеркало»,6 and there are repeated references thereafter to him checking the status of his nose in a mirror both during its absence and after its return. Kovalev’s attitude towards women reinforces the suggestion of narcissism; although he appears to chase women, we understand, from being told that «Майор Ковалев был не прочь и жениться, но только в таком случае, когда за невестою случится двести тысяч капиталу» (p. 49), and «Он и сам любил за нею приволокнуться, но избегал окончательной разделки. Когда же штаб-офицерша объявила ему напрямик, что она хочет выдать ее за него, он потихоньку отчалил с своими комплиментами» (p. 60), that his primary libidinal object is himself, not the girl(s) involved. Again, the fact that he believes his actions in relation to Mrs Podtochin’s daughter have resulted in the disappearance of his nose suggests that the castration experience is punishment for the narcissistic impulse. Freud identifies the castration complex as the most significant reaction to infantile narcissism,7 and there are indications that Kovalev has failed to advance from this stage of development. In particular, his assumption that witchcraft is responsible for his predicament, according to Melanie Klein’s analysis of manic-depressive states,8 firmly locates his paranoia in a form of infantile dread, while his focus on career advancement brings together ego- and object-idealization in movement which acts as a deflection from sexuality and suggests that he has not overcome his primary narcissism;9 his belief that he is «еще молод, что нужно ему прослужить лет пяток, чтобы уже ровно было сорок два года » (p. 60, 6) reinforces the idea of Kovalev as a child, and suggests that that his interest in his career renders him unfit for relationships with others, of either sex. In becoming solely a social ‘I’ as a response to his narcissism, in other words, Kovalev has abandoned all forms of the specular ‘I’ which locates his subjectivity in the encounter with the other; he only has the mirror in which to affirm his ‘I’, but the necessary incompleteness of this encounter with the self results in the incompleteness of the noseless face.

One can make a number of comparisons here between the Gogol source text and  later body images, but for the rest of my paper today I want to focus on the significance of the castration image in relation to Nos and Neukushennyi lokot’. The elbow-biter’s cannibalistic impulse — his elbow is described as ‘pitatel’nyi’ and ‘bliudo’10 —  is a clear example of the oral-sadistic phase turned back on the subject,11 which in itself is a manifestation of the denial of external reality, fundamental to the castration complex.12 The elbow has been seen as simultaneously spurning (‘giving somebody the elbow’) and nurturing (the baby cradled in the arms)13; thus it represents both the good and bad external objects,14 and it is perhaps significant that at the climax of the story, the elbow-biter shifts from trying to reach his elbow from the outside, and attacks it from the inside instead; it is the rejection of the spurning external object, in favour of an attack on the nurturing object, which ultimately proves fatal.

Insofar as the elbow-biter’s actions ‘objectify the unbitable externally’ (объективируя неукусуемое вовне), the dual nature of the elbow foregrounding the ambiguous status of the outer body as the point at which internal meets external, it also contains orifice-like properties, which is emphasized by the attempt to conjoin mouth and elbow (the devouring kiss), and suggests a point of contact between this text and Gogol’s. In Nos, the proximity of the apparently inessential — but in fact indispensable — organ of smell between the eyes (the subject who sees the self in both the mirror and in others) and mouth (the uttering subject who proclaims the self), the phallic nature of the nose, and, in particular, the associations of the mouth with ingestion, speech and sexuality, as posited by German Romanticism,15 connects the nose fundamentally to the formation of identity, and its narcissistic origins. The absence of a wound on Kovalev’s face — the thing he finds most offensive is the fact that he is left with a flat surface — indicates the closure, erasure of an orifice, and the impairment of his ability to ingest/inhale — and by association, also his ability to speak or perform sexually; doubly incomplete (sexual opposition defines the individual body as originally incomplete16), he is no longer even able to devour himself — which, in the context of his sexual conquests expressing only his self-love, is all he was doing anyway — and is as a result transformed into an outer body, acutely aware of the gaze of others and constantly touching his face to see whether his nose has reappeared.

In Neukushennyi lokot’, meanwhile, the mouth is connected not only to the elbow, but to the eye is as well, as the one (‘lokot”) contains the other (‘oko’) — this sort of false etymology of body parts is, I should add, entirely in Krzhizhanovsky’s spirit, as the theory of ‘elbowism’, proposed in the story by the philosopher Kint, turns on the idea that ‘immanence’ derives from ‘manus’ (“рука”, следовательно, и “локоть””) rather than from ‘manere’ (to remain within). The elbow therefore becomes both the seeing eye and speaking ‘I’, and ultimately subsumes both. The connection between eyes and mouth is made apparent in two of the elbow-biter’s four utterances, where first it seems to be the eyes rather than the mouth that speak: “В ответ два мутных глаза из-под сжатых бровей и короткое: El possibile esta para los toutos”, and the eyes then themselves also disappear, disembodying the speech altogether: “Но глаза ее наткнулись на два мутных, прячущихся под брови пятна. В ответ она услышала: – На чужой локоток не разевай роток“. Equally, the brevity and negativity of his other two speech act, in the ‘interview’ at the beginning of the story:

– Вы, кажется, всерьез, то есть, я хочу сказать, без символики?

– Без.

– Романтическая ирония тут тоже как будто ни при чем…

– Анахронизм,- пробурчал локтекус и снова припал ртом к царапинам и шрамам.

again as it were negate the speaking ‘I’, suggesting that it is the elbow which is devouring the mouth rather than other way round. Moreover, images of circularity in the story are associated from the start with the attempt to bite the elbow as outlined in the initial questionnaire:

на бланке № 11111 против графы “Средний заработок” было проставлено: – 0“, а против “В чем цель вашей жизни” – четкими круглыми буквами: “Укусить себя за локоть.

Later, for example, we also see the fashion for clothes с круглыми вырезами для локтей” as the elbow-biting craze takes off; echoing the roundness of the mouth, and denoting the nullification of identity, such images also point to the circularity of his self-consumption, which both excludes the external world, and turns back on itself; the biting becomes the bitten, and ultimately only the void remains.

Connections between the mouth — the speaking ‘I’ — and the fragmented body-part in the two texts also point to the issue of narration, which is prominent in both stories.  In Krzhizhanovsky, the role of the press in creating the story in the first place is repeatedly stressed (and this is in itself something of a theme in literature of the twenties — as, for example, in Bulgakov’s Rokovye iaitsa [The Fatal Eggs]), while the reference to (hi)story and fairytale in the final paragraph reveals its constructedness and undermines its believability:

Поскольку и земля и ротационные машины продолжали кружить на своих осях, то этим история о человеке, захотевшем укусить себя за локоть, разумеется, не заканчивается. История, но не сказка: обе они – и Сказка, и История – постояли было рядком. История – ей не впервой – через труп и дальше, но Сказка ведь старая суеверка и боится дурных примет: вы уж ее не вините и не бессудьте.

Similarly, the end of each chapter of Nos is marked by the narrator’s admission of his inability to tell the story. He draws attention to the absurd obviousness of his device in chapters one and two, through the similarity of the final sentences: Но здесь происшествие совершенно закрывается туманом, и что далее произошло, решительно ничего не известно, andно здесь вновь все происшествие скрывается туманом, и что было потом, решительно неизвестно, while at the end of the story he comments at length on the inexplicability and unlikeliness of the tale in a way that has been described, not unjustly, as ‘lame’.17

The question of narration, and again, its impossibility, is also foregrounded in Master i Margarita and Kharms’s Golubaia tetrad’, and connected to the images of bodily separation. The gradual erasure of the ‘life’ asserted in the opening words of the Kharms text centralizes the problematics of narrating a fictional (and therefore non-existent) subject, a fact reinforced by the final line: «Уж лучше мы о нем не будем больше говорить».18 In Master i Margaritain addition to repeated references throughout the novel to the unknowability of the story of Woland’s visit to Moscow and its distortion in the press and in rumour — the question of the truth of different versions of the Passion story raised before Berlioz’s death, and the subsequent inability of the writer Ivan Bezdomnyi to compose a report on the incident, firmly identify the problem of narration with the decapitation.

This form of metanarrational comment reveals a strong degree of self-reflexivity in these texts, which has been defined as narcissistic narrative,19 and which shifts the elbow-eater’s self-consumption and Kovalev’s narcissism from story to narration. As self-reflexivity within the narrative is transformed into the telling of the story, the tendency of these works to ‘bare the device’ specifically in relation to images of dismemberment and decapitation, suggests that the fragmented body is not only a metaphor for the rupture between the inner and outer body. Equally, it is a response to the gap between words and meanings which lies behind the necessary fiction of the subject developed in the mirror stage; the self-reflexive narration of the self-reflexive drive towards incompleteness thus reveals the textuality of subjectivity.20

However, while this suggests at least a common locus for subjectivity and the narrational impulse, the strong connection in the Gogolian original between the body fragmentation and the castration complex simultaneously implies a fundamental threat to narration, and through it, to life itself, as, for Klein, the loss of the genitals, and therefore the reproductive function, signifies the loss of the creative power which sustains life.21 Connected to this, the skull-like appearance of the castrated, noseless face in Gogol’s tale overtly signifies the proximity to death.22 In this context, the fantasy of auto-castration — by the authors of Nos and Golubaia tetrad’ No. 10, but by the textual subjects of Priglashenie na kazn’ and Neukushennyi lokot’takes on a pre-emptive force, acting as a means of deflection from the reality of death. Thus the absence of the possibility of reproductivity is not only compensated for by the self-reflexivity which generates both story and text, but for Tsintsinnat and the elbow-eater, life is preserved even beyond the apparent reality of death. A variation of Tsintsinnat’s fantasy returns in the final page of the novel, on the scaffold itself, when the performance of the execution serves to separate actor from role, and the fragmented body becomes a bifurcated self: “один Цинциннат считал, а другой Цинциннат уже перестал слушать удалявшийся звон ненужного счета”  (p. 186), so that even as he is executed, he is also escaping, the scen(ary) collapsing around him — “Все расползалось. Все падало” — and emerging as victor over his persecuting others, Roman and Rodrig, who merge into a single entity and are “во много раз уменьшившийся”. For the elbow-eater, the ideal of self-consumption turns his identity back in on himself and denies the other altogether, but its impossibility simultaneously proclaims the unreality of the castration complex, and therefore of death itself. As the final paragraph of the Neukushennyi lokotconfirms, the story of the man who tried to bite his elbow does not end there, even though he has apparently died; he has, in effect, imposed his own ending on the story, and in his act of self-creating self-destruction, achieved immortality.


1 Vladimir Nabokov, Sobranie sochinenii russkogo perioda v piati tomakh (St Petersburg: Symposium, 2000), IV, 61.

2 Lilya Kaganovsky, ‘How the Soviet Man was (Un)Made‘, Slavic Review, 63.3 (Autumn 2004), 577-596 (p. 579).

3 See Eric Naiman, ‘On Soviet Subjects and the Scholars Who Make Them‘, Russian Review, 60.3 (July 2001), 307-315 (p. 314).

4 ‘Golubaia tretrad’ . 10′, Daniil Kharms, Daniil Kharms (Moscow: Victory, 1994), I, 257.

5 Jacques Lacan, ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience’, in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), pp. 1-7 (p. 5).

6 N. V. Gogol’, Sobranie sochinenii v shesti tomakh (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1952), III,  47. See Julian Graffy, ‘The Devil is in the Detail: Demonic Features of Gogol’s Petersburg’, in Pamela Davidson, ed., Russian Literature and its Demons (Oxford: Berghahn, 2000), pp. 241-278 (p. 266).

7 Sigmund Freud, ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. IXV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, pp. 67-102 (pp. 92-3) .

8 Melanie Klein, ‘A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 16 (1935), 145-174 (p. 146).

9 Freud, ‘On Narcissism’, p. 94.

10 Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii, Sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh (St Petersburg: Symposium, 2001), III, 43, 51.

11 Klein, op cit.

12 Klein, p. 161.

13 Earl A. Loomis, Jr., ‘The Symbolic Meaning of the Elbow’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 3 (1955), 697-700

14 Klein, p. 156.

15 In particular, in Novalis; See David Farrell Krell, Contagion: Sexuality, Disease, and Death in German Idealism and Romanticism (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), pp. 21, 33 and passim.

16 Schelling’s notion; see Krell, Contagion, pp. 23-5, 75 and passim.

17 Graffy, p. 267.

18 See Hilary L. Fink, ‘The Kharmsian Absurd and the Bergsonian Comic: Against Kant and Causality‘, The Russian Review, 57 (October 1998), 526-38 (p. 534).

19 See Linda Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox (New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 10.

20 On ‘the relationship between textuality, fiction, and subjectivity’ in Lacan, see Gray Kochlar-Lindgren, Narcissus Transformed: The Textual Subject in Psychoanalysis and Literature (Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), pp. 39-40.

21 Melanie Klein, ‘On the Theory of Anxiety and Guilt’ (1948), in Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946-1963 (p. 30).

22 See Gavriel Shapiro, Nikolai Gogol and the Baroque Cultural Heritage (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), p. 161.

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This work by Sarah J. Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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