Notes from the Shack:
Thoughts while Reading Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”
(Part Two) *
by Christopher Schnieders
86th Martober, between day and night
On this improbable date, Axenty is called to the office after three weeks away. We march into his madness and yet the writing remains grounded, which is one of Gogol’s signature talents. Our narrator describes scenarios as perfectly sensible while the actions are nothing but trouble and certainly spell doom – all while commenting on the doom of his fellow civil servants.
“So I went in – just for a joke.”
Ah yes, a joke, which makes me recall the film based on Milan Kundera’s 1967 novel, “The Joke” – an unrelated work about a joke going wrong in Communist Czechoslovakia, perhaps continuing the history of Eastern Bloc literary jokes telling the truth, but we may be taking it a step too far. I hate it when critics invoke superfluous crap when we’re talking about this one joke in which Gogol’s King of Spain reports to duty as a Russian civil servant and they ask him to bow and apologize and prostrate himself to the Director.
They also ask him to sign a document, and our King realizes they are asking him to sign it as a civil servant. What the document actually is remains unclear. And I don’t know about you, but when friends of mine have become embroiled in an issue where their mental stability, or rational prowess, is called into question by a situation, they tend to be unwilling to discuss the issue head on, to deny and ignore reality. They are asked to sign a document as a result of their behavior, and while this process of documenting human failure is as troubling as it is common, Axenty is given a paper to sign in Martober. He chooses to sign “Ferdinand VII” on the line that the Director was supposed to sign.
He then proceeds to the Director’s flat to see Sophie, since Gogol could not have lost control of his character so much as to know we need to see Sophie again, most distinctly and especially because Axenty is now King of Spain. It’s beautiful and full of ambition – also sad, desperate and lonely. The loneliness of the diary seeps through every page despite a constant defiant message of purpose. Axenty is somebody, he is not a loser, the system has not placed him in eternal purgatory, intellectual mundanity and solitude. Marva may be at home but Sophie will certainly be interested in a king!
This relapse into the Sophie fantasy is short lived, of course, as is his imaginary tour of the Director’s flat. The “fact” that he is somehow let inside as a result of the words he says to the footman, and then makes his “way straight to her boudoir,” well, even Axenty doesn’t believe it. He imagines telling her of all the happiness they will have together despite the “plots against us,” and all of this talk rings out from 1834 as truth about mental illness or the manifestation of mentally ill episodes. I’ve seen (and you probably have too) good friends battle against plots that didn’t exist and tried to bring them back. And just as with my friends, Axenty knows his dreams of the perfect girl to take all of this away will be met with a big no.
In the face of this rejection, imaginary or not or both, he comes to another not so brilliant revelation about women: “I was the first to solve this mystery; they are in love with the Devil.” Seems our guy Axenty is taking the old axiom – women like assholes – to a unique level. And despite this crudely phrased summation, the last manic paragraph of Martober is excellent: delving into anger, the devil, a barber on Gorokhovaya Street and the spread of Mohammedanism in France. “And I’ve already heard tell that most of the people in France are now practising the faith.”
No date. The day didn’t have one.
“I walked incognito down Nevsky Street. His Imperial Majesty drove past. Every single person doffed his hat, and I followed suit. However, I didn’t let out that I was King of Spain.”
Say what you will, but Axenty is one sly cat, modest even in the face of imperial majesty, whatever that means. It meant enough in St. Petersburg for everyone to remove headwear and take note, and our narrator’s modesty in concealing his own royal ascension is impressive. It’s clearly in his best interests to refrain from public discussion of his royalness with the majesty so close at hand, but the imperial occasion seems to inspire a desire for the proper garments. “So far, the only thing that had stopped me was not having any royal clothes. If I could only get hold of a cloak.”
We then devolve into his ruminations and stereotypes about tailors; they are asses and shady crooks, to say the least – which may be a careful biographer’s cue to suggest Gogol has issues with tailors or Gogol’s writerly touch (knowing that no tailor would agree to construct a royal cloak for poor, lowly Axenty). If he has the money, maybe, but here’s to guessing Axenty doesn’t have that kind of dough (rubles).
Even so, Axenty is unwilling to be denied this essential fashion:
“I have decided to have a mantle made out of my new uniform…”
“I decided to make it myself…”
“I had to cut it all up with a pair of scissors, because the style’s completely different.”
I don’t remember any date. There wasn’t any month either. Damned if I know what it was.
These are the types of things that encourage us: the simple connection of humanity in our cyber age with disgruntled 19th Century civil servants. Wilks translated the text from St. Petersburg Russian, but how much could he change a phrase like, “Damned if I know what it was.”? Run-of-the-mill goofs and far out Mars Curiosity scientists say or will die saying the same thing. We advance, we progress, we lose all that and damned if we know.
Though when Marva screams about his new cloak, things get weird for me as a reader. I remember the struggles of an old friend in San Francisco, a garage pop punk rock band mate named Max. He could play the guitar like a ring in the bell, a truly great guitarist, but there were also real struggles back then: a 5150 already; his manner of speaking which confused most everyone – based on regular hip language and a personal mythology inspired by big books, mathematics, copious weed and relentless music, bethat G.G. Allen, Charlie Parker, Phillip K. Dick or de Sade and the Beats.
When things got really bad for Max during my time as his closest friend and protector, our rock group disbanded, his apartment mates kicked him out and he was living in the basement of Thwackland – our rehearsal space (an underground, poorly ventilated rock box with a tiny bathroom down the hall; not meant for any home life and such). During those traumatic weeks, Max spoke often about deputation, his deputation as a Federal Marshal to be exact. He would leave phone messages at 4AM relaying the latest details of circling helicopters watching him, CIA/AIDS conspiracy, and always the Federal Marshall deputation.
And when the cops showed up at the rehearsal space, when I was there and Matty Luv was there with a few other friends who loved Max (Scott and Ian), his initial reaction was to tell the police, “I am a Federal Marshal.” The cops, male and female officers, took him down immediately, against his will, and that night is as clear as glass today. And even though my inclination was against participation in those events, and Matty Luv (RIP) probably felt the same, we knew our brother was confronting homelessness because of his mental illness and something needed to be done.
To connect back to our lost narrator, we need only speak of Axenty’s desire, focus and obsession with an official deputation as King of Spain. What did 25 year-old Nikolai Gogol know in the 1830s that mirrors my 26 year-old friend in the 1990s? How in the hell are fictional Axenty and reality Max obsessed with an official conference of authority using the exact same word? Why is deputation important?
Much of this seems obvious. They have lost control of life and the authorities will soon be visiting. As a response and survival instinct, they become the one with authority.
This is personal stuff.
The deputation coincidence is uncanny, a marvelously sad coincidence.
And Buddhists might ask, “Coincidence?”
My notes say this entry is Surrealist before the Surrealists arrived.
As it is, we live in a world where the phrase surreal is so commonplace a Midwestern mom or Alabama teenager will use the term to describe the not-so-surreal while the mass movie shooting in Aurora, Colorado is pretty fucking close to André Breton’s description of: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”
The Aurora shooting is another of a long string of depressing breaks from reality in our society flooded with guns and online ammunition. Indeed, there are too many brain boggling depressive acts of violent aggression in the USA and the world. Surreal is commonplace and quite real.
And while it is clear Axenty has arrived at the First of Nothing, this short entry highlights an essential stylistic decision by Gogol. There can be no redundant patterns in Axenty’s diary. There must be rhythmical changes and pre-jazz improvisations on the theme of unattainable deputation. His character heads to the post office but the postmaster is ignorant of the Spanish throne business: “the postmaster was extremely stupid and knew nothing about it.”
And as an artist, Gogol is a brother of the Surrealists.
Even more, my favorite pre-Surrealist line ends this short entry: “To hell with it. Letters are trash. Only chemists write letters.”
Madrid. 30th Februarius
At my age, I should not be in awe of a 25 year-old, but rather satisfied by the fact that I began reading Gogol at 23 in Minnesota while writing a first novel in five months. It’s entirely possible that I referenced Don Quixote at that time (my brother Greg gave me a print of Gustav Doré’s Don Quixote in His Library when I was 20, after all). However it is, I can appreciate the subtlety of the reality descending upon Axenty after re-reading this entry from Madrid. This reality, his doom, has been a certainty for quite a while, of course.
In the month of Februarius, Axenty is fully committed to the Spanish throne delusion and that commitment reciprocated the offer. He has finally been deputized and the trip to Madrid “went at such cracking pace we were at the Spanish frontier within half an hour.” As readers of his diary, voyeurs and invited participants on this journey, we realize this Spanish throne may not be so pleasant. And yet, we too want to explore Spain alongside the Don and Sancho Panza. Who wouldn’t prefer to pursue that perfect woman nobelesse and have the pursuit reciprocated with love and such? Indeed, it would be tremendous to traipse the Spanish countryside in pursuit of chivalric honor.
With Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” in Februarius, we finally see the influence of Cervantes; the literary answer to our Spanish throne question, which I presumed to be random and absurd. We’ve been traveling with the Ukrainian Cervantes all along. As Axenty is subjected to the horrible realities of institutionalization, he finds solace as the beatings ensue: “I controlled myself, as I knew that this was the normal procedure with Spanish knights before initiating someone into a very high rank and that even now the code of chivalry is still maintained over there.” This is talk of Cervantes… and it is all beginning to make sense as a reader, as a writer understanding Gogol’s structure, and the books he is informed by. And while it falls into place, everything is being lost of course. It’s all contradictions and truth and Cervantes, then back to the story. Gogol is in control while Poprishchin is losing it all.
It seems silly to relate the rest of that paragraph and the following paragraph in Februarius. This reader thinks it’s brilliant. Absurd. Surreal. Nonsensical and lyrical, rhythmic in translation: “If you don’t believe me, then try to write ‘Spain’ and you’ll end up writing ‘China’.” As if that makes sense.
What does make sense is that Gogol is writing what is known as word salad. Elyn Saks describes this as “loose associations, where one associates words that sound alike but don’t make sense, and if the words get jumbled up enough it’s called word salad.” Gogol gives us a literary word salad in the last paragraph of this entry. It’s a kick and a half for language lovers and a clear foretelling of his more famous work, The Nose, which Nabokov praised.
“That’s why there is such a terrible stink all over the earth, which makes us stop up our noses. And it all also explains why the moon is such a delicate sphere, and why people can’t live there – only noses. For this reason we can’t see our noses anymore, as they’re all on the moon. When I reflected on how heavy the earth is and that our noses might be ground into the surface when it landed, I was so worried I put socks and shoes on and hurried into the state council room to instruct the police not to let the earth land on the moon.”
Axenty proceeds to alert the shaven head grandees about the earth landing on the moon. He’s an early Randle McMurphy, riling up the patients though soon beaten back into his room by the stick of the chancellor. The response is the final line of his entry, a classic sense/nonsense sentence: “That shows you how strong tradition is in Spain!”
Or should he say Russia and what does Pussy Riot have to say about that tradition? Knowledgeable historians would have to weigh in on the depth of Russian intellectual incarceration, i.e. how Dostoevsky’s sentence compares with other perceived artistic radicals, and/or his contribution vs. Pussy Riot in 2012?
Artistically, the breadth of Dostoevsky’s work dominates Pussy Riot. It’s barely a conversation (with Fyodor as artistic king), though the speed in which Pussy Riot achieved international renown by attacking Vladimir Putin and Russian religious orthodoxy (etc.) using the punk aesthetic is remarkable.
Some basic research shows that, around 1849, “Dostoevsky was accused of reading several works by Belinksy, including Correspondence with Gogol, Criminal Letters and The Soldier’s Speech, and of passing copies of these and other works.”
In 2012, three Pussy Riot members were charged with “premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group of people motivated by religious hatred and hostility.”
Dostoevsky’s acts were punished, famously, by a mock firing squad called off at the last minute – followed by four years in a Siberian prison and four years of forced military service.
Pussy Riot’s sentence has been evolving. Three women from the group – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich – were charged and sentenced to two years in a prison labor colony. Samutsevich has since been released and given probation while Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina remain in prison. Within days of this writing, news reports detail Alyokhina’s request for single person cell due to issues with other inmates and the meat-based prison meals, though it’s clear that the harshest punishment has been handed to Tolokonnikova. She appears to be the strongest radical, the most brazen and unapologetic feminist political artist (with a husband and young children no less). She was separated from Alyokhina and assigned to IK-14 penal colony in Mordovia, which has a “harder reputation” than Alyokhina’s IK-32.
As it is, two years of labor imprisonment for a one-minute stunt in an empty church is appalling, just as a fake firing squad and eight years of forced prison/service for reading is horrific.
A “strong tradition” indeed.
January in the same year falling after February
Hard reality descends further upon our lost hero and we catch a glimpse into Russian “treatment” of the mentally ill. We may have not come far enough in the way we treat mental illness in 2012 – but we’ve taken a few big steps since 1834 St. Petersburg (if Gogol’s account has any relation to the truth). And though we must say this diary is fictional, and our immortal writer has a penchant for nonsense, Axenty’s “treatment” will certainly not help him.
Immersed in the Spanish throne delusion, Axenty must retain the delusion of prominence, of being somebody important and worthwhile when the truth is hammering down: “Today they shaved my head even though I shrieked as loud as I could that I didn’t want to be a monk.”
The whole section is an account of indignities our Spanish heir must endure – cold water over the shaven skull, restraints after that, and this leads to another historical reference, yes: “I think I’m safe in hazarding a guess that I’ve fallen into the hands of the Inquisition…” As I write these words from my shack, an LAPD helicopter hovers above, as they do most every night in the search for criminals. Who knows which of their leads are real, but more importantly, why is Axenty being subjected to that shit –why did they treat the mentally ill so cruelly?
What is it with human nature?
That one can and will assume power over a person with mental illness – and exertion of that power means various forms of humiliation? We’re a sickly flawed bunch, though at least there are crucial people in history who gravitate to caring for mentally ill folks by knowing cruelty is not care, that restraints are not good. I don’t know, I’m just a reader, but it seems Gogol is hitting at the core of treatment in 1834 with these last entries.
Just yesterday, Elyn Saks said she thought, “Gogol had schizophrenia.” She wasn’t certain and neither am I, but our short conversation is interesting because it makes sense — if we designate Gogol as the highly functioning person with schizophrenia who wrote the masterpiece, Dead Souls. And why not? Let’s issue that designation…
But back to the entry, which is so hard to address straight on.
“Never have I gone through such hell.”
“I was in such frenzy they had difficulty in holding me down. What these strange customs mean is beyond me. So foolish, idiotic!” Here the young writer is correct whether he knew the depth of The Northern Bee asylum inmates’ experiences or not. In this segment, Gogol nails the restraints issue. We know Axenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, after all. He’s a sad sack middle-aged civil servant given to schizophrenic delusions, royal aspirations if you will, and forced head shaving followed with cold water dousing is just plain cruel.
That is what Gogol is showing us while maintaining the ruse – the “factual” reporting from our lost soul about the horror he undergoes – and his reasoning in dealing with fear: “After everything that’s happened to me, I think it’s safe in hazarding a guess that I’ve fallen into the hands of the Inquisition, and the person I thought was a minister of state was really the Grand Inquisitor himself. But I still don’t understand how kings can be subjected to the Inquisition.”
This segment ends with Poprishchin commenting on global affairs and global events, as you would expect a king to do. He believes France is putting the Grand Inquisitor up to it. He calls out the French foreign minister Polignac, who Wilks footnotes “was chiefly responsible for the occupation of Algeria by the French during the 1830s. (Trans.)”
But in the end, it’s really England’s fault since, “The whole world knows that when England takes snuff, France sneezes.”
And the world wide web was a century and a half away…
The 25th is almost slapstick. The Grand Inquisitor is closing in on our lost friend and, like Axenty, we have no idea why. I understand the delusions, understand his societal incapabilities, his professional insufficiencies, the loneliness masked as royal ascension and how that will cause some problems when we are only asking him to sharpen a quill. It’s also interesting to note that Nikolai Gogol may have actually worked as a quill sharpener. Perhaps it was a good job for a young man, but it’s not implausible to believe he might fictionalize the job because it seemed so demeaning and lacking of respect, bereft of hope, of intellectual participation… sharpen my quills and be done, etc. That is what this is about. That is – what this is about and more.
The slapstick is Poprishchin’s last stand. It’s not an impressive last stand since his primary tactic is to hide under the table when the Inquisitor arrives. Here, our lost soul and indeed Gogol stay true to the Spanish theme, Don Quixote et al, as the Inquisitor summons him in all his incarnations: “First he shouted: ‘Poprishchin!’ – I didn’t say a word. Then: ‘Axenty Ivanov! Titular Councilor! Nobleman!’ – and still I didn’t reply. ‘Ferdinand the Eighth, King of Spain!’ I was half in mind to stick my head out, but thought better of it.” This is fear. He does not want another dose of cold water – reality as it were – but the Inquisitor’s stick cannot be avoided: “The damned thing is terribly painful.” Axenty reveals “my new discovery that every cock has its Spain, tucked away under its feathers, made up for all these torments.” After several line readings, I may not fully get that – other than Axenty invented this Spanish delusion to shield his cock from torment. As readers, this is not such a new discovery. The real news is the Inquisitor has threatened “some sort of punishment” and Axenty, “doesn’t care a rap about his helpless rage, as I knew he was functioning like a machine, a mere tool of the English.”
To slam the point home, we have another example of Gogol striking to the core of a certain mental health mindset, as I have witnessed with struggling friends, as you most likely have as well. A real sign of a break is the conviction that the tormentor lacks humanity, is not human, a machine and much worse. I would consider this to be an unhealthy approach. That’s a break we don’t want to make.
Then again, it is clear that history has an endless litany of inquisitors/tormentors of the powerless who can be described well as inhuman machines. It seems we will never be rid of it: English, German, Rwandan, American, Indonesian, Chinese, North Korean, Bhutanese, Argentine, Mexican, Syrian…
Da 34 te Mth February
The title of the entry, well yea. We know where we have arrived as readers: an end where nothing makes sense to Axenty Ivanovich Poprishchin. As a reader, the title is a jarring and explicit expression of madness.
As writer of this essay I claimed a small victory during the first draft – the ability to re-create the upside down word “February” as printed in Wilks’ translation. This is when a typewriter is most helpful. It was a puzzle Gogol and Wilks presented to begin this lyrical entry of pain and powerlessness and dream and mother.
As with Axenty, it’s always back to mother in our times of deepest despair.
That is the human condition.
For a soldier dying on the battlefield or James Cagney yelling “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” at the end of White Heat and even our lost soul in a St. Petersburg asylum; there is nothing more we crave than our mother’s love and protection. Father’s approval is one thing, but mother’s love transcends all. This is nothing new, though Gogol mines the truth as Axenty breaks under the cruelty of his tormentors.
It’s heart-wrenching stuff.
Poprishchin, both patient and our guide, breaks from delusion into utter honesty. A reality filled with questions marks and exclamation points:
“No, I haven’t any strength to endure it any longer! Good God, what are they doing to me? They’re pouring cold water over my head! They won’t listen to me or come to see me. Whatever have I done to them? Why do they torture me so? What can they want from a miserable wretch like me? What can I offer them when I’ve nothing of my own?”
He could be making it all up, but he’s been doing that all along. Axenty’s delusion is the fantasy that he could be more than his lot in life.
And if the height of being alive is joy and dream fulfilled, of aspirations attained (Henry Miller’s exaltations in Big Sur, Mo Farah’s 10,000m and 5,000m runs into 2012 London Olympics glory, Oprah Winfrey and Jane Goodall, Fela Kuti and James Brown, Arab Spring, Higgs boson Nelson Mandela Mars Curiosity); then Axenty is near death.
We should all be permitted joy.
But for the fact of our circumstances and our minds, we are.
Though if our mind is troubled, joy is a fleeting bubble we can never touch, let alone pop. Etc.
Why certain people and institutions prey on the troubled is as natural and mysterious as the question of why animals kill each other. However it is in nature, preying on a mentally ill person is cruel, just as preying on anyone is cruel. Nikolai Gogol, the young writer of nonsense and literary immortality, seems to take it all lightly, with humor, and yet he is dead serious. It is worth noting again, this is his only published work with a first person narrator. He feels it intensely. His veins are open with Axenty, just as my veins are in this shack near Dodger Stadium, where post-game fireworks continue now at 11:20pm, begging to be included in this essay.
Diary of a Madman is the opening burst of fireworks from Nikolai Gogol.
He clearly has The Nose brimming in his brain. How else do you explain the last sentence – a complete non-sequitur if there ever was one? Perhaps our young writer needed to say a bit too much to prove Axenty was truly mad. Perhaps, Gogol had major issues with his own actual nose.
As it is, I have no idea what to do with the last sentence, which follows the second to last sentence.
And here is the end of Wilks’ translation:
“Mother, have pity on your poor child…
And did you hear that the Dhey of Algiers has a wart right under his nose?”
* This essay was written in late 2012/early 2013, hence the occasional references to 2012. Part One appeared in IR last week.