some remarks on banality and realism

'Le Sage ne rit qu'en tremblant' - Baudelaire

When we read Belinski claim, in his Views on Russian Literature in 1847, that Gogol ‘based his art exclusively on real life, eschewing all ideals” – and see him opposing Gogol’s ‘natural’ literature to the school of ‘rhetorical literature’ – we rub our eyes. Gogol, the man who wrote the Nose, the Overcoat, and Dead Souls – based his art exclusively on real life?

“Herein lies the great service rendered by Gogol, and this is what men of the old schoool impute to him as a great crime against the laws of art. In this way he completely changed the prevailing view on art itself. The Old and threadbare definition of poetry as ‘nature beautified’ may be applied at a stretch to the works of any of the Russian poets; but this cannot be done in regard to the works of Gogol. Another definition of art fits them – art as the representation of reality in all its fidelity. Here the crux of the matter is types, the ideal being understood not as an adornment (consequently a falsehood) but as the relations in which the author places the types he creates in conformity with the idea which his work is intended to develop.” [Art in Theory, 357]

This is curious to us, who read Gogol after the revolution brought about by the symbolists, for whom Gogol was an especial favorite - in as much as he reinvented rhetoric, joyed in it, was, in all respects, an excessive writer. But it is not the divide between rhetoric and realism that concerns me so much as the rhetoric of realism itself. What the symbolists did was discover – not that Gogol was a fantasist – but that the realism of the realists was actually banality. The category of the real almost always turns out to be too big – it is a black hole of a concept - everything that approaches it gets swallowed, and who knows where it will reappear? But Gogol’s expertise in understanding the man who lies in bed until 11, or the comments that may be made, almost endlessly, about the wheel of a troika – Gogol, whose barbers discover, to their horror, that they have somehow cut off and brought home the noses of their clients – this is the Gogol who has found a whole dimension of modern life within which we continually struggle. But it wasn’t simply the discovery of the communication between the banal and the fantastic – it was, as much, the discovery that at its heart, the banal is evil. Yes, it isn’t the banality of evil, but the evil of banality that has driven the catastrophe of the modern. And on such soil, all social formations will tend to be variations of the grotesque.

Or to put it another way…

Well, to put it in several other ways. Our themes – the windfallen wood and the dead souls, both viewed as property – and the theme before – of addiction and the deathplay of psychoactive commodities – seem, we admit it, rather baggy. And we admit that the general imposition of our system of interpretation – which seeks out the general effect of the culture of happiness as a derivative of micro and macroscopic transformations of the human limit – seems sometimes as black and as hole-ish as realism. Isn’t there something subjective about the choice and treatment of materials, too? At one point in Dead Souls, Gogol is about to tell his readers what his women characters are thinking when, as he says, his quill positively stops on the page, as though it were made of lead. The task of revealing the thoughts of the ladies is too much for the poor bachelor author – it crushes him!

As well it should. I, who have thrust my hand into the pie backed by generations and in millions of mind, might do well to hesitate, rather than insist on pulling out plums. But I am not Gogol, nor worthy to put the sandals on his feet.

When Georges Bataille went on the attack against sur-realism – which, in spite of its affinity for the unconscious and automatic writing, continued, at its core, to believe that the real could be an –ism – he took up the cause of the big toe and the laugh. He took up, in other words, for the banal.

I have convoked these spirits, and now I need to shoulder through them.
Years ago, in 2008, to be exact, I wrote a series about chains. I recently re-read it, and discovered I’d made a small mistake in that series, which looms large to me, as I think about dead souls and the making of property – I quoted a passage about Roman law in William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities that I misinterpreted – although I blame Mr. Smith for his imprecision. I said that the creditor in Roman law was called an addictus – but this is wrong. It is the bondsman or woman, the one sold for debt, who was called an addictus – and though I am not superstitious about etymology, the Wiccan Marxist in me trembles a bit as I link the addict to the addictus, and the addictus to the live souls of the serf or the tree branch, and the dead souls to the chained troop of them conjured up, in the town of N., by speculation involving Chichikov’s purchases. I tremble as I laugh. All’s fair in love and metonomy.