Ever since I was a kid I always loved astronomy. I remember when Haley’s Comet flew by (very disappointing), I remember watching another comet hit Jupiter (much cooler), I will always remember where I was when the Challenger exploded and when the Columbia disintegrated. For a number of years I ever worked with a man who designed, built, and sold telescopes; an eccentric who lived with his wife and 6 kids in a bus on the side of the mountain. When we weren’t installing personal 8″ mirrors ground by a friend who eventually moved onto to making the mirror for the Next Generation Hubble Space Telescope down in Arizona, he was smoking 2 packs a day, endlessly delaying creditors, yelling at his wife, talking endlessly about how we were all on the cusp of becoming extremely wealthy (something he also told the creditors), and praising Jesus with the local pastor who, I kid you not, believed the angels in the Bible were aliens; he too owned a telescope – a nice $10,000 affair because his church had over 5000 members and so he could afford it.
And what the hell does that have to do with Dead Souls?
Two things: 1) People are not as crazy once you get to know them and 2) There’s a visual phenomena that happens because of the cones in your eye where if you look directly at a faint star it seems to disappear but if you look slightly away from it it snaps into focus nice and clear.
Let’s start with point #2 first. The dead souls in Dead Souls are mostly invisible, they can’t be seen because they are, well, dead. There are no dead peasants walking around and taking up space (unlike the land owners who do little more). No, the dead souls can only be seen by looking off to the side a little, to the census, to the graveyard, to people’s memories. They exist just out of sight. Yet they are there and they can be quite useful to someone willing to take advantage of them, to ‘put them back to work’, if you will.
Of course, as we know, it’s all very morbid and immoral and our hero eventually pays the price for dealing in such a corruption. Yet that’s what someone who is good at corruption relies on – of remaining hidden in plain sight, to deal with everything just off to the side, to be clever to game the system to their advantage and, if one is really talented, make it seem as if you are doing the other person the real favor.
This is one of the points Gogol was trying to make.
Now let’s get back to point #1 – the eccentric people and characters.
The funny thing about trying to describe something that is real is that it requires you do so with something that isn’t in its place. For example, the ‘poshlust’ (bad taste) Gogol goes on about in Dead Souls (and whom Nabokov famously infused into his interpretation of the novel) is an untranslatable word in English but well understood in Russian, yet even Russians, when confronted with ‘poshlust’, would on the one hand recognize it in someone else but probably not in themselves. “Surly I have better taste that that, right?” They would say. In essence it’s not even translatable to oneself no matter what language.
So Gogol invented satiric characters to inhabit ‘poshlust’. Had he created realistic characters he’d also have to give a sympathetic reason for them engaging in such kitsch. In short, once you actually get to know someone, their bad taste isn’t really bad taste anymore, it’s their own unique taste. Yet bad taste still exists just like a star you can only see at night by not looking directly at it. The only way to see it clearly is to look off to the side a bit – in this case by looking at a wildly exaggerated character- to see it.
And what if everyone has bad taste? A universal ‘poshlust’? Well, it’s like trying to define ‘art’, it’s different for everyone and doesn’t really have a solid definitive. An elitist would say it’s ‘the fine arts’, the junkyard welder would say something more urban. And they’d both be right because they will only see the bad, the ‘poshlust’, the corruption, in someone else and not once in themselves.
That’s probably why because the way the books ends in the middle of a passionate appeal to morality, the pages are lost and it just ends. There’s such futility going on because everyone is corrupt in one way or another, that you might as well buy and sell dead souls to make a living than try and get everyone to do the right thing.
Anyway, the novel is brilliant and is just as relevant today than when it was written over 150 years ago in Russian by someone who didn’t even spend that much time living in Russia.