The Hunger Artist: Feasting & Fasting with Gogol

By Goldstein, Darra | Russian Life, March-April 2009 | Go to article overview

The Hunger Artist: Feasting & Fasting with Gogol


Goldstein, Darra, Russian Life


"And bake us a four-cornered fish pie," he said, sucking the air through his teeth and inhaling deeply. "In one corner I want you to put the sturgeon cheeks and the gristle cooked soft, in another throw in some buckwheat, and then some mushrooms and onions, and some sweet milt, and the brains, and whatever else, you know the sort of thing. And make sure that on the one side it's--you know--a nice golden brown, but not so much on the other side. And the pastry--make sure it's baked through, till it just crumbles away, so that the juices soak right through, do you see, so that you don't even feel it in your mouth--so it just melts like snow." As he said all this, Petukh kept smacking and sucking his lips."--Dead Souls

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That Nikolai Gogol, the author of Dead Souls, suffered from severe stomach problems is well documented. He was convinced that his stomach was malformed--upside down, in fact, a position he claims the "renowned doctors" in Paris had discovered. His By Darra GoldStein letters to friends are filled with descriptions of his gastric distress, as, for instance, when he complains to Mikhail Pogodin that "My hemorrhoidal illness has spread to my stomach. It's an intolerable illness. It exhausts me. It never leaves me in peace for a moment and interferes with my work"; or when he writes to his friend Nikolai Prokopovich that "I'd be more intoxicated with Italy if I were completely healthy; but I am ill in the most noble part of the body--in my stomach. Acting like a demon, it hardly digests at all anymore, and constipation is so persistent, that I just don't know what to do." Because Gogol's constipation alternated with frequent bouts of diarrhea, his preoccupation with digestion is not surprising. As he wrote to his confidant Alexander Danilevsky: " ... in my internal house so much washing, cleaning and all kinds of trouble is going on that the [landlord] can't begin to explain it even to his closest friend."

Critics have had a field day with the copious references to food in Gogol's work, commenting on the semiotics of eating in his fiction or postulating that the writer's sublimated desire for his mother found satisfaction in food, rather than sex. Indeed, Gogol's exuberant gustatory images encourage this kind of analysis. As he himself remarked on his four-cornered fish pie, it's one that could make "a dead man's mouth ... water." The gastronomic Gogol uses language as textured and rich as the foods he so lovingly describes. After reveling in his prose for years, I have discovered a different kind of sublimation, one less psychosexual. It doesn't have to do with the author's mother or with his nose--the organ that famously parades through the streets of St. Petersburg in his brilliant short story The Nose. Rather, I find Gogol's writings full of instances that emphasize the stomach and the processes of digestion, literary manifestations of the troubles that plagued the writer throughout his life. Though I delight in the gastronomic Gogol, I'm even more intrigued by the gastric Gogol.

Gogol's stomach, his "most noble part," was at least as great an obsession as his much talked-about nose. The two are, of course, closely related, since the nose enables the sense of taste. Without the ability to smell, there would be no appetite, no desire to fill the stomach. When we smell something good, we start to salivate, triggering the release of juices that aid in digestion. Because the stomach is the receptacle of pleasures that the nose only anticipates, its failure to function properly caused him no end of distress, both physical and emotional. The official cause of his death--gastroenteritis ex inanitione (inflammation of the stomach and intestines from inanition, a lack of food and water)--hardly reveals its attendant torments, not to mention Gogol's deep ambivalence about appetite itself. His literary characterizations in Dead Souls make clear that even as he celebrated hearty eaters like Sobakevich (whose surname derives from the word for dog) and Petukh (from the word cock), he portrayed them as neither deep nor soulful personalities. …

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