Notes on Gogol’s “The Nose”

Nikolai Gogol’s story of “The Nose” opens with a macabre scene: a nose found in a loaf of bread. Perhaps this is going to be a murder mystery.

But then the story becomes absurd: the nose found its way into the loaf of bread after having got up and left the face of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, and going around town pretending to be a state councillor.

The nose is finally apprehended. There are gaps in the story: we never find out how the nose found its way into a loaf of bread, nor do we hear how it got to shore after being thrown into a river. And finally the nose fixes itself again to Kovalyov’s face. He wakes up one morning and there it is. Until that point the Collegiate Assessor had been unable to reattach the recovered nose, but now it is back, and no reason for the nose’s sudden change of heart is given.

The narrator himself points out all that is unlikely about the story: How could a nose just get up and walk around? Why would it pretend to be a state councillor, of all things? How could it get stuck in a loaf of bread? And the narrator’s conclusion is: doesn’t every tale include such unlikelihoods and omissions of detail? How likely, really, is anything that happens in the world? We might add the philosophical question: Why is there, after all, something rather than nothing?

The day the nose is reattached, Kovalyov spends the whole time checking every mirror he can find, as he walks the streets in triumph: the nose is there, he reassures himself, every time he sees his reflection. The nose is there. Imagine such a thing as still having a nose from one minute to the next being remarkable! And yet it is, along with so many other small miracles we take for granted every day. This, for me, is the lesson of the story.

(I’ve been reading The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol, published by Dover Thrift Editions.)

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The poem I’ve just read has the narrator reading a newspaper, “letting fall” the pages she has finished with, that rustle and crackle as they are shed. It’s a scene to stir nostalgia, as many of us now no longer perform this daily ritual, getting our news online instead. I miss the thoroughness and fullness of the daily hour spent with the newspaper.

And the narrator of the poem feels a different sort of nostalgia: she is doing exactly as her ex-husband did, as she never did while they were married, content to be, through her husband, at one remove from “the earth’s gossip.” And we see her now in “that sitting waltz,” shedding and folding pages, as she sees herself: engaged in a strange dance that is not quite her own. She cannot help but see herself from outside, the way she would see her husband doing the same, day after day.

After he left she made a vow to read the paper every day. But why? “… If only I had read / the paper …” she says. It’s some kind of bargaining, as if by participating in this alien ritual she could go back in time and make things right. Nostalgia is painful and harmful when we can find happiness only in what is past, and make nothing of the present moment. When you are grieving a loss, for a while you can only look back.

“Count me as a reader of the earth’s gossip,” she says. And for all the dance may look strange and awkward in those lucid moments where she looks across at herself and sees the one she has lost, this dance for now is hers, who she is, and an indication of the new person she is becoming, incorporating and transforming a past that will once again be her own.

(I’ve been reading “On Reading a Newspaper for the First Time as an Adult”, a poem by Sharon Olds. Her Stag’s Leap was published in 2012 by Cape Poetry.)

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I reach for my copy of Plexus by Henry Miller. I’m wondering if I’ve written all I can about Miller. I open the book to find out. There’s always something more in here. Today I read Miller’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, his strange spiral version of the tale, itself told in Plexus along with the interruptions from the children he’s telling it to.

What is a story? A state of affairs in the world or in a single human soul, then an encounter, and then something is changed forever. Miller’s Goldilocks story comes around (eventually) in a neat circle, but then this is a fairy tale. We grow out of this sort of story, don’t we? Still, I’m as gripped reading this as the children Miller is telling it to.

Miller often claimed he couldn’t tell stories, and yet here they are: fairy stories, legends of the middle ages, true stories of Miller’s own childhood, records of his dreams … The stories are hopelessly tangled, all taking Miller’s “spiral form,” so that we seem to drift back and forth in time and space. The children are frustrated at first that Henry isn’t sticking to the script.

Plexus is a book for an aspiring writer, asking himself: when am I going to be able to write my own stories? He dreams of being a writer like Miller. Not in terms of style – “imitation is creepy,” writes Steve Aylett, and the writer is ashamed of his own creepiness, familiar alien voices stealing into his writing at times. Our writer wants to be a story-teller in the way Miller is, that specific way of his, unravelling truth as he spins his yarns. This aspiring writer is drawn to fantasy because he can hide himself away in it, but he longs for the ice shock of truth even as he fears it …

Miller’s Goldilocks story seems to be an exception to the rule: he strays from his commitment to truth for the sake of entertaining the children. Where is the truth in a fairy tale? And yet “embedded in all fiction and falsehood there is a core of truth.” All story-tellers will give themselves away in the lies they tell, to anyone listening closely enough. Miller is different because, rather than fall into this trap, instead he throws himself into it: he is committed to writing as a circuitous form of confession, a method for revealing himself obliquely in all that he writes.

Obliquely? Miller gives the impression of directness, no compromise, spitting in the face of convention – and yet all this is an illusion. We never get a direct truth from Miller. This is why everything contradicts everything else in all he writes. “Don’t worry about errors when you’re writing,” he advises. “The biographers will explain all errors.” There’s no statement of fact that could sum up a human being, even if you could hold them forever unchanging in a single moment, and so you forget about facts and instead create a living, breathing portrait, and the only way to create such a vital portrait is through literature.

An essay about a great book is itself a little story. Some mood causes you to take up the book, there is an encounter, and something in you is changed forever … The encounter is one-sided, the essayist hears the voice of the author long dead and can offer nothing in return. And so instead he offers his essay into the void, to anyone who might listen. And if no one is there to listen then at least life will go on and there will be fresh encounters …

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Forgetting is the essence of writing, says Henry Miller. “Inner turmoil” must be present in good writing, and the inner life of the writer a seething chaos. Moments of past and present come to the surface and are gone again. He lives a life of lies, clowning, and time travel, all to get closer to the one thing he craves: the truth.

Miller is often alive in the past, forgetting the present moment. He dreams during the cab ride as the block of ice he is delivering melts beside him. A writer must have a necromantic conception of time, able to inhabit and bring life to any and every moment, however long past and buried, and sometimes to the exclusion of the present moment, where he is only ever a strange visitor.

Miller would often play the clown, for example when making up a story for an audience. Miller the clown has absolute faith in his own luck, so that there is no true or false, no right or wrong thing to do or say, he can just construct the tale as it pleases him and it is sure to come out alright, whether it delights, puzzles, or horrifies his listeners. However it comes out: the clown accepts the consequences of his own words and actions, however poorly and incautiously he has brought them into being.

And sometimes the recollection comes to him so vividly that he must write immediately. And once it’s all down, he throws the paper out the window. The story is told. These words, now lying on the pavement, happened to be true, or as true as he was able to make them. But another story, real or fantastic, will come along soon enough, and perhaps he will have someone to tell it to next time …

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A young Henry Miller looks around the home he now shares with his wife Mona. He turns to his library:

“Every book on the shelves had been acquired with a struggle, devoured with gusto, and had enriched our lives.”

Henry and Mona’s new home is more than they can afford. It is a paradise, simple and clean. Miller gives us an impression of space, wide polished floors, and an absence of clutter and disorder of any kind. A phrase that struck me: “not one object too many.”

I feel shame at my own clutter, my own unread books, piles of papers, books acquired too easily, pages held on to for no reason I can fathom … It’s a tottering teetering mess of shelves, bags, and boxes, strewn with crumpled and torn pages, and old forgotten books half-buried underneath.

A twisted instinct to gather all these things to me and hold them here. It all has some purpose: each book, each scrap of paper. Each speck of dust. Every atom of the world has potential meaning, and Miller ends his chapter by talking about how he would read the world, both at home and when out for his daily walks. He would read everything, a glutton. He would devour his books and then, out for a walk, he would read everything he saw: faces, buildings, street scenes … All of these stored away like passages from a book. With hindsight he can say he was storing all this up for his future work, but at the time did he know what he was doing? He was proceeding like all those full of life, seekers of joy, artists: alive, senses open, led along wherever life would take him. The natural state for an artist: chaos. The natural state for one who has learned to live in the moment.

Miller’s new home, tidy and ordered, is an oasis amid the chaos, a moment’s respite. Life throws up these flashes of calm sometimes, a blessing to anyone whose time on earth must otherwise be entirely chaotic.

(I’ve been reading Plexus by Henry Miller.)

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William Burroughs and Facts

William Burroughs tells Allen Ginsberg: “I am about to annunciate a philosophy called ‘factualism.’ All arguments, all nonsensical considerations as to what people ‘should do,’ are irrelevant. Ultimately there is only facts on all levels, and the more one argues, verbalises, moralises the less he will see and feel of fact. Needless to say, I will not write any formal statement on the subject. Talk is incompatible with factualism.”

What Burroughs is saying might be counterintuitive and difficult to grasp because ordinarily you might think of facts as something spoken. “Give me the facts!” But “facts” in Burroughs’s sense are seen and felt, the things you know because you’ve experienced them. What you’re normally encouraged to think of as facts – the things you’re told are true by politicians telling you what should be done, by popular scientists and theorists trying to explain devilishly complicated ideas in as few words as possible, by philosophers and mystics trying to transmit the meaning of life – these statements are the opposite of facts. Such spoken “facts” are in fact insane utterances, jumbled confusions of real experience, jumbled because real experiences are distorted as they are bound together into words and sentences that cannot adequately express them.

To take an example, Burroughs found Ginsberg’s attempts to describe his own mystical experiences inadequate, confusing as they do the various levels of experience to produce something untrue:

“Al’s dichotomy between ‘regular life’ and visions is not only unnecessary, it is inaccurate. I mean it does not in fact exist. ‘Either … or’ is not an accurate formula. Facts exist on infinite levels and one level does not preclude another. Insanity is the confusion of levels. Insane people do not have visions worth hearing about because they are afraid to see. The insane are too much concerned with ‘regular life’: that is with money, sex, food, digestion, illness, and the impressions they make on others. These ‘facts of life’ frighten the insane, and no man can detach himself from what he fears. In consequence the visions of the insane are unspeakably dreary.”

By listening to what are ordinarily called “facts” – the things we’re told are facts – a counterfeit reality is created. You take those verbal “facts” that you’ve accepted as true to be the building blocks of reality, and from this a kind of “common sense” is born: when you say you’re being “realistic” – doing what must be done, concerning yourself with the money you need for a good life, putting idealism to one side – you mean you’re basing your decisions on the facts of life as you see them. But where did you get your facts from?

And so there is a danger that your realism is grounded upon untruth, an unreality fabricated out of a confused mixture of levels inadequately verbalised. And that you get a simplistic, either/or view of the world. For example, we learn that being “right” means avoiding what is called “criminal” – and yet, even while you stay within the letter of the law, you might continue to do what is unethical in order to survive.

“It seems to me that you harbour some semantic confusions on the subject of crime. ‘Crime’ is simply behaviour outlawed by a given culture. There is no connection between ‘crime’ and ethics: the sadistic atrocities of the Nazi S.S. were not ‘criminal.’ I do not see a connection between lying and violation of the law. In fact there is more lying in the course of a ‘regular job’ most of which require a constant state of pretence and dissimulation. The necessity of continual misrepresentation of one’s personality is most urgent in such lines as radio, advertising, publicity, and, of course, television. Personally I find pushing junk a great deal more restful and less compromising from an ethical standpoint.”

The key thing is to pay attention to what is in fact true at the deepest level, so that you can see where the facts stand on all levels. It means an honesty with yourself. So that even a criminal can be ethical, if he is true to himself, and true to others. The deepest element is “love,” though the early Burroughs here would never have admitted it. (Famously, the final word Burroughs wrote in his journal was “LOVE,” a final realisation of the meaning of life, the course he had been following all along.) You follow your heart and walk without fear, and you can see and feel the facts, and your relation to them, and be certain of your place in the world.

(I’ve been reading The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945 to 1959, edited by Oliver Harris.)

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Notes on Deleuze and Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus

Segmentarity is when we divide things up, into segments. There are countless ways you can divide things. It depends what you’re trying to do.

Segmentarity works “in a circular fashion,” in ever wider circles, or “in a linear fashion.” When circular the segments proceed outward, like me, my street, my town, my country, the world, the galaxy … So when I’m right at the centre I belong to the outer circles too. Linear segmentarity, on the other hand, means you “proceed” from one point to the next, moving on to one segment and leaving another behind. I leave my street, and go to another street to enter my workplace. Circularly, I’m still in my town, my country … But linearly I’ve moved because I’ve moved to another street.

Linear segmentarity means you’re here, and not there. Anything can be divided into segments, you just need to want to do it. So society is divided up: home, work, school, and so on, describe different places for activity. When you’re in school, you’re not at home, and so different rules apply. “You’re not at home anymore,” Deleuze and Guattari write: this is what they tell you when you’re at school, or when you’re in the army. You’re here, and not there, and so different rules apply.

“Man” and “woman” describe segments too. “Be a man!” is intended to remind you what side you belong to, what segment you stand upon. Again, so that you know what rules you’re supposed to be following. If you feel that people need rules to follow, dividing things up is a method for justifying these rules. Divide and conquer.

In our society, we do this to ourselves, we know how the segments are divided. And many of us know that these divisions are man-made, but we treat them often as if they were the work of Nature, and unalterable. Because if it turned out we were making all this up ourselves, and that we were capable of making new division and new rules, what sense would there be in following the rules we have?

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