Evan's Reviews > Taras Bulba

Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol
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Sep 10, 12

Read from September 07 to 10, 2012

Let's get this out of the way: the notion that "Taras Bulba" accurately portrays an Eastern/Asiatic/Oriental sensibility that may be productively contrasted with a Western/European/Occidental sensibility to shed light on contemporary geo-politics is a steaming load of crap. It is neither an objective ethnography of its actual subject nor a cipher to the "clash of civilizations." Now on to a discussion of why the novel is actually interesting.

I know Gogol mainly through his play “The Inspector General” (1836, a wonderful farce on themes of bureaucracy and corruption that plays very well two centuries later) and his short story, “The Overcoat.” He is usually discussed as a progenitor of Russian naturalism and realism—especially in light of "The Overcoat", a close psychological portrait of an ordinary working man, and an obvious forerunner of the naturalist slice-of-life works of the mid to late nineteenth century.

This reputation did little to prepare me for reading "Taras Bulba", in which Gogol applies an epic sensibility to the Ukrainian Cossacks of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The word “Homeric” comes up frequently in criticism of the novel, and Homer seems an appropriate and intriguing starting place. Scenes in which the Cossacks lay siege to a Polish town and engage in bold and bloody battles recall the style of the Iliad.

In epic fashion, the novel’s characterization is larger than life and frequently epigrammatic. Robert Kaplan, in his Introduction, ascribes this to a romantic sensibility still possessed by many of the nomadic warrior cultures of Central Asia. This may very well be true. I know that many Arabs are still romanced by notions of the bedouin tradition. Just like many Americans are romanced by notions of our noble native tribes. Or Brits by the bold Saxons or mystic Druids. So much for a distinction between East and West.

At the same time, "Taras Bulba" is not merely a “realistic” portrait of Cossack culture. Gogol was a Russian nationalist, and the novel clearly partakes of the nationalist dimension of the romantic movement as well. Gogol was inspired not only by the Iliad, but also by the novels of Walter Scott, which similarly romanticized the warrior culture of the pre-modern Scots. So Gogol, in this moment of his writing, should be seen alongside Scott, Herder and Yeats and scores of other nationalist literati who re-imagined the heroic progenitors of a modern nationalism. In the coarse, unbreakable spirit of the Cossacks lies the source of a great Russian national character—that’s the idea anyhow. Much as the Arabs look to the Bedouin or the Germans to the “Germania” of Tacitus or Vergil to a Roman state founded by the great Trojan hero, Aeneas.

Insofar as the novel recalls the Iliad, there is also a more subtle triumph in aligning the “barbarian” forefathers of modern Russia with the Greek heroes at the foundation of European civilization. Taras Bulba implicitly claims that the East also has epic roots from which a legitimate civilization may be traced.

Of course, there’s much that’s offensive in the novel from a contemporary sensibility. The Cossack warriors occupy a fiercely masculine world, which women can only pollute. Indeed, the mere appearance of a pretty Polish woman instantaneously corrupts one of Bulba’s sons and turns him into a race-traitor. Bulba’s wife and mother to his sons is slightly more sympathetic, but ultimately has no role to play but to stay out of their way. The novel is also wildly chauvinistic, describing Poles as cruel fops and Jews through all the usual anti-Semitic denigrations.

Is all this really necessary? Maybe not, but it sure is typical. And that’s the usual beef with romantic nationalism—that it imagines the nation as a robust purity in contrast to a host of defiling corruptions (i.e. all other cultures).
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