Gogol's “St. John’s Eve”

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Civilization and anti-Civilization in Gogol's “St. John’s Eve.” by Matthew Raphael Johnson



It might seem rather odd to have a social vision that bases itself on “anti-civilizationism.” All political ideologies assume some sort of order, an order emphasizing certain goods over others. However, the advent of global trade and mass society has led some writers to begin questioning the vary nature of civilization, and that nature might be summed up as stratification: the domination of one class over the others, for good or ill.

Politics is itself a vision that demands domination: individualism demands the suppression of institutions that substitute collective for individual goods, socialism demands the suppression of capitalism, racialism demands the suppression of race-mixing, etc. All politics demands power, suppression and oppression for one good or another. In other words, any order, that is the concept of civilization itself, demands the victory of one set of wills over others, the former demanding the permanent silencing of the latter.

Post-modern critiques of modernity are far from the pseudo-intellectual fluff of the college town coffee house or the REM concert after-party. Though there is much of this fluff, there is still a kernel of truth to the criticism of modern rationalism. In mass society, one where opinions come mass packaged as “acceptable” ideologies, politics, economics, religion and history all are manufactured entities, administered, prepackaged and offered to the public as “reasonable discourse.” Living in such an era, it makes perfect sense to question the very notion of civilization, that is, the systematic creation of ideologies of oppression and administration. Part of the post-modern criticism, as specifically formulated by Foucault, is that power has long graduated from the primitive dualism of governed and governing; serf-lord; slave-master; employer-employee; madman-psychiatrist, etc., but power is now found in every minute aspect of modern life. So much has been internalized and not even acknowledged as power, leaving modern, mass-societies as the most complete totalitarian regimes ever devised. It is the creeping realization of this aspect of power as wielded in the modern world that is spurring the present rather lively (though often immature) discourse on civilization as such.

A particularly powerful view of this is found in Gogol’s first (1830) published work, “St. John’s Eve.” Gogol’s short stories are often divided into two sections: the Ukrainian tales and the St. Petersburg tales. The significance of this is that the peasant communities that are the subject of the Ukrainian tales are contrasted to the administered and arbitrary “Europeanness” of St. Petersburg. So, for example, the fine “Old World Landowners,” an idyllic tale of the peasant community of the old type, free of oppression and arbitrariness and fed by the simple joys of rural society, is contrasted to the cold, bureaucratic and very “civilized” St. Petersburg life in such classics as “The Nose” or “The Overcoat.” In this writer’s view, the single best description of the degradation of women through what would later be called the “sexual revolution” is found in the first part of “Nevesky Prospekt,” a topic reserved, for sure, for another essay. Therefore, it seems rather clear that Gogol is making a single thesis clear through a series of short stories reflecting two very different worlds.

The creation of “civilization” out of hunter-gatherer societies is an area shrouded in mystery. Rather crude leftists claim that the existence of private property, itself appearing from out of nowhere, necessitated a series of ideas and institutions that divided the haves from the have-nots, and such ideological justifications continue to this day. Christians, however, have a different view, and it derives from the etymology of the name “Cain,” as the “builder of a city.” That is, fallen humanity, one where will was to clash with will, necessitated the attempted domination of nature through the creation of civilization, monuments to the will of the stronger and their ideologies of justification. It is wilfulness, the desire to have one’s ego reign supreme over others, that was the second most significant fruit of the expulsion from Eden (after death, itself closely related to urbanization). Civilization then, is the groaning of fallen man for paradise, for the needs of man to be finally met once and for all, but, of course, to discover that his apparent needs are ever expansive and ultimately unsatiable. Technology then, is a pathetic attempt for man to reach his hearts desire, forgetting that a) it is always the case that a select group of people control technics for their own ends, and b) that human desires are infinite, but the sacrifices demanded of the common people to fund and support such projects are not.

Of course, the true fruits of urbanization (or the concentration of civilized traits) are continued conflict, oligarchy and external wars against other cities and civilizations. In the New Testament, Christ was tempted in the desert after fasting for 40 days. One of these temptations was the control over all the cities of the world, assuming of course that these were Satan’s to give. Urbanization is presented here as a “temptation,” as the products of disordered passions and lusts.

Urbanization comes into existence because an oligarchy needs quick access to labor, financing and fellowship with others of his same means. Cities are built with the labor of classes who do not taste the fruits of civilization in that they receive a minute (and ever shrinking) fraction of the capital generated from such places. Thousands die in wars defending the city, and civil strife is always present, no matter how well run the city might be. The very construction of a city demands sacrifices, as, often, many workmen are led to their death in dangerous projects, diseases like typhus spread particularly violently in urban environments, water resources are easily polluted and plagues ravage concentrated populations. Diseases unknown to rural society suddenly spring up in urban environments, where all the above circumstances are usually in effect. Cancer, for example, was unknown in social life until the advent of smoke stack industries and chemically treated foods.

Cities place an unnatural burden on the surrounding countryside, where farm laborers must work harder and harder to feed growing populations, while these populations, easily agitated and organized, demand food at cheaper and cheaper rates. Urbanization is contradictory at its very foundations. In short, urbanization (which I’m using here as basically synonymous with civilization) is a highly irrational form of life for all except the oligarchy who benefits from it. The fruits of urbanization, the fruits of Cain, are fratricide: death in construction, death in internal strife, death from disease and polluted water, death to the earth as more and more is demanded from her to feed the cities, and death from wars to defend the cities.

There is no doubt that it is this view of urbanization that led Gogol through most of his written work. For him, Ukraine was poor, but in her poverty she escaped the death and disease of European urbanization. He writes concerning the poor appearance of the village in question: “It wasn’t really poverty, because almost everybody went out Cossacking and got large amounts of goods in faraway lands; but further because there was no need of a decent cottage.”

St. Petersburg was not Russian, but European, something engaged in to explicitly reject the Orthodox tradition of Moscow. In Slavic Orthodox civilization, the agrarian life was stressed above all, and significant urbanization in Russia came only in the reign of Catherine the Great. In Serbia, urbanization developed precisely in lockstep with the fortunes of foreign finance capital in Vienna and Paris serving the tiny oligarchy of Belgrade. In both countries, the rural commune, centering around the church (and there, they were familiar with the daily cycle of services) and folk custom were central, but were easily subverted through debt. As I have written elsewhere, St. Petersburg was a Faustian project. After being initiated into a Masonic cult as Peter toured Europe early in his reign a century prior to Gogol’s work, the tsar became possessed with the desire to radically change Russian elite life, that is, to urbanize them and, meaning the same thing, Europeanize them. While Peter was gone, the streltsy, the elite musketeers, staged an uprising in favor of the younger half-brother of Peter, Ivan V, and his mother, Sophia. The streltsy represented Muscovite tradition: ruralism, decentralized political rule, the Old Belief (i.e. pre-Nikonian Orthodoxy) and the peasant commune. They represented, in short, everything Peter came to hate. In his return to the capital, Peter murdered hundreds of these men and banished the rest to remote outposts.

He went to create his own capital, named for himself, over the most inhospitable bogs in Europe, just over the channel from Finland. This is no accident: urbanization represents the will’s desire to conquer nature. In this case, Peters gargantuan ego was to conquer mosquito-infested bogs, creating a thriving capital of culture and civilization over them. In order to do this, Peter forcibly brought the other representatives of Orthodox tradition, the Cossacks of the steppe, to work as essentially slave labor in these bogs, where thousands died of disease, all sacrifices of Peter’s love of “Europe.” The symbolism could not have been clearer to a Gogol: St. Petersburg, named for the ego of Peter, symbolically creating European power and culture over the dead bodies of Cossacks (literally) and the traditionalist streltsy, having tamed some of the most difficult terrain on the planet. It is no accident that the life represented in “Old World Landowners” is contrasted, not to Moscow, not to Novgorod, but to the city of Peter’s ego.

It is with precisely with this background that we now get involved with the rather simple story of “St. John’s Eve.” The synopsis is that a poor, identityless servant, Pytor “Kinless” (which is a literal translation), falls in love with his master’s daughter, a Cossack girl named Pidorka. Pidorka, however, is to be married in a loveless match with a Polish nobleman. In a fit of sorrow and rage, Pytor is approached by a man the simple peasant folk consider a demon in human flesh, Basavariuk, who has a plan, of sorts, to cancel the loveless marriage and arrange a marriage with Pidorka herself. The plan succeeds, though no happiness comes from it, and Pytor eventually goes insane. It is within he few pages of this story that Gogol’s vision of civilization, represented by St. Petersburg and Europe in general, is created.

First, it is important to note the Gogol opens with a brief description of the village where this all takes place. It takes place, several generations back. The village itself, by the brief description, is barely a village; it is a few very shoddy huts, a church and a tevern. The priest of the local church is a very traditional man who is respected by the small population of this extremely poor village. In other words, this village is the very nature of traditional agrarian, Cossack society in that there is absolutely no indication that the people were unhappy. It is as far from urban as one can get. And yet, there is a native intelligence to the population, an intelligence often overlooked by the city folk in Russia or America.

Time and again, Basavariuk arrives on the scene, always armed with presents for the young girls: earrings, precious stones, ribbon and other items rather foreign to this poor population. In this case, these are the first rumblings of civilized life, the importance urban, polite society places on such trinkets, trinkets that have nothing to do with real wealth or happiness. However, as Gogol writes about anyone who was to accept these gifts, “you can’t get rid of them, throw the devilish ring or necklace into the swamp, and it comes right back to your hand.” In other words, such trinkets quickly hypnotize a population, who, as in urban life, come to place great importance on such things completely against their actual utility or importance. Their addictiveness, in other words, is nearly instant, and it is this attraction where simple country folk get quickly dragged into the arbitrary and very expensive life of a European.

The very arrangement of the marriage between Pidorka and the Pole again, represents the arbitrariness of urban, European life: Pidorka is betrothed to this man not because of any real love, or even of any interest of the village, but merely because he has a title and some wealth. This is unmistakably part of the arbitrary world of European life, as Poland was a part of the west, rather than the east, and it is this convention that Pytor is groaning about when the devil in human flesh approaches him in the tavern, and tells poor Pytor of his plan. Pytor, for his part, claims in no uncertain terms that “he’s ready for anything.” In other words, it is his lust and desire for acceptance and respect that forces him into a deal with a demon.

Unsurprisingly, the plan requires a human sacrifice, though Pytor is ignorant of that detail until the actual commission of the plan.. Every aspect of European, urban life is predicated on sacrifice of human life, in one manner or other. St. Petersburg was constructed quite literally over the rotting corpses of the Cossacks, who represented not only agrarian liberty, but the freedom of the Russian southern steppe and the very anti-urban life of the Cossack host that was very much a part of their identity. The sacrifice of being European? The sacrifice of rural simplicity, where, in most cases, the landlords were as poor as their peasants, towards the “complex” and civilized life of the west, based around money and power. Peasants were now forced to pay far higher taxes than they were used to to finance St. Petersburg and the numerous wars that came from it. Being a European meant ostentation, importance and attention paid to trinkets and metals, high taxes and high casualty wars.

The two men take a walk after dark. They pass a terrain very similar to that of St. Petersburg: stinking bogs, painful thorns and deep ravines. These represent not merely the conquering of nature that civilization requires (and this requires, in return, human sacrifice) but also represents the nature of the laboring in constructing cities, as well as maintaining them. Such labor is back breaking, and is mostly done in a social context where the rewards for such harsh labor accrues to the oligarchy whose interest is served by city life in general.

Basavriuk takes him to an open area, where before Pytor lies three knolls. Basavriuk tells him to wait until the fern flowers (and it flowers red), and then to pick it. Other flowers will appear, but these are not to be taken. After a lightening flash (symbolic of the devil’s fall, as well as man’s), the flowers grow. As the red one sprouts, many hands come out of nowhere to grasp it as well. After this, a witch appears, at the invitation of Basavriuk, and orders Pytor to throw the flower into the air, which then promptly turns into a bright ball of fire, which gently came back to earth, shrinking in size, and where it landed, Pytor was to begin digging. He uncovered a tiny casket, and the witch makes the whole thing clear by saying that: “you won’t get any gold until I get some human blood!” Before Pytor, at that moment, stood Ivas, his master’s six year old boy. The witch ordered him to decapitate the infant, and all the gold that lay underneath the earth was his. The witch made the earth beneath him crystal clear, which exposed the earth’s contents: more gold than he could imagine. At this sight, Pytor thrusts his knife into the boy, killing him. The witch then drank his blood. The next scene is the wedding between Pidorka and Pytor, and the two of them living a wealthy, though oddly unhappy life. The villagers, showing their typical peasant intelligence, muttered that “no good could come from the devil.”

The vividness of Gogol’s account might well be chalked up to his youth, this was, after all, his first literary offering. Though subtleties abound, the vision conjured up by the murder scene speaks loud and clear to Gogol’s message about urbanization in general, and post-Petrine Russia, in particular. The introduction of the witch is meant to convey that there is an immediate connection between the occult sciences and human civilization, the rule of the powerful and urbanization, or the mastery of the elite human will over creation. The gold and stones under the earth represent the practice of mining, usually to make the elite wealthy and help pay for their wars, which requires the most painful, backbreaking and deadly labor. Of all the forms of labor the elite will forces upon their victims, mining is far and away the worst in terms of both early deaths, disfigurement and crushing surroundings.

The murder of the young boy represents many things. Primarily, it represents the death of innocence, the death of Eden, man’s sinlessness and the introduction to a world of unsatiable human appetite and lust, leading invariably to the creation of an elite ruling class defending their interests. It also represents the Satanic sacrament of abortion, practiced symbolically among many ancient pagan tribes in Latin America and the Levant. The murder of a boy or girl is meant to buttress the continued success of civilized and urban life, representing, in graphic terms, the rule of lust and convenience over life and family. In modern societies, abortion has been legalized, though force, by these very same elements, and is maintained by a feminist cult that views abortion as necessary to “liberate” women from family and bring them into the workplace to make money for themselves. In other words, babies are sacrificed for continuing prosperity and the illusion of freedom that civilized slavery provides.

The three knolls presents something of a problem. However, Gogol was an Orthodox man and was educated enough to understand the implications of true Christianity. The three knolls may well represent both the Platonic and Orthodox doctrine of tri-compositeness, that man is constituted from three elements: body, soul and spirit. Each of these represents a certain sort of life. The first, to the bestial life of lust, the second, to secular wisdom, and third, to the life within the Holy Spirit in Orthodox asceticism. There is no question that, at this point, Pytor is facing a choice, a choice as to what goods mean the most to him. He clearly chooses that of the bestial man, for its pleasures are the most immediate and crude.

The remainder of the story probably could be recited by the reader by this point. Pytor eventually goes insane. His mind became a blank after the murder, and he was tortured by the memory of something, but something he could never completely grasp. By becoming part of “Europe,” Pytor was robbed of his memory: his actions, one could say, were not his, but were dictated to the lusts created by civilized life, a life that worships dead matter, the matter of gold and silver, over and above the lives of children, workmen, and the mass of the populace in general.

Eventually, in her hope to find a cure, Pidorka runs to the “old hag” who lived beyond the ravine where the murder occurred. The old witch came to the house, on the eve of St. John’s day, which triggered the memory from Pytor. Pytor grabbed an axe and swung it at the hag, who quickly evaporated. The door of the house shut tight, and, when it was finally opened, no one was to be found, The gold and silver had turned to dust, and Pidorka, it was said entered a monastery and became an ascetic.

In Russian culture, the axe represented division, schism. In some societies, the instrument is a scythe, often called the Scythe of Saturn, representing the ultimate schism, the division of man from nature, or the demand of will to conquer and subdue nature for the desires of the flesh, desire leading to institutionalized conflict and domination, or urban civilization.

In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, the name literally means the “son of schism,” or the “man from the schism,” murdered his hag, in that case the pawn broker and her daughter, with an axe. There too, the axe is used as a symbol of the division of will from the natural order, or the small scale rural settlements and decentralized forms of social authority deriving from them. Decentralized social authority and agrarian communalism are opposed by urbanization, where authority is turned into power, and centralized into the hands of the money changers, or those who finance, and therefore dictate to, the owners of the means of production.

Work is transformed from a seasonal cycle to the unnatural and closed regimentation of the factory and workshop, man is thereby bestialized, living for his lusts and only for his lusts. Of course, the bestial man’s passion can only be satisfied either though civil strife, or, as in the case of post modern societies, at the expense of being able to criticize the lusts of the wealthy. If the average can indulge in pornography, and seek their own interests in the financial sphere, than the wealthy can do so as well. If a man can be brought to accept such institutions as abortion, fraud or pornography, then he becomes dependent on those who guarantee him that apparent freedom.

The problem is laid out throughout the course of “St. John’s Eve,” that is, once one tastes of the fruits of civilization, it is very difficult to go back, and accept the simple life of agrarian community. The “thrills” of the big city to the wide-eyed country boy are not easily dislodged from his head, and, as he returns home, is invariably finds what he considers a humdrum existence. The urban existence, with is oppressive unnaturalness, will soon exact its price on its pleasures. Gogol was hardly the first to deal with this problem: Rousseau also dealt with it in his First Discourse for example. St. Basil the Great, in talking about monastic life, tells of the contradiction between separating oneself from urban life, only to realize that, in the desert, you brought all the memories, feelings and lusts of the city with you, in your mind and memory.