The Surrealism of the Grotesque

On February 24, 1852, the mood in Moscow was one of joyful abandon. It was Maslenitsa, the last week of licentiousness before the sacrificial severity of the Great Lent began. Red-cheeked boys threw snowballs at passing sleighs. Neighbors carried trays of sweet buttery pancakes to the beggars in the alleys. Men and women laughed heartily at the ridiculous costumes of the masqueraders on their way to the countless parties around town. There was dancing and music and drink to be had in surplus.

But inside the Talyzin mansion on Nikitsky Boulevard, an emaciated and pale-faced Nikolai sat in the dark as a sign of contradiction. The deliverance of Russia, his Russia, he saw was beyond his reach. All he could do to assist now in its redemption was to cure his own filthy soul, and he’d gotten a head start. He’d barely eaten a bite since he made confession and received the Eucharist the week before. His stomach, always a problem for him throughout his life, now crowed like a rooster. He rarely slept, waking himself to recite delirious prayers of reparation.

“You are on the right path,” Father Matvey Konstantinovsky, his spiritual advisor had told him, “but it is your ideas, your imagination, your… your writing, Nikolai, that is the source of your gravest offenses. You must renounce everything you’ve ever done.”

Dead Souls was planned to be only the first book of Nikolai Gogol’s version of the Divine Comedy. Book II, his Purgatorio, the product of the last ten years of his life, he incinerated page by page in his fireplace that night.

It was not to be his only act of destruction. Nine days later, his doctors were shocked to feel his backbone through his belly as they unsuccessfully tried to save him from his “holy anorexia.”


A Convenient Indignation

In the late spring of 1915, all of Europe was gripped with fear. In Russia, the Germans had broken the lines and were advancing through Poland. In Belgium, poison gas had been deployed by the Kaiser’s forces for the first time against the French, with horribly devastating effects. And in England, they were calculating the days until they ran out of food, suffering under the third month of a complete submarine blockade of their ports. As the lamps went out across Europe, America remained rigidly neutral, at least officially, but behind the scenes the players continued to make their plays.

Two men stood in the Yellow Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace in whispered conversation. One was the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and the other was an American envoy with no particular title except “Colonel” House.

“Tell me, Colonel,” Sir Edward spoke through a haze of smoke, “what will the Americans do if the Germans sink an ocean liner with American passengers aboard?”

Colonel House replied slowly, with a hint of East Texas drawl, “A flame of indignation would sweep across America…”

From a window on the East Façade overlooking the Mall, King George turned and addressed Colonel House.

“Suppose it was the Lusitania?”

“I think that would be enough to carry us into the war.”

Just four hours later, the RMS Lusitania was sunk by German submarine U-20, eleven miles from the coast of Ireland. 1,200 persons drowned; 195 of them Americans. One of the largest ships ever built, it went down in only eighteen minutes.

It took almost two more years, but America finally did enter the war on April 4, 1917. Absent in the government findings of the incident was that the “ocean liner” Lusitania was carrying over six million rounds of contraband ammunitions and explosives.


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