Sunday, April 06, 2003

I've always been a huge fan of Nikolai Gogol -- I've read Dead Souls something like three times, in three different translations, and "The Overcoat" is, I think, one of the world's great stories. But -- perhaps because I came to Gogol through Nabokov, as I have so much else -- I've never thought of him as either a realist or particularly relevant to the daily news: I think of him as a satirist with a uniquely personal vision -- a surrealist, a "magical realist," long before the world had any use for such terms.

Apparently, such wasn't always the case. In the May Atlantic, Robert Kaplan -- who is I believe the Bush administration's unofficial in-house academic on matters Iraqi and Middle Eastern -- sees the 1835 Taras Bulba, which I've never read, as a fairly prescient examination of the wars between true believers.

Gogol's Cossacks represent the ultimate mob, fueled by the crude belief systems and symbolism that sustain what the national-security analyst Ralph Peters has called "euphorias of hatred." Peters notes that although individual people are equally capable of love and hatred, crowds are incomparably better at hatred: individuals within a crowd are are able to take part in cathartic violence without having to accept responsibility for it. The crowd that cheered in Ramallah in October of 2000, as two Israeli soldiers were tortured and defenestrated, is a classic example of this.

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