“He could tell a very good story to the effect that a cannon was one thing and a unicorn was another.”
These curious words stayed with me long after I’d forgotten where I first read them. I remember thinking about them one day and scouring the pages of Don Quixote, supposing that perhaps they referred to the loquacious Sancho Panza… but no luck. I think part of my difficulty in remembering the context may have been because that’s not the sort of passage that jumps out as you’re reading it; it’s not climactic, cathartic, or revelatory. In fact it seems rather incidental. But something about that phrase kept wheels turning in my head long after I’d put the book down, and I finally found out why (quite unexpectedly) when I happened to re-read Gogol’s story Nevsky Prospekt.
A bit of background in case you’ve not yet read the story—as typical of Gogol’s work, it’s set in Tsarist Russia, and the title refers to a central street in St. Petersburg, at the time the capital of the Russian Empire. The plot centers around two young men, casual acquaintances apparently, as each pursues a young woman he meets on the famous avenue. (I considered trying not to spoil the ending, but it probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with classic Russian literature that they both fail abysmally.) I imagine different people will perceive different thematic emphases, but I’ve always felt it was primarily about the often-symmetrical relationship between dream and reality.
The first character to be described, Piskarev, is an artist. Prone to flights of fancy, he immediately conjures all kinds expectations of the beauty he sees walking down the street. His conception of this woman as the epitome of divine virtue is shattered when she leads him to a brothel (which he flees as soon as he recognizes it as such). Fortunately, he meets her again shortly thereafter and she begins to explain the colossal misunderstanding that their first meeting must have caused. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a chance to finish her explanation before Piskarev wakes up. He soon becomes obsessed with dreaming about this woman—”from that time his life was strangely turned upside down; he might be said to sleep when he was awake and to come to life when he was asleep… with the impatience and passion of a lover [he] waited for the evening and his coveted dreams.”
Pirogov, on the other hand, is a soldier, and much more down-to-earth. He has no interest in dreams, and no wild assumptions about the position or character of the woman he pursues. He’s not even bothered by the fact that the object of his attentions seems perfectly content with her husband. In fact, he visits her husband’s shop on several occasions as a pretense for seeing her, and as his open yet un-encouraged pursuit continues, one starts to wonder which of the protagonists really had the more tenuous grasp on reality—the artist’s pursuit of his dreams may have been irrationally excessive, but at least he recognized that the love affair was entirely in his head.
Getting back to the initial quote, “he could tell a very good story to the effect that a cannon was one thing and a unicorn was another.” This is in the description of Pirogov’s character, and on the surface seems to indicate a charming ability to state the obvious in entertaining ways. Since I’ve only read the story in translation, maybe this is all it means—but I nevertheless find the choice of “cannon” and “unicorn” as significant. There are countless opposites Gogol could have used here—something light and something heavy, something tiny and something immense—but he chooses to contrast something utterly fantastic with something brutally concrete. I can’t help but find these images to be emblematic of dream and reality, and to reinterpret that phrase on another level. Oftentimes, the “very good stories” we tell to amuse each other are not true at all. Is there truly such a clear and rigid separation between dream and reality, or is that just a story?
It’s certainly the case that both the artist and the soldier are influenced by their dreams (whether acknowledged as such or not) to make decisions which resulted in very real consequences. I suspect the same is also true for nearly everyone alive. I know it’s true for myself; moreover in this case they weren’t even my dreams. The dreams of two fictional characters, who in turn could be thought of as dreams of Nikolai Gogol’s, have led me to write a piece of music based on their story.