December 13, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 4/4)


GogolStaleyNikolai Gogol (1809-1852); Layne Staley (1967-2002)


Gogol’s relationship with the Russian language differed slightly from Lermontov’s and Pushkin’s in that he grew up in a household that spoke multiple Slavic languages: his mother was Polish and he was born and raised in a Ukrainian Cossack village that was part of the Russian Empire at the time. Consequently, scholars of both Russian and Ukrainian literature have long debated his literary identity. Alongside the likes of Pushkin, Prosper Mérimée (author of Carmen), and Edgar Allen Poe, Gogol is considered one of the first masters of the short story. The Nose, arguably his most famous work, was converted into an opera that is still widely enjoyed in theaters today.

Even from the beginning of his writing career in university, Gogol developed a secretive yet ambitious personality that was heavily punctuated by a painful degree of self-consciousness. His first, self-published poem about idyllic German life entitled, Hans Küchelgarten, was criticized by every magazine that he sent it to. As a result, he bought all of the remaining copies, destroyed them, and swore never to write poetry again. This chronic anxiety about how well his works were received would eventually be the death of him.

After his career took an upturn with the great success of The Government Inspector, a satire of Russian beaurocracy, his concomitant realization that satirical comedy was his literary forte led to his widespread fame and further acclaim. Dead Souls, The Nose, and The Overcoat are among his best works that exhibit his sardonic wit and insightful social commentary on issues pertaining especially to Russia under the rule of Czar Nicholas I.

Throughout his career, however, Gogol remained prey to the opinions of others, internalizing their criticisms and chastizing himself in harmful ways. In particular, the judgement of Matvey Konstantinovsky, a spiritual elder who Gogol constantly consulted during his last years, instilled such a strong sense of self-loathing in Gogol that it convinced him to despise the fantastical elements in his work as a mark of sinfulness. At the same time, Gogol was experiencing maddening writer’s block in trying to complete the second half of Dead Souls. Out of frustration, he burned many of his manuscripts containing its contents, blamed this act on the Devil possessing him temporarily, and fell into a deep depression. For nine days afterwards, his extreme ascetic practices led him to refuse all food in self-chastisement. Finally, he died in agony of starvation.

Staley also died in isolation after a long period of self-loathing, in large part brought on by his addiction to drugs. Having been discovered for his talent from when he was a teenager, Staley’s involvement with drugs went hand in hand with his rising star status in the Seattle grunge movement of the early 1990’s, which changed the face of rock music. Among hits such as “Man in the Box,” “Hate to Feel,” and “Angry Chair,” he wrote many of Alice in Chains’ most popular songs and imbued them with the distinct voice for which he was well known. On the tenth anniversary of Staley’s death in 2012, The Atlantic paid a tribute to him written by David de Sola, who noted that, “The Seattle grunge scene…produced four great voices, but the most distinct among them belonged to Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley…His ability to project power and vulnerability in his vocals… made for a style that would get copied for years after Alice in Chains became a household name.” Many of the lyrics in his songs aptly bring out the feelings of helplessness and depression that often accompany drug addiction.

One of the other three great voices referred to by Sola included Kurt Cobain, who was known as a friend and respected contemporary of Staley’s. In fact, a picture of the two of them was included in Alice in Chains’ music video for “Voices.” Similar to the way in which Gogol and Lermontov were affected by Pushkin’s death and compelled them to write Dead Souls and Death of a Poet, respectively, Staley was deeply saddened by Cobain’s death in 1994 and was jolted enough to make a surprising stage appearance shortly after the band had announced their intended hiatus—a decision due to Staley’s flailing functionality and need for drug rehabilitation. Although the concert was in May, Staley showed up in a ski mask, apparently to hide his sickly and deteriorating appearance.

The remaining years of Staley’s life became increasingly shrouded by his addiction, withdrawal from the rest of the world, and refusals to interact with even his fellow musicians. His slow decline in all abilities was noted by the few who did see him occasionally. From 1999 to 2002, Staley barely left his apartment and was finally discovered dead there by the police weeks after his actual death. According to the report, they found him with a syringe in his leg, a loaded syringe in his hand, and next to several bottles of spray paint, two crack pipes, and a stash of cocaine. At 6 feet tall (1.83m), he only weighed 86 pounds (39 kg) by the time he died, rendering him as emaciated as Gogol was after he starved himself to death. In an eerie coincidence of events, Staley also died on April 5, the same day of Cobain’s death.

Back (part 1/4): Introduction



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