Response to a reader’s criticisms of “The Egyptian Revolution through a Literary Lens”
The reader is correct to a certain extent: revolution involves hard political work, and reading novels does not make for revolution alone–and some postcolonial theory fails to address revolution in any meaningful way. But I think the reader must have quickly perused my piece, or simply misunderstood it. I did not “combine” Dead Souls and the Russian Revolution. Rather, I wrote (quite plainly) that the novel, as a literary form, often arrives in a given nation during a period that also witnesses the rise of a “mature nationalist sensibility.” In the wake of the Napoleonic invasion and the subsequent Decemberist revolt, and during a period witnessing the continuing autocracy of the Tsars, the stagnation of a feeble civil servant class with no democratic power, and the absurd continuity of serfdom in the Russian hinterlands, Dead Souls marked a new moment in national consciousness and self-awareness. As a consequence, Gogol may have even nudged the national project forward. Indeed, the profound social contradictions alive in Gogol’s novel can even to be said to anticipate the October Revolution of 1917. But that’s a very different event, marked by a very different set literary and political constraints. In fact, the internationalist quality of the October Revolution had little to do with the more limited, nationalist, anti-colonial character of the Egyptian revolution of 1919, which Mahfouz chronicles in Palace Walk.