Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

In Search of the Good Life

In Gogol’s short story, “the Overcoat,” we have the tale of a lowly bureaucrat, named Akaky, who aspires to nothing more in life than to do his work alone each day in silence; then, when he is done, to return home to his humble dwelling in which he lives out his days alone, without the distractions of a  wife, family, or friends, and not even a dog to keep him company. There he eats his meager dinner, alone, in silence, like a prisoner in solitary confinement, and fills the remaining hours of the day before he goes to sleep, by copying some document that he brought home from the office. This is the sum total of Akaky’s existence. Each day is a repetition of the one that came before, and despite what seems to us as a dreary, lonely existence, Akaky is content with his life. In fact, you might even describe him as happy, if by happiness you mean the absence of any stress or imagination or desire. He is a man without ambition and so he is perfectly content with his humble station in life. This makes Akaky  the perfect employee. He’s like a reliable machine: shows up punctually every day to do his work; never asks for a promotion, and always does exactly what he is told to do. Within his own tiny realm of existence, Akaky seems to be at peace. So is this Gogol’s idea of the one true path to serenity?

I don’t think so. It is difficult for any American today to read this story sympathetically and understand or agree with Gogol’s depiction of a stable, bureaucratic society filled with workers like Akaky. This man aspires to nothing in life but the role he is given at birth, as an impoverished, uneducated, and quiescent bureaucrat.  He may as well be a serf working under the Czar. But if all workers were as content as Akaky, there never would have been a revolution in Russia and the Czar would still be sitting on his throne. On the other hand, maybe Akaky is the model for a new kind of Russian who keeps his mouth shut, does his work, and makes no trouble for anyone.

Of course, here today in the United States we have our own government bureaucracy in which many people do mindless jobs without ever having an original thought of their own. The same might be said for any civil service job whether in China, India or Great Britain. But this is not how we started. The revolution was fought to establish a land of freedom and opportunity, where anyone willing to work, could improve his lot in life and, with a little luck, eventually prosper. Yet the mind of Akaky does not embrace any vision or desire for progress. So, we wonder is what happens to Akaky his own fault, or is it just bad luck? He was a man who never made friends or joined any society, and never participated in the life of his community, either in church or his own neighborhood. In other words, he lived his life in solitude. Even monks who abandon the larger world outside for the quiet life of a monastery are more social than Akaky.

What is Gogol trying to say in this story? Is he saying that if we all lived like Akaky, as solitary bachelors, doing our work each day in silence without the slightest degree of ambition, that our society will become more noble and just? I don’t think so.  There is no justice for Akaky until he dies and comes back as a ghost. Then, he takes matters into his own hands and gets his revenge by taking someone else’s coat.

Akaky represents the kind of man who is oblivious to everything around him. His attention is focused on the immediate task before him, and does not waver with speculation or worry about larger issues. To me, he exhibits the narrow vision of a man afflicted with cultural autism. Nor does he seem to have much of an interior life. If he was a Platonic philosopher building castles in the air, or Don Quixote looking for Dulcinea, we might understand his withdrawal from society and even applaud his solitude. But he is not on some noble quest for moral redemption. He is a simple man with no particular interest in anything other than his own work. Whatever he is, Akaky is not the kind of man that Hamilton and Madison had in mind when they argued for a new constitutional republic.

A republic stands or falls on the virtue of its citizens. Yet we are reminded that one of the meanings of virtue comes from the old Roman idea of devotion to one’s duty. But duty to what? And this leads to a different kind of question: what is our duty today? Should we be involved in the politics of the nation or should we just focus on our own careers? Other than just obeying the laws of the land, is anything further required of us?  What about God? Do we have a duty to God? And where was God when Akaky was robbed of his coat? When the ghost of Akaky gets revenge by stealing the coat from a prosperous bureaucrat, is this justice? Maybe Gogol is suggesting that justice is only possible in the hereafter.

If so, this is a very pessimistic view that most Americans will not accept, for it means that the Enlightenment premiss of freedom and justice through knowledge and literacy is a failed experiment. Then all we have left is commerce and the free market. On the other hand, if Akaky had more wealth, he could have just bought himself another new coat when his first one was stolen from him. So, the moral of this story must be that if we all have enough money, we can buy ourselves new coats whenever we feel like it, and the world will be a better place.

Is the story of Akaky and his coat a tragedy or a farce? I guess it depends on your understanding of justice. If justice means getting revenge for the indifference of petty bureaucrats,  then Gogol’s story is a comic farce. But if justice means a general respect for the dignity of human beings, then this story is a tragedy, although not in the classical sense. It is more like the tragedy of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which is what happens to all of us when our luck runs out and poverty and old age bring us to ruin. Unless you believe in ghosts and second chances, there’s not much consolation in being poor.


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