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The Overcoat

J.W. Horan

The Overcoat

Like most people, Russian satirist Nikolai Gogol lived a sad life and then he died. Yet his pitiable existence extends beyond the typical Russian sentimentalizing of misery. A quick physiognomy check proves that, were he alive today, he’d surely be a zealous they/them—maybe even a xe/xir.

Gogol’s incisive wit and innovative prose developed not in spite of his abject feebleness, but precisely because of it. From a poor but noble family, bullied as an overly sensitive child, and chronically infirm, it’s no surprise that he eventually became obsessed with his own ascetic piety and fasted himself into an early grave. His work, brilliant as it is, came from a place of deep timidity and insecurity.

Gogol’s oeuvre is filled with themes of existential angst, social and spiritual alienation, and the struggle for meaning as an outsider in a society built for the strong. Like all weaklings, his resentment led him to psychologize the strong, or his perception of them. They are tortured, insecure, vain—just like him, only with a better facade. Even living through the great turmoil of early 19th century Russia, he went to his grave still believing that the aristocratic system of the powerful could be tweaked and improved rather than abolished entirely. And despite commercial success and patronage by Czar Nicholas I, after 42 short years Gogol fell into despair, fugue, and died some days later after burning the manuscript for volume two of his magnum opus, Dead Souls.

So unsurprisingly, Gogol’s protagonists often mirror his own defects—none more so than Akaky Akakievich Bogdanovich in Russia’s most esteemed short story, The Overcoat. Despite being functionally the opposite of Gogol, Akaky reflects the same compulsions as his maker. The same alienation that makes for a sensitive artist also makes for the perfect bureaucrat.

Akaky is a petty bureaucrat in some irrelevant office. He is the perfect bureaucrat, but not the bureaucrat’s bureaucrat. No ambitious bureaucrat would ever admit his qualities make for the ideal. He is a diligent copier. His job is to copy the letters of better men and he takes great pride in it. He has no ambition for more and even deeply fears being assigned original work.  Balding and sweaty, meek and timid, he has no friends or family to speak of, no personal effects, and no love or drive for power. He admires power—trembling in the presence of powerful men, and sometimes copying personal mementos of letters to important people—but he knows his place is well outside its ranks. He is socially impotent, knows it, and is content with it.

Sometimes, however, his resentment boils over. He wishes he was paid a little more. He wishes his colleagues would stop bullying him; “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” he cries in frustration one day after years of torment. He wishes the bureaucratic chain of command could be more streamlined, and that secretaries would be more reliable. He believes wholeheartedly in “the system” but just wishes it worked a little better so he could perform his duties more effectively. Even his resentment is impotent, lacking any power dynamic—that is, until the northern cold brings a whole new raison d’etre.

Akaky’s overcoat is worn bare, and he must commission a new one by winter—no small chunk of his meager salary. Like any good bureaucrat, he obsesses over the details: scrimping, saving, calculating, and checking in regularly with his tailor to strategize a plan. But fantasizing about the coat, his ambition grows. He dreams of the finest wool and furs, how it will feel to wear, how it will be received by those around him. After six months, he finally receives the finished product with all its exquisite detail, and excitedly wears it to a party at his boss’ home. Energized by the aura of the coat, he stops to check out a French woman on his way to the party, where he goes on to imbibe and socialize more than he could ever dream in his old coat. In his inebriated state, he is robbed on the way home and returns back to earth, reawakened to his pitiable state.

Akaky makes several appeals to the powers-that-be to catch the thief, but no one has much interest in helping an unimportant man like him. They are all too concerned with the narrow scope of their own position and hold themselves in far too much esteem. Finally, in desperation, he appeals to a Prominent Personage for help, who proceeds to cruelly chastise him for daring to break the bureaucratic chain of command. Terrified, Akaky flees, forgetting any hope of reclaiming his coat. Like Gogol, he falls into despair, fugue, and dies some days later to the notice or care of absolutely no one—but, not before forcefully cursing all those who wronged him in his quest to retrieve the coat.

In contrast to Akaky, the Prominent Personage is the bureaucrat’s bureaucrat—the strong, as Gogol imagines, and he explains his fraudulent persona in great detail, relishing that this really just a weakling in disguise. He remains nameless, just an archetype, the type of man Akaky’s taunting colleagues aspire to be but that Akaky himself has no desire to emulate. Overly confident around his inferiors but reserved around his superiors, he takes pride in saying things like, “Do you know to whom you are speaking?” He lives by the system, but only so far as it insulates his overly fragile status-anxiety and insecurity. Picking on weak men like Akaky is just a perk of the job. But still, he later comes to feel guilty for his cruel behavior and reaches out to help find the overcoat, only to learn that Akaky has since died.

Here, the story culminates with a supernatural twist. Akaky’s ghost returns to the streets of St. Petersburg, stealing overcoats from unsuspecting victims. Only in death does his resentment evolve to a quest for domination. He eventually comes across the Prominent Personage, and puts such a deep fear in the man that rivals his own in life. He brings the great man of conceit down to his own level, and can at last be at peace. His ghost is seen no more.

Yet look around our own streets today, and it appears Akaky’s ghost has once again returned with a vengeance. The modern bureaucrat is no longer the weakling of society, demeaned, overlooked and underpaid. No, today the bureaucrat is exalted—from the lowest grunt to the highest official, his so-called rational judgment makes him the ultimate voice of authority. This authority was permitted, by the strong of the old system, to develop with the understanding that an ostensibly neutral expert class would streamline technical solutions to non-political problems. But high on power for the first time in history, the expert-nerd transformed his values into a collective moral worldview distinct from, and often diametrically opposed to, the broader community. The result? Even our value judgments have been outsourced, as questions of right and wrong now enjoy the quantitative authority of “true” and “false.”

Yet these rational actors are anything but, with weakness being their only objective quality.  Their “truth” is fatally imbued with the resentment, compulsions, and petty ambitions of the weak, now epistemically weaponized—Akaky’s ghost back for his ultimate revenge.  The weak have supplanted the strong, but taken on none of their obligations, their sense of noblesse oblige.

Everywhere, we see their influence—our world now designed to cater to the weak.  The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission empowers an army of schoolmarms to subjugate corporate America to the most sensitive, defective freaks within their ranks. Universities prefer the marginalized over the merited. Even the U.S. military and police forces have lowered standards to cater to fatties and the mentally ill. It’s not just about empowering the weak per se, but carrying out a true revaluation of all values, to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous phrase.

The condition of the bureaucrat is a permanent fixture of his nature. He enjoys political power today, but being driven only by spite and resentment, he remains spiritually weak. He still imagines the strong as a paranoid function of his own wormlike nature, and can only attack through backhanded subversion or by punching downwards and proclaiming himself noble after the fact.

What he wants is true strength, but he cannot even accurately imagine it, let alone possess it. This is the source of his ambition, his desire to climb the ladder of rank and status. From his own resentful position, where he feels perpetually impotent, he imagines strength as the ability and conscious desire to dominate. In other words, he feels there is no inherent difference between himself and those he resents, merely a matter of dueling wills. If, through some backhanded means, he can worm his way into a position where he is able to dominate others, he wants to believe he has captured the mantle of strength. But he never truly feels on equal footing, so the thirst for domination grows insatiable. He fails to see the difference between himself and those, who at the deepest reaches of his soul,  he knows are his natural betters.

In The Overcoat, there is no fundamental difference between Akaky and the Prominent Personage. Only their degree of impotence separates them. The true marker of strength is acting wholly free from both resentment and conceit, for oneself alone—something that neither character, nor their author, could ever understand. A truly prominent personage would not need the external acknowledgement of his status to be assured of his own prominence. He would understand his value intrinsically, even if he held the lowest rank. His strength is not just a matter of degree or position within a homogenous humanity, but a fundamentally different form of life.

We can blame the overcoat for instilling a sense of vanity in Akaky, creating an ego where once there was none. In our day, we can blame Wilson or Roosevelt for empowering a new priestly class to determine the most important questions of our age. But to do so is pointless. Weak men, the type attracted to bureaucracy, need no external stimuli for their malice to fester—it is in their very nature. Deep down, they understand their position just as the great man understands his. The powerless man will always covet something more. If not the overcoat for Akaky, something else would have eventually reignited his will. The awareness is always there, perhaps suppressed or subconscious, but always in potential, always tallying perceived slights and indignities. Perhaps this an argument for a return to the eunuch-bureaucrat of the ancient world, and especially China. No real man—no man who remains intact—can content himself with a life of utter impotence.

In the end, Gogol and Akaky are very much the same. We have one weak man who could not master himself, who retreated inward to foolish priestliness, and died, probably a virgin with only phantasmic visions of what power looked like. He imagined another weak man, who could find strength only in death—and still not a real strength, but only what the weak imagine it to be.

But Akaky’s ghost is not gone. It remains insatiable as ever, on a quest for power that will never find satisfaction.

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