a necessary stage – nihilism

[3, 13] Have we all become Akaky Akakievichs? – Akaky Akakievich is the central character in Gogol’s The Overcoat (1999). This story is a short darkly comic, pre-Kafkaesque, story about a lowly civil servant, mocked, pitied or disregarded by everyone he meets. It portrays a life entirely within the horizon of a ‘recognition calculus’ (Kojève, 1980). Akaky is a Nowhere Man (The Beatles, 1965):

Doesn’t have a point of view

He takes it upon himself to change how others see him and improve his social standing. He decides to save up over several years to buy a new overcoat. For a brief moment, after he possesses it he feels elated and others treat him with some respect. He is invited to a party. But then tragedy strikes. He is robbed on the way home. Traumatised by this sudden loss, he goes to the police. They have neither the inclination nor interest to pursue this case. He then goes to see a certain ‘very important person’ – perhaps an Akaky who in a parallel universe climbed up through the hierarchy. The scene, both beautiful and painful in equal measures, leaves our protagonist in a state of crisis: the loss of the overcoat and the indifference and cruelty with which he is treated breaks his spirit. He becomes ill and dies. But the story doesn’t end here – Akaky returns as a ghost to haunt St. Petersburg, like a feeling of shame that stains the living.

Is the only mechanism of rupturing the entanglement of the ‘recognition calculus’ an intellectual nihilism (Dostoevsky, 1993)?

July 17, 2016

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