12:41 Mon Jul 27, 2020
The Overcoat: A Meteorological Perspective
Despite having a particularly busy week on the summit, in my downtime, I finally got around to reading one of the all-time classic Russian short stories by Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat (Spoilers! You’ve been warned!). It’s a tale of a man (Akaky Akakievich) who finds himself in need of a new coat, a necessity given the harsh winters of Northern Russia, and he undergoes considerable personal sacrifice in order to afford a suitably warm jacket. Once he finally acquires sufficient funds to pay the tailor, he is celebrated for the decadence of his new coat, and actually experiences a renewed and vivified life, only to be assaulted and robbed of the coat before enduring an unfortunate and untimely death at the hands of the cold weather conditions.
Old cover art by Igor Grabar
The interpretations of the overcoat are many, and the symbol of one man’s new jacket has been spun around and appropriated for various means. And maybe this is the appeal of Gogol’s story, its enduring presence attributed to the universality of the ambiguous symbol. As such, these various readings are all valid in some way, and I state this more as a preface to my own examination of the tale.
There are many demons in this story (Akaky least of all), and I find myself questioning who exactly the main villain is in this cautionary tale…
Is it Akaky’s coworkers, who do little to help the man after he is robbed of his overcoat? Is it the police, who condescend to Akaky after the assault and robbery? Is it the hollowness of the man’s own unfulfilled life? Or is it the economic system that forces Akaky to toil in his job as a copyist only to scrape out a living where he can barely afford a suitable winter coat. Or is the real villain the very oppressive and indifferent St. Petersburg Winter???
Now, there are many interpretations of the symbolic overcoat, and calling it a story about adverse weather conditions is similar to calling Moby Dick a story about whales, to do so perhaps misses the point entirely, but that’s where I’m going with this, and perhaps the brilliance of the literature is that I can find myself discussing a nineteenth-century Russian short story in a weather blog.
Anyhow, I’m not actually going to argue that the harsh weather conditions in all of their indifference are the premier villain in this story, not a chance. But I will make the case that the winter conditions are the real force multiplier in this short story. All of the injustices suffered by the main character are magnified by the cruel Russian winter. Time and time again, this is the human relation to extreme weather, and on Mt Washington this is certainly the case. Over and over again on our mountain, we see people suffering the magnification of their mistakes and bearing witness to the indifference of the mountain.
This past week, as I prepared for the first presentation of the Science in the Mountains series (tomorrow night! Register for this program at mountwashington.org/SITM), I spent some time reflecting on the observers of yore, and the difference between the Mt Washington Observatory past and present. Thinking about some of the major changes, like the building, the instruments, and the gear, I can’t help but feel incredibly grateful. I find it easy to take things like our partnership with Eastern Mountain Sports for granted, knowing that I personally have the right coat for any weather situation up here, but as I look at the pictures of the original observers, I can’t help but imagine that these guys probably suffered a fair bit more than I am right now…
The original four weather observers: Alex Mckenzie, Bob Monahan, Joe Dodge, Sal Pagliuca
Some of my questions looking at the original four observers are as follows: Who had the best coat amongst the group? What were the financial situations of these guys? Did they find this job enjoyable? Or did the harsh conditions prevent the job from being what I might describe as fun?
And it is here that I find myself arriving at an interesting dichotomy, and it involves extreme weather. Here at Mt Washington, we generally relish the mountain and the extreme weather it provides, but for most of the world, extreme weather is a massively oppressive and indifferent entity, something to be feared and survived above all else. Perhaps the observatory is both my metaphorical and literal overcoat (Thanks EMS!), something that allows me to both embrace life on the mountain and study the weather with relative fascination...
Nate Iannuccillo, Weather Observer/Education Specialist