Some images in the above collage were taken from The Overcoat & Selected Stories, Special Edition, published by Special Edition Books, and Dead Souls, the Yale Edition
Gogol’s Dead Souls is a perfect analogy for today’s economy. Instead of buying junk bonds, the main character in Dead Souls purchases the names of peasants who have died but are still on the census rolls. In Russia, prior to 1861, serfs could be bought or sold by land owners. The government taxed the landowners for each soul they possessed, based on the most recent census, which was usually outdated, so landowners often paid taxes on “dead souls.” A charismatic fellow named Chichikov comes to town, flattering and charming everyone, appealing to their vanity, and makes his rounds to the homes of several landowners, offering to purchase lists of deceased serfs, to have the names legally transferred into his ownership. Some of the people he approaches are skeptical at first, but most of them recognize a chance to rid themselves of a tax burden and agree to Chichikov’s proposition. His goal is to make himself appear wealthy on paper, raise his social standing, establish credit, maybe even marry into a wealthy family, and ultimately, to sell all these paper souls back to the unsuspecting government for real money. This is basically what many mortgage companies were doing in the years leading up to our housing and economic crisis: Selling bundles of high-risk mortgages to banks as if they were solid and safe. Gogol’s gift for caricature, satire, and amusing turns of phrase make Dead Souls an absolutely hilarious book from beginning to end.
We live in a Gogol world. He may have died 150 years ago but his world is our world, a world of absurdities haunted by ghosts and government clerks, where people are victimized by committees and asylums, where rational insanities and irrational truths determine the course of lives. His writing remains modern not only because he avoids the archaic language that makes other writing of the era virtually unreadable, but because he deals in universal truths. Reading Gogol, we recognize characters, places and situations to the extent that the only difference between the streets we walk on our way to work and the frozen cobbled gas-lit streets of his St. Petersburg are aesthetics. We can stare out from the windows of our offices, our shops and our call centers and feel exactly what Gogol and his characters felt during the intolerable, endless office hours staring out onto the Neva River.