Then there was the semester when it seemed nothing we read or wrote or did or said in class, could move this one student. He always sat at the end of the first row in a sprawl, arms crossed, feet thrust out so others filing in or out of the room would have to take care not to stumble over them. When called on, either he refused to speak, shrugged or mumbled Beats me or I thought we were reading another story today so I don’t know about that one, causing much eye-rolling among his cohorts in the room. Until the afternoon we were discussing Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” and we had gotten to the part toward the end when Akaky, coming back from the office party, loses his overcoat to thugs on the bridge; and the months that follow, when the clerk languishes from illness in his poor rooms and dies. In the general discussion, this kid in class said, almost blasé— I don’t see what the big deal is: it’s just an overcoat— and something snapped in me. I can no longer remember exactly what I said, only that I flung words I’d hoped might— what? cut to the bone? move a stone? Perhaps I cast on lines about privilege or empathy, something about the way stories are knitted to real life. But in every new class, with every new student, he’s there and we are all Akaky’s ghost: the story’s his, the story’s ours, from its collar of cat fur down to its tailored hems. The casting-on, the fitting isn’t where it begins, but in some prior intention we don’t often know until we rip the parts back to the rib to see how the toothed patterns helix and grow.
In response to Via Negativa: Reading the Icelandic Sagas.