Creation from the Void
Résigne-toi, mon coeur, dors ton sommeil de brute.
Resign yourself, my heart, sleep your brutish sleep.
- Charles BAUDELAIRE
Chekhov is dead; therefore we may now speak freely of him. For to speak of an artist means to disentangle and reveal the tendency hidden in his works, an operation not always permissible when the subject is still living. Certainly he had a reason for hiding himself, and of course the reason was serious and important. I believe many felt it, and that it was partly on this account that we have as yet had no proper appreciation of Chekhov. Hitherto in analysing his works the critics have confined themselves to commonplace and cliché. Of course they knew they were wrong; but anything is better than to extort the truth from a living person. Mihailovsky alone attempted to approach closer to the source of Chekhov's creation, and as everybody knows, turned away from it with aversion and even with disgust. Here, by the way, the deceased critic might have convinced himself once again of the extravagance of the so-called theory of 'art for art's sake.' Every artist has his definite task, his life's work, to which he devotes all his forces. A tendency is absurd when it endeavours to take the place of talent, and to cover impotence and lack of content, or when it is borrowed from the stock of ideas which happen to be in demand at the moment. 'I defend ideals, therefore every one must give me his sympathies.' Such pretences we often see made in literature, and the notorious controversy concerning 'art for art's sake' was evidently maintained upon the double meaning given to the word 'tendency' by its opponents. Some wished to believe that a writer can be saved by the nobility of his tendency; others feared that a tendency would bind them to the performance of alien tasks.
Much ado about nothing: ready-made ideas will never endow mediocrity with talent; on the contrary, an original writer will at all costs set himself his own task. And Chekhov had his own business, though there were critics who said that he was the servant of art for its own sake, and even compared him to a bird, carelessly flying. To define his tendency in a word, I would say that Chekhov was the poet of hopelessness. Stubbornly, sadly, monotonously, during all the years of his literary activity, nearly a quarter of a century long, Chekhov was doing one alone: by one means or another he was killing human hopes. Herein, I hold, lies the essence of his creation. Hitherto it has been little spoken of. The reasons are quite intelligible. In ordinary language what Chekhov was doing is called crime, and is visited by condign punishment. But how can a man of talent be punished? Even Mihailovsky, who more than once in his lifetime gave an example of merciless severity, did not raise his hand against Chekhov. He warned his readers and pointed out the 'evil fire' which he had noticed in Chekhov's eyes. But he went no further. Chekhov's immense talent overcame the strict and rigorous critic.
It may be, however, that Mihailovsky's own position in literature had more than a little to do with the comparative mildness of his sentence. The younger generation had listened to him uninterruptedly for thirty years, and his word had been law. But afterwards every one was bored with eternally repeating: 'Aristides is just, Aristides is right.' The younger generation began to desire to live and to speak in its own way, and finally the old master was ostracised. There is the same custom in literature as in Tierra del Fuego. The young, growing men kill and eat the old. Mihailovsky struggled with all his might, but he no longer felt the strength of conviction that comes from the sense of right. Inwardly, he felt that the young were right, not because they knew the truth—what truth did the economic materialists know?—but because they were young and had their lives before them. The rising star shines always brighter than the setting, and the old must of their own will yield themselves up to be devoured by the young. Mihailovsky felt this, and perhaps it was this which undermined his former assurance and the firmness of his opinion of old. True, he was still like Gretchen's mother in Goethe: he did not take rich gifts from chance without having previously consulted his confessor. Chekhov's talent too was taken to the priest, by whom it was evidently rejected as suspect; but Mihailovsky no longer had the courage to set himself against public opinion. The younger generation prized Chekhov for his talent, his immense talent, and it was plain they would not disown him. What remained for Mihailovsky? He attempted, as I say, to warn them. But no one listened to him, and Chekhov became one of the most beloved of Russian writers.
Yet the just Aristides was right this time too, as he was right when he gave his warning against Dostoevsky. Now that Chekhov is no more, we may speak openly. Take Chekhov's stories, each one separately, or better still, all together; look at him at work. He is constantly, as it were, in ambush, to watch and waylay human hopes. He will not miss a single one of them, not one of them will escape its fate. Art, science, love, inspiration, ideals—choose out all the words with which humanity is wont, or has been in the past, to be consoled or to be amused—Chekhov has only to touch them and they instantly wither and die. And Chekhov himself faded, withered and died before our eyes. Only his wonderful art did not die—his art to kill by a mere touch, a breath, a glance, everything whereby men live and wherein they take their pride. And in this art he was constantly perfecting himself, and he attained to a virtuosity beyond the reach of any of his rivals in European literature. Maupassant often had to strain every effort to overcome his victim. The victim often escaped from Maupassant, though crushed and broken, yet with his life. In Chekhov's hands, nothing escaped death.
I must remind my reader, though it is a matter of general knowledge, that in his earlier work Chekhov is most unlike the Chekhov to whom we became accustomed in late years. The young Chekhov is gay and careless, perhaps even like a flying bird. He published his work in the comic papers. But in 1888 and 1889, when he was only twenty-seven and twenty-eight years old, there appeared The Tedious Story and the drama Ivanov, two pieces of work which laid the foundations of a new creation. Obviously a sharp and sudden change had taken place in him, which was completely reflected in his works. There is no detailed biography of Chekhov, and probably will never be, because there is no such thing as a full biography—I, at all events, cannot name one. Generally biographies tell us everything except what it is important to know. Perhaps in the future it will be revealed to us with the fullest details who was Chekhov's tailor; but we shall never know what happened to Chekhov in the time which elapsed between the completion of his story The Steppe and the appearance of his first drama. If we would know, we must rely upon his works and our own insight.
Ivanov and The Tedious Story seem to me the most autobiographical of all his works. In them almost every line is a sob; and it is hard to suppose that a man could sob so, looking only at another's grief. And it is plain that his grief is a new one, unexpected as though it had fallen from the sky. Here it is, it will endure for ever, and he does not know how to fight against it.
In Ivanov the hero compares himself to an overstrained labourer. I do not believe we shall be mistaken if we apply this comparison to the author of the drama as well. There can be practically no doubt that Chekhov had overstrained himself. And the overstrain came not from hard and heavy labour; no mighty overpowering exploit broke him: he stumbled and fell, he slipped. There comes this nonsensical, stupid, all but invisible accident, and the old Chekhov of gaiety and mirth is no more. No more stories for The Alarm Clock. Instead a morose and overshadowed man, a 'criminal' whose words frighten even the experienced and the omniscient.
If you desire it, you can easily be rid of Chekhov and his work as well. Our language contains two magic words: 'pathological,' and its brother 'abnormal.' Once Chekhov had overstrained himself, you have a perfectly legal right, sanctified by science and every tradition, to leave him out of all account, particularly seeing that he is already dead, and therefore cannot be hurt by your neglect. That is if you desire to be rid of Chekhov. But if the desire is for some reason absent, the words 'pathological' and 'abnormal' will have no effect upon you. Perhaps you will go further and attempt to find in Chekhov's experiences a criterion of the most irrefragable truths and axioms of this consciousness of ours. There is no third way: you must either renounce Chekhov, or become his accomplice.
The hero of The Tedious Story is an old professor; the hero of Ivanov a young landlord. But the theme of both works is the same. The professor had overstrained himself, and thereby cut himself off from his past life and from the possibility of taking an active part in human affairs. Ivanov also had overstrained himself and become a superfluous, useless person. Had life been so arranged that death should supervene simultaneously with the loss of health, strength and capacity, then the old professor and young Ivanov could not have lived for one single hour. Even a blind man could see that they are both broken and are unfit for life. But for reasons unknown to us, wise nature has rejected coincidence of this kind. A man very often goes on living after he has completely lost the capacity of taking from life that wherein we are wont to see its essence and meaning. More striking still, a broken man is generally deprived of everything except the ability to acknowledge and feel his position. Nay, for the most part in such cases the intellectual abilities are refined and sharpened and increased to colossal proportions. It frequently happens that an average man, banal and mediocre, is changed beyond all recognition when he falls into the exceptional situation of Ivanov or the old professor. In him appear signs of a gift, a talent, even of genius. Nietzsche once asked: 'Can an ass be tragical?' He left his question unanswered, but Tolstoy answered for him in The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan Ilych, it is evident from Tolstoy's description of his life, is a mediocre, average character, one of those men who pass through life avoiding anything that is difficult or problematical, caring exclusively for the calm and pleasantness of earthly existence. Hardly had the cold wind of tragedy blown upon him, than he was utterly transformed. The story of Ivan Ilych in his last days is as deeply interesting as the life-story of Socrates or Pascal.
In passing I would point out a fact which I consider of great importance. In his work Chekhov was influenced by Tolstoy, and particularly by Tolstoy's later writings. It is important, because thus a part of Chekhov's 'guilt' falls upon the great writer of the Russian land. I think that had there been no Death of Ivan Ilych, there would have been no Ivanov, and no Tedious Story, nor many others of Chekhov's most remarkable works. But this by no means implies that Chekhov borrowed a single word from his great predecessor. Chekhov had enough material of his own: in that respect he needed no help. But a young writer would hardly dare to come forward at his own risk with the thoughts that make the content of The Tedious Story. When Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilych, he had behind him War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and the firmly established reputation of an artist of the highest rank. All things were permitted to him. But Chekhov was a young man, whose literary baggage amounted in all to a few dozen tiny stories, hidden in the pages of little known and uninfluential papers. Had Tolstoy not paved the way, had Tolstoy not shown by his example, that in literature it was permitted to tell the truth, to tell everything, then perhaps Chekhov would have had to struggle long with himself before finding the courage of a public confession, even though it took the form of stories. And even with Tolstoy before him, how terribly did Chekhov have to struggle with public opinion. 'Why does he write his horrible stories and plays?' everyone asked himself. 'Why does the writer systematically choose for his heroes situations from which there is not, and cannot possibly be, any escape?' What can be said in answer to the endless complaints of the old professor and Katy, his pupil?
This means that there is, essentially, something to be said. From times immemorial, literature has accumulated a large and varied store of all kinds of general ideas and conceptions, material and metaphysical to which the masters have recourse the moment the over-exacting and over-restless human voice begins to be heard. This is exactly the point. Chekhov himself, a writer and an educated man, refused in advance every possible consolation, material or metaphysical. Not even in Tolstoy, who set no great store by philosophical systems, will you find such keenly expressed disgust for every kind of conceptions and ideas as in Chekhov. He is well aware that conceptions ought to be esteemed and respected, and he reckons his inability to bend the knee before that which educated people consider holy as a defect against which he must struggle with all his strength. And he does struggle with all his strength against this defect. But not only is the struggle unavailing; the longer Chekhov lives, the weaker grows the power of lofty words over him, in spite of his own reason and his conscious will. Finally, he frees himself entirely from ideas of every kind, and loses even the notion of connection between the happenings of life. Herein lies the most important and original characteristic of his creation.
Anticipating a little, I would here point to his comedy, The Sea-Gull, where, in defiance of all literary principles, the basis of action appears to be not the logical development of passions, nor the inevitable connection between cause and effect, but naked accident, ostentatiously nude. As one reads the play, it seems at times that one has before one a copy of a newspaper with an endless series of news paragraphs, heaped upon one another, without order and without previous plan. Sovereign accident reigns everywhere and in everything, this time boldly throwing the gauntlet to all conceptions. In this, I repeat, is Chekhov's greatest originality, and this, strangely enough, is the source of his most bitter experiences. He did not want to be original; he made superhuman efforts to be like everybody else: but there is no escaping one's destiny. How many men, above all among writers, wear their fingers to the bone in the effort to be unlike others, and yet they cannot shake themselves free of cliché—yet Chekhov was original against his will! Evidently originality does not depend upon the readiness to proclaim revolutionary opinions at all costs. The newest and boldest idea may and often does appear tedious and vulgar. In order to become original, instead of inventing an idea, one must achieve a difficult and painful labour; and, since men avoid labour and suffering, the really new is for the most part born in man against his will.
A man cannot reconcile himself to the accomplished fact; neither can he refuse so to reconcile himself: and there is no third course. Under such conditions “action” is impossible. He can only fall down and weep and beat his head against the floor.' So Chekhov speaks of one of his heroes; but he might say the same of them all, without exception. The author takes care to put them in such a situation that only one thing is left for them,—to fall down and beat their heads against the floor. With strange, mysterious obstinacy they refuse all the accepted means of salvation. Nicolai Stepanovich, the old professor in The Tedious Story, might have attempted to forget himself for a while or to console himself with memories of the past. But memories only irritate him. He was once an eminent scholar: now he cannot work. Once he was able to hold the attention of his audience for two hours on end; now he cannot do it even for a quarter of an hour. He used to have friends and comrades, he used to love his pupils and assistants, his wife and children; now he cannot concern himself with anyone. If people do arouse any feelings at all within him, then they are only feelings of hatred, malice and envy. He has to confess it to himself with the truthfulness which came to him—he knows not why nor whence—in place of the old diplomatic skill, possessed by all clever and normal men, whereby he saw and said only that which makes for decent human relations and healthy states of mind. Now everything which he sees or thinks only serves to poison, in himself and others, the few joys which adorn human life. With a certainty which he never attained on the best days and hours of his old theoretical research, he feels that he is become a criminal, having committed no crime. All that he was engaged in before was good, necessary, and useful. He tells you of his past, and you can see that he was always right and ready at any moment of the day or the night to answer the severest judge who should examine not only his actions, but his thoughts as well. Now not only would an outsider condemn him, he condemns himself. He confesses openly that he is all compact of envy and hatred.
'The best and most sacred right of kings,' he says, 'is the right to pardon. And I have always felt myself a king so long as I used this right prodigally. I never judged, I was compassionate, I pardoned every one right and left... But now I am king no more. There's something going on in me which belongs only to slaves. Day and night evil thoughts roam about in my head, and feelings which I never knew before have made their home in my soul. I hate and despise; I'm exasperated, disturbed, and afraid. I've become strict beyond measure, exacting, unkind and suspicious... What does it all mean? If my new thoughts and feelings come from a change of my convictions, where could the change come from? Has the world grown worse and I better, or was I blind and indifferent before? But if the change is due to the general decline of my physical and mental powers—I am sick and losing weight every day—then I am in a pitiable position. It means that my new thoughts are abnormal and unhealthy, that I must be ashamed of them and consider them valueless...'
The question is asked by the old professor on the point of death, and in his person by Chekhov himself. Which is better, to be a king, or an old, envious, malicious 'toad,' as he calls himself elsewhere? There is no denying the originality of the question. In the words above you feel the price which Chekhov had to pay for his originality, and with how great joy he would have exchanged all his original thoughts—at the moment when his 'new' point of view had become clear to him—for the most ordinary, banal capacity for benevolence. He has no doubt felt that his way of thinking is pitiable, shameful and disgusting. His moods revolt him no less than his appearance, which he describes in the following lines: '...I am a man of sixty-two, with a bald head, false teeth and an incurable tic. My name is as brilliant and prepossessing, as I myself am dull and ugly. My head and hands tremble from weakness; my neck, like that of one of Turgenev's heroines, resembles the handle of a counter-bass; my chest is hollow and my back narrow. When I speak or read my mouth twists, and when I smile my whole face is covered with senile, deathly wrinkles.'
Unpleasant face, unpleasant moods! Let the most sweet nature and compassionate person but give a side-glance at such a monster, and despite himself a cruel thought would awaken in him: that he should lose no time in killing, in utterly destroying this pitiful and disgusting vermin, or if the laws forbid recourse to such strong measures, at least in hiding him as far as possible from human eyes, in some prison or hospital or asylum. These are measures of suppression sanctioned, I believe, not only by legislation, but by eternal morality as well. But here you encounter resistance of a particular kind. Physical strength to struggle with the warders, executioners, attendants, moralists—the old professor has none; a little child could knock him down. Persuasion and prayer, he knows well, will avail him nothing. So he strikes out in despair: he begins to cry over all the world in a terrible, wild, heartrending voice about some rights of his: '...I have a passionate and hysterical desire to stretch out my hands and moan aloud. I want to cry out that fate has doomed me, a famous man, to death; that in some six months here in the auditorium another will be master. I want to cry out that I am poisoned; that new ideas that I did not know before have poisoned the last days of my life, and sting my brain incessantly like mosquitoes. At that moment my position seems so terrible to me that I want all my students to be terrified, to jump from their seats and rush panic-stricken to the door, shrieking in despair.'
The professor's arguments will hardly move any one. Indeed I do not know if there is any argument in those words. But this awful, inhuman moan... Imagine the picture: a bald, ugly old man, with trembling hands, and twisted mouth, and skinny neck, eyes mad with fear, wallowing like a beast on the ground and wailing, wailing, wailing... What does he want? He had lived a long and interesting life; now he had only to round it off nicely, with all possible calm, quietly and solemnly to take leave of this earthly existence. Instead he rends himself, and flings himself about, calls almost the whole universe to judgment, and clutches convulsively at the few days left to him. And Chekhov what did Chekhov do? Instead of passing by on the other side, he supports the prodigious monster, devotes pages and pages to the 'experiences of his soul,' and gradually brings the reader to a point at which, instead of a natural and lawful sense of indignation, unprofitable and dangerous sympathies for the decomposing, decaying creature are awakened in his heart. But every one knows that it is impossible to help the professor; and if it is impossible to help, then it follows we must forget. That is as plain as a b c. What use or what meaning could there be in the endless picturing—daubing, as Tolstoy would say—of the intolerable pains of the agony which inevitably leads to death?
If the professor's 'new' thoughts and feelings shone bright with beauty, nobility or heroism, the case would be different. The reader could learn something from it. But Chekhov's story shows that these qualities belonged to his hero's old thoughts. Now that his illness has begun, there has sprung up within him a revulsion from everything which even remotely resembles a lofty feeling. When his pupil Katy turns to him for advice what she should do, the famous scholar, the friend of Pirogov, Kavelin and Nekrassov, who had taught so many generations of young men, does not know what to answer. Absurdly he chooses from his memory a whole series of pleasant-sounding words; but they have lost all meaning for him. What answer shall he give? he asks himself. 'It is easy to say: Work, or divide your property among the poor, or know yourself, and because it is easy, I do not know what to answer.' Katy, still young, healthy and beautiful, has by Chekhov's offices fallen like the professor into a trap from which no human power can deliver her. From the moment that she knew hopelessness, she had won all the author's sympathy. While a person is settled to some work, while he has a future of some kind before him, Chekhov is utterly indifferent to him. If he does describe him, then he usually does it hastily and in a tone of scornful irony. But when he is entangled, and so entangled that he cannot be disentangled by any means, then Chekhov begins to wake up. Colour, energy, creative force, inspiration make their appearance.
Therein perhaps lies the secret of his political indifferentism. Notwithstanding all his distrust of projects for a brighter future, Chekhov like Dostoevsky was evidently not wholly convinced that social reforms and social science were important. However difficult the social question may be, still it may be solved. Some day, perhaps people will so arrange themselves on the earth as to live and die without suffering: further than that ideal humanity cannot go. Perhaps the authors of stout volumes on Progress do guess and foresee something. But just for that reason their work is alien to Chekhov. At first by instinct, then consciously, he was attracted to problems which are by essence insoluble like that presented in The Tedious Story: there you have helplessness, sickness, the prospect of inevitable death, and no hope whatever to change the situation by a hair. This infatuation, whether conscious or instinctive, clearly runs counter to the demands of common sense and normal will. But there is nothing else to expect from Chekhov, an overstrained man. Every one knows, or has heard, of hopelessness. On every side, before our very eyes, are happening terrible and intolerable tragedies, and if every doomed man were to raise such an awful alarm about his destruction as Nicolai Stepanovich, life would become an inferno; Nicolai Stepanovich must not cry his sufferings aloud over the world, but be careful to trouble people as little as possible. And Chekhov should have assisted this reputable endeavour by every means in his power. As though there were not thousands of tedious stories in the world—they cannot be counted! And above all stories of the kind that Chekhov tells should be hidden with special care from human eyes.
We have here to do with the decomposition of a living organism. What should we say to a man who would prevent corpses from being buried, and would dig decaying bodies from the grave, even though it were on the ground, or rather on the pretext, that they were the bodies of his intimate friends, even famous men of reputation and genius? Such an occupation would rouse in a normal and healthy mind nothing but disgust and terror. Once upon a time, according to popular superstition, sorcerers, necromancers and wizards kept company with the dead, and found a certain pleasure or even a real satisfaction in that ghastly occupation. But they generally hid themselves away from mankind in forests and caves, or betook themselves to deserts where they might in isolation surrender themselves to their unnatural inclinations; and if their deeds were eventually brought to light, healthy men requited them with the stake, the gallows, and the rack. The worst kind of that which is called evil, as a rule, had for its source and origin an interest and taste for carrion. Man forgave every crime—cruelty, violence, murder; but he never forgave the unmotivated love of death and the seeking of its secret. In this matter modern times, being free from prejudices, have advanced little from the Middle Ages. Perhaps the only difference is that we, engaged in practical affairs, have lost the natural flair for good and evil. Theoretically we are even convinced that in our time there are not and cannot be wizards and necromancers. Our confidence and carelessness in this reached such a point, that almost everybody saw even in Dostoevsky only an artist and a publicist, and seriously discussed with him whether the Russian peasant needed to be flogged and whether we ought to lay hands on Constantinople.
Mihailovsky alone vaguely conjectured what it all might be when he called the author of The Brothers Karamazov a 'treasure-digger.' I say he 'dimly conjectured, because I think that the deceased critic made the remark partly in allegory, even in joke. But none of Dostoevsky's other critics made, even by accident, a truer slip of the pen. Chekhov, too, was a 'treasure-digger,' a sorcerer, a necromancer, an adept in the black art; and this explains his singular infatuation for death, decay and hopelessness.
Chekhov was not of course the only writer to make death the subject of his works. But not the theme is important but the manner of its treatment. Chekhov understands that. 'In all the thoughts, feelings, and ideas,' he says, '[which] I form about anything, there is wanting the something universal which could bind all these together in one whole. Each feeling and each thought lives detached in me, and in all my opinions about science, the theatre, literature, and my pupils, and in all the little pictures which my imagination paints, not even the most cunning analyst will discover what is called the general idea, or the god of the living man. And if this is not there, then nothing is there. In poverty such as this, a serious infirmity, fear of death, influence of circumstances and people would have been enough to overthrow and shatter all that I formerly considered as my conception of the world, and all wherein I saw the meaning and joy of my life...'
In these words one of the 'newest' of Chekhov's ideas finds expression, one by which the whole of his subsequent creation is defined. It is expressed in a modest, apologetic form: a man confesses that he is unable to subordinate his thoughts to a higher idea, and in that inability he sees his weakness. This was enough to avert from him to some extent the thunders of criticism and the judgment of public opinion. We readily forgive the repentant sinner! But it is an unprofitable clemency: to expiate one's guilt, it is not enough to confess it. What was the good of Chekhov's putting on sackcloth and ashes and publicly confessing his guilt, if he was inwardly unchanged? If, while his words acknowledged the general idea as god (without a capital, indeed), he did nothing whatever for it? In words he burns incense to god, in deed he curses him. Before his disease a conception of the world brought him happiness, now it had shattered into fragments. Is it not natural to ask whether the conception actually did ever bring him happiness? Perhaps the happiness had its own independent origin, and the conception was invited only as a general to a wedding, for outward show, and never played any essential part.
Chekhov tells us circumstantially what joys the professor found in his scientific work, his lectures to the students, his family, and in a good dinner. In all these were present together the conception of the world and the idea, and they did not take away from, but as it were embellished life; so that it seemed that he was working for the ideal, as well as creating a family and dining. But now, when for the same ideal's sake he has to remain inactive, to suffer, to remain awake of nights, to swallow with effort food that has become loathsome to him—the conception of the world is shattered into fragments! And it amounts to this, that a conception with a dinner is right, and a dinner without a conception equally right—this needs no argument and a conception an und für sich is of no value whatever. Here is the essence of the words quoted from Chekhov. He confesses with horror the presence within him of that 'new' idea. It seems to him that he alone of all men is so weak and insignificant, that the others... well, they need only ideals and conceptions. And so it is surely, if we may believe what people write in books.
Chekhov plagues, tortures and worries himself in every possible way, but he can alter nothing; nay worse, conceptions and ideas, towards which a great many people behave quite carelessly—after all, these innocent things do not merit any other attitude—in Chekhov become the objects of bitter, inexorable, and merciless hatred. He cannot free himself at one single stroke from the power of ideas: therefore he begins a long, slow and stubborn war, I would call it a guerrilla war, against the tyrant who had enslaved him. The whole history and the separate episodes of his struggle are of absorbing interest, because the most conspicuous representatives of literature have hitherto been convinced that ideas have a magical power. What are the majority of writers doing but constructing conceptions of the world—and believing that they are engaged in a work of extraordinary importance and sanctity? Chekhov offended very many literary men. If his punishment was comparatively slight, that was because he was very cautious, and waged war with the air of bringing tribute to the enemy, and secondly, because to talent much is forgiven.
The content of The Tedious Story thus reduces to the fact that the professor, expressing his 'new' thoughts, in essence declares that he finds it impossible to acknowledge the power of the 'idea' over himself, or conscientiously to fulfill that which men consider the supreme purpose, and in the service whereof they see the mission, the sacred mission of man. 'God be my judge, I haven't courage enough to act according to my conscience,' such is the only answer which Chekhov finds in his soul to all demands for a 'conception.' This attitude towards 'conceptions' becomes second nature with Chekhov. A conception makes demands; a man acknowledges the justice of these demands and methodically satisfies none of them. Moreover, the justice of the demands meets with less and less acknowledgment from him. In The Tedious Story the idea still judges the man and tortures him with the mercilessness peculiar to all things inanimate. Exactly like a splinter stuck into a living body, the idea, alien and hostile, mercilessly performs its high mission, until at length the man firmly resolves to draw the splinter out of his flesh, however painful that difficult operation may be.
In Ivanov the role of the idea is already changed. There not the idea persecutes Chekhov, but Chekhov the idea, and with the subtlest division and contempt. The voice of the living nature rises above the artificial habits of civilisation. True, the struggle still continues, if you will, with alternating fortunes. But the old humility is no more. More and more Chekhov emancipates himself from old prejudices and goes—he himself could hardly say whither, were he asked. But he prefers to remain without an answer, rather than to accept any of the traditional answers. 'I know quite well I have no more than six months to live; and it would seem that now I ought to be mainly occupied with questions of the darkness beyond the grave, and the visions which will visit my sleep in the earth. But somehow my soul is not curious of these questions, though my mind grants every atom of their importance.' In contrast to the habits of the past, reason is once more pushed out of the door with all due respect, while its rights are handed over to the 'soul,' to the dark, vague aspiration which Chekhov by instinct trusts more than the bright, clear consciousness which beforehand determines the beyond, now that he stands before the fatal pale which divides man from the eternal mystery. Is scientific philosophy indignant? is Chekhov undermining its surest foundations? But he is an overstrained, abnormal man.
Certainly you are not bound to listen to him; but once you have decided to do so then you must be prepared for anything. A normal person, even though he be a metaphysician of the extremest ethereal brand, always adjusts his theories to the requirements of the moment; he destroys only to build up from the old material once more. This is the reason why material never fails him. Obedient to the fundamental law of human nature, long since noted and formulated by the wise, he is content to confine himself to the modest part of a seeker after forms. Out of iron, which he finds in nature ready to his hand, he forges a sword or a plough, a lance or a sickle. The idea of creating out of a void hardly even enters his mind. But Chekhov's heroes, persons abnormal par excellence, are faced with this abnormal and dreadful necessity. Before them always lies hopelessness, helplessness, the utter impossibility of any action whatsoever. And yet they live on, they do not die.
A strange question, and one of extraordinary moment, here suggests itself. I said that it was foreign to human nature to create out of a void. Yet nature often deprives man of ready material, while at the same time she demands imperatively that he should create. Does this mean that nature contradicts herself, or that she perverts her creatures? Is it not more correct to admit that the conception of perversion is of purely human origin. Perhaps nature is much more economical and wise than our wisdom, and maybe we should discover much more if instead of dividing people into necessary and superfluous, useful and noxious, good and bad, we suppressed the tendency to subjective valuation in ourselves and endeavoured with greater confidence to accept her creations? Otherwise you come immediately to—'the evil gleam,' 'treasure-digging,' sorcery and black magic and a wall is raised between men which neither logical argument nor even a battery of artillery can break down. I hardly dare hope that this consideration will appear convincing to those who are used to maintaining the norm; and it is probably unnecessary that the notion of the great opposition of good and bad which is alive among men should die away, just as it is unnecessary that children should be born with the experience of men, or that red cheeks and curly hair should vanish from the earth. At any rate it is impossible. The world has many centuries to its reckoning, many nations have lived and died upon the earth, yet as far as we know from the books and traditions that have survived to us, the dispute between good and evil was never hushed. And it always so happened that good was not afraid of the light of day, and good men lived a united, social life; while evil hid itself in darkness, and the wicked always stood alone. Nor could it have been otherwise.
All Chekhov's heroes fear the light. They are lonely. They are ashamed of their hopelessness, and they know that men cannot help them. They go somewhere, perhaps even forward, but they call to no one to follow. All things are taken from them: they must create everything anew. Thence most probably is derived the unconcealed contempt with which they behave to the most precious products of common human creativeness. On whatever subject you begin to talk with a Chekhov hero he has one reply to everything: Nobody can teach me anything. You offer him a new conception of the world: already in your very first words he feels that they all reduce to an attempt to lay the old bricks and stones over again, and he turns from you with impatience, and often with rudeness. Chekhov is an extremely cautious writer. He fears and takes into account public opinion. Yet how unconcealed is the aversion he displays to accepted ideas and conceptions of the world. In The Tedious Story, he at any rate preserves the tone and attitude of outward obedience. Later he throws aside all precautions, and instead of reproaching himself for his inability to submit to the general idea, openly rebels against it and jeers at it. In Ivanov it already is sufficiently expressed; there was reason for the outburst of indignation which this play provoked in its day.
Ivanov, I have already said, is a dead man. The only thing the artist can do with him is to bury him decently, that is to praise his past, pity his present, and then, in order to mitigate the cheerless impression produced by death, to invite the general idea to the funeral. He might recall the universal problems of humanity in any one of the many stereotyped forms, and thus the difficult case which seemed insoluble would be removed. Together with Ivanov's death he should portray a bright young life, full of promise, and the impression of death and destruction would lose all its sting and bitterness. Chekhov does just the opposite. Instead of endowing youth and ideals with power over destruction and death, as all philosophical systems and many works of art had done, he ostentatiously makes the good-for-nothing wreck Ivanov the centre of all events. Side by side with Ivanov there are young lives, and the idea is also given her representatives. But the young Sasha, a wonderful and charming girl, who falls utterly in love with the broken hero, not only does not save her lover, but herself perishes under the burden of the impossible task.
And the idea? It is enough to recall the figure of Doctor Lvov alone, whom Chekhov entrusted with the responsible role of a representative of the all-powerful idea, and you will at once perceive that he considers himself not as subject and vassal, but as the bitterest enemy of the idea. The moment Doctor Lvov opens his mouth, all the characters, as though acting on a previous agreement, vie with each other in their haste to interrupt him in the most insulting way, by jests, threats, and almost by smacks in the face. But the doctor fulfills his duties as a representative of the great power with no less skill and conscientiousness than his predecessors—Starodoum [*] and the other reputable heroes of the old drama. He champions the wronged, seeks to restore rights that have been trodden underfoot, sets himself dead against injustice. Has he stepped beyond the limits of his plenipotentiary powers? Of course not; but where Ivanovs and hopelessness reign there is not and cannot be room for the idea.
They cannot possibly live together. And the eyes of the reader, who is accustomed to think that every kingdom may fall and perish, yet the kingdom of the idea stands firm in saecula saeculorum, behold a spectacle unheard of: the idea dethroned by a helpless, broken, good-for-nothing man! What is there that Ivanov does not say? In the very first act he fires off a tremendous tirade, not at a chance corner, but at the incarnate idea—Starodoum-Lvov.
'I have the right to give you advice. Don't you marry a Jewess, or an abnormal, or a blue-stocking. Choose something ordinary, greyish, without any bright colours or superfluous shades. Make it a principle to build your life of clichés. The more grey and monotonous the background, the better. My dear man, don't fight thousands single-handed, don't tilt at windmills, don't run your head against the wall. God save you from all kinds of Back-to-the-Landers' advanced doctrines, passionate speeches... Shut yourself tight in your own shell, and do the tiny little work set you by God... It's cosier, honester, and healthier.'
Doctor Lvov, the representative of the all-powerful, sovereign idea, feels that his sovereign's majesty is injured, that to suffer such an offence really means to abdicate the throne. Surely Ivanov was a vassal, and so he must remain. How dare he let his tongue advise, how dare he raise his voice when it is his part to listen reverently, and to obey in silent resignation? This is rank rebellion! Lvov attempts to draw himself up to his full height and answer the arrogant rebel with dignity. Nothing comes of it. In a weak, trembling voice he mutters the accustomed words, which but lately had invincible power. But they do not produce their customary effect. Their virtue is departed. Whither? Lvov dares not own it even to himself. But it is no longer a secret to any one. Whatever mean and ugly things Ivanov may have done, Chekhov is not close-fisted in this matter: in his hero's conduct-book are written all manner of offences; almost to the deliberate murder of a woman devoted to him—it is to him and not to Lvov that public opinion bows.
Ivanov is the spirit of destruction, rude, violent, pitiless, sticking at nothing: yet the word 'scoundrel,' which the doctor tears out of himself with a painful effort and hurls at him, does not stick to him. He is somehow right, with his own peculiar right, to others inconceivable, yet still, if we may believe Chekhov, incontestable. Sasha, a creature of youth and insight and talent, passes by the honest Starodoum-Lvov unheeding, on her way to render worship to him. The whole play is based on that. It is true, Ivanov in the end shoots himself, and that may, if you like, give you a formal ground for believing that the final victory remained with Lvov. And Chekhov did well to end the drama in this way—it could not be spun out to infinity. It would have been no easy matter to tell the whole of Ivanov's history. Chekhov went on writing for fifteen years after, all the time telling the unfinished story, yet even then he had to break it off without reaching the end...
It would show small understanding of Chekhov to take it into one's head to interpret Ivanov's words to Lvov as meaning that Chekhov, like the Tolstoy of the War and Peace period, saw his ideal in the everyday arrangement of life. Chekhov was only fighting against the ideas, and he said to it the most abusive thing that entered his head. For what can be more insulting to the idea than to be forced to listen to the praise of everyday life? But when the opportunity came his way, Chekhov could describe everyday life with equal venom. The story, The Teacher of Literature, may serve as an example. The teacher lives entirely by Ivanov's prescription. He has his job, and his wife—neither Jewess nor abnormal, nor blue-stocking—and a home that fits like a shell...; but all this does not prevent Chekhov from driving the poor teacher by slow degrees into the usual trap, and bringing him to a condition wherein it is left to him only 'to fall down and weep, and beat his head against the floor.' Chekhov had no 'ideal,' not even the ideal of 'everyday life' which Tolstoy glorified with such inimitable and incomparable mastery in his early works. An ideal presupposes submission, the voluntary denial of one's own right to independence, freedom and power; and demands of this kind, even a hint of such demands, roused in Chekhov all that force of disgust and repulsion of which he alone was capable.
* [A hero from Fonvizin's play The Minor. Starodoum is a raisonneur, a 'positive' type, always uttering truisms]