Thus the real, the only hero of Chekhov, is the hopeless man. He has absolutely no action left for him in life, save to beat his head against the stones. It is not surprising that such a man should be intolerable to his neighbours. Everywhere he brings death and destruction with him. He himself is aware of it, but he has not the power to go apart from men. With all his soul he endeavours to tear himself out of his horrible condition. Above all he is attracted to fresh, young, untouched beings; with their help he hopes to recover his right to life which he has lost. The hope is vain. The beginning of decay always appears, all-conquering, and at the end Chekhov's hero is left to himself alone. He has nothing, he must create everything for himself. And this 'creation out of the void,' or more truly the possibility of this creation, is the only problem which can occupy and inspire Chekhov. When he has stripped his hero of the last shred, when nothing is left for him but to beat his head against the wall, Chekhov begins to feel something like satisfaction, a strange fire lights in his burnt-out eyes, a fire which Mihailovsky did not call 'evil' in vain.
Creation Out of the void! Is not this task beyond the limit of human powers, of human rights? Mihailovsky obviously had one straight answer to the question... As for Chekhov himself, if the question were put to him in such a deliberately definite form, he would probably be unable to answer, although he was continually engaged in the activity, or more properly, because he was continually so engaged. Without fear of mistake, one may say that the people who answer the question without hesitation in either sense have never come near to it, or to any of the so-called ultimate questions of life. Hesitation is a necessary and integral element in the judgment of those men whom Fate has brought near to false problems. How Chekhov's hand trembled while he wrote the concluding lines of his Tedious Story! The professor's pupil—the being nearest and dearest to him, but like himself, for all her youth, overstrained and bereft of all hope—has come to Kharkov to seek his advice. The following conversation takes place:
But the professor has not the word to give. He turns the conversation to the weather, Kharkov and other indifferent matters. Katy gets up and holds out her hand to him, without looking at him. 'I want to ask her,' he concludes his story, '“So it means you won't be at my funeral?”' But she does not look at me; her hand is cold and like a stranger's... I escort her to the door in silence... She goes out of my room and walks down the long passage, without looking back. She knows that my eyes are following her, and probably on the landing she will look back. No, she did not look back. The black dress showed for the last time, her steps were stilled... Good-bye, my treasure!...'
- '“Nicolai Stepanich!” she says, growing pale and pressing her hands to her breast. “Nicolai Stepanich! I can't go on like this any longer. For God's sake tell me now, immediately. What shall I do? Tell me, what shall I do?”
“What can I say? I am beaten. I can say nothing.”
“But tell me, I implore you,” she continues, out of breath and trembling all over her body. “I swear to you, I can't go on like this any longer. I haven't the strength.” She drops into a chair and begins to sob. She throws her head back, wrings her hands, stamps with her feet; her hat falls from her head and dangles by its string, her hair is loosened.
“Help me, help,” she implores. “1 can't bear it any more.”
“There's nothing that I can say to you, Katy,” I say.
“Help me,” she sobs, seizing my hand and kissing it. “You're my father, my only friend. You're wise and learned, and you've lived long! You were a teacher. Tell me what to do.”
“Upon my conscience, Katy, I do not know.” I am bewildered and surprised, stirred by her sobbing, and I can hardly stand upright.
“Let's have some breakfast, Katy,” I say with a constrained smile. Instantly I add in a sinking voice: “I shall be dead soon, Katy...”
“Only one word, only one word,” she weeps and stretches out her hands to me. “What shall I do?...”
The only answer which the wise, educated, long-lived Nicolai Stepanovich, a teacher all his life, can give to Katy's question is: 'I don't know.' There is not, in all his great experience of the past, a single method, rule, or suggestion, which might apply, even in the smallest degree, to the wild incongruity of the new conditions of Katy's life and his own. Katy can live thus no longer; neither can he himself continue to endure his disgusting and shameful helplessness. They both, old and young, with their whole hearts desire to support each other; they can between them find no way. To her question: 'What shall I do?' he replied: 'I shall soon be dead.' To his 'I shall soon be dead' she answers with wild sobbing, wringing her hands, and absurdly repeating the same words over and over again. It would have been better to have asked no question, not to have begun that frank conversation of souls. But they do not yet understand that. In their old life talk would bring them relief and frank confession, intimacy. But now, after such a meeting they can suffer each other no longer. Katy leaves the old professor, her foster-father, her true father and friend, in the knowledge that he has become a stranger to her. She did not even turn round towards him as she went away. Both felt that nothing remained save to beat their heads against the wall. Therein each acts at his own peril, and there can be no dreaming of a consoling union of souls.
Chekhov knew what conclusions he had reached in The Tedious Story and Ivanov. Some of his critics also knew, and told him so. I cannot venture to say what was the cause—whether fear of public opinion, or his horror at his own discoveries, 'or both together—but evidently there came a moment to Chekhov when he 'decided at all costs to surrender his position and retreat. The fruit of this decision was Ward No. 6. In this story the hero of the drama is the same familiar Chekhov character, the doctor. The setting, too, is quite the usual one, though changed to a slight extent. Nothing in particular has occurred in the doctor's life. He happened to come to an out-of the way place in the provinces, and gradually, by continually avoiding life and people, he reached a condition of utter will-lessness, which he represented to himself as the ideal of human happiness. He is indifferent to everything, beginning with his hospital, where he can hardly ever be found, where under the reign of the drunken brute of an assistant the patients are swindled and neglected.
In the mental ward reigns a porter who is a discharged soldier: he punches his restless patients into shape. The doctor does not care, as though he were living in some distant other world, and does not understand what is going on before his very eyes. He happens to enter his ward and to have a conversation with one of his patients. He listens quietly to him; but his answer is words instead of deeds. He tries to show his lunatic acquaintance that external influences cannot affect us in any way at all. The lunatic does not agree, becomes impertinent, presents objections, in which, as in the thoughts of many lunatics, nonsensical assertions are mixed with very profound remarks. Indeed, there is so little nonsense that from the conversation you would hardly imagine that you have to do with a lunatic. The doctor is delighted with his new friend, but does nothing whatsoever to make him more comfortable. The patient is still under the porter's thumb as he used to be, and the porter gives him a thrashing on the least provocation.
The patient, the doctor, the people round, the whole setting of the hospital and the doctor's rooms, are described with wonderful talent. Everything induces you to make absolutely no resistance and to become fatalistically indifferent:—let them get drunk, let them fight, let them thieve, let them be brutal—what does it matter! Evidently it is so predestined by the supreme council of nature. The philosophy of inactivity which the doctor professes is as it were prompted and whispered by the immutable laws of human existence. Apparently there is no force which may tear one from its power. So far everything is more or less in the Chekhov style. But the end is completely different. By the intrigues of his colleague, the doctor himself is taken as a patient into the mental ward. He is deprived of freedom, shut up in a wing of the hospital, and even thrashed, thrashed by the same porter whose behaviour he had taught his lunatic acquaintance to accept, thrashed before his acquaintance's very eyes. The doctor instantly awakens as though out of a dream. A fierce desire to struggle and to protest manifests itself in him. True, at this moment he dies; but the idea is triumphant, still. The critics could consider themselves quite satisfied. Chekhov had openly repented and renounced the theory of non-resistance; and, I believe, Ward No. 6 met with a sympathetic reception at the time. In passing I would say that the doctor dies very beautifully: in his last moments he sees a herd of deer...
Indeed, the construction of this story leaves no doubt in the mind. Chekhov wished to compromise, and he compromised. He had come to feel how intolerable was hopelessness, how impossible the creation from a void. To beat one's head against the stones, eternally to beat one's head against the stones, is so horrible that it were better to return to idealism. Then the truth of the wonderful Russian saying was proved: 'Don't forswear the beggar's wallet nor the prison.' Chekhov joined the cherished Russian writers, and began to praise the idea. But not for long. His very next story, The Duel, has a different character. Its conclusion is also apparently idealistic, but only in appearance. The principal hero Layevsky is a parasite like all Chekhov's heroes. He does nothing, can do nothing, does not even wish to do anything, lives chiefly at others' expense, runs up debts, seduces women... His condition is intolerable and he is living with another man's wife, whom he has come to loathe as he loathes himself, yet he cannot get rid of her. He is always in straitened circumstances and in debt everywhere: his friends dislike and despise him. His state of mind is always such that he is ready to run no matter where, never looking backwards, only away from the place where he is living now. His illegal wife is in roughly the same position, unless it be even more horrible. Without knowing why, without love, without even being attracted, she gives herself to the first, commonplace man she meets; and then she feels as though she had been covered from head to foot in filth, and the filth had stuck so close to her that not ocean itself could wash her clean. This couple lives in the world, in a remote little place in the Caucasus, and naturally attracts Chekhov's attention. There is no denying the interest of the subject: two persons befouled, who can neither tolerate others nor themselves...
For contrast's sake Chekhov brings Layevsky into collision with the zoologist, Von Koren, who has come to the seaside town on important business—every one recognises its importance—to study the embryology of the medusa. Von Koren, as one may see from his name, is of German origin, and therefore deliberately represented as a healthy, normal, clean man, the grandchild of Goncharov's Stolz, the direct opposite of Layevsky, who on his side is nearly related to our old friend Oblomov. But in Goncharov the contrast between Stolz and Oblomov is quite different in nature and meaning to the contrast in Chekhov. The novelist of the forties hoped that a rapprochement with Western culture would renew and resuscitate Russia. And Oblomov himself is not represented as an utterly hopeless person. He is only lazy, inactive, unenterprising. You have the feeling that were he to awaken he would be a match for a dozen Stolzes. Layevsky is a different affair. He is awake already, he was awakened years ago, but his awakening did him no good... 'He does not love nature; he has no God; he or his companions had ruined every trustful girl he had known; all his life long he had not planted one single little tree, not grown one blade of grass in his own garden, nor while he lived among the living, had he saved the life of one single fly; but only ruined and destroyed, and lied, and lied...' The good-natured sluggard Oblomov degenerated into a disgusting, terrible animal, while the clean Stolz lived and remained clean in his posterity!
But to the new Oblomov he speaks differently. Von Koren calls Layevsky a scoundrel and a rogue, and demands that he should be punished with the utmost severity. To reconcile them is impossible. The more they meet, the deeper, the more merciless, the more implacable is their hatred for each other. It is impossible that they should live together on the earth. It must be one or the other; either the normal Von Koren, or the degenerate decadent Layevsky. Of course, all the external, material force is on Von Koren's side in the struggle. He is always in the right, always victorious, always triumphant in act no less than in theory. It is curious that Chekhov, the irreconcilable enemy of all kinds of philosophy—not one of his heroes philosophises, or if he does, his philosophising is unsuccessful, ridiculous, weak and unconvincing—makes an exception for Von Koren, a typical representative of the positive, materialistic school. His words breathe vigour and conviction. They have in them even pathos and a maximum of logical sequence. There are many materialist heroes in Chekhov's stories, but in their materialism there is a tinge of veiled idealism, according to the stereotyped prescription of the 'sixties. Such heroes Chekhov ridicules and derides. Idealism of every kind, whether open or concealed, roused feelings of intolerable bitterness in Chekhov. He found it more pleasant to listen to the merciless menaces of a downright materialist than to accept the dry-as-dust consolations of humanising idealism. An invincible power is in the world, crushing and crippling man—this is clear and even palpable. The least indiscretion, and the mightiest and the most insignificant alike fall victims to it.
One can only deceive oneself about it so long as one knows of it only by hearsay. But the man who had once been in the iron claws of necessity loses for ever his taste for idealistic self-delusion. No more does he diminish the enemy's power, he will rather exaggerate it. And the pure logical materialism which Von Koren professes gives the most complete expression of our dependence upon the elemental powers of nature. Von Koren's speech has the stroke of a hammer, and each blow strikes not Layevsky but Chekhov himself on his wounds. He gives more and more strength to Von Koren's arm, he puts himself in the way of his blows. For what reason? Decide as you may. Perhaps Chekhov cherished a secret hope that self-inflicted torment might be the one road to a new life? He has not told us so. Perhaps he did not know the reason himself, and perhaps he was afraid to offend the positive idealism which held such undisputed sway over contemporary literature. As yet he dared not lift up his voice against the public opinion of Europe—for we do not ourselves invent our philosophical conceptions; they drift down on the wind from Europe! And, to avoid quarrelling with people, he devised a commonplace, happy ending for his terrible story. At the end of the story Layevsky 'reforms': he marries his mistress; gives up his dissolute life; and begins to devote himself to transcribing documents, in order to pay his debts. Normal people can be perfectly satisfied, since normal people read only the last lines of the fable,—the moral; and the moral of The Duel is most wholesome: Layevsky reforms and begins transcribing documents. Of course it may seem that such an ending is more like a gibe at morality; but normal people are not too penetrating psychologists. They are scared of double meanings and, with the 'sincerity' peculiar to themselves, they take every word of the writer for good coin. Good luck to them!
The only philosophy which Chekhov took seriously, and therefore seriously fought, was positivist materialism—just the positivist materialism, the limited materialism which does not pretend to theoretical completeness. With all his soul Chekhov felt the awful dependence of a living being upon the invisible but invincible and ostentatiously soulless laws of nature. And materialism, above all scientific materialism, which is reserved and does not hasten in pursuit of the final word and eschews logical completeness, wholly reduces to the definition of the external conditions of our existence. The experience of every day, every hour; every minute, convinces us that lonely and weak man brought to face with the laws of nature, must always adapt himself and give way, give way, give way. The old professor could not regain his youth; the overstrained Ivanov could not recover his strength; Layevsky could not wash away the filth with which he was covered—interminable series of implacable, purely materialistic non possumus, against which human genius can set nothing but submission or forgetfulness. Resigne-toi, mon coeur, dors ton sommeil de brute—we shall find no other words before the pictures which are unfolded in Chekhov's books. The submission is but an outward show; under it lies concealed a hard, malignant hatred of the unknown enemy. Sleep and oblivion are only seeming. Does a man sleep, does he forget, when he calls his sleep, sommeil de brute?
But how can he change? The tempestuous protests with which The Tedious Story is filled, the need to pour forth the pent-up indignation, soon begin to appear useless, and even insulting to human dignity. Chekhov's last rebellious work is Uncle Vanya. Like the old professor and like Ivanov, Uncle Vanya raises the alarm and makes an incredible pother about his ruined life. He, too, in a voice not his own, fills the stage with his cries: 'Life is over, life is over,'—as though indeed any of these about him, any one in the whole world, could be responsible for his misfortune. But wailing and lamentation is not sufficient for him. He covers his own mother with insults. Aimlessly, like a lunatic, without need or purpose, he begins shooting at his imaginary enemy, Sonya's pitiable and unhappy father. His voice is not enough, he turns to the revolver. He is ready to fire all the cannon on earth, to beat every drum, to ring every bell. To him it seems that the whole of mankind, the whole of the universe, is sleeping, that the neighbours must be awakened. He is prepared for any extravagance, having no rational way of escape; for to confess at once that there is no escape is beyond the capacity of any man.
Then begins a Chekhov history: 'He cannot reconcile himself, neither can he refuse so to reconcile himself. He can only weep and beat his head against the wall.' Uncle Vanya does it openly, before men's eyes; but how painful to him is the memory of this frank unreserve! When every one has departed after a stupid and painful scene, Uncle Vanya realises that he should have kept silence, that it is no use to confess certain things to any one, not even to one's nearest friend. A stranger's eyes cannot endure the sight of hopelessness. 'Your life is over—you have yourself to thank for it: you are a human being no more, all human things are alien to you. Your neighbours are no more neighbours to you, but strangers. You have no right either to help others or to expect help from them. Your destiny is—absolute loneliness.' Little by little Chekhov becomes convinced of this truth: Uncle Vanya is the last trial of loud public protest, of a vigorous 'declaration of rights.' And even in this drama Uncle Vanya is the only one to rage, although there are among the characters Doctor Astrov and poor Sonya, who might also avail themselves of their right to rage, and even to fire the cannon. But they are silent. They even repeat certain comfortable and angelic words concerning the happy future of mankind; which is to say that their silence is doubly deep, seeing that 'comfortable words' upon the lips of such people are the evidence of their final severance from life: they have left the whole world, and now they admit no one to their presence. They have fenced themselves with comfortable words, as with the Great Wall of China, from the curiosity and attention of their neighbours. Outwardly they resemble all men, therefore no man dares to touch their inward life.
What is the meaning and significance of this straining inward labour in those whose lives are over? Probably Chekhov would answer this question as Nicolai Stepanovich answered Katy's, with 'I do not know.' He would add nothing. But this life alone, more like to death than life, attracted and engaged him. Therefore his utterance grew softer and slower with every year. Of all our writers Chekhov has the softest voice. All the energy of his heroes is turned inwards. They create nothing visible; worse, they destroy all things visible by their outward passivity and inertia. A 'positive thinker' like Von Koren brands them with terrible words, and the more content is he with himself and his justice, the more energy he puts into his anathemas. 'Scoundrels, villains, degenerates, degraded animals!'—what did Von Koren not devise to fit the Layevskys? The manifestly positive thinker wants to force Layevsky to transcribe documents. The surreptitiously positive thinkers—idealists and metaphysicians—do not use abusive words. Instead they bury Chekhov's nerves alive in their idealistic cemeteries, which are called conceptions of the world. Chekhov himself abstains from the 'solution of the question' with a persistency to which most of the critics probably wished a better fate, and he continues his long stories of men and the life of men, who have nothing to lose, as though the only interest in life were this nightmare suspension between life and death.
What does it teach us of life or death? Again we must answer: 'I do not know,'—those words which arouse the greatest aversion in positive thinkers, but appear in some mysterious way to be the permanent elements in the ideas of Chekhov's people. This is the reason why the philosophy of materialism, though so hostile, is yet so near to them. It contains no answer which can compel man to cheerful submission. It bruises and destroys him, but it does not call itself rational; it does not demand gratitude; it does not demand anything, since it has neither soul nor speech. A man may acknowledge it and hate it. If he manages to get square with it—he is right; if he fails—vae victis. How comfortably sounds the voice of the unconcealed ruthlessness of inanimate, impersonal, indifferent nature, compared with the hypocritical and cloying melodies of idealistic, humanistic conceptions of the world! Then again—and this is the chiefest thing of all—men can struggle with nature still! And in the struggle with nature every weapon is lawful. In the struggle with nature man always remains man, and, therefore, right, whatever means he tries for his salvation, even if he were to refuse to accept the fundamental principle of the world's being—the indestructibility of matter and energy, the law of inertia and the rest—since who will dispute that the most colossal dead force must be subservient to man?
But a conception of the world is an utterly different affair! Before uttering a word it puts forward an irreducible demand: man must serve the idea. And this demand is considered not merely as something understood, but as of extraordinary sublimity. Is it strange then that in the choice between idealism and materialism Chekhov inclined to the latter—the strong but honest adversary? With idealism a man can struggle only by contempt and Chekhov's works leave nothing to be desired in this respect... But how shall a man struggle with materialism? And can it be overcome? Perhaps Chekhov's method may seem strange to my reader, nevertheless it is clear that he came to the conclusion that there was only one way to struggle, to which the prophets of old turned themselves: to beat one's head against the wall. Without thunder or cannon or alarm, in loneliness and silence, remote from their fellows and their fellows' fellows, to gather all the forces of despair for an absurd attempt long since condemned by science.
Have you any right to expect from Chekhov an approval of scientific methods? Science has robbed him of everything: he is condemned to create from the void, to an activity of which a normal man, using normal means, is utterly incapable. To achieve the impossible one must first leave the road of routine. However obstinately we may pursue our scientific quests, they will not lead us to the elixir of life. Science began with casting away the longing for human omnipotence as in principle unattainable: her methods are such that success along certain of her paths preclude even seeking along others. In other words, scientific method is defined by the character of the problems which she puts to herself. Indeed, not one of her problems can be solved by beating one's head against the wall. But this method, old-fashioned though it is—I repeat, it was known to the prophets and used by them—promised more to Chekhov and his nerves than all inductions and deductions (which were not invented by science, but have existed since the beginning of the world). This prompts a man with some mysterious instinct, and appears upon the scene whenever the need of it arises. Science condemns it. But that is nothing strange: it condemns science.
Now perhaps the further development and direction of Chekhov's creation will be intelligible, and that peculiar and unique blend in him of sober materialism and fanatical stubbornness in seeking new paths, always round about and hazardous. Like Hamlet, he would dig beneath his opponent a mine one yard deeper, so that he may at one moment blow engineer and engine into the air. His patience and fortitude in this hard, underground toil are amazing and to many intolerable. Everywhere is darkness, not a ray, not a spark, but Chekhov goes forward, slowly, hardly, hardly moving... An inexperienced or impatient eye will perhaps observe no movement at all. It may be Chekhov himself does not know for certain whether he is moving forward or marking time. To calculate beforehand is impossible. Impossible even to hope. Man has entered that stage of his existence wherein the cheerful and foreseeing mind refuses its service. It is impossible for him to present to himself a clear and distinct notion of what is going on. Everything takes on a tinge of fantastical absurdity. One believes and disbelieves everything. In The Black Monk Chekhov tells of a new reality, and in a tone which suggests that he is himself at a loss to say where the reality ends and the phantasmagoria begins.
The black monk leads the young scholar into some mysterious remoteness, where the best dreams of mankind shall be realised. The people about call the monk a hallucination and fight him with medicines—drugs, better foods and milk. Kovrin himself does not know who is right. When he is speaking to the monk, it seems to him that the monk is right; when he sees before him his weeping wife and the serious, anxious faces of the doctors, he confesses that he is under the influence of fixed ideas, which lead him straight to lunacy. Finally, the black monk is victorious. Kovrin has not the power to support the banality which surrounds him; he breaks with his wife and her relations, who appear like inquisitors in his eyes, and goes away somewhere—but in our sight he arrives nowhere. At the end of the story he dies in order to give the author the right to make an end. This is always the case: when the author does not know what to do with his hero he kills him. Sooner or later in all probability this habit will be abandoned. In the future, probably, writers will convince themselves and the public that any kind of artificial completion is absolutely superfluous. The matter is exhausted stop the tale short, even though it be on a half-word. Chekhov did so sometimes, but only sometimes. In most cases he preferred to satisfy the traditional demands and to supply his readers with an end. This habit is not so unimportant as at first sight it may seem.
Consider even The Black Monk. The death of the hero is as it were an indication that abnormality must, in Chekhov's opinion, necessarily lead through an absurd life to an absurd death: but this was hardly Chekhov's firm conviction. It is clear that he expected something from abnormality, and therefore gave no deep attention to men who had left the common track. True, he came to no firm or definite conclusions, for all the tense effort of his creation. He became so firmly convinced that there was no issue from the entangled labyrinth, that the labyrinth with its infinite wanderings, its perpetual hesitations and strayings, its uncaused griefs and joys uncaused—in brief, all things which normal men so fear and shun—became the very essence of his life. Of this and this alone must a man tell. Not of our invention is normal life, nor abnormal. Why then should the first alone be considered as the real reality?
The Sea-Gull must be considered one of the most characteristic, and therefore one of the most remarkable of Chekhov's works. Therein the artist's true attitude to life received its most complete expression. Here all the characters are either blind, and afraid to move from their seats in case they lose the way home, or half-mad, struggling and tossing about to no end nor purpose. Arkadina the famous actress clings with her teeth to her seventy thousand roubles, her fame, and her last lover. Trigorin the famous writer writes day in, day out; he writes and writes, knowing neither end nor aim. People read his works and praise them, but he is not his own master; like Marko, the ferryman in the tale, he labours on without taking his hand from the oar, carrying passengers from one bank to the other. The boat, the passengers, and the river too, bore him to death. But how can he get rid of them? He might give the oars over to the first-corner: the solution is simple, but after it, as in the tale, he must go to heaven. Not Trigorin alone, but all the people in Chekhov's books who are no longer young remind one of Marko the ferryman. It is plain that they dislike their work, but, exactly as though they were hypnotised, they cannot break away from the influence of the alien power. The monotonous, even dismal, rhythm of life has lulled their consciousness and will to sleep. Everywhere Chekhov underlines this strange and mysterious trait of human life. His people always speak, always think, always do one and the same thing. One builds houses according to a plan made once for all (My Life); another goes on his round of visits from morn to night, collecting roubles (Yonitch); a third is always buying up houses (Three Years). Even the language of his characters is deliberately monotonous. They are all monotonous, to the point of stupidity, and they are all afraid to break the monotony, as though it were the source of extraordinary joys. Read Trigorin's monologue:
But why these torments? Throw up the oars and begin a new life. Impossible. While no answer comes down from heaven, Trigorin will not throw up the oars, will not begin a new life. In Chekhov's work, only young, very young and inexperienced people speak of a new life. They are always dreaming of happiness, regeneration, light, joy. They fly headlong into the flame, and are burned like silly butterflies. In The Sea-Gull, Nina Zarechnaya and Treplev, in other works other heroes, men and women alike—all are seeking for something, yearning for something, but not one of them does that which he desires. Each one lives in isolation; each is wholly absorbed in his life, and is indifferent to the lives of others. And the strange fate of Chekhov's heroes is that they strain to the last limit of their inward powers, but there are no visible results at all. They are all pitiable. The woman takes snuff, dresses slovenly, wears her hair loose, is uninteresting. The man is irritable, grumbling, takes to drink, bores every one about him. They act, they speak—always out of season. They cannot, I would even say they do not want to, adapt the outer world to themselves. Matter and energy unite according to their own laws—people live according to their own, as though matter and energy had no existence at all.
- 'Let us talk... Let us talk of my beautiful life... What shall I begin with? [Musing a little.]... There are such things as fixed ideas, when a person thinks day and night, for instance, of the moon, always of the moon. I too have my moon. Day and night I am at the mercy of one besetting idea: “I must write, I must write, I must.” I have hardly finished one story than, for some reason or other, I must write a second, then a third, and after the third, a fourth. I write incessantly, post-haste. I cannot do otherwise. Where then, I ask you, is beauty and serenity? What a monstrous life it is! I am sitting with you now, I am excited, but meanwhile every second I remember that an unfinished story is waiting for me. I see a cloud, like a grand piano. It smells of heliotrope. I say to myself: a sickly smell, a half-mourning colour... I must not forget to use these words when describing a summer evening. I catch up myself and you on every phrase, on every word, and hurry to lock all these words and phrases into my literary storehouse. Perhaps they will be useful. When I finish work I run to the theatre, or go off fishing: at last I shall rest, forget myself. But no! a heavy ball of iron is dragging on my fetters,—a new subject, which draws me to the desk, and I must make haste to write and write again. And so on for ever, forever. I have no rest from myself, and I feel that I am eating away my own life. I feel that the honey which I give to others has been made of the pollen of my most precious flowers, that I have plucked the flowers themselves and trampled them down to the roots. Surely, I am mad. Do my neighbours and friends treat me as a sane person? “What are you writing? What have you got ready for us?” The same thing, the same thing eternally, and it seems to me that the attention, the praise, the enthusiasm of my friends is all a fraud. I am being robbed like a sick man, and sometimes I am afraid that they will creep up to me and seize me, and put me away in an asylum.'
In this Chekhov's intellectuals do not differ from illiterate peasants and the half-educated bourgeois. Life in the manor is the same as in the valley farm, the same as in the village. Not one believes that by changing his outward conditions he would change his fate as well. Everywhere reigns an unconscious but deep and ineradicable conviction that our will must be directed towards ends which have nothing in common with the organised life of mankind. Worse still, the organisation appears to be the enemy of the will and of man. One must spoil, devour, destroy, ruin. To think out things quietly, to anticipate the future—that is impossible. One must beat one's head, beat one's head eternally against the wall. And to what purpose? Is there any purpose at all? Is it a beginning or an end? Is it possible to see in it the warrant of a new and inhuman creation, a creation out of the void? 'I do not know' was the old professor's answer to Katy. 'I do not know' was Chekhov's answer to the sobs of those tormented unto death. With these words, and only these, can an essay upon Chekhov end. Résigne-toi, mon coeur, dors ton sommeil de brute.