Saturday, November 10, 2012

Reading Chekhov

Russian Literature

An article in The New Criterion ("Chekhov's Enlightenment') by Gary Saul Morson gives some insight as to why among Russian writers, Chekhov is the favourite of many, including this writer. Like many Russian writers, his voice is universal, but not preachy. His ideals lay, as is the case of the best writers, in telling a story of "life as it actually is." That Chekhov was a trained scientist, a physician, undoubtedly helped in his making observations that escaped others.
For the intelligentsia, “life as it actually is” was not enough. The point was to change the world, and to do so one needed the right philosophy and politics. Chekhov not only did not share the requisite political views, he regarded any demand for intellectual conformity as another form of serfdom.
The intelligentsia demanded a particularly crude materialism. Thoroughly devoted to science, Chekhov nevertheless was repelled by the pseudo-scientific reduction of morality and creativity to brain activity. Today’s new atheists speak of “neuro-ethics” and “neuro-aesthetics;” their counterparts in Chekhov’s day quoted Molleschot’s dictum that the brain secretes thought the way the liver secretes bile. “It’s always good to think scientifically,” Chekhov replied skeptically. “The trouble is that thinking scientifically about art will inevitably end up degenerating into a search for the ‘cells’ or ‘centers’ in charge of creative ability, whereupon some dull-witted German will discover them somewhere in the temporal lobes.”
Chekhov also denied that science disproves free will and the individual personhood. On the contrary, respect for the person was a supreme value for Chekhov, and he believed in will power, not in spite of but precisely because of the hereditary and social pressures against which people struggle. To claim otherwise is not to practice hardheaded science but to excuse swinishness.
 Though not religious, Chekhov often depicted religion at its best, which, for him, meant it could revivify a person’s sense of the world. Some have judged “The Student” as his most perfect tale, which describes a young, future clergyman lashed by a sudden cold wind that seemed as if it “had destroyed the order and harmony of things, that nature itself felt ill at ease, and that was why . . . everything was deserted and peculiarly gloomy.” As he shivers, he thinks that just such a wind must have blown in the time of Ivan the Terrible and that, then as now, “there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same . . . ignorance, misery, desolation. . . . all these had existed, did exist, and would exist and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better.”
It is precisely such understanding of the human condition that  makes Chekhov a great writer. He had no need to preach or moralize; it's all there to be read in his work. In his thinking, the role of the writer is to ask questions, and not answer them.

If Chekhov created characters that were both human and often humourous, it was that he himself never forgot his roots. Prof. Morson writes: "Chekhov never forgot that his grandfather had been a serf who had saved enough to buy his family’s freedom, but he refused to carry a chip on his shoulder. He spoke of self-pity and the consciousness of victimhood in a tone verging on disgust."

You can read the rest of the article at [The New Criterion]