Monday, November 16, 2009

The Conventional, The Real and The Genuine

A convention is a thing agreed upon—perhaps by the relevant authorities, at a convention; or, perhaps by The People, tacitly. The U.S. constitution was hammered out in 1787 at a meeting or convention—a coming together— held in Philadelphia. There are conventions or rules, believe it or not, for various forms of violence. The Geneva Conventions are rules for the treatment of prisoners, worked out in Geneva in 1949; an earlier convention set rules for the way nations at war should conduct themselves. We have many conventions for the way we treat others in a vast array of social situations. Those who are ignorant of these conventions have no manners. Soliloquies on stage can only be overheard by the audience—that's a theatrical convention, which, like those of grammar or spelling or good manners, just happened, no one knows how. If you are a man or woman of your word, you will earn the respect of others—anywhere; if not, not. That's a convention, I suppose.

With the word 'conventional', things get stickier. Conventional behavior is behavior according to the relevant conventions, or agreements, or rules, or social norms; conventional ideas don't stray far from those that have been approved . . . by . . . the relevant authorities or experts; the same goes for conventional opinions, which are ready-made, so to speak, or off-the-shelf. Conventional expressions of feeling have been used so often as to become lifeless.

None of this is fresh or new or original—what I've just been saying is the conventional wisdom about conventionality. I have a point, however: this way of thinking has a history. According to my authority on all such matters, The Oxford English Dictionary, the word 'conventional' did not acquire these vaguely restrictive or oppressive implications until, approximately, the 1840s. In other words, it has not always been necessary to assume that society is, or may be, the enemy of sincerity and authenticity.
Now consider this sentence from Chekhov's "Lady With The Dog", which I quoted in my last essay:

"He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed to know it, full of conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life that went on in secret." Gurov's secret life is his real, genuine life; his public life is merely the "shell" that hides and protects it. And he assumes that this public-private fault-line is universal—at least among those "cultivated" people who can afford to maintain it: everyone who is anyone is keeping up appearances in order to protect their real lives from . . . what? Exposure? And, though it is hard to be sure, Chekov seems, in this story at least, to endorse the idea of a public-private, appearance-reality, fault-line—with its corollary, universal deceit.

What mainly interests me here, and what I want to try to be clear about, is this use of the word 'conventional' as an adjective modifying 'truths' and 'deceits' so as to imply that there is no difference at all between those words: the artificial, or conventional, surface or facade of social life is theatrical; whether it is true or deceitful is irrelevant—only people who have never been in a theater before confuse art and life in plays or movies; only similarly unsophisticated people fail to understand that at certain levels of wealth and class, social life becomes essentially theatrical. That strikes me as a deeply cynical view of upper-class life, coming from a writer who is never cynical. What's going on here? It may be that what comes across as cynicism in English is not present in Russian, an accident of translation, though I doubt it. I know nothing about the Russian word that is being translated here as 'conventional' but it has to mean pretty much the same as the English word: that which has been agreed to, by those who have power, as the proper way to appear to behave.

Or maybe the word I'm looking for is 'paradoxical.' It is at least paradoxical that Gurov, after a life of conventional truths and deceits, should discover within himself the possibility of a secret and genuine inner life, sheltered by the very conventions or conventionalities he is violating—as if he had gone underground and were living in a cavern hollowed out of the very rock our hypocritical civilization is built on.

I remarked, above, that it has not always been necessary to suspect that society may be the enemy of authenticity and sincerity; I don't know exactly when or how that idea became so potent that it began to change the meaning of the word 'conventional'—the romantic revolution had a lot to do with it—but I think I know where it makes its first appearance: in Hamlet. Something is rotten in Denmark and nobody can put it right because that is how societies are: all societies have been corrupted by power in one way or another. But you'll have to read my essay, "Tragic Virtue", if you want to see why Hamlet is the quintessential modern hero.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chekhov and The Inner Life

Chekhov said in one of his letters, "there's no making out anything in this world" and a little later in one of his stories—About Love (1898)—has one of his characters elaborate on that idea: "So far only one incontestable truth has been stated about love: 'This is a great mystery': everything else that has been written or said about love is not a solution, but only a statement of questions that have remained unanswered. The explanation that would fit one case does not apply to a dozen others, and the very best thing, to my mind, would be to explain every case separately without attempting to generalize. Each case should be individualized, as the doctors say." A year later, in 1899, Dr. Chekhov offers us just such a case, in one of his greatest stories, "The Lady With The Dog," and at one point comes pretty close to violating his cardinal rule about not attempting to generalize.

A rake, Dimitry Dmitrich Gurov, meets a younger woman, Anna Sergeyevna von Dideritz at the resort town of Yalta, and seduces her as he has seduced many others—though he knows that this affair, like all the others, will end badly: "Oft repeated and really bitter experience had taught him long ago that with decent people . . . who are irresolute and slow to move, every affair which at first seems a light and charming adventure inevitably grows into a whole extreme complexity, and in the end a painful situation is created. But at every new meeting with an interesting woman this lesson of experience seemed to slip from his memory, and he was eager for life, and everything seemed to so simple and diverting."

And so it proves. But this time something new happens: for the first time in his life, Gurov falls
in love—and gets a life, a genuine life, but not a life that he can publicly acknowledge. As his real life goes underground, he has the following revelation: "He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filled with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret. And by some strange coincidence, perhaps an accidental one, everything that he found important, interesting, necessary, in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, which constituted the core of his life, occurred in secret from others, while everything that made up his lie, his shell, in which he hid in order to conceal the truth—for instance his work at the bank, his arguments at the club, his "inferior race" [which is how he had habitually referred to women], his attending official celebrations with his wife—all that was in full view. And he judged others by himself, did not believe what he saw, and always supposed that every man led his own real and very interesting life under cover of secrecy, as under the cover of night. Every personal existence was upheld by a secret, and it was perhaps partly for this reason every cultivated man took such anxious care that his personal secret should be respected."

As that last sentence would seem to indicate, Chekhov himself was powerfully drawn to this vision of a secret, authentic inner life—of sincerity, truth, honesty—concealed as if by a theatrical shell from the 'real' word of conventional truths and conventional falsehoods—as if the social world were a theater in which we all act our parts while our real lives go on out of sight, off-stage, behind the scenes. (Chekhov found it much more difficult and, he said, less rewarding to write plays than stories.) And indeed it would be hard to exaggerate the power of this idea or myth—one of the formative myths of modernity as well as romanticism, as it seems to me—or its tenacity: if the inner life is the authentic core of our being, where we feel "sincerely", how can we account for the well-known fact that it is just as easy—maybe easier—to deceive our selves as others? (Isn't that what Gurov is doing? Is he not, as an adulterer, living a lie? Tolstoy would certainly have thought so.)

This is a huge subject. So far as I know, its history has yet to be written. Were I to begin writing such a history, I think I'd start with the authoritative use of the first-person pronoun in the poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was Keats who said he believed in the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chekhov And The Two Cultures

Chekhov is unique: a great writer who understands, not abstractly but from the inside, that both art and science are forms of inquiry: radically different forms of inquiry, equally valid but virtually incompatible ways of knowing. I know of no other modern artist or scientist who fits this description.

Here are some selections from his letters. (Like Keats, who was also trained in the medical science of his day and died young of TB, Chekhov was a copious and wonderfully charming letter-writer).

It seems to me it is not for writers of fiction to solve such questions as that of God, of pessimism, etc. The writer's business is simply to describe who has been speaking about God or about pessimism, how, and in what circumstances. The artist must be not the judge of his characters and of their conversation, but merely an impartial witness. I have heard a desultory conversation between two Russians about pessimism—a conversation that settles nothing—and I must report that conversation as I heard it; it is for the jury, that is, for the readers, to decide on the value of it. My business is merely to be talented—i.e. to know how to distinguish important statements from unimportant, how to throw light on the characters, how to speak their language. Shtcheglov-Leontyev blames me for finishing the story with the words, "There's no making out anything in this world." He thinks a writer who is a good psychologist ought to be able to make it out—that is what he is a psychologist for. But I don't agree with him. It is time that writers, especially those who are artists, recognized that there is no making out anything in this world, as once Socrates recognized . . . The mob thinks it knows and understands everything; and the more stupid it is the wider it imagines its outlook to be. And if a writer whom the mob believes in has the courage to say that he does not understand anything of what he sees, that alone will be something gained in the realm of thought and a great step in advance. (from a letter to Suvorin, May 30, 1888)

How would a writer write who knows he doesn't understand what life is all about and, like Socrates, knows that he is not wise? Well, that is a kind of knowledge, and a form of wisdom which is never on display. Chekhov is a stylist without an obvious style, a writer who, like Flaubert, stays out of sight: not an explainer but a shower. In story after story he shows what it's like to be another person. In "The Kiss" (1887) for instance, he shows us from the inside what it's like to be one of the multitude of losers who, through no fault of their own but just because of the way life—the only life we will ever get—has diminished them—understand at last that they've been irrevocably shut out of the party: "And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovich an unintelligible, aimless jest. . . . And turning his eyes from the water and looking at the sky, he remembered how Fate in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed him, he recalled his summer dreams and fancies, and his life struck him as extraordinarily meager, poverty-stricken, and drab. . . ." (from "The Kiss", 1887) There are also stories in which the loser manages or contrives actively to bring this fate upon himself.

Don't get me wrong and assume that Chekhov mostly writes about losers—though, come to think of it, lose is what most people do, mostly, in this preposterous pig of a world.

As you might expect, Chekhov despised critics and pundits, especially those who solemnly ponder big ideas, like materialism or liberalism or the state of the Russian soul, while most of the people, the peasants, live poor, nasty, brutish, ignorant lives that are mostly (and mercifully?) short. What especially irks him is that these so-called intellectuals don't even begin to know what they are talking about—they prate about materialism but know nothing at all about the science of matter which was changing the world as they spoke.

The novel is interesting . . . it is clever, interesting, in places witty, somewhat fantastic. As to its defects, the chief of them is his pretentious crusade against materialism. Forgive me, but I can't understand such crusades . . . whom is the crusade against and what is its object? Where is the enemy and what is dangerous about him? In the first place, the materialistic movement is not a school or a tendency . . . if is not something passing or accidental; it is necessary, inevitable, and beyond the power of man. All that lives on earth is bound to be materialistic. In animals, in savages, in Moscow merchants, all that is higher and non-animal is conditioned by an unconscious instinct, while all the rest is material, and they of course cannot help it. Beings of a higher order, thinking men, are also bound to be materialists. They seek for truth in matter, for there is nowhere else to seek for it, since they see, hear and sense matter alone. Of necessity they can only seek for truth where their microscopes, lancets and knives are of use to them. To forbid a man to follow the materialistic line of thought is equivalent to forbidding him to seek truth. Outside matter there is neither knowledge nor experience, and consequently there is no truth. I think that when dissecting a corpse, the most inveterate spiritualist will be bound to ask himself "Where is the soul here?" and if one knows how great is the likeness between bodily and mental diseases, and that both are treated by the same remedies, one help refusing to separate the soul from the body.

. . .To speak of the danger and harm of materialism, and even more to fight against it, is, to say the least, premature. We have not enough data to draw up an indictment. There are many theories and suppositions, but no facts . . . The priests complain of unbelief, immorality, and so on. There is no unbelief. People believe in something, whatever it may be . . . .

As to immorality, it is not people like Mendeleyev [who figured out the periodic table] but poets, abbots, and personages regularly attending Embassy churches, who have the reputation of being perverted debauchees, libertines, and drunkards. (from a letter to Suvorin, May 7, 1889)

By the way, if you are looking for a good book on Chekhov, Janet Malcolm's Reading Chekhov is a winner. And it's not too long, either.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

T. S. Eliot and The Pure Poetry of Despair: Ash Wednesday (1930)

Ash Wednesday is supposed to be about Eliot's recovery of faith—he had joined the Anglican Church in 1927—but that's not how it sounds. Here's how it begins:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope [a line from Shakespeare's sonnet #29]
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where the trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for a time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
And I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners not and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

The poem has six sections or chapters, of which I have given you the first. The last section is not about the recovery of faith; it is about loss. I quote, in part.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and death
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of the quail and whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth . . . .

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Helen of Troy: Romantic Illusion or Tragic Realism

"Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" asks Christopher Marlowe's Faustus (in the play—written about 1590— that got the Faust legend going in Europe.) "Sweet Helen," he says foolishly (for she is but an image and his request is blasphemous--or would have been), "make me immortal with a kiss." And, in a sense, she does, for these are famous lines.

A little more than 400 years later, John Updike, gives (shall we say?) a modern, anti-romantic, view of the women who, according to Homer started the war that forms the subject of his great poem, the Iliad:

Fair Helen

Helen of Troy, shining from Priam's porch,
her absent-minded gray gaze telling all
the dying, striving warriors below
that she suffices, the glorious cause
for Hector's and Achilles' men to die for,
held coiled within her a yard or two of shit,
of fecal matter waiting for its truth
to find the Turkish air and disappear.

The purplish blue of her well-hidden bowels
was not the sea-mist tint with which her gaze
accepted Menelaus and the horde
of men adoring her for giving them
the rage to die. The shit below, the shit
within are incidents; she turns and shines.

Now, I have to say that this, one the last poems that Updike ever wrote, is uncharacteristically crude, and adds nothing interesting or even relevant to what we necessarily know about her or anyone else: who doesn't have a gut full of shit inside them? Homer's own portrait of Helen in her bitterness and despair is much more deeply and significantly realistic: "I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, when I came hither following your son [Priam's son, Paris] forsaking my chamber, my kinsmen, my grown child, and the loveliness of girls my own age. It did not happen that way: now I am worn with weeping —slut that I am. Did this ever happen?" (Bk. 3, lines 171-80, in Lattimore's translation.) Homer's Helen, like Achilles, is tragic. The Iliad is the first tragic poem. The art of tragedy begins with Homer.

And what is tragedy? NOT just some very bad, very sad event or action but a whole set of circumstances in which someone has managed to trap herself. When there are no good choices or outcomes, when equally rational arguments and courses of action lead to equally disastrous results, when you're damned if you do and damned if you don't—no exit—that's tragic.

For those who have Faith, in God or Reason, there is no such thing as tragic experience.

In 1914, the great powers of Europe stumbled into the trap that their leaders had been busily but unknowingly preparing for themselves, and found no exit. Now, after almost a hundred years of virtually incessant warfare, the intellectual elites of the West have largely lost their faith: no God, no Reason.