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.

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