"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Chekhov–Art, Work, And Responsibility



In both his plays and short stories Chekhov was obsessed with idleness, work, and the value of art. Many of his characters do not work, such as the narrator of The House with the Mezzanine, and are conflicted because of it.
Condemned by fate to permanent idleness, I was doing decidedly nothing.  I spent whole hours looking out my windows at the sky, the birds, the avenues, read everything that came in the mail, slept. Sometimes I left the house and wandered about somewhere till late in the evening.
He is an artist who meets two young women, Lida and her younger sister, Missyus.  He falls in love with Missyus, a simple, modest, but intelligent girl; but is more engaged by the more confident and aggressive Lida who dismisses what she sees as his indolence and irrelevance.  Of what use is a landscape painter, she tells him, when peasants are sick, suffering, hungry, and dying?
He challenges her and rejects her notions of charity.  The lot of the peasantry will not change until their lives are revolutionized, not patched and bandaged with first aid, education, and social welfare.
In my opinion, dispensaries, schools, libraries, first-aid kits, under the existing conditions, only serve enslavement.  The people are fettered with a great chain, and you don’t cut the chain, you merely add new links to it.
What matters is not that Anna died in childbirth, but that all these Annas, Mavras, Pelageayas, bend their backs from early morning till dark, get sick from overwork, tremble all their lives for their hungry and sick children, fear death and sickness all their lives, fade early, age early, and die in dirt and stench…..The whole horror of the situation is that they have no time to think of their souls, no time to remember their image and likeness….
The people must be freed from heavy physical labor, he says, and they must be given a respite, so that they don’t spend their whole lives at the washtub and in the fields.
Every man’s calling  lies in spiritual activity – a constant search for truth and the meaning of life…Once a man is conscious of his true calling, he can be satisfied only by religion, the sciences, the arts….
The arts and sciences, when genuine, aspire not to temporary, not to specific purposes, but to the eternal and the general – they seek truth and the meaning of life….and when they are harnessed to the needs and evils of the day, to first-aid kits and libraries…they only complicate and clutter life.
All our intelligence, all our inner energies have gone to satisfying temporary, pressing needs….
Revolution will change all this, he says.  Work will be distributed equally so that all men and women regardless of class, intelligence, or profession share the drudgery, enabling each to discover beauty, spirit, and meaning. Chekhov wrote The House with the Mezzanine in 1896, twenty years before the Revolution, but he saw the change coming. Middle-class Russians like Lida were becoming aware of the poverty beneath them, and intellectuals like the narrator were envisaging a political and economic system which equalized resources and opportunity.

In this story the narrator recites with conviction his litany of ideal solutions, and although he berates his idleness, he feels that his work as an artist is small but important part in promoting the systemic change coming.  Both the artist and the peasant observe the same landscape; but the artist alone appreciates its beauty, and in his creative interpretation of the wheat fields, spring flowers, linden trees, and cool mists of autumn, he provides the necessary link between physical reality and spiritual awareness.

Chekhov said many times in letters to friends that he thought art as important as education or medicine; and therefore the narrator of this story, despite his exaggerated poetic idealism, reflects the author’s perspective.

Reading the short stories he wrote near the end of his life – those which coincide with his best plays – it is clear that Chekhov is as conflicted as many of his characters.  On the one hand he writes extensively of the value of work, the useless boredom of the aristocracy, and the inefficacy of intellectuals.  Vershinin and Tuzenbach in The Three Sisters endlessly debate the value of work and the future of Russian society.  Both feel that work is essential, but disagree on its results.  Tuzenbach feels that work has innate, inviolable value – it is an end in itself – while Vershinin sees it as a means to an end.  In their arguments they get at the philosophical arguments to be made by Marx and Engels.  The narrator of The House with the Mezzanine comes the closest to the future Communist manifesto.

What Chekhov did not anticipate was the Communist disavowal of individual artistic enterprise as elite, irrelevant to the workers’ struggle, and an unnecessary trifle.  While the Soviet rulers co-opted art to their own Socialist ends and used it to portray Revolutionary struggle, the artistic creativity so important to real human advancement and lyrically presented by the narrator of The House, was stifled, removed, and punished.

The narrator can never truly believe in himself, and envies the rich landowner he has befriended:
“Tell me, why is your life so dull, so colorless”, I asked Belokurov, walking home with him. “My life is dull, heavy, monotonous, because I am an artist, a strange man, from my youth I’ve been chafed by jealousy, dissatisfaction with myself, lack of faith in what I am doing.  I’m always poor, I’m a vagabond, but you, you’re a healthy, normal person, a landowner, a squire – why do you live so uninterestingly, why do you take so little from life?
Life is not all about struggle, assuaging the ills of the poor, shining a creative beacon, arguing for revolution.  It is also about satisfaction, simple pleasures, and a fat, well-tended happiness.  Burghers, intellectuals, artists, and aristocrats have a duty to themselves – to add color and interest to the only life they will ever have.

This sense of inaction, indolence, and unwillingness to do anything is worse than actual suffering, Chekhov implies in his plays; and the real tragedy of the well-born he writes about is inability to act – either for the betterment of society or of themselves.
“The point isn’t pessimism or optimism”, I said irritably, “but the ninety-nine people out of a hundred who are witless”.
It is clear after reading Chekhov’s body of work that meaning is important to him. His characters are all searching for it whether through social commitment, intellectual reflection, or as in the narrator’s case and that of Lida, action.

The House with the Mezzanine is one of Chekhov’s most interesting stories because it includes all the themes that he has dealt with in his narrative and theatrical fiction: the beauty and influence of the Russian landscape – a defining and transformative element of Russian life. Work and idleness, and the relative values of both.  Work may have intrinsic value but unmitigated it can be destructive and degrading.  Idleness can become indolence or can be an opportunity for reflection and art.  Inaction is tragic; but action is meaningless without a philosophical context.


                                              Levitan 1898

The House with the Mezzanine is especially intriguing because of its contrast with the mundane, practical, and temporary with the more enduring.  Chekhov is right in seeing how the routines of life, regardless of social class, can be confining, limiting, and debilitating. Very few people can appreciate their lives as they lead them.  Wilder’s Our Town is perhaps the most insightful of all modern theatre concerning this dilemma.  His characters have to die before they can appreciate what they have lost.

Chekhov’s works have often been criticized because ‘nothing happens’.  Far from it.  In these short story gems everything happens.  No one is content.  Everyone is struggling against time, their past, society, and themselves.

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