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

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Stoicism vs. Suffering–Chekhov’s Ward No. 6

Ward No. 6 is one of Anton Chekhov’s best and most unusual short stories.  It is a story of ideas and reprises familiar themes about time, will, action and inaction, and the place of the individual in society.  Whereas most of his short stories and plays are set in the Russian countryside, this one takes place within a mental institution.  A patient challenges the stoicism of the Chief Doctor and shakes the foundations of his belief.  The doctor has never suffered, says the patient, and therefore his convictions about the endless and repetitive cycles of life and history can only be academic, theoretical, and therefore meaningless. The doctor either descends into madness and is confined to the very ward over which he once had responsibility; or becomes a very sane victim of his inability to square vision with reality.

It is very difficult to make a movie about ideas, but the Russian directors Alexander Goronovsky and Karen Shakhnazarov have made a compelling film about impending, growing, and finally complete madness; and yet have left open the possibility that it is only the most sane who are judged insane.  

The film is set within a cold, spare Soviet-era institution, classic with old wooden floors, linoleum, thickly-painted walls, dim lighting, lace-curtain windows, austere courtyards, outdated equipment, bathrobes, and lab coats. There is no music, only a few exterior shots, and little dialogue except that between the doctor and the patient.  The quiet adds to the surreal, frightening atmosphere of an inescapable physical and mental prison.

The story/film revolves around Chekhov’s principal conundrum – is progress possible? Or in a thousand years will only the superficial aspects of life have changed while the basic human instincts remain the same. Dr. Ragin is eloquent in his defense of Stoicism:

I often dream of intellectual people and conversation with them," he said suddenly, interrupting Mihail Averyanitch. "My father gave me an excellent education, but under the influence of the ideas of the sixties made me become a doctor. I believe if I had not obeyed him then, by now I should have been in the very center of the intellectual movement. Most likely I should have become a member of some university… Life is a vexatious trap; when a thinking man reaches maturity and attains to full consciousness he cannot help feeling that he is in a trap from which there is no escape. Indeed, he is summoned without his choice by fortuitous circumstances from non-existence into life . . . what for? He tries to find out the meaning and object of his existence; he is told nothing, or he is told absurdities; he knocks and it is not opened to him; death comes to him--also without his choice.

Every choice, says Ragin, is a non-choice – meaningless in a world defined by accidental birth and inevitable death.  A cozy room by a fire is equal to a prison cell, he reasons, because the randomness which produced both has no inherent meaning or value. The external world has no purpose, no future, and no meaning; and the only valid expression of humanity is the untroubled acceptance of this reality.  There are only two admirable qualities of Man – the search for understanding and a scorn for vanity.  “The truly wise man is surprised by nothing”, says Ragin.

Ragin wonders why Man has been created at all.  What is the use of a man with reason, spirit, soul, inventiveness, and insight only to be turned into clay at the end of his short life? Those who cling to immortality by believing in reincarnation or a mystical redistribution of human life into plants, rocks, air, and clay are just as ignorant and foolishly hopeful as those who believe in Heaven and Hell.

Ragin contends that if Ivan Dmitrich, the patient with whom Ragin converses, manages to escape from the asylum, he will be surely caught, returned to the institution, incarcerated in a civil prison, or at best consigned to a life of poverty and want.  What’s the difference?

The issue of suffering is the point which causes Ragin to doubt himself.  At first he takes a Stoic view of suffering.  All men suffer, he reasons, and all suffering ends in death.  What is the point of alleviating suffering or delaying death?

What is gained if some shop-keeper or clerk lives an extra five or ten years? If the aim of medicine is by drugs to alleviate suffering, the question forces itself on one: why alleviate it? In the first place, they say that suffering leads man to perfection; and in the second, if mankind really learns to alleviate its sufferings with pills and drops, it will completely abandon religion and philosophy, in which it has hitherto found not merely protection from all sorts of trouble, but even happiness.

Pushkin suffered terrible agonies before his death, poor Heine lay paralyzed for several years; why, then, should not some Dr. Ragin or anyone else be ill, since their lives had nothing of importance in them, and would have been entirely empty and like the life of an amoeba except for suffering?

His patient, Ivan Dmitrich, challenges him more directly.

In fact, you have seen nothing of life, you know absolutely nothing of it, and are only theoretically acquainted with reality; you despise suffering and are surprised at nothing for a very simple reason: vanity of vanities, the external and the internal, contempt for life, for suffering and for death, comprehension, true happiness--that's the philosophy that suits the Russian sluggard best. You see a peasant beating his wife, for instance. Why interfere? Let him beat her, they will both die sooner or later, anyway; and, besides, he who beats injures by his blows, not the person he is beating, but himself…

Pain is the idea of pain, and besides 'there is no living in this world without illness; we shall all die, and so, go away, woman, don't hinder me from thinking and drinking vodka.' A young man asks advice, what he is to do, how he is to live; anyone else would think before answering, but you have got the answer ready: strive for 'comprehension' or for true happiness. [You say that] there is no difference at all between this ward and a warm, snug study. A convenient philosophy. You can do nothing, and your conscience is clear, and you feel you are wise. . . .

No, sir, it is not philosophy, it's not thinking, it's not breadth of vision, but laziness, fakirism, drowsy stupefaction. Yes," cried Ivan Dmitrich, getting angry again, "you despise suffering, but I'll be bound if you pinch your finger in the door you will howl at the top of your voice."

Shakespeare in many ways was a Stoic. He was convinced that the Grand Mechanism of history would turn perpetually, fueled and driven by human nature which never changes.  Although the events of history might be distinct and superficially unique, they will all be expressions of the natural human instinct for self-preservation.  Palace coups, intrigues, fights for accession, territory, status, and power are all expressions of this ineluctable human drive to acquire, secure, defend, and expand territory.   The world will never get any better, and in a thousand years will be characterized by the same venality and human folly as it always as been. 

Chekhov, at least in the words of Ragin and Tuzenbach in The Three Sisters, shared the same opinion.  Chekhov was clearly conflicted, and presented contrary views.  Vershinin in The Three Sisters, for example, believes that through work and commitment to the betterment of society, the future will indeed be better than the present.

Dr. Astrov (Uncle Vanya) despite his desperation about being forgottenthat the insignificance of life is no better demonstrated than by the hundreds of millions of dead, forgotten men – is an optimist, and feels that as custodian of Russian forests and woods, he will leave an important legacy for future generations.  Actions do matter, he feels, and although he cannot predict the future and how it will be qualitatively different from the present, he senses that preservation is more important than destruction.

Shakespeare and Chekhov, at least in the voices of Tuzenbach and Ragin, have history on their side.  There is nothing in history which suggests that human beings are anything but self-interested, expansionist, and territorial.  Individuals from commoners to kings, from children to aged adults; and societies from families to tribes, regions, and nations all behave in exactly the same ways.  The thundering hooves of the armies of Genghis Khan marauding and massacring their way across Europe and Asia are no different from American tanks, Russian armor, and North Korean missiles today.

Many of today’s thinkers, like Ragin and Shakespeare, view suffering, penury, and inequality as by-products of the Grand Mechanism no different from pleasure, wealth, and privilege.  While they might feel sorrow or compassion, they remain uninvolved, distant if not remote; and their only perceived purpose in life – again like Ragin – is to understand how the Grand Mechanism works.

As an inmate himself Ragin’s views are challenged.  At first he tries to apply his theoretical philosophy to his own condition; and maintains his conviction that life in an asylum is no different than in a cozy parlor – it is the quality of the interior mind which defines human value.  Very early on, however, doubt creeps in:

“No matter..." thought Andrey Yefimitch, wrapping himself in his dressing-gown in a shamefaced way and feeling that he looked like a convict in his new costume. "It's no matter. . . . It does not matter whether it's a dress-coat or a uniform or this dressing-gown."

But how about his watch? And the notebook that was in the side-pocket? And his cigarettes? Where had Nikita taken his clothes? Now perhaps to the day of his death he would not put on trousers, a waistcoat, and high boots. It was all somehow strange and even incomprehensible at first. Andrey Yefimitch was even now convinced that there was no difference between his landlady's house and Ward No. 6, that everything in this world was nonsense and vanity of vanities. And yet his hands were trembling, his feet were cold, and he was filled with dread at the thought that soon Ivan Dmitritch would get up and see that he was in a dressing-gown. He got up and walked across the room and sat down again.

No matter how hard he tried, Ragin cannot keep his mind off his own well-being and particular individual fate.  He had already begun to suffer, and although, as Ivan Dmitrich points out, he will be unceremoniously dragged out from the ward feet first by peasants when he dies - a confirmation of the meaninglessness and insignificance of life – he feels the cold of his coming death, and he is afraid.

Ragin has not suffered, he says, and therefore is in no position to expound the theories of Marcus Aurelius.  Suffering, says Ivan Dmitrich, will immediately dispel any intellectual convictions about determinism. 

Yet there is much more to be said. Christian philosophers have suggested that evil exists to tempt us, and only through suffering can one achieve spiritual enlightenment.  As importantly suffering exists for us to alleviate it – to gain favor in God’s eyes thanks to our compassion and Christian values.

Philosophers for centuries have wondered how a good and beneficent God could create evil.  Using some fancy philosophical footwork, Augustine said that there is no such thing as evil, just the ‘absence of good’.  We should not ignore suffering say these early Christians, but embrace it.  Stoics and Existentialists never agreed and like Ragin espoused an all-encompassing, deterministic view of the world.

I have never considered my own existential stoicism cowardly, insular, distant, or academic; yet the words of Ivan Dmitrich stung me as they did Ragin.  Is turning a blind eye to suffering on the grounds of its perpetuity somehow wrong or even immoral? Does suffering automatically negate philosophical theory?  If Ragin howls when his finger is caught in a slammed door, does that mean that he has instinctively, obviously, and correctly jettisoned Stoicism?

The short story is a bit talky and very academic, but dramatic in its presentation of these ideas within a very real and threatening setting.  The progressive and inevitable demise of Ragin is painful to watch.  The movie is frightening.  It – like the institution in which it is set – is cold, unfeeling, and hostile.  Only the ideas and the very human debate between Ragin and Ivan Dmitrich are alive.  I was intrigued by the story and moved by the film.

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