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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Chekhov’s Triangle – Art, Intellect, and Sensibility

Daniel Draghici was a concert pianist with the Romanian Symphony Orchestra.  His repertoire featured the Romantic composers of the 19th Century – Beethoven, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff – and the Teatrul National was filled to overflowing every time he played.

Draghici was also a renowned thoracic surgeon, studied in Moscow, trained in Petersburg, and considered to be one of the most competent if not innovative surgeons in the Soviet bloc.  How he managed to maintain two careers was both a mystery and a marvel.  Most Romanians had lower level government jobs at best, spent three weeks in the summer at a concrete and eggy Carpathian spa, and rattled the streets of Bucharest in a 20-year old Dacia.

Draghici, however, was missing the third leg of the Chekovian triangle – art, intellect, and sentiment.  He was a prick who beat his wife and two children, reduced the first violinist to tears, threw scalpels and forceps around the operating theatre, and was a mean drunk.

Anne Martin was a well-known Baltimore artist whose canvasses were powerful evocations of her own troubled past, reflected her longing for reconciliation with God and family, and were singular in the blending of technique with color.  Her longings were as passionate as any of Chekhov’s women – Mme. Ranevsky and Masha, Olga, and Irina in particular. Anne felt the dislocation of living far from her childhood home on the Main Line and a life of privilege and comfort; and never got over the pain of separation from her sickly, passionate, and brilliant brother who died tragically young.  She, like the Chekhovian heroines and those of Tennessee Williams always looked longingly back, never gave up the hope of returning, but always lived with despair.

In all else, Anne was as dumb as a stone. She could never make sense, and although she empathized with the sick, the poor, and the disinherited, she could not make heads nor tails of the various public and private programs and policies designed to address their needs.  She couldn’t follow directions, subscribed to any conspiracy theory that came her way, and at 52 was as bad as any Alzheimer’s patient.  Her mind wandered, grazed, wandered in some in ethereal meadow of her mind, and got lost in a a spackled glade of light and shade.

Bill Brickel wrote intense, highly complex, involved fiction. He was often compared to Dostoyevsky in his ability to write with intelligence, discipline, and sentiment.  His characters were as morally tormented as Raskolnikov, and as brilliantly arrogant as Ivan. Critics praised him for his human insights and his unflinching reflections on Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard.

Brickel, however, had absolutely no visually artistic vision whatsoever.  His prose was tightly worded and spare.  His characters were intense, curious, demanding, and insistent.  They were unsparing in their search for moral honesty and ethnical rectitude.  The search was a highly intellectual, even academic one; but the purpose behind the digging and the exposition was personal.  Brickel was clearly after an elucidated meaning.  He was like Tolstoy’s Levin or Ivan Ilyich who would only stop searching when the answers became clear.

There was no ambience in Brickel’s writing, no color, no music, no light.  The action, if one could call it that, took place in the abstract.  His characters and their stories were single-track, linear, and unerringly logical. Chekhov, Tolstoy, and even Dostoyevsky talked of the Russian steppes, the sound of bells on troikas, the silence of the snow, the expanse of the open prairie and wind in the birch trees beside the dacha.  Not so for Brickel.  He had two sides of the Chekhovian triangle – intellect and sensibility – but totally lacked the third.  He was tone deaf, color blind, and totally insensitive to ambience, visual innuendo, or atmosphere.

Chekhov creates characters who are either intellectually disciplined, emotionally sensitive, or artistic; but never all three together.  Mme. Ranevsky, the aristocrat who because of her careless and indifferent ways, will lose her family estate unless she agrees to cut down the cherry orchard and turn it into a housing development for summer dachas.  The very idea is anathema, a negation of all that is beautiful, sophisticated, and meaningful.  She is very much like a character of Tennessee Williams.  Blanche Dubois lives more in a fantasy past than the present.  Belle Rive was a paradise of sentiment, family, and generational history.  Her gentility, manners, and sophisticated tastes came from Mississippi and her small town.  New Orleans is cruel, indifferent, and brutal.

Lyuba Ranevsky also wants to return to her childhood – not to a different place, but a time when life was simple and beautiful.  Cutting down the cherry orchard means destroying the very symbol of her innocence and simple happiness.

Masha, Olga, and Irina – the sisters in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters – long for a return to Moscow which for them, like Mme. Ranevsky, is not only the place of their childhood and youth, but a place of high ideals, intellect, and good taste.  Life in the provinces is dull and colorless; and they are incapable of finding a way back.  The dream of returning to Moscow becomes an intolerable weight, one which limits their emotional movement and personal ambition.  The past is too much to live with, and the three sisters become resigned to their fate.

Mme. Ranevsky is a more complex character, and one who has had adventure, love, and disappointment.  She has always been engaged in life, troubled by it, but not afraid of it. Yet her refusal to cut down the orchard and the final sale of her estate is her responsibility and hers alone.  Logic (intellect) and art have no place in her world.  She could understand the accounting necessary to make an intelligent decision, but she cannot and does not.  Nor does she have an artistic or creative vision which sustains her.

Constantine Treplev (The Seagull) has been dominated by his actress mother his whole life. However artistic and creative Irina might have been, Treplev describes her as more theatrical than talented.

“She likes excitement, romantic affairs, gay clothes but she and her colleagues, these geniuses, these high priests of art try to drag out of mediocre scenes and lines a moral, some commonplace that doesn’t tax the brain.”

Treplev himself sees himself as a theatrical genius and writes and directs play – an amateurish, laughable work – which he thinks marries intellectual seriousness with dramatic irony.  Nina, a woman from a nearby estate, sees in him not genius but the same desperate artistic ambition, and the two thrive on the insecurities and false hopes of the other.  Art is not art for its own sake but for the artistic enterprise which signifies sensibility and creativity.

Trofimov, the intellectual in The Cherry Orchard is a pure but absurd intellectual – a man who eschews common passion or love for the sake of his philosophical pursuits.  He is totally without empathy and sensibility.  He is trapped by his intellect and his intelligent ignorance.  He is pompous, foolish, and misses the point entirely – the angst and despair of others faced with radical change and uncertainty – and sees no redeeming value in artistic expression.  At least Treplev and Nina understand the transformative and ennobling power of art.  Trofimov is clueless.

Chekhov has concluded that art, intellect, and sensibility cannot co-exist.  You are either one or the other, maybe two; but that perfect triangle is impossible. Dostoyevsky’s Ivan (The Brothers Karamazov) is as intellectually rigorous as Aquinas or Augustine, but cannot resist the charms of either Grushenka or Katerina. He does not become tangled and besotted with them like his brother Dmitri and their father, but he totters on and off his firm rails. Levin (Anna Karenina) is another Tolstoy alter ego who, like Alyosha is a sensitive seeker; but who, like the youngest Karamazov is insecure, uncertain, and yet tempted by women.

There are as many romantic subplots in Chekhov’s plays as any good modern potboiler, but they come to nothing.  Astrov and Serebriakov’s young wife are too unsuited to be lovers.  Vanya, too, is seduced by her, but cannot consummate his desire because he lives in his own self-centered, egotistical world.  The three sisters are all in love with someone, but the love is either disappointing or unrequited. 

In other words, sensibility, art, and intellect all very much occur separately but not together. Chekhov was in some ways that perfect triangle of all three.  He was a doctor, an artist, and a writer; and in his short story The Artist he grappled with the relationship between science (intellect) and art.

"When science and art are real, they aim not at temporary private ends, but at eternal and universal -- they seek for truth and the meaning of life, they seek for God, for the soul, and when they are tied down to the needs and evils of the day, to dispensaries and libraries, they only complicate and hamper life. We have plenty of doctors, chemists, lawyers, plenty of people can read and write, but we are quite without biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, poets. The whole of our intelligence, the whole of our spiritual energy, is spent on satisfying temporary, passing needs.

The highest state of being, suggests Chekhov, is the unique combination of all three; but somehow even if that happy fusion were to occur, life itself conspires to dilute, defuse, and derail the best higher intentions.

Disciplined thinkers like Ivan Karamazov cannot possibly have Alyosha’s sensibility. His insistent and unassailable logic are no match for Alyosha’s compassion, empathy, and understanding.  One can easily see how Alyosha would value art for its supra-humanity; the ability of the artist to elucidate the human condition; but one cannot imagine Ivan falling under the spell of the art created in the 19th century.  He might have been intrigued by modern minimalists who have reduced artistic expression to intellectual dialogue; but not Impressionists, portraitists like Sargent or Whistler.

Whistler James Symphony in White no 1 (The White Girl) 1862.jpg

I have never met anyone configured like Chekhov’s triangle.  Highly disciplined abstract thinking is antithetical to compassion or empathy.  The philosopher, Supreme Court Justice, economist or mathematician must by necessity live in an extra-terrestrial world.  Aquinas and Augustine came to their conclusions about the existence of good and evil not because of empirical evidence but a priori reasoning.  Einstein did not devise his Theory of General Relativity through experiment but by abstract reasoning.

Mathematical and musical genius often are found together; but it is hard to conclude that the mathematician-artist is of the same character as a sympathetic artist – one who derives his expression not out of precise formulations but subjective insight.

I know a number of people whose characters are built on two solid legs of Chekhov’s triangle and one wobbly one.  The daughter of a close friend has the intellectual rigor of Richard Feynman and the artistic sensibility of Ma Lin.

She is a good person, respectful and considerate; but she lacks the easy empathy and social antennae of her sister.  While her sister can preternaturally sense unhappiness, frustration, sexual deviation, anxiety, and concern, my friend is oblivious.  There is too much going on in her head – too much analysis, deciphering, and translation into classical vision to have the interest let alone patience to bother with the internal workings of others.

Another friend’s son is a musician who lives in a world of notes, bars, rhythms, and emotive sequences; but he makes absolutely no sense at all when he drifts off theme. His left brain has taken over the right.  He makes beautiful music he cannot understand, but which moves others.

A neighbor is all about compassion and empathy; but her sensibility has distorted or impaired her reason and has limited her artistic vision.  She has no interest in Tolstoy’s epics or Dostoyevsky’s dark world of the psyche.  They obstruct her own vision which needs no guidance or support.

I suppose it is enough to have artists, thinkers, and people with empathy and sensibility.  No need to have a more perfect composition, but I am still waiting to find it.

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