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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

‘Ivanov’–Chekhov’s Dalliance With Evil

Chekhov was a contemporary and friend of Dostoyevsky, but the two writers were far apart in their obsessions:

Raskolnikov anticipates the essence and the allure of Nietzsche's thought; his friend Razumihin and the police inspector Porfiry provide a mature rejoinder, both spoken and lived, to these destructive new ideas.
Anton Chekhov grew up in much the same society as Dostoevsky, and through his medical practice and his professional familiarity with prison culture knew as much about the underside of life as Dostoevsky did. Why don't we turn to Chekhov, as we do to Dostoevsky, to inform ourselves about the compulsions and the evasions of evil? Chekhov's plays and stories contain despair to the point of suicide, pointless and fatal duels, perfidy and deception in endless variations.

While Dostoyevsky may have anticipated the work of Nietzsche, Chekhov was Nietzsche’s contemporary.  The German philosopher had published Beyond Good and Evil in 1886 before Ivanov and Thus Spake Zarathustra a few years later. Yet, the real influence of Nietzsche on Chekhov did not appear fully realized until much later (1899) in the character of Gurov in the short story The Lady with the Little Dog. Gurov’s initial philosophy echoes Nietzsche’s belief in higher and lower orders of being and his consignation of women as “a lower race”.

Gurov’s reflections on a mountain-top where everything is beautiful except what Man does and thinks when he forgets ‘the higher purpose of existence’ is pure Nietzsche, a paraphrase of Thus Spake Zarathustra. Gurov’s act of commitment, and refusal to conform are proofs of a Nietzschean element in late Chekhov (Donald Rayfield, Understanding Chekhov)

However in Ivanov, Chekhov’s first major play (1889), one can see Nietzsche’s influences.  The main character, Ivanov, marries for money, loses interest in his wife when her father refuses to give him a dowry, and is cruelly dismissive of her when she contracts tuberculosis.  After her death, he quickly marries the daughter of a wealthy business man to whom he is in debt, and at once is relieved of his obligations and very wealthy.

Throughout the play Ivanov is hectored by Lvov, a local doctor who sees himself as a model of moral rectitude.  Lvov tries to make Ivanov see the immorality of not evil of his actions. Yet Lvov is not a sympathetic character.  He is pompous, ignorant, and a bore. Although Chekhov – given the body of work to follow Ivanov – may not be a champion of amoral men like Ivanov, he is certainly no champion of niggling moral pedants like Lvov either.  Ivanov, in true Nietzschean fashion, has rejected traditional principles of good and evil, and moved beyond them to achieve his own ends.

There are, however, chinks in Ivanov’s Nietzschean armor.  He is far from single-minded and absolute in his desires.  He is troubled by conflicting feelings of guilt, shame, and ambition.  Chekhov never betrays his allegiances and principles in the play, and suggests only that Ivanov is not a true heroic figure, acting like Gurov in The Lady with the Little Dog with resolution and commitment.  Ivanov repeatedly refers to himself as ‘Hamlet’, berating himself for indecision and growing feelings of guilt and remorse.  Ultimately he kills himself, and by devising this surprising and largely unexplained act, Chekhov suggests his own ambivalence.  Ivanov is an attractive character thanks to his willingness to challenge conventional morality, to speak honestly, and to pursue personal ambition; but he is also an antipathetic one because of his weakness.  Ivanov is not a tragic figure – a great man who comes to a tragic end.  He is a questionable figure, motivated not by pure, willful ambition – like Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Hilde Wangel, or Rebekka West or Strindberg’s Laura – but by crass motives. 

He is also the prototype for a soon-to-be-familiar Chekhov character – the man or woman of inaction, lassitude, and lack of resolve. Only Serebryakov in Uncle Vanya manages some conviction and is able to throw off the weight of the past, social tradition, routine and custom.  All the rest either lament, complain, or whine about their boredom, the community of dunces who surround them, or the inanity of life.  While some, like Vershinin and Tuzenbach in The Three Sisters, Astrov in Uncle Vanya, or Trofimov in The Cherry Orchard speak intelligently about time, work, and the future and intimate the dramatic changes that are coming to Russia, most other characters are trapped by convention, inclination, or circumstance.

When Lvov chastises Ivanov at the beginning of the play by informing him that his wife is dying, Ivanov replies, “I don’t feel love or pity…just emptiness and exhaustion”.  Shabelsky, Ivanov’s uncle, and a member of the aristocratic, idle set in which Ivanov travels repeatedly says, “I’m bored stiff”.  Mrs. Babakin, a rich widow also a member of the idle set repeats, “I’m bored”.  Sasha  observes that “the air is thick with boredom.  There’s something wrong, wrong, WRONG”.

Only Ivanov and Sasha are are not bored.  On the contrary, Ivanov is struggling to reconcile the force of his will with the opposing forces of Christian guilt and shame.  He is either strong and determined or indecisive and remorseful. He fills the play with both positive and negative energy.  He is the pole around which all other characters revolve. Some people admire him, most suspect and distrust him.  He arouses such jealousy that lies, rumors, and innuendoes are spread about his supposed villainy.

Sasha could never be bored because of her relentless ‘work’ of redemption and restoration of Ivanov.

The play is interesting, therefore, not so much for itself but for what it foretells.  One can see Chekhov considering Nietzsche’s ideas, introducing them, but then backing away.  He admires Ivanov for his amorality and will, dislikes Lvov for his sanctimony and pomposity, and likes Sasha for her determination and ability to negotiate a confining and limiting social environment, and her forthright embrace of power and manipulation.

At the same time he begins to see a greater, more subtle and complex drama – one of few histrionics and action.  He begins to realize how corrosive idleness and aristocratic privilege can be and how completely stifling of individual heroic action they are. Chekhov creates no more Ivanovs or Sashas.

One regrets the loss because the love between such driven, ambitious, eccentric, and passionate characters are compelling.  Antony and Cleopatra are far more interesting to watch than Romeo and Juliet.  George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) may appear to hate each other at the beginning of the play, but the display of complex, dynamic, and desperate psychological dependence between them is riveting.

Masha, Olga, and Irina have only romantic dreams and never act on them. They wait for dashing officers to take them back to Moscow and away from their dreary provincial town, but it is not meant to be.  Life continues to be dull, uninspiring, and routine.  Mrs. Ranevsky shows some spark and in the end goes back to her profligate French lover, but none of the Ivanov-Sasha drama ever happens.

Chekhov adds another twist to the story.  The women in Ivanov’s life, far from hating or mistrusting him, take him in, love him, and care for him.

Ivanov has kept no secrets and has told his wife, Sarah, how he feels:

If you must know, I’d better tell you.  It’s a rather cruel thing to say, but it’s better said.  When I’m so depressed, I – I begin not to love you.  I try to get away, even from you, at these times.  In fact, I have to get out of the house.

She, on the other hand, loves him and wants to care for him.  She does not see that he has only just hinted at the truth – that he is in fact very dissatisfied with his life, bored with her, and already ambitiously seeking a way out. She is attentive, solicitous, and hopeful:

Stay in tonight.  We’ll laugh, drink home-made wine and cheer you up in no time.  Shall I sing? Or shall we go sit in your study in the dark as we used to, and you can tell me all about how depressed you are.  Your eyes are so full of suffering

Ultimately his wife turns against him.  Seeing him kissing his new love, Sasha, is more than she can stand – a final, unavoidable affront to her pride and dignity; but one suspects that if Ivanov had chosen another way out of his dilemma, she would have forgiven him. 

Ivanov senses that women cannot help themselves and are attracted to conflicted, interesting men. In the following passage, spoken to his new love, Sasha, Ivanov is explicit:

I have noticed that whenever you start reforming me and saving my soul, and teaching me how to be good, your face grows naive, oh so naive, and your eyes grow as wide as if you were looking at a comet. Wait a moment; your shoulder is covered with dust. [He brushes her shoulder] A naive man is nothing better than a fool, but you women contrive to be naive in such a way that in you it seems sweet, and gentle, and proper, and not as silly as it really is. What a strange way you have, though, of ignoring a man as long as he is well and happy, and fastening yourselves to him as soon as he begins to whine and go down-hill! Do you actually think it is worse to be the wife of a strong man than to nurse some whimpering invalid?

Sasha is no less forthright. Yes, women prefer men with problems, she says. They are women’s projects, their work.  Without them, they would have no purpose:

There are a great many things a man cannot understand. Any girl would rather love an unfortunate man than a fortunate one, because every girl would like to do something by loving. A man has his work to do, and so for him love is kept in the background. To talk to his wife, to walk with her in the garden, to pass the time pleasantly with her, that is all that love means to a man. But for us, love means life. I love you; that means that I dream only of how I shall cure you of your sadness, how I shall go with you to the ends of the earth.

Chekhov certainly was familiar with Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, a play in which a young, ambitious, and thoroughly self-interested, amoral woman – Rebekka West – takes Rosmer on as her project.  She sees in him a malleable man, one whom she can mold to her design, inspire with her ideas, and move to action.  Sasha is much like Rebekka, and in the above passage is quite explicit about a woman’s desires and ambitions. To a great degree she is speaking as a 19th Century woman, one who is still limited by social mores and traditions.  She, like Shakespeare’s strong, decisive, and active women, can only achieve her ambitions through men.  At the same time Sasha is strong, determined, and willful and it is unlikely that she would be denied in any century.

Sasha and Ivanov are complicit in their love and in their ambitions.  Sasha never gives the dying Sarah a second thought and plans their future as if she had never existed. She, true to the form she expressed in the passage above, tries to assuage Ivanov’s feelings of shame and guilt, convincing him that he is not at fault in his wife’s death, that no amount of neglect or indifference can cause another’s illness or death. She tries to recover and rehabilitate him, and if she does, she will have fulfilled her willful ambitions.

Not only does she comfort and restore him, she attacks his enemies.  She calls Lvov out for the pompous but destructive fool he has been:

You have come in here as a man of honor and have insulted him so terribly that you have nearly killed me. When you used to follow him like a shadow and almost keep him from living, you were convinced that you were doing your duty and that you were acting like a man of honor. When you interfered in his private affairs, maligned him and criticized him; when you sent me and whomever else you could, anonymous letters, you imagined yourself to be an honorable man! And, thinking that that too was honorable, you, a doctor, did not even spare his dying wife or give her a moment’s peace from your suspicions. And no matter what violence, what cruel wrong you committed, you still imagined yourself to be an unusually honorable and clear-sighted man.

In the end Sasha is the willful, Nietzschean hero of the play, not Ivanov who, unable to stand the persistent guilt and social pressure, kills himself.

In many ways Chekhov is a more mature and evolved playwright than either Ibsen or Strindberg. While it is definitely more fun to watch Nora slam the door on her obtuse husband; or Hedda dismantle the ego of both Tesman and Lovoborg; or Hilde urge Solness up the tower to fall to his death; or Laura torment the Captain by sowing doubts about Bertha’s paternity, we always seem to come back to Chekhov.  There are few Nietzschean characters in Chekhov’s plays, and few Supermen in the world. Most of us struggle to keep our heads above water, keep a straight moral compass, and at best try to align belief with action – one small validation of life and do not seek the heroic brutality of Richard III or Genghis Khan.


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