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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Time, Place, And Uncertainty–From Genghis Khan To Grover’s Corners

Chekhov's worlds are those of inaction and frustration.  While there are some characters who show some resolve and will, most are caught between the past and the present and incapable of adapting to new and changing times.

Chekhov has sympathy for these characters, for in many ways they cannot do otherwise.  They are aristocrats who have been raised, educated, and trained to be members of the ruling, privileged classes.  Such a background is worth little in a new Russia increasingly valuing work, discipline, commitment, and optimism.  They are also bourgeois who have risen above the peasantry of their families and made money through real estate, banking, and investment; but who will soon be just as adrift as the aristocrats as the worker and peasant movement destroys all class, privilege, and private income.

Some of Chekhov’s characters are intellectual active and reflect on change, time, and destiny. Tuzenbach and Vershinin (Three Sisters) trade arguments concerning the future.  One says it will be better than all pasts; the other says that unchanging human nature will assure that things remain the same – that we are consigned to a fate of self-interest and venality.

Other characters like Doctor Astrov (Uncle Vanya) tends his forests for the common good, and understands that his generation is only holding them in trust for the next.  The future is more important than the past, and there is a responsibility of those living today to consider the needs of those yet to be born.

Still others like Vanya himself are miserable whiners, men who have never grown out of their adolescent fantasies.  They blame others for their own delusions.  Vanya continually decries the waste of his life caused by Serebryakov, but never admits that it is he – Vanya – who is responsible for lost opportunities.  Time has passed him by because he was too ignorant to understand the personal and social dynamics in play around him.

In all of Chekhov’s major plays only Prof. Serebryakov in Uncle Vanya is a willful, determined actor in the mold of Ibsen.  He sees time passing and knows that as an older man, he has little left.  Rather than accept his fate – a retired and long-forgotten academic, years out of the public spotlight and consigned to a house full of empty rooms and an idle family – he sells the estate and abandons those who have been loyal to him.  It is not a pretty picture but Chekhov admires Serebryakov for his determination and amorality.

Serebryakov beats both time and place.  He rejects his settled, established, but no longer lustrous life to move to the city.  He says it is for his young wife, but few believe this disingenuous claim.  He has retaken his own life and is intent on living wherever he wants and however he wants for whatever time remains to him.

Ibsen’s best known characters, especially Hedda Gabler, Hilde Wangel, and Rebekka West, are all willful, determined, and unstoppable women who refuse to let time or place block their higher ambitions.  The estates of Hedda and Rebekka have become intolerable prisons.  Tesman and Rosmer, their husbands, are ineffectual, weak men dominated by the past and afraid to leave their ancestral castles; but Hedda and Rebekka deny such confinement and the intellectually and personally stifling environment they represent.  These women act, control, dominate, and destroy, and beat both time and place.

Laura, the main character in Strindberg’s The Father, is no less determined; and like the famous heroines of Shakespeare, fights like a she-bear for the rights of her child.  She is unstoppable and destroys her husband who, she says, has simply fulfilled and outlived his reproductive function and must be removed. Laura has a clear vision of her future and her daughter’s future, and any act in the present justifies any end to come.

There is a heroic quality to Hedda, Hilde, Rebekka, and Laura for all of them have refused to accept the strictures of convention, whether social or moral; and have implicitly understood that chance and opportunity must be seized or lost.  There is no temporizing in Ibsen and Strindberg, no vacillating or philosophical contemplation.  They are vital, purposeful, and unstoppable women.

There is a surprising similarity between Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and the works of Chekhov, and both playwrights depict stasis, inactivity, and routine.  Grover’s Corners is a simple, ordinary place.  There are no aristocrats, rising businessmen, dashing soldiers, or a hungry peasantry – only butchers, bakers, storekeepers, and teachers.  Their tragedy is collective.  None of them appreciate the life they have led until it has passed. They have missed the eternal and the spiritual in their routines and responsibilities.  One is very sad for the people of Grover’s Corners.  They meant well, and they acted morally and properly.  They had love for one another, respect for friends, and commitment to community, and yet when they died and looked down on the life they left, they are filled with overwhelming loss.  What a waste, the dead say.

One cannot help admiring Iago, Richard III, Macbeth, Tamora, or any other of Shakespeare’s willful, unstoppable, amoral villains.  They refused to play by the rules.  They understood life better than any of the more dutiful, respectful, and ordinary people around them.  If history is no more than a perpetually revolving wheel in a grand mechanism, turning on the same axis with the same rotation, with the same speed; and if the place of one person on the wheel is as fixed and predictable as any other, then the only validation of personal existence is the individual struggle to get off it.  We admire these villains because we would like to be them.  Despite demurrals to the contrary; despite proclamations of civility, commonwealth, and caring; we know that our lives are painfully simple, passionless, and mundane.

Richard, Iago, Edmund, Hedda, Laura and many other dramatic creations defy time and place through unmitigated, selfish action.  Shakespeare had an implicit understanding that on one’s deathbed, thoughts do not turn to the world’s poor and hungry but to the bright lights and glory of one’s own past.

We are frustrated with Chekhov’s characters because of their inability to act.  They are overwhelmed by the ponderous weight of the past, and are ill-equipped to sort through their options and decide on the best one.  Few of them have any innate sense of individual rightness, purpose, or power like Hedda or Richard, characters who defeat vacillation and uncertainty with an inner conviction that comes from character and personality.

Most of us live in the world of Chekhov and Wilder and not Shakespeare, Ibsen, or Strindberg. We are conditioned by the past, flummoxed by the uncertainties of the present, and timorous of the future.  We are conservative, socially correct, and predictable.

Uncertainty more than anything is responsible for our predictability.  An uncertain world forces us to pay attention to the many factors contributing to it.  The closer to 50-50 a decision becomes, the more we have to study it, collect information about it, line up competing variables, and assess probabilities and outcomes. Uncertainty forces us more and more into defensive crouches. We are the good people of Grover’s Corners but with angst and living on shaky foundations.

Not all of us, of course.  There are the knights of uncertainty like the Wall Street investment bankers who take chances on billions of dollars every day without breaking a sweat.  They are vilified and condemned for their greed and predation.  They swallow little people like whales swimming through a swarm of krill, say progressives.  They are insensitive to the needs of the less fortunate.  They are evil predators, amoral modern day Genghis Khans.

They are in fact heroic characters who have, like the kings of Shakespeare, the unstoppable women of Ibsen and Strindberg, and the Machiavellian princes of history, exercised power and will, gotten off the wheel of the Grand Mechanism, and have known the heady, life-affirming thrill of risk and failure.

Heroic, powerful characters – whether real or fictionalized – have understood that morality is nothing more than a social construct, not based on absolute principles, but on social necessity.  Nietzsche expressed this best in The Antichrist:
In his book, The Antichrist, Nietzsche sets out to denounce and illegitimize not only Christianity itself as a belief and a practice, but also the ethical-moral value system which modern western civilization has inherited from it. This book can be considered a further development of some of his ideas concerning Christianity that can be found in Beyond Good and Evil and in The Genealogy of Morals, particularly the idea that the present morality is an inversion of true, noble morality. (Travis Denneson, The Secular Web)
Ibsen’s character Rebekka West (Rosmersholm) sets out to do exactly as Nietzsche suggested.  She not only tries to divert Rosmer from his pastoral, Christian past; but to denounce Christianity itself and bury its moral system forever in favor of her very ambitious secular, social ends.

Heroes, then, are not the lieutenants who lead the charge up the enemy hill, save the woman from an oncoming train, or rush blindly into a raging fire to rescue children sleeping in an upstairs bedroom.  These are instinctive, unusual, spontaneous acts. Truly heroic acts are those where place, time, uncertainty, and especially morality are discarded in the pursuit of individual ambitions.

A society, of course, cannot survive on supermen alone; but every society needs them.  They point the way out of Grover’s Corners, the cherry orchard, Rosmersholm, and the confines of the sanctuary of the church.

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