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

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Chekhov, Parable, And Links To Times Past

Making the  bed each morning is not simply a forgettable routine, but a reminder that the twenty-four hours have just passed, and no one barely notices. "Didn’t I just make my morning tea?  Didn’t I just pick up the paper and take out the dog?"

A friend recounted the first time he had this depressing sense of lost time when he worked at a Washington office some years ago.  Every morning when he walked down a corridor and passed the same pictures of women drawing water from a well, winnowing wheat, or caring for children, he knew it was not yesterday, but would be no different from it or at least different in insignificant ways.
He wondered if time could be slowed down or at least slowed in perception.   How might he make his days go as slowly as those before meeting a lover, when time passed painfully slowly?

He altered the route to his office.  He took extra time to get off on a different floor, pass through unfamiliar cubicles, walk down corridors illustrated with pictures of dams, bridges, and rolling stock instead of Third World women.  After a while changing routine became routine itself.  He sat at his desk every morning with an in-box full of telexes from India, wondering how twenty-four hours had passed no matter which route he took through the warrens of the I-Building.

In The Student, a short story written in 1894, Anton Chekhov writes about time.  In previous and subsequent short stories and in his plays, he reflects on adherence to the past as an obstacle to the future.  His characters are often so reluctant to give up their past lives that they are unable to adjust to a changing present and anticipate a radically altered future. 

In Three Sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina all long for their privileged life in Moscow and lament the loss of their life which had been full of liveliness, sophistication, and allure.  Every day lived in the small provincial town to which they have moved is a painful reminder of loss and regret.  Lyuba in The Cherry Orchard refuses to sell the orchard so that with the profits and rent from the subdivided land continue to live on her estate.  Cutting down the cherry trees would mean cutting her links to an idyllic and romantic past.

For Ivan V. the student, the passage of time has nothing to do with nostalgia, reminiscence, or loss; but a reminder of the insignificance of events.
And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind had blown in the days of Rurik and in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression--all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better. And he did not want to go home.
Chekhov discussed the theme of time and social progress before.  Vershinin and Tuzenbach in Three Sisters argue about the perfectibility of man and society and disagree about whether future worlds will be the same or better than the one in which they live.  They discuss the value of work, commitment, and investment. Ivan suggests the same themes, referring as he does to the poverty and misery which existed before, exists now, and is likely to exist in the future; but there is something else in his words – a real angst about life and its insignificance.

He meets an old wet nurse who relates the story of Jesus’ disciple Peter:
"They came to the high priest's," she said; "they began to question Jesus, and meantime the laborers made a fire in the yard as it was cold, and warmed themselves. Peter, too, stood with them near the fire and warmed himself as I am doing. A woman, seeing him, said: 'He was with Jesus, too'--that is as much as to say that he, too, should be taken to be questioned. And all the laborers that were standing near the fire must have looked sourly and suspiciously at him, because he was confused and said: 'I don't know Him.'
A little while after again someone recognized him as one of Jesus' disciples and said: 'Thou, too, art one of them,' but again he denied it. And for the third time someone turned to him: 'Why, did I not see thee with Him in the garden today?' For the third time he denied it. And immediately after that time the cock crowed, and Peter, looking from afar off at Jesus, remembered the words He had said to him in the evening. . . . He remembered, he came to himself, went out of the yard and wept bitterly--bitterly. In the Gospel it is written: 'He went out and wept bitterly.' I imagine it: the still, still, dark, dark garden, and in the stillness, faintly audible, smothered sobbing.. . . ."
The nurse’s words “Peter, too, stood with them near the fire and warmed himself as I am doing” touch something in Ivan.  The nurse has connected her life with the past.  As she recounts the story, she is walking in Peter’s footsteps, warming herself by his fire.  The Gospel says that Peter ‘went out and wept bitterly’, she remembers, and says, “I imagine it: the still, dark, dark garden, and in the stillness, faintly audible, smothered sobbing…”

At this point in the story the nurse herself breaks into tears.
Vasilisa suddenly gave a gulp, big tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and she screened her face from the fire with her sleeve as though ashamed of her tears, and Lukerya, staring immovably at the student, flushed crimson, and her expression became strained and heavy like that of someone enduring intense pain.
For Ivan V., this was an epiphany.  Events did not simply roll on perpetually and insignificantly.  Vasilisa had stopped them.  
The student thought again that if Vasilisa had shed tears, and her daughter had been troubled, it was evident that what he had just been telling them about, which had happened nineteen centuries ago, had a relation to the present--to both women, to the desolate village, to himself, to all people. The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter's soul.
His depression lifted.  Life no longer seemed to him an interminable succession of meaningless events, but all were connected in a meaningful way.
And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. "The past," he thought, "is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another." And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.
When he crossed the river by the ferryboat and afterwards, mounting the hill, looked at his village and towards the west where the cold crimson sunset lay a narrow streak of light, he thought that truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life, indeed; and the feeling of youth, health, vigor--he was only twenty-two--and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning.
Chekhov implies many things.  Perhaps Ivan’s insights are only possible because of his youth.  At twenty-two he is full of idealism and seeing the seamless thread of truth and beauty woven through time is nothing but youthful illusion. Perhaps Ivan’s insights are in fact enduring; and that if only Olga, Masha, Irina, and Lyuba could see ‘the narrow streak of light’ which is bright and consistent through past, present, and future, they might not be so spiritless and unable to act.  If only all of us could see that we all, through our daily repetitions, are linked with Christ, Peter, the Apostles and Disciples, and all holy men, artists, and believers, our anxieties about time and its passage might be alleviated or removed.

After reading this story it is easy to imagine what such an epiphany might be like – that day that one might not see picking up the paper, walking the dog, or making the bed as frightening reminders of the few days one has left, but as meaningful, even purposeful acts, secular confirmations of life before birth and after death.

Very doubtful.  Anyone so intellectually allied with thinkers who have seen life as no more than a series of predictable, repetitive, and meaningless acts will find it hard to disengage.  Shakespeare’s Histories are a testimony to the existence of the Grand Mechanism, the wheels of which turn inexorably and go nowhere; and for him if there is any meaning in life, it is the exercise of Will – acts beyond reason and morality, good and evil, which are the only validations of the individual.

My friend recounted that one day a number of years ago when he was not much older than Ivan V. in this story, he sat on a ghat in Hardwar at the headwaters of the Ganges.  He tried to meditate as he knew Hindu sadhus did, seeing without thinking, a state of total receptivity and acceptance.  In that state, they said, time stops.  The moment is eternity.

However, every time he felt that he had cleared his mind of thought, an idea returned.  When was Hardwar settled? Where did sadhus come from? Are Hindu priests just as exploitive of human belief as Christian? An education based on logic, reason, cognition, and mental discipline could not be jettisoned easily. Understanding would have to come using the only tools which he had been given.
Ivan V. had seen as an Indian sadhu had.  He no longer had to ratiocinate – to reflect, consider, collate, synthesize, and conclude on the basis of history and philosophy. A nurse’s tears had been enough to allow him to see the nature of things. 

My friend suspected that with neither faith, epiphany, nor insight he would keep up his predictable routines and soon give in to them and relax.  Perhaps his conclusion about the grinding wheels of history is his epiphany.  Realizing that he is simply a small wing nut on one flywheel of a grand machine means that he had at least understood something about the engineering of things.
In the meantime, he said, he would go make his mid-morning coffee, pick up his gym bag, and head for the Anytime Health Club in downtown Beaufort.

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