Tuesday, July 06, 2010

`So Many Ingenious and Unlikely Disguises'

“In both men the egotism of the unhappy was powerfully evident. Unhappy people are egotistical, mean, unjust, cruel and less capable than stupid people of understanding each other. Rather than bringing people together, unhappiness drives them further apart, and even where it would seem that people ought to be joined by a similar cause of sorrow, they make themselves much more injustice and cruelty than in an environment in which people are relatively contented.”

Our species is infinitely inventive in devising new forms of misery and perfecting old forms that have flourished for millennia. An extraterrestrial might be forgiven for mistaking human unhappiness for our chief pleasure. In some cases, as in the passage above from Chekhov’s “Enemies,” the mutual misery of the two men can be understood if not entirely forgiven; in most, unhappiness is gratuitous, the inevitable result of unchecked self-centeredness or Pride, to use the more technically precise word.

Written when Chekhov was twenty-six, the story opens with the death from diphtheria of six-year-old Andrey. His father is Dr. Kirilov, like the author a provincial physician. The doorbell rings (in the first paragraph) and Kirilov greets Abogin who says his wife has just collapsed, perhaps from an aneurysm. Distraught and wishing to console his own wife, Kirilov at first refuses to accompany Abogin, who lives eight or nine miles away, but relents. When they arrive at Abogin’s house, the men learn that his wife had been feigning illness and has run off with “that clown Paptchinsky.” Both men at first are numb with their private griefs. Abogin, more given to self-pity than the doctor, unloads his self-serving history of his marriage. Kirilov explodes:

“`I don’t understand…’ muttered the doctor. `Why, what’s the meaning of it? Why, it’s an outrage on personal dignity, a mockery of human suffering! It’s incredible…It’s the first time in my life I have had such an experience!’”

Neither attempts to comfort the other. Abogin’s loss is less severe than Kirilov’s but no less agonizing, at least at first. Kirilov, a poor, prematurely aging man, exacerbates his anger with resentment over Abogin’s wealth and elegance. This is psychologically (that is, morally) acute of Chekhov. When we indulge self-centered anger we reach after any weapon, or invent one. The story ends with Kirilov nursing “unjust and cruelly inhuman” thoughts against Abogin and “all who lived in rosy, subdued light among sweet perfumes.” Here’s the final paragraph:

“Time will pass and Kirilov’s sorrow will pass, but that conviction, unjust and unworthy of the human heart, will not pass, but will remain in the doctor’s mind to the grave.”

It’s a chilling thought: self-centered anger is more lasting than grief. There’s no relief, no happy compromise, no mutually satisfactory resolution. Abogin and Kirilov will never achieve “closure,” that deluded pipe dream of pop psychology. In Anthony Hecht, his book-length interview with Philip Hoy published in 1999, the poet cites the passage from “Enemies” quoted above in connection with his great poem “Green: An Epistle” (Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977). He refers to “the infections of the ego” and says:

“…I find myself more in accord with the Church Fathers, with Milton, and others who find Pride the most radical, pervasive, and nearly ineradicable of all the sins. And this is so because Pride is capable of so many ingenious and unlikely disguises.”

1 comment:

Mohamed Mughal said...

You might like Katherine Anne Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" for its themes of anger and forgiveness.