Saturday, November 20, 2010

`We Discussed Immortality'

Let’s remember Tolstoy by rereading him (it’s “Hadji Murat” for me) and watching these ghostly films of the great writer who died one-hundred years ago today. In 1897, Tolstoy visited Chekhov in his medical clinic at Melikhovo, and Chekhov wrote to his friend Mikhail Menshikov on April 16:

“Every cloud has a silver lining. I had a visit in the clinic from Lev Nikolayevich, and we had an exceptionally interesting conversation – exceptionally interesting for me at any rate, because I listened more than I spoke. We discussed immortality. He accepts the idea of immortality in the Kantian sense, proposing that all of us (human beings and animals) will continue to live on in some primal state (reason, love?), the essence and purpose of which is a mystery hidden from us. However, this primal state of force appears to me to be a shapeless mass of jelly, into which my `I,’ my individuality, my consciousness, would be absorbed. I don’t feel any need for immortality in this form. I don’t understand it, but Lev Nikoleyevich finds it astonishing that I don’t understand it.”

Who but Chekhov can condescend so charmingly to Tolstoy and his strident fuzziness? The anecdote, from Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters (translated by Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, Penguin, 2004), illustrates the way two comparably gifted artists – let’s call them geniuses -- can coexist like alien species. Genius is singular.

[Thanks to Joshua Kurp for the Tolstoy film.]

1 comment:

Jackson said...

The New York Times website has a 'time machine' where you can read (for free) the newspaper of exactly 100 years ago. For the last week, Tolstoy has been front page news after fleeing his wife. I had no idea he was really dying.