Monday, May 09, 2016

`Isn't That an Ideology?'

Aleksey Nikolayevich Pleshcheyev (1825-93) was a radical poet and editor who would not be remembered, at least among English-language readers, had he not exchanged letters with Anton Chekhov. He was among the least comprehending of Chekhov’s readers. Pleshcheyev was a radical, the sort of dolt who reduces a work of literature to a digestible message. And yet, Pleshcheyev in 1888 published Chekhov’s “The Steppe,” the story that announced his literary debut. They remained friends until Pleshcheyev’s death. Perhaps his most critical role in Chekhov’s life was inspiringly negative, moving him to write some of his finest letters and articulate his writerly credo. On Oct. 4, 1888, Chekhov writes:

“The people I am afraid of are the ones who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one. I hate lies and violence in all of their forms . . . Pharisaism, dullwittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. That is why I cultivate no particular predilection for policemen, butchers, scientists, writers or the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.”

In Chekhov the Man (1900), Kornei Chukovsky calls this letter “a gauntlet flung in the face of an entire age, a rebellion against everything it held sacred.” Five days after the letter cited above, Chekhov wrote another one to Pleshcheyev, less well known, after sending him the story “The Name-Day Party.” He writes:

“What is suspicious in the story is my attempt at balancing off the pluses with the minuses. But it’s not conservatism I’m balancing off with liberalism—they’re not at the heart of the matter, as far as I’m concerned—it’s the lies of my heroes with their truths.  . . . You once told me that my stories lack an element of protest, that they have neither sympathies nor antipathies. But doesn’t the story protest against lying from start to finish? Isn’t that an ideology? It isn’t? Well, I guess that means either I don’t know how to bite or I’m a flea.”

[The quoted passages are from Letters of Anton Chekhov (1973), translated by Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky.]

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