Monday, May 15, 2017

`It Is Delusions, That Is, People'

“Different branches of knowledge have always lived together in peace. Both anatomy and belles-lettres are of equally noble descent; they have identical goals and an identical enemy—the devil—and there is absolutely no reason for them to fight.”

Knowledge arrives in many forms, not always through the lens of a microscope. I would hate to live in a world without scientific instruments, but I would equally regret life without Proust. At their extremes, the rival camps might be characterized as Positivists and Aesthetes. Chekhov was neither. He happily embodied the integration of both worlds. He wrote the passage above on this date, May 15, in 1889, in a letter to Alexi Suvorin, his editor, literary champion and friend, who was also (much to Chekhov’s disgust) a rancid anti-Semite and anti-Dreyfusard. The translators are Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky (Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1973), and the context is publication of Paul Bourget’s potboiler Le Disciple.

As always, Chekhov impresses us with his equanimity, his immunity to any sort of rancor or fanaticism, political or otherwise. Doctor and writer, he saw no contradiction in his chosen vocations (the same can be said of Keats, and even of Céline and William Carlos Williams). Chekhov writes:

“If a man knows the theory of the circulatory system, he is rich. If he learns the history of religion and the song `I Remember a Marvelous Moment’ in addition, he is the richer, not the poorer, for it. We are consequently dealing entirely in pluses. It is for this reason that geniuses have never fought among themselves and Goethe the poet coexisted splendidly with Goethe the naturalist.” [In a footnote, Karlinsky writes of the song mentioned by Chekhov: “An art song by Mikhail Glinka, which is the setting of one of Alexander Pushkin’s most popular lyrics.”]

Not a fanatic himself, Chekhov could write clinically of the type. Consider the case of Dr. Yevgeny Lvov in his play Ivanov, who treats others not as individuals but as ideological caricatures. In his letter, Chekhov continues:

“It is not branches of knowledge that war with one another, not poetry with anatomy; it is delusions, that is, people. When a person doesn’t understand something, he feels discord within. Instead of looking for the causes of this discord within himself as he should, he looks outside. Hence the war with what he does not understand.”

1 comment:

D. I. Dalrymple said...

Wonderful passages. Thank you for sharing them.