We can all rattle off a lengthy list of vaporous words that others wield like hammers. Empty words pack formidable power in the wrong hands. Our writer, Anton Chekhov, continues:
“When people speak to me of what is artistic and anti-artistic, of what is dramatically effective, of tendentiousness and realism and the like, I am at an utter loss, I nod to everything uncertainly, and answer in banal half truths that aren’t worth a brass farthing. I divide all works into two categories: those I like and those I don’t.”
Spoken like an artist immune to the deformities of theory and ideology. Chekhov’s self-defense comes in a letter he wrote on this date, March 22, in 1890 to Ivan Leontyev (Schcheglov). He is reacting to the previous four years of critical baiting and endless accusations of “indifference,” “lack of involvement” and “absence of principles.” The translation is by Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky (Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1973). Chekhov’s words remain as pertinent as they were 129 years ago.
Jorge Luis Borges is another master of short forms. In 1938 he reviewed For an Independent Revolutionary Art: Manifesto by Diego Rivera and André Breton for the Definitive Liberation of Art, a title that reads like a parody of engagé writing. Borges is defiant:
“I believe, and only believe, that Marxism (like Lutheranism, like the moon, like a horse, like a line from Shakespeare) may be a stimulus for art, but it is absurd to decree that it is the only one. It is absurd for art to be a department of politics.” Years later it was revealed that Trotsky was the author of the Breton/Rivera manifesto.
Borges would soon learn first-hand the vagaries of politics. In 1946, shortly after his election as president of Argentina, Juan Perón “promoted” Borges from his job as third assistant at the National Library in Buenos Aires to “Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits” in the Córdoba municipal market. Borges declined. After Perón was overthrown in 1955, Borges was named director of the National Library. That same year, because of the growing severity of his blindness, doctors forbade him to read or write.