In 1883, when he was 23 years old, Anton Chekhov published “The Death of a Clerk,” a three-page, three-character sketch that barely meets the minimum definition of story, and that 60 years later might have appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. Ivan Dmitrich Cherviakov, an office manager, attends an operetta. The translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, note that the clerk’s name derives from cherviak, the Russian word for worm. Cherviakov feels “at the height of bliss” until he sneezes, sprays the bald head of the old man seated in front of him, and recognizes him as General Brizzalov, “who served in the Department of Transportation.” The translators inform us that “Brizzhalov suggests a combination of bryzgat (`to spray’) and briuzzhat (`to grumble’).”
Cherviakov panics and offers a sputtering, abject apology to the old man, who tells him to be quiet and stop making a fuss. He apologizes again at the intermission, then the following day in the general’s office, then again when the last petitioner has left the office, and yet again the next day, after which the general orders him out. The story concludes:
“Something in Cherviakov’s stomach snapped. Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, he backed his way to the door, went out, and plodded off…Reaching home mechanically, without taking off his uniform, he lay down on the sofa and…died.”
Pure formula, we agree. Deriviative. Shades of Gogol, Dickens and perhaps of the operetta Cherviakov attends – The Bells of Corneville, by Robert Planquette. We can admire Chekhov’s economy of means, his deftness at distilling a situation to its narrative essentials. Based on this trifle, however, no one could reasonably foresee that its author would later write “Gusev,” “Ward No. 6,” “Gooseberries,” “The Lady with the Little Dog,” and “The Bishop.” Yet, we read or even re-read “The Death of the Clerk” with what might be called human engagement. What will happen to the neurotic, self-involved little clerk, even though the title has already announced his fate?
In addition, the story, or at least my involvement with it, has changed as I’ve grown older. As a young man, I would have read it from Cherviakov’s point of view. I would have felt the anxiety of a young person who wishes to succeed professionally, and not to offend a superior, as well as resentment at the pompous general. Today, while retaining a shadow of sympathy for my old worry and resentment, I empathize with the old general and his annoyance at the sniveling “worm.”
I recall Chekhov’s story because of a link Dave Lull sent me to a brief essay by Rebecca Goldstein at Edge. She is one of 160 people – scientists, journalists, psychologists, academics of various sorts – asked to respond to this question: “What are you optimistic about?” Her answer, in short, is that humans have the capacity to understand one another.
Capacity, of course, is not the same as realization. We possess the intellectual and emotional gifts to understand others, but we can choose not to do so, or even to willfully misunderstand them. Goldstein, philosopher and novelist, and author of my favorite book of 2006, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, knows all of this, of course. She is not a naïve utopian. I cite the Chekhov story because of the manner in which she closes her contribution to the forum:
“What gives me any optimism at all in this dark season of dangerous divides is that there is a trend among contemporary novelists to turn their artistic attention to the divisive themes of the day. Given the nature of the literary enterprise—what it is that novels do—this effort to develop narrative techniques for taking the full human measure of such divides can only contribute to deepening our understanding of what lies behind what seem like irreconcilable differences—and which often are just that: irreconcilable. We are not, ever, going to become an attitudinally homogenous species. Someone who desires, above all, not to be duped into believing something false will not be turned into someone who, say, wants his beliefs, above all, to affirm his affinity with his community, nor vice versa. Still, it's instructive for both to make their way into the other's mind. There's even a slight chance that someone's mind might be changed in the process. But the deepening of understanding isn't measured solely by changes of that sort.
“So, at the end of the day, I am tethering my optimism to the work of our contemporary novelists—which is probably another way of saying that I'm pretty darned pessimistic.”
Literature, specifically prose fiction, calls for sympathetic projection into imaginary minds and sensibilities that are significantly different from our own. This release from self and progressive reaching into otherness lies at the heart of fiction’s ethical potential, and is among the principle reasons we read it. Even Chekhov’s simple satirical sketch possesses an ethical component: the wish to apologize for harm done easily turns into annoying, obsessive and ultimately self-centered harassment. Humans possess the ability to do harm while cloaking it in virtue. After saying “I’m sorry,” knowing when to shut up is the toughest lesson of all. Chekhov reveals these mundane human truths in a slight, forgettable tale, while affirming Goldstein’s observation that “…to come to know better the propositional attitudes of others, grasping what the world is like for them, can be intrinsically interesting. It can also be useful—in fact, often essential to survival and reproduction.”
At the micro-level, I’m always looking for reasons to be hopeful, and occasionally finding them. The macro-level is so appalling I think about it only when I have no choice. I say “hopeful” because I equate optimism with naivety and the triumph of human wishes over all the evidence. Many of Goldstein’s co-respondents, despite their obvious intelligence and learning, sound fatuous, but I find Goldstein’s punch line (“pretty darned pessimistic”) invigorating – and hopeful.