Thursday, June 09, 2016

`In a Little While It Would Be Better Still'

Nadya Zelenen comes home from the theater – with her mother she has seen Tchaikovsky’s operatic adaptation of  Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin – and writes a letter as Tatyana might: “`I love you,’ she wrote, `but you do not love me, do not love me!’” And what is Nadya’s reaction to her act of romantic ventriloquism? She laughs. If Chekhov had permitted Nadya to weep, we might have stopped reading “After the Theater” (1892) after three paragraphs. An officer and a student, Gorny and Gruzdev, have declared their love for her, and she responds like any sixteen-year-old (and many of the rest of us):

“. . . now after the opera she wanted to be doubtful of their love. To be unloved and unhappy -- how interesting that was. There is something beautiful, touching, and poetical about it when one loves and the other is indifferent. Onyegin was interesting because he was not in love at all, and Tatyana was fascinating because she was so much in love; but if they had been equally in love with each other and had been happy, they would perhaps have seemed dull.”

It’s in our nature to like teasing, role-playing and emotional messiness, especially at a safe distance. Other people’s happiness is notoriously difficult to make interesting. Even our own can be boring sometimes. Without unhappiness there would be no literature, which explains our devotion to melodrama and misery in life and in art. Nadya – and Pushkin, and Chekhov – know this. In miniature, the story defines Chekhov’s art. Nadya is a silly girl and she is our stand-in, for we too, at least on occasion, are silly girls and deserve to laugh and to be laughed at. I can’t imagine what the humorless, those who lack empathy even for themselves at their most human moments, make of Nadya. Her laughter is beyond them. I thought of dear, dear Nadya when reading Joseph Epstein’s “Not Many Laughs”:

“A minefield in a cow pasture, political correctness has put nearly every significant subject out of bounds. Under political correctness, once-innocent jokes are now considered ugly and dangerous. If political correctness continues to make further inroads in American life, the day may not be far off when we shall all sit around, nothing to talk about, nothing to laugh at, nothing to do but quietly contemplate our own extraordinary virtue.”

Chekhov is certainly beyond the pale of P.C. In his world, nothing is simple and everything, potentially, can be laughed at. Twice Chekhov observes Nadya’s joyousness, mingled with tears and laughter, and renders her reverie like this:

“She fell to thinking of the student, of his love, of her love; but the thoughts in her head insisted on flowing in all directions, and she thought about everything -- about her mother, about the street, about the pencil, about the piano. . . . She thought of them joyfully, and felt that everything was good, splendid, and her joy told her that this was not all, that in a little while it would be better still.”

1 comment:

Colville said...

" Without unhappiness there would be no literature, which explains our devotion to melodrama and misery in life and in art. " I'm a long way into 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.' So much of the entertainment conveyed comes the endless comedy of errors evoked by Marcel's and Swann's agonising over their 'amours'. It is part of the fabric of the work.