Saturday, September 16, 2017

`Reading Chekhov Helps'

“That question which Chekhov brings out in all his stories is `What is to be done?’ What is life for? Chekhov’s conclusion is that we are here to work, to serve our brothers. He himself was a doctor and wrote on the side in order to support himself through medical school and to support also his father, mother, and brothers.”

Dorothy Day was an intelligent woman who probably realized she was quoting the title of a pamphlet written in 1901 by Lenin, who in turn was quoting the title of an 1863 novel, What Is To Be Done?, by the Russian revolutionary Nikolay Chernyshevsky, that was later adopted as the title of a screed by Tolstoy, What Is to Be Done? (1886). The genealogy of the question is even older: “And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?”(Luke 3:10, KJV). Day's choice is unfortunate: every expression trails a cloud of contexts and associations. The Lenin link is strengthened two paragraphs later in the same December 1961 column from The Catholic Worker (Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, ed. Robert Ellsburg, 2015) when she says: “And we see Castro dealing with the problem of unemployment and poverty and illiteracy . . .” On Dec. 2, 1961, Castro said in a televised address: “I am a Marxist-Leninist and shall be one until the end of my life.”

No, Day was not a Communist, but all of that is mostly beside the point. More fundamental is her misunderstanding of Chekhov the writer. She would turn him into a social-justice warrior, an earlier incarnation of Dorothy Day. The characterization irked Chekhov. In his well-known letter to Aleksey Pleshcheyev 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.”

Further evidence is supplied by the Russian painter Konstantin Korovin (1861-1939), who wrote a brief memoir, “My Encounters with Chekhov,” published in English in 1973 (trans. Tatiana Kusubova) and included in The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West 1922-1972 (1977), edited by Simon Karlinsky and Alfred Appel Jr. The scene is a Moscow hotel room in 1883. The players are Korovin, Chekhov (twenty-three and studying for his final exam to become a doctor) and other students. The exchange could have been recorded this morning on an American college campus:

“The students were different from Anton Pavlovich. They loved to argue, and they were in some peculiar way opposed to just about everything.

“`If you have no convictions,’ said one student turning to Chekhov, `you can’t be a writer.’

“No one can say, `I have no convictions,’ said another. `I can’t understand how anyone could not have convictions.’

“`I have no convictions,’ replied Chekhov.

“`You claim to be a man without convictions, but how can you write a work of literature without any ideology? Don’t you have an ideology?’

“`I have no ideology and no convictions,’ answered Chekhov.

“These students had an odd way of arguing. They were apparently displeased with Anton Pavlovich. It was clear that they could not fit him into the didactic turn of their outlook or into their moralizing ideology. They wanted to guide, to instruct, to lead, and to influence. They knew everything. They understood everything. And Anton Pavlovich was plainly bored by it all.

“`Who needs your stories? Where do they lead? They don’t oppose anything. They contain no ideas. The Russian Bulletin, say, would have no use for you. Your stories are entertaining and nothing else.’

“`Nothing else,’ answered Anton Pavlovich.”

To her credit, late in life, Day wrote in a notebook (The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, 2008): “Very depressed and nerve-racked all day. Slept 2 hours. Reading Chekhov helps.”

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