Friday, November 03, 2017

`Pretending Not to Be Bored'

“I am glad not to have been elected a member, because I have no desire to lay down twenty-five rubles in dues for the right to be bored.”

If I didn’t already have sufficient reason to admire Chekhov as a man and writer, that simple sentence would cinch it. The idea of joining anything is repellent, especially to a writer who values his time and independence. In this case, Chekhov has been invited to the formal opening ball for something called the Society for Arts and Literature in Moscow. He is writing to his friend and editor Alexi Suvorin on this date, Nov. 3, in 1888. Chekhov decides to attend the opening but not to join.

I’m reminded of the time in 2011, during the Occupy Wall Street tantrum, when the late David Myers wrote for Commentary about the manifesto signed by almost a thousand writers in support of the movement. According to the online version of the declaration, the number has swollen to “3,277-and-counting.” I told David that in 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party announced creation of the Union of Soviet Writers. Those who did not join were blacklisted. They couldn’t get published. Isaac Babel protested by no longer writing. In 1934, he told the Congress of Soviet Writers, “I have invented a new genre--the genre of silence.” David loved that, and wished he had included it in his essay. Any decent writer will choose silence over lies. In 1940, after his murder in the Lubyanka, Babel’s silence became permanent.

Writing is solitary work. It only becomes social when someone picks it up and reads it. To use a word coined by Melville, Chekhov, as a writer, was an “isolato,” regardless of how social he could sometimes be as a private citizen. Writers are particularly dangerous when it comes to politics. They follow the herd and tend to think their insights are privileged, though most are naïve and ill-informed.Later in the letter cited above, Chekhov presciently takes on the vogue for the “neuroscience of creativity,” as it’s known today:  
“Archimedes wanted to turn the earth upside-down, and present-day hotheads want to embrace the scientifically unembraceable: they want to discover physical laws for creativity, they want to grasp the general law and the formulae by which the artist, who feels them instinctively, creates landscapes, novels, pieces of music and so on.”

Chekhov wisely rejects the notion of a “physiology of creativity.” It’s the sort of tedious Big Idea popular with people who can’t write. Chekhov ends up going to the ball and reports afterwards to Suvorin:

“The Society’s goal is `Unity’ [always a bad omen]. A learned German once taught a cat, a mouse, a hawk and a sparrow to eat out of the same plate. That German had a system; this Society has none. It was deadly dull. Everyone wandered from room to room pretending not to be bored.”

No comments: