Monday, February 19, 2018

`The Illusory Nature of All Labels'

“. . . politically the most subversive aspect of Chekhov’s thinking is his systematic demonstration of the illusory nature of all labels, categories and divisions of human beings into social groups and social classes, which are the starting point of all political theories of his time and ours.”

My sense is that we no longer recognize individual human beings. They – we -- have become invisible, in Ralph Ellison’s sense: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” We see not hapless, bumbling, fallible souls like ourselves but members of arbitrarily defined tribes, which makes it easier to demonize, segregate and disregard them. As individuals, we’re too sticky and contradictory. “Categories and divisions” are much easier to deal with. Life must be enviably simple for a social justice warrior. Thinking can be confidently kept to a minimum. No need to peer below surfaces. The observation at the top is from Simon Karlinsky and Michael Henry Heim’s Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (1973). Karlinsky goes on:

“Chekhov’s repeated insistence `labels and trademarks’ such as `liberal,’ `conservative,’ `Populist’ or `neurotic,’ when used as a total description of any one person, are nothing but superstitions which keep people from perceiving the deeper moral and human realities implies a reasoned rejection of the political thinking that has been one of the mainstays of Russian literature and literary criticism from the 1840s on.”

In his 1896 story “The House with the Mezzanine” (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Stories, 2000), Chekhov gives us Lida Volchaninova, an early incarnation of the social justice warrior, a distant, more strident cousin of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House (whom I think of as a female, English Rousseau). Lida and her creator share one quality – social work, self-sacrifice, a devotion to helping others. Chekhov built hospitals and libraries, as a physician treated thousands without charge and exposed the horrors of Sakhalin. But Lida is a humorless fanatic who brutalizes her mother and younger sister. Public do-gooder, private authoritarian and bully. We know the type. Public displays of virtue make it easier to be a self-righteous thug at home. The story’s narrator is a painter, and Lida disapproves:

“She did not find me sympathetic. She disliked me because I was a landscape painter and did not portray the needs of the people in my pictures, and because I was, as it seemed to her, indifferent to what she so strongly believed in.” Comrade Volchaninova is Chekhov’s prescient portrait of an apparatchik, a loyal Party servant who sees members of social classes, not people, and is eager to set things right.


zmkc said...

I hesitate to tell you as imagine you are aware already - but if you aren't, you might be quite interested - that Mrs Jellyby is thought to be modelled on Caroline Chisholm:

I was going to add that Caroline Chisholm is pictured on one of our banknotes, but, after checking through my wallet, I discover that she has been put out to grass in favour of Mary Gilmore or Edith Cowan, depending which note Chisholm used to appear on, which I can't remember (money passes rather too quickly through my hands for close examination, ha ha).

Edmund Pickett said...

I'm very happy that you are quoting from Karlinsky and Heim's wonderful book on Chekhov. His relation to the political currents of his time is surprising and has a lesson for us now. He was an early victim of political correctness, which Karlinsky shows was developed in the mid-nineteenth century in Russia by critics like Belinsky & Chernyshevsky. One of these men denounced Chekhov as a "scoundrel" and staked his reputation on convincing Russians to boycott his works. Chekhov's great sin? He didn't write what would be later called agitprop. His characters cannot be defined by their social class. According to the politically correct, in fiction all peasants must be sober strivers after progress, all landowners must be greedy boors, all military officers sadists. In Chekhov most peasants are lazy drunks, some landowners are sensitive liberals and some military officers are nice people, conflicted about serving a dictatorship, but still loyal. This was heresy to the literature critics, who actually didn't understand literature at all. The only reason the bothered to read fiction was because political journalism was forbidden. Their blind vision of literature was later adopted by the Bolsheviks under the name Socialist Realism. Happily enough, their vituperation of Chekhov had no effect at all. Russians loved his work then and they still do. Unfortunately we are still plagued with politically correct fools who demand that fiction serve as propaganda for the issues of the day.