Monday, December 09, 2019

'Insolence and Arrogance Beyond Measure'

“God’s world is good. Only one thing in it is bad: we ourselves.”

Chekhov is always pithy and to-the-point. In both stories and letters, even those addressed to family and friends, there are few if any preliminaries. He is in Moscow, having just returned from his journey by train, horse-drawn carriage, river steamer and ocean-going freighter from the katorga, or penal colony, on Sakhalin Island, north of Japan, 4,000 miles east of Moscow. He is writing to his friend, editor and sometime-antagonist Alexi Suvorin on this date, Dec. 9, in 1890:

“While I was living on Sakhalin, I felt nothing more than a certain bitterness in my innards, the sort that comes from rancid butter, but now, when I think back on it, Sakhalin seems to me like hell itself. For two months I worked strenuously, giving myself no rest, and during the third the bitterness I’ve just spoken of became more than I could stand, the bitterness and boredom and the thought that cholera was on its way to Sakhalin from Vladivostok and that I might therefore risk spending the winter quarantined in the penal colony.”

Chekhov is thirty years old and already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him fourteen years later. He has entered his mature phase as a writer and within the year had published “Gusev” and “A Dreary Story.” Over the next three years he would publish his Sakhalin findings in journals, work that would result in 1895 in Sakhalin Island, a nonfiction masterpiece still without an audience in the West. (I recommend the Oneworld Classics edition translated by Brian Reeve which comes with notes, biography and bibliography of Chekhov, photographs, a selection of pertinent letters and the text of the first chapter in Russian.) This passage follows the sentences at the top:

“How little justice and humility there is in us, and how poorly we understand patriotism! A drunken, frazzled, dissolute husband may love his wife and children, but what good is his love? The newspapers tell us we love our great homeland, but how do we express our love? Instead of knowledge we have insolence and arrogance beyond measure, instead of work – indolence and swinishness; we have no sense of justice, our conception of honor goes no farther than honor for one’s uniform, a uniform that usually adorns the prisoner’s dock in court. What is needed is work, and the hell with everything else. We must above all be just, and all the rest will be added unto us.”

Chekhov might be writing of our time and place.

[The translators of the quoted passages above are Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky (Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1973).]

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