I’ve been on a Janet Malcolm reading kick. Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey is shaping up to be my favorite of the bunch.
At one point she quotes a monk from the 1886 short story “On Easter Eve” who says in a discussion of the poetics of certain hymns of praise in the Russian Orthodox liturgy called akathistoi: “You can do nothing by wisdom and holiness if God has not given you the gift. Everything must be harmonious, brief and complete…Every line must be beautified in every way; there must be flowers and lightning and wind and sun and all the objects of the visible world.”
Adds Malcolm, “Chekhov’s own literary enterprise could hardly be better described. His stories and plays–even the darkest among them–are hymns of praise. Flowers and lighting and wind and sun and all the objects of the visible world appear in them as they appear in the work of no other writer. In almost every Chekhov work there is a moment when we suddenly feel as Ryabovitch felt when the young woman entered the room and kissed him.”
Chekhov is of course universally recognized as a master of the short story and play. He was also delicate, sensitive, funny, hard-working and kind. He undertook the care of his entire family, made little money as a doctor–he mostly treated peasants for free–and in 1890, undertook an arduous journey to the penal colony on Sakhalin Island, later writing movingly of the degradation and suffering he had witnessed there. He died of TB at 44.
In this 1886 letter, he’s taking his brother Nikolai to task for his dissolute drinking habits and generally lax character. His description of the “cultured person” is as sound today as it was 130 years ago.
“You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault….
Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:
- They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; [Author’s Note: this really struck home as “someone”in my back yard just walked off with my precious yellow-handled shovel/spade] if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.
- They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see….
- They respect the property of others, and therefore pay their debts.
- They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.
- They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….
- They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities…If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement….
- If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.
- They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct… What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow… They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night…For they want mens sana in corpore sano [a healthy mind in a healthy body].
And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and learnt a monologue from ‘Faust.’ …
What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…
You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty.
It is time!
I expect you…. We all expect you.”
i’m a hell of a lot older than 30. But I’d like to expect all that of myself, too.