Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Chekhov and Condemnation

The comments on my post below, "Narcotized Stupors," were so thoughtful, insightful, and kind I must move them from the background and into an "up-front" post.

Devilvet wrote: "What's wrong with condemnation? "If that art wakens the spirit only to condemn it...that seems wrong, somehow." What about If that art condemns the absence or bastardization of the spirit in hopes to awaken." And he continued: "I can see how taking the attitude that They with a capital T are narcotized could lead to a position of superiority by the artist that if perceived by the audience would distance them significantly. But is condemnation synonymus with alienation? Can an artistic endevour compartmentize it's condemnation?"

Allison Croggon: "I'm not sure that those who are not awake to (say) the suffering of others can really posit themselves as victims. And some things need to be condemned, because they (by default) condemn others in very real and material ways - think 1930s Germany. It's not the "spirit" that is being condemned, after all, if condemnation is indeed what's going on, but whatever imprisons it."

George Hunka: "There is also, I would suggest, the guilt that the artist him or herself might bear. Is that not worthy of condemnation? We all like to see ourselves as victims, but honestly, we must recognize our capacity to act as victimizers as well. In which case, we still must answer."

To which MttJ appended: "or at least (and maybe more constructively,) we must question."

As p'tit boo notes, this is an issue that we have discussed in the past at various times, often with me leading off with an aggressive tone, which of course is then met with an equally aggressive tone. This time, I'm feeling much more pensive, and so these comments have touched me.

Today, I begin teaching The Cherry Orchard in my Modern Drama course. When I did a brief introduction to Chekhov and his writing, I used the following story from Maxim Gorky's "Anton Chekhov: Fragments of Recollection" (http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc6w4.html) to illustrate Chekhov's nature:

I think that in Anton Chekhov's presence every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one's self; and I often saw how people cast off the motley finery of bookish phrases, smart words, and all the other cheap tricks with which a Russian, wishing to figure as a European, adorns himself, like a savage with shells and fish's teeth. Anton Chekhov disliked fish's teeth and cocks' feathers; anything "brilliant" or foreign, assumed by a man to make himself look bigger, disturbed him; I noticed that whenever he saw any one dressed up in this way, he had a desire to free him from all that oppressive, useless tinsel and to find underneath the genuine face and living soul of the person. All his life Chekhov lived on his own soul; he was always himself, inwardly free, and he never troubles about what some people expected and others --coarser people--demanded of Anton Chekhov. He did not like conversations with which our dear Russians so assiduously comfort themselves, forgetting that it is ridiculous to argue about velvet costumes in the future when in the present one has not even a decent pair of trousers.

Beautifully simple himself, he loved everything simple, genuine, sincere, and he had a peculiar way of making other people simple. Once, I remember, three luxuriously dressed ladies came to see him; they filled his room with the rustle of silk skirts and the smell of strong scent; they sat down politely opposite their host, pretended that they were very much interested in politics, and began "putting questions":
"Anton Pavlovitch, what do you think? How will the war end?"
Anton Pavlovitch coughed, thought for a while, and then gently, in a serious and kindly voice, replied: "Probably in peace."
"Well, yes ... certainly! But who will win? The Greeks or the Turks?"
"It seems to me that those will win who are the stronger."
"And who, do you think, are the stronger?" all the ladies asked together.
"Those who are the better fed and the better educated."
"Ah, how clever!" one of them exclaimed.
"And whom do you like the best?" another asked.
Anton Pavlovitch looked at her kindly, and answered with a meek smile:
"I like candied fruits ... don't you?"
"Very much," the lady exclaimed gayly.
"Especially Abrikossov's," the second agreed solidly. And the third, half closing her eyes, added with relish: "It smells so good." And all three began to talk with vivacity, revealing, on the subject of candied fruit, great erudition and subtle knowledge. It was obvious that they were happy at not having to strain their minds and pretend to be seriously interested in Turks and Greeks, to whom up to that moment they had not given a thought. When they left, they merrily promised Anton Pavlovitch: "We will send you some candied fruit."
"You managed that nicely," I observed when they had gone.
Anton Pavlovitch laughed quietly and said: "Every one should speak his own language."

I admire this accepting, gentle nature. There is kindness in his approach, and understanding. And yet...and yet... Chekhov also said "All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!'" Surely this is a condemnatory attitude. He goes on: "The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again: 'Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!'" This is the attitude of the doctor that Chekhov was: a combination of condemnation and encouragement: you have high cholesterol (condemnation), but if you change your eating habits and exercise your health will improve (encouragement).

A doctor often must be blunt and realistic when describing a diagnosis: you have cancer. But if a doctor simply said that and left the patient sitting there, what good has he done? And yet...and yet...Chekhov said that the artist's job was to ask questions, not provide answers, and again I agree. But while Chekhov never provided answers, he also never closed the door on whether an answer was possible.

The underlying assumption being explored here is that the artist is analogous to the doctor, and that healing is goal. If you reject that, then this discussion makes no sense. But if you do accept it, even temporarily and for the sake of argument, there are so many directions one could go. The surgeon must cut and open up a patient in order to heal -- must hurt in order to help. If he were afraid to cut the skin, the surgeon would be worthless. Yet the intent, the overall goal, is to heal, not simply to cut. There have been times when I have felt that certain artists (and interestingly, these have more often been performers, designers, and directors than playwright) seem to feel that cutting is an end in itself, and they glory in the gash and the scar.

If I am ill, I don't want a doctor who is going to empathize with me, I want one who is going to look at my symptoms, reach a diagnosis, and take action. But a doctor not interested in healing is simply a sadist.


Freeman said...

Some thoughts on this role of "Doctor" at my blog

Devilvet said...


After more thought, I'm sort of confused at the point of this story or more accurately, how this story proves your point. What you see as accepting, gentle nature...I see as pandering.

When I read this story I see a tale about three women who are asking difficult questions that they dont fully grasp, and the person they come to for enlightenement or enabling, giving them an out.

"Ladies you aren't as interested in geo-politics as you should be, so let's talk about candy."

Granted, my glass is definately half full on this whole lets be friend or doctor as we approach the audience. But what in this Gorky story as you've laid it out has to do with Chekov the dramatist?

Do his texts "simply" in the same way?

Or is this suppose to be an example of someone who thought they wanted a doctor, but really wanted just a friend and chekow saw that? And if so, did they need the doctor? How revelant are their wants and needs?

Or am I trying in too strict a manner to see a coorelation between this post and Freeman's post?

AS it is right now for me, where you see kindness and understanding, I think there's potential to see condescention and pandering without too big of an intrepretive leap.

I can see the validity when talking about Chekov's relation to poeple in day to day living...I fail to see the relevance to Chekov the artist.

With respect

Alison Croggon said...

Hi DV - When I think of Chekhov the artist, I think of the Chekhov who despised his audience and spoke of "iron in the blood". I'm sure he was a charming human being (quite sure, when I read his letters) - but I also think he was as hard as nails. I suspect that his healing in real life - maybe also things like his time in the penal colony in Sakhalin - may have made him want to wound in his art. Certainly his great speeches wound: Nina in The Seagull, speaking of the falling away of her youthful vanities to the bare endurance of vocation, for instance, is not a speech about healing, but about opening the self to the unhealable fractures that are part of living. Whenever I hear it, or read it, it wounds me, because I know it is true; and it is a hard truth that is hard to face in its wholeness, for any of us.

There is, as Nietzsche said, a health in the ability to stare into the abyss of catastrophe, that he claims the Greek possessed and that we have lost. But that is a rather different paradigm to the friendly family doctor.