Chekhov was an Anarchist
I like Anton Chekhov. I believe he is the most humanist of short story writers, and like most serious writers of literature, his stories are premeditated to convey his philosophical commitments. If it were a crime he would surely be guilty in the first degree. His concern with human nature and the philosophical implications that arise from any serious investigation into this topic provide for many insights. I was prompted to write this bit because Chekhov is often misunderstood. Scholars have made their careers on cataloging the infinite woe and hopelessness that his writing exhibits. He is routinely called “the poet of hopelessness”. I would like to make two points. One, his writing is just the opposite as conventional thought, for Chekhov was a firm believer in the possibilities that humans could attain given the freedom to do so, hence an Anarchist; and two, the sense of hopelessness that his writing exhibits is because of his own wrestling, and ultimately misunderstanding, of science and philosophy. It is not a hopelessness in humankind.
First, I would like to quote some passages from his stories that demonstrate his strong commitment to the dignity of man and the ideals of truth and justice. This will be cursory and more me the reader that is not familiar with Chekhov.
In the story, perhaps his most famous, Ward No. 6 Andrei recounts how Ivan would often give in to his need to speak about the injustices of the world:
But soon the wish to speak overcomes all other considerations, and he gives himself free rein and speaks ardently and passionately. His speech is disorderly, feverish, like raving, impulsive, and not always comprehensible, yet in it, in his words and in his voice, one can hear something extremely good. When he speaks, you recognize both the madman and the human being in him. It is hard to convey his speech on paper. He speaks of human meanness, of the violence that tramples the earth, of the beautiful life there will be on earth in time, of the grilles of the windows, which remind him every moment of the obtuseness and cruelty of the oppressors. The result is a disorderly, incoherent potpourri of old but still unfinished songs.
Ultimately, Ivan is the hero of the story, a madman that professes ideals of justice, dignity and freedom. Perhaps the lesson is that for a moral man to live in an immoral world is an unbearable burden that can drive one mad. Andrei himself, in the end, suffers this similar fate.
Now consider the last passage of The Student, a tale that Chekhov himself acknowledged was his favorite: “…he kept thinking how the truth and beauty that had guided human life there in the garden and in the high priest's courtyard, went on unbroken to this day and evidently had always been the main thing in human life and generally on earth..”. In The Lady with the Little Dog, Gurov reflects that, “…essentially if you thought of it, everything was beautiful in this world, everything except for what we ourselves think and do when we forget the higher goals of being and our human dignity.” In each of these passages we see this commitment to truth. It is the overriding theme in all of Chekhov's later work. Though, as a stylist, he refrained from his works becoming political, his strong commitment to humanism does just that.
On of the most misunderstood words in the English language is anarchism. It is typically equated with lawlessness and chaos, the reasons of which I won't go into here, but the opposite is actually the case. The writings of Bakunin, Kropotkin and Rocker, three powerful figures in the intellectual history of anarchism, do not define anarchism as what we see in popular culture, but as a system of human organization where freedom and dignity are the highest goals. It is a highly ordered society based on the principles of mutual aid and solidarity. A society where coercive institutions must have some necessary justification, as the starting premise is that any authority is alien to man because it subverts what truly defines us as humans ie. our creative powers and intellect. Or as Chekhov puts it “ our higher goals of being and our human dignity”. Thus, taken to its logical conclusion, Chekhov was surely an anarchist, or if the reader likes, in order to avoid the negative connotations associated with that word, a social libertarian.
Given that Chekhov was a believer in that utmost dignity of man, why does his writing focus so much on disillusionment, skepticism and the ambivalence of nature?
Chekhov was firmly aware that our ideals are never certain and always accountable to the awesome power of nature. And this caused him, in the middle part of his career, to abandon ideology and philosophy all together. He was left with nothing, but his own commitments to science. As Lev Shestov says he, “…has nothing, he must create everything for himself. And this 'creation out of the void', or more truly the possibility of this creation, is the only thing which can occupy and inspire Chekhov”. Though Chekhov believed in humanism and mans dignity, he always saw the awesome workings of nature somehow in conflict with this.
Consider for example In Exile, which may be my favorite story of his. The style in which it is written is different from much of his writing. There is little exposition. He uses semicolons and commas to link descriptions and psychological states in order to convey a stark and unforgiving environment. While his later writings have aspects of humor, this story does not, and unlike his earlier writings, it is clear that he has something to say, that is, the story was written with a philosophical purpose and not merely a vignette, as is much of his earlier work.
The narrative starts with a young Tartar that finds himself exiled and condemned to the life of a ferryman for a crime he didn't commit. As he pines away for the life he had left behind; his young wife and the warmth and comfort of the hearth, he meets the Explainor. Again, for the sake of brevity, let me quote a few passages that are particularly revealing. The Explainor upon meeting the Tartar says, “I've brought myself to the point where I can sleep naked on the ground and have grass for my grub. God grant everybody such a life. I need nothing, and I fear nobody, and to my way of thinking, there's no man richer or freer than I am.” After considering this point of view the Tartar reply’s passionately,“ …God created man to be alive, for be joy, and be sorrow, and be grief, and you want nothing, it means you not alive, you stone, clay!”
The Explainor's words reflect the philosophy of Stoicism reflected in the works of Marcus Aurelius and Diogenes. Chekhov rebuffs this philosophy with the character of the Tartar, for as he says, a man is only a man, when he feels, even if that includes suffering. What should a man do then? Suffer or become like Diogenes and sleep naked upon the ground with not a care in the world? It is this predicament that gives this story such a depressing feel. We are faced with the choice of a world that has no sympathy for our emotions or to try not feel at all, which means, to not be a man. Thus, with either choice one errs. One can only throw their hands in the air in defeat.
This is where the hopelessness comes from. So many readers and scholars focus on this, yet by the end of the story, the Tartar still cares, the character of the man chasing his daughter, with his pained, yet noble face, does not give up. The characters hope translates into our hope. Even though we are aware that there are natural laws that we cannot overcome and must ultimately submit to, man still perseveres and fights against them: he still suffers. He does not simply throw his hands up in defeat and becomes indifferent. The point of the story is to show that Stoicism, however it may sound, is ultimately pointless. And this is not just an attack on Stoicism, but on what Chekhov views as idealism, generally. Any ideal: religion, philosophy, Marxism, cannot be trusted. His commitments seem to be with Enlightenment ideals, and yet, he rejects the very notion of idealism. This is the much spoken of contradiction in his writing.
Now consider the story Ward No. 6. that I spoke of earlier. Let us go into it more deeply. Ivan is a patient at Ward No. 6. His doctor, Andrei, who never visits the mental asylum, happens to one day venture in, and a relationship begins between the two men. Though Ivan is mad, the doctor soon finds that he enjoys talking with him more than any one else in the town. His challenges to Andrei's various philosophies result in a lively and insightful conversation between the two. Chekhov does well to point out that ones social standing can determine what one suffers most from. Ivan, seeks his freedom, and basic necessities, while Andrei living comfortably, suffers from the stagnant intellectual culture around him.
In their conversations, Andrei is trying to impress upon Ivan the philosophy of Stoicism, much like the Explainor, in In Exile. Andrei is always telling himself that he should not care of anything because in the end nothing really matters, we all die; in a million years the world will be only clay. He tells Ivan the same line, that he should not care that he is in the Ward, because the most noble pursuit is to live in ones ideas and like Diogenes, one can do this in a barrel. But Ivan is not having anything of this. He becomes very agitated at this and yells at him. He tells him that not everything the Greeks said was right (which I find very funny and true) and that he had never truly suffered, and therefore, it is easy to have these philosophies while living comfortably. Andrei likes his words and finds something very noble in them and continues to visit him to talk. As the story progresses, Andrei himself is committed to the Ward, and once inside, he changes his views quickly. He tries to tell himself that there is no difference between inside or out, but he cannot maintain this, and ultimately tries to escape the Ward. Thus, he abandons his Idealism, but dies shortly thereafter.
I think this conclusion to the story is the same as In Exile. Both the characters refuse the Stoicism, and hence, Idealism, but in doing so they must now suffer. Andrei's fate is especially ironic, since his indifference was because he believed that our death made our life pointless, and when he does start to care, he indeed dies! But Ivan continues to suffer, resolute in the face of nature, he holds on to his grand ideas. He is the hero.
Ward No. 6, present the contradiction that one finds lurking in any of Chekhov's work. His rebuff of any form of idealism is based on the powerful and alien forces of nature that we cannot control. While we may have many fancy and noble ideals of justice and freedom, ultimately, “…the essence of things will remain the same. People will get sick, grow old, and die, just as they do now. However, magnificent the dawn that lights up your life in the end you'll be nailed up in a coffin and thrown into a hole.” Even if truth and triumph prevail, we must still die sooner or later “without even leaving a trace on nature”, so why care of anything? And for the man that does suffer, how ignominious can the world be to put one through such travail to only have you die and be buried in the worm ridden earth. Such cruelty!
His story The Black Monk, again reiterates this theme, but I think the fullest expression of his views, can be found in one crucial passage from the the story, A Medical Case. It combines my belief that Chekhov was committed to mans dignity and freedom and yet, the belief that somehow these ideals are fanciful imaginings, because of the the immutable laws of nature that restrain us. The doctor after visiting the factories is staying in a house nearby and he looks out the window at night and sees the windows of the factories bright with light.
And he thought about the devil, in whom he did not believe, and kept glancing back at the two windows gleaming with fire. It seemed to him that the devil himself was gazing at him through those crimson eyes, the unknown power that created the relations between strong and weak, the grave mistake that could now in no way be set right. It had to be that the strong hinder the life of the weak, such was the law of nature, but this thought could be clearly and easily formulated only in a newspaper article or a textbook, while in the mishmash of everyday life, in the tangle of all the trifles of which human relations are woven, it was not a law but a logical incongruity, when strong and weak alike fell victim to their mutual relations, inadvertently obeying some controlling power, unknown, extraneous to life, alien to man.
So, is Chekhov's hopelessness because of an inherent conflict between humankind and nature or somethings else?
Throughout this essay I've been using the term “idealism” in the sense that scholars of Chekhov have used it. But their use of the term is misguided and not accurate in the least. Now, I won't go into minute details, but Idealism is a philosophy, epitomized in the writings of George Berkeley, that says the only reality is our ideas. That is, our sense experience and concepts, are all that are existence consists of. What we call reality is actually a logical inference we make based on our sense experience. This is the correct us of the term. Now, Idealism, as used and thought by Chekhov, was against any form of philosophy at all. Chekhov was a doctor and a scientist, and his only commitments were to science, so he shunned any thing beyond logical positivism. Now, what I think he failed to realize was that even science is a philosophy. It's called naturalism. But this can be attacked by the skeptic as can idealism, or dualism, or Plato's theory of forms. What Chekhov, unwittingly, was truly concerned with, was the skepticism inherent in any philosophical position that seeks to make ontological claims about reality.
But this is nothing new, for Sextus Empircus had been carving his mantras in his ceiling long before the Russian ever became a writer. There is a leap of faith in anything that we do. For we could always be totally wrong, even in the most certain of things. Now one may argue that I am splitting hairs here, but I think it is certainly true that Chekhov was inconsistent if he held on to the philosophy of logical positivism, and yet, rejects any other philosophy or ideology. But in the end we still are left with the same conclusion, albeit in different form. Perhaps though, if Chekhov had explored this more deeply, he would have resolve some of the confusion and conflict that was at the heart of his work.
Look life is hard. It is confusing. Ultimate questions cannot be answered. In this world suffering goes hand in hand with happiness. But this shouldn't lead us to feel hopeless about our future. If we assume rationality, we see that we are a part of the universe, and it's these very laws of nature that give us the freedom and power to change what was before, there is no immutability in that. Much of the world is not a result of deterministic forces but pure chance, and if one will allow me, plain old bad luck.
This leads me to my criticism of Chekhov, and if the reader likes, they may infer that this goes for many other writers as well. Chekhov mistakenly believed that the main sources of human suffering, ie. coercive institutions, are somehow writ as alien and unalterable. They are as natural as death itself. But this is just the opposite. For they are human institutions, and we have the control and freedom to organize our society as we like. His belief in the dignity of man could be realized. While we may not change the laws of nature, while we may still bleed and still cry, we may transform much. Any rational student of history realizes that there is progress.
Much of literature is focused on the conflict that man has with the powerful and ambivalent forces of nature. But I believe that good literature is written by the writer that is conscious of the fact that we have more pressing concerns. In conclusion, I wish that Chekhov had focused more on the aspects of injustice in the world and not so much on death and disillusionment. I'm aware that he firmly believed that his writing should not be a platform for social or political causes, but I believe that this is the main mistake Chekhov made in his literary career. As George Orwell once said, “all art is propaganda”, and to not address the issues at all, is itself propaganda. It is for this reason that so many are left with this feeling of hopelessness with Chekhov, though I believe, his writings are quite the opposite. Chekhov was an Anarchist. I just wish he would have seen it.