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Thoughts on Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

by J. Middleton Murry

We do not know if the stories collected in this volume[7] stand together in the Russian edition of Tchehov's works, or if the selection is due to Mrs Constance Garnett. It is also possible that the juxtaposition is fortuitous. But the stories are united by a similarity of material. Whereas in the former volumes of this admirable series Tchehov is shown as preoccupied chiefly with the life of the intelligentsia, here he finds his subjects in priests and peasants, or (in the story Uprooted) in the half-educated.

   [Footnote 7: The Bishop; and Other Stories. By Anton Tchehov.
   Translated by Constance Garnett. (Chatto & Windus.)]

Such a distinction is, indeed, irrelevant. As Tchehov presents them to our minds, the life of the country and the life of the town produce the same final impression, arouse in us an awareness of an identical quality; and thus, the distinction, by its very irrelevance, points us the more quickly to what is essential in Tchehov. It is that his attitude, to which he persuades us, is complete, not partial. His comprehension radiates from a steady centre, and is not capriciously kindled by a thousand accidental contacts. In other words, Tchehov is not what he is so often assumed to be, an impressionist. Consciously or unconsciously he had taken the step—the veritable salto mortale—by which the great literary artist moves out of the ranks of the minor writers. He had slowly shifted his angle of vision until he could discern a unity in multiplicity. Unity of this rare kind cannot be imposed as, for instance, Zola attempted to impose it. It is an emanation from life which can be distinguished only by the most sensitive contemplation.

The problem is to define this unity in the case of each great writer in whom it appears. To apprehend it is not so difficult. The mere sense of unity is so singular and compelling that it leaves room for few hesitations. The majority of writers, however excellent in their peculiar virtues, are not concerned with it: at one moment they represent, at another they may philosophise, but the two activities have no organic connection, and their work, if it displays any evolution at all, displays it only in the minor accidents of the craft, such as style in the narrower and technical sense, or the obvious economy of construction. There is no danger of mistaking these for great writers. Nor, in the more peculiar case of writers who attempt to impose the illusion of unity, is the danger serious. The apparatus is always visible; they cannot afford to do without the paraphernalia of argument which supplies the place of what is lacking in their presentation. The obvious instance of this legerdemain is Zola; a less obvious, and therefore more interesting example is Balzac.

To attempt the more difficult problem. What is most peculiar to Tchehov's unity is that it is far more nakedly æsthetic than that of most of the great writers before him. Other writers of a rank equal to his—and there are not so very many—have felt the need to shift their angle of vision until they could perceive an all-embracing unity; but they were not satisfied with this. They felt, and obeyed, the further need of taking an attitude towards the unity they saw They approved or disapproved, accepted or rejected it. It would be perhaps more accurate to say that they gave or refused their endorsement. They appealed to some other element than their own sense of beauty for the final verdict on their discovery; they asked whether it was just or good.

The distinguishing mark of Tchehov is that he is satisfied with the unity he discovers. Its uniqueness is sufficient for him. It does not occur to him to demand that it should be otherwise or better. The act of comprehension is accompanied by an instantaneous act of acceptance. He is like a man who contemplates a perfect work of art; but the work of creation has been his, and has consisted in the gradual adjustment of his vision until he could see the frustration of human destinies and the arbitrary infliction of pain as processes no less inevitable, natural, and beautiful than the flowering of a plant. Not that Tchehov is a greater artist than any of his great predecessors; he is merely more wholly an artist, which is a very different thing. There is in him less admixture of preoccupations that are not purely æsthetic, and probably for this reason he has less creative vigour than any other artist of equal rank. It seems as though artists, like cattle and fruit trees, need a good deal of crossing with substantial foreign elements, in order to be very vigorous and very fruitful. Tchehov has the virtues and the shortcomings of the pure case.

I do not wish to be understood as saying that Tchehov is a manifestation of l'art pour l'art, because in any commonly accepted sense of that phrase, he is not. Still, he might be considered as an exemplification of what the phrase might be made to mean. But instead of being diverted into a barren dispute over terminologies, one may endeavour to bring into prominence an aspect of Tchehov which has an immediate interest—his modernity. Again, the word is awkward. It suggests that he is fashionable, or up to date. Tchehov is, in fact, a good many phases in advance of all that is habitually described as modern in the art of literature. The artistic problem which he faced and solved is one that is, at most, partially present to the consciousness of the modern writer—to reconcile the greatest possible diversity of content with the greatest possible unity of æsthetic impression. Diversity of content we are beginning to find in profusion—Miss May Sinclair's latest experiment shows how this need is beginning to trouble a writer with a settled manner and a fixed reputation—but how rarely do we see even a glimmering recognition of the necessity of a unified æsthetic impression! The modern method is to assume that all that is, or has been, present to consciousness is ipso facto unified æsthetically. The result of such an assumption is an obvious disintegration both of language and artistic effort, a mere retrogression from the classical method.

The classical method consisted, essentially, in achieving æsthetic unity by a process of rigorous exclusion of all that was not germane to an arbitrary (because non-æsthetic) argument. This argument was let down like a string into the saturated solution of the consciousness until a unified crystalline structure congregated about it. Of all great artists of the past Shakespeare is the richest in his departures from this method. How much deliberate artistic purpose there was in his employment of songs and madmen and fools (an employment fundamentally different from that made by his contemporaries) is a subject far too big for a parenthesis. But he, too, is at bottom a classic artist. The modern problem—it has not yet been sufficiently solved for us to speak of a modern method—arises from a sense that the classical method produces over-simplification. It does not permit of a sufficient sense of multiplicity. One can think of a dozen semi-treatments of the problem from Balzac to Dostoevsky, but they were all on the old lines. They might be called Shakespearean modifications of the classical method.

Tchehov, we believe, attempted a treatment radically new. To make use again of our former image in his maturer writing, he chose a different string to let down into the saturated solution of consciousness. In a sense he began at the other end. He had decided on the quality of æsthetic impression he wished to produce, not by an arbitrary decision, but by one which followed naturally from the contemplative unity of life which he had achieved. The essential quality he discerned and desired to represent was his argument, his string. Everything that heightened and completed this quality accumulated about it, quite independently of whether it would have been repelled by the old criterion of plot and argument. There is a magnificent example of his method in the longest story in this volume, 'The Steppe.' The quality is dominant throughout, and by some strange compulsion it makes heterogeneous things one; it is reinforced by the incident. Tiny events—the peasant who eats minnows alive, the Jewish inn-keeper's brother who burned his six thousand roubles—take on a character of portent, except that the word is too harsh for so delicate a distortion of normal vision; rather it is a sense of incalculability that haunts us. The emphases have all been slightly shifted, but shifted according to a valid scheme. It is not while we are reading, but afterwards that we wonder how so much significance could attach to a little boy's questions in a remote village shop:—

'"How much are these cakes?'

'"Two for a farthing.'

'Yegorushka took out of his pocket the cake given him the day before by the Jewess and asked him:—

'"And how much do you charge for cakes like this?'

'The shopman took the cake in his hands, looked at it from all sides, and raised one eyebrow.

'"Like that?' he asked.

'Then he raised the other eyebrow, thought a minute, and answered:—

'"Two for three farthings…."'

It is foolish to quote it. It is like a golden pebble from the bed of a stream. The stream that flows over Tchehov's innumerable pebbles, infinitely diverse and heterogeneous, is the stream of a deliberately sublimated quality. The figure is inexact, as figures are. Not every pebble could be thus transmuted. But how they are chosen, what is the real nature of the relation which unites them, as we feel it does, is a secret which modern English writers need to explore. Till they have explored and mastered it Tchehov will remain a master in advance of them.

[AUGUST, 1919.

* * * * *

The case of Tchehov is one to be investigated again and again because he is the only great modern artist in prose. Tolstoy was living throughout Tchehov's life, as Hardy has lived throughout our own, and these are great among the greatest. But they are not modern. It is an essential part of their greatness that they could not be; they have a simplicity and scope that manifestly belongs to all time rather than to this. Tchehov looked towards Tolstoy as we to Hardy. He saw in him a Colossus, one whose achievement was of another and a greater kind than his own.

'I am afraid of Tolstoy's death. If he were to die there would be a big empty place in my life. To begin with, because I have never loved any man as much as him…. Secondly, while Tolstoy is in literature it is easy and pleasant to be a literary man; even recognising that one has done nothing and never will do anything is not so dreadful, since Tolstoy will do enough for all. His work is the justification of the enthusiasms and expectations built upon literature. Thirdly, Tolstoy takes a firm stand; he has an immense authority, and so long as he is alive, bad tastes in literature, vulgarity of every kind, insolent and lachrymose, all the bristling, exasperated vanities will be in the far background, in the shade….'—(January, 1900.)

Tchehov was aware of the gulf that separated him from the great men before him, and he knew that it yawned so deep that it could not be crossed. He belonged to a new generation, and he alone perhaps was fully conscious of it. 'We are lemonade,' he wrote in 1892.

'Tell me honestly who of my contemporaries—that is, men between thirty and forty-five—have given the world one single drop of alcohol?… Science and technical knowledge are passing through a great period now, but for our sort it is a flabby, stale, dull time…. The causes of this are not to be found in our stupidity, our lack of talent, or our insolence, but in a disease which for the artist is worse than syphilis or sexual exhaustion. We lack "something," that is true, and that means that, lift the robe of our muse, and you will find within an empty void. Let me remind you that the writers who we say are for all time or are simply good, and who intoxicate us, have one common and very important characteristic: they are going towards something and are summoning you towards it, too, and you feel, not with your mind but with your whole being, that they have some object, just like the ghost of Hamlet's father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing…. And we? We! We paint life as it is, but beyond that—nothing at all…. Flog us and we can do more! We have neither immediate nor remote aims, and in our soul there is a great empty space. We have no politics, we do not believe in revolution, we have no God, we are not afraid of ghosts, and I personally am not afraid even of death and blindness. One who wants nothing, hopes for nothing, and fears nothing cannot be an artist….

'… You think I am clever. Yes, I am at least so far clever as not to conceal from myself my disease and not to deceive myself, and not to cover up my own emptiness with other people's rags, such as the ideas of the 'sixties and so on.'

That was written in 1892. When we remember all the strange literary effort gathered round about that year in the West—Symbolism, the Yellow Book, Art for Art's sake—and the limbo into which it has been thrust by now, we may realise how great a precursor and, in his own despite, a leader, Anton Tchehov was. When Western literature was plunging with enthusiasm into one cul de sac after another, incapable of diagnosing its own disease, Tchehov in Russia, unknown to the West, had achieved a clear vision and a sense of perspective.

To-day we begin to feel how intimately Tchehov belongs to us; to-morrow we may feel how infinitely he is still in advance of us. A genius will always be in advance of a talent, and in so far as we are concerned with the genius of Tchehov we must accept the inevitable. We must analyse and seek to understand it; we must, above all, make up our minds that since Tchehov has written and his writings have been made accessible to us, a vast amount of our modern literary production is simply unpardonable. Writers who would be modern and ignore Tchehov's achievement are, however much they may persuade themselves that they are devoted artists, merely engaged in satisfying their vanity or in the exercise of a profession like any other; for Tchehov is a standard by which modern literary effort must be measured, and the writer of prose or poetry who is not sufficiently single-minded to apply the standard to himself is of no particular account.

Though Tchehov's genius is, strictly speaking, inimitable, it deserves a much exacter study than it has yet received. The publication of this volume of his letters[8] hardly affords the occasion for that; but it does afford an opportunity for the examination of some of the chief constituents of his perfect art. These touch us nearly because—we insist again—the supreme interest of Tchehov is that he is the only great modern artist in prose. He belongs, as we have said, to us. If he is great, then he is great not least in virtue of qualities which we may aspire to possess; if he is an ideal, he is an ideal to which we can refer ourselves, He had been saturated in all the disillusions which we regard as peculiarly our own, and every quality which is distinctive of the epoch of consciousness in which we are living now is reflected in him—and yet, miracle of miracles, he was a great artist. He did not rub his cheeks to produce a spurious colour of health; he did not profess beliefs which he could not maintain; he did not seek a reputation for universal wisdom, nor indulge himself in self-gratifying dreams of a millennium which he alone had the ability to control. He was and wanted to be nothing in particular, and yet, as we read these letters of his, we feel gradually form within ourselves the conviction that he was a hero—more than that, the hero of our time.

   [Footnote 8: Letters of Anton Tchehov. Translated by Constance
   Garnett (Chatto & Windus).]

It is significant that, in reading Tchehov's letters, we do not consider him under the aspect of an artist. We are inevitably fascinated by his character as a man, one who, by efforts which we have most frequently to divine for ourselves from his reticences, worked on the infinitely complex material of the modern mind and soul, and made it in himself a definite, positive, and most lovable thing. He did not throw in his hand in face of his manifold bewilderments; he did not fly for refuge to institutions in which he did not believe; he risked everything, in Russia, by having no particular faith in revolution and saying so. In every conjuncture of his life that we can trace in his letters he behaved squarely by himself and, since he is our great exemplar, by us. He refused to march under any political banner—a thing, let it be remembered, of almost inconceivable courage in his country; he submitted to savagely hostile attacks for his political indifference; yet he spent more of his life and energy in doing active good to his neighbour than all the high-souled professors of liberalism and social reform. He undertook an almost superhuman journey to Sahalin in 1890 to investigate the condition of the prisoners there; in 1892 he spent the best part of a year as a doctor devising preventive measures against the cholera in the country district where he lived, and, although he had no time for the writing on which his living depended, he refused the government pay in order to preserve his own independence of action; in another year he was the leading spirit in organising practical measures of famine relief about Nizhni-Novgorod. From his childhood to his death, moreover, he was the sole support of his family. Measured by the standards of Christian morality, Tchehov was wholly a saint. His self-devotion was boundless.

Yet we know he was speaking nothing less than the truth of himself when he wrote: 'It is essential to be indifferent.' Tchehov was indifferent; but his indifference, as a mere catalogue of his secret philanthropies will show, was of a curious kind. He made of it, as it were, an axiomatic basis of his own self-discipline. Since life is what it is and men are what they are, he seems to have argued, everything depends upon the individual. The stars are hostile, but love is kind, and love is within the compass of any man if he will work to attain it. In one of his earliest letters he defines true culture for the benefit of his brother Nikolay, who lacked it. Cultivated persons, he said, respect human personality; they have sympathy not for beggars and cats only; they respect the property of others, and therefore pay their debts; they are sincere and dread lying like fire; they do not disparage themselves to arouse compassion; they have no shallow vanity; if they have a talent they respect it; they develop the æsthetic feeling in themselves … they seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct. The letter from which these chief points are taken is tremulous with sympathy and wit. Tchehov was twenty-six when he wrote it. He concludes with the words: 'What is needed is constant work day and night, constant reading, study, will. Every hour is precious for it.'

In that letter are given all the elements of Tchehov the man. He set himself to achieve a new humanity, and he achieved it. The indifference upon which Tchehov's humanity was built was not therefore a moral indifference; it was, in the main, the recognition and acceptance of the fact that life itself is indifferent. To that he held fast to the end. But the conclusion which he drew from it was not that it made no particular difference what any one did, but that the attitude and character of the individual were all-important. There was, indeed, no panacea, political or religious, for the ills of humanity; but there could be a mitigation in men's souls. But the new asceticism must not be negative. It must not cast away the goods of civilisation because civilisation is largely a sham.

'Alas! I shall never be a Tolstoyan. In women I love beauty above all things, and in the history of mankind, culture expressed in carpets, carriages with springs, and keenness of wit. Ach! To make haste and become an old man and sit at a big table!'

Not that there is a trace of the hedonist in Tchehov, who voluntarily endured every imaginable hardship if he thought he could be of service to his fellow-men, but, as he wrote elsewhere, 'we are concerned with pluses alone.' Since life is what it is, its amenities are doubly precious. Only they must be amenities without humbug.

'Pharisaism, stupidity, and despotism reign not in bourgeois houses and prisons alone. I see them in science, in literature, in the younger generation…. That is why I have no preference either for gendarmes, or for butchers, or for scientists, or for writers, or for the younger generation. I regard trade marks and labels as a superstition. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and lying, whatever forms they make take. This is the programme I would follow if I were a great artist.'

What 'the most absolute freedom' meant to Tchehov his whole life is witness. It was a liberty of a purely moral kind, a liberty, that is, achieved at the cost of a great effort in self-discipline and self-refinement. In one letter he says he is going to write a story about the son of a serf—Tchehov was the son of a serf—who 'squeezed the slave out of himself.' Whether the story was ever written we do not know, but the process is one to which Tchehov applied himself all his life long. He waged a war of extermination against the lie in the soul in himself, and by necessary implication in others also.

He was, thus, in all things a humanist. He faced the universe, but he did not deny his own soul. There could be for him no antagonism between science and literature, or science and humanity. They were all pluses; it was men who quarrelled among themselves. If men would only develop a little more loving-kindness, things would be better. The first duty of the artist was to be a decent man.

'Solidarity among young writers is impossible and unnecessary…. We cannot feel and think in the same way, our aims are different, or we have no aims whatever, we know each other little or not at all, and so there is nothing on to which this solidarity could be securely hooked…. And is there any need for it? No, in order to help a colleague, to respect his personality and work, to refrain from gossiping about him, envying him, telling him lies and being hypocritical, one does not need so much to be a young writer as simply a man…. Let us be ordinary people, let us treat everybody alike, and then we shall not need any artificially worked-up solidarity.'

It seems a simple discipline, this moral and intellectual honesty of Tchehov's, yet in these days of conceit and coterie his letters strike us as more than strange. One predominant impression remains: it is that of Tchehov's candour of soul. Somehow he has achieved with open eyes the mystery of pureness of heart; and in that, though we dare not analyse it further, lies the secret of his greatness as a writer and of his present importance to ourselves.