The Wisdom of Anton Chekhov
Mis à jour : janv. 12
"In his novel Life and Fate Vasily Grossman has one of his characters say that "Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history — the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man.” (...) His life demonstrates that to be wise one does not have to be old. The writer Maxim Gorky, who knew Chekhov in his final years, wrote of his “wise smile” and attempted to capture his approach to his fellow Russians in the following image:
“In front of that dreary crowd of helpless people, there passed a great, wise, and observant man; he looked at all these dreary inhabitants of his country, and, with a sad smile, with a tone of gentle but deep reproach, with anguish in his face and in his heart, in a beautiful and sincere voice, he said to them: "You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that.”
Chekhov himself said in 1902 that when people realized how badly they lived, they would “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 !'”
Thus, his implied criticism stemmed from his compassion. Commenting on his social and humanitarian activities, one scholar wrote that “his life was one continuous round of alleviating famine, fighting epidemics, building schools and public roads, endowing libraries, helping organize marine biology libraries, giving thousands of needy peasants free medical treatment, planting gardens, helping fledgling writers get published, raising funds for worthwhile causes, and hundreds of other pursuits designed to help his fellow man and improve the general quality of life around him.”
Unlike some Russian intellectuals of his time, Chekhov possessed a practical wisdom that enabled him to care for those he loved and to help others. (...) His love of goodness, beauty, and truth, all of which wise people attempt to integrate into their lives, shines through his works. Other wisdom characteristics he manifested were humility, tolerance, self-discipline, creativity, appreciation of both the comic and tragic aspects of existence,
and hopes for the earth and the people who inhabit it now and in the future.
Chekhov's letters reveal much about his life. Shortly before leaving Taganrog, he wrote to his younger brother Mikhail :
« One thing I don't like: why do you style yourself 'your worthless and insignificant brother' ? You recognize your insignificance ? . . . Recognize it before God ; perhaps, too, in the presence of beauty, intelligence, nature, but not before men. Among men you must be conscious of your dignity. Why, you are not a rascal, you are an honest man, aren't you ? Well, respect yourself as an honest man and know that an honest man is not something worthless. Don't confound “being humble” with 'recognizing one's worthlessness.' . . .
It is a good thing that you read. Acquire the habit of doing so. In time you will come to value that habit. Read “Don Quixote.” It is a fine thing. It is by Cervantes, who is said to be almost on a level with Shakespeare. I advise my brothers to read — if they haven't already done so — Turgenev's "Hamlet and Don Quixote."»
Thus, before age twenty, Chekhov had already acquired a sense of the importance of personal dignity and honesty. He also was beginning to display enough maturity so that even though he was only the third oldest child he would soon become the most responsible member of his family, his two older brothers being especially irresponsible and often drinking too much. (...)
He wrote to his older brother Nikolai a letter that reveals more about the necessity of maturing toward a more cultured approach to life :
« You have only one failing . . . . That is your utter lack of culture. . . .
Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions :
1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. . . .
2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. . . .
3. They respect the property of others, and therefore pay their debts.
4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. . . .
5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. . . .
6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities. . .
7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity. . . .
8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. (....)»
Chekhov viewed the maturing of his siblings and himself as requiring a constant effort
to overcome the limitations of the subculture in which they had been raised in order to become more cultured individuals. In an 1889 letter that he wrote to Suvorin, we can
see what he felt about his own maturing process :
« In addition to plenty of material and talent, one wants something else which is no less important. One wants to be mature — that is one thing; and for another the feeling of personal freedom is essential, and that feeling has only recently begun to develop in me. I used not to have it before ; its place was successfully filled by my frivolity, carelessness, and lack of respect for my work.
Write a story of how a young man, the son of a serf, who has served in a shop, been at a high school and a university, who has been brought up to respect everyone of higher rank and position, to kiss priests' hands, to reverence other people's ideas, to be thankful for every morsel of bread, who has liked dining with his rich relations, and been hypocritical before God and men from the mere consciousness of his own insignificance — write how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and how waking one beautiful morning he feels that he has no longer a slave's blood in his veins but a real man's. »
Wisdom has been defined many different ways, and no one possesses complete wisdom. Nor do individuals who are considered wise generally display it equally in all aspects and phases of their lives. We have already seen enough of Chekhov‟s life to understand why Gorky and othersthought of him as wise. Central to wisdom are values, and we shall soon examine Chekhov's in more detail, but we have already seen indications that he valued compassion, freedom, humor, beauty, truth, goodness, humility, honesty, justice, and tolerance.
A scholar who has studied wisdom extensively has written that “people are wise to the extent that they use their intelligence to seek a common good. They do so by balancing, in their courses of action, their own interests with those of others and those of larger entities, like their school, their community, their country, even God.” This same scholar suggests that another aspect of being wise is seeing “things from others' perspectives as well as one's own,” and tolerating “other people's points of view, whether or not one agrees with such views.” It is primarily this tolerant attitude that sets Chekhov off from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, two fellow Russian writers sometimes considered wise, but lacking Chekhov's humility and tolerance.
Different personalities express wisdom in different ways, and Chekhov's personality was such that it was easier for him to be humble and tolerant than bold and assertive, traits that can also be used to serve the “common good.” His friend Kuprin said of him: “There are people who constitutionally cannot endure and are morbidly shy of too demonstrative attitudes, gestures and words, and Anton Pavlovitch possessed this quality in the highest degree.. . . He had a horror of pathos, of vehement emotions and theatrical effects inseparable from them.” Along similar lines, Gorky wrote,
"Beautifully simple himself, he loved everything simple, genuine, sincere, and he had a peculiar way of making other people simple."
He possessed courage and a passion for justice. Aware in the final years of his life that he probably would not live long, he seldom complained about his fate and continued to work and care for others. Earlier in 1890, already a successful author but already displaying signs of poor health, he made the arduous journey across thousands of miles to the island of Sakhalin in order to report on the conditions of the penal inhabitants. (...)
Perhaps what Chekhov can best teach us in our age of celebrity, self-promotion, and
"hype", is a touch of humility and modesty. In contrast to our media frenzied world,
how refreshing it is to recall and reflect upon this modest man who loved beauty, truth,
and goodness, and hated self-promotion and dogmatism. In his story “The Princess” the title character is accused of engaging in philanthropic activities more for show than substance. Chekhov's own way, whether in doctoring peasants for free or building schools or aiding teachers, was to help people quietly without calling attention to himself.
Today's American cultural/political landscape sometimes calls to mind lines from Matthew Arnold‟s late nineteenth-century poem “Dover Beach”:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
In such an atmosphere Chekhov's words in “The Duel" offer some hope:
“In the search for truth men makes two steps forward and one step back. Suffering, mistakes, and weariness of life thrust them back, but the thirst for truth and stubborn will drive them on and on. And who knows? Perhaps they will reach the real truth at last."