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Chekhov's Hammer




When Tolstoy broke the news to Anton Chekhov that his plays were “worse than Shakespeare,” it is hard to imagine there being not a hint of irony in his voice. But truly there may not have been any. The great old man was becoming increasingly serious by the year, as well as increasingly pious. As the story goes, Chekhov went away rather happy to be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare, though he must have been well aware of the great man's serious dislike of the Bard. Tolstoy had written publicly about this, in detail, and some four decades later George Orwell neatly summarized his views on a BBC radio program:


“Tolstoy's main contention is that Shakespeare is a trivial, shallow writer, with no coherent philosophy, no thoughts or ideas worth bothering about, no interest in social or religious problems, no grasp of character or probability, and, in so far as he could be said to have a definable attitude at all, with a cynical, immoral, worldly outlook on life.”


In fairness to Tolstoy, his second half of life, which coincided with a powerful religious conversion, contained much moralizing and condemnation of others, but many of his most terrible thunderbolts were kept for himself, or at least hurled towards a mirror. He grew ashamed of both his masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, on the basis of their worldliness, and in light of his newfound headlong struggle against human vanity. To justify the very existence of literature, indeed art, Tolstoy began looking in every corner and cave for evidence of a work's moral foundation, it's coherent ethical message.


What was Chekhov lacking? For Tolstoy, it was only Chekhov the playwright he disliked. Chekhov the short-story writer was a man to be admired, and the elder even bothered to collect some of the younger man's stories into two volumes, referring to one as “first quality” and the other as “second quality.” Looking at both lists, I can guess at why Tolstoy included some and not others, but mostly the criteria is obscure to me. Whatever his reasoning, I'm sure it was rigorous.




There's a short story written by Anton Chekhov in 1898 called Gooseberries which did not make it into Tolstoy's volumes of first or second quality. Gooseberries is a story inside a story, told by the character Ivan Ivanych to his friend Burkin. Somewhat like Conrad's seafaring Marlowe, Ivan and Burkin appear more than once in Chekhov's canon as memory-swapping friends. In Gooseberries, we find them out hunting in fields somewhere in the Russian countryside, and Burkin reminds Ivan that he had intended a while ago to tell him a story. “Yes, I wanted to tell about my brother.” And yet he doesn't begin, because the rain starts to fall at that very moment, and the two friends hurry along to the nearby mill called Soyino, where their acquaintance Alekhin lives.


Much later, after the affable Alekhin brings them both into his drawing room, there seated by the fire, Ivan Ivanych tells the story about his brother Nikolai. Briefly, they grew up in the countryside until their father's death, where they enjoyed all the pleasures to be derived there. When they grew older, both young men went into town and Ivan became a veterinarian, while Nikolai worked in some business office. Nikolai, his brother laments, thought of only one thing during his years working out numbers and writing papers: how to leave his lot and return to the country. With the tenderness of a brother, Ivan reprimands Nikolai for his obsession. “To leave town, quit the struggle and noise of life, go and hide in your country place, isn't life, it's egoism, laziness, it's a sort of monasticism, but a monasticism without spiritual endeavor.” But Nikolai nevertheless dedicates any spare thought and moment to thinking and reading about country life. And for whatever reason, this endless talk about the estate of his dreams always includes gooseberries. Ivan quotes his brother:


"‘Country life has its conveniences,' he used to say. ‘You sit on the balcony drinking tea, and your ducks swim in the pond, and it smells so good, and … and the gooseberries are growing.'

"He'd draw the plan of his estate, and each time it came out the same: a) the master's house, b) the servants' quarters, c) the kitchen garden, d) the gooseberries.”


For many years Nikolai saves money, at the expense of his health and appearance. He even marries “an ugly old widow” that he neither loves nor cares for, “only because she had a little money.” And following her death, he looks around, finds three hundred acres through an agent, and is quit of town life once and for all.


“Of course,” Ivan tells his friends, “you can look for five years and in the end make a mistake and not buy what you were dreaming of at all.” The park had “a master's house, servants' quarters, a park, but no orchard, or gooseberries, or ponds with ducks; there was a river, but the water in it was coffee-colored, because there was a brick factory on one side of the estate and a bone-burning factory on the other.”


In spite of this dim comedy, Nikolai is well-pleased with his new life and quickly settles in. He buys gooseberry bushes and has them put in. And when Ivan finally visits him, he had grown fat, lies in bed past noon, has become a squire. He quarrels with other landowners, expects a “Your Honor” from the peasants, “did good deeds not simply but imposingly.”


“He treated the peasants for all ailments with soda and castor oil, and on his name day held a thanksgiving prayer service in the middle of the village, and then stood them all to a half-bucket of vodka, thinking it necessary. Ah, these horrible half-buckets! Today the fat landowner drags the peasant to the head of the zemstvo for poaching, and tomorrow, for the holiday, he treats them to a half-bucket, and they drink and shout ‘hurrah,' and bow down drunk before him.”


On this visit, Nikolai offers his brother the first bowl of gooseberries that had ripened since being planted. With tears in his eyes, full of vindication and joy, Nikolai eats one and declares it delicious. Yet Ivan tells his friends: “They were tough and sour, but as Pushkin said 'Dearer to us than a host of truths is an exalting illusion'”


Now Ivan grows gloomy in his telling and wanders into the realm of his own meditations. “For some reason there had always been something sad mixed with my thoughts about human happiness, but now, at the sight of a happy man, I was overcome by an oppressive feeling close to despair.” And finally we come to Ivan Ivanych's pleading moral exclamation, over which we may notice Chekhov himself hovering from above.


“I thought: there are, in fact, so many contented, happy people! What an overwhelming force! Just look at this life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, impossible poverty all around us, overcrowding, degeneracy, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lies … Yet in all the houses and streets it's quiet, peaceful; of the fifty thousand people who live in town there is not one who would cry out or become loudly indignant. We see those who go to the market to buy food, eat during the day, sleep during the night, who talk their nonsense, get married, grow old, complacently drag their dead to the cemetery; but we don't see or hear those who suffer, and the horrors of life go on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and only mute statistics protest: so many gone mad, so many buckets drunk, so many children dead of malnutrition … And this order is obviously necessary; obviously the happy man feels good only because the unhappy bear their burden silently, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It's a general hypnosis. At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him-illness, poverty, loss-and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn't hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of life stir him only slightly, as wind stirs an aspen – and everything is fine.”




It is unfortunate that the often-quoted line from George Orwell, that “all art is propaganda,” is almost always left to float stupidly in the air without his tethering reflection that “[o]n the other hand, not all propaganda is art.” Certainly, this aphorism damns art as much as it exalts it. In any case it sets it apart. While we rightly, if dimly, raise the idea of artistic pursuits to some high place, reserve a kind of special feeling for it, we will be reminded quite naturally that it is a sword that cuts in either direction. It is our connection to the realm of individual feeling, of ecstasies – a realm which does not exclude rationality but isn't at all controlled by it. Alone, art has nothing to say about what ought to be done in a society, or what kinds of actions are to be considered right or wrong. Gore Vidal called art the “opposite of democracy,” and if there is a place where we are allowed, even encouraged, to be little single-minded dictators it is here. All art is propaganda mainly because it is made by people who live in the world and have opinions. But living in the world and having opinions about it can be a pretty artless spectacle. For these two realms to run alongside each other with some harmony is a thing which, when it happens, will catch's one's breath, and remind one why it is alright to be alive.


I don't know, and doubt I'll ever know, whether Chekhov's creative genius was simple and automatic or cultivated and self conscious. He had a gift for very casually showing the fullness of life, and by some natural turn his readers find themselves in a story of real psychological dimension. At least in translation, this is done with a modest economy of expressions and words, and without many acrobatics of language.


One thing that I think – I hope – shines through the translations is Chekhov's tendency to make room in his stories for life to show itself of its own accord, at its own pace. Why is it that in Gooseberries – in which Chekhov shows most nakedly his moral preoccupations – it takes several pages for the actual story which Ivan Ivanych tells to begin? Before Ivan is seated with his friends before the warmth of the fire, he and Burkin meander through several pages of seemingly aimless prose. As they arrive in the rain at Alekhin's mill, they are greeted by the landowner with eagerness. They spend the afternoon washing, dressing, eating, talking. Here in particular is the most arresting and mysterious passage in Chekhov's story: while the other men wash in the bathing house, Ivan goes back out in the rain and splashes into the pond beside which the mill is built. There is something very beautiful, very Chekhovian, and I must say it, very Russian about this scene:


“Ivan Ivanych went outside, threw himself noisily into the water and swam under the rain, swinging his arms widely, and he made waves, and the white lilies swayed on the waves; he reached the middle of the pond and dove, and a moment later appeared in another place and swam further, and kept diving, trying to reach the bottom. 'Ah, my God…' he repeated delightedly. 'Ah, my God …' He swam as far as the mill, talked about something with the peasants there and turned back, and in the middle of the pond lay face up to the rain. Burkin and Alekhin were already dressed and ready to go, but he kept swimming and diving.

'Ah, my God …' he repeated. 'Ah, Lord have mercy.'"


There is something deeply hidden in this passage, some mystery of life folded into it. And from here until the end there is now a haunted aspect alive in the story. The wild joy of Ivan swimming in the rain, his later desire, sober and sad, for life to have a hammer which is always knocking at the door of the contented man, the mild bored bemusement of his friends over his dreary story (they had hoped for something less depressing, Chekhov tells us), and finally the abrupt sentence offered as an ending while Ivan and Burkin fall asleep in the guestroom: “Rain beat on the windows all night.” In Chekhov's world, as in this world, there is significance everywhere, and equally there is the persistent invitation to not seek out that significance.




Anton Chekhov loved Tolstoy, admired him deeply, and even feared that his eventual death would be a cataclysm for Russian literature. “If not for him,” he once wrote, “literature would be a flock without a shepherd.” And yet, Chekhov was altogether a different writer, and a different kind of man. Thoroughly modern, an atheist (although not at all without strong religious feeling, which is plain in countless of his stories), and perhaps most importantly a practicing physician, Chekhov had no love for Luddism, or any kind of “return to Eden” sentimentality. Joseph Epstein finds an excellent summary of this, in Chekhov's own words:

“Prudence and justice tells me there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam than there is in chastity and abstention from meat. War is an evil and the court system is an evil, but it doesn't follow that I should wear bast shoes and sleep on a stove alongside the hired hand and his wife, and so on and so forth.”

And if Chekhov's plays lacked a moral point of view – the essence of Tolstoy's criticism – his stories do not, although their moral basis is less narrow than Tolstoy would have liked, and draw from different sources of justice. This is somewhat described in a letter Chekhov wrote to a friend:

“My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.”


Contrasted with the following statement of Tolstoy in his essay “Religion and Morality,” we can perceive a disposition of both men which may reconcile them in some ways on some matters, yet the difference in their methods of expression suggest that their worlds are constructed quite differently:

“The attempts to inculcate morality independent of religion are like the actions of children when, wishing to move a plant which pleases them, they tear off the root which does not please, and seems unnecessary to them, and plant it in the earth without the root. Without a religious foundation there can be no true, sincere morality, as without a root there can be no true plant.”


We begin to notice a crack in the road along which these two great Russian writers are traveling. Though they are traveling together, in brotherhood, even at times arm-in-arm, they are aware that the crack between them slowly widens as they walk, and one day there will be a chasm opening up and one will have to jump over to the other, or else there will be a sad goodbye.


The thing that now preoccupies me is the following question: What is it exactly that slowly divides these men who admire each other? And also, is there a point at which they become true adversaries? There are other, more general 'big' questions which suggest themselves during these meditations. Inevitably, the largest of all is among them: Is there a god or isn't there? I take – have taken – that question with the serious respect that it deserves. But I am increasingly doubtful of whether this is quite the right questions to ask, or rather that it is quite the way to ask it.

Tolstoy's search for an absolute morality, based on his understanding of the Christian Gospels, has much about it for honest people to admire. If in our modern age we were entirely convinced by and obliged to follow the Sermon on the Mount – the part of the Gospels which Tolstoy believed was the key to everything – we would immediately notice an improvement in the lives of many of those suffering the most, as well as a quick dissolution of some of our most powerful institutions. There is no easier task – apart from what it does to the conscience – than imagining the ways in which we could be more generous to the poor, or refuse to hoard wealth and materials, or personally meet the standards we have set for others. And any sneering that we might do at these simple moral truisms is at least in part the sneer of guilt. A successful thief might pity the naivete of an honest, hard-working poor person, but if he also tries to establish a moral high-ground, his reasoning will be hollow.


We may also find naivete, among other objectionable things, in religious moral doctrines, but those feelings alone haven't established our own moral rightness. In finally deciding, as many modern people have, that there either is no god at all or that he isn't much involved in the fortunes of our lives, we will declare this only to find that most of the work required to be a decent person is still ahead of us. Or, crucially, it may be behind us, but we nevertheless will have to go back for it.




If Chekhov admired Tolstoy's moral stature yet could not stomach many of his beliefs, then what was it that he admired? And when George Orwell defended Shakespeare from Tolstoy's attacks (part of his defense was simply admitting that Shakespeare needn't be defended – he was doing just fine in spite the Russian's best efforts), why did he grant much of what Tolstoy has said? There is something in both Orwell and Chekhov that made them deeply distrustful of worldviews that they found to be too complete, that were axiomatic and closed, and which even caused them to be harsh towards those who were on their ideological 'side.'


Orwell constantly berated the left-wing intelligentsia of England (and beyond) during the days leading up to and including the second World War. Christopher Hitchens often remarked, maybe overstating it a little, that Orwell hardly spent any time attacking fascism, the evil and danger of which was almost too obvious to dwell upon in print. And it's true, that a great deal of his ink was used criticizing, cornering and cajoling elements of the left, with which he was affiliated, but who he considered to tend towards defeatism, whether they knew it or not. Consider his unmistakable position on British fascism:


"Insofar as it hampers the British war effort, British pacifism is on the side of the Nazis, and German pacifism, if it exists, is on the side of Britain and the USSR. Since pacifists have more freedom of action in countries where traces of democracy survive, pacifism can act more effectively against democracy than for it. Objectively, the pacifist is pro-Nazi."


This is a very blunt comment from a man who to his death identified strongly with democratic socialism. And he is startlingly sharp in his attack on the Left in his long essay “The Lion and the Unicorn,” which he wrote during the Blitzkrieg, and which begins by informing us “as I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” Later we find this passage:


“However little we may like it, toughness is the price of survival. A nation trained to think hedonistically cannot survive amid peoples who work like slaves and breed like rabbits, and whose chief national industry is war. English Socialists of nearly all colours have wanted to make a stand against Fascism, but at the same time they have aimed at making their own countrymen unwarlike. They have failed, because in England traditional loyalties are stronger than new ones. But in spite of all the ‘anti-Fascist’ heroics of the left-wing press, what chance should we have stood when the real struggle with Fascism came, if the average Englishman had been the kind of creature that the New Statesman, the Daily Worker or even the News Chronicle wished to make him?”


How's that for political blasphemy? Mind you, Orwell's England was truly in the midst of an existential threat. During these crises, it is of interest to see how dearly people cling to their ideologies. Orwell, though he had a worldview – namely democratic socialism – seemed to be struggling with what he felt was a duty to keep two kinds of spirits alive in him at once: the ideological and practical.



Finally, there is one more figure that wanders into this discussion and lends it some symmetry. At the end of Tolstoy's life, he corresponded with Mahatma Gandhi, who was very taken with the old man's ideas on non-resistance. The letters they sent to each other are well worth anyone's time. To read them is to sit in the warm, sad glow of history. Gandhi praises Tolstoy and sends along information about his own work on non-resistance in the Transvaal in South Africa, and Tolstoy is delighted by this and in particular upon hearing his work is being translated into Indian dialects. One does begin to see a serious moral movement developing in the world by the light of these Important Men. Tolstoy, who was unable to shed the wealth and privilege he came to despise until his very final days on Earth must have felt a special satisfaction in contributing to the education of this energetic character Gandhi.


And yet, the perennial parade-rainer George Orwell devoted one of his finest essays at the end of his own short life to Gandhi, about whom his feelings were mixed. The essay ended up drawing a contrast between man and saint, and this contrast begins to pierce the heart of my interest in the difference between the absolute and – let's say – conditional worldviews.


While Orwell praised Gandhi for being an “interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive,” he had quite a few reservations about him, and saintliness, in general. And more than anything else he denied the right of leftists – perhaps now we would say progressives – to claim Gandhi as their own. The following passage framed this:


“[O]ne should, I think, realize that Gandhi's teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from. It is worth considering the disciplines which Gandhi imposed on himself and which — though he might not insist on every one of his followers observing every detail — he considered indispensable if one wanted to serve either God or humanity. First of all, no meat-eating[...n]o alcohol or tobacco[...]if possible, no sexual intercourse. If sexual intercourse must happen, then it should be for the sole purpose of begetting children and presumably at long intervals[...a]nd finally — this is the cardinal point — for the seeker after goodness there must be no close friendships and no exclusive loves whatever.”


This final directive, said Orwell, marked “the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitudes cease to be reconcilable.” And that cleared the way for what I suppose is one of Orwell's core – well – shall I say messages, or confessions?:


“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.[..I]t is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings...But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.”




The fissure running down the middle of the road. Finally: what is it, and who does it divide? Much literature has been built on or billed as 'studies' on divisions that run through each person, from fairy stories to the story of Jekyll and Hyde to Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf – the man who discovers that there are not only two factions fighting within him but five, or ten, or a thousand. And in fact it is totally redundant to list the works of literature or art that include ideological divides within or between characters. One can hardly think of a serious example of art that does not include it.


Between the few writers and thinker I have talked about here, considering their preoccupations, there are clear traceable divisions between them, though not a lot of hostility. As I mentioned earlier, one way to describe the main modes of thinking would be to call them religious and irreligious worldviews. But for reasons that are difficult to describe, yet go beyond mere manners and practicality, I don't think this is quite the best way to put it. The hostilities between the religious and secular worlds, which today take up so many headlines and draws so much hot air, do resemble real battles in a war. But they are battles of a peculiar sort. They are battles in which the two supposed sides – with their distinct uniforms – exert as much chaos and indignation among themselves as on their adversaries. In each of these alleged camps there is much distrust, anger, and incredulity. One secularist discusses political struggle with his comrades in such a way to easily send their eyes rolling, while in the opposite trenches, two people stand side by side in identical religious robes, one meek and unassuming, and the other looking absolutely wolfish. The religious and secular distinction is a real one, it seems impossible to deny. Though as we begin to define the terms the conceptual differences become sharper, while the actual people involved begin to get shifty-eyed, and look as though they are torn between mounting a charge and switching sides.


I think Orwell's distinction between man and saint, taken with his explanations, begins approach what I'm trying to get at, though it can be generalized further. There are times when a simple, confident ideology will be the only thing to pull you out of the muck, and there are times when it will sink you completely. In the United States today, we are going through the humiliating experience of declaring, in the strongest possible terms, opinions that we don't actually hold. There are people living practical lives with limited resources, with children to raise and difficult jobs to perform, who are being called upon to announce their ideological positions on things they neither know nor care anything about. And there are intellectuals, or wealthy people dressed as intellectuals, who have had the time and leisure to draw up reasonable models of a better world, but who have no experience of the true hardships of life and therefore no understanding of how to apply their models to reality. And most humiliating of all is that we are convinced that we are at war with each other, and in thinking this, in some way, we really are. But the real truth is – and if there is such a thing as real truth in the world it is this – that we are all involved in a much larger struggle for survival of our species, and there are absolutely no guarantees of our eventual success. This has always been the looming, damning fact of life, less obvious during some eras than others, but no less true. Without the practical human being, rooted in reality, flexible, and durable in lean times, we will not survive. Without the visionary ideologue, trying always to look above the treeline and formulating new ways of organizing, we will not survive. And naturally, this struggle is at least as prevalent in every single person as it is between people. The art of living involves somehow striking a graceful balance between these two general dispositions.


Orwell fought bitterly against his notions of sainthood and pacifism because he lived during – under – the Blitz of London, and knew earlier than most how the twin systems of Fascism and Communism really were mechanisms designed to run over humans. In the face of the German war machine an abstract notion of peace was only so much smoke in the wind. And yet Gandhi knew that without an ideal of peace – something unmeasurable for the troubled heart to grasp – all was lost. Without such an ideal, only meaningless motions, increasingly violent, are left. To some extent, Orwell recognizes and credits Gandhi's role in playing the long game for India's independence, and in his funny way grumbles a final line of praise in his essay: “...compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”




And finally, the two Russians we began with. One, the grand old white-bearded convert to the Gospels of Christ. The other, a doctor who emerged from poverty by his own intelligence and energy, scrabbled hard in the world he supposed was godless, and died young (in his mid-forties, of tuberculosis, as Orwell would later do. Chekhov would not even live to see the day he feared: the death of Tolstoy). Here again their divisions seem, and in some ways are, religious in nature.


Yet it was Tolstoy – not Chekhov – that the Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton admonished in the following way: Despite “his immense genius, [...]his colossal faith, [...]his vast fearlessness, he is deficient in one faculty[...]alone. He is not a mystic; and therefore he has a tendency to go mad.” I mustn't let that religious troublemaker too much room to run around and make nonsense of everything here, but in this case Chesterton's meaning is plain enough: Tolstoy wasn't driven so much by the Christian religion, which can mean many things, but by a purity of thought and vision generally. He sought a closed philosophical system that would not cause him utter spiritual desolation, and which could be applied universally. And when he thought he had found one – rooted in the Gospels as it happened, but evidently friendly to Gandhi's eastern religious vision – he made it his obsession. And given his stature in Russian culture at the time of his conversion, he did his best to make it the obsession of others too. Only in his last hours of life did he actually manage to shake of his wealth and become a peasant, which is not what a peasant is at all.


And it was Chekhov – not Tolstoy – that Russian translator Richard Pevear compared to the somewhat forgotten mystic and master storyteller Nikolai Leskov: “[I]n fact they had much in common. They shared a broad experience of Russian life and an unidealized knowledge of the people.” Pevear also quotes Chekhov's biographer Donald Rayfield, who finds in his stories “a mystic side of Chekhov – his irrational intuition that there is meaning and beauty in the cosmos,” which “aligns him more to Leskov than Tolstoy in the Russian literary tradition.”


Leskov was a writer of very deep mystic and religious feeling, intermingling the supernatural with frank, often brutal portrayals of peasant life. And yet it is the atheistic Chekhov, and specifically not Tolstoy, who these two contemporary scholars agree inherits Leskov's 'mantle.' How can it be?


The only way questions like this are often answered is by acknowledging the way these two men thought instead of what specific things they thought. And to do this we can borrow one last directive from Orwell and look at what is in front of our noses. Very easily we can look at the facts of their lives, which are really the things which make a person who they are.


The coincidence of Tolstoy's outlandish privilege and his oversized intelligence and honesty led him to a very painful cutting-away of his own self. He saw much goodness in a man like Chekhov, but not enough. In fact no one had enough, including himself. Tolstoy had the kind of special disgust for himself that some people always have, and can be found particularly in religious autobiographical writing, from St. Augustine to a modern writer like Thomas Merton. Again, to have saintly expectations of one's self is in some sense to be religious by definition. But to inquire further into the original impulse leaves much to say, and how to say it is a question for all time.


Chekhov, for his part, could admire Tolstoy's moral force but he could never idealize the peasant, because he grew up as one, lived among them, and in fact was beaten regularly by one of them, his father. What could later be described as Chekhov's religious feeling was precisely that – a feeling. It did not enter the intellect. By the time that he had reasoned his way out of the faith of his family, the mystic part of him was already firmly established. He sought, and found, a new kind of salvation in medicine and the sciences, but the curious forms and inner movements of a religious soul – detectable through his stories if not his actions or trade, or even letters – was permanently a part of his being. This contradiction happened to be the lasting paradox of his life, but a paradox of the sort that everyone has in some unique arrangement, which exists by the mere fact of us living, and is only resolved by our dying.


And though Chekhov feared for the moral direction of Russia in the event of Tolstoy's death (and neither of them lived to see the revolution), he would not walk with him over the cliff in sandals. The kinds of things he must have seen as a doctor in the nineteenth century, the illnesses, injuries and manias, they must have kept him closer to the soil of the world as anyone could ever hope to be. And yet, he was too remarkable a man to become an outright cynic or nihilist.


Chekhov insists that there ought to be a man with a hammer tapping at the door of the contented house, but he also insists that no such man exists. Here he really isn't being honest. He's challenging us directly. He knew the hammer, conscience, really did exist, although it was often hardly audible. He loved Tolstoy because he could hear the hammer also, knocking on the door of his outrageous estate. And he especially loved him because Tolstoy declared in his big voice that he had heard it, and that others also had no right to ignore it. This grace of recognition between them arose out of a fundamental desire to agree on fundamental values. To do so with another person, even in a limited way, is a pleasure of life. It is not so much that Tolstoy and Chekhov grew apart; they were born apart, by circumstance and disposition, yet were joined briefly by their talents, their honesty, and their hostility towards ignorance and the suffering of their countrymen. This is merely an overlap of conscience, not an uncommon thing between people. But between these two men it played out on rather a large stage, in the midst of high forms of literature, politics, and religion. In order to even begin to make a decent world, one must recognize that this overlap of conscience among dissimilar people is the space in which the first good things can be built, the first real steps taken.


I see them again walking arm-in-arm, the crack in the ground still dividing them at their feet. I see now that they lock arms not so much in intimacy, but so that they don't go spinning wildly off the road, each to their separate orbits which the terrible world had set for them.


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