Anton Chekhov: A Man for Our Times





Mr. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. For a list of his recent books and online publications, see http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm.

This year, one hundred fifty years after his birth, Anton Chekhov is as relevant as ever.  In January a web site noted that “more than a century after his death [in 1904], Chekhov is one of the most widely translated and imitated writers in the world.  His works are performed as far afield as Tokyo, Santiago, and New Delhi.  Already available in many dozens of languages, Chekhov this year will be translated for the first time into a number of African tongues, including Swahili.” And thanks to the Internet, the great majority of Chekhov’s plays and stories are now globally and instantaneously available in one language or another.  In addition to his original works, there are various stage and screen adaptations of his works like an Israeli film director’s recent Anton Chekhov’s The Duel.  Then there is Ben Greenman’s different type of updating of some of Chekhov’s stories in his just published Celebrity Chekhov, where the author “removed Chekhov’s characters and repopulated the stories with celebrities like Britney Spears, Alec Baldwin, Lindsay Lohan, Artie Lange, Kim Kardashian, and Oprah Winfrey.”  Ironically, Chekhov himself had satirized “celebrityites” in his story “Grasshopper” (1892), where a certain Olga Ivanovna “adored celebrated people, was proud of them, dreamed of them every night.”

All this interest in Chekhov is nothing new.  One could argue that no other writer had more influence than he on modern drama and short fiction, and some would go much further.  The Russian novelist Vasily Grossman (1905-1964), in his Life and Fate, had 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.”  Woody Allen once said “I'm crazy about Chekhov.  I never knew anybody that wasn't.”  In his introduction to a 1998 edition of Chekhov stories, American writer Richard Ford wrote, “The reason we like Chekhov so much, now at our century's end, is because his stories from the last century's end feel so modern to us, are so much of our own time and mind.”  The controversial and provocative Cornel West, once called the “pre-eminent African American intellectual of his generation,” wrote:

I find the incomparable works of Anton Chekhov — the best singular body by a modern artist — to be the wisest and deepest interpretations of what human beings confront in their daily struggles. … I find inspiration in his refusal to escape from the pain and misery of life by indulging in dogmas, doctrines or dreams as well as abstract systems, philosophic theodicies or political utopias.

In short, Chekhov provides exemplary tragicomic dramas, subject to multiple interpretations, for serious thinking and wise living. … Yet his acute sense of the incongruity in our lives is grounded in a magnificent compassion for each of us.  Chekhov understands what drives the cynic without himself succumbing to cynicism. … Chekhov leads us through our contemporary inferno with love and sorrow, but no cheap pity or promise of ultimate happiness. (The Cornell West Reader, xv-xvi)

When Ford says that Chekhov’s works feel “so modern to us,” it is because his stories and plays deal so frequently with everyday issues that are timeless like loneliness, love, family, sex, aging, and death.  In his late story “About Love” (1898), written three years before his marriage to an actress, Chekhov wrote, “So far only one incontestable truth has been uttered about love:  ‘This is a great mystery.’”  In that story and others, like “Terror” (1892) and his justly famous “The Lady with the Dog” (1899), he has male characters desiring, and sometimes having affairs, with other men’s wives.  In his “A Dreary Story” (1889), he has an old professor confront aging and death.  In his plays and hundreds of other stories, there are countless other situations that have not lost their timelessness.

But it is not just his stories and plays that are relevant for us today, but the man and his character and values, chiefly his humility, tolerance, pragmatism, compassion, and empathy.

His tolerance stemmed from his humility.  He realized that life was a mystery, and neither he nor anyone else had all the answers.  Thus, his opposition to dogmatism.  Although he later became friends with Leo Tolstoy, in 1891 he already criticized his increasing dogmatism as “despotic.”  A doctor by training, Chekhov attempted to approach reality with scientific pragmatism, as well as imaginative insight.  His thoughts on humbly seeking the truth are indicated at the end of “The Duel” (1891).  Both the main characters state that “nobody knows the real truth."  And one of them thinks the following:  “So it is in life....In the search for truth man 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."

In an age and country of dogmatic utterances about political truths comparable to our own, Chekhov’s realization of truth’s complexity made him more tolerant, open-minded, and pragmatic than his fellow Russian intellectuals.  He believed that ideology skewed the understanding and depiction of reality.  He regarded “trade-marks and labels as a superstition,” and disliked being labeled, as he said, by those “determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative.”

Chekhov’s recognition of the complexity of truth also made him wary of any religious certainties.  In 1897, he wrote in his Notebook, “Between ‘there is a God’ and ‘there is no God’ lies a whole vast tract, which the really wise man crosses with great effort.  A Russian knows one or other of these two extremes, and the middle tract between them does not interest him; and therefore he usually knows nothing, or very little.”

Seeing life unskewed by ideological blinders, he realized it was a tragicomedy.  And whether depicting the tragic or comic he hoped, as he once said, that when people realized how badly they lived, they would “create another and better life for themselves.”

Thus, his implied criticism stemmed from his compassion.  He displayed it in his personal life, in his work as a doctor, and in his plays and hundreds of stories.  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.”

Chekhov’s tolerance and compassion were linked with his empathy, a characteristic President Obama said in his The Audacity of Hope was at “the heart” of his “moral code,” and one that helps us see and feel things from another’s perspective.  In Chekhov’s works, we see it towards men, women, and children in his Sakhalin Island (1895), based on his arduous 1890 trip to inspect the Sakhalin penal system, and we see it in such stories as “The Peasants” (1897).  A reviewer of Richard Ford’s collection of Chekhov stories wrote that what linked so many of them together was Chekhov’s empathy, and several Chekhov scholars have noted his empathy with many of his female characters.

Sakhalin Island reflected not only his empathy, but also his concern with people treated unjustly.  And he admired those who stood up for justice, like the French novelist Emile Zola did in the famous Dreyfus Affair, when in 1898 Zola accused the French  military of unjustly convicting the Jewish Captain Dreyfus of treason.  From France, Chekhov wrote, “Zola has gained immensely in public esteem; his letters of protest are like a breath of fresh air, and every Frenchman has felt that, thank God! there is still justice in the world, and that if an innocent man is condemned there is still someone to champion him.”  In 1903, after the infamous Kishinev pogrom, Chekhov again displayed his concern for justice, and disapproval of anti-Semitism, when he gave Sholom Aleichem (author of tales on which the musical Fiddler on the Roof was later based) permission to translate some of his stories into Yiddish for the benefit of Jews victimized in Kishinev.  Another insistence of his concern with justice occurred in 1902, when Tsar Nicholas II annulled Maxim Gorky’s selection to the Russian Academy of Sciences.  Although Chekhov did not share Gorky’s Marxist political leanings, he resigned his own membership in protest to the treatment of his fellow writer and friend.

Chekhov’s care for others also extended to future generations and helped influence his environmental views.  He was especially concerned about all the deforestation he saw occurring around him.  The speech of his Dr. Astrov in Uncle Vanya (1899) expresses his own views.

Why destroy the forests?  The woods of Russia are trembling under the blows of the axe.  Millions of trees have perished.  The homes of the wild animals and birds have been desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful landscapes are gone forever….Man is endowed with reason and the power to create, so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until now he has not created, but demolished.  The forests are disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the wild life is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes poorer and uglier every day.

Chekhov was also concerned about pollution and in his “In the Ravine” (1890), he depicted the evil consequences of factory pollution for a neighboring village.

Despite the tuberculosis that eventually killed him at age forty-four, Chekhov seldom complained about his fate and continued while ailing to work and care for others.  Kuprin, who knew him in his final Yalta years wrote that he “never tired of hoping for a bright future, never ceased to believe in the invisible but persistent and fruitful work of the best forces of our country,” and that “the motif of the joyous future which is awaiting mankind … was audible in all the work of his last years.”

Having just finished congressional campaigns, we here in the United States have experienced more than our share of hype, self-promotion, partisan know-it-alls, denial of scientific truths regarding evolution and global warming, and dogmatic pronouncements.  At such a time, how refreshing and instructive it is to listen to the wise, tolerant, pragmatic and empathetic voice of the modest Chekhov, who loved beauty, truth, and goodness, and hated self-promotion and dogmatism.<

Just as Cornel West said a decade ago that he found inspiration in Chekhov’s “refusal to escape from the pain and misery of life by indulging in dogmas, doctrines … or political utopias,” so too can we find encouragement from Chekhov today.  And we can follow his example of facing our complex problems with compassion, empathy, tolerance, and a passion for justice.  So although Chekhov may not be a man of our times, he is certainly a man for our times.


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John Willingham - 12/4/2010

Professor Moss, thank you for a wonderful essay. Chekhov's life and work are examples for us today, as you wrote. To me it seems that Isaiah Berlin also exemplified some of the same qualities. I am saving your essay.