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The Wisdom of Chekhov

February 23, 2019

 

 

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860 – 1904) Russian playwright and short-story writer, is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. Chekhov, along with Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, is often referred to as one of the three key figures in the birth of early modernism in the theatre. A medical doctor throughout most of his literary career, Chekhov once remarked, 'Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.’ After the reception of The Seagull in 1896 Chekhov turned away from the theatre, but the play was revived in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre, which also produced Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov’s emphasis is on ‘mood' and a 'submerged life in the text'.

Chekhov made no apologies for the difficulties his innovations in the short story form posed for readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.

 

'These people have learned not from books, but in the fields, in the wood, on the river bank. Their teachers have been the birds themselves, when they sang to them, the sun when it left a glow of crimson behind it at setting, the very trees, and wild herbs.' 

 

'Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.' 

 

'I was oppressed with a sense of vague discontent and dissatisfaction with my own life, which was passing so quickly and uninterestingly, and I kept thinking it would be a good thing if I could tear my heart out of my breast, that heart which had grown so weary of life.' 

 

'Perhaps man has a hundred senses, and when he dies only the five senses that we know perish with him, and the other ninety-five remain alive.' 

 

'Do you see that tree? It is dead but it still sways in the wind with the others. I think it would be like that with me. That if I died I would still be part of life in one way or another.' 

 

'Any idiot can face a crisis; it's this day-to-day living that wears you out.' 

 

'...and with a burning pain in my heart I realized how unnecessary, how petty, and how deceptive all that had hindered us from loving was. I understood that when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.' 

 

 

'The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.' 

 

'What a fine weather today! Can’t choose whether to drink tea or to hang myself.' 

 

'Even in Siberia there is happiness.'

 

'The world is, of course, nothing but our conception of it.' 

 

'There are a great many opinions in this world, and a good half of them are professed by people who have never been in trouble.'

 

'When asked, 'Why do you always wear black?', he said, 'I am mourning for my life.' 

 

'The task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.' 

 

'Wisdom.... comes not from age, but from education and learning.' 

 

'You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don't want to understand you.' 

 

'The happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burden in silence. Without this silence, happiness would be impossible.' 

 

'And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.' 

 

'Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in love represent a normal state. Being in love shows a person who he should be.' 

 

'Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other.’ 

 

'Why are we worn out? Why do we, who start out so passionate, brave, noble, believing, become totally bankrupt by the age of thirty or thirty-five? Why is it that one is extinguished by consumption, another puts a bullet in his head, a third seeks oblivion in vodka, cards, a fourth, in order to stifle fear and anguish, cynically tramples underfoot the portrait of his pure, beautiful youth? Why is it that, once fallen, we do not try to rise, and, having lost one thing, we do not seek another? Why?' 

 

'Civilized people must, I believe, satisfy the following criteria:

 

1) They respect human beings as individuals and are therefore always tolerant, gentle, courteous and amenable ... They do not create scenes over a hammer or a mislaid eraser; they do not make you feel they are conferring a great benefit on you when they live with you, and they don't make a scandal when they leave. (...)

 

2) They have compassion for other people besides beggars and cats. Their hearts suffer the pain of what is hidden to the naked eye. (...)

 

3) They respect other people's property, and therefore pay their debts.

 

4) They are not devious, and they fear lies as they fear fire. They don't tell lies even in the most trivial matters. To lie to someone is to insult them, and the liar is diminished in the eyes of the person he lies to. Civilized people don't put on airs; they behave in the street as they would at home, they don't show off to impress their juniors. (...)

 

5) They don't run themselves down in order to provoke the sympathy of others. They don't play on other people's heartstrings to be sighed over and cosseted ... that sort of thing is just cheap striving for effects, it's vulgar, old hat and false. (...)

 

6) They are not vain. They don't waste time with the fake jewellery of hobnobbing with celebrities, being permitted to shake the hand of a drunken [judicial orator], the exaggerated bonhomie of the first person they meet at the Salon, being the life and soul of the bar ... They regard prases like 'I am a representative of the Press!!' -- the sort of thing one only hears from [very minor journalists] -- as absurd. If they have done a brass farthing's work they don't pass it off as if it were 100 roubles' by swanking about with their portfolios, and they don't boast of being able to gain admission to places other people aren't allowed in (...) True talent always sits in the shade, mingles with the crowd, avoids the limelight ... As Krylov said, the empty barrel makes more noise than the full one. (...)

 

7) If they do possess talent, they value it ... They take pride in it ... they know they have a responsibility to exert a civilizing influence on [others] rather than aimlessly hanging out with them. And they are fastidious in their habits. (...)

 

8) They work at developing their aesthetic sensibility ... Civilized people don't simply obey their baser instincts ... they require mens sana in corpore sano.

 

And so on. That's what civilized people are like ... Reading  Pickwick

and learning a speech from Faust by heart is not enough if your aim is to become a truly civilized person and not to sink below the level of your surroundings.

 

[From a letter to Nikolay Chekhov, March 1886]' 

 

'There is nothing more awful, insulting, and depressing than banality.' 

 

'If you are afraid of loneliness, don't marry.' 

 

'To fear love is to fear life, and those whose fear life are already three parts dead...' 

 

'Man is what he believes.' 

 

'If ever my life can be of any use to you, come and claim it.' 

 

'We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.' 

 

'A woman can become a man's friend only in the following stages - first an acquaintance, next a mistress, and only then a friend.' 

 

'There should be more sincerity and heart in human relations, more silence and simplicity in our interactions. Be rude when you’re angry, laugh when something is funny, and answer when you’re asked.' 

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