At the time Chekhov was writing, Russia was enduring and beginning a tumultuous period of history by any country’s standards. The October revolution would begin just under twenty years later, but before this came the abolishment of serfdom in 1861, leaving Russia with large scales of emancipated peasant communities that was still enduring in Chekhov’s time. With this in mind, let’s look at Chekhov’s ‘Peasants’.
Nikolai Chikildeyev, becoming ill whilst in Moscow, decides that he should return ‘home’ to Zhukovo, the village that he grew up in. Although when he arrives:
“in his memories of childhood he had pictured his home as bright, snug, comfortable. Now, going into the hut, he was positively frightened.”
In the last post, we talked about this issue of blindness and occlusion that can sometimes be overtly obvious (ie.a mirage like in ‘The Black Monk’) or more subtle but personally powerful, like childhood memories. This is another occasion of expectations not being met, or of a person’s representation of something not corresponding to reality, or to a reality that occurred a long time ago (‘The Kiss’ operates the other way round – the representation becomes everything).The peasant hut is dirty, and Nikolai, back from the city cannot understand how they live in such a feudal fashion. Yet, there is something about the village, something transcendent, beyond the fact that it is a very religious village, and the passage deserves quoting and delving into extensively:
“Behind the peasants’ properties began the descent to the river, steep and precipitous, so that there were huge rocks here and there in the clay. There were paths winding down the slope close to these rocks and pits dug out by the potters, and there were whole heaps of fragments of broken crockery piled up – now brown, now red – while spread out there at the bottom was a broad, even bright-green meadow, already mown, on which the peasants’ herd was now out walking. The river meandering with wonderful curly banks, was a verst from the village, and beyond it there was, again, a broad meadow, a heard, long lines of white geese – then, just as on this side, a steep uphill climb, and at the top, on the hill, a village with a five-domed church, and a little further off, a landowner’s house.”
If that does not get you awing at Chekhov then I don’t know what will. It starts with an occlusion, a blindness, as we are ‘behind’ the peasant’s property and as a result there is a suggestion that we should see behind and beyond. One must willfully do this though as the passage subtly urges, and the overall feeling is that this will be a trying effort. And then what we’re shown is more images of fragmentation and breakage, with the broken crockery, now brown, now red as if we’re following this scene. Yet at the bottom of the image presented to us, there is a bright-green meadow. The contrast between the colours is remarkable, from suggested manufacture to natural wonder. People are working here though. This isn’t a meadow that is naturally green, somebody has had to labour to make it green, and we realise that is ‘already mown’ – the freshly cut blades are glistening and the peasant’s herd are starting to make their way across it. Then as we go further out, the scene starts to come together, the perspective allows us a cohesive picture. We can see the hill and the climb and the village on top, which notably finishes with that structure that for so long facilitated communal togetherness – the village church.
This is Chekhov in Tolstoyan mood. But where Tolstoy would suggest that this sense of naturalness is the dream, Chekhov is asking, is this unobtainable like a dream? It is a matter of perspective. Were we not in the village and were stood on that hill looking down, would we see a similar, rural pleasantness where the peasants are, like Nikolai had? And let’s not forget Nikolai started off with a desire to return here, based on his own childhood perspective, and now we’re already seeing the promise of something else. No matter how obvious the vision maybe for Chekhov, it always represents something that cannot be obtained, even when it may appear obviously real to the character. We’re in the moment though and Chekhov will leave it to the reader to answer the questions that Chekhov not only asks, but the questions the reader asks of Chekhov.
The light and the church become important motifs for the story, especially as this theme of fragmentation continues.Further on in the story “when the bluish morning light was already breaking through every crack” of the peasant’s house, and when the sister-in-law’s of the two separate families go on a walk together in the morning there “stretched a strip of light, the church was radiant and the rooks were calling furiously in the landowner’s garden.” There is the light again and there is the church. What do we make of this light? Here we have two families of different class yet are related. So we’re lucky to have all this splendour surrounding us, but are these gifts of God or of nature? This is made no more obvious when Olga recites Scripture, “pronouncing words,even ones she did not understand, her face would become compassionate, emotional and light”. She is enlightened but there are parts that she does not understand, so what are the enlightening forces?
The whole passage becomes a frantic search for that cohesiveness, or more poignantly, meaning, and so anxiety becomes the compelling mechanism. Quoting at length again:
“Laid across the river were some unsteady log planks, and right underneath them, in the clear, transparent water, swam shoals of broad-headed chub. On the green bushes that looked at themselves in the water the dew was sparkling. There came a breath of warm air and a feeling of pleasure. What a splendid morning! And what a splendid life there would doubtless be in this world, were it not for the need – the terrible, incessant need from which you cannot hide anywhere! You had only to look back at the village now for everything from yesterday to come vividly to mind, and the enchantment of happiness that seemed to be all around to disappear in an instant.”
Constant movement external and internal, but this time it has gone from the picture of serenity on the outside, to the sense of breakage on the inside. The outside again is seemingly a world of togetherness (“the shoals of chub”) and positive reflection (“how the green bushes look at themselves in the sparkling water”). The splendid morning is an objective, declarative statement – no matter one’s standing, all the criteria are met for it to be a splendid morning, but this is irrelevant, in fact, makes the subjective position worse because of that need.
What is the need? We do not know where it comes from, but one can only say that this need is something that is ‘beyond us’, yet of this world. It is transcendent but humane. Kierkegaard wrote in The Sickness Unto Death (1849) that for the Christian “sin lies in the will, not in the knowing; and this corruption of the will affects the individual’s consciousness”. Chekhov’s characters are Christian characters, but the notion of being a Christian in a Christian world, or being a person living in a Christian world without a God, was now a conundrum. Schopenhauer, thirty years before Kierkegaard had published his work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), which brought a new light on this inexpressible thing that drives us but is not necessarily divine. Nietzsche would publish then Beyond Good and Evil (1886) where he moved these explanations of impulses beyond binaries of good and bad. Following this, Freud would publish his work The Intepretation of Dreams (1899) at the turn of the century. Look at the years of those publications. Chekhov’s first notable story, ‘The Huntsman’ arrived in 1885; the formalising of Chekhov’s brilliance happens in an implausibly short space of time, and arguably as rapidly as thought was changing in a period of global modernisation.
Looking at Chekhov in this context we get some answers posed by his work: here we see perhaps, why Chekhov perhaps didn’t write anything longer – it is about that moment that this will takes over, at the moment the will begins to asks questions of the world and the self. You could argue that nothing is explained in his elusiveness, but you could also say that everything is explained by it, the answers are not there to be answered. We get a brief glimpse of the human spirit, and Chekhov, although writing in extremely political times, does not suggest that this is anything to do with the rise of capitalism by the industrialisation of peasantry or anything like that; it is instead historical, something passed down the generations, explained in different terms by different generations, yet permanent and all too human. In this light he is ahead of the philosophers who were working around him.
If there is an answer we’ll examine it by sticking with that notion introduced above by Kierkegaard – the sin lies in the desire, not the knowledge of it. Although philosophers like Nietzsche were aiming to philosophise without concepts such as good and bad, there is still sin in Chekhov’s world, as there still is now. Whether or not we ascribe the term guilt to that ravishing anxiety we can sometimes feel at the expense of the will, it does suggest that guilt is unavoidable. It is interesting that Paul Virno in his recent publication – Deja Vu and the End of History (2015) – described in the blurb as a ‘radical new theory of historical temporality’ uses St. Augustine’s Confessions for some support. He cites a passage from the Confessions to make his point:
“But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.”
Confessions was a work obviously propelled by guilt, and whatever your understanding of guilt is, it arises out of the feeling of not knowing where something is located, or where something arises out of history to make itself known to be felt more urgently felt in the now, whether that be a feeling or a memory.
A lot of Chekhov’s characters we have determined, are always moving; forward, back, their physical manner usually antagonising their psychological desires. Chekhov often focuses on the males, but there is always a strong female presence. They both have their needs (they need each other), and they’re aware that they have them, but not all that clever on knowing how these desires manifest and operate. In ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, which really is as good as it gets, the lady in the title, finally comes to terms with the liaison that she is embarking on with the man:
“But here still was the same diffidence, the gaucheness of inexperienced youth and an awkward feeling; and there was an impression of bewilderment, as if someone had suddenly knocked at the door. Anna Sergeyevna, this “lady with the little dog”, regarded what had happened in a special sort of way, very seriously, as though it were her fall – so it seemed, and it was strange and inappropriate. Her features had drooped and faded, her long hair hung sadly down the sides of her face, and she had fallen into though in a doleful pose, like a sinner in an old painting.”
Perhaps it could be argued that Chekhov missed a note with his use of the adverb ‘sadly’ (translations though), but the terminus of that inner will has never looked so futilely affecting as now. You can pick out Augustine’s classifications of ‘time-presents’ from that passage, but look how the passage ends. She has gone from a feeling of movement, the resurfacing of her inexperienced youth at the start, but has been pushed too far – she feels like she has fallen. It almost feels as if Hitchcock stole that closing moment for the impetus of Vertigo, but that image is extremely powerful. We are aware of her, not just as a woman, but now as a piece of art; whilst she may feel the sin in the will, all we have left of her, in that moment, is the static rendering of her as a sinner. In this case, she has been rendered immovable.
Chekhov’s works, like his life, were short. Most of them are elegiac in tone, and the one thing that does feel tangible is a descent into delusion or death. We could argue then that it is death, or the knowledge of it that is driving the pieces, that is driving the character’s self-awareness. But death is always in combat with something else.
Carver was heavily influenced by Chekhov and even wrote a story about Chekhov in his final hours, but Carver’s most famous collection and story was What we talk about, when we talk about love. Chekhov’s characters are always finding ways to deal with their fickle emotions and fragile existence, are always finding that whatever lies beyond death, there is only one way to get there, through living and trying to love. There can’t be any love the Huntsman said but all too often there is. I think even when they’re not talking about love, they’re talking about it.