Photo: Anton Chekhov, 1904. Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Anton Chekhov, 1904. Wikimedia Commons

A sense of personal freedom is quite indispensable. And this sense didn’t begin growing inside me until very recently. I had never had it before, replacing it quite successfully with frivolity, carelessness and a lack of respect for my work.

What aristocratic writers take from nature gratis, the less privileged must pay for with their youth. Try and write a story about a young man—the son of a serf, a former grocer, choirboy, schoolboy, and univeristy student, raised on respect for rank, kissing the priests’ hands, worshiping the ideas of others, giving thanks for every piece of bread, whipped time and again, making the rounds as a tutor without galoshes, brawling, torturing animals, enjoying dinners at the houses of rich relatives, needlessly hypocritical before God and man merely to acknowledge his own insignificance—write about how this young man squeezes the serf out of himself drop by drop and how, on waking up one bright morning he finds that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer the blood of a slave, but that of a real human being.

—Anton Chekhov, from a letter to Aleksei Sergeyevich Suvorin dated 7th January 1889

Chekhov was born into the working class and rose to fame. He wasn’t a tame artist; his was a blunt-force gift in every respect, and he only became less tame, less conventional, as his fame grew. He cared only for the truth; he had a brutal, ruthless streak, despite his essential kindness; he could easily have written at Gawker in its heyday.

Here he is, writing to his sister in 1887, on a trip to his birthplace, Taganrog.

The monks, very pleasant people, gave me a very unpleasant room with a mattress like a pancake… On account of St. Nicholas’s Feast, 15,000 pilgrims flocked to the place, 8/9 of them old women. I didn’t know that there were so many old women in the world, or I should have shot myself a long time ago […]

I’ve bought an icon for Aunt F. Y.

Was he trying to write Serf Elegy? Hell no. The serf he wished to wring out of himself wasn’t materially poor, but rather the serf enslaved in his mind. You can be rich or powerful and still a serf, enslaved by the need for approval, wealth, conventionality, status, dominion.

Chekhov clarified his notion of freedom to Alexey N. Pleshcheyev, a poet and editor whom he described as his “literary godfather.”

I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a gradualist, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one. I hate lying and violence, whatever form they take… Pharasaism, stupidity, and tyranny reign not in shopkeepers’ homes and lockups alone; I see them in science, in literature, in the younger generation… That is why I have no partiality either for gendarmes, or butchers, or scholars, or writers, or young people… My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom—freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.

I asked George Saunders to comment on this passage: “Is this true to your own feeling about what Chekhov tried to achieve. And to what extent does this way of thinking inform your own project, I wonder. Your teaching.” He responded,

YES.  Now more than ever.  I understand this idea to mean: We are our best (most complex, generous, ambiguity- and contradiction-friendly) when we are writing or reading – in that very particular mode.  I also understand it to mean that a human being’s highest state is one of non-judgement.  It doesn’t have to (maybe can’t) last forever but we learn so much in that mode, when we are just openly accepting data, even if that data contradicts our existing view.

What people talk about when they say “civilization” or describe things that are “civilized” is often a question of trivialities, trinkets, of penthouses, vin jaune and linen sheets. On another, truer level, “civilization” is a way of situating the events of our own time in the larger framework of history. A civilized people is a humble one, and a skeptical one, recognizing its own weaknesses in those who came before.

In our own time it is dangerously easy for the “civilized”—those who read books, those who are nominally opposed to the imbecile in the White House—to comfort themselves with an imagined intellectual superiority. But we are all complicit, we are all “involved in mankind,” and so that imaginary superiority of subscribers to NPR and the New York Times is nothing but a sham. Now more than ever, it is essential to recognize and repudiate our complicity in a corrupt society. Chekhov is not “civilized” in the way that suggests a box at the symphony. Instead he’s telegraphing us an urgent message: throw off your chains. They’re on the inside.

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