A Free Artist

As a doctor, Chekhov sometimes had the power not only to diagnose illness but also to cure it. As a creative writer and co-inventor of the 20th century he had to content himself with the diagnosis alone, perhaps not even that. In a letter to Aleksey Suvorin, Chekhov responds to his criticism of a recently published story:

What you say about “The Lights” is quite just. You say that neither the conversation about pessimism nor Kisotcha’s story in any way help to solve the question of pessimism. It seems to me it is not for writers of fiction to solve such questions as that of God, of pessimism, etc.

The writer’s business is simply to describe who has been speaking about God or about pessimism, how, and in what circumstances. The artist must be not the judge of his characters and of their conversations, but merely an impartial witness. I have heard a desultory conversation of two Russians about pessimism – a conversation which settles nothing — and I must report that conversation as I heard it; it is for the jury, that is, for the readers, to decide on the value of it.

My business is merely to be talented – i.e., to know how to distinguish important statements from unimportant, how to throw light on the characters, and to speak their language.

Along these same lines, Chekhov celebrated the efforts by which former slaves – such as his father and grandfather – transformed themselves into “real” human beings but he didn’t write about it in the way he suggested one might to Suvorin. That passage has far more grandeur than Chekhov allows any of his characters to successfully claim for themselves.

In another much quoted letter, this time to the poet Aleksey Plescheyev, Chekhov articulates his own life philosophy and, of course, it takes the form of a problem:

I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines and insist on seeing me as necessarily a liberal or a conservative. 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 may take. . . Pharisaism, stupidity and tyranny reign not only in shopkeepers’ homes and in lock-ups alone: I see them in science, in literature, in the younger generation. . . . I regard trade-marks and labels as prejudicial. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom – freedom from force and falsehood. . .

It is the artist’s role to create powerful metaphors, and Chekhov’s work reminds us that the artist’s project is also a metaphor for the human project: Our most profound problems are those we recognize to some degree and feel we must solve but cannot solve, and it is these enduring problems – and not our triumphs, our little endings – that energize the next day and the next.

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