The End of the Beginning

Continued from Wednesday’s entry

When John Baines, the voiceless, invalid patriarch of The Old Wives’ Tale, expires in a moment of familial neglect, the omniscient narrator intones:

Mid-Victorian England lay on that mahogany bed. Ideals had passed away with John Baines.

William Boyd makes room for a related observation when the every-man protagonist of Any Human Heart, Logan Montstuart, confides in a 1936 journal entry:

The King died last night and Kipling died last week. It seems old England’s gone all of a sudden and I feel vaguely fearful, for some strange reason. I suppose you grow accustomed to these old men being around, always aware of their presence in the background of your life. Then they’re gone and there’s a bit less noise in the room, you look around to see who’s missing.

In other words, two men have died, and with them ideals have passed away. Even before posterity claimed these two, they’d already been transformed into something like ideals: a monarch and an icon. They were ready-made for the pantheon of what we might call a “mythic” history in contrast to a “human” history.

In a mythic history, one or more patterns (read: meanings) advance into the foreground and all inconvenient details recede. In a human history, it is clear that if there is any true meaning, it is in those details. A mythic history permits us the illusion of understanding, which we crave. From a human history, we reap the consolation of recognition – a different kind of understanding, one we come to with ourselves.

In conceiving the 20th Century Project, I set out to interpret the patina of myth and to try and glimpse the humanity beneath. It’s not necessarily a question of depth, I realized over the course of a year, but of vantage point. I read two biographies of Anton Chekhov, for instance, and from them, I learned much about the mythic Chekhov.

I only felt I’d encountered Chekhov the man when I stumbled upon editor Jean Benedetti’s The Moscow Art Theatre Letters. In introducing those letters that deal with the Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, Benedetti writes:

Success had not diminished Chekhov’s fear of ridicule. On the contrary, if anything it was worse. His moods were increasingly volatile – an effect of his tubercular condition. He could be savage. As Gorki wrote in his short Memoir, on a bad day Chekhov hated everyone.

He also resented being labelled as a pessimist. He kept announcing his intention to write something light and amusing and seemed to imagine that he had done so. He insisted that “Three Sisters” and, later, “The Cherry Orchard” were comedies or even farces. No one else in the company – including his wife – nor his sister agreed with him. Gorki, perhaps, came nearest to the truth when he said that Chekhov diagnosed his characters like a doctor. They were what they were. One was supposed to learn from them not weep for them.

It’s appealing, somehow, to see Chekhov as betrayed by his own legacy, in part because this legend possesses an invocation: What translator/director/actor will step forward and make right this historic wrong (i.e. producing Chekhov’s latter-day plays as their author intended them)? The present – a sort of advance scout in this telling – likes to feel needed by the past in specific ways. The past, however, blissfully ignorant of its own future, is likewise preoccupied with looking still further back.

Years ago, I set down in my reading journal a few lines from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, words that resonate here:

The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellant, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past. We fight for access to the labs where we can retouch photos and rewrite biographies and history.

Biographies themselves either invent history or rewrite it, because history must be invented – myths, in the more classic sense, are powerful and valuable efforts to make meaning where it otherwise eludes us. But we also need stories that acknowledge their own shortcomings, their omissions and distortions. The greater truth must occasionally make room for the lesser truth.

I enjoyed reading about Troyat’s and Pritchett’s Chekhov, for his work and life have become powerful symbols that are meaningful in themselves. In Benedetti’s Chekhov, however, I recognized someone familiar, a person, someone I might once have brushed by in the street or connected with in some small way, someone with whom I could share a flicker of understanding about life and fate and futility and hope.

In the same way, the history that most engages me is not quite history. It is, at once, my awareness of boundaries in time and the erosion of those boundaries. It is an imagined conversation with people who are remote from me – in time, geography and circumstance – and yet remain like me.

History, then, is an optical illusion: We can see the young lady or the old woman, but we cannot see both at once. We can see the stark difference of the past and then our eyes adjust and we see that there is nothing new under the sun and then our eyes adjust…and so on. Our brains don’t seem to have been built to reconcile the two, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop trying. And perhaps there is something in that.

With this post, I conclude my initial exploration of 1900-1909. Over the next few months, I’ll be working on a dedicated site for the 20th Century Project. Expect new entries in January 2013. Thanks for reading!