Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To Madame M. V. Kiselyov.

MOSCOW, January 14, 1887.

. . . Even your praise of “On the Road” has not softened my anger as an author, and I hasten to avenge myself for “Mire.” Be on your guard, and catch hold of the back of a chair that you may not faint. Well, I begin.

One meets every critical article with a silent bow even if it is abusive and unjust — such is the literary etiquette. It is not the thing to answer, and all who do answer are justly blamed for excessive vanity. But since your criticism has the nature of “an evening conversation on the steps of the Babkino lodge” . . . and as, without touching on the literary aspects of the story, it raises general questions of principle, I shall not be sinning against the etiquette if I allow myself to continue our conversation.

In the first place, I, like you, do not like literature of the kind we are discussing. As a reader and “a private resident” I am glad to avoid it, but if you ask my honest and sincere opinion about it, I shall say that it is still an open question whether it has a right to exist, and no one has yet settled it. . . . Neither you nor I, nor all the critics in the world, have any trustworthy data that would give them the right to reject such literature. I do not know which are right: Homer, Shakespeare, Lopez da Vega, and, speaking generally, the ancients who were not afraid to rummage in the “muck heap,” but were morally far more stable than we are, or the modern writers, priggish on paper but coldly cynical in their souls and in life. I do not know which has bad taste — the Greeks who were not ashamed to describe love as it really is in beautiful nature, or the readers of Gaboriau, Marlitz, Pierre Bobo. [Footnote: P. D. Boborykin.] Like the problems of non-resistance to evil, of free will, etc., this question can only be settled in the future. We can only refer to it, but are not competent to decide it. Reference to Turgenev and Tolstoy — who avoided the “muck heap”— does not throw light on the question. Their fastidiousness does not prove anything; why, before them there was a generation of writers who regarded as dirty not only accounts of “the dregs and scum,” but even descriptions of peasants and of officials below the rank of titular councillor. Besides, one period, however brilliant, does not entitle us to draw conclusions in favour of this or that literary tendency. Reference to the demoralizing effects of the literary tendency we are discussing does not decide the question either. Everything in this world is relative and approximate. There are people who can be demoralized even by children’s books, and who read with particular pleasure the piquant passages in the Psalms and in Solomon’s Proverbs, while there are others who become only the purer from closer knowledge of the filthy side of life. Political and social writers, lawyers, and doctors who are initiated into all the mysteries of human sinfulness are not reputed to be immoral; realistic writers are often more moral than archimandrites. And, finally, no literature can outdo real life in its cynicism, a wineglassful won’t make a man drunk when he has already emptied a barrel.

2. That the world swarms with “dregs and scum” is perfectly true. Human nature is imperfect, and it would therefore be strange to see none but righteous ones on earth. But to think that the duty of literature is to unearth the pearl from the refuse heap means to reject literature itself. “Artistic” literature is only “art” in so far as it paints life as it really is. Its vocation is to be absolutely true and honest. To narrow down its function to the particular task of finding “pearls” is as deadly for it as it would be to make Levitan draw a tree without including the dirty bark and the yellow leaves. I agree that “pearls” are a good thing, but then a writer is not a confectioner, not a provider of cosmetics, not an entertainer; he is a man bound, under contract, by his sense of duty and his conscience; having put his hand to the plough he mustn’t turn back, and, however distasteful, he must conquer his squeamishness and soil his imagination with the dirt of life. He is just like any ordinary reporter. What would you say if a newspaper correspondent out of a feeling of fastidiousness or from a wish to please his readers would describe only honest mayors, high-minded ladies, and virtuous railway contractors?

To a chemist nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist, he must lay aside his personal subjective standpoint and must understand that muck heaps play a very respectable part in a landscape, and that the evil passions are as inherent in life as the good ones.

3. Writers are the children of their age, and therefore, like everybody else, must submit to the external conditions of the life of the community. Thus, they must be perfectly decent. This is the only thing we have a right to ask of realistic writers. But you say nothing against the form and executions of “Mire.” . . . And so I suppose I have been decent.

4. I confess I seldom commune with my conscience when I write. This is due to habit and the brevity of my work. And so when I express this or that opinion about literature, I do not take myself into account.

5. You write: “If I were the editor I would have returned this feuilleton to you for your own good.” Why not go further? Why not muzzle the editors themselves who publish such stories? Why not send a reprimand to the Headquarters of the Press Department for not suppressing immoral newspapers?

The fate of literature would be sad indeed if it were at the mercy of individual views. That is the first thing. Secondly, there is no police which could consider itself competent in literary matters. I agree that one can’t dispense with the reins and the whip altogether, for knaves find their way even into literature, but no thinking will discover a better police for literature than the critics and the author’s own conscience. People have been trying to discover such a police since the creation of the world, but they have found nothing better.

Here you would like me to lose one hundred and fifteen roubles and be put to shame by the editor; others, your father among them, are delighted with the story. Some send insulting letters to Suvorin, pouring abuse on the paper and on me, etc. Who, then, is right? Who is the true judge?

6. Further you write, “Leave such writing to spiritless and unlucky scribblers such as Okrects, Pince-Nez, [Footnote: The pseudonym of Madame Kisselyov.] or Aloe.” [Footnote: The pseudonym of Chekhov’s brother Alexandr.]

Allah forgive you if you were sincere when you wrote those words! A condescending and contemptuous tone towards humble people simply because they are humble does no credit to the heart. In literature the lower ranks are as necessary as in the army — this is what the head says, and the heart ought to say still more.

Ough! I have wearied you with my drawn-out reflections. Had I known my criticism would turn out so long I would not have written it. Please forgive me! . . .

You have read my “On the Road.” Well, how do you like my courage? I write of “intellectual” subjects and am not afraid. In Petersburg I excite a regular furore. A short time ago I discoursed upon non-resistance to evil, and also surprised the public. On New Year’s Day all the papers presented me with a compliment, and in the December number of the Russkoye Bogatstvo, in which Tolstoy writes, there is an article thirty-two pages long by Obolensky entitled “Chekhov and Korolenko.” The fellow goes into raptures over me and proves that I am more of an artist than Korolenko. He is probably talking rot, but, anyway, I am beginning to be conscious of one merit of mine: I am the only writer who, without ever publishing anything in the thick monthlies, has merely on the strength of writing newspaper rubbish won the attention of the lop-eared critics — there has been no instance of this before. . . . At the end of 1886 I felt as though I were a bone thrown to the dogs.

. . . I have written a play [Footnote: “Calchas,” later called “Swansong.”] on four sheets of paper. It will take fifteen to twenty minutes to act. . . . It is much better to write small things than big ones: they are unpretentious and successful. . . . What more would you have? I wrote my play in an hour and five minutes. I began another, but have not finished it, for I have no time.

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