Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To A. S. Suvorin.

SUMY, August 29, 1888.

. . . When as a boy I used to stay at my grandfather’s on Count Platov’s estate, I had to sit from sunrise to sunset by the thrashing machine and write down the number of poods and pounds of corn that had been thrashed; the whistling, the hissing, and the bass note, like the sound of a whirling top, that the machine makes at full speed, the creaking of the wheels, the lazy tread of the oxen, the clouds of dust, the grimy, perspiring faces of some three score of men — all this has stamped itself upon my memory like the Lord’s Prayer. And now, too, I have been spending hours at the thrashing and felt intensely happy. When the thrashing engine is at work it looks as though alive; it has a cunning, playful expression, while the men and oxen look like machines. In the district of Mirgorod few have thrashing machines of their own, but everyone can hire one. The engine goes about the whole province drawn by six oxen and offers itself to all who can pay for it.

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MOSCOW, September 11.

. . . You advise me not to hunt after two hares, and not to think of medical work. I do not know why one should not hunt two hares even in the literal sense. . . . I feel more confident and more satisfied with myself when I reflect that I have two professions and not one. Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other. Though it’s disorderly, it’s not so dull, and besides neither of them loses anything from my infidelity. If I did not have my medical work I doubt if I could have given my leisure and my spare thoughts to literature. There is no discipline in me.

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MOSCOW, October 27, 1888.

. . . In conversation with my literary colleagues I always insist that it is not the artist’s business to solve problems that require a specialist’s knowledge. It is a bad thing if a writer tackles a subject he does not understand. We have specialists for dealing with special questions: it is their business to judge of the commune, of the future of capitalism, of the evils of drunkenness, of boots, of the diseases of women. An artist must only judge of what he understands, his field is just as limited as that of any other specialist — I repeat this and insist on it always. That in his sphere there are no questions, but only answers, can only be maintained by those who have never written and have had no experience of thinking in images. An artist observes, selects, guesses, combines — and this in itself presupposes a problem: unless he had set himself a problem from the very first there would be nothing to conjecture and nothing to select. To put it briefly, I will end by using the language of psychiatry: if one denies that creative work involves problems and purposes, one must admit that an artist creates without premeditation or intention, in a state of aberration; therefore, if an author boasted to me of having written a novel without a preconceived design, under a sudden inspiration, I should call him mad.

You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist. In “Anna Karenin” and “Evgeny Onyegin” not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy you completely because all the problems are correctly stated in them. It is the business of the judge to put the right questions, but the answers must be given by the jury according to their own lights.

* * * * *

. . . You say that the hero of my “Party” is a character worth developing. Good Lord! I am not a senseless brute, you know, I understand that. I understand that I cut the throats of my characters and spoil them, and that I waste good material. . . . To tell you the truth, I would gladly have spent six months over the “Party”; I like taking things easy, and see no attraction in publishing at headlong speed. I would willingly, with pleasure, with feeling, in a leisurely way, describe the whole of my hero, describe the state of his mind while his wife was in labour, his trial, the horrid feeling he has after he is acquitted; I would describe the midwife and the doctors having tea in the middle of the night, I would describe the rain. . . . It would give me nothing but pleasure because I like to rummage about and dawdle. But what am I to do? I begin a story on September 10th with the thought that I must finish it by October 5th at the latest; if I don’t I shall fail the editor and be left without money. I let myself go at the beginning and write with an easy mind; but by the time I get to the middle I begin to grow timid and to fear that my story will be too long: I have to remember that the Syeverny Vyestnik has not much money, and that I am one of their expensive contributors. This is why the beginning of my stories is always very promising and looks as though I were starting on a novel, the middle is huddled and timid, and the end is, as in a short sketch, like fireworks. And so in planning a story one is bound to think first about its framework: from a crowd of leading or subordinate characters one selects one person only — wife or husband; one puts him on the canvas and paints him alone, making him prominent, while the others one scatters over the canvas like small coin, and the result is something like the vault of heaven: one big moon and a number of very small stars around it. But the moon is not a success because it can only be understood if the stars too are intelligible, and the stars are not worked out. And so what I produce is not literature, but something like the patching of Trishka’s coat. What am I to do? I don’t know, I don’t know. I must trust to time which heals all things.

To tell the truth again, I have not yet begun my literary work, though I have received a literary prize. Subjects for five stories and two novels are languishing in my head. One of the novels was thought of long ago, and some of the characters have grown old without managing to be written. In my head there is a whole army of people asking to be let out and waiting for the word of command. All that I have written so far is rubbish in comparison with what I should like to write and should write with rapture. It is all the same to me whether I write “The Party” or “The Lights,” or a vaudeville or a letter to a friend — it is all dull, spiritless, mechanical, and I get annoyed with critics who attach any importance to “The Lights,” for instance. I fancy that I deceive him with my work just as I deceive many people with my face, which looks serious or over-cheerful. I don’t like being successful; the subjects which sit in my head are annoyed and jealous of what has already been written. I am vexed that the rubbish has been done and the good things lie about in the lumber-room like old books. Of course, in thus lamenting I rather exaggerate, and much of what I say is only my fancy, but there is a part of the truth in it, a good big part of it. What do I call good? The images which seem best to me, which I love and jealously guard lest I spend and spoil them for the sake of some “Party” written against time. . . . If my love is mistaken, I am wrong, but then it may not be mistaken! I am either a fool and a conceited fellow or I really am an organism capable of being a good writer. All that I now write displeases and bores me, but what sits in my head interests, excites and moves me — from which I conclude that everybody does the wrong thing and I alone know the secret of doing the right one. Most likely all writers think that. But the devil himself would break his neck in these problems.

Money will not help me to decide what I am to do and how I am to act. An extra thousand roubles will not settle matters, and a hundred thousand is a castle in the air. Besides, when I have money — it may be from lack of habit, I don’t know — I become extremely careless and idle; the sea seems only knee-deep to me then. . . . I need time and solitude.

November, 1888.

In the November number of the Syeverny Vyestnik there is an article by the poet Merezhkovsky about your humble servant. It is a long article. I commend to your attention the end of it; it is characteristic. Merezhkovsky is still very young, a student — of science I believe. Those who have assimilated the wisdom of the scientific method and learned to think scientifically experience many alluring temptations. Archimedes wanted to turn the earth round, and the present day hot-heads want by science to conceive the inconceivable, to discover the physical laws of creative art, to detect the laws and the formulae which are instinctively felt by the artist and are followed by him in creating music, novels, pictures, etc. Such formulae probably exist in nature. We know that A, B, C, do, re, mi, fa, sol, are found in nature, and so are curves, straight lines, circles, squares, green, blue, and red. . . . We know that in certain combinations all this produces a melody, or a poem or a picture, just as simple chemical substances in certain combinations produce a tree, or a stone, or the sea; but all we know is that the combination exists, while the law of it is hidden from us. Those who are masters of the scientific method feel in their souls that a piece of music and a tree have something in common, that both are built up in accordance with equally uniform and simple laws. Hence the question: What are these laws? And hence the temptation to work out a physiology of creative art (like Boborykin), or in the case of younger and more diffident writers, to base their arguments on nature and on the laws of nature (Merezhkovsky). There probably is such a thing as the physiology of creative art, but we must nip in the bud our dreams of discovering it. If the critics take up a scientific attitude no good will come of it: they will waste a dozen years, write a lot of rubbish, make the subject more obscure than ever — and nothing more. It is always a good thing to think scientifically, but the trouble is that scientific thinking about creative art will be bound to degenerate in the end into searching for the “cells” or the “centres” which control the creative faculty. Some stolid German will discover these cells somewhere in the occipital lobes, another German will agree with him, a third will disagree, and a Russian will glance through the article about the cells and reel off an essay about it to the Syeverny Vyestnik. The Vyestnik Evropi will criticize the essay, and for three years there will be in Russia an epidemic of nonsense which will give money and popularity to blockheads and do nothing but irritate intelligent people.

For those who are obsessed with the scientific method and to whom God has given the rare talent of thinking scientifically, there is to my mind only one way out — the philosophy of creative art. One might collect together all the best works of art that have been produced throughout the ages and, with the help of the scientific method, discover the common element in them which makes them like one another and conditions their value. That common element will be the law. There is a great deal that works which are called immortal have in common; if this common element were excluded from each of them, a work would lose its charm and its value. So that this universal something is necessary, and is the conditio sine qua non of every work that claims to be immortal. It is of more use to young people to write critical articles than poetry. Merezhkovsky writes smoothly and youthfully, but at every page he loses heart, makes reservations and concessions, and this means that he is not clear upon the subject. He calls me a poet, he styles my stories “novelli” and my heroes “failures”— that is, he follows the beaten track. It is time to give up these “failures,” superfluous people, etc., and to think of something original. Merezhkovsky calls my monk [Translator’s Note: “Easter Eve.”] who composes the songs of praise a failure. But how is he a failure? God grant us all a life like his: he believed in God, and he had enough to eat and he had the gift of composing poetry. . . . To divide men into the successful and the unsuccessful is to look at human nature from a narrow, preconceived point of view. Are you a success or not? Am I? Was Napoleon? Is your servant Vassily? What is the criterion? One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.

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MOSCOW, November 7, 1888.

. . . It is not the public that is to blame for our theatres being so wretched. The public is always and everywhere the same: intelligent and stupid, sympathetic and pitiless according to mood. It has always been a flock which needs good shepherds and dogs, and it has always gone in the direction in which the shepherds and the dogs drove it. You are indignant that it laughs at flat witticisms and applauds sounding phrases; but then the very same stupid public fills the house to hear “Othello,” and, listening to the opera “Evgeny Onyegin,” weeps when Tatyana writes her letter.

. . . The water-carrier has stolen from somewhere a Siberian kitten with long white fur and black eyes, and brought it to us. This kitten takes people for mice: when it sees anyone it lies flat on its stomach, stalks one’s feet and rushes at them. This morning as I was pacing up and down the room it several times stalked me, and a la tigre pounced at my boots. I imagine the thought of being more terrible than anyone in the house affords it the greatest delight.

November 11, 1888.

I finished to-day the story [Footnote: “A Nervous Breakdown.”] for the Garshin sbornik: it is such a load off my mind. In this story I have told my own opinion — which is of no interest to anyone — of such rare men as Garshin. I have run to almost 2,000 lines. I speak at length about prostitution, but settle nothing. Why do they write nothing about prostitution in your paper? It is the most fearful evil, you know. Our Sobolev street is a regular slave-market.

November 15, 1888.

My “Party” has pleased the ladies. They sing my praises wherever I go. It really isn’t bad to be a doctor and to understand what one is writing about. The ladies say the description of the confinement is true. In the story for the Garshin sbornik I have described spiritual agony.

(No date), 1888.

. . . You say that writers are God’s elect. I will not contradict you. Shtcheglov calls me the Potyomkin of literature, and so it is not for me to speak of the thorny path, of disappointments, and so on. I do not know whether I have ever suffered more than shoemakers, mathematicians, or railway guards do; I do not know who speaks through my lips — God or someone worse. I will allow myself to mention only one little drawback which I have experienced and you probably know from experience also. It is this. You and I are fond of ordinary people; but other people are fond of us because they think we are not ordinary. Me, for instance, they invite everywhere and regale me with food and drink like a general at a wedding. My sister is indignant that people on all sides invite her simply because she is a writer’s sister. No one wants to love the ordinary people in us. Hence it follows that if in the eyes of our friends we should appear to-morrow as ordinary mortals, they will leave off loving us, and will only pity us. And that is horrid. It is horrid, too, that they like the very things in us which we often dislike and despise in ourselves. It is horrid that I was right when I wrote the story “The First-Class Passenger,” in which an engineer and a professor talk about fame.

I am going away into the country. Hang them all! You have Feodosia. By the way, about Feodosia and the Tatars. The Tatars have been robbed of their land, but no one thinks of their welfare. There ought to be Tatar schools. Write and suggest that the money which is being spent on the sausage Dorpat University, where useless Germans are studying, should be devoted to schools for Tatars, who are of use to Russia. I would write about it myself, but I don’t know how to.

December 23, 1888.

. . . There are moments when I completely lose heart. For whom and for what do I write? For the public? But I don’t see it, and believe in it less than I do in spooks: it is uneducated, badly brought up, and its best elements are unfair and insincere to us. I cannot make out whether this public wants me or not. Burenin says that it does not, and that I waste my time on trifles; the Academy has given me a prize. The devil himself could not make head or tail of it. Write for the sake of money? But I never have any money, and not being used to having it I am almost indifferent to it. For the sake of money I work apathetically. Write for the sake of praise? But praise merely irritates me. Literary society, students, Pleshtcheyev, young ladies, etc., were enthusiastic in their praises of my “Nervous Breakdown,” but Grigorovitch is the only one who has noticed the description of the first snow. And so on, and so on. If we had critics I should know that I provide material, whether good or bad does not matter — that to men who devote themselves to the study of life I am as necessary as a star is to an astronomer. And then I would take trouble over my work and should know what I was working for. But as it is you, I, Muravlin, and the rest are like lunatics who write books and plays to please themselves. To please oneself is, of course, an excellent thing; one feels the pleasure while one is writing, but afterwards? But . . . I will shut up. In short, I am sorry for Tatyana Repin, [Translator’s Note: Suvorin’s play.] not because she poisoned herself, but because she lived her life, died in agony, and was described absolutely to no purpose, without any good to anyone. A number of tribes, religions, languages, civilizations, have vanished without a trace — vanished because there were no historians or biologists. In the same way a number of lives and works of art disappear before our very eyes owing to the complete absence of criticism. It may be objected that critics would have nothing to do because all modern works are poor and insignificant. But this is a narrow way of looking at things. Life must be studied not from the pluses alone, but from the minuses too. The conviction that the “eighties” have not produced a single writer may in itself provide material for five volumes.

. . . I settled down last night to write a story for the Novoye Vremya, but a woman appeared and dragged me to see the poet Palmin who, when he was drunk, had fallen and cut his forehead to the bone. I was busy over the drunken fellow for nearly two hours, was tired out, began to smell of iodoform all over, felt cross, and came home exhausted. . . . Altogether my life is a dreary one, and I begin to get fits of hating people which used never to happen to me before. Long stupid conversations, visitors, people asking for help, and helping them to the extent of one or two or three roubles, spending money on cabs for the sake of patients who do not pay me a penny — altogether it is such a hotch-potch that I feel like running away from home. People borrow money from me and don’t pay it back, they take my books, they waste my time. . . . Blighted love is the one thing that is missing.

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December 26, 1888.

. . . You say that from compassion women fall in love, from compassion they get married. . . . And what about men? I don’t like realistic writers to slander women, but I don’t like it either when people put women on a pedestal and attempt to prove that even if they are worse than men, anyway they are angels and men scoundrels. Neither men nor women are worth a brass farthing, but men are more just and more intelligent.

December 30, 1888.

. . . This is how I understand my characters. [Translator’s Note: In the play “Ivanov.”] Ivanov is a gentleman, a University man, and not remarkable in any way. He is excitable, hotheaded, easily carried away, honest and straightforward like most people of his class. He has lived on his estate and served on the Zemstvo. What he has been doing and how he has behaved, what he has been interested in and enthusiastic over, can be seen from the following words of his, addressed to the doctor (Act I., Scene 5): “Don’t marry Jewesses or neurotic women or blue-stockings . . . don’t fight with thousands single-handed, don’t wage war on windmills, don’t batter your head against the wall . . . God preserve you from scientific farming, wonderful schools, enthusiastic speeches. . . . ” This is what he has in his past. Sarra, who has seen his scientific farming and other crazes, says about him to the doctor: “He is a remarkable man, doctor, and I am sorry you did not meet him two or three years ago. Now he is depressed and melancholy, he doesn’t talk or do anything, but in old days . . . how charming he was!” (Act I., Scene 7). His past is beautiful, as is generally the case with educated Russians. There is not, or there hardly is, a single Russian gentleman or University man who does not boast of his past. The present is always worse than the past. Why? Because Russian excitability has one specific characteristic: it is quickly followed by exhaustion. A man has scarcely left the class-room before he rushes to take up a burden beyond his strength; he tackles at once the schools, the peasants, scientific farming, and the Vyestnik Evropi, he makes speeches, writes to the minister, combats evil, applauds good, falls in love, not in an ordinary, simple way, but selects either a blue-stocking or a neurotic or a Jewess, or even a prostitute whom he tries to save, and so on, and so on. But by the time he is thirty or thirty-five he begins to feel tired and bored. He has not got decent moustaches yet, but he already says with authority:

“Don’t marry, my dear fellow. . . . Trust my experience,” or, “After all, what does Liberalism come to? Between ourselves Katkov was often right. . . . ” He is ready to reject the Zemstvo and scientific farming, and science and love. My Ivanov says to the doctor (Act I., Scene 5): “You took your degree only last year, my dear friend, you are still young and vigorous, while I am thirty-five. I have a right to advise you. . . . ” That is how these prematurely exhausted people talk. Further down, sighing authoritatively, he advises: “Don’t you marry in this or that way (see above), but choose something commonplace, grey, with no vivid colours or superfluous flourishes. Altogether build your life according to the conventional pattern. The greyer and more monotonous the background the better. . . . The life that I have led — how tiring it is! Ah, how tiring!”

Conscious of physical exhaustion and boredom, he does not understand what is the matter with him, and what has happened. Horrified, he says to the doctor (Act I., Scene 3): “Here you tell me she is soon going to die and I feel neither love nor pity, but a sort of emptiness and weariness. . . . If one looks at me from outside it must be horrible. I don’t understand what is happening to my soul.” Finding themselves in such a position, narrow and unconscientious people generally throw the whole blame on their environment, or write themselves down as Hamlets and superfluous people, and are satisfied with that. But Ivanov, a straightforward man, openly says to the doctor and to the public that he does not understand his own mind. “I don’t understand! I don’t understand!” That he really doesn’t understand can be seen from his long monologue in Act III., where, tete-a-tete with the public, he opens his heart to it and even weeps.

The change that has taken place in him offends his sense of what is fitting. He looks for the causes outside himself and fails to find them; he begins to look for them inside and finds only an indefinite feeling of guilt. It is a Russian feeling. Whether there is a death or illness in his family, whether he owes money or lends it, a Russian always feels guilty. Ivanov talks all the time about being to blame in some way, and the feeling of guilt increases in him at every juncture. In Act I. he says: “Suppose I am terribly to blame, yet my thoughts are in a tangle, my soul is in bondage to a sort of sloth, and I am incapable of understanding myself. . . . ” In Act II. he says to Sasha: “My conscience aches day and night, I feel that I am profoundly to blame, but in what exactly I have done wrong I cannot make out.”

To exhaustion, boredom, and the feeling of guilt add one more enemy: loneliness. Were Ivanov an official, an actor, a priest, a professor, he would have grown used to his position. But he lives on his estate. He is in the country. His neighbours are either drunkards or fond of cards, or are of the same type as the doctor. None of them care about his feelings or the change that has taken place in him. He is lonely. Long winters, long evenings, an empty garden, empty rooms, the grumbling Count, the ailing wife. . . . He has nowhere to go. This is why he is every minute tortured by the question: what is he to do with himself?

Now about his fifth enemy. Ivanov is tired and does not understand himself, but life has nothing to do with that! It makes its legitimate demands upon him, and whether he will or no, he must settle problems. His sick wife is a problem, his numerous debts are a problem, Sasha flinging herself on his neck is a problem. The way in which he settles all these problems must be evident from his monologue in Act III., and from the contents of the last two acts. Men like Ivanov do not solve difficulties but collapse under their weight. They lose their heads, gesticulate, become nervous, complain, do silly things, and finally, giving rein to their flabby, undisciplined nerves, lose the ground under their feet and enter the class of the “broken down” and “misunderstood.”

Disappointment, apathy, nervous limpness and exhaustion are the inevitable consequence of extreme excitability, and such excitability is extremely characteristic of our young people. Take literature. Take the present time. . . . Socialism is one of the forms of this excitement. But where is socialism? You see it in Tihomirov’s letter to the Tsar. The socialists are married and are criticizing the Zemstvo. Where is Liberalism? Mihailovsky himself says that all the labels have been mixed up now. And what are all the Russian enthusiasms worth? The war has wearied us, Bulgaria has wearied us till we can only be ironical about it. Zucchi has wearied us and so has the comic opera.

Exhaustion (Dr. Bertensen will confirm this) finds expression not only in complaining or the sensation of boredom. The life of an over-tired man cannot be represented like this:

[Transcriber’s note: The line graph in the print version depicts a wavy horizontal “line” with minimal variation in the vertical direction. The ASCII diagram below gives a rough approximation.]


It is very unequal. Over-tired people never lose the capacity for becoming extremely excited, but cannot keep it up for long, and each excitement is followed by still greater apathy. . . . Graphically, it could be represented like this:

[Transcriber’s note: The line graph in the print version depicts a series of wavy horizontal segments punctuated by sharp “dips,” each horizontal segment a little lower than the one before. The ASCII illustration below gives a rough approximation.]

\ ~~~~~~
\ / \ ~~~~~~
\/ \ / \ ~~~~~~
\ / \/

The fall, as you see, is not continuous but broken. Sasha declares her love and Ivanov cries out in ecstasy, “A new life!”— and next morning he believes in this new life as little as he does in spooks (the monologue in Act III.); his wife insults him, and, fearfully worked up and beside himself with anger, he flings a cruel insult at her. He is called a scoundrel. This is either fatal to his tottering brain, or stimulates him to a fresh paroxysm and he pronounces sentence on himself.

Not to tire you out altogether I pass now to Dr. Lvov. He is the type of an honest, straightforward, hotheaded, but narrow and uncompromising man. Clever people say of such men: “He is stupid but his heart is in the right place.” Anything like width of outlook or unreflecting feeling is foreign to Lvov. He is the embodiment of a programme, a walking tendency. He looks through a narrow frame at every person and event, he judges everything according to preconceived notions. Those who shout, “Make way for honest labour!” are an object of worship to him; those who do not shout it are scoundrels and exploiters. There is no middle. He has been brought up on Mihailov’s [Translator’s Note: The author of second-rate works inculcating civic virtue with a revolutionary bias.] novels; at the theatre he has seen on the stage “new men,” i.e., the exploiters and sons of our age, painted by the modern playwrights. He has stored it all up, and so much so, that when he reads “Rudin” he is sure to be asking himself, “Is Rudin a scoundrel or not?” Literature and the stage have so educated him that he approaches every character in real life and in fiction with this question. . . . It is not enough for him that all men are sinners. He wants saints and villains!

He was prejudiced before he came to the district. He at once classed all the rich peasants as exploiters, and Ivanov, whom he could not understand, as a scoundrel. Why, the man has a sick wife and he goes to see a rich lady neighbour — of course he is a scoundrel! It is obvious that he is killing his wife in order to marry an heiress.

Lvov is honest and straightforward, and he blurts out the truth without sparing himself. If necessary, he will throw a bomb at a carriage, give a school inspector a blow in the face, or call a man a scoundrel. He will not stop at anything. He never feels remorse — it is his mission as “an honest worker” to fight “the powers of darkness”!

Such people are useful, and are for the most part attractive. To caricature them, even in the interests of the play, is unfair and, indeed, unnecessary. True, a caricature is more striking, and therefore easier to understand, but it is better to put your colour on too faint than too strong.

Now about the women. What do they love Ivanov for? Sarra loves him because he is a fine man, because he has enthusiasm, because he is brilliant and speaks with as much heat as Lvov does (Act I., Scene 7). She loves him so long as he is excited and interesting; but when he begins to grow misty in her eyes, and to lose definiteness of outline, she ceases to understand him, and at the end of Act III. speaks out plainly and sharply.

Sasha is a young woman of the newest type. She is well-educated, intelligent, honest, and so on. In the realm of the blind a one-eyed man is king, and so she favours Ivanov in spite of his being thirty-five. He is better than anyone else. She knew him when she was a child and saw his work close at hand, at the period before he was exhausted. He is a friend of her father’s.

She is a female who is not won by the vivid plumage of the male, not by their courage and dexterity, but by their complaints, whinings and failures. She is the sort of girl who loves a man when he is going downhill. The moment Ivanov loses heart the young lady is on the spot! That’s just what she was waiting for. Just think of it, she now has such a holy, such a grateful task before her! She will raise up the fallen one, set him on his feet, make him happy. . . . It is not Ivanov she loves, but this task. Argenton in Daudet’s book says, “Life is not a novel.” Sasha does not know this. She does not know that for Ivanov love is only a fresh complication, an extra stab in the back. And what comes of it? She struggles with him for a whole year and, instead of being raised, he sinks lower and lower.

. . . In my description of Ivanov there often occurs the word “Russian.” Don’t be cross about it. When I was writing the play I had in mind only the things that really matter — that is, only the typical Russian characteristics. Thus the extreme excitability, the feeling of guilt, the liability to become exhausted are purely Russian. Germans are never excited, and that is why Germany knows nothing of disappointed, superfluous, or over-tired people. . . . The excitability of the French is always maintained at one and the same level, and makes no sudden bounds or falls, and so a Frenchman is normally excited down to a decrepit old age. In other words, the French do not have to waste their strength in over-excitement; they spend their powers sensibly, and do not go bankrupt.

. . . Ivanov and Lvov appear to my imagination to be living people. I tell you honestly, in all conscience, these men were born in my head, not by accident, not out of sea foam, or preconceived “intellectual” ideas. They are the result of observing and studying life. They stand in my brain, and I feel that I have not falsified the truth nor exaggerated it a jot. If on paper they have not come out clear and living, the fault is not in them but in me, for not being able to express my thoughts. It shows it is too early for me to begin writing plays.

* * * * *

January 7, 1889.

. . . I have been cherishing the bold dream of summing up all that has hitherto been written about whining, miserable people, and with my Ivanov saying the last word. It seemed to me that all Russian novelists and playwrights were drawn to depict despondent men, but that they all wrote instinctively, having no definite image or views on the subject. As far as my design goes I was on the right track, but the execution is good for nothing. I ought to have waited! I am glad I did not listen to Grigorovitch two or three years ago, and write a novel! I can just imagine what a lot of good material I should have spoiled. He says: “Talent and freshness overcome everything.” It is more true to say that talent and freshness can spoil a great deal. In addition to plenty of material and talent, one wants something else which is no less important. One wants to be mature — that is one thing; and for another the feeling of personal freedom is essential, and that feeling has only recently begun to develop in me. I used not to have it before; its place was successfully filled by my frivolity, carelessness, and lack of respect for my work.

What writers belonging to the upper class have received from nature for nothing, plebeians acquire at the cost of their youth. Write a story of how a young man, the son of a serf, who has served in a shop, sung in a choir, been at a high school and a university, who has been brought up to respect everyone of higher rank and position, to kiss priests’ hands, to reverence other people’s ideas, to be thankful for every morsel of bread, who has been many times whipped, who has trudged from one pupil to another without goloshes, who has been used to fighting, and tormenting animals, who has liked dining with his rich relations, and been hypocritical before God and men from the mere consciousness of his own insignificance — write how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and how waking one beautiful morning he feels that he has no longer a slave’s blood in his veins but a real man’s. . . .

March 5, 1889.

. . . Last night I drove out of town and listened to the gypsies. They sing well, the wild creatures. Their singing reminds me of a train falling off a high bank in a violent snow-storm: there is a lot of turmoil, screeching and banging.

. . . I bought Dostoevsky in your shop and am now reading him. It is fine, but very long and indiscreet. It is over-pretentious.

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. . . Among other things I am reading Gontcharov and wondering. I wonder how I could have considered Gontcharov a first-rate writer. His “Oblomov” is not really good. Oblomov himself is exaggerated and is not so striking as to make it worth while to write a whole book about him. A flabby sluggard like so many, a commonplace, petty nature without any complexity in it: to raise this person to the rank of a social type is to make too much of him. I ask myself, what would Oblomov be if he had not been a sluggard? And I answer that he would not have been anything. And if so, let him snore in peace. The other characters are trivial, with a flavour of Leikin about them; they are taken at random, and are half unreal. They are not characteristic of the epoch and give one nothing new. Stoltz does not inspire me with any confidence. The author says he is a splendid fellow, but I don’t believe him. He is a sly brute, who thinks very well of himself and is very complacent. He is half unreal, and three-quarters on stilts. Olga is unreal and is dragged in by the tail. And the chief trouble is that the whole novel is cold, cold, cold. I scratch out Gontcharov from the list of my demi-gods.

But how direct, how powerful is Gogol, and what an artist he is! His “Marriage” alone is worth two hundred thousand roubles. It is simply delicious, and that is all about it. He is the greatest of Russian writers. In “The Inspector General” the first act is the best, in “The Marriage” the third act is the worst. I am going to read it aloud to my people.

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May 4, 1889.

. . . Nature is an excellent sedative. It pacifies — that is, it makes one indifferent. And it is essential in this world to be indifferent. Only those who are indifferent are able to see things clearly, to be just and to work. Of course, I am only speaking of intelligent people of fine natures; the empty and selfish are indifferent enough any way.

You say that I have grown lazy. That does not mean that I am now lazier than I used to be. I work now as much as I did three or five years ago. To work and to look as though I were working from nine in the morning till dinner, and from evening tea till bedtime has become a habit with me, and in that respect I am just like a government clerk. And if my work does not produce two novels a month or an income of ten thousand, it is not my laziness that is at fault, but my fundamental, psychological peculiarities. I do not care enough for money to succeed in medicine, and for literature I have not enough passion and therefore not enough talent. The fire burns in me slowly and evenly, without suddenly spluttering and flaring up, and this is why it does not happen to me to write three or four signatures a night, or to be so carried away by work as to prevent myself from going to bed if I am sleepy; this is why I commit no particular follies nor do anything particularly wise.

I am afraid that in this respect I resemble Gontcharov, whom I don’t like, who is ten heads taller than I am in talent. I have not enough passion; add to that this sort of lunacy: for the last two years I have for no reason at all ceased to care about seeing my work in print, have become indifferent to reviews, to literary conversations, to gossip, to success and failure, to good pay — in short, I have gone downright silly. There is a sort of stagnation in my soul. I explain it by the stagnation in my personal life. I am not disappointed, I am not tired, I am not depressed, but simply everything has suddenly become less interesting. I must do something to rouse myself.

May 7.

I have read Bourget’s “Disciple” in the Russian translation. This is how it strikes me. Bourget is a gifted, very intelligent and cultured man. He is as thoroughly acquainted with the method of the natural sciences, and as imbued with it as though he had taken a good degree in science or medicine. He is not a stranger in the domain he proposes to deal with — a merit absent in Russian writers both new and old.

. . . The novel is interesting. I have read it and understand why you were so absorbed by it. It is clever, interesting, in places witty, somewhat fantastic. As to its defects, the chief of them is his pretentious crusade against materialism. Forgive me, but I can’t understand such crusades. They never lead to anything and only bring needless confusion into people’s thoughts. Whom is the crusade against, and what is its object? Where is the enemy and what is there dangerous about him? In the first place, the materialistic movement is not a school or tendency in the narrow journalistic sense; it is not something passing or accidental; it is necessary, inevitable, and beyond the power of man. All that lives on earth is bound to be materialistic. In animals, in savages, in Moscow merchants, all that is higher and non-animal is conditioned by an unconscious instinct, while all the rest is material, and they of course cannot help it. Beings of a higher order, thinking men, are also bound to be materialists. They seek for truth in matter, for there is nowhere else to seek for it, since they see, hear, and sense matter alone. Of necessity they can only seek for truth where their microscopes, lancets, and knives are of use to them. To forbid a man to follow the materialistic line of thought is equivalent to forbidding him to seek truth. Outside matter there is neither knowledge nor experience, and consequently there is no truth. . . .

I think that when dissecting a corpse, the most inveterate spiritualist will be bound to ask himself, “Where is the soul here?” And if one knows how great is the likeness between bodily and mental diseases, and that both are treated by the same remedies, one cannot help refusing to separate the soul from the body.

. . . To speak of the danger and harm of materialism, and even more to fight against it, is, to say the least, premature. We have not enough data to draw up an indictment. There are many theories and suppositions, but no facts. . . . The priests complain of unbelief, immorality, and so on. There is no unbelief. People believe in something, whatever it may be. . . .

As to immorality, it is not people like Mendeleyev but poets, abbots, and personages regularly attending Embassy churches, who have the reputation of being perverted debauchees, libertines, and drunkards.

In short, I cannot understand Bourget’s crusade. If, in starting upon it, he had at the same time taken the trouble to point out to the materialists an incorporeal God in the sky, and to point to Him in such a way that they should see Him, that would be another matter, and I should understand what he is driving at.

May 14, 1889.

. . . You want to know if the lady doctor hates you as before. Alas! she has grown stouter and much more resigned, which I do not like at all. There are not many women doctors left on earth. They are disappearing and dying out like the branches in the Byelovyezhsky forest. Some die of consumption, others become mystics, some marry widowed squadron-commanders, some still try to stand firm, but are obviously losing heart. Probably the first tailors and the first astrologers also died out rapidly. Life is hard on those who have the temerity first to enter upon an unknown path. The vanguard always has a bad time of it.

May 15, 1889.

If you have not gone abroad yet, I will answer your letter about Bourget. . . . You are speaking of the “right to live” of this or that branch of knowledge; I am speaking of peace, not of rights. I want people not to see war where there is none. Different branches of knowledge have always lived together in peace. Anatomy and belles-lettres are of equally noble descent; they have the same purpose and the same enemy — the devil — and there is absolutely nothing for them to fight about. There is no struggle for existence between them. If a man knows about the circulation of the blood, he is rich; if he also learns the history of religion and the song “I remember a marvellous moment,” he becomes richer, not poorer — that is to say, we are concerned with pluses alone. This is why geniuses have never fought, and in Goethe the poet lived amicably side by side with the scientist.

It is not branches of knowledge such as poetry and anatomy, but errors — that is to say, men — that fight with one another. When a man fails to understand something he is conscious of a discord, and seeks for the cause of it not in himself, as he should, but outside himself — hence the war with what he does not understand. In the middle ages alchemy was gradually in a natural, peaceful way changing into chemistry, and astrology into astronomy; the monks did not understand, saw a conflict and fought against it. Just such a belligerent Spanish monk was our Pisarev in the sixties.

Bourget, too, is fighting. You say he is not, and I say he is. Imagine his novel falling into the hands of a man whose children are studying in the faculty of science, or of a bishop who is looking for a subject for his Sunday sermon. Will the effect be anything like peace? It will not. Or imagine the novel catching the eye of an anatomist or a physiologist, or any such. It will not breathe peace into anyone’s soul; it will irritate those who know and give false ideas to those who don’t.


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