Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To I. L. Shtcheglov.

MOSCOW, March 22, 1890.

My greetings, dear Jean! Thanks for your long letter and for the good will of which it is full from beginning to end. I shall be delighted to read your military story. Will it come out in the Easter number? It is a long time since I read anything of yours or my own. You say that you want to give me a harsh scolding “especially on the score of morality and art,” you speak vaguely of my crimes as deserving friendly censure, and threaten me with “an influential newspaper criticism.” If you scratch out the word “art,” the whole phrase in quotation marks becomes clearer, but gains a significance which, to tell the truth, perplexes me not a little. Jean, what is it? How is one to understand it? Can I really be different in my ideas of morality from people like you, and so much so as to deserve censure and even an influential article? I cannot take it that you mean some subtle higher morality, as there are no lower, higher, or medium moralities, but only one which Jesus Christ gave us, and which now prevents you and me and Barantsevitch from stealing, insulting, lying, and so on. If I can trust the ease of my conscience, I have never by word or deed, in thought, or in my stories, or in my farces, coveted my neighbour’s wife, nor his man, nor his ox, nor any of his cattle, I have not stolen, nor been a hypocrite, I have not flattered the great nor sought their favour, I have not blackmailed, nor lived at other people’s expense. It is true I have waxed wanton and slothful, have laughed heedlessly, have eaten too much and drunk too much and been profligate. But all that is a personal matter, and all that does not deprive me of the right to think that, as far as morals are concerned, I am nothing out of the ordinary, one way or the other. Nothing heroic and nothing scoundrelly — I am just like everyone else; I have many sins, but I am quits with morality, as I pay for those sins with interest in the discomforts they bring with them. If you want to abuse me cruelly because I am not a hero, you’d better throw your cruelty out of the window, and instead of abuse, let me hear your charming tragic laugh — that’s better.

But of the word “art” I am terrified, as merchants’ wives are terrified of “brimstone.” When people talk to me of what is artistic and inartistic, of what is dramatic and not dramatic, of tendency, realism, and so on, I am bewildered, hesitatingly assent, and answer with banal half-truths not worth a brass farthing. I divide all works into two classes: those I like and those I don’t. I have no other criterion, and if you ask me why I like Shakespeare and don’t like Zlatovratsky, I don’t venture to answer. Perhaps in time and as I grow wiser I may work out some criterion, but meanwhile all conversations about what is “artistic” only weary me, and seem to me like a continuation of the scholastic disputations with which people wearied themselves in the middle ages.

If criticism, on the authority of which you rely, knows what you and I don’t know, why has it up till now not spoken? why does it not reveal the truth and the immutable laws? If it knew, believe me, it would long ago have shown us the true path and we should have known what to do, and Fofanov would not have been in a madhouse, Garshin would have been alive to-day, Barantsevitch would not have been so depressed and we should not be so dull and ill at ease as we are, and you would not feel drawn to the theatre and I to Sahalin. But criticism maintains a dignified silence or gets out of it with idle trashy babble. If it seems to you authoritative it is because it is stupid, conceited, impudent, and clamorous; because it is an empty barrel one cannot help hearing.

But let us have done with that and sing something out of a different opera. Please don’t build any literary hopes on my Sahalin trip. I am not going for the sake of impressions or observations, but simply for the sake of living for six months differently from how I have lived hitherto. Don’t rely on me, old man; if I am successful and clever enough to do something, so much the better; if not, don’t blame me. I am going after Easter. I will send you in due time my Sahalin address and minute instructions. . . .


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53