Sunday, October 14, 2012

Toward a Unified Theory of Chaos

In a letter to a young writer, Chekhov once said that all you need for a story is "a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy." That advice holds true for most of Chekhov's stories and it certainly holds true for The Seagull, his 1895 play that I spent the afternoon reading. The "man and a woman" is however expanded for this play into interlocking sets of malfunctioning love triangles, with Irina loving Boris who is loved by Nina; with Medvedenko loving Masha who loves Konstantin (who loves Nina); and with Paulina, wife of Iliya, in love with Dorn. There are accessory unhappy characters as well. It's a swell play and Chekhov's use of irony is delicious and subtle and I'd love to see it performed.

After finishing the play I thought about how much of a mess it is, from a thematic standpoint. Nothing is wrapped up at the end; nobody has learned any valuable lessons to carry forward into a better life. Certainly there's the idea of wasting one's existence, pursuing an idea while running blindly past those things and people that might help us have fulfilling lives, and doing damage all around without even seeing it and misunderstanding the pains and joys of everyone we know. Life, that is, in all it's messiness. But there is no simple, single idea that The Seagull can be reduced down to, which is one of the work's great strengths. It is a complex play that resists easy interpretation and summation.

This complexity and resistance to interpretation is also one of the hallmarks (and strengths) of the plays of Shakespeare. When art holds the mirror up to humanity, you don't get a comic strip, you get an inchoate tapestry with no causation, no neat story arc, and no ultimate meaning. I'm strongly attracted to works like this, because I think that despite the artifice of any art, the inevitable failure of all mimesis (if I'm using that word properly), we are at least able to say that we see what we see and we can put it down honestly and even if we don't fully understand it, reporting what appears to be scrupulously true (whatever that might mean) might be a good approach to art, might be a way to create literature with some value. Maybe. This paragraph is too close to a list of platitudes so I'll move away from it quickly.

Anyway, I think that in my own writing I'm moving away from ideas of tightly-knit story structures, and toward whatever else there is. The Seagull is a nice bit of encouragement for that project. Chaos, then, rather than order. Also, there's this nice bit, where the novelist Trigorin is being questioned by Nina (aspiring actress) about the life of the writer:

TRIGORIN: ...Violent obsessions sometimes lay hold of a man: he may, for instance, think day and night of nothing but the moon. I have such a moon. Day and night I am held in the grip of one besetting thought, to write, write, write! Hardly have I finished one book than something urges me to write another, and then a third, and then a fourth--I write ceaselessly. I am, as it were, on a treadmill. I hurry for ever from one story to another, and can't help myself. Do you see anything bright and beautiful in that? Oh, it is a wild life! Even now, thrilled as I am by talking to you, I do not forget for an instant that an unfinished story is awaiting me. My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano. I smell heliotrope; I mutter to myself: a sickly smell, the color worn by widows; I must remember that in writing my next description of a summer evening. I catch an idea in every sentence of yours or of my own, and hasten to lock all these treasures in my literary store-room, thinking that some day they may be useful to me. As soon as I stop working I rush off to the theater or go fishing, in the hope that I may find oblivion there, but no! Some new subject for a story is sure to come rolling through my brain like an iron cannonball. I hear my desk calling, and have to go back to it and begin to write, write, write, once more. And so it goes for everlasting. I cannot escape myself, though I feel that I am consuming my life. To prepare the honey I feed to unknown crowds, I am doomed to brush the bloom from my dearest flowers, to tear them from their stems, and trample the roots that bore them under foot. Am I not a madman? Should I not be treated by those who know me as one mentally diseased? Yet it is always the same, same old story, till I begin to think that all this praise and admiration must be a deception, that I am being hoodwinked because they know I am crazy, and I sometimes tremble lest I should be grabbed from behind and whisked off to a lunatic asylum. The best years of my youth were made one continual agony for me by my writing. A young author, especially if at first he does not make a success, feels clumsy, ill-at-ease, and superfluous in the world. His nerves are all on edge and stretched to the point of breaking; he is irresistibly attracted to literary and artistic people, and hovers about them unknown and unnoticed, fearing to look them bravely in the eye, like a man with a passion for gambling, whose money is all gone. I did not know my readers, but for some reason I imagined they were distrustful and unfriendly; I was mortally afraid of the public, and when my first play appeared, it seemed to me as if all the dark eyes in the audience were looking at it with enmity, and all the blue ones with cold indifference. Oh, how terrible it was! What agony! 

NINA: But don't your inspiration and the act of creation give you moments of lofty happiness? 

TRIGORIN: Yes. Writing is a pleasure to me, and so is reading the proofs, but no sooner does a book leave the press than it becomes odious to me; it is not what I meant it to be; I made a mistake to write it at all; I am provoked and discouraged. Then the public reads it and says: "Yes, it is clever and pretty, but not nearly as good as Tolstoy," or "It is a lovely thing, but not as good as Turgenov's 'Fathers and Sons,'" and so it will always be. To my dying day I shall hear people say: "Clever and pretty; clever and pretty," and nothing more; and when I am gone, those that knew me will say as they pass my grave: "Here lies Trigorin, a clever writer, but he was not as good as Turgenov." 

NINA: You must excuse me, but I decline to understand what you are talking about. The fact is, you have been spoilt by your success. 

TRIGORIN: What success have I had? I have never pleased myself; as a writer, I do not like myself at all. The trouble is that I am made giddy, as it were, by the fumes of my brain, and often hardly know what I am writing. I love this lake, these trees, the blue heaven; nature's voice speaks to me and wakes a feeling of passion in my heart, and I am overcome by an uncontrollable desire to write. But I am not only a painter of landscapes, I am a man of the city besides. I love my country, too, and her people; I feel that, as a writer, it is my duty to speak of their sorrows, of their future, also of science, of the rights of man, and so forth. So I write on every subject, and the public hounds me on all sides, sometimes in anger, and I race and dodge like a fox with a pack of hounds on his trail. I see life and knowledge flitting away before me. I am left behind them like a peasant who has missed his train at a station, and finally I come back to the conclusion that all I am fit for is to describe landscapes, and that whatever else I attempt rings abominably false.

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