Monday, June 9, 2014

What is to be done in the Black Sea with all these useless Russians?

In 1891 Saint Anton Chekhov wrote the novella "The Duel," a masterpiece. I don't think he intended that story to directly confront the various arguments made about society in the novels of Ivan Turgenev (Fathers and Sons), Nikolai Chernyshevsky (What is to be Done?) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Notes From Underground), but certainly those works were on Chekhov's mind and he clearly referenced some of those arguments in "The Duel." Interestingly, Chekhov did not side with any of his literary predecessors; rather he offered an alternative point of view. To illustrate all these claims, I hopefully now present an argument in quotations, mostly.

1. About the Superfluous Man, Laevsky:
"Answer one question for me, Alexandr Daviditch," Laevsky began, when both he and Samoylenko were in the water up to their shoulders. "Suppose you had loved a woman and had been living with her for two or three years, and then left off caring for her, as one does, and began to feel that you had nothing in common with her. How would you behave in that case?"
Laevsky is a dissolute nouveau intellectual, a son of the landed gentry with no calling and no ambition and, like the idle sensualist friends of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons, no connection to either the past, present or future of Russia. He's a university-educated hedonist who thinks only of himself and how he appears to the people he wishes to impress. Laevsky has seduced a number of women, the most recent being Nadyezhda, the woman whom he above declares he no longer loves. Laevsky has taken Nadyezhda away from her husband in Petersburg, spririting her to the Caucasus in the name of free love and hedonism. His dreams of the good life are similar, on the surface, to those of Chernyshevsky's enlightened radicals in What is to be Done?

It's worth noting that Laevsky--as are all of the main characters in "The Duel"--is a complex character, and while he is a lazy aristocrat, he is aware of his laziness, his moral weaknesses, the horrific life that awaits him if he continues along the deceptive, immoral path he's taking.

Chekhov has not, in "The Duel," written a dialectical novel with flat characters representing ideas, but there are certainly ideas in opposition. Laevsky's philosophical antagonist is a zoologist named Von Koren, who has come to the Caucasus to prepare for a long scientific expedition. He is very much like Chernyshevsky's Rahkmetov character in his approach to the world.

2. About the utilitarian superman, Von Koren, as described by Laevsky:
Von Koren is independent and obstinate: he works on the Black Sea because nobody else is working there; he is at loggerheads with the university, does not care to know his comrades and other scientific men because he is first of all a despot and only secondly a zoologist. And you'll see he'll do something. He is already dreaming that when he comes back from his expedition he will purify our universities from intrigue and mediocrity, and will make the scientific men mind their p's and q's. Despotism is just as strong in science as in the army. And he is spending his second summer in this stinking little town because he would rather be first in a village than second in a town. Here he is a king and an eagle; he keeps all the inhabitants under his thumb and oppresses them with his authority. He has appropriated every one, he meddles in other people's affairs; everything is of use to him, and every one is afraid of him.
Von Koren doesn't talk about revolution (Chekhov was no revolutionary), but he is practical, hard-working, logical and thinks that everyone either must labor productively or get out of the way. He despises Laevsky for a number of reasons:
"From the first he struck me by his exceptional falsity, which simply made me sick. As a friend I pitched into him, asking him why he drank too much, why he lived beyond his means and got into debt, why he did nothing and read nothing, why he had so little culture and so little knowledge; and in answer to all my questions he used to smile bitterly, sigh, and say: 'I am a failure, a superfluous man'; or: 'What do you expect, my dear fellow, from us, the debris of the serf-owning class?' or: 'We are degenerate. . . .' Or he would begin a long rigmarole about Onyegin, Petchorin, Byron's Cain, and Bazarov, of whom he would say: 'They are our fathers in flesh and in spirit.' So we are to understand that it was not his fault that Government envelopes lay unopened in his office for weeks together, and that he drank and taught others to drink, but Onyegin, Petchorin, and Turgenev, who had invented the failure and the superfluous man, were responsible for it. The cause of his extreme dissoluteness and unseemliness lies, do you see, not in himself, but somewhere outside in space. And so--an ingenious idea!--it is not only he who is dissolute, false, and disgusting, but we . . . 'we men of the eighties,' 'we the spiritless, nervous offspring of the serf-owning class'; 'civilisation has crippled us' . . . in fact, we are to understand that such a great man as Laevsky is great even in his fall: that his dissoluteness, his lack of culture and of moral purity, is a phenomenon of natural history, sanctified by inevitability; that the causes of it are world-wide, elemental; and that we ought to hang up a lamp before Laevsky, since he is the fated victim of the age, of influences, of heredity, and so on. All the officials and their ladies were in ecstasies when they listened to him..."
Von Koren is actually a Nietzschean, paraphrasing Twilight of the Idols when he passes judgment on Laevsky:
"Since he is incorrigible, he can only be made innocuous in one way. . . ." Von Koren passed his finger round his throat. "Or he might be drowned . . .", he added. "In the interests of humanity and in their own interests, such people ought to be destroyed. They certainly ought."
3. About how Von Koren is also, oddly enough, almost a version of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man: Chekhov has the scientist state Dostoyevsky's argument in favor of the irrational, even invoking the refrain of "two plus two is four" from Notes From Underground when Von Koren rails against Laevsky:
"Look the devil straight in the eye, and if he's the devil, tell him he's the devil, and don't go calling to Kant or Hegel for explanations...Twice two's four, and a stone's a stone. Here to-morrow we have a duel. You and I will say it's stupid and absurd, that the duel is out of date, that there is no real difference between the aristocratic duel and the drunken brawl in the pot-house, and yet we shall not stop, we shall go there and fight. So there is some force stronger than our reasoning. We shout that war is plunder, robbery, atrocity, fratricide; we cannot look upon blood without fainting; but the French or the Germans have only to insult us for us to feel at once an exaltation of spirit; in the most genuine way we shout 'Hurrah!' and rush to attack the foe. You will invoke the blessing of God on our weapons, and our valour will arouse universal and general enthusiasm. Again it follows that there is a force, if not higher, at any rate stronger, than us and our philosophy."
Of course Von Koren believes that through reason and science he can overcome this irrational biological destiny. What keeps Von Koren from being merely the antithesis of Laevsky is that inside, he is eaten at by jealousy, lust and pettiness; and he is moved by pride. He's a complex, multifaceted character.

4. About free love, which in Chernyshevsky is a powerful force to release all of humanity from bondage and generate a utopian society: Here free love is a catalyst to the battle between the nihilist and the utilitarian. In "The Duel," free love also turns out to be impractical, a false ideal.
Laevsky's impression of free love:

"I fell in love with a married woman and she with me. . . . To begin with, we had kisses, and calm evenings, and vows, and Spencer, and ideals, and interests in common. . . . What a deception! We really ran away from her husband, but we lied to ourselves and made out that we ran away from the emptiness of the life of the educated class. We pictured our future like this: to begin with, in the Caucasus, while we were getting to know the people and the place, I would put on the Government uniform and enter the service; then at our leisure we would pick out a plot of ground, would toil in the sweat of our brow, would have a vineyard and a field, and so on. If you were in my place, or that zoologist of yours, Von Koren, you might live with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna for thirty years, perhaps, and might leave your heirs a rich vineyard and three thousand acres of maize; but I felt like a bankrupt from the first day. In the town you have insufferable heat, boredom, and no society; if you go out into the country, you fancy poisonous spiders, scorpions, or snakes lurking under every stone and behind every bush, and beyond the fields--mountains and the desert. Alien people, an alien country, a wretched form of civilisation--all that is not so easy, brother, as walking on the Nevsky Prospect in one's fur coat, arm-in-arm with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, dreaming of the sunny South. What is needed here is a life and death struggle, and I'm not a fighting man. A wretched neurasthenic, an idle gentleman . . . . From the first day I knew that my dreams of a life of labour and of a vineyard were worthless. As for love, I ought to tell you that living with a woman who has read Spencer and has followed you to the ends of the earth is no more interesting than living with any Anfissa or Akulina. There's the same smell of ironing, of powder, and of medicines, the same curl-papers every morning, the same self-deception."
Nadyezhda's impression of free love:

She had on two occasions in Laevsky's absence received a visit from Kirilin, the police captain: once in the morning when Laevsky had gone to bathe, and another time at midnight when he was playing cards. Remembering this, Nadyezhda Fyodorovna flushed crimson, and looked round at the cook as though she might overhear her thoughts. The long, insufferably hot, wearisome days, beautiful languorous evenings and stifling nights, and the whole manner of living, when from morning to night one is at a loss to fill up the useless hours, and the persistent thought that she was the prettiest young woman in the town, and that her youth was passing and being wasted, and Laevsky himself, though honest and idealistic, always the same, always lounging about in his slippers, biting his nails, and wearying her with his caprices, led by degrees to her becoming possessed by desire, and as though she were mad, she thought of nothing else day and night. Breathing, looking, walking, she felt nothing but desire. The sound of the sea told her she must love; the darkness of evening--the same; the mountains--the same. . . .And when Kirilin began paying her attentions, she had neither the power nor the wish to resist, and surrendered to him. . . .She reflected joyfully that there was nothing terrible about her infidelity. Her soul had no part in her infidelity; she still loved Laevsky, and that was proved by the fact that she was jealous of him, was sorry for him, and missed him when he was away. Kirilin had turned out to be very mediocre, rather coarse though handsome; everything was broken off with him already and there would never be anything more. What had happened was over; it had nothing to do with any one, and if Laevsky found it out he would not believe in it.
Certainly ideas of "free love" were floating around in Russia before Chernyshevsky wrote about Vera in What is to be Done?. As in Chernyshevsky (and hey, Tolstoy), the primary story of "The Duel" is that of a woman who leaves her husband for a man she will love better. Unlike Vera, the heroine of "The Duel" is harassed and humiliated by the people who surround her:
"You are a terrible sinner. You broke the vow you made your husband at the altar. You seduced a fine young man, who perhaps had he not met you might have taken a lawful partner for life from a good family in his own circle, and would have been like every one else now. You have ruined his youth. Don't speak, don't speak, my dear! I never believe that man is to blame for our sins. It is always the woman's fault. Men are frivolous in domestic life; they are guided by their minds, and not by their hearts. There's a great deal they don't understand; woman understands it all. Everything depends on her. To her much is given and from her much will be required. Oh, my dear, if she had been more foolish or weaker than man on that side, God would not have entrusted her with the education of boys and girls. And then, my dear, you entered on the path of vice, forgetting all modesty; any other woman in your place would have hidden herself from people, would have sat shut up at home, and would only have been seen in the temple of God, pale, dressed all in black and weeping, and every one would have said in genuine compassion: 'O Lord, this erring angel is coming back again to Thee . . . .' But you, my dear, have forgotten all discretion; have lived openly, extravagantly; have seemed to be proud of your sin; you have been gay and laughing, and I, looking at you, shuddered with horror, and have been afraid that thunder from Heaven would strike our house while you were sitting with us. My dear, don't speak, don't speak," cried Marya Konstantinovna, observing that Nadyezhda Fyodorovna wanted to speak. "Trust me, I will not deceive you, I will not hide one truth from the eyes of your soul. Listen to me, my dear. . . . God marks great sinners, and you have been marked-out: only think--your costumes have always been appalling."
"fine young man" makes me laugh. It's never stated directly, but it's true that in "The Duel," none of the civil servants aside from Von Koren are actually doing anything useful. The whole of the Russo-Caucasus society is set up like a resort town, not a proper provincial government seat. Everyone is bored and in debt and more or less at the end of the line, even apparently the children. There is nothing to do, and nobody is doing it. Marya Konstantinovna may sit in judgment of Nadyezhda's actions, but she and her circle are not shining examples of humanity, either. The whole of the town is superfluous, indolent, pointless and small-minded. It is also worth noting that Nadyezhda is tempted by several men in the village, and considers an affair with a merchant's son as a way to cancel a 300-ruble debt. Chernyshevsky's Vera would never think of that.

In the end, then, there are four forces at opposition in Chekhov's story: The nihilist 'superfluous man' Laevsky, the rationalist Von Koren, traditional middle-class Russian society, and the Church (as represented by a young deacon who tends to find everything amusing). In my reading (I know, I said I'd avoid interpretation, but I find I can't), Chekhov rejects all of the moral forces except that of the Church, though none of the philosophy is rigorously worked out and the story ends, as do most of Chekhov's tales, by dissolving into an unknown future rather than by coalescing around an epiphany. Like the real world, the story world of "The Duel" cannot be reasoned into submission.

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