Lev Shestov.

Anton Tchekhov, and other essays online

. (page 1 of 13)
Online LibraryLev ShestovAnton Tchekhov, and other essays → online text (page 1 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Marc D'Hooghe at Free Literature (Images
generously made available by the Internet Archive.)













It is not to be denied that Russian thought is chiefly manifested in
the great Russian novelists. Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, and Tchekhov made
explicit in their works conceptions of the world which yield nothing in
definiteness to the philosophic schemes of the great dogmatists of old,
and perhaps may be regarded as even superior to them in that by their
nature they emphasise a relation of which the professional philosopher
is too often careless - the intimate connection between philosophy and
life. They attacked fearlessly and with a high devotion of which we
English readers are slowly becoming sensible the fundamental problem of
all philosophy worthy the name. They were preoccupied with the answer
to the question: Is life worth living? And the great assumption which
they made, at least in the beginning of the quest, was that to live
life must mean to live it wholly. To live was not to pass by life on
the other side, not suppress the deep or even the dark passions of body
or soul, not to lull by some lying and narcotic phrase the urgent
questions of the mind, not to deny life. To them life was the sum of
all human potentialities. They accepted them all, loved them all, and
strove to find a place for them all in a pattern in which none should
be distorted. They failed, but not one of them fainted by the way,
and there was not one of them but with his latest breath bravely held
to his belief that there was a way and that the way might be found.
Tolstoi went out alone to die, yet more manifestly than he had lived,
a seeker after the secret; death overtook Dostoevsky in his supreme
attempt to wrest a hope for mankind out of the abyss of the imagined
future; and Tchekhov died when his most delicate fingers had been
finally eager in lighting _The Cherry Orchard_ with the tremulous glint
of laughing tears, which may perhaps be the ultimate secret of the
process which leaves us all bewildered and full of pity and wonder.

There were great men and great philosophers. It may be that this
cruelly conscious world will henceforward recognise no man as great
unless he has greatly sought: for to seek and not to think is the
essence of philosophy. To have greatly sought, I say, should be the
measure of man's greatness in the strange world of which there will be
only a tense, sorrowful, disillusioned remnant when this grim ordeal
is over. It should be so: and we, who are, according to our strength,
faithful to humanity, must also strive according to our strength to
make it so. We are not, and we shall not be, great men: but we have
the elements of greatness. We have an impulse to honesty, to think
honestly, to see honestly, and to speak the truth to ourselves in the
lonely hours. It is only an impulse, which, in these barren, bitter,
years, so quickly withers and dies. It is almost that we dare not be
honest now. Our hearts are dead: we cannot wake the old wounds again.
And yet if anything of this generation that suffered is to remain, if
we are to hand any spark of the fire which once burned so brightly,
if we are to be human still, then we must still be honest at whatever
cost. We - and I speak of that generation which was hardly man when the
war burst upon it, which was ardent and generous and dreamed dreams
of devotion to an ideal of art or love or life - are maimed and broken
for ever. Let us not deceive ourselves. The dead voices will never be
silent in our ears to remind us of that which we once were, and that
which we have lost. We shall die as we shall live, lonely and haunted
by memories that will grow stranger, more beautiful, more terrible,
and more tormenting as the years go on, and at the last we shall not
know which was the dream - the years of plenty or the barren years that
descended like a storm in the night and swept our youth away.

Yet something remains. Not those lying things that they who cannot feel
how icy cold is sudden and senseless death to all-daring youth, din in
our ears. We shall not be inspired by the memory of heroism. We shall
be shattered by the thought of splendid and wonderful lives that were
vilely cast away. What remains is that we should be honest as we shall
be pitiful. We shall never again be drunk with hope: let us never be
blind with fear. There can be in the lap of destiny now no worse thing
which may befall us. We can afford to be honest now.

We can afford to be honest: but we need to learn how, or to increase
our knowledge. The Russian writers will help us in this; and not the
great Russians only, but the lesser also. For a century of bitter
necessity has taught that nation that the spirit is mightier than the
flesh, until those eager qualities of soul that a century of social
ease has almost killed in us are in them well-nigh an instinct. Let
us look among ourselves if we can find a Wordsworth, a Shelley, a
Coleridge, or a Byron to lift this struggle to the stars as they did
the French Revolution. There is none. - It will be said: 'But that was
a great fight for freedom. Humanity itself marched forward with the
Revolutionary armies.' But if the future of mankind is not in issue
now, if we are fighting for the victory of no precious and passionate
idea, why is no voice of true poetry uplifted in protest? There is
no third way. Either this is the greatest struggle for right, or the
greatest crime, that has ever been. The unmistakable voice of poetry
should be certain either in protest or enthusiasm: it is silent or
it is trivial. And the cause must be that the keen edge of the soul
of those century-old poets which cut through false patriotism so
surely is in us dulled and blunted. We must learn honesty again:
not the laborious and meagre honesty of those who weigh advantage
against advantage in the ledger of their minds, but the honesty that
cries aloud in instant and passionate anger against the lie and the
half-truth, and by an instinct knows the authentic thrill of contact
with the living human soul.

The Russians, and not least the lesser Russians, may teach us this
thing once more. Among these lesser, Leon Shestov holds an honourable
place. He is hardly what we should call a philosopher, hardly again
what we would understand by an essayist. The Russians, great and small
alike, are hardly ever what we understand by the terms which we victims
of tradition apply to them. In a hundred years they have accomplished
an evolution which has with us slowly unrolled in a thousand. The very
foundations of their achievement are new and laid within the memory of
man. Where we have sharply divided art from art, and from science and
philosophy, and given to each a name, the Russians have still the sense
of a living connection between all the great activities of the human
soul. From us this connection is too often concealed by the tyranny
of names. We have come to believe, or at least it costs us great
pains not to believe, that the name is a particular reality, which to
confuse with another name is a crime. Whereas in truth the energies of
the human soul are not divided from each other by any such impassable
barriers: they flow into each other indistinguishably, modify, control,
support, and decide each other. In their large unity they are real;
isolated, they seem to be poised uneasily between the real and the
unreal, and become deceptive, barren half-truths. Plato, who first
discovered the miraculous hierarchy of names, though he was sometimes
drunk with the new wine of his discovery, never forgot that the unity
of the human soul was the final outcome of its diversity; and those
who read aright his most perfect of all books - _The Republic_ - know
that it is a parable which fore-shadows the complete harmony of all the
soul's activities.

Not the least of Shestov's merits is that he is alive to this truth in
its twofold working. He is aware of himself as a soul seeking an answer
to its own question; and he is aware of other souls on the same quest.
As in his own case he knows that he has in him something truer than
names and divisions and authorities, which will live in spite of them,
so towards others he remembers that all that they wrote or thought or
said is precious and permanent in so far as it is the manifestation
of the undivided soul seeking an answer to its question. To know a
man's work for this, to have divined the direct relation between his
utterance and his living soul, is criticism: to make that relation
between one's own soul and one's speech direct and true is creation.
In essence they are the same: creation is a man's lonely attempt to
fix an intimacy with his own strange and secret soul, criticism is the
satisfaction of the impulse of loneliness to find friends and secret
sharers among the souls that are or have been. As creation drives a man
to the knowledge of his own intolerable secrets, so it drives him to
find others with whom he may whisper of the things which he has found.
Other criticism than this is, in the final issue, only the criminal and
mad desire to enforce material order in a realm where all is spiritual
and vague and true. It is only the jealous protest of the small soul
against the great, of the slave against the free.

Against this smallness and jealousy Shestov has set his face. To have
done so does not make him a great writer; but it does make him a real
one. He is honest and he is not deceived. But honesty, unless a man is
big enough to bear it, and often even when he is big enough to bear it,
may make him afraid. Where angels fear to tread, fools rush in: but
though the folly of the fool is condemned, some one must enter, lest
a rich kingdom be lost to the human spirit. Perhaps Shestov will seem
at times too fearful. Then we must remember that Shestov is Russian in
another sense than that I have tried to make explicit above. He is a
citizen of a country where the human spirit has at all times been so
highly prized that the name of thinker has been a key to unlock not
merely the mind but the heart also. The Russians not only respect,
but they love a man who has thought and sought for humanity, and, I
think, their love but seldom stops 'this side idolatry.' They will
exalt a philosopher to a god; they are even able to make of materialism
a religion. Because they are so loyal to the human spirit they will
load it with chains, believing that they are garlands. And that is why
dogmatism has never come so fully into its own as in Russia.

When Shestov began to write nearly twenty years ago, Karl Marx was
enthroned and infallible. The fear of such tyrannies has never
departed from Shestov. He has fought against them so long and so
persistently - even in this book one must always remember that he
is face to face with an enemy of which we English have no real
conception - that he is at times almost unnerved by the fear that he
too may be made an authority and a rule. I do not think that this
ultimate hesitation, if understood rightly, diminishes in any way from
the interest of his writings: but it does suggest that there may be
awaiting him a certain paralysis of endeavour. There is indeed no
absolute truth of which we need take account other than the living
personality, and absolute truths are valuable only in so far as they
are seen to be necessary manifestations of this mysterious reality.
Nevertheless it is in the nature of man, if not to live by absolute
truths, at least to live by enunciating them; and to hesitate to
satisfy this imperious need is to have resigned a certain measure of
one's own creative strength. We may trust to the men of insight who
will follow us to read our dogmatisms, our momentary angers, and our
unshakable convictions, in terms of our personalities, if these shall
be found worthy of their curiosity or their love. And it seems to me
that Shestov would have gained in strength if he could have more firmly
believed that there would surely be other Shestovs who would read him
according to his own intention. But this, I also know, is a counsel of
perfection: the courage which he has not would not have been acquired
by any intellectual process, and its possession would have deprived him
of the courage which he has. As dogmatism in Russia enjoys a supremacy
of which we can hardly form an idea, so a continual challenge to its
claims demands in the challenger a courage which it is hard for us
rightly to appreciate.

I have not written this foreword in order to prejudice the issue.
Shestov will, no doubt, be judged by English readers according to
English standards, and I wish no more than to suggest that his
greatest quality is one which has become rare among us, and that his
peculiarities are due to Russian conditions which have long since
ceased to obtain in England. The Russians have much to teach us, and
the only way we shall learn, or even know, what we should accept
and what reject, is to take count as much as we can of the Russian
realities. And the first of these and the last is that in Russia the
things of the spirit are held in honour above all others. Because of
this the Russian soul is tormented by problems to which we have long
been dead, and to which we need to be alive again. J. M. M.

_Postscript._ - Leon Shestov is fifty years old. He was born at Kiev,
and studied at the university there. His first book was written
in 1898. As a writer of small production, he has made his way to
recognition slowly: but now he occupies a sure position as one of the
most delicate and individual of modern Russian critics. The essays
contained in this volume are taken from the fourth and fifth works in
the following list: -

1898. _Shakespeare and his Critic, Brandes._

1900. _Good in the teaching of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: Philosophy and

1903. _Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy._

1905. _The Apotheosis of Groundlessness: An Essay on Dogmatism._

1908. _Beginnings and Ends._

1912. _Great Vigils._



Résigne-toi, mon cœur, dors ton sommeil de brute.



Tchekhov is dead; therefore we may now speak freely of him. For to
speak of an artist means to disentangle and reveal the 'tendency'
hidden in his works, an operation not always permissible when the
subject is still living. Certainly he had a reason for hiding himself,
and of course the reason was serious and important. I believe many felt
it, and that it was partly on this account that we have as yet had no
proper appreciation of Tchekhov. Hitherto in analysing his works the
critics have confined themselves to common-place and _cliché_. Of course
they knew they were wrong; but anything is better than to extort the
truth from a living person. Mihailovsky alone attempted to approach
closer to the source of Tchekhov's creation, and as everybody knows,
turned away from it with aversion and even with disgust. Here, by the
way, the deceased critic might have convinced himself once again of
the extravagance of the so-called theory of 'art for art's sake.' Every
artist has his definite task, his life's work, to which he devotes
all his forces. A tendency is absurd when it endeavours to take the
place of talent, and to cover impotence and lack of content, or when
it is borrowed from the stock of ideas which happen to be in demand
at the moment. 'I defend ideals, therefore every one must give me his
sympathies.' Such pretences we often see made in literature, and the
notorious controversy concerning 'art for art's sake' was evidently
maintained upon the double meaning given to the word 'tendency' by its
opponents. Some wished to believe that a writer can be saved by the
nobility of his tendency; others feared that a tendency would bind them
to the performance of alien tasks. Much ado about nothing: ready-made
ideas will never endow mediocrity with talent; on the contrary, an
original writer will at all costs set himself his own task. And
Tchekhov had his _own_ business, though there were critics who said
that he was the servant of art for its own sake, and even compared him
to a bird, carelessly flying. To define his tendency in a word, I would
say that Tchekhov was the poet of hopelessness. Stubbornly, sadly,
monotonously, during all the years of his literary activity, nearly a
quarter of a century long, Tchekhov was doing one thing alone: by one
means or another he was killing human hopes. Herein, I hold, lies the
essence of his creation. Hitherto it has been little spoken of. The
reasons are quite intelligible. In ordinary language what Tchekhov
was doing is called crime, and is visited by condign punishment. But
how can a man of talent be punished? Even Mihailovsky, who more than
once in his lifetime gave an example of merciless severity, did not
raise his hand against Tchekhov. He warned his readers and pointed
out the 'evil fire' which he had noticed in Tchekhov's eyes. But he
went no further. Tchekhov's immense talent overcame the strict and
rigorous critic. It may be, however, that Mihailovsky's own position
in literature had more than a little to do with the comparative
mildness of his sentence. The younger generation had listened to him
uninterruptedly for thirty years, and his word had been law. But
afterwards every one was bored with eternally repeating: 'Aristides
is just, Aristides is right.' The younger generation began to desire
to live and to speak in its own way, and finally the old master was
ostracised. There is the same custom in literature as in Terra del
Fuego. The young, growing men kill and eat the old. Mihailovsky
struggled with all his might, but he no longer felt the strength of
conviction that comes from the sense of right. Inwardly, he felt that
the young were right, not because they knew the truth - what truth did
the economic materialists know? - but because they were young and had
their lives before them. The rising star shines always brighter than
the setting, and the old must of their own will yield themselves up to
be devoured by the young. Mihailovsky felt this, and perhaps it was
this which undermined his former assurance and the firmness of his
opinion of old. True, he was still like Gretchen's mother in Goethe: he
did not take rich gifts from chance without having previously consulted
his confessor. Tchekhov's talent too was taken to the priest, by whom
it was evidently rejected as suspect; but Mihailovsky no longer had the
courage to set himself against public opinion. The younger generation
prized Tchekhov for his talent, his immense talent, and it was plain
they would riot disown him. What remained for Mihailovsky He attempted,
as I say, to warn them. But no one listened to him, and Tchekhov became
one of the most beloved of Russian writers.

Yet the just Aristides was right this time too, as he was right when
he gave his warning against Dostoevsky. Now that Tchekhov is no more,
we may speak openly. Take Tchekhov's stories, each one separately, or
better still, all together; look at him at work. He is constantly,
as it were, in ambush, to watch and waylay human hopes. He will not
miss a single one of them, not one of them will escape its fate. Art,
science, love, inspiration, ideals - choose out all the words with which
humanity is wont, or has been in the past, to be consoled or to be
amused - Tchekhov has only to touch them and they instantly wither and
die. And Tchekhov himself faded, withered and died before our eyes.
Only his wonderful art did not die - his art to kill by a mere touch,
a breath, a glance, everything whereby men live and wherein they take
their pride. And in this art he was constantly perfecting himself, and
he attained to a virtuosity beyond the reach of any of his rivals in
European literature. Maupassant often had to strain every effort to
overcome his victim. The victim often escaped from Maupassant, though
crushed and broken, yet with his life. In Tchekhov's hands, nothing
escaped death.


I must remind my reader, though it is a matter of general knowledge,
that in his earlier work Tchekhov is most unlike the Tchekhov to whom
we became accustomed in late years. The young Tchekhov is gay and
careless, perhaps even like a flying bird. He published his work in
the comic papers. But in 1888 and 1889, when he was only twenty-seven
and twenty-eight years old, there appeared _The Tedious Story_ and the
drama _Ivanov,_ two pieces of work which laid the foundations of a
new creation. Obviously a sharp and sudden change had taken place in
him, which was completely reflected in his works. There is no detailed
biography of Tchekhov, and probably will never be, because there is no
such thing as a full biography - I, at all events, cannot name one.
Generally biographies tell us everything except what it is important
to know. Perhaps in the future it will be revealed to us with the
fullest details who was Tchekhov's tailor; but we shall never know what
happened to Tchekhov in the time which elapsed between the completion
of his story _The Steppe_ and the appearance of his first drama. If we
would know, we must rely upon his works and our own insight.

_Ivanov_ and _The Tedious Story_ seem to me the most autobiographical
of all his works. In them almost every line is a sob; and it is hard to
suppose that a man could sob so, looking only at another's grief. And
it is plain that his grief is a new one, unexpected as though it had
fallen from the sky. Here it is, it will endure for ever, and he does
not know how to fight against it.

In _Ivanov_ the hero compares himself to an overstrained labourer. I
do not believe we shall be mistaken if we apply this comparison to the
author of the drama as well. There can be practically no doubt that
Tchekhov had overstrained himself. And the overstrain came not from
hard and heavy labour; no mighty overpowering exploit broke him: he
stumbled and fell, he slipped. There comes this nonsensical, stupid,
all but invisible accident, and the old Tchekhov of gaiety and mirth
is no more. No more stories for _The Alarm Clock._ Instead, a morose
and overshadowed man, a 'criminal' whose words frighten even the
experienced and the omniscient.

If you desire it, you can easily be rid of Tchekhov and his work as
well. Our language contains two magic words: 'pathological,' and its
brother 'abnormal.' Once Tchekhov had overstrained himself, you have a
perfectly legal right, sanctified by science and every tradition, to
leave him out of all account, particularly seeing that he is already
dead, and therefore cannot be hurt by your neglect. That is if you
desire to be rid of Tchekhov. But if the desire is for some reason
absent, the words 'pathological' and 'abnormal' will have no effect
upon you. Perhaps you will go further and attempt to find in Tchekhov's
experiences a criterion of the most irrefragable truths and axioms of
this consciousness of ours. There is no third way: you must either
renounce Tchekhov, or become his accomplice.

The hero of _The Tedious Story_ is an old professor; the hero of
_Ivanov_ a young landlord. But the theme of both works is the same.
The professor had overstrained himself, and thereby cut himself off
from his past life and from the possibility of taking an active part
in human affairs. Ivanov also had overstrained himself and become a
superfluous, useless person. Had life been so arranged that death
should supervene simultaneously with the loss of health, strength and
capacity, then the old professor and young Ivanov could not have lived
for one single hour. Even a blind man could see that they are both
broken and are unfit for life. But for reasons unknown to us, wise
nature has rejected coincidence of this kind. A man very often goes on
living after he has completely lost the capacity of taking from life
that wherein we are wont to see its essence and meaning. More striking
still, a broken man is generally deprived of everything except the
ability to acknowledge and feel his position. Nay, for the most part
in such cases the intellectual abilities are refined and sharpened
and increased to colossal proportions. It frequently happens that an
average man, banal and mediocre, is changed beyond all recognition when
he falls into the exceptional situation of Ivanov or the old professor.

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryLev ShestovAnton Tchekhov, and other essays → online text (page 1 of 13)