Friday, January 4, 2013

Chekhov’s Enlightenment

Flaubert once said “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” In an essay entitled “Chekhov’s Enlightenment”(The New Criterion, November 2012) Gary Saul Morson comments, “What really set Chekhov apart from other intellectuals, including most today, were his openly petit-bourgeois values. I can think of no other great writer who so forthrightly defended middle class virtues as a prerequisite for human dignity. Medicine suited him, not only because of his acute sensitivity to human suffering but also because of the high value it accorded to proper habits, respect for one’s surrounding, and, most bourgeois of all good hygiene.” Thus the very title of Morson’s essay should be taken with a grain of salt. Rather than Enlightenment figures like Locke, you might say that Chekhov had more in common with Edmund Burke to the extent that his skepticism and anti-millenarianism were rooted in the doctor’s understanding of the complexity of pathology and the fact there weren’t always simple remedies (a.k.a. enlightened solutions) for every malady. Morson quotes Chekhov thusly on the trendy progressive poseurs of his day, “Our young ladies and political beaux are pure fools…all their inactivity sanctity and purity are based on hazy and naïve sympathies and antipathies to individuals and labels, not to facts. It’s easy to be pure when you hate the Devil you don’t know and love the God you wouldn’t have brains enough to doubt.” Turgenev’s Basarov was the perfect model for this kind of dictatorship of the intellectual. In his famous lines from “The Second Coming,” Yeats iterated the humanity of a similar sensibility, “The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” 

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