Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Tao of Unhappiness

It is easy to ridicule the characters which inhabit Chekhov's play, The Seagull. After all, Kostya, Nina, Sorin and Arkadina are financially well off; they enjoy good health, and have leisure to spend their summer living on a beautiful estate in the bosom of nature. So, what's the problem? Compared to the sufferings of many people in the world, their troubles are trivial. Instead of complaining, they should be grateful for the things they have. This, undoubtedly, is the point of view of anyone who measures happiness by prosperity. But the human heart is more complicated. Why some people are happy even though impoverished, while others enjoy every material comfort and are miserable, remains a mystery. Yet, it suggests that happiness is not necessarily a byproduct of wealth and beauty. All dramatic art (comedy as well as tragedy) requires conflict. If the world in which we live could satisfy our every desire we would drown in a sea of boredom, and Chekhov would have no stories to tell. Fortunately for art, human beings survive on a steady diet of sorrow. And if we cannot find it in our own backyard, we will seek it elsewhere.

Americans are blessed (or infected) with a simple optimism towards life. This optimism is grounded in the belief that happiness is obtainable through hard work and good family values. We don't like failure, and we have little sympathy for people who complain about their troubles. We tend to believe that happiness is only a state of mind, so if you are unhappy you just need to adjust your thinking. Thus, the milieu of Chekhov's play is not one that we normally find attractive. Here, we encounter people who seem to have everything, and yet are miserable. How are we to understand their unhappiness, and what does Chekhov want us to think about their situation? Are we to judge them as mere fools and feel superior to them? Or is it possible to find human qualities in them that are also present in ourselves?

Consider the reasons for their unhappiness:

Kostya is in love with Nina, but Nina has eyes only for Trigorin. Medvedenko loves Masha, but Masha yearns for Kostya. Nina is infatuated with Trigorin, but Trigorin is involved with Arkadina. Polina longs for Dorin but Dorin is faithful to no one. And so on, and so on. We see that just about everyone is frustrated in love. Though unrequited love is certainly not unique to Chekhov (see, Shakespeare, T. Williams, Lord Byron,, but when depicted in this manner it borders on farce or melodrama. We cannot imagine that we ever act that foolish. Or do we?

Another aspect of misbegotten love is the Oedipal relationship between Kostya and his mother, Arkadina. Kostya's mother, the actress Arkadina, has retired after a long career on the stage. She is surrounded by adoring friends and lovers. Her son, Kostya, on the other hand, has accomplished nothing in life. He longs for the love of his mother and the respect of her artistic friends, but he does not measure up. His mother ignores him and spends all her time entertaining her friends and her lover, Trigorin, a celebrated writer who is much younger than she. Meanwhile, Kostya feels neglected and resentful of Trigorin's fame.

Besides unrequited love, other problems plague the characters in Chekhov's play. Medvedenko is poor and worries about how to survive on a miserly income. Arkadina worries about growing old and losing her beauty. Kostya, in fact, has no income at all. We see him as a kind of Hamlet, a melancholy man devoted to a higher calling. He believes that traditional forms of art (e.g., naturalism) are old fashioned and need to be replaced. But his own attempt at writing results in a play that is ridiculed by his mother, and criticized by Nina, the young woman with whom he is passionately in love. To make matters worse, his mother's boyfriend, Trigorin, is a respected author who has become wealthy by writing trashy novels. Though these books are nothing to brag about ("a long way from Tolstoy"), Nina admires Trigorin and envies his life. In her youthful mind, nothing could be more glorious than a career as a talented writer or a famous actress.

For Nina believes in the transformative power of art, its capacity to elevate us above the mundane circumstances of ordinary life. Praising Trigorin, she says,

"It's a wonderful world. How I envy you, if only you knew. People's lots are very different. Some barely drag out their tedious, unnoticed existence, each of them just like all the others, all of them unhappy; others, like you for instance, are given a life that is interesting, bright, full of're happy..."

Nina is convinced that being an artist is like being a kind of magician who creates beauty out of thin air, and is admired and respected by the public. Surely, having such power is bound to make one happy. But Trigorin laughs at such notions. He knows that living a "creative life" is more about drudgery than glamour.

"What is special about it?...You can have a compulsive imagination...I've no sooner finished a story than I'm already driven by something to write another...What is there here that is splendid or bright? Oh what an absurd life!...And so it remains always, always, and I have no rest from myself, and I feel that I'm devouring my own life...Am I not a madman?"

But Nina is blinded by the aura of fame. Only later will she learn that fame exacts a painful price and that price is always the joy and innocence of youth.

To Kostya, Nina's conception of art is childish and boring. Art is not about representing the world as it is (realism), but instead it shows what it can or should become (idealism). For him, what is needed is a complete break with tradition:

"We need new forms, but if there aren't any, it's better to have nothing."

In other words, if you are incapable of making serious art, then do something else. Be a farmer or a shoe maker. But don't pretend to create art when you are only producing opium for the masses. This is why for Kostya the so-called dramatic art of the theatre is nothing but a minstrel show. What art requires is the burning lake of truth, not the warm glow of platitudes. Whether or not Chekhov uses Kostya to advance his own idea of art is for the reader to decide.

When Kostya's first attempt at writing fails, he withdraws into himself and abandons his dreams for the future. Clearly, he doesn't handle criticism or rejection well. He might possibly have learned something from Trigorin about the fickleness of fame and the need for a thick skin. But Kostya is not prepared to enter the rough and tumble world of literary critics. His killing of the seagull is an impulsive remedy for ever allowing himself to dream of happiness. Does the seagull represent Nina or Kostya's love for her? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Yet, at the end of the play, when Nina has lost both her innocence and her youth, she identifies herself with the dead seagull, a poor creature that has lost its way in the world and no longer knows what to call home.


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