Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

GORKY: Chelkash

Readers of the Great Books may ask themselves how Maxim Gorky made it on the Great Books list. Does he belong to be given space alongside other intellectual giants we’ve been reading, such as Thucydides, Adam Smith and Freud? Is a short story about thieves a worthy plot for the grand adventure of Great Books? As usual, that’s up to the individual reader to decide. Let’s compare writers and find out for ourselves. Start with Adam Smith’s theory of the division of labor. Adam Smith wrote it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. The way Adam Smith tells it, there’s a clean division of work between people. Some sell meat, others make beer, still others offer bread. Everyone has his work to do. Everything works out. But what about those who don’t have regular “jobs” to do? What happens to them? Gorky starts his story with a description of workers on the docks of an unnamed seaport presumably somewhere around Russia. A poem of bitter irony could be read in the contrast between these ragged seating men, stupefied by the heat, the noise, and the exhausting labor, and the powerful machines these men had made and which stood radiating well-being in the sunlight; machines which, when all is said and done, had been set in motion not by steam, but by the blood and muscles of those who made them. Gorky’s story gives some flesh and blood to Smith’s description of the free market for the laboring class. It works out well for those at the top but what about these poor guys working all day in the hot sun just to earn enough money to eat? They’re barely surviving, not getting ahead or saving money; and for what?

Man does not live by bread alone. In an earlier reading Freud said: The Bolshevists, too, aspire to do away with human aggressiveness by insuring the satisfaction of material needs and enforcing equality between man and man. To me this hope seems vain. Gorky knew the Bolshevists. Does he agree with Freud that if man’s material needs were met we would still be an aggressive species? Chelkash has few physical needs. He’s a thief. He “earns” his living by stealing what other people have produced. Gorky paints this picture of a talented thief among these tough dock workers: Chelkash was in his element amid this mad welter. He was anticipating a great haul that night, a haul that would cost him little effort but require a great deal of skill. We never find out what he stole but we do know that it was worth a lot of money. Chelkash is satisfied as long as he’s got enough to pay for a bottle of vodka, cabbage soup, roast beef and tea. Chelkash is clearly not motivated by the thought of having more money. What seems to motivate Chelkash is his own notion of freedom and power. He likes being his own boss. He likes being independent. He also likes telling other people what to do. This notion of power as a motivating force is something Freud understood well. But Thucydides understood it some 2500 years before Freud. Thucydides wrote: We (Athenians) believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a natural law always rule where they are stronger. We did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it; we found it existing and it will exist forever, after we are gone. And we know that you (Melians) and anyone else as strong as we are would do as we do. Gorky understood this universal “natural law” of power too. Men always rule when they’re stronger. In this case Chelkash is stronger than young Gavrilla. It’s not physical strength. Chelkash is mentally tougher. He can survive this harsh environment; Gavrilla can’t. Just like the Athenian-Melian situation. Neither city-state would survive the Peloponnesian War. So whether we consider Adam Smith’s labor theory, or Freud’s psychology, or Thucydides’ idea of political power, Maxim Gorky belongs in this company of distinguished writers of Great Books.


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