Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

CHEKHOV: In Exile (Introduction)

Philosophers speak to our minds. John Locke’s essay on civil government is a good example: The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions… Storytellers speak to our hearts. William Faulkner’s story about the Snopes family is a good example: "This case is closed. I can't find against you, Snopes, but I can give you advice. Leave this country and don't come back to it." His father spoke for the first time, his voice cold and harsh, level, without emphasis: "I aim to. I don't figure to stay in a country among people who…" he said something unprintable and vile, addressed to no one. Anton Chekhov is a gifted storyteller. His story takes place in the heart of Siberia. His characters are cold and lonely convicts exiled from Russia, banished from the kind of civil government that Locke talks about. But Chekhov has a question: what good is philosophy when you’re stuck out in a Godforsaken place like Siberia? Clay, water, cold, no vegetables for you, no fruit; uneducated and drunken people all around, no manners at all… Siberians live like the Snopes family. How do people cope under those conditions? Here are two options: (1) accept your condition with stoic resignation and don’t wish for things you’ll never have, or (2) reject your condition and keep hoping for a better life someday. Chekhov lays out both options brilliantly through his two main characters, Semyon and Tartar. Semyon has taken the first option. He accepts his lot in life and has grown used to the harsh Siberian climate: "You (Tartar) will get used to it," said Semyon, and he laughed. "Now you are young and foolish, the milk is hardly dry on your lips, and it seems to you in your foolishness that you are more wretched than anyone; but the time will come when you will say to yourself: 'I wish no one a better life than mine.' You look at me. Within a week the floods will be over and we shall set up the ferry; you will all go wandering off about Siberia while I shall stay and shall begin going from bank to bank. I've been going like that for twenty-two years, day and night. …I want nothing and I am afraid of nobody, and the way I look at it is that there is nobody richer and freer than I am. When they sent me here from Russia from the first day I stuck it out; I want nothing! The devil was at me about my wife and about my home and about freedom, but I told him: 'I want nothing.' I stuck to it, and here you see I live well, and I don't complain… This is Stoicism in action. Stick it out. Don’t let anything disturb your peace of mind. You can’t control what’s going on around you but you can control your own thoughts. That’s what will keep you happy. A good Buddhist would say the same thing. But Tartar isn’t buying that philosophy. He defends a fellow exile named Vasily. Vasily’s wife came out to Siberia for awhile but she despised Siberia and after three years she went back home. She left their daughter behind with Vasily. Now the daughter is very sick and Vasily has spends a lot of time and money looking for a doctor who can heal her. Semyon thinks it’s all a waste of time because the girl will die anyway. Then Tartar offers this judgment of Stoic philosophy: You (Semyon) say, want nothing. But 'nothing' is bad! His wife lived with him (Vasily) three years; that was a gift from God. 'Nothing' is bad, but three years is good. How you not understand?" Even if Vasily is sad now, he still had three good years of happiness while his wife was with him. Three good years is better than nothing. Tartar summarizes the whole thing this way: "He is good . . . good; but you are bad! You are bad! The gentleman is a good soul, excellent, and you are a beast, bad! The gentleman is alive, but you are dead. God created man to be alive and to have joy and grief and sorrow; but you want nothing, so you are not alive, you are stone, clay! A stone wants nothing and you want nothing. You are a stone, and God does not love you, but He loves the gentleman!" Tartar doesn’t like Stoicism. He wouldn’t like Mr. Snopes either.


Blogger Bryan said...

Our discussion reminded me of this movie:

Also the phenomenon in Japan known as Hikikomori - people who choose to withdraw of society.

6/01/2011 5:04 AM  

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