Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

CHEKHOV: Uncle Vanya (Act 1)

In last week’s reading Clausewitz takes war for granted.  He believes war is a natural extension of natural human activity and is no more unnatural than politics or law.  But some readers might argue that if we could eliminate war then most of our other problems would be solved too; at least the self-inflicted problems.  If we didn’t spend so much money on wars then we could spend more on social programs.  That sounds nice, but it’s not true, says Chekhov.  Even people living in the most pleasant and peaceful conditions have problems.  In fact, it’s much more likely that we ourselves are the problem.  The story of Uncle Vanya shows that our problems aren’t caused by war and lack of money.  The problem is that we simply get bored and don’t know what to do with ourselves.  Then what (or who) do we blame?

Chekhov was a doctor himself and was very sensitive to the pains and struggles ordinary people have to endure. But he was also a realist and didn’t flinch from looking at life as it really is. This combination made Chekhov a shrewd observer of the human condition. On one end of the scale we have pessimists. The Doctor (Astrov) speaks for the pessimists. “MARINA: You were handsome and young then, and now you are an old man and not handsome any more. You drink, too. DOCTOR: Yes, ten years have made me another man. And why? Because I am overworked…could I help growing old? And then, existence is tedious, anyway; it is a senseless, dirty business, this life…” The doctor is a good man. He works hard. He helps as many sick people as he can. But he finds life boring. Existence is tedious. His life is tedious. “It is a senseless, dirty business, this life.” In just a few words Chekhov has summed up a common human experience. It isn’t just Americans who, in the words of Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” These well-to-do Russians have their own quiet desperation.

On the other end of the scale are the sunny-side optimists. If the pessimists can’t see any sunshine in life, the optimists refuse to look at the dark side. Telyegin speaks for this brand of optimism: “Do you know, Marina, that as I walk in the fields or in the shady garden, as I look at this table here, my heart swells with unbounded happiness. The weather is enchanting, the birds are singing, we are all living in peace and contentment. What more could the soul desire?” This sounds like a happy man to me. Kind of like a Walt Disney movie. But Chekhov isn’t writing a Walt Disney movie. There’s a dark side to Telyegin’s life: “My wife ran away with a lover on the day after our wedding, because I’m not handsome. I have never failed in my duty since then. I love her and am true to her to this day. I help her all I can and have given my fortune to educate the daughter of herself and her lover. I have forfeited my happiness, but I have kept my pride.”  Telyegin can only keep up his optimism at the price of losing his touch with reality.  

Surely the meaning of life is found somewhere between these two extremes of pessimism and optimism. Chekhov’s world is a bittersweet world. For these characters life is mostly bitter but with just enough sweetness to keep them going. Chekhov doesn’t say whether this little glimpse of tantalizing sweetness is a blessing or a curse. It just helps get them from one day to the next. Aristotle’s idea of happiness is achieving one’s full potential, not just getting by from one day to the next. Obviously the folks in this play will never achieve their full potential. Uncle Vanya sums up the Professor this way: “the man has been writing on art for twenty-five years, and he doesn't know the very first thing about it.” The Professor doesn’t know much about art or about his own life either. But he sure knows how to complain. And by the end of Act I Dr. Chekhov has already diagnosed humanity’s self-inflicted disease: you live badly, my friends.


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