Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, July 27, 2013

CHEKHOV: Uncle Vanya (Act II)

A famous poem by Dylan Thomas begins like this: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In the second act of Uncle Vanya the Professor takes this advice seriously. He will not go gently, he won’t age gracefully and he wants everyone to know how he feels about it too. Here are the words used by the elderly Professor Serebrakoff to protest his fate: “It is funny that everybody listens to Ivan and his old idiot of a mother, but the moment I open my lips you all begin to feel ill-treated. You can't even stand the sound of my voice. Even if I am hateful, even if I am a selfish tyrant, haven't I the right to be one at my age? Don't I deserve it? Haven't I, I ask you, the right to be respected, now that I am old?” The professor complains that no one takes him seriously. He complains that he’s getting old. He complains that his legs hurt. He complains that the room’s too hot and he can’t breathe. In short, the professor has a hateful attitude. But his question is still a valid one: Even if he is a hateful, selfish tyrant; doesn’t he have the right to be respected? The answer may well be: no. At this point in the play even his own family is getting worn down by his constant demand to be the center of attention.

And the professor’s hateful attitude seems to be infecting everyone around him. His own wife Helena proclaims that “something is wrong in this house” as she talks to Uncle Vanya: “Your mother hates everything but her pamphlets and the professor; the professor is vexed, he won't trust me, and fears you; Sonia is angry with her father, and with me, and hasn't spoken to me for two weeks; I am at the end of my strength, and have come near bursting into tears at least twenty times to-day. Something is wrong in this house.” So Helena’s on the verge of tears, Sonia’s mad, the professor is being his old hateful self, and Vanya’s mother hates almost everything too. It doesn’t sound like anyone’s going gently in this house. Everybody seems to be elbowing all the others for attention and “respect.” This is not a pleasant home. Some people think this may be a fairly accurate description of modern civilization. Helena claims that she’s a shallow person but she does have this insight to share: “You are cultured and intelligent, Ivan, and you surely understand that the world is not destroyed by crime and fire, but by hate and malice and all this petty squabbling. You should try to make peace, not growl at everything.” Chekhov’s message to “cultured and intelligent” modern folks seems to be this: war and crime is bad but your real problem is, you’re bored with life and you treat each other badly. That needs to change.

And the one doctor in the play (Astroff) seems to agree with Dr. Chekhov’s diagnosis. Astroff believes that “a human being should be entirely beautiful: the face, the clothes, the mind, the thoughts.” Those are high standards and yet it seems to be the goal of truly cultured and intelligent people throughout the ages to cultivate truth, goodness and beauty. These represent excellence in the intellectual (truth), moral (goodness) and physical (beauty) realms. It is rare for one person to consistently achieve excellence in all three areas. Helena, for example, is beautiful; but something’s missing. Astroff tells Sonia: “Your step-mother (Helena) is, of course, beautiful to look at, but don't you see? She does nothing but sleep and eat and walk and bewitch us, and that is all. She has no responsibilities, everything is done for her; am I not right? And an idle life can never be a good one.” This is old school philosophy straight out of Aristotle. His philosophy of happiness is to develop our skills to the best of our abilities; to achieve ‘excellence’ intellectually, morally and physically. This is Aristotle’s definition of classical excellence: the good life and the happy life are the same thing. Chekhov’s characters aren’t happy because they’re not living good lives. And that’s what they’re really raging against.


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