Chekhov the Fox and Visions of Transcendent Humanity
Anton Chekhov might look like a hedgehog when he returns time and again to the theme of universal humanity and its future path. But Chekhov as ‘the humanist writer’ does not really work towards a unified concept of mankind’s ultimate fate. Rather, the thinking men in his stories and plays present their own diverging and overlapping visions of human purpose. In a most Chekhovian manner, these perspectives are often frustrated or denied by the essential incommunicability of each man’s point of view. It then seems that Chekov’s narrative voice is more suited to the fox’s role, as it presents a polyphonic and individually refutable set of perspectives on a common theme. For some of Chekhov’s characters, the fate of man is fixed and predetermined, for others it is the uncertain product of generations’ toil. For some there is a religious drive to improving the current lot of humanity, and for others it is a biological or social imperative. Chekhov’s restless exploration of what humanity’s future means to different people proves that he would rather celebrate the philosophical diversity of his zeitgeist than constrain the intellectual developments of his age to a single framework.
Perhaps the most tellingly individualized view of humanity’s future in a Chekhov text is found in The Seagull. Kostya’s notion of the “World Soul” is an abstracted and dramatized vision of the standard Western theological and philosophical trope of mankind’s convergent destiny. Whether expressed in the biblical model of the rapture, in the political ideal of manifest destiny, or in the latest theories of a technological singularity, there has been a throughline in Western thought that structures humanity’s future as a unified turn to the greater good.
Kostya’s play-within-a-play defines his version of this fateful unity as the “dreams of what will be two hundred thousand years from now” (99). Nina’s character introduces herself as an allegorical projection of unified life in a lifeless world: “The bodies of all living things having turned to dust, eternal matter has transformed them into stones, water, clouds, and all their souls have merged into one. That great world soul – is I” (100). Then she speaks of the predestined action of this unified force: “in the cruel, persistent struggle with the devil, the principle of the forces of matter, I am destined to be victorious; then matter and spirit shall merge in glorious harmony” (101). However muddled or phantasmagorically contrived it comes across to his fictional audience, Kostya’s authorial voice tells Chekhov’s audience that the ultimate goal of humanity is to religiously transcend the physical realm. Whether or not Kostya himself literally believes in such a goal does not matter, his writing nevertheless produces that individual view of human transcendence.
Kostya introduces this transcendence as inevitable and out of the influence of currently living humans, in contrast with the views of some other Chekhov characters. Doctor Astrov, in Uncle Vanya, expresses the opposing opinion most strongly, taking personal responsibility for the future of the environment and, by extension, human happiness: “Man is endowed with reason and creative powers . . . I realize that the climate is somewhat in my power, and that if, a thousand years from now, mankind is happy, I shall be responsible for that too, in a small way” (175), Likewise, Vershinin in The Three Sisters, argues that his “dream . . . of the life that will come after us” in “a thousand years – the time doesn’t matter” will arise because humans are “living for it now, working . . . suffering, and creating it” (264). This argument is against Tuzenbach’s assertion that there will be no such transcendent future, regardless of whether modern man works for it or not: “Not only in two or three hundred years, but in a million years, life will be just the same as it always was” (265). The fox-like attributes of Chekhov’s oeuvre are evident in the way his characters’ conflicting opinions contribute to an intertextual argument on a specific strand of philosophy.
If Chekhov were a hedgehog, his dramas might then guide this argument towards one triumphant vision of human destiny. Instead, the armchair philosophers in The Three Sisters give no finality to the subject, with Vershinin concluding that “in any case, it’s a pity youth is over” and Tuzenbach saying “It’s difficult arguing with you, friends! Well, let it go” (266). Astrov becomes disillusioned with his own argument, telling Elena that is that “there’s nothing to understand, it’s simply uninteresting” (201). And most disappointingly, Kostya’s play is seen only as “decadent ravings” by his audience of family members (102). Chekhov’s great dramas define him as a fox because they not only develop many angles of his philosophical theme, but also present each distinct approach to the subject in the utterly fallible voice of a fictional character. As with many Chekhovian short story characters, the thinkers in these plays find that their lofty opinions count for naught when they cannot be properly communicated to another person. This trend denies the ultimate validity of each fictional viewpoint, such that even if there were consensus between all characters in different plays on the subject of humanity’s common future, it would still be impossible to pinpoint a singular perspective running through Chekhov’s theatrical work. The short stories that introduce variant perspectives on universal humanity are even more telling of Chekhov’s ‘foxiness.’ Their third-person narrative forms allow the author to more explicitly point out the incomprehensibility, and hence illegitimacy, of a character’s opinion to anyone outside of his personal perspective. The Black Monk features the most exaggerated instance of this narrative technique. Kovrin’s apparition descends upon him to explain that he is a divinely chosen genius whose work will lead mankind “some thousands of years earlier into the kingdom of eternal truth” (35). Combining Kostya’s vision of religious transcendence with Astrov’s belief in the necessity of individual labor, the Black Monk’s divine mandate represents yet another strain of “the immortality of man” that is pursued literally and as a symbol of mortal progress throughout much of Chekhov’s fiction (35).
The narrative, however, makes it clear that this belief is not to be taken at face value, because it originates, exists, and is expressible solely in the mind of its one believer. After accepting the mantle of genius, Kovrin questions the man that he knows to be a hallucination, “What do you mean by eternal truth?” and the third-person narrator proclaims that “the monk did not answer. Kovrin looked at him and could not distinguish his face. His features grew blurred and misty. Then the monk’s head and arms disappeared; his body seemed merged into the seat and the evening twilight, and he vanished altogether” (36). We see here that Kovrin’s vision of universal humanity is not even fully formed, because his ghostly guide disappears without revealing to him its entire meaning, thus introducing doubt to the reader that Kovrin is capable of pursuing such a vision. Throughout the story of The Black Monk, Kovrin and the narrator both acknowledge that the titular spirit exists only in the mind of the overworked philosopher. That narrative position, combined with the fevered, imperfect nature of Kovrin’s convictions, connotes the incommunicability of a personal belief in human transcendence. Whereas theatre allows characters to say aloud thoughts with which the audience or the author are clearly intended to disagree, narrative fiction enables the reader to see a viewpoint that is invalidated even further by its deviation from consensus reality.
The incommunicability of transcendental belief can also be found in the thematic subtext of two earlier Chekhov stories, Dreams and Gusev. It’s interesting to note that in Dreams Chekhov’s characters locate the impossible, shared vision of perfected humanity in the distant past rather than the future: “have these visions of a life of liberty come down to them . . . as an inheritance from their remote, wild ancestors? God only knows!” (48). Here is another testament to Chekhov’s foxiness; between texts, he radically varies the specifics of their common philosophical theme.
Dreams features the focalized ponderings of an odd tramp who sets the tone for the story when he says of the inexplicable motives of his mother: “She was a godly woman, but who can say? The soul of another is a dark forest” (45). As he is escorted through a literal dark forest, the tramp quixotically attempts to communicate to his soldier captors the vision of freedom and brotherhood that has taken root in his own soul. But, being in a Chekhov story, he travels one step forward and two steps back in pursuit of this merging of perspectives. The tramp succeeds at first in getting the soldiers’ imaginations to join his in “painting for them pictures of a free life which they have never lived” (48). But then, because “perhaps he is jealous of the vagrant’s visionary happiness” one of the “evil-boding fellow travelers” starts to argue against the realism of the tramp’s utopian escape (48). The shared vision fails because the soldiers cannot “force their minds to grasp what perhaps God alone can conceive of: the terrible expanse that lies between them and that land of freedom” (48). Here, Chekhov suggests another possibility for why these dreams of human transcendence are impossible to uphold – besides the madness, disillusionment, or indifference of the dreamer. It may simply be out of the scope of human cognition to share an understanding of the struggle needed to reach a perfect world.
Gusev contains no explicit reference to a vision of mankind’s ultimate goal, but it does share with the other texts a humanist message that is denied by miscommunication. Pavel Ivanych, a righteous dying man, attempts to impress upon the titular soldier that his conscription is inhumane, for “it is not plans that matter but human life. You have only one life to live and it musn’t be wronged” (256). Gusev fails to grasp the metaphysical implications of the injustice pointed out by Pavel Ivanych and seeks only to argue that the specific duties of his conscription are not too harsh. This intellectual disconnect between the two men is established earlier in the story, when in response to Pavel Ivanych’s diatribes against those he sees responsible for human suffering, it can only be said that “Gusev does not understand Pavel Ivanych; thinking that he is being reprimanded, he [responds] in self-justification” (255). Pavel Ivanych, like the tramp before him, and Kovrin and the dramatic figures after him, is a true Chekhovian humanist. All his attempts to share his belief in the proper way of living are frustrated by the uniqueness of his way of thinking. Chekhov the fox shows yet another way for a humanist vision to be denied: it is the surrounding environment of petty minds and morals that makes Pavel Ivanych’s quest for common humanity a self-defeating one.
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