Finding the ideal of freedom in a rugged prison colony
By James McConkey
September 1, 2005
At various moments in my life, both difficult and happy ones, I have thought of Anton Chekhov, finding in his stories, plays, and letters the kind of mirror that enables me to see my inner rather than my outer image.
In a much-quoted 1888 letter he wrote to an acquaintance—a letter written with obvious emotion, the expression of a credo from one normally silent on matters of personal belief—Chekhov says of himself:
I am neither liberal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist. . . . Pharisaism, dull wittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. . . . I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take.
Despite his protestations, most of Chekhov’s biographers have tagged him as a liberal, basing their judgment on such grounds as his active concern for the health and education of the poor; his opposition to brutal governmental repression, including the treatment of convicts; the protests he makes (if indirectly, through his characters) against the ruthless leveling of forests as well as other environmental degradations; and his admiration of the French writer Émile Zola for that writer’s vigorous championing of Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer whose secret court-martial and imprisonment, defended by conservatives in Russia as well as France, was an anti- Semitic frame-up.
Anybody like me (that is, anybody who so admires Chekhov’s stories and plays that he or she has gone on to read everything else by or about him available in English—his longest work, the non-fictional; the various collections of his letters; and nearly all the biographies devoted to him) is aware, though, that his nature contains conservative as well as liberal elements. For that matter, one could write a persuasive essay demonstrating how certain shadings of such labels as “gradualist,” “monk,” and “indifferentist” can also be applied to him: he believed in the eventual progress of humanity, he evaded marriage until his last years, and even his closest friends complained of an elusive detachment or remove in him.
He was the grandson of a serf, the son of a pious and authoritarian small-town merchant ever in search of social status; Chekhov’s own university education and professional achievements—as a doctor as well as a writer—would never have been made possible, as he realized, without those reforms, instituted at roughly the time of his birth by Czar Alexander II, that liberated serfs and permitted worthy applicants other than aristocrats to enter the institutions of higher learning. His own conservative tendencies prevented him, as a student, from joining in the liberal protests against the authoritarianism of the regime. Though differing attitudes toward the Dreyfus Affair brought distance to the relationship, Chekhov was first a protégé and then such a friend of the influential conservative publisher Alexis Suvorin that Chekhov’s liberal detractors—and there were many—attacked him as Suvorin’s “kept woman.”
In a letter to Suvorin written some years after he had left the university in Moscow, Chekhov reveals his distaste for the continuing student disorders— even though those protests were made in the name of the very freedom that Chekhov so valued for himself. (In the letter, he lists the student demands, which include academic freedom, free admission to the university “without regard to religion, nationality, sex, or social status,” and so on.) But unruly mass movements implied, if not outright violence, at least its possibility. Chekhov’s lifelong abhorrence of violence was a consequence, one of his brothers said, of the gentleness of their mother, “who instilled into her children a hatred of brutality” as well as “a feeling of regard for all who were in inferior position and for birds and animals.”
Quite late in life, he dismayed a young admirer of his work by a blatant and utterly conservative remark. According to that admirer, an engineering student who later became a writer himself, Chekhov said, “The reason students are rebelling is to make themselves look like heroes and have an easier time with the young ladies.” Such a sardonic comment becomes only slightly less offensive to liberal ears when made part of the context in which it was given: his irritability throughout an ill-advised stay—for he was not well—with a wealthy philanthropist who was a major backer of the Moscow Art Theater, a landowner and industrialist whom Chekhov referred to as “a Russian Rockefeller.” As Chekhov observed to the student out of hearing of their host, the espousal of liberal causes by the genial “Russian Rockefeller” permitted him to indulge in “the revolutionary game” while remaining blind to the unwholesome environment and long hours to which he subjected his workers.
But generosity and liberalism coexist with a conservative self-interest in nearly all of us. As a retired Cornell professor, I am hardly to be compared with patricians, financiers, and industrialists with their parklands and mansions and philanthropies, but I reflect a mixture of attitudes, too. For example, my liberal leanings were certainly brought up short when the woods and farmland adjoining my family’s extensive Finger Lakes acreage were divided into lots and put up for auction. To exclude from my view the mobile homes rapidly spreading in our scenic but unzoned township, I outbid all of the poorer folk—whether middle-aged laborers or couples too young to possess much of a nest egg—who yearned for life in the country.
Whatever his own mixtures, Chekhov has remained of inestimable service to me over the decades because of his unobtrusive insistence upon a freedom beyond our political and religious institutions. Freedom, I judge from reading him, is a basic human need, underlying our selfish as well as altruistic desires, and sometimes entangling both desires at once. That need seems innate for Chekhov. Among other matters, it accounts for the appeal that vast natural vistas— whether of mountains or steppes—have for him. (In “Daydreams,” a story he wrote in 1886, a narrator indistinguishable from the author muses upon the yearning of his characters—two rural constables and a convict recaptured after his escape—for an unobtainable freedom. He finds such longings to be either inexplicable or an expression of our genetic memories, of the life within an unbounded nature known to our distant ancestors.) Whether expressed or simply implied in his work and letters, his view that all of us want a happiness and freedom obviously beyond attainment is crucial both to his seeming objectivity (the detachment that led critics on both the right and left to denounce him) and to the compassion (a quality that his biographers attribute to his liberalism) that lies within his depiction of even some characters who strike the reader as largely responsible for their own sufferings. In Chekhov’s play, the reiterated cry for “Moscow!” is a manifestation of what all of us want but cannot possess.
As I have aged, I have increasingly come to realize that my own nature is best understood as a tension between body and soul, the old antithesis that today seems to be accepted without embarrassment only by those who are particularly devout. I have also come to believe that the separation that Christianity and other religions make between body and soul probably predates any specific religion, constituting an ancient awareness of the antithesis contained within each of us—the necessary concern for self-interest and the equally necessary concern for all that lies outside the self that possibly can justify our individual existence and provide us an encompassingmeaning. For me (as well as for many others today) the first of these venerable terms has everything to do with being, the second with becoming, a reversal of Plato’s position in the Republic that equates being with absolute (and hence timeless) forms, and becoming with our actual, timebound human existence.
Chekhov himself was anything but a believer in absolute forms, whether provided by philosophy or religion. In reading Chekhov, I am aware of the applicability of the antithesis between physical and spiritual needs and desires to the comic as well as tragic confusions, contradictions, and aspirations of his characters. His personal desire “for the most absolute freedom imaginable” is, of course, spiritual in nature, the desire allied with becoming; but we most assuredly exist as bodies—as a practicing physician, Chekhov would be especially aware of that simple fact—and so possess physical as well as spiritual yearnings. The former, unlike the latter, are capable of fulfillment: Chekhov’s “holy of holies,” after all, includes the healthy human body. Nevertheless, his awareness of a freedom beyond attainment gives to his writings the sense we have of a moral basis in this rigorously nonjudgmental writer. That is to say, our self-deceptions, our petty resentments and other entrapments of the ego, our expedient hypocritical performances, the brutalities and social injustices of any given society, the hurt and violence we inflict on others—all these can be perceived as obstacles preventing the limited (but no less precious) freedom that is available to any one of us.
In only one story I know, “Gusev,” does Chekhov offer us a glimpse into an apparently immutable truth, the truth that for him must lie within or beyond our longings. “Gusev” was written while Chekhov was aboard the ship returning him to Russia following his quite extraordinary overland trip across Siberia to investigate the prison colony on Sakhalin Island. It was a therapeutic experience for a writer who for a number of reasons had been depressed, suffering from an alienation so severe that (according to his biographers) he was in danger of a breakdown. The story depends on his observation at sea of two of his fellow passengers, both so ill that they died during the voyage, who are transferred by Chekhov’s imagination into antithetical characters who bear some analogy to the oppositions of his own nature. (It is not his only story to do so: “Gooseberries” is an equally marvelous example. But more than with “Gooseberries” or other stories that occur to me, “Gusev” approaches parable or allegory in that the two characters are so sharply drawn as opposing qualities.)
Except for his irrational dislike of all Chinese, the title character, a simple peasant, is representative of the nature of the soul by his longings and acceptance; to his opposite, an embittered radical, Chekhov gives much of his own recent alienation. (That radical malcontent, so ostensibly concerned with social justice, is as self-centered and as concerned—his envy and hubris reveal it—with his own status as anybody could possibly be. Does such an ironic awareness come from Chekhov’s earlier view of student radicals as well as his detached insight into his own recent emotional disturbance with all of its resentments?) Both characters die; both are dumped after brief ceremonies into the sea.
As the title indicates, Chekhov is more interested in his peasant. The end of the story employs a double vision: the narrator follows Gusev’s descent—he continues to call him by name, for Gusev remains a presence to him, not a corpse—as he sinks ever deeper and is attacked by a shark; but that narrator also is watching the sun as it sets above the water. I know of no other depiction, in fiction or poetry or essay, that so well manages to convey simultaneously the transcendent glory of the natural world and its complete indifference to the death and dissolution of its individual inhabitants, destined as they are to return to their origins within that world. We are presented with the sublimity, the terrifying beauty, of the merger of water and sky at sunset (I don’t think it too fanciful to consider it, in human terms, a fusion of body and soul), a moment of such splendor and union that “it is hard to find a name” for it, as the final line says, “in the language of man.” Is this vision prophetic of the destiny that underlies the human search for happiness and pure freedom? I imagine so, and can accept it as such. And Walt Whitman, that most American, that most democratic of writers, shares something with Chekhov here, in his view of death as returning us to the unity of our natural origins in sea and grass.
Historically, we Americans have thought that true freedom could be obtained in our lifetimes, right here on Earth. Like the Russia of Chekhov’s time, America once seemed a vast expanse; but the Russian vastness never gave Chekhov the innocent beliefs that ours gave us. For us, the magnitude and richness of our land were such that it could absorb all people who wished to find in its resources an amalgam of their material hopes and spiritual desires; our nation’s optimism was nourished by, and depended upon, our material possibilities and achievements. That observation is anything but original: ever since the publication of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, his title character—who thought his spiritual longings could be satiated in the material world—has been the most enduring fictional representation of who we (in our ignorant nobility, in our innocent crassness) once were and apparently still want to be, despite the depletion of our resources and our increasing dependence on foreign countries not only to supply us the goods to be found in our shopping malls and car dealerships but to loan us the money that permits us to buy them.
Gatsby’s transcendent dreaming ended up in disenchantment and death. Such dreams, though, have been a major factor in American optimism from our nation’s beginnings. My father, born toward the end of the 19th century, exemplifies that optimism for me. He had in mind an indefinable “bracket” to which he aspired, believing his strenuous efforts would achieve it. That destined bracket must have been spiritual, for none of his considerable achievements or periods of prosperity ever satisfied him. Maybe because his dreams were less grandiosely romantic than Gatsby’s—because they never transformed any mortal, imperfect woman into a transcendent ideal—they never defeated my father. (In this regard, at least, he seems to me a more quintessential American than Gatsby, or, for that matter, Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.) Hope sustained him, and that has much to do with the growing admiration I had for him in his later years, for he carried his optimism to the grave, despite financial setbacks and the illnesses that came with age. I was among those at his bedside as he was dying from the malignant growth that had spread from his pancreas. His last words, spoken as the blood was pouring from his mouth, were the cry of an unvanquished spirit: “I don’t have cancer!”
How much has American optimism depended all along on illusions that make us brave like that? My father died on his 77th birthday, and I am now his elder by six years. No doubt I have sustaining illusions of my own. For that matter, so did Chekhov. Physician though he was, he deluded himself for years into believing he wasn’t a victim of tuberculosis (a mortal illness in his day), despite the blood he frequently coughed up. The characters of his stories and plays certainly possess illusions of the sort we rarely admit might be ours—that is, wholly subjective interpretations of reality, including the interpretations they impose upon the daily events of their lives. But nothing that I know of in either Chekhov’s own life or imaginative work denies what I take to be his underlying insight, always implied but never stated: that being, our existence as mortal creatures, is separate from becoming, that the desire of the soul for unity and pure freedom is as distinct from any material goal as it is from any rigidly imposed political or religious belief.
The general definitions of the words and are self-evident to nearly all of us: the conservative defends the status quo, as exemplified in stable institutions, while the liberal supports reform of those institutions for the sake of the individual’s freedom and economic well-being. In principle, conservatism is working toward closure, liberalism toward openness, in an already established system: neither, then, represents radicalism, which would overthrow the system itself.
For decades beginning with the Great Depression, liberalism in America was in the ascendancy, the federal government under Franklin D. Roosevelt instituting social reforms intended to make the individual citizen as free as possible from want and social neglect. The success of those reforms has never been more than partial: the problems were, and remain, complex, growing in size (in keeping with a growing population that has more than doubled in my lifetime), and seemingly intractable. The attempted solutions sometimes resulted in bureaucratic mismanagement as well as a labyrinth of regulations perceived by many as interfering with business enterprise and even the enterprise of individuals dependent upon governmental support.
Ever since the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, liberals have come to represent paralysis rather than change, and all the charges leveled against them when they were healthier—that they support laxity and indulgence and have contributed to a decline in religious values—are now used to attack the reforms they managed to gain. Conservatism has become such a dominant political force that liberalism seems a pejorative term not only to most politicians, regardless of party affiliation, but to those citizens whose liberal leanings once caused them to ally themselves with the Democratic Party: they now either call themselves “progressives” or simply say that the conservative-liberal dichotomy has outlived its usefulness.
Recent historical events, especially the attack on the World Trade Center, have given conservatism an even greater power over an already moribund liberalism. After 9/11, the nation that had emerged to be the world’s single remaining superpower suddenly found itself vulnerable in a way few had been able to imagine. Such a continuing threat made inevitable the use of our superior military power and brought about a dramatic strengthening of Christian fundamentalism and political conservatism—both representative of the movement toward closure of individual freedom to protect a cherished status quo.
While writing this last sentence, I found myself remembering a passage I read some years ago in the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. He uses the sea anemone, a creature “devoid of a brain and equipped only with a simple nervous system,” to describe a “fundamental duality” found in all biological life, including the human species. When the environment surrounding it is favorable, the anemone “opens up to the world like a blossoming flower,” but it will “close itself into a contracted flat pack” whenever it senses danger and vulnerability. Damasio’s account of the anemone’s behavior is similar to a nation’s movement toward openness or closure, an analogy worth our consideration, unsettling though it may be to wonder if a simple biological reflex underlies our political polarities.
I share Chekhov’s distrust of labels. A tag on the toe of a stiffened body in a morgue may give that body a name, but it tells us little about the mixtures that constituted the living person’s nature. Because, like Chekhov, we contain both liberal and conservative inclinations, Americans, at least in times of peace, tend toward compromise and moderation. Politicians in both our major parties support their personal positions on a given issue by saying it is what the people want or demand. I have no idea what an abstraction like “the people” actually want. War and perceived threats tend to unify people in all nations, of course. Equally obvious is the fact that the closeness of the last two major elections in the United States reflects a deep and continuing division among those who voted, despite this unifying impulse in the most recent election. Polls might provide the statistics that I can only guess at: the number of Americans in both parties who have been made uneasy by their perception that the current conservative ideology has distorted their religious and political beliefs into an orthodoxy unfamiliar to them.
Such a situation inevitably breeds both resentment and alienation, those feelings that Chekhov, at a critical moment in his life, must have despised himself for having, as impediments to his wish for a freedom that always lay beyond his grasp. According to biographical evidence, those feelings help to account for his decision to leave Russia “perhaps never to return”—or so he wrote in justification of the unusually bitter tone of his letter to the editor of a journal that had just named him as one of “the high priests of unprincipled writing.” Was it a conscious or unconscious act of therapy on Chekhov’s part to undertake a solitary, arduous, and sometimes lifethreatening journey across Siberia—a journey in which he traversed a quarter of the world’s circumference—to investigate the prison colony on the remote island of Sakhalin, where climate, poor soil, and rugged terrain contributed to the misery of convicts exiled from their homeland for the rest of their lives? (Upon completing the terms of their punishment, the former convicts became colonizers forever forbidden to return home.)
I happened to read Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island—a book whose impressions of what he learned there is so replete with facts and statistics that it becomes a compelling documentary—during the Vietnam War, a time of such personal and national crisis that I doubted the integrity of my own beliefs. My reading of that book was as therapeutic for me as his far more venturesome trip turned out to be for him. Chekhov’s journey became enough of a paradigm for me, as well as a possible model for others in times of crisis, that years ago I wrote a book about it, To a Distant Island. Near the end of my book is a passage that connects Chekhov’s spiritual desire for a freedom beyond our mortal striving with that of the prisoners on Sakhalin:
It is tempting to search . . . [Chekhov’s] book—God knows, I’ve done that more than once—for a particular encounter that could have provided him with a renewed or heightened awareness of his link with all mankind. Might it not have come as he was interviewing a convict baker, a person he admired—“a simple, openhearted and obviously good man,” . . . [Chekhov] says of him—who managed not only to escape the island but to trudge across Siberia to his own village for a reunion with his wife and children before he was recaptured and sentenced to the inevitable flogging and longer term? Or might it not have come from his acquaintance with the “old convict woman” briefly assigned to him as a servant who found his personal possessions, including his blanket and the books she probably couldn’t read, of extraordinary worth, for they recently had been in the country of her own dreaming? I doubt, though, that any single encounter had such a dramatic effect, for nearly all of the convicts he met equated a lost Russia with an ideal freedom, with the kind of happiness never to be found in any corner of the real world; and except for one—a sick and elderly man now securely fettered to his iron ball—all those he spoke with who had attempted the flight to freedom were glad they had chanced it, whatever their punishment.
Surely Chekhov’s growing knowledge of these suffering people, particularly, of what he shared with them, would have been a key necessary to his release from the subjective prison of his own alienation, though his Sakhalin Island doesn’t tell us this: like his more imaginative work, it aspires to objectivity. But what he learned on that island obviously underlies the spiritual depth of “Gusev.” During the 14 years remaining to him—he was only 44 when tuberculosis ended his life—he wrote all of the other work on which his reputation is most firmly set.
Like other Americans, and like Chekhov, I may be more optimistic about the future than present evidence warrants. But it seems inevitable to me that we, again, like Chekhov, will regain a balance that currently has gone askew. I should add, though, that I have been aware throughout this essay of the hazard that confronts all readers of Chekhov who find in him a mirror of their inner selves. This danger has much to do with mirrors—the possibility that the writer we admire is but a reflection of the ideal we posit for ourselves. If that’s the case, don’t we merge with all the characters whose illusions he exposes so brilliantly, whether they consider themselves radicals, conservatives, or liberals? He once said that the duty of the writer is to provide questions; readers must provide the answers, for they are the jury. But if the answers provided by this jury member unwittingly reflect his ideal self, they at least permit his conscious awareness of what that ideal consists of. I can’t imagine a more useful service for a writer to provide, at this or any other moment in our history.
James McConkey is Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature Emeritus at Cornell. His books include The Telescope in the Parlor, Court of Memory, and To a Distant Land. His next book, The Complete Court of Memory, is forthcoming.
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