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Anton Chekhov : Letter to his brother Nikolai

Dernière mise à jour : 30 janv.

Anton Chekhov (left) with his brother

Nikolai Chekhov (5 February 1882)

To Nikolai Chekhov

March 1886, Moscow

Dear young Zabelin

I hear that remarks passed by Schechtel and me have offended you . . . The capacity for taking offense is a quality confined to elevated minds, yet if Ivanenko, Misha, Nelly and I are fit subjects for laughter, why can't we make fun of you ? It wouldn't be fair otherwise.

However, if you aren't joking and really think you've been insulted, I hasten to beg your pardon. People make fun of what is funny, or of what they don't understand. Choose your own interpretation.

The second is more flattering, but alas! you are no riddle to me. It isn't hard to understand a person with whom one has shared the sweet delights of childhood . . . Latin classes and, last but not least, life together in Moscow. Besides, your life happens to be so uncomplicated psychologically that it would even be comprehensible to simple souls who had never so much as seen the inside of a seminary. Out of respect for you I shall be frank. You are angry and insulted . . . but not because of my gibes . . . .

The fact of the matter is that you yourself, as a fundamentally decent person, feel you are living a lie; and he who has a guilty feeling always seeks justification outside of himself. The drunkard attributes everything to some tragedy in his life, Putyata blames it on the censor, the individual running away from Yakimanki out of sheer lechery pleads the coldness of his quarters, the sneering attitude of his acquaint­ ances and so on . . . .

If I were now to cast my family upon the mercy of fate, I would try to find j ustification for my act in my mother's character, my blood-spitting and so forth. That is natural and excusable. Such is the quality of human nature. I know that you sense the falsity of your position, for otherwise I would not have called you a decent person. Were that decency to depart, the matter would stand differently, for then you would make your peace with yourself and cease to be aware of the falsity . . .

Besides being no mystery to me, it is true, too, that some­ times you are rather barbarously funny. You are just a plain human being, and all of us humans are puzzles only when we are stupid, and funny for forty-eight weeks of the year. Am I right ?

You have often complained that you are "not understood." Not even Goethe or Newton did that . . . It was only Christ who complained, and then he did not allude to himself person­ ally, but rather to his teachings. You are easy enough to understand . . . Others are not to blame if you do not understand yourself . . .

I assure you, as your brother and as one who has close ties with you, that I understand and sympathize with all my heart . . . I know all your good qualities as well as my own five fingers, I value those qualities and regard them with the very deepest respect. If you want proof that I understand you, I can even enumerate them. In my estimation you are good to a fault, generous, not an egoist; you will share your last kopek with others, you are sincere; you are free from envy and hatred, open-hearted, have pity on men and beasts, are not malicious or spiteful, are trusting . . . .

You have been gifted from above with something most others lack : you have talent. That talent sets you above millions of people, for here on earth there is only one artist to every two million men . . . That talent puts you on a plane apart, and even if you were a toad or a tarantula you would still be respected, for all is forgiven to talent. You have only one failing. But in it lies the source of your false position, your misery, and even of your intestinal catarrh. That failing is your utter lack of culture.

Do excuse me, but veritas magis amicitiae . . . For life imposes certain condi­tions . . . To feel at ease among intelligent folk, not to be out of place in such company, and not to feel this atmosphere to be a burden upon oneself, one must be cultured in a particular way . . . . Your talent has thrust you i nto this charmed circle, you belong to it, but . . . you are impelled away from it and find yourself forced to waver between these cultured people and your neighbors. The vulgar flesh cries out in you, that flesh raised on the birch rod, in the beer cellar, on free meals . . . To overcome this background is difficult - terribly difficult.

In my opinion people of culture must meet the following requisites :

1 . They respect the human personality and are therefore always forbearing, gentle, courteous and compliant . . . They don't rise up in arms over a misplaced hammer or a lost rubber band; they do not consider they are conferring a favor upon the person they may be living with, and when they leave that person they don't say, "You're impossible to get along with !" They will overlook noise, and cold, and overdone meat, and witticisms, and the presence of strangers in their houses . . . .

2 . They sympathize not only with beggars and stray cats; they are also sick at heart with what is not visible to the naked eye. Thus, for instance, if Peter knows his father and mother are haggard with care and do not sleep nights because they see him so seldom (and then, only in a drunken state), Peter will spurn the vodka bottle and hasten to them. They themselves do not sleep nights because they want to . . . pay for their brother's upkeep at college and keep their mother properly clothed.

3· They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.

4· They are sincere and fear untruth l ike the very devil. They will not lie even in small matters. A lie is insulting to the one who hears it and cheapens the speaker in the latter's eyes. They do not pose, they behave on the street as they would at home and do not throw dust in the eyes of their humbler brethren . . . They are not garrulous and don't intrude their confidences where they are not sought . . . Out of respect for people's ears they are more often silent than not.

5· They do not make fools of themselves in order to arouse sympathy. They do not play upon the heartstrings of people so that these will have pity and make a fuss over them. They don't say, "I am misunderstood ! " or "I've made a mess of every­ thing ! " because all this is striving after cheap effect, vulgar, stale, false . . . .

6. They are not vain. They don't traffic in such imitation diamonds as pursuing acquaintance with celebrities . . . listen­ing to the raptures of a casual spectator at the Salon, earning notoriety in the taverns of the town. . . . If they accomplish a kopek's worth of good work they don't make a hundred rubles' worth of fuss over it and don't boast they can get into places from which others are excluded . . . The truly gifted always remain in obscurity amongst the crowd and shun as much as possible the display of their talents . . . Even Krylov said that an empty barrel makes more noise than a full one . . .

7· If they have talent, they regard it with respect. To it they will sacrifice their repose, women, wine and vanity . . . They are proud of that talent. Because of it they won't go on drunken sprees with superintendents of low-class buildings and with Skvortsov's guests, for they are aware that they aren't called upon to associate with them, but rather to influence them to a higher cultural level. Besides, they are fastidious . . . .

8. They develop an aesthetic sense. They cannot bring them­ selves to go to sleep in their clothes, to look with indifference upon bugs crawling from cracks in the wall, to breathe foul air, or step upon a floor covered with spit, or feed themselves off a kerosene stove. They try as best they can to subdue and ennoble the sexual instinct . . . . Truly cultured people don't cheapen themselves. What they need from a woman is not just pleasure in bed, not horse sweat . . . not the kind of cleverness that con­ sists in pretending to be pregnant and in constant lying . . . Artists in particular require from their women companions freshness, elegance, humanity; not a whore, but a woman who can be a mother . . . They don't swill vodka all the time, or sniff cupboards-because they realize they are not pigs. They drink only when they are free, on some special occasion . . . for they need to have mens sana in corpore sano.

And so on. Such are cultured people. To educate yourself not to fall below the level of your environment, it is not enough to have read the "Pickwick Papers" or to have memorized the monologue from Faust . . . . What you need is constant work, day and night, eternal read­ing, study, will power . . . . Every hour is precious . . . You must spurn this way of life once and for all, tear yourself away with a wrench . . . . Come to us, smash the vodka decanter and lie down with a book . . . Turgenev, if you will, whom you haven't read . . .

. . . you must rid yourself of vanity, for you are no longer a child. You are getting close to thirty. Time to make a change !

I'm expecting you - so are we all.


A. Chekhov

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