06 August 2007

on 'doing something'

What follows is part III of Anton Chekhov's short story, 'The House with the Mezzanine: An Artist's Story', written in 1896. Chekhov was a medical doctor in Russia for most of his life, then he began a career as a freelance writer around 1886, establishing himself as the founder of modern drama. The story tells of a 'perpetually idle' landscape painter who discusses the building of a 'medical relief center' with a busybody social worker..... Question is, who do you agree more with -- the artist or the reformer?


'The prince is staying at Maloziomovo, and he asks to be remembered to you,' said Lida to her mother. She had just come in, and was taking off her gloves. 'He gave me a great deal of interesting news ... He promised to raise the question of a medical relief centre at Maloziomovo again at the provincial assembly, but he says there is very little hope of it.' And turning to me, she said: 'Excuse me, I always forget that this cannot be interesting to you.'

I felt irritated. 'Why not interesting to me?' I said, shrugging my shoulders. 'You do not care to know my opinion, but I assure you the question has great interest for me.'


'Yes. In my opinion a medical relief centre at Maloziomovo is quite unnecessary.'

My irritation infected her; she looked at me, screwing up her eyes, and asked: 'What is necessary? Landscapes?'

'Nor are landscapes. Nothing is.'

She finished taking off her gloves, and opened the newspaper, which had just been brought from the post. A minute later she said quietly, evidently restraining herself: 'Last week Anna died in childbirth, and if there had been a medical relief centre near, she would have lived. And I think even landscape painters ought to have some convictions on the subject.'

'I have a very definite conviction on that subject, I assure you,' I answered; and she screened herself with the newspaper, as though unwilling to listen to me. 'To my mind, all these schools, dispensaries, libraries, medical emergency centres, under present conditions, only serve to aggravate the bondage of the people. The peasants are fettered by a great chain, and you do not break the chain, but only add fresh links to it - that's my conviction.'

She raised her eyes to me and smiled ironically, and I went on trying to formulate my leading idea. 'What matters is not that Anna died in childbirth, but that all these Annas, Mayras, Pelageias, toil from early morning till dark, fall ill from work too hard for them, all their lives they tremble for their sick and hungry children, all their lives they are being doctored, and in dread of death and disease, fade and grow old early, and die in filth and stench. Their children begin the same story over again as soon as they grow up, and so it goes on for hundreds of years and billions of men live worse than beasts - in continual terror, for a mere crust of bread. The whole horror of their position lies in their never having time to think of their souls, of their divine image. Cold, hunger, animal terror, a burden of toil, like avalanches of snow, block for them every way to spiritual activity - that is, what distinguishes man from the brutes and what is the only thing which makes life worth living. You go to their help with hospitals and schools, but you don't free them from their fetters; on the contrary, you bind them in closer bonds, as, by introducing new prejudices, you increase the number of their wants, to say nothing of the fact that they've got to pay the council for plasters and books, and so toil harder than ever.'

'I am not going to argue with you,' said Lida, putting down the paper. 'I've heard all that before. I will only say one thing: one cannot sit with one's hands in one's lap. It's true that we are not saving humanity, and perhaps we make a great many mistakes; but we do what we can, and we are right. The highest and holiest tasks for a civilized person is to serve his neighbours, and we try to serve them as best we can. You don't like it, but one can't please everyone.'

'That's true, Lida,' said her mother - 'that's true.'

In Lida's presence she was always a little timid, and looked at her nervously as she talked, afraid of saying something superfluous or inopportune. And she never contradicted her, but always assented. 'That's true, Lida - that's true.'

'Teaching the peasants to read and write, books of wretched precepts and rhymes, and medical relief centres, cannot diminish either ignorance or the death rate, just as the light from your windows cannot light up this huge garden,' said I. 'You give nothing. By meddling in these people's lives you only create new wants in them, and new demands on their labour.'

'Oh, my God! But one must do something!' said Lida, with vexation, and from her tone one could see that she thought my argument worthless and despised them.

'The people must be freed from hard physical labour,' said I. 'We must lighten their yoke, let them have time to breathe, not to spend all their lives at the stove, at the wash-tub, and in the fields, but to have time also to think of their souls, of God - to develop their spiritual capacities. The highest vocation of man is spiritual activity - the perpetual search for truth and the meaning of life. Make rough animal labour unnecessary for them, let them feel themselves free, and then you will see what mockery these dispensaries and books are. Once a man recognizes his true vocation, he can only be satisfied by religion, science, and art, and not by these trifles.'

'Free them from labour?' laughed Lida. 'But is that possible?'

'Yes. Take upon yourself a share of their labour. If all of us, townspeople and country people, all without exception, would agree to divide between us the labour which mankind spends on the satisfaction of their physical needs, each of us would perhaps need to work only for two or three hours a day. Imagine that we all, rich and poor, work only for three hours a day, and the rest of our time is free. Imagine further that in order to depend even less upon our bodies and to labour less, we invent machines to replace our work, we try to cut down our needs to the minimum. We would train ourselves and our children not to fear hunger and cold, and we shouldn't be continually trembling for their health like Anna, Mavra, and Pelageia. Imagine that we don't doctor ourselves, don't keep dispensaries, tobacco factories, distilleries - what a lot of free time we would have over, after all! All of us together would devote our leisure to science and art. Just as the peasants sometimes work communally, mending the roads, so all of us, as a community, would search for truth and the meaning of life, and I am convinced that the truth would be discovered quickly; man would escape from this continual, agonising, oppressive dread of death, and even from death itself.'

'You contradict yourself, though,' said Lida. 'You talk about science, and are yourself opposed to literacy.'

'Literacy when a man has nothing to read but the signs on public houses and sometimes books which he cannot understand - that we have had ever since the times or Rurik; Gogol's Petrushka has been reading for a long time, yet as the village was in the days of Rurik, so it has remained. What is needed is not literacy, but freedom to develop spiritual capacities on a wide scale. What is wanted is not schools, but universities.'

'You are opposed to medicine, too?'

'Yes. It would be necessary only for the study of diseases as natural phenomena, and not for the cure of them. If one must cure, it should not be diseases, but the causes of them. Remove the principal cause - physical labour, and then there will be no disease. I don't believe in science that cures disease,' I went on excitedly. 'When science and art are real, they aim not at temporary, private ends, but at the eternal and the universal - they seek for truth and the meaning of life, they seek for God, for the soul, and when they are tied down to the needs and evils of the day, to dispensaries and libraries, they only complicate and hamper life. We have plenty of doctors, chemists, lawyers, plenty of people can read and write, but we are quite without biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, poets. The whole of our intelligence, the whole of our spiritual energy, is spent on satisfying temporary, passing needs ... Scientists, writers, artists, are hard at work; thanks to them, the conveniences of life are multiplied from day to day. Our physical demands increase, yet truth is still a long way off, and man still remains the most rapacious and dirty animal; everything tends to degeneration of the majority of mankind, and the loss for ever of all fitness for life. In such conditions an artist's work has no meaning, and the more talented he is, the stranger and the more unintelligible his position, as when one looks into it, it is evident that he is working for the amusement of a rapacious and unclean animal, and is supporting the existing order. And I don't want to work and I shan't... Nothing is any use; let the earth sink to perdition!'

'Misius, leave the room!' said Lida to her sister, apparently thinking my words harmful to such a young girl.

Zhenia looked mournfully at her mother and sister, and left the room. 'These are charming things people say when they want to justify their indifference,' said Lida. 'It is easier to disapprove of schools and hospitals than to teach or heal.'

'That's true, Lida - that's true,' the mother assented.

'You threaten to give up working,' said Lida. 'You evidently set a high value on your work. Let us give up arguing; we shall never agree, since I put the most imperfect dispensary or library of which you have just spoken so contemptuously on a higher level than any landscape.'

And turning at once to her mother, she began speaking in quite a different tone: 'The prince is very much changed, and much thinner than when he was with us last. He is being sent to Vichy.' She was telling her mother about the prince in order to avoid talking to me. Her face glowed, and to hide her emotion she bent low over the table as though she were short-sighted, and made a show of reading the newspaper. My presence was disagreeable to her. I said good-bye and went home.


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