In this story, there are two sisters: one introverted, frail, and bookish; the other dominant, opinionated, and politically active. In meeting them, an accomplished artist seems to be confronted with a dilemma. Should art subordinate itself to the project of creating a just society? Or should it focus on serving more spiritual needs? These questions make Chekhov’s “The House with the Mezzanine” is an interesting meditation on the relationship between politics and the arts, and whether the windows of our proverbial dwellings are best used to illuminate a new path forward, or to articulate the beauty of the world as it is. Wes & Erin analyze.
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Thanks to Nick Ketter for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes: Okay, so this is the second of our series on Chekhov’s short stories. We did The Lady With the Little Dog last time, and now we are doing The House with the Mezzanine: an artist’s story. Um… I was going to make a joke about this, the plainness of his titles. [laughter]
Wes: It’s like… “what should I call this story? The House? No, I need something more descriptive. [laughter] It’s got a mezzanine,” And… yeah, it’s pretty typical of his stories to have these titles. This one you get the colon and then the “an Artist’s Story”. So…
Erin: Yeah, I didn’t even realize, until you said that, that the subtitle was there.
Wes: Yeah, I didn’t realize either until I was just looking at it now in order to make this joke. And then I realized, well, [laughter] the title is a little more elaborate I than I thought, but…
Erin: I like the simplicity of his titles, as someone on record who’s been struggling with titles a lot, in my own work. I like the fact that, you know, everything with Chekhov is sort of deceptively simple and then sort of has a later residents… resonance. It sounded like I said “residents”, [laughter] which is like “A House with a Method.” A joke. [laughter]
Erin: Anyway. Yeah, it’s fitting. Maybe… I don’t know, we could talk about the significance of the house and the mezzanine.
Wes: I’m just looking at his titles now. The death of a clerk, an early story, The Huntsman, The Malefactor, Vanka, Sleepy. I don’t know if I can draw any conclusions from the way he does this. I haven’t read… I don’t know from the secondary literature whether there was some overarching method to titling his work, whether he was self consciously a minimalist or something like that.
Erin: I feel like we touched on that a little bit last time with Lady with a Little Dog just because that was the way that the people at Yalta referred to her on holiday…
Erin: …and that’s sort of, like, deceptively simple or shallow, you know, moniker for her. Maybe Chekhov is pandering to those people [laughter] who just referred to this woman as Lady with a Little Dog and referred to another story is The House with the Mezzanine.
Wes: Yeah, well, I think in both cases the qualifier to the title of the story has some symbolic resonance. So it’s The Little Dog or in this case it’s The Mezzanine, but it’s something that it’s not heavy handed and it’s only at certain moments in the story when you really even become aware of the thematic or symbolic importance of the mezzanine.
Erin: Yeah. Well, “mezzanine” is also one of my favorite words and I’m not really sure why. I think I just… I like the fact that they’re like the double continents, but in the second one it’s separated by the vowel, second instance.
Wes: How do you say it in Italian by the way?
Erin: Mezzanino. [Erin pronounces: /meddzanino/ ]
Wes: Ah, ok.
Erin: Of course it has theatrical implica… like, to me, that’s the first thing I think of is a stage, or at least the audience looking upon a stage. I was thinking about that last night, that there’s something very stagey about where the main character is living, where he’s a… sorry, hold on. The main character… What the hell is his name? [laughter]
Wes: Well, I don’t think we ever get his name.
Erin: We don’t get it. The painter. The painter.
Wes: X. I think at one point he calls himself X. That’s why I was calling him the protagonist. I think I’m right about that.
Erin: Yeah, I think you’re right, too.
Wes: So when he’s addressed by someone “Come over,…” he’s referred to as Monsieur X by one of the other characters in the story. So he doesn’t even want to give his name away [laughter] in the dialogue. Apparently he must hide his identity.
Erin: Well, and that’s an interesting thing we could talk about too, is the fact that we don’t even discover what his profession is until rather late in the story, relatively speaking, which is strange because people recognize him and know him as a painter. They know him as an artist. But it’s not clear in the dialogue until relatively late how they know him.
Wes: We just know that he’s idle.
Wes: And then we wonder what that means until later on. And then we get a hint because we know that apparently the mother is an admirer of his talents, but I don’t think we know yet what that means exactly.
Erin: I suppose maybe I’ll just read the opening paragraph that refers to his living situation as opposed to the house with the mezzanine that he goes to visit. So this is the start of the story.
This was six or seven years ago when I was living in one of the districts of T province on the estate of the landowner Bielokurov, a young man who got up very early, one about in a vest, drank beer in the evenings and kept complaining to me that he met with no sympathy anywhere or from anyone. He lived in a cottage in the garden and I in the old mansion, in a huge hall with columns where there was no furniture except a wide sofa on which I slept and a table on which I played patients. Here, even in calm weather, something always howled in the old Asimov stoves. But during a thunderstorm, the whole house trembled and seemed to crack to pieces. And it was a little frightening, especially at night when all ten big windows were suddenly lit up by lightning.
That, just the columns and the vast emptiness and the fact that there’s only a couch, that to me is just an empty theater and a sort of sparsely lit, and a sparsely decorated stage. It’s such a memorable… I mean there are so many… I’m sure…
Wes: It sets such a mood, too. It’s such a great…
Erin: Oh, yeah. There are so many memorable descriptions like this. And I even love, you know, this character of Bielokurov. The details that we get of him: that he wore a vest and he drank beer in the evening. [laughter] You know, I just… I love the perfect little encapsulations he gives of people where you seem, like, you know someone.
Wes: This whole paragraph I summarize as “hanging out / living with Peter Bielokurov, the vest wearing whiner.”[laughter]
Erin: [laughter] Yeah, yeah.
Wes: Never getting any sympathy.
Wes: And then of course, I’m wondering what the whining is about and what that means, right? Are these details just going to be throwaway details? Are they thematically important? And the climatic moment of the first section is something said by Bielokurov, which is, you know, “‘the hardest thing of all,’ he muttered, walking beside me. ‘The hardest thing of all is to work and get no sympathy from anybody. No sympathy at all.’” And of course this whole piece in a way is a reflection on work. So there has to be something important. Don’t know if I figured it out yet, but there has to be something important about his whining and stuff, and maybe even his vest wearing, who knows?
Erin: Well, there’s an odd situation here because Bielokurov is the landowner and he’s living in this little cottage in the garden, whereas the main house is being occupied by this guy who lies around and does nothing except -I’m going to start showing my hand here- except, you know, complain to people who are actually doing something about how they shouldn’t be doing it.[laughter]
Wes: Well, he’s painting, though…
Erin: Well, yeah, but it’s barely… you know, he doesn’t really seem to be getting any work done. And so there’s some sort of topsy turvy situation where maybe Bielokurov has to live in the cottage and rent out the main house. It’s not really clear whether or not the main character is paying him. I’m assuming he is, and that it’s not just some sort of friendship. But it’s an odd situation. Maybe, you know, he’s been reduced to this cottage because he’s unable to afford to live in the main house and has to rent it out or something.
Wes: And are they friends? You know, or is he just renting it out? Is it…? I mean, it could be both, but how did the circumstance happen and why would he take the cottage and give his friend the big mansion, right? You know, “even in calm weather, something always howled in the stoves.” Okay, you get the idea that this place is scary, has a kind of haunted feel to it, and then you can kind of understand why the guys in the cottage. I think he’s also… he’s living with a woman, right…
Wes: …who was renting that cottage from him and now, I guess they’re a thing, it’s a little bit unclear. They are either boyfriend and girlfriend or it’s some just weird platonic thing where he’s pining away for her, but she’s not… you know. So I’m not clear about the woman in the cottage, but yeah. So you get some sense in this… you know, there’s a little bit of social commentary, I think, here, in the abandonment of the mansion to a single person, a single tennant. It says something about the social situation in Russia at the time, the serfs have been freed, the aristocracy is fading, that sort of thing.
Erin: In the sense too, that this is probably a place where once upon a time there was a lot of activity, the house was full, like you said, that haunted feeling. It feels extremely hollowed out. And then of course, later the house with a mezzanine will also be kind of hollowed out of people. Yeah, I don’t know what that implication might be. Of course, the people in this story are very concerned with helping the poor as one should be. But there’s also a sense that the rich, at least in this mansion, have left it and are, you know, and had to go somewhere else and that nobody seems to be quite in their rightful place, are doing very well. Just sort of a topsy turvy element.
Wes: Well, he’s not interested in helping the poor. [laughter]
Erin: Right. Well, he is, but only in a fantastical kind of way. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. But their spiritual lives, it turns out, not with their material lives.
Erin: Well, so, he sees the house with the mezzanine for the first time, almost immediately, still on the first page, and there’s a real fairy-tale-like element to this story, which is extremely strong, that one doubts the existence of this house by the end of the story, or at several points in the story. Do you want to read that paragraph, beginning “Once Returning home…”?
Wes: Yeah. Is it the part where he needs the frog and…?
Erin: Yeah laughter]
Wes: …her sister and she turns it into two sisters?
Once returning home, I accidentally wandered onto an unfamiliar estate. The sun was already hiding an evening shadows stretched across the flowering rye. Two rows of old, closely planted, very tall fir trees stood like two solid walls, forming a beautiful gloomy avenue. I easily climbed the fence and went down this avenue, slipping on the fir needles that lay inches thick on the ground. It was quiet, dark and only high in the treetops did a bright, golden light tremble here and there, and play iridescently on the spider webs. There was a strong, almost stifling smell of fir needles. Then I turned down a long linden avenue. Here, too, there was old age and desolation. Last year’s leaves rustled sorrowfully under my feet, and shadows hid in the twilight between the trees. To the right, in an old orchard an oriole sang reluctantly in a weak voice. It must have been a little old lady, too. But now the lindens also ended. I passed a white house with a terrace and a mezzanine, and before me there unexpectedly opened up a view of the manor yard and a wide pond with a bathing house, a stand of green willows, a village on the other side, with a tall, slender belfry, cross of which was blazed, reflecting the setting sun. For a moment I felt the enchantment of something dear and very familiar as if I had already seen the same panorama sometime in my childhood.
Wes: So very beautiful, very… We get a new mood. He’s gone from the haunted bachelor’s… idle bachelor’s mansion to Narnia. Not really Narnia… [laughter]
Erin: Yeah. [laughter]
Wes: …-Narnia would be covered in snow- …to the fairy tale world.
Erin: Passing through several levels of vegetation to get there. [laughter] Different types of trees. The trees change. One senses he’s gone to a different climate, maybe a different… [laughter] you know, a different level of metaphysical experience or something. [laughter]
Erin: Even the birds singing and how it must be a little old lady, which made me think that, you know, something had been transformed [laughter] in a way. And then this little fairy tale village, and, you know, the house kind of comes with this attached view of a little village where supposedly, you know, the older of the two, Lyda, where she works and does charitable works in the village. So there is a tether to reality. Once he sort of gets through these fairy tale levels and gets to the other side, there is a kind of a maybe even more of a grounding in reality in the house with a mezzanine and it’s attached village than in his huge empty hall that only has this one guy and this other woman like living on the estate and they don’t seem to have any real connection to the outside world. It seems that the house with the mezzanine is their sort of connection to the outside world. So maybe I’m picturing this is like going through the looking glass to the house with the mezzanine, but maybe he was already in the looking glass and now he’s coming out, [laughter] you know, you know…
Erin: It’s difficult to tell which is the more real of the two halves..
Wes: Yeah, that’s a good point. Maybe they’re both unreal. The one world is sort of the Gothic world and then the other is this enchanted fairy tale world.
Erin: Yeah. So he sees… he goes to the stone gateway and he sees these two girls, “One of them, the elder, slender, pale, very beautiful, with a whole mass of chestnut hair on her head, with a small stubborn mouth, had a stern expression and barely paid any attention to me.” That’ll be a recurring theme.
Erin: “The other is still very young. She was 17 or 18 years old, not more, also slender and pale, with a big mouth and big eyes, looked at me in surprise as I passed by, said something in English and became embarrassed. And it seemed to me that these two sweet faces had also been long familiar to me and I returned home feeling as if I had had a good dream.”
Wes: Yeah, so that’s another thing. It is a dream-like… there is a very dreamlike quality to this meeting.
Erin: What do we think about the two sisters? We learn that the elder is Lydia Volchaninov, called Lyda. And the younger has this sort of strange nickname Missyuss. Her name is Zenya. So one is tall and darker and obviously very stern and doesn’t doesn’t like the painter very much and the other is younger and blonde and dreamier and is sort of attracted by the painter’s…
Wes: They’re fellow travelers in idleness, let’s say, because Zenya likes to read and he likes to paint, so…
Wes: The preoccupation with the spiritual is… or the… with leisurely, educational or artistic pursuits is equated with idleness. She’s called Missyuss because that’s what she called her governess as a child, as a variation on Miss. So they took to calling her that, her childhood nickname for her governess. And it’s a way of emphasizing the fact that she’s not fully grown up and not ready for serious conversations. So she… and she doesn’t take part in those conversations. Similarly, Lyda will try and exclude the protagonist from those conversations as well, because as an artist, he could not possibly be interested in such things.
Erin: Right. Well, our first real introduction to Lyda is that she comes around to the house of the painter and Bielokurov and she came with a subscription list and she was looking to give aid to people in town who had been the victims of a fire. And she says exactly how many houses had been burned down, how many men, women and children have been left without a roof. And what they were doing is a kind of a first step to help these people, which I find kind of impressive. She’s not one of these people out of a Dickens novel or something who is raising all these funds and then they’re being, you know, they’re going to waste in some… through some mismanagement or other. In other words, she’s not an evil character. I mean, she seems to be making a real difference here. They’ve lost their houses and she is going to rebuild them and get them help. I think that’s kind of important. She’s not ineffectual and she is trying to do very serious work.
Erin: I don’t know if that was your impression or if you felt as a…
Wes: Yeah. She’s young and she’s politically passionate. She’s into social justice, let’s say, except she’s…
Wes: …she’s not just on Twitter. She’s actually doing something.
Erin: [laughter] You don’t like her! I know what you’re saying.
Wes: No, no, no, no. I’m not saying that at all, because… No. I’m not saying I don’t like her. I think what… Chekhov is expressing mixed feelings in this story about… This is a conflict that’s internal to Chekhov. So it’s not that he dislikes her either or that he’s going to side with the artist over her. She’s a teacher at the Zemstvo. And these are basically councils that were established after the abolition of serfdom. They’re councils to administer local affairs. And Chekhov himself was active in these councils, I think, and he was engaged in a lot of the sort of projects that the painter critiques and that Lyda is a fan of, right. So Chekhov, I think he built schools and libraries, and taking patients, for instance, helping the sick, which is something that Lyda also does. She takes sick people under the house. But the painter and Lyda, I think, represent two sides of Chekhov and they and they also represent two fundamental human impulses, I think, that are in an important tension with one another. And they set up a conflict that, in a way, I don’t think can be resolved because we can’t abandon the political. But on the other hand, we can’t abandon the arts. In a way, they’re not commensurable and reconcilable. The artistic demands something apolitical of us, I think, although that’s not a commonly held belief today. And Chekhov recognized this and he talks about this in his letters, in his diary. He was firmly against the politicization of art, which is something very common at the time, but he was also firmly in favor of being politically active and concerned with social justice.
Erin: He really is so similar to Lyda. He was a Zemstvo doctor, I think. I mean, I know, like you said, he donated his services. He believed strongly in social reform. He went to this penal colony of… I think it’s called Sakhalin -I’m not sure I’m saying it correctly- and it was on the far, far eastern end of Russia. He went there on this kind of…
Wes: It took him months to get there.
Erin: Yeah, yeah. And there’s a very famous sort of chapter in his life where he goes there and sees how terrible it is. And afterwards he arranges routinely for money too to be raised and sent to basically the children and prostitutes that he found there, who were in total squalor. So he was really concerned with social welfare, I mean, truly generous with his time and money. He had a falling out with a friend of his over the Dreyfus affair because his friend Sovereign, who was kind of an anti-semite, was denouncing Dreyfus and his papers. And Chekhov took a stand against that. When Gorky was expelled from the academy, Chekhov resigned in protest on both sides of this. He had a real social and political conscience, I think. And that’s very important, I think you’re right that he didn’t believe in politics in his writing. And I think maybe better than probably anyone who ever lived, because one could argue that, and I think it’s very plain that Tolstoy’s social conscience kind of destroyed the quality of his work. And that once that part of him sort of took over, Tolstoy wasn’t able to write anything, at least fiction, that was kind of worthwhile. And he wasn’t interested in any way, because his concern for the people around him sort of trumped anything that he would be doing, any self indulgent, you know, fiction writing as he saw it. So Chekhov was able to kind of bridge these two worlds, I think, more successfully than any other artists that I know of. But I like what you say that this is almost like a parable about his inner life, this tension between these two people. And I think it’s why I’ve always gotten the impression from this story that the painter is in love with Lyda, not Zenya, but that’s kind of my hot take for this whole… the whole story.
Wes: Yes. Yeah, I think that’s a good point. I had that impression too. Or he’s ambivalent between them when he comes at a certain point where he’s starting to fall in love. It’s as if he’s considering both of them at that point and thinking of their… they’re both, in a way, equally attractive to him and then he sort of goes along with Zenya round. But I wanted, before we move on… I just wanted to highlight the other side of Chekhov, the apolitical side. It’s something that I posted on our Twitter account I came across and I… as sort of the background reading I was doing for this. So this is a very often quoted passage from a letter that he wrote to the literary editor of the Northern Herald. And he’s basically defending himself against attacks from critics, so this is what he says: “The people I am afraid of are the ones who look for tendentiousness between the lines and are determined to see me as either liberal or conservative. I am neither liberal nor conservative nor gradualist nor monk nor indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me strength to be one. I hate lies and violence in all their forms and consistory secretaries are just as odious to me as Notovich and Gradovski, who are two unscrupulous left wing journalists,” the net says.
Erin: Chekhov is the perfect man.
Wes: “Pharisaism, dullwittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations. I see them in science, in literature, among the younger generation. That is why I cultivate no particular predilection for policemen, butchers, scientists, writers or 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. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.” I love that modesty: “If I were a major artist”.
Erin: Oh, he’s so perfect. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. And he means it, by the way. This is not false modesty.
Erin: Yeah, yeah.
Wes: That’s one of the things that’s so great about Chekhov. It’s not false modesty, there’s not a grandiose element to him, even a fleck of it. And it shows in his writing, and maybe the title… you know, we were talking about the titles at the beginning, maybe that’s illustrated very well by the titles. But yeah, I read that not just because, of course, it flatters my own political prejudices, which it does. [laughter] My own prejudice is a distaste for the ways in which the political can… even when it’s very well intentioned and it’s about a love of justice or a love of the good, we have to be on guard against its very negative effects, including the ways in which it corrupts people’s judgment, makes them partisans, makes them very hateful of one another and also affects and ruins the arts, I think. [laughter] That’s my very strong judgment. So here Chekhov is reflecting on this, in this story, this tension between the political and the artistic, because he’s not gonna, obviously, abandon political, it’s very important to him, but he wants to do something different as an artist. But also he’s not so dogmatic that he’s not still having a debate about that within himself. And this story, I think reflects that debate.
Erin: Yeah. If Lyda were some real grandstander, where she’s going out and she’s protesting and she’s doing a lot of empty things, I think that would be one thing. That’s why I bring up the aid to the people who suffered the fire because… So Chekhov isn’t putting any kind of political message, or what have you, into his work. He is going out and actually helping people where it counts. So he’s not completely divorced of…
Wes: He’s not indifferentist, as he said. Yeah.
Erin: Right. Right. He has a conscience and he does believe in helping people and not through the emptiness of words or some kind of…
Erin: …you know, being high above people and sort of telling them what to do, like “I’m this great artist from on high, and I’m going to tell you little people how to live your lives.” He’s actually going out and really, truly, helping people.
Erin: And with the, you know, with the Gorky thing, leaving the Academy, I mean, that’s an instance where he had a stake in the Academy and he felt as though an injustice was done to someone, and so he resigned. You know, it wasn’t to receive attention or to be an example to others. I think it was a conscience thing.
Erin: So that I think is really beautiful, that he really is actively helping people and truly generous. And that’s kind of what we see with Lyda, where Lyda really is, I think, helping people in a very real way. And I think that’s important because he’s not making her into some kind of stereotype.
Erin: I think the painter is more of… a little bit more of a stereotype, just because he’s so pie-in-the-sky, that nothing he says is practical. And… but I think the painter part of him is maybe the part that gets the short shrift here. I don’t know if you agree.
Wes: I think I might want to defend the painter, but…
Erin: I find him so annoying, but… [laughter]
Wes: [laughter]…before I do that, I want to say, yeah, I made, like, a very flippant remark about… um…
Erin: No, no, no. I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just saying…
Wes: No, no, no. No. But, I know, you rightly recoiled from that and I kind of meant to have [laughter] that effect but… Because Lyda is the real thing, right? I said social justice. I didn’t say social justice warrior, but I said she’s into social justice.
Erin: Right. Right. But true social justice. Yes.
Wes: But she’s the real thing. She’s not about… This is not about representation. This is not about writing a story that elevates the status of people who have suffered. This is about alleviating actual suffering.
Wes: The painter in this story, we’ll make a political argument, right? So he’s not just apolitical, it turns out. And when he finally gets pissed off by being told too many times by Lyda… you know, she’s so condescending. I love it because she’s so young, right? And plus there’s the gender dynamic at the time. Her very condescendingly saying to him, “this cannot possibly interest you”, this is, you know, “these are practical affairs [laughter] that could not possibly be of interest to a person like you”, you know, finally gets pissed off, and says, “well, actually, is my very opinionated thesis about all this, which is that what you’re doing is bullshit because it doesn’t really attend to people’s spiritual needs in the way that the arts and intellectual pursuits do. You’re looking to people’s material needs, but you, in a way, you’re creating new needs, you’re corrupting them.” We’ll get to that part in a minute. I’m just bringing it up here because I wanted to point out that the argument here isn’t between artistic indifferentism, or art for the sake of art, and someone who’s very politically active. It’s another sort of political argument about the spiritual and educational importance of the arts. I am actually very sympathetic to that as well. Is it pie-in-the-sky? Maybe. My instinct is to defend him. And I think it’s possible Chekhov is trying to set up a dilemma between two equally appealing approaches and a dilemma that can’t really ultimately be resolved. And maybe, ultimately it’s just apples and oranges. But you do both in a way, but you guard against their mutual interference, right? So you guard against the arts, making you into an idol indifferentist [laughter] and becoming sort of a feat and ironic about everything and detached from the world, however you want to put it. But you also guard against the political turning you into a propagandist and moralist and someone who ceases to be able to care about beauty and to care about any truth that doesn’t confirm one’s political priors. So, you live with those two things in tension, I think, ultimately. This is the argument. But I want to hear your argument about the painters.
Erin: Yeah. So, I am a big believer in art for art’s sake. And I think that if that were what he was peddling, then that would kind of be one thing. So I do believe that these two things are in tension, but that the way to do it is the way the Chekhov does it, which is that you have this art for art’s sake on the one hand, and then then one’s charity and one’s engagement in social causes must be private and personal.
Erin: Where the painter loses me is where he does come up with some sort of reconciliation between the two, which is completely impractical, which is that the more that Lyda tries to help people, the more that she’s actually hurting people according to the painter and that the whole thing is ill-founded because it’s not improving their souls and therefore we shouldn’t do anything to actually improve their day-to-day lives. And this whole idea of sharing the work, which of course is going to be maybe more symbolic than anything. I’m a big fan of Ruskin, I’m a big fan of this idea of meaningful labor and, you know, labor that lifts up the spirit and improves the human condition that isn’t repetitive and soul killing as much as I actually love repetitive and soul killing work myself [laughter] because like a turn off my brain and I love it. But, you know, I’m a big believer in that and and I think that a lot of what he’s saying I am somewhat sympathetic to, but he’s telling Lyda that what she’s doing is meaningless and that really bothers me because to me he is trying to justify his own idleness and essentially selfishness by telling someone who is trying to do all this meaningful work that they’re sistophers and they’re not doing anything important and they’re not really helping anyone. And I think that that’s why I bring up the fire thing at the beginning, because I think that that’s actually disproved, that, like, okay, she’s actually making people’s lives better because she’s actually giving… like someone’s house burned down and she gets them a new house, you know, that’s obviously better than having no house. So, [laughter] you know, so I think that there’s again an interesting tension here that I talked about a little bit with Lady with a Little Dog, where I said it’s not quite coming through there because there is a third person narration. But here it’s a first person narration. We’re getting everything through the painter’s point of view. But I think Chekhov is being very clever about how we should be at times, I think laughing at the painter and his own sort of interior monologue and then what he actually says out loud through a kind of him revealing himself to be sort of silly and his perceptions to be off. And I think that we get enough information to understand that this first person narration is also being critiqued and his view of other people is being critiqued. And so we’re not supposed to take anybody quite so seriously. But the narrator takes himself very seriously, and so that’s how we know that Chekhov is not on board with… Besides, obviously knowing the background and biographical information about Chekhov.
Erin: Shall we return to the text and then see what comes out of that?
Wes: Yeah. So Lyda shows up for the subscription list, but she invites them over basically because the mom is a fan of his paintings. That’s the way it is in my notes. I don’t think we find out that it’s paintings specifically that she is a fan of, she’s a fan of his… whatever it is he does. So then there’s the visit and the mother is asking about landscapes and Lyda’s criticizing Bielokurov for not being involved with Zemstvo and there’s talk about how the district is in the hands of this tyrannical, corrupt person, Balaguin.
Wes: You know, he develops this interest in Zenya and she’s thin-bodied and weak and has an undeveloped breast. And then this first section ends with… you know, he’s ill at ease in the house, because everything is formal and respectable and young and pure. And we get another characterization of Lyda as she’s talking a lot, she’s talking very loudly, she has deep convictions and there’s a contrast between her and Bielokurov. He’s very dull and long-winded and he tries to seem intelligent and progressive, but he’s careless, right? So he overturns the sauce boat, [laughter] spills a bunch of gravy -or whatever it is- on the table and then everyone pretends not to notice. And then the last part of the section, as I pointed out, is him complaining about the hardest thing is to work and get no sympathy. You know, in a way, you have a triad of, you know, it’s not just a tension between the painter and Lyda, which is only hinted at at this point, but the third element here is the person who is neither and apparently his relationship to work is not one of obligation or necessity or it’s completely optional and he wants to be psychologically rewarded for it, I guess, or not to feel like he’s unappreciated if he doesn’t, so…
Erin: And he’s quite lazy, right?
Wes: Yeah. Yeah.
Erin: He wants the respect that Lyda seems to have attracted to herself for actually doing things. And yet he doesn’t do much of anything, and the example given is that the painter gave him some letters to mail and Bielokurov carried them around in his pockets for weeks, never mailed them. So, you know, he’s not even capable of posting anything. But he wants sympathy. And this idea, too, of like, sympathy for your work is an interesting one, because I think that kind of comes up again and again, that, you know, it’s mentioned at the end of the story that Lyda finds people in the village to be sympathetic to her. That word is used. I think the painter sort of wants people to be sympathetic to his ideas and of course Bielokurov outwardly says over and over again that he gets no sympathy. Zenya and the mom seemed to be the kind of suppliers of sympathy. The mom is sympathetic to Lyda and is, maybe, a little bit cowed by Lyda and just does whatever her daughter wants. And Zenya, her sympathy can sort of shift from her sister to the painter.
Wes: Yeah, well, it says they’re both, right, cowed by Lyda. Lyda sort of runs the whole show. I mean, she’s the boss. And I don’t know where the father is in all of this.
Erin: He had died I think.
Wes: Does it say explicitly he’s died?
Wes: And Lyda is essentially the patriarch [laughter] of the family and they’re terrified of her. Both Zenya and Missyuss get very attached to the protagonist but they’re not going to do anything to rebel against Lyda. This whole scene at the end where they’re ignoring the fact that the sauce boat has been overturned, I see that as a function, in a way, of the environment Lyda has created. So it’s a very stern, formal… it’s one of the things he says about being all these, everything is formal. Lyda is the source of that rigidity and that formality.
Erin: I kind of love her though. I mean, she’s such a badass, you know, and she comes out onto the mezzanine and looks around and we get these incredibly loving descriptions of her from the painter.
Wes: There’s one point where she comes out with a whip, right?
Wes: And she’s ordering people around. It’s a very… Yeah. [laughter]
Erin: She’s so awesome.
Wes: He wanted an empowered female character, this is it.
Erin: [laughter] Yeah.
Wes: But yeah. I think she’s complex and he gives us a nice balance between the likable and the formidable and respect. Admirable qualities of her. And then the things that are less admirable, including her rigidity and her willingness to dominate her mother and sister and sabotage the… Although maybe that’s the right thing to do, you know. As you said, she knows more about the protagonist than we do and maybe she’s saving her sister from a terrible fate, bad match. But she does prevent that affair.
Erin: Well, and I think that it’s obvious that the painter has the hots for her in the way that he views her. And I think in their relationship there’s a lot more friction and therefore it’s much more interesting his relationship with Lyda than than it is with Missyuss. I think this idea of wanting sympathy… So the painter just wants someone to, kind of, go along with his stupid ideas, or not so stupid ideas, depending on your… whether or not you’re Lyda.
Wes: I’m going to be more defensive of him than you. But yeah, go ahead.
Erin: Sure. Yeah. Sorry for the simplistic characterization. I do mean to be more nuanced than that, but from Lyda’s point of view. And so he finds someone who’s just going to adore him and not challenge him. Whereas I think what he has with Lyda is this sort of, like, Cary Grant – Ros Russell kind of… [laughter] you know, this moonlighting style, antagonistic, kind of sexy relationship. Therefore I don’t think that Zenya is an appropriate match for him because I think that she is providing him with sympathy, which he wants, and maybe that’s not what’s good for him. And maybe the same thing with Lyda. Maybe Lyda actually needs someone to oppose her and she wants sympathy. She ends up finding people in the village who are sympathetic to her. But she ends up alone and she remains hardened because she’s not challenged enough and therefore she is able to… you know, her reign as a tyrant continues and she needs to be kind of broken down a little bit. So they both maybe need each other and instead Lyda goes to people in town who are not romantic interests for her but who will give her what she wants, which is a little kingdom to rule over. And he goes to Zenya who’s the easier choice of the two sisters, the obviously, you know, sexually undeveloped one, so that’s a little odd but someone who is childlike and who won’t oppose him and who will give him the sympathy he desires. So they both are actually very similar in temperament and make the wrong choices, I think, romantically.
Wes: “Both” meaning Lyda and the painter?
Erin: Lyda and the painter.Yes.
Erin: Zenya is kind of too young and unformed to really make proper choices for herself…
Erin: …and therefore, I think Lyda’s right to separate them. But that’s arguable.
Wes: Yeah, Lyda would be a lot more work, [laughter] getting back to the whole work thing.
Erin: But he wants to work. He wants to share the work. [laughter]
Wes: I think he’s very evenly divided between Lyda and Zenya until the end of the second section, in which he gets home and he says he’s feeling like he’s in love. But he doesn’t tell us for who. It’s just a kind of general feeling that he has. And at this point of the story, you really don’t know which way it’s going to go. It gives you reasons to think that he’s into either of them, which I think you’ve, you know, you’ve got that very well. So I think it reflects two different trends in his personality. The Zenya trend is more towards this idleness and also towards the artistic and the, you know, you might even say the apollonian… a sort of much more peaceful and lazy approach to life. Lyda represents his interest in work, which he does have because he’s kind of berating himself, right? He says he’s been condemned to a life of idleness and he thinks of his art in pejorative terms. I think he has been painting, it’s on and off. But I think even when he’s painting, he doesn’t think of that as work. But early on, just, you know, I think Lyda… there’s a lot of ambivalence from the painter about her, and I think you could attribute that to Chekhov as well. So, for instance, “She did not find me sympathetic. She disliked me because I was a landscape painter and did not portray the needs of the people in my pictures.” This is an attitude that Chekhov despised, the idea that a painter or a writer… that the purpose of their representations was to depict the needs of the people, because this is again very popular in Russia at the time, art was very politicized and he didn’t like that. So, that attitude of hers, you know, it’s one thing to be into the alleviating suffering in the way that she is, and that’s admirable, but it’s coupled with an attitude towards the arts, which I think is not so great. I think it would be very hard for them to get along in the long run. [laughter]
Erin: Oh, I think they’re perfect for each other. Ultimately. [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] She could stand by with the whip. You know, he’ll be painting and she’ll be standing…
Wes: …not too far holding her whip and…
Erin: You read exactly the thing that I was going to call her attention to and then I was going to skip to then, when… to Zenya’s reaction to him. So Lyda is very scornful of him, and Zenya, on the other hand, -this is on 287- “Zenya thought that, being an artist, I knew a lot and could make right guesses about what I did not know. She would have liked me to lead her into the region of the eternal and the beautiful, that higher world where, in her opinion, I was at home and she talked to me about God about eternal life, about the miraculous. And unable to conceive that I and my imagination would perish forever after death, I replied, ‘Yes, people are immortal. Yes, eternal life awaits us.’ And she listened, believed and did not ask for proofs.” So this is a very immature love of Zenya, which asked no questions and which is entirely adoring and I think that’s not a very good sign. And immediately their conversation goes to Lyda, and Zenia says “Our Lyda is a remarkable person, isn’t it so? I love her dearly and could sacrifice my life for her at any moment. But tell me, tell me, why do you argue with her all the time? Why are you annoyed?” “Because she’s wrong?” And then at that moment Lyda returns with the whip in her hand…
Wes: Yeah. Read that. It’s evidence for your idea that he’s into Lyda.
At that moment. Lyda had just returned from somewhere and standing by the porch with a whip in her hand, trim, beautiful, lit by the sun, was giving orders to a workman. Hurrying and talking loudly, she received two or three patients. Then with a busy preoccupied air, she went through the rooms, opening first one cupboard, then another, and went up to the mezzanine. They spent a long time looking for her and calling her to dinner and she came when we had already finished the soup. For some reason I remember and love all these little details and I remember that whole day vividly though nothing special happened.
Wes: Yeah. Yeah.
Erin: He’s obviously obsessed with her and even he and Zenya, when they do talk about things, really only talk about her. So yeah, I don’t know. I think that this painter… I mean he’s obviously quite a good painter, he has a reputation.
Wes: Yeah. Yeah.
Erin: So he is a very serious artist, which I think is important. In the same way that she’s not an ineffectual woman with a social conscience who is constantly screwing up or not really helping people, he is not someone with painterly aspirations and a lot of big ideas.
Erin: You know, they’re both fully formed in their professions, shall we say. And therefore, I think that because he’s a (quote-unquote) “real artist” requires more from a woman than an adoring fan. I’ll say enough about that. But I do think that this whole story is really that he’s in love with Lyda and he doesn’t really know it. [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Okay. Yeah. I think he’s in love with both of them frankly, but you’re right. Lyda is the more mature object of his affections. And Zenya is representative of a form of idleness. So there’s a great scene in which he’s watching everyone from afar, I think, sitting, doing nothing, and he’s sort of wishing that that could go on forever. There’s a lot in this about idleness and about his attraction to idleness, to this sort of leisure time that these well-off people have. You know, they can devote it to what they want to do and they can devote it essentially to doing nothing to sitting and having tea on the terrace. And he’s really actually enamored of that and he’s aware of it. So he’s quite aware of this tendency in himself to what he calls idleness and what you might interpret as political quietism or indifferentism and at the level of a relationship, as you pointed out, to someone who wants to stay regressed and not have a relationship with somebody who is more mature, something that he has to work at, but to have a sort of idolising child as his partner.
Wes: This is the part: he’s picking mushrooms with Zenya and he’s wanting life to always be like this, these healthy well fed handsome people will do nothing all day long. And that’s before he goes into the part you read about health and life being incomprehensible miracles and Zenya listening to his lecture and not asking any questions. So he wants to… you know, he wants to pontificate in this very high-minded way that Lyda would just think is idiotic and scorn him for [laughter] but Zenya is going to look up to.
Erin: Yeah. So we finally get this full fledged ideological battle between them in the third section of this four-sectioned story. And should we talk about that a little bit?
Wes: Yeah. Yeah. So this is the big…
Erin: Bringing the guns to the O.K. Corral here.
Wes: He finally… you know, he finally gets his hackles up and gets out of his dreamy zen-idle mode. You know, he’s forced to defend himself. So it’s the very beginning, right?
Wes: And she’s talking about business. And she she says, “Excuse me, I keep forgetting that this cannot be of interest to you”
Wes: “I felt annoyed.” [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] I just love her. She’s so funny. So they’re arguing over the need for a dispensary in the town, I suppose. And Lyda says, “Last week Anna died in childbirth. If there had been a dispensary nearby, she would still be alive. And it seems to me that gentleman landscape painters ought to have some sort of convictions in that regard.” [laughter] And he assures her that he does have definite convictions. And he says, “In my opinion, dispensaries, schools, libraries, first aid kits under the existing conditions only serve enslavement.” This is why he annoys me.
“The people are fettered with a great chain and you don’t cut the chain, you merely add new links to it. There’s my conviction for you […] What matters is not that Anna died in childbirth, but that all these Annas, Mavras, Pelagueyas, bend their backs from early morning till dark, get sick from overwork, tremble all their lives for their hungry and sick children, fear death and sickness all their lives, get treated all their lives, fade early, age early and die in dirt and stench. Their children grow up and start the same tune. And so hundreds of years go by and billions of people live worse than animals only for the sake of a crust of bread, knowing constant fear. The whole horror of their situation is that they have no time to think of their souls, no time to remember their image and likeness. Hunger, cold, animal fear, a massive work like a snow slide, bar all the paths to spiritual activity to what precisely distinguishes man from animal and is the only thing worth living for. You come to their aid with hospitals and schools, but that doesn’t free them from bondage but, on the contrary, enslaves them still more because by introducing new prejudices in their life, you increase the number of their needs, not to mention that they must pay the Zemstvo for their little pills and primers. And that means bending their backs even more.”
Wes: What’s not to like about that? [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] And she… I guess she’s reading the newspaper this whole time as he’s talking. [laughter] So she says, “I won’t argue with you,” said Lyda, lowering the newspaper. “I’ve already heard it all. I’ll tell you just one thing, it’s impossible to sit with folded arms. Sure, we’re not saving mankind and maybe we’re mistaken in many ways, but we do what we can and we’re right. The highest and holiest task for a cultured person is to serve his neighbor. And we try to serve as we can. You don’t like it, but one can’t please everyone.”
Wes: Just to give a flavor of some of the other stuff you will go on to say, “Dispensaries, peasant literacy books with pathetic precepts and jokes cannot diminish either ignorance or mortality. You only create new needs, new pretexts for work.” And then later, “Once a man is conscious of his true calling, he can be satisfied only by religion, the sciences, the arts, and not these trifles.” You know, this sounds actually very communist. At a certain point, it sounds like something out of Marx, which is that we’ll invent machines to work for us. Because this is sort of the essence of Marx that I think people are often not aware of. Marxist thesis is a science fiction thesis about what happens when machinery is so advanced that we don’t even need to work, really, or that we need to work very little. And the idea is that we could work a little bit a day, everyone could, and then we’d have all of the rest of the time for leisure to devote to the arts and to intellectual pursuits. And that this could be everyone, instead of it being a kind of division of labor, where some people have to do manual labor, and live and work in factories, and live horrible lives, and some people get to be artists and scientists and pursue more meaningful lives. We all do a little bit of each. So I think he’s… you know, he’s more than an artist, now that I am reminded of these passages. And he’s advancing another thesis, which I think it’s possible that Chekhov thought of as impractical, which is this kind of communist, utopian thesis. And it includes, by the way, the idea that we’re not going to need medicine because no one is going to be sick because they’re not overworked, [laughter] which of course, you know, I think none of us are sympathetic to. He says, “The arts and sciences when genuine aspire not to temporary, not to specific purposes, but to the eternal and the general. They seek truth and the meaning of life, they seek God, the soul. And when they’re harnessed to the needs and evils of the day to first aid kits and libraries, they only complicate and clutter life.” So yeah, I don’t know, does that give the full flavor? You’re right about the… I think we are meant to think this is extreme about… and laughable in many ways. Although I would like, you know, I think there’s also a point to it.
Erin: Another one, that I wrote in the margins next to this passage “asinine and contradictory” when he says “literacy, when a man can only use it to read pot house sign boards and occasional books that he doesn’t understand. Such literacy has been with us since the time of Riurik…” and skipping down, “What we need is not literacy, but the freedom to give wide scope to our spiritual capacities. We need, not schools, but universities.” [laughter] What does that even mean? And also, I mean, isn’t literacy the surest way to raise oneself out of poverty? I think he’s being very condescending here, this idea that when the lower classes become literate, then they are still incapable of understanding things that are beyond them, that they can only ever use literacy to read signs and things like that, which is still useful. So he’s arguing, you know, “don’t make them literate at all because their literacy will only be used against them and they’re not going to be capable of understanding these higher truths.” I just… that bothers me. I don’t think that’s true at all. He’s not taking into account the fact that you can become literate and learn these things. Only through literacy can you elevate yourself.
Wes: Yeah, so I think at the very least it’s exaggerated and overstated, but maybe there’s something that can be retrieved from all of this. This is an impassioned defense of idleness and it’s an interesting, right… [laughter] You would think it wouldn’t even be possible. Someone might say, you know, if they’re in their right mind and being more moderate about this, you just say yes, all of this practical stuff is necessary. It’s necessary to try to relieve people’s suffering. And yes, you know, work is necessary and literary is necessary, but we also need to make a place for the arts, right? We need non profit organizations [laughter] that fund the arts and we need to attend not just to our practical concerns, but to our spiritual concerns. Instead, he’s stating this in the most extreme way, he’s defending something about his character and his chosen way of life. If anything can be retrieved from this, it’s the fact that there is actually a tension between attending to our practical needs and to survival and the alleviation of suffering and then concern for, you know, intellectual activities and things which are basically associated with leisure we can’t forget.
Wes: And one of the questions here is… which I think comes up in Chekhov quite a bit, I think it’s in Uncle Vanya, it might be the question of whether, is this even a type of work? Is art work? Is being a writer work? Is being an intellectual a form of work? And the argument can go either way and you might think this is the truest form of work. This is the highest thing. This is kind of, you know, kind of an extension of the aristotelian idea, right, that we are most human when we are contemplative, when we are rational, and then you might extend that to say, more generally, when we are doing something that’s sublimating. But then there’s the type of mindless work that you said, right, that you liked earlier on [laughter] in the episode…
Wes: …that I like too. Like, I like raking. I did a kind of residency and wooden boat building. At some point. It was in Maine, I had to be in the cold a lot, and sawing things and doing fine work with a chisel on these very ornate robots that we would create, that involved a lot of handwork. And I really didn’t like it. It was hard, for one thing, involved me working with my hands, which I also found out I didn’t like, Although I did find out I liked framing. You know, there were kinds of carpentry I did like, which were the mindless type, which didn’t require my mind to be focused on the task at hand. It’s like I wanted to be one of the others. So, I like raking, [laughter] I like framing, you know, on a house, where you’re just not thinking, you’re just doing. But to do both together to be very, very concentrated on something that is also manual labor, I didn’t like. All right. So, why did I bring up that story? Because I think there’s a deeper question here about what constitutes work? I don’t know. Does that make any sense?
Erin: Yeah, yeah.
Wes: It’s an odd thing at the beginning for him to be talking about idleness all the time, I think. It’s odd for me, and… at least, because I’m not inclined to think of someone who’s a famous painter who works at his craft to be idle, right?
Wes: That’s an interesting setup for the whole story.
Erin: Well, he says, when he’s reproaching Bielokurov for having kind of a dull life and for not maybe even thinking of Lyda and Zenya romantically, the painter almost posits that a romantic interest in one of these two girls would constitute some form of work or at least activity that would lift Bielokurov out of his own idleness. But he says, “Why is your life so dull, so colorless? My life is dull, heavy, monotonous because I’m an artist, a strange man. From my youth, I’ve been chafed by jealousy, dissatisfaction with myself, lack of faith in what I’m doing. I’m always poor, I’m a vagabond. But you, you’re a healthy normal person, a landowner, a Squire. Why do you live so uninterestingly? Why do you take so little from life? Why, for instance, haven’t you fallen in love with Lyda or Zegna yet?”
Erin: So he characterizes himself…
Wes: Is the artist like an aristocrat? Is he like a… one of these… possibly parasitic [laughter] landowners…
Wes: …who should be overthrown in the revolution?
Erin: And yet, you know, he says he’s poor and, you know, he’s always poor and he’s always… You know, his state… he blames as much, though, on his disposition as on his profession. Or maybe those two things overlap, that because I’m an artist, I’m jealous and my life is monotonous and I’m condemned to idleness. It’s hard to say.
Wes: Yeah, there’s an interesting shift here because it’s in the beginning that he’s describing it as monotonous, but…
Wes: …in finding this little fairy tale land, it’s romanticized, right? He’s gazing at people doing nothing and thinking how great it is, and…
Erin: And from Lyda’s perspective… So he’s saying like, the more you help people, the more you’re actually hurting them. And she says, you know, I just can’t stand with my arms crossed and do nothing. That to me is a very doctorly kind of statement, right? Because it reminds me of the story of Samuel Mudd, actually, [laughter] you know, with setting John Wilkes Booth’s leg. Or at least the story of Mudd as told in The West Wing. [laughter] I don’t know if you’re a fan of The West Wing, but it was one of my favorite shows.
Wes: I haven’t seen it actually. Everyone tells me that I have to see it. But no I haven’t.
Erin: Oh it’s I was obsessed with it when I was, like, in college. I watched it all the time. And there’s a debate that sort of simplifies Samuel Mudd’s story. But basically the President and the First Lady are arguing over this and the First Lady is a doctor, and they have an amazing marriage, which is beside the point. But anyway, they’re talking about how there’s this guy who is being tried for treason because he aided someone -I don’t remember the exact circumstances- but he was a doctor and he aided someone who was a terrorist. So the First Lady says to him, “That’s what this guy had to do because he’s a doctor.” And she takes the example of Samuel Mudd and says for instance, “Samuel Mudd, like, had to set Booth’s leg,” and the President says to her, “This is why we don’t talk about politics because [laughter] Samuel mudd was tried and convicted of treason for setting that leg. So obviously you don’t set the leg and he’s like, you know, he was tried and convicted of treason” and she says, “So…?” and he’s like, “What so?” and she said, “Well that’s too bad. Like, you treat the patient in front of you no matter what the consequences.”
Erin: And this is sort of like the curse, maybe, of the doctor in these types of high pressure situations where even if the consequences are going to be negative for you or even for the person, you must, you are bound by the Hippocratic Oath to help the person in front of you, whether or not they are a terrorist or someone who’s just assassinated Lincoln or whoever. And The West Wing simplifies Mudd’s involvement with Booth in order to make a dramatic point in that scene, that mentality of the doctor that you must do something to treat the person in front of you.
Wes: Yeah, I think that’s interesting because in this context, it’s… even if there are spiritual costs to alleviating people suffering, as the painter argues, it might be the case that it’s an obligation to alleviate suffering as much as possible anyway.
Wes: And then the counter argument runs… and this is a longstanding philosophical debate, but it’s… and I think a psychological one, is to what degree do you take that? Is the point of life to simply maximize the alleviation of suffering, to be a utilitarian? Or are there higher spiritual needs, which we ought not to get rid of, even if, on the whole, they increase the average suffering of people? So for instance, there’s a certain amount of suffering that comes along with just as a natural byproduct of being a meaning-seeking type of creature and having these higher aspirations. I think people might, at a very basic level, suffer a lot less if they just forgot about the arts [laughter] and about intellectual pursuits. Or even religion. So we seek out meaning, even if it increases our suffering, we’re willing to become ascetics, we’re willing to raise the level of suffering in our life if we can also increase the meaningfulness factor in our lives.
Erin: I suppose I’m uncomfortable with the dichotomy between, you know, idleness on the one hand and a sort of utilitarianism on the other hand, because I see, Lyda, even though the painter is more identified with religion and the spiritual and Lyda seems to be more utilitarian. I also think that what she is undertaking is essentially a Christian project, which is a charity and works of mercy. And one can argue that this whole debate between them, I see it as almost as sort of a Christian parable of the argument between faith and works in working out one salvation, you know. So this idea that, you know, some people say that faith alone saves others, say that it’s a combination between faith and the good works that you do. And this is obviously a debate that goes on in different Protestant sects and the role of grace in bringing about salvation and all that sort of thing. But anyway…
Wes: Yeah. Is it a Christian project? Or the other side of this is, where is Russia headed? It’s headed towards a focus on materialism in the sense of Marxian materialism and towards a society in which the satisfaction of people’s material needs and their equalization in that respect, in a communist society is taken to be the goal and to the exclusion of religion, right? But it’s unclear, in this story, who is more representative of that trend…
Wes: …Lyda or the painter, because, as I pointed out, it’s the painter who, strangely enough, is giving what sounds like a description of a Marxist utopia, even though he’s talking about religion as well.
Wes: And it could be that Lyda is not actually so representative of that, as more representative of something that I think Chekhov was into, which is just a more practical comportment to the world when that is necessary. And noticing the suffering in one’s immediate vicinity, the local suffering, and being willing to do something about that, which of course he was.
Erin: Right. There’s also the whole issue of suffering itself. And the tension within Christianity, one might say, between one’s obligation to alleviate other suffering and also the obligation to recognize the beneficial elements of suffering and the redemptive quality of suffering. But that’s a little bit of a bridge too far here. I mean, it’s not as though Christians leave other people to suffer because they say, well, that’s good for you, so good for you, you know. [laughter] That’s not it either. But recognizing that when one has to suffer, that all suffering is obviously a product of… Christians would say that is a product of the fall, that suffering is not a good thing in and of itself, but that it can be redeemed if looked at properly and that it has of course a use and it gives order and meaning to one’s life in a lot of different ways. But I would say that your characterization of Lyda as being utilitarian is, I think, partially true, and that utilitarianism, of course, conflicts with this Christian sense of suffering, that one’s goal shouldn’t be simply to make everything as easy as possible for the maximum number of people without any consideration given to the soul…
Erin: …and higher considerations.
Wes: Well, I think it helps to distinguish between different sorts of suffering. You know, there’s a sort of suffering we do when we are deprived of very basic needs, food and shelter and health, and then there’s this sort of suffering that it seems like there’s no danger of that going away.
Wes: You know, a lot of the social suffering we do is actually social and spiritual and that’s not going to be solved by… you know, it could be solved, to some extent, by schools perhaps, but for the most part, that’s just a staple of life. And it’s not something you can do, something about at the level of the government, although there is a counter argument to that, and I think it’s become more popular today, which is that we can use society to equalize not just material inequalities, but status inequalities. So, for instance, representation in the arts and I think various ways in which people feel marginalized or invisible or excluded, that there ought to be ways to equalize that sort of suffering and remedy it. But anyway, Well, we’ve gotten at some of the very interesting issues involved in that debate, that is the substance of the third section of the story.
Erin: One further thing about this debate. He says at the top of 292, “Every man’s calling lies in spiritual activity. A constant search for truth and the meaning of life make it so that crude British labour is not necessary for them. The teeming masses, let them feel themselves free, and then you’ll see what a mockery these books and first aid kits essentially are. Once a man is conscious of his true calling, he can be satisfied only by religion, the sciences, the arts, and not these trifles.” So I will say here, I think that this is Chekhov being critical of this guy. First of all, it’s very difficult to make the argument that first aid kits are bad. [laughter]
Erin: Also Lyda is living out her precepts, but the painter is not spending all of his time in a constant search for truth and the meaning of life. So what he’s arguing for, he’s not exactly living out. So we see an imbalance here where Lyda is trying to live out exactly what she believes, the painter is arguing something that, one can argue, it’s impossible to live out. He has these ideas that are so utopian that it’s impossible to bring them about without a complete overhaul of society and some revolution, which of course, you know, the year after Chekhov dies, the first revolution will come about. And none of this high living, you know, high concept, none of these high ideals will be brought to fruition by any of these revolutions.
Erin: But Lyda is at least putting her money where her mouth is. I mean, that’s that’s her whole thing, is to put your money [laughter] where your mouth is, right? And his whole thing is dreaming of a better tomorrow, but he’s not spending his life the way that he thinks people should be spending their lives.
Wes: Unless he thinks the painting is a way of doing that. And that, I think, is the question. I think that’s kind of what Chekhov is worried about.
Wes: And it goes back to my question of whether… is being an artist actually a type of work? And if it is a type of work, is it doing the thing that we might idealistically say it is doing? Is he living a more spiritual, meaningful life in that sense? And is he helping other people do that? Is he…? That’s the question. Is it just pure idleness? Or is there something within idleness which is a higher kind of work?
Erin: Right. And that higher work would be spiritual seeking. Truth seeking.
Erin: Okay, I guess I was confused because I was drawing a distinction between the work that they’re talking about and the spiritual truth seeking. So that painting may be a form of work, but that this searching for truth is not a form of work. It’s some other category. And that these two things might be contradictory.
Wes: Yeah, and I think that’s the question. It’s, you know, can you treat something like painting as a form of truth seeking? And I don’t think that… I think Chekhov is probably ambivalent about that, and would have the same ambivalence for literature.
Erin: At the end, he says, “I don’t want to work and will not. Nothing’s any use. Let the earth go to hell and gone.” [laughter] So… and then Lyda tells Zenya to leave the room because she’s going to get some bad ideas from that, total damnation. But I think ultimately, you know, it’s interesting that that’s where his mind goes at the end, which is just… there’s no use for anything, which I think is the only way that his line of thinking can tend to, since the fundamental impracticality means that nothing is ever going to get done and everything is useless anyway, and it just leads to sort of frustration.
Wes: Yeah. This is the point where he seems to get so angry that he’s completely… but he’s not even consistent anymore.
Erin: Yes. Yes,
Wes: Because he basically ends all this by saying that the artist is working for the amusement of a predatory slovenly and… or at least in such conditions, I guess. So, in a way, he’s… I guess he’s arguing that he needs the right audience, right? And you can’t create the right audience for an artist by giving them first aid kits, you have to raise them to the level where they can truly appreciate someone like him and his work. So it’s very self serving. But it breaks down, as he seems to be so angry and rageful at this point, where it’s verging on incoherence and of course despair, nothing is of any use.
Erin: Yeah. And Lyda responds -this is as their argument is ending-, “Such nice things are commonly said when one wants to justify one’s indifference. To reject hospitals and schools is easier than to treat or teach people,” which is true. And then later she says -this is great-, “You threatened to stop working. Obviously, you value your works highly.” [laughter] So maybe she’s trying to say, “Oh, yeah, you think that what you’re actually doing is work and that’s kind of laughable, and obviously you think better of yourself than I think of you.” But she is… I think it’s important to note that she’s not indifferent to this conversation. She’s not remained cold, he’s had an effect on her. He says that, just as he got angry, he looks at her and says, “Her face was burning and to conceal her agitation, she bent low to the table as if she were nearsighted pretending to read the newspaper.” So he has had an effect on her, and it’s not like she’s just so superior to him, that they’ve both gotten quite angry over this and are hurt by the fact that the other person doesn’t see their point of view.
Wes: What’s interesting about this last word that you just pointed out that she has, is that what she’s saying to him is your drawing this contrast between work and the arts as a form of idleness. And in fact, you think what you’re doing is actually work. So then the question is, which kind of work is superior? It’s not a question between work and something higher. It’s two different kinds of work. And then she tells him she thinks that libraries and first aid kits are more important than all the landscape paintings in the world. She’s reframing, I think the debate and challenging some of his basic ideas about work. So I think it’s a very interesting way for that section to end. And then of course, his anger is going to cost him…
Wes: …which you think he would know, you think he would realize that it’s over with Zenya now because of that conflict.
Erin: Right. And he goes outside, he talks with Zegna and this is when he says, “I loved Zenya” and he describes his infatuation with her, which… this, I think, gives some evidence for my theory that we’re supposed to see this painter sometimes as being, you know, kind of laughable and maybe even an object of scorn for the reader. “It must be that I loved her from meeting me and seeing me off, for looking at me tenderly and with admiration.” And then he says “And her intelligence? I suspected that she was of uncommon intelligence. I admired the breadth of her views, perhaps because she thought differently from the severe and beautiful Lyda, who did not like me. Zenya admired me as an artist, and I had won her with my talent. I passionately wanted to paint for her alone, and I dreamed of her as my little queen, who, together with me, would one day possess these trees, fields, mists, the dawn, this nature, wonderful, enchanting, but in the midst of which I had till then felt myself hopelessly lonely and useless.” So it’s kind of funny. I think. I mean, it’s very beautiful on the one hand, of course, and sincere, but on the other hand, what he admires from her is the fact that she admires him.
Wes: And I think this is the point where he, you know, as you pointed out earlier, he’s… well he’s into Lyda, as well. I think he’s kind of evenly balanced between the two of them and I think this is where he comes down on one side.[laughter] You know, after he’s finally had it out with Lyda, he’s like, “all right, screw that, Zenya is the one for me” and now he’s rationalizing that and idealizing her. And…
Erin: Yeah, because she’s the one who isn’t challenging him.
Wes: He’s found someone who can be the audience he wants, which is… what’s kind of the implication of where he was going at the end of the last section. He doesn’t want people suffering alleviated, he wants them cultivated so that they can be the right kind of audience for his work. And she’s… that’s just what she is.
Erin: What I like, that characterization that you give, because of course, you know, the mezzanine angle, as we hinted at the beginning, is kind of a theater. This whole thing is playing out on a kind of a stage and Zenya has been sent away so she’s not on the stage, she’s sort of lingering in the periphery. In other words, she’s the audience watching and she is therefore his ideal audience, you know, what he wants, which is someone to be sympathetic to him as he says, who will adore him. So this… in this way he wants to paint for her. He wants to perform for her and have her appreciate what he produces artistically. You know, and that metaphor obviously crosses over from theatrical sort of, you know, the stage metaphor to to the painter and the admirer of the painting. Or even the subject of the painting. He wants to paint her, he wants her to, I suppose, cross the proscenium and be involved in artistic production with him, in some way, even if it’s only as a source of inspiration.
Erin: Anyway, sort of a mixed metaphor. Then it ends… prior to its ending, he kisses her and then she sort of runs away and he’s left to look at the house and has this real dreamy experience of watching the people in the house moving around in it and he just sits there for hours I suppose and eventually goes home. And the next day he comes to the house and sees that Zenya has been sent away and what he was watching the night before was actually Lyda probably reproaching Zenya and setting in motion her exit from the house. In hindsight, it colors the whole thing with this real melancholy aspect.
Wes: And here is one of the two places of obvious symbolic significance for the mezzanine. So, because he says, “I stood for a while in thought and quietly trudged back to look again at the house where she lived, a dear naive old house, which seemed to look at me with the windows of its mezzanine as with eyes and to understand everything, ” which is contrasted with another moment, which I think is one of the most interesting representations of the house and in contrast to this. So earlier on, in Section III, he says, when he’s arguing with Lyda, he says, “dispensaries, peasant literacy books with pathetic precepts and jokes cannot diminish either ignorance or mortality any more than the light from your windows can illuminate this huge garden.”
Wes: I was taken by the significance of that. This idea that the mezzanine is part of the, I think, open quality of the house and its receptivity and in the case of Lyda, it’s a receptivity to, you know, to patients for one thing. But in the case of Zenya, it represents… the kind of receptivity involved is naive, right? She’s naive and that’s the way he describes the house at the very end of this when he’s decided he’s loved Zegna. You know, it’s a “dear naive old house” and the windows “seem to understand everything”. So he’s inverted this idea of the windows shedding light on everything as a way of healing the world to the windows being windows of understanding, which I think you can see in that, the two sides of the dilemma represented, right, the active work to help people’s suffering side, and then this is the more passive, idle, I’m-going-to-devote-myself-to-the-spiritual side, right? So it’s, you know, your windows are not gonna heal the world, but they can become all-knowing and all-understanding. So he seems to put more hope in the capacity of us to be true seekers, to know, and to invent, and to be creative, than he does in our capacity to be engaged in more practical work.
Erin: Shall we turn to the end now? To the very end?
Erin: Okay. So years pass, and he sees Bielokurov on the train and finds out that Lyda had “succeeded in gathering a circle of people sympathetic to her, who had formed themselves into a strong party and the last Zemstvo elections had ousted Balaguin, who till then had had the whole district in his hand. So she was successful in getting rid of this tyrant. Of Zenya, Bielokurov told me only that she was not living at home and he did not know where she was.” In the last paragraph of the story, “I’m beginning to forget about the house with the mezzanine, and only rarely, while painting or reading, will I suddenly recall, as if at random, now the green light in the window, now the sound of my own footsteps in the fields at night as I, in love, made my way home, rubbing my hands from the cold. And still more rarely at moments when solitude weighs on me and I feel sad, I dimly remember, and for some reason I am gradually beginning to think that I, too, am remembered, waited for, that we will meet. Missyuss, where are you?” Such an incredible last line. I don’t know what to…
Erin: …take from it. I mean, you know, just…
Wes: So as an artist, it’s possible he’s better off with this longing, right? The sense of longing…
Erin: Oh. Yeah. [laughter] …and even thought of that, of course, of course.
Wes: And even Missyuss is, I don’t know what it is in the Russian, but it sounds like Muse to me, you know.
Erin: Oh, Yeah. [laughter] You’re very clever!
Wes: I don’t know about being too clever by half or not. But this is…
Erin: [laughter] No, that’s great. That’s great. Of course. Yeah. That melancholy aspect is, you know, makes her ultimately perfect. Of course he couldn’t get her, that would be too easy.
Wes: And it would have… her naivete, and her willingness to believe everything he’s going to say, and not ask questions, and her just being willing to look up to him. That is not in fact an ideal audience as he seemed to think it was. That would probably ruin his art in the same way that politicizing it might ruin it.
Erin: Mm. I don’t know if you felt the same way, but I can’t read something about a green light without thinking of Gatsby.
Wes: Mmm. Yes, of course. Yeah.
Erin: And especially because we’re living in one long extended episode here, on a continuum, that is Subtext…
Erin: And of course, we know what happens when Gatsby finally gets together with the object of his longing, that only having the green light at a distance has allowed him to become the self made multimillionaire that he is, and getting her ultimately is a huge disappointment.
Wes: So Lyda has saved him. [laughter]
Wes: She is the savior. She not only alleviates the suffering of the peasants, she’s the savior of the artist. We discussed this in the last episode, the fortuitousness of Chekhov, also being a doctor, and also being able to be devoted to practicality and what that does for him as an artist, you know. So Lyda constitutes a very… actually a very helpful component to one’s character. If one is aspiring to be an artist. You know, maybe Zenya is your muse, but Lyda is your “get up in the morning and just do it two hours a day every day with the whip in hand.” Yeah.
Erin: Right. Right. Yeah, I love it.
Wes: Okay, well I enjoyed that. Thank you.
Erin: Thank you.