That an artist’s sphere is free from questions and is solidly packed with nothing but answers can be claimed only by one who has never written and has nothing to do with images. The artist observes, selects, surmises, composes – actions which by themselves presuppose a question at their very beginning… In demanding from an artist a conscious attitude toward his work you are right, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct posing of a question. Only the second is obligatory for an artist
(Letters of Anton Chekhov edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky – page 88)
I found a blue notebook in my drawer the other day. It seems to date from the 1970s. It contains notes taken from many books by various authors including Victor Serge, Anthony Storr, Donald Kaplan, Ken Keyes, and Robert White. I have no memory of reading any of these books from which I took such care to record quotations, though I remember my fascination for the topics they cover, ranging from creativity through personal growth to revolution, because they continue to fascinate me to this day. I owned none of them. They were borrowed from the Hendon Library. I owe a lot to libraries, and that one in particular (see link). They are a necessity not a luxury even in the age of the internet.
One set of notes grabbed my attention in particular though. These come from Sophie Laffitte’s book on Chekhov. I can’t find much information at all about her on the web. A used copy of her book can apparently be obtained from Amazon at the cost of 1 penny. New it would cost over £70. Read into that what you wish!
Chekhov was a major influence on my development. Part of that was because he combined professional writing with the work of a doctor. I’ve recorded the following in my notes (page 71):
Medicine is my lawful wife, literature my mistress. When I tire of the one, I spend the night with the other. . . . . If I did not have my medical pursuits, I should find it difficult to devote my random thoughts and spare time to literature.
I don’t know whether his reason for this difficulty was the same as mine when I was balancing impossible demands and wrote this in my journal in September 2000:
When I’m on the treadmill of tasks dictated by other people’s agendas I know I’m doing something useful but I feel totally alienated from myself. When I am writing, reading or reflecting for myself — or simply slumping in a deckchair in the sun sometimes — I feel close to the heart of who I really am — absorbing sensations and impressions, reflecting upon them, but doing nothing with them — but at the same time guilt gnaws away at me. I feel it is all profitless, pointless, indulgent. . . . . . So, I spend my life being the railway while longing to be the grass.
He probably made better use of his down time than I was able to do.
At the point in my life when I took the notes, I was combining training as a psychologist with a passion for poetry. His life resonated strongly for that reason. I was yet to experience any extreme conflict between duty and creativity: this only became apparent later. I may even have believed I could emulate the balance he achieved, albeit in a minor key, such is the arrogance of immaturity.
I can take some comfort perhaps from the words of Virginia Woolf (A Writer’s Diary – page 29):
I don’t like time to flap. Well then, work. Yes, but I so soon tire of work – can’t read more than a little, an hour of writing is enough for me.
I had been nudged even more strongly to take this moment down memory lane seriously when, after putting the notebook away again, this time on a shelf near my desk, I started to read Lydall Gordon’s introduction to A Writer’s Diary and found another fascinating angle on the man. Gordon describes Woolf as using her diary to commune ‘with her secret self, what Chekhov calls the kernel of a life.’
Even though I blog, have used various psychotherapies and am very open with those I become close to, I think my diaries and journals are my way of reaching far deeper into the ground of my being than I can achieve in the company of or in communication with others.
Good I got the notebook down again because that was not all.
It was what he stood for that influenced me most and the purple scrawl of my notes reminded me of this when I looked at them again more closely.
I’ve rabbited on a lot about idealism and its costs and benefits, quoting Jonathan Haidt admiringly for his insights. Chekhov, who died in 1904 at the age of 44, exactly captured Haidt’s key insight into the means/ends problem. He wrote, at the age of 32 (page 179):
Disgusting means used to achieve excellent ends make the ends themselves odious… Were I a political man, I should never be able to bring myself to dishonour the present with a view to the future, even if, for a gramme (sic) of despicable lies, I were promised a hundred kilograms of future bliss.
He sets out his standards for the writer (page 19):
(1) absolute objectivity; (2) truth in the description of people and things; (3) maximum brevity; (4) boldness and originality; (5) compassion.
My memory of his stories and plays suggests that he managed to hold to those standards in his later work. What resonates most strongly for me is the idea of upholding both truth and compassion. It is easier to honour one of those than both. There is a link for me there with both the Buddhist ideals of wisdom and compassion, and the Bahá’í ideal in consultation of combining truthfulness and courtesy. I’ve described that in training materials available on my blog as learning how to walk a razor’s edge.
Chekhov believed (page 71) that ‘to educate oneself requires ceaseless, unremitting work, night and day. Every hour counts.’ He advocated ‘constant reading’ and ‘the development of will power.’ We’re on Baumeister’s ground with that last remark. And Leonard Woolf testifies to his wife’s similar tenacious dedication to her novelist’s art (Writer’s Diary – page ix):
The diaries at least show the extraordinary energy, persistence, and concentration with which she devoted herself to the art of writing and the undeviating conscientiousness with which she wrote and rewrote and again rewrote her books.
Chekhov believed (Laffitte: page 85) that ‘educated men should . . . fulfil’ certain conditions, including ‘respect’ for their ‘fellow men,’ being ‘compassionate, not only towards beggars and cats. Their hearts are also moved by what is not visible to the naked eye.’ More below on what I think he means by that last point.
He also felt they should not lie or be vain. His comment on talent is relevant to his art:
If they have some kind of talent – they respect it. They sacrifice leisure, women, wine and futile pursuits to it.
It is towards the end of this collection of Chekhov quotes that I find perhaps the most powerful of all.
First, there is this brief comment ((page 115):
. . . . man’s destiny either does not exist at all, or exists in one thing only: in a love, full of self-sacrifice for one’s neighbour.
He goes on to amplify that in a longer passage from Gooseberries, which I feel needs to be quoted in full:
We neither see nor hear those who are suffering and all that is appalling in life takes place somewhere off-stage. Everything is calm and peaceful and only mute statistics prove the opposite: so many people driven insane, so many buckets of vodka drunk, so many children dead from hunger. And this state of affairs is apparently necessary. Apparently, a happy man only remains so because the unhappy ones bear their burden in silence, and, without that silence, happiness would be impossible. It amounts to mass hypnosis. Behind the door of every happy contented human being, there should be someone armed with a small hammer, the blows of which would constantly remind him unhappy people do exist and that however contented he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws; misfortune, illness and poverty will eventually strike him down and, when they do, no one will see or hear him, just as now, he, himself, neither sees nor hears anyone. But the man with the hammer does not exist, the happy man goes on living, small everyday cares touch him lightly, much as the wind gently stirs the leaves of the aspens, and everything continues as before. . . . In actual fact, there is no happiness and there should be none, but if our life has any meaning or aim, that meaning and aim are in no way concerned with our personal happiness but with something far wiser and more important.
Even in the age of the internet we can find enough distractions to make widely publicised suffering invisible. Chekhov’s insights are still painfully relevant.
It seems that I could do a lot worse with any spare time I have than re-read Chekhov. The Guardian article at the Gooseberries link certainly suggests so. In discussing reservations about comfort reading Chris power states:
According to Vladimir Nabokov, “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader”. Sean O’Faolain, discussing Anton Chekhov’s short story Verotchka, writes, “Having reread it I feel … that nobody should read more than he can in 10 years reread; that first reading is a pleasure for youth, second reading an instruction for manhood, and third reading, no doubt, the consolation and despair of old age. . . . . .” What O’Faolain identifies here is an altogether higher form of comfort: that provided by an inexhaustible work of art.
 I’m not sure how reliable the page numbers are as I could only use Google Books who wouldn’t let me inside the book itself, simply dredging up accurate quotes to only some of my searches. I hope that doesn’t mean I transcribed the original text inaccurately!
 Gordon misleadingly quotes from The Lady with the Little Dog (Introduction: page xii): ‘He had two lives one, open, seen and known… and another life running its course in secret… Everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people.’ This is Gurov reflecting upon his life of deception as he conducts his affair with Anna Sergeyevna, the only woman he has ever been able to love. I do not feel this to be the same as the ‘kernel’ of one’s inner life, which is what I think Virginia Woolf was concerned with and to protect which both Leonard, her husband, and Virginia herself constructed a ‘carapace,’ to use Leonard’s term in his autobiography (Gordon’s introduction – page xiii). David Magarshack does not use the word kernel at all in his translation (Penguin Edition: page 279), although he uses the word husk to describe the lies that conceal ‘the quintessence of [Gurov’s] life.’