Ever hear of Anton Chekhov? It’s alright if you haven’t. I first heard the name two years ago from the person who has held the greatest influential effects over my life, outside of my blood relations, and I’ve only just read one of his plays.
What took me so long to become acquainted with him, though? And why write this particular piece? Life as a graduate students and teacher drags me around in various directions and I’ve stared at my bookshelf countless hours over the past two years, examining the spines of a few of his books I’ve picked up at used book sales. But I’ve been lucky enough to find work at an internship in the city this summer and my three hour train commute each day has afforded me much appreciated reading time. (The Hudson is beautiful to look at, but there are only so many times in a week I can sit on a train without getting a bit anxious.)
Recently, while I was on a break at my internship, I was browsing forbes.com, (looking for opportunities to make extra cash, obviously), and, to my surprise, stumbled across this excerpt from a letter the then 26 year old Chekhov wrote to his troubled older brother:
“To my mind, civilized people ought to satisfy the following conditions:
1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant.
They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor, and when they move out, they do not say, “How can anyone live with you!” They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes.
2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats.
They are hurt even by things the naked eye can’t see. If for instance, Pyotr knows that his father and mother are turning gray and losing sleep over seeing their Pyotr so rarely (and seeing him drunk when he does turn up), then he rushes home to them and sends his vodka to the devil. They do not sleep nights the better to help the Polevayevs, help pay their brothers’ tuition, and keep their mother decently dressed.
3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.
4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague.
They do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar’s eyes. They don’t put on airs, they behave in the street as they do at home, and they do not try to dazzle their inferiors. They know how to keep their mouths shut and they do not force uninvited confidences on people. Out of respect for the ears of others they are more often silent than not.
5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy.
They do not play on people’s heartstrings to get them to sigh and fuss over them. They do not say, “No one understands me!” or “I’ve squandered my talent on trifles!” because this smacks of a cheap effect and is vulgar, false and out-of-date.
6. They are not preoccupied with vain things.
They are not taken in by such false jewels as friendships with celebrities, handshakes with drunken Plevako, ecstasy over the first person they happen to meet at the Salon de Varietes, popularity among the tavern crowd. They laugh when they hear, “I represent the press,” a phrase befitting only Rodzeviches and Levenbergs. When they have done a penny’s worth of work, they don’t try to make a hundred rubles out of it, and they don’t boast over being admitted to places closed to others. True talents always seek obscurity. They try to merge with the crowd and shun all ostentation. Krylov himself said that an empty barrel has more chance of being heard than a full one.
7. If they have talent, they respect it.
They sacrifice comfort, women, wine and vanity to it. They are proud of their talent, and so they do not go out carousing with trade-school employees or Skvortsov’s guests, realizing that their calling lies in exerting an uplifting influence on them, not in living with them. What is more, they are fastidious.
8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities.
They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a slit in the wall teeming with bedbugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a spittle-laden floor or eat off a kerosene stove. They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, […] not the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the ability to stage a fake pregnancy and tirelessly reel off lies. They—and especially the artists among them—require spontaneity, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother… They don’t guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not swine. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself. For they require a mens sana in corpore sano.”
Though its post-mark is over a hundred years old to the date, the letter begs for a few thorough readings. How many people have you met in your life who you can confidently say meet all eight conditions? Or even half of them?
The point of this letter is the preservation of certain standards in life. I walk down Madison avenue Monday-Friday (where my office is), and I can’t help but feel that most of these standards have been cashed in and translated into the amount of self-indulgence a person may squeeze out of a day. It’s nothing particular against the city: it just so happens this is where I have spent a good portion of my summer and I’m aware of my surroundings. I’ve found a lack of these standards in every town I’ve stayed in for an extended period of time.
Chekhov was a prolific short story writer, as well as an actively practicing physician. I picked up ‘The Seagull,’ a play of his written in 1986, for my train ride the day after reading this letter. I don’t want to say much about it (so not to spoil anything), but the play embodies conflicts that I’ve met in some people. I say some because I think a good portion of my generation is ambivalent enough to the ideas and emotions in this play that they would find them absurd.
Though you may find no connection with Chekhov’s conditions, or believe that something that has aged over a hundred years cannot possibly hold any relevance to life today, or even if you have no interest in reading a play, for something different just give it a shot. At one point, a character emphasizes the feeling that, “If you ever, ever need my life, come and take it.” While this has its own unique context in “The Seagull,” reflect about this in terms of your own life.
Whether it is a troubled brother, ailing mother, or a disenchanted lover, I hope that you feel passionately enough about life to say this to someone.