El Fomentador

Alive and well in Mexico…

“Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov

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As an undergraduate at the university I had a favorite Professor of English who was a devotee of the French philosophers. After a few of his literature courses I became an existentialist for a couple of years. In my own defense, I never owned a beret or even a black turtleneck sweater. But I will admit it was kind of fun to live a life where I could “plunge to the depths of despair” while clearly separating myself from those around me that seemed oblivious to the true meaningless of life and the eternal suffering of our pitiful human condition. Even now it can sometimes seem comforting to view the natural forces that sustain our lives–the Sun, water, wind–as simply rotting our planet away in the midst of an uncaring and unforgiving universe.

Of course, eventually, I had to graduate and begin the time honored process of clawing my way into the middle-class. A family, a job, a home, even a station-wagon seemed to salve my sense that something wasn’t right. A life in the ‘burbs, surrounded by other families that were all building toward the elusive and perhaps, indefinable, “American dream” was easy to fall into and, to be honest, had its own rewards, I could say that I was happy. A life of “quiet desperation” was preferable to one punctuated by dark despair and Weltschmerz; and besides, I just don’t look good in a beret!

Well, now that former life is gone. I live in a tiny apartment, tucked into a very Mexican neighborhood surrounded by a dirty, often noisy, ramshackle industrial city thousands of miles away from family and friends. Man, talk about the potential for despair! Usually I am more frustrated by the injustice that I witness around me than despairing over my own human condition. In a way I consider myself very fortunate–I had a life I loved and now have a chance at a second life, a life with a purposefulness that I can define, instead of having a life that defines me. I’ve been allowed to join the ranks of the “reconstructed existentialists” that recognize a life of moping despair serves no one. And to walk with the Sun on your back or the rain in your face should not be oppressive but inspiring; the tiny, ephemeral joys of this existence are what we get and in large part are what we make of them.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t morphed into a Pollyanna, or a Sarah Palin. Life is still a very confusing and challenging condition, and to paraphrase the old bumper sticker: Mean People Still Suck. But that is what makes the hundreds of thoughtful, caring, intelligent people I have been privileged to meet and know and work with over the years all the more important. Gee, that does sound kind of “Pollyanna-like”. Regardless, imagine, if you can, my response when I recently rediscovered Anton Chekhovs’ short story “Gooseberries” tucked into an old paper-back edition of “The Best Short Stories of the Modern Age”. Certainly “Gooseberries” meets the criteria for inclusion in the book.

Chekhov lived from 1860 to 1904 and was born in Russia. His contributions to the modern short story include sharing a deep sympathy for his characters and their situations. He writes with an, often, stark truthfulness more focused on the flow of ideas than on formal plot lines. Obviously, I am not classifying Chekhov as an existentialist but his work can often give that same sense of despair.https://i0.wp.com/www.my-chekhov.com/images/foto/chehov_24.jpg

“Gooseberries” is really a story within a story. The main character, Ivan Ivanych, the story teller, relates a tale of a change that occurred in him while visiting his brother, Nikolay. Nikolay worked for more than 25 years as a minor government clerk. He spent his life constantly saving toward his dream of owning a small country estate someday. Ivan recognized the draw of the rural life but didn’t agree with his brother: “He was a kind and gentle soul and I loved him, but I never sympathized with his desire to shut himself up for the rest of his life on a little property of his own. It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of earth. But six feet is what a corpse needs, not a man.” He continues, “To retire from the city, from the struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one’s own farm–that’s not life, it is selfishness, sloth, it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without works. Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.”

Nikolay spent his spare time over the years planning and working out his dream. Ivan tells us that in “those imaginary pictures…somehow gooseberries figured in every one of them”. “He could not picture to himself a single country-house, a single rustic nook, without gooseberries”. “Country life has its advantages,” he used to say. “You sit on the veranda having tea, and your ducks swim in the pond, and everything smells delicious and–the gooseberries are ripening'”.

Finally, after many years, Nikolay bought an estate and “settled down to the life of a country gentleman”.  Ivan went to visit his brother to “see how things were with him.” A common theme among authors is lamenting the immutable process of growing old. Even if we recognize aging and death as a part of life it may be seen as resulting in a series of lost opportunities, things left undone, words left unsaid. The Mexican celebration of The Day of the Dead is based on an indigenous belief that death is simply a portal to another life, a doorway to another existence. Of course the Christian belief in an everlasting life in Heaven or Hell amounts to the same–but no one really knows for certain what happens. There is an old joke that says after Jean Paul Sartre died, he found himself standing at the gates of Heaven with Saint Peter. Sartre looked bewildered so Saint Peter asked what was wrong. Sartre said, “It isn’t what I expected.” When the Saint asked him what he expected, Sartre simply answered, “Nothing.” I guess it is about as close to an existentialist joke as you can get. I once read somewhere that we have no fear of the time before we were born so why should we be afraid of the time after we are gone. In the following passage Chekhov touches on the topic as the brothers meet after many years apart, then moves on: “We embraced and dropped tears of joy and also of sadness at the thought that the two of us had once been young, but were now gray and nearing death. He got dressed and took me out to show me his estate.”

The idea of change over time is reflected in the next passage: “He was no longer the poor, timid clerk he used to be but a real landowner, a gentleman. [He] was very much offended when the peasants failed to address him as ‘Your Honor’. And he concerned himself with his soul’s welfare too, in a substantial, upper-class manner, and performed good deeds not simply but pompously. …on his name day he had a thanksgiving service celebrated in the center of the village, and then treated the villagers to a gallon of vodka, which he thought was the thing to do. Oh, those horrible gallons of vodka! One day a fat landowner hauls the peasants up before the rural police officer for trespassing, and the next, to mark a feast day, treats them to a gallon of vodka, and they drink and shout ‘Hurrah’ and when they are drunk bow down at his feet.”

Chekhov continues with a comment in which he gives an attribute to his country men but it is probably a universal phenomenon: “A higher standard of living, overeating and idleness develop the most insolent self-conceit in a Russian. Nikolay Ivanych, who when he was a petty official was afraid to have opinions of his own even if he kept them to himself, now uttered nothing but incontrovertible truths and did so in the tone of a minister of state: ‘Education is necessary, but the masses are not ready for it; corporal punishment is generally harmful, but in some cases it is useful and nothing else will serve.”

The author goes on in his brother’s voice, marking it with the conceit referred to earlier: “‘I know the common people, and I know how to deal with them,’ he would say. ‘They love me. I only have to raise my little finger, and they will do anything I want.'” Ivan is quick to add that this was ‘said with a smile that bespoke kindness and intelligence.’ Nikolay now considered himself to be ‘a member of the gentry’ even though his family had come from peasant stock.

A shift in the story now has Ivan telling his listeners: “But I am concerned now not with him, but with me. I want to tell you about the change that took place in me during the few hours I spent on his estate.” As they were having tea that night his brother’s cook brought in a plate of fresh gooseberries, ‘the first ones picked since the berries were planted’. Ivan describes his brother’s response: ‘…he put one berry in his mouth, glanced at me with the triumph of a child who at last has been given a toy he was longing for and said: ‘How tasty!…Ah, how delicious! Do taste them!’ Ivan reveals to his listeners that the berries ‘were hard and sour’, he adds, ‘but as Pushkin has it,

“The falsehood that exalts we cherish more than meaner truths that are a thousand strong”.

Ivan continues: “I saw a happy man, one whose cherished dream had so obviously come true, who had attained his goal in life, who had got what he wanted, who was satisfied with his lot and with himself. For some reason an element of sadness had always mingled with my thoughts of human happiness, and now at the sight of a happy man I was assailed by an oppressive feeling bordering on despair.'”

The narrator talks later about how the scene had effected him and he said to himself: “how many contented, happy people there really are! What an overwhelming force they are! Look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying–Yet in all the houses and on all the streets there is peace and quiet; of the fifty thousand people who live in our town there is not one who would cry out, who would vent his indignation aloud. We see the people who go to the market, eat by day, sleep by night, who babble nonsense, marry, grow old, good-naturedly drag their dead to the cemetery, but we do not see or hear of those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is so peaceful and quiet and only mute statistics protest: so many people gone out of their minds, so many gallons of vodka drunk, so many children dead from malnutrition– And such a state is evidently necessary; obviously the happy man is at ease only because the unhappy ones bear their burdens in silence, and if it were not for this silence, happiness would be impossible. It is a general hypnosis.’ He says that the “contented, happy man…[needs to be reminded] that there are unhappy people, that  however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, and trouble will come to him–illness, poverty, losses and then no one will see  or hear him, just as now he neither sees or hears others.” Ivan sees that there is no reminder and says, “The happy man lives at his ease, faintly fluttered by small daily cares, like an aspen in the wind–and all is well.”

Wow, what a great, if troubling, summary of the dilemma that faces us all, no matter where we may fall on the “scale” of happiness as described by Chekhov. And when, and if, we think about it, it becomes too much, overwhelming–like, where do we start if we wanted to address the issues he presents? I can say it probably won’t do much good to run into the streets and shout for people’s attention, to grab people by the lapels and try to make them see and understand. It is much more likely that the understanding that is needed comes from inside each of us, from an interior dialogue that is hard and uncomfortable. That for many of us is simply too difficult and complex to face, and would throw ourselves into a despair that would continually shatter our sense of “happiness” because from that perspective the world is a never ending source of misery and strife–toil and trouble. We’ll see in a later passage that Chekhov has an idea to share with the reader–one that is not necessarily complete  or comforting, but that rewards the reader with a place to start that internal decision that may lead to useful and balanced action without being dragged into despair or left only with the option of burying our heads in the sand.

Ivan describes his own awakening: “That night I came to understand that I too had been contented and happy,” Ivan Ivanych continued, getting up. “I too over the dinner table or out hunting would hold forth on how to live, what to believe, the right way to govern the people. I too would say that learning was the enemy of darkness, that education was necessary but that for the common people the three R’s were sufficient for the time being. Freedom is a boon, I used to say, it is as essential as air, but we must wait awhile. Yes that’s what I used to say, and now I ask: Why must we wait?” said Ivan Ivanych…”Why must we wait, I ask you? For what reason? I am told that nothing can be done all at once, that every idea is realized gradually, in its own time. But who is it that says so? Where is the proof that it is just? You cite the natural order of things, the law governing all phenomena, but is there law, is there order in the fact that I, a living, thinking man, stand beside a ditch and wait for it to close up of itself or fill up with silt, when I could jump over it or throw a bridge across it? And again, why must we wait? Wait, until we have no strength to live, and yet we have to live and are eager to live!”

Ivan says that since that day he is “oppressed by the peace and quiet” in the town and there “is nothing that pains me more than to look at the spectacle of a happy family sitting at table having tea. I am an old man now and unfit for combat, I am not even capable of hating. I can only grieve inwardly, get irritated, worked up, and at night my head is ablaze with the rush of ideas and I cannot sleep. Oh, if I were young!” He paces the room and excitedly repeats, “If I were young!”

He walks up to one of his listeners and says, “‘don’t quiet down, don’t let yourself be lulled to sleep! As long as you are young, strong, alert, do not cease to do good! There is no happiness and there should be none, and if life has a meaning and a purpose, that meaning and purpose is not our happiness but something greater and more rational. Do good!’ All this Ivan Ivanych said with a pitiful, imploring smile, as though he were asking a personal favor.”

So Ivan tells us to “Do good!” Chekhov tells us that Ivan is excited, imploring, perhaps confused and afraid. He may be at that point where he is afraid his words can’t convey his meaning, that his “rush of ideas” is too overwhelming to himself and prevents him from making his listeners understand his sense of urgency. It is as if the power of his vision is larger than himself, larger than his listeners, larger than humanity. And at the same time it is a simple plea to all of us, “Do good!”

In the story it is late at night, the men are tired and not satisfied with the story. Chekhov tells us that one listener:” …did not trouble himself to ask if what Ivan Ivanych had just said was intelligent or right.” As Ivan got into bed that night Chekhov gives him his final words, “Lord forgive us sinners!” he murmured, and drew the bedclothes over his head.

I think what Chekhov asks us to do is to trouble ourselves to ask if what Ivan said was “intelligent or right”, asking each of us to determine where, or if, we fit into the scheme of the things Ivan was trying to explain. And it is a complex request and a simple plea at the same time but it gives us a direction, a starting point and the option of fulfilling our simple promise as humans to seek true freedom for all without having to exist in complete despair.


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