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Saturday, December 28, 2013

A free artist

"I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines and who insist on seeing me as necessarily either a liberal or conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not an evolutionist, nor a monk, nor indifferent to the world. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one…                       --Anton Chekhov to poet Alexei Pleshcheev (4 October 1888)


  1. Can artist ever be free? Those pressures and labels are inescapable, aren't they? Chekhov may have wished otherwise, but the facts of life perhaps involve a different reality.

    For example, I am embarking upon a reassessment of Flannery O'Connor. Chekhov's comment and your posting remind me to be more careful about my assessment.

  2. Correction: "Can an artist ever be free?"

    Addition: I think an artist can never completely escape his or her background, biases, interests, prejudices, passions, etc. Denial of what makes up the self is to deny the artist's identity.

    Of course, I could be completely wrong. I am not an artist. So I should defer to those who are.

  3. Oh, go ahead and have lots of opinions! I don't think only artists should be able to assess those things.

    And Chekhov certainly felt that artists wrote out of a worldview--and complained about the town where he was born that most of the residents were bobbing along without thought, though they tended to be musically inclined. I suppose that's why he gave them (and others) a library.

    I like this, though. I think artists have a stance, a place to stand, but they need to be very careful not to grind axes or to let politics or some -ism take over a work.

  4. My reading of Chekhov always leaves me with being impressed at the way his characters rather than the narrator(s) are the most effective "messengers" for Chekhov. I wonder if Chekhov's clinical training as a physician factored into that manner of diagnosis and representation rather the presentation.

    Of course, my favorite Chekhov works are his plays, so--of course--I see characters as the key. But I think the observation is true for the most part also in his stories.

  5. I like this comment by Chekhov to Alexander Tikhonov (about Stanislavski's productions of his plays) because it illuminates his purpose so much:

    You tell me that people cry at my plays. I’ve heard others say the same. But that was not why I wrote them. It is Alexeyev who made my characters into cry-babies. All I wanted was to say honestly to people: Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!’ The important thing is that people should realize that, for when they do, they will most certainly create another and better life for themselves. I will not live to see it, but I know that it will be quite different, quite unlike our present life. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall go on saying to people again and again, ‘Please, understand that your life is bad and dreary!’ What is there in this to cry about?

    It seems that he often wanted to wake people up to what life was and could be, and so he gave away libraries, wrote about the state of prisons, served as a free doctor to the peasantry, and looked hard at people's lives.

  6. Yes, Chekhov was furious that the Moscow Art Theater has turned his comedy (The Cherry Orchard) into a tragedy/melodrama. Moreover, he denounced the MAT for the slow, tedious production, arguing that the performances of actors should have been much more quickly paced; he even prescribed playing-times for each of the acts. I hope to someday see a production of The Cherry Orchard that lives up to what I understand to have been Chekhov's ideal production. It is also irksome that students in my classes often understand TCO as a slow moving, sad play; I try to point them back into the Chekhovian view of the play, but many students resist Chekhov's art.

  7. Correction: "had turned" not "has turned" in the first sentence.

    Correction: "understand would have been" not "understand to have been" in third sentence.

    I apologize for the careless errors. I would have deleted and reposted the comment if Blogger would have permitted. So, sorry for the clutter.

  8. No worry...

    Resist it more than other work?

  9. Perhaps not more than other authors' works, but my experience has been that anything with irony can be a problem for modern students. The more subtle the irony, the more problematic for some students. Don't misunderstand. I do not want to paint all with the same wide brush. But this is a general problem I have noticed over the years in classrooms. Perhaps the problem lies more with the teaching; if I were more successful, perhaps students would be more attuned to subtleties. And--if Chekhov is nothing else--he is subtle.

  10. Hmm. I do hear more complaints about students from friends in literature teaching than I once did...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.