Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, January 31, 2014

Morning thoughts on character and "a free artist"--

I'm starting the day by polishing The Book of the Red King but all the time thinking about how it is a personal fault and also a strength in writers that we are drawn to and insanely curious about the drama and mystery of the compelling, contradictory person--drawn to trying to understand the crux of opposing beliefs and forces... Because that's a place of power. No grasp is possible, so we bridge the gap in imaginings, creating character.

And I'm still thinking about the Chekhov quote I mentioned before, here and elsewhere, and some of the responses of people to his words. I've also been pondering lives of artists who were "not free" in some way, even if they seemed more free than most people, and how those self-set limitations through ideology or -ism work (or don't work.) Chekhov's letters are full of fascinating tossed-off remarks and confident, extended claims, and I've recently used some of that material in an essay. Here's the full passage that I mentioned in brief earlier, as translated by Constance Garnett:
I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines, and who are determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist. 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. I hate lying and violence in all their forms, and am equally repelled by the secretaries of consistories and by Notovitch and Gradovsky. Pharisaism, stupidity and despotism reign not in merchants' houses and prisons alone. I see them in science, in literature, in the younger generation.... That is why I have no preference either for gendarmes, or for butchers, or for scientists, or for writers, or for the younger generation. I regard trade-marks and labels as a superstition. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom—freedom from violence and lying, whatever forms they may take. This is the programme I would follow if I were a great artist.
Poet Dick Jones noted on facebook that "It's for declarations of this nature and quality that I used to love teaching Chekhov to my Theatre Studies students." Yes, the whole passage is full of challenges and sharp assessment, full of riches.

We live in a time of many "trade-marks and labels," a time in which people in the arts are expected to hew to a certain ideology, a set of acceptable beliefs--and we all know what those are. We are definitely not expected to be what Chekhov called free artists, who have no ideology at all but wish to witness all things clearly without taking sides.

Here are some of my questions after reading that bit of Chekhov... Does a time when the elite is mostly in lockstep have a debilitating effect on fiction and poetry? Do we or do we not see the same range of characters as before? Are characters who don't "fit" are in danger of being treated harshly rather than portrayed in fullness? Can we think of cases in which characters are given either more or less than their due as full human beings, depending on their own world view or beliefs? Does varying from accepted beliefs dictate portrayal? Either tendency would be weakening. Do we see people in novels at work much any more? Do we participate in a form of lying? As, do historical settings seem to demand that characters be contemporary with us in their minds and spirits, though physically in fancy dress of another era?

Most of all, can one escape and be "a free artist?" If so, does that also have a great cost? Of course, just being alive comes with great cost... And what exactly would being a free artist look like?


  1. I don't know the answers to any of your questions about how writers respond to prevailing culture. I assume, I guess, that we do respond, bend to pressures we might not even see, write toward our prejudices, write out of fear and all of that. I hope some of us don't, but I don't know how we'd know.

    Personally, I try to be brave as a writer, and dive in when it feels like I'm approaching dangerous waters. But more than that, I try to remember the biggest lesson I got from reading all that Chekhov: we as writers must love our characters unconditionally, and not try to mold them into ideas about humanity but rather to make them lenses into truth. Which is to say (less clumsily, I hope!) that we just keep writing as fully and as deeply about humanity as we can, and love despite sin or character flaws or unpopular ideas. Chekhov loved his sinners as well as his saints, his murderers as well as his innocents, because they were all human. So that's my response. I may not like my characters, but I am obliged to love them. And because of that love, I am obliged to draw them as they are, not as some imagined readership would like them to be. Having almost no readership, that's easy for me! I can afford to be brave in obscurity!

  2. Not being a writer of fiction but just a reader of it, I don't take characters in any direction, though I do choose the subjects and topics of my poems, which are largely narrative if not character driven.
    It seems to me that being a writer as well as a reader means that we want to investigate the minds of people the least like us possible. Isn't that how we learn and become compassionate and empathetic? It's how I try to do that.

  3. Yes, those are good responses--mine, too, really. But I doubt they are typical responses at the moment.

  4. Marly, do you know the show "Mystery Science Theater 3000"? In the 1990s, when the show was fairly new, I saw an interview with its creators, who were asked about the constant barrage of jokes rooted not only in popular culture but also in an irreproducible melange of philosophy, literature, history, science, and math. One of the guys said something like, "We never ask, 'Who's going to get this?' We say, 'The right people will get this.'"

    That attitude strikes me as a wonderfully practical definition of artistic freedom.

  5. Oh, I like that! Great!

    I should post some of the answers I've gotten elsewhere...

    Here's a facebook one I thought quite apt: This is not freedom in the individualistic way we Americans so often use that word. In some ways, the commitment to truth and a charitable portrayal of the human condition is every bit as much an allegiance as those whose commitments are to other ideologies. Yet he seems to remind us that conformity to truth and submission to charity, offers us the freedom to be more fully human and more fully alive.
    8 hours ago · Unlike · 1


    Augustine and Chekhov would have gotten along well together, I think.

    Here's an interesting answer:

    "And what exactly would being a free artist look like?" One such artist might look like Peter the voyant in this fine Wallace Stevens poem:

    "Questions Are Remarks"

    In the weed of summer comes the green sprout why.
    The sun aches and ails and then returns halloo
    Upon the horizon amid adult enfantillages.

    Its fire fails to pierce the vision that beholds it,
    Fails to destroy the antique acceptances,
    Except that the grandson sees it as it is,

    Peter the voyant, who says, “Mother, what is that” –
    The object that rises with so much rhetoric,
    But not for him. His question is complete.

    It is the question of what he is capable.
    It is the extreme, the expert aetat. 2.
    He will never ride the red horse she describes.

    His question is complete because it contains
    His utmost statement. It is his own array,
    His own pageant and procession and display,

    As far as nothingness permits… Hear him.
    He does not say, “Mother, my mother, who are you,”
    The way the drowsy, infant, old men do.

    9 hours ago · Unlike · 1

  6. I don't remember how much background, if any, Garnett included with her (adequate though often incomplete, and sometimes even misleading) translations of this material, but if we read each letter in the three-dimensional context of Chekhov's career as a writer, his relationship with the correspondent, and the current sociopolitical atmosphere, we might better understand its significance.

    As you may know, Chekhov sent this particular (and now-famous) letter to his close friend Pleshcheyev a couple of hours after submitting "The Name-Day Party" to the Northern Herald, where Pleshcheyev as editor had been publishing Chekhov's stories. In the two sentences that precede the excerpt you quoted, Chekhov said, "Write me once you've read my story. You won't like it, but I'm not afraid of you and Anna Mikhailovna [owner and publisher of Northern Herald]. The people I am afraid of are the ones…."

    Chekhov seems to be preparing, if not trying to psych out, Pleshcheyev for "The Name-Day Party" (one of his most blatantly political stories, with references to Liberal this and Conservative that), while also defending himself against critics (Tolstoy, Mikhailovsky) who characterized him as wishy-washy or indifferent. He replied a few days later to Pleshcheyev about “The Name-Day Story" (both Pleshcheyev and Mikhailovna liked it), "It’s not conservatism I’m balancing off with liberalism — they are not at the heart of the matter as far as I am concerned — it’s the lies of my heroes with their truths…. You told me once my stories lack an element of protest, and that they have neither sympathies or antipathies. But doesn’t the story protest against lying from start to finish? Isn’t that ideology?"

    So although we may indeed infer a personal credo, of sorts, in Chekhov's assertive (but private) statements to his good friend, we probably ought to be cautious about expanding them into universal maxims. Nevertheless, your questions are excellent, Marly, and all the more valuable for their ultimate unanswerability: they'll never wear out.

  7. Hey, DeathZen, so glad you are back. That's all very interesting, and I think maybe you should take over my blog! Thank you for that...

    I am finding those questions very interesting, and thinking often about the "free artist" idea.

    Perhaps it just feels that we are especially un-free, lodged in an era in which politically correct chiding runs rampant...

  8. Oh, I'm sorry if that was overbearing, Marly. (And no, you should take over my blog!) I've wallowed in the works of "my Russians" almost to the exclusion of everyone else since some time near the end of the last millennium, or maybe it was the one before that, so I do tend to get a bit "Dd" on these issues.

    Regardless of what Chekhov might have meant by "free artist" — I mean, what does a 28-year-old kid know, anyway? — I'm wondering if anyone can be a free artist without being a free person, and if a genuinely free person would even have the desire or motivation to make art.

    Whether as an act of ritual or of self-expression, isn't art-making an attempt to transcend constraints (even fitfully), if not to decisively hurl one's entire weight against the bars?

  9. I don't know--I sometimes see things I wrote when young and wonder if I've learned anything at all! I have forgotten who I was in many ways...

    Oh, wasn't a bit overbearing but quite interesting. I never am annoyed by people, you know. Because no matter how they behave, it still tends to be revealing and curious. Maybe that's a horrid storyteller attitude!

    Plus I am afraid that I was trained by my Southern upbringing into hyper-tactfulness, anyway, so that once I was over the anguish of youth (i.e., past 30), I tended to feel that courtesy was a very high and lovely thing. So I ceased being upset by other people for the most part.

    Perhaps you are right, that the free person would have no desires, that in fact we who are drawn to make things and add to the sum that is the world are, in fact, attempting to overpass all boundaries (including our own limitations, which the ideal artist exceeds and then exceeds again and again.)

    On the other hand, there is art that no one sees (or few), and that is completely useless in any worldly sense. Like the Transfiguration! In that sort of case, is it the same or something entirely different?

  10. Oh, I was (half-)kidding about Chekhov being a punk kid when he wrote that. But it's hard not to think of all the grandiose proclamations and dramatic posturing that even (or maybe especially) the most artful and talented among us typically affect at that age. Not that the contents of Chekhov's letters were, in fact, youthful bluster, but how can we know? If any writer envisions his personal correspondence as possible material for eventual publication, it's fundamental bogosity; if he considers it a strictly private communication, it lacks the import and authority of his published statements; and if, on top of it, he's only 28? I don't know…biographies, autobiographies, letters, diaries, notebooks, critical interpretations…they're parasites that suck the vital force from the works we so prize.

    As for "free persons" (all five or six of them during the past ~1000 years?), I imagine they'd experience transient desires but lack the persistent impulses that compel the rest of us to pursue imagined personal gains in the form of praise, money, power, self-esteem, comfort, property, position, control, status, etc. So yes, I think art is the unfree human's message in a bottle, the SOS note slipped between the parts on the assembly line, the glyph surreptitiously sprayed on a concrete barrier. And art for art's sake is no less driven by the urge to proclaim I AM! than, say, crime for crime's sake, as effectively useless or unrecognized as either may be.

  11. Death Zen,

    Was thinking that I do indeed know a free artist, somebody who had huge talent but for various reasons chose not to pursue and push his art in a forceful way but is more of an "artist of the beautiful" who sometimes creates work that he shares with friends--often in secondary genres, as he has that sensibility that seems to be able to turn to anything and make something lovely. And it gives him a great deal of pleasure and joy...

    Yes, well, you can't live life worrying that somebody's going to archive your letters! Otherwise, you'd probably never forget yourself long enough to right a decent letter... But I suppose some think that way. And that's curious.


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.