Friday, 1 August 2014

The Irreconcilable Sententiousness of Libertine Old Masters . . .

In the collected works of Anton Chekhov the short story, Imeniny (The Name-Day Party), is often singled out as a remarkably faithful portrait of a pregnant woman: the highs and lows of a loyal, sensitive wife betrayed by a heedless, self-regarding husband.

However . . . never mind that this tale has been described by Chekhovian scholars as a most profound ‘tour de force’ for his account of the psychopathology of the late stages of the third trimester – the discomfort, the hypersensitivity, the gravid leadenness – we should first remember that Dr. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a male clinician and even his talent for empathetic vraisemblance had obvious boundaries.

On the other hand, his profound empathy cannot be doubted in the shadow-twin of this story, Pripadok (An Attack of Nerves), both published in the same year . . . significantly, Year Zero, as defined by Nietzsche’s Umwerthung aller Werthe (Revaluation of All Values) of 1888.

Compare the two. It’s a striking contrast, as though one story has prompted the other. In the former, the fallow connubial bed cannot excuse the stirrings of infidelity in a swaggering indifferent husband; in the latter, a virginal young law student, Vassilyev, reluctantly on a night’s carouse with two comrades intent on inducting him into the ‘pleasures’ of brothels, experiences a moral crisis, and asks: ‘Is the debauching of prostitutes not a crime? Is it not as great an evil as slave-owning, rape or murder?’  

With strict adherence to his anti-pedagogic method, Chekhov follows his own advice and asked the questions without seeking answers to them: his stories thence characteristically become exercises in propositional logic strewn with premises but deficient of any conclusions.

In my novel, D-r Tchékhov, Detektiv, I seek mischievously  to correct this tendency towards moral ambivalence with the syllogistic reasoning of my conflicted antihero sometimes pursued to unwelcome logical proofs that appear axiomatic, see
Tchékhov paid the ferriage for the rivercrossing and the survey party embarked, stumbling in the unearthly stealing polar dusk.
   ‘There is no hurry,’ Anton remarked breezily, as the ferryman took his arm. ‘Charon waits for all!’
   A putrid smell arose as the waves sucked at the stern ; for the river had been turbulent in recent months and, as it flowed along, like a ferocious animal, it gnawed and ate away the fast-ice clutching the banks.
   Small chunks of ice rapped on the hull. Shuddering as the northerly shook him by the throat, Anton clenched the forward-rail and searched the midafternoon murk for a closing shore.
   (‘Finita la commedia!’ his heart cried, ‘and end this burdensome daylong travail.’)
   A wreath entwined with withered leaves of laurel was sucked by on the swirling current. A melancholy syllogism occurred to him :
Man is composed of 60% water ;
water strives to seek its own level ; 
60% of a man’s soul desires to plunge at once over the side of a ferry boat.

Also, for more probings into this field of enquiry, see the contradictions hitherto unremarked in the ‘classic prose’ of an eminent English syllogistic rationalist at this link:

Do As I Say. Not As I Do.

So lately I’ve found Chekhov’s abbreviated propositional method has grown tiresome and his ‘classic prose’ is now seen, to my jaundiced eye, to express a sort of inverted sententiousness.

I invite you, therefore, to examine closely the following passage from Chekhov’s An Attack of Nerves and the additional quotations that follow; with the challenge that you, too, reader-of-literary-old-masters, should consider a revaluation of values.
[Vassilyev thought] ‘. . . What is the use of their humanity, their medicine, their painting? The science, art, and lofty sentiments of these soul-destroyers remind me of [the two] brigands [who] murdered a beggar in a forest . . . After murdering a man, they came out of the forest in the firm conviction that they were [still observing a holy fast]. In the same way [these student comrades], after buying women, go their way imagining that they are artists and men of science. . . .’ 
    ‘Listen!’ he said sharply and angrily. ‘Why do you come here? Is it possible you don't understand how horrible it is? Your medical books tell you that every one of these women dies prematurely of consumption or something; art tells you that morally they are dead even earlier. Every one of them dies because she has in her time to entertain five hundred men on an average, let us say. Each one of them is killed by five hundred men. You are among those five hundred! If each of you in the course of your lives visits [brothels] two hundred and fifty times, it follows that one woman is killed for every two of you! Can’t you understand that? Isn't it horrible to murder, two of you, three of you, five of you, a foolish, hungry woman! . . .’ 
Two years earlier (1886), one should recall, Chekhov wrote a cautionary letter to his brother Nikolai reprimanding him for his pleasure-seeking in Moscow’s lower depths, counselling him to become a more cultured person since he had within him the talent to be at ease in the company of ‘educated people . . . Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and [drinking cronies] . . .’ Anton implores Nikolai to ‘smash the vodka bottle . . .’

Anton continues to moralise with self-referential gravity on the duties of a cultured artist.
They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct . . . What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood . . .  For they want mens sana in corpore sano.

Mens sana in corpore sano? Did Anton Chekhov truly believe that for a supreme artist the ennobling of the sexual instinct was an attainable ideal? Certainly, the innumerable amatory adventures – including his own – of so many old masters do not bear close scrutiny in support of his proposition.

Chekhov’s Formula for Extrapolating the Mortality of Fallen Women. 

According to a Los Angeles Times reviewer, Georges Simenon created a scandale à la mode by telling two different interviewers that from age 13 he had slept with 10,000 women, of whom 8,000 were prostitutes. By applying Chekhov’s equation, we can calculate that Simenon, the master of homicidal psychopathology, had himself, before his death aged 86, killed at least sixteen women.

Chekhov expresses his computation thus: ‘If each of you in the course of your lives visits [brothels] two hundred and fifty times, it follows that one woman is killed for every two of you!’

On this sensitive matter, a Chekhov aficionado states in the London Guardian daily of 1 March 2013: 

It starts in 1873, when the teenage Chekhov visited a brothel in his home town of Taganrog and continues until 1898 when his relationship with the actress Olga Knipper began . . . The picture that emerges is of a man who, over the course of a couple of decades, enjoyed at least two-dozen love affairs of varying intensity – some extremely passionate, some casual, some lasting many years, and some that were clearly going on simultaneously – and who, it’s also clear from his letters, continued to be a regular visitor to brothels in Russia and elsewhere in Europe.

I am reminded of this confraternity of literary men consecrated to unswerving faith in the undemanding tenets of their irreconcilable sententiousness when I attended a wedding recently and heard from the altar, at the bridegroom’s request, a recitation of Siempre (‘Always’) by Pablo Neruda.

I am not jealous
of what came before me.

Come with a man
on your shoulders,
come with a hundred men in your hair,

come with a thousand men between your breasts and your feet,

This boast invites a challenge, coming as it does from an arch philanderer and from a husband who in pursuit of other women abandoned an inconvenient wife and their ailing infant daughter, a choice of moral worth little different from that of Rainer Maria Rilke whose daughter was similarly abandoned before the age of one.

More than this, these proponents of doublethink, propagating their creed of irreconcilable sententiousness, appear to give little thought to the consequences of their libertinage.

As it is, 125 years have elapsed since Chekhov first posited his theory of venereal disease in terms of quantifiable culpability, and medical research into its incidence and prevention has advanced apace. Nevertheless, screening in Great Britain in the last decade suggests that as many as one in 10 sexually active men has the sexually transmitted infection Chlamydia without knowing it. The figures are in line with similar studies of sexually active young women, which indicate that one in 10 also has the infection without knowing it. 

‘Man Wants Woman! Every Man Wants a Woman! So Natural!’

Possibly One in 10 has the infection without knowing it. It would follow, then, that with the level of promiscuity that Neruda embraces in his magnanimous welcome to the 1,100 lovers of the Love-of-His-Life (‘Bring them all to where I am waiting for you . . .’) over one hundred of them, and undoubtedly his inamorata, will be infected.

Cervical smear showing Chlamydia trachomatis in the vacuoles. 

Mens sana in corpore sano? To return to first principles and the irreconcilability of sententiousness attendant on the licentiousness of old masters. Question. Were the nostrums Dr Chekhov prescribed for the world swallowed merely by his adulatory readers and never dispensed to the great man himself?

Even today, controversy rages in Yalta concerning rumours of Chekhov’s predilection for prostitutes. 

In the November 22 1997 edition of the London Guardian can be read an account of an argument between a Yalta sanatorium doctor, Dr Yuri Zinenko and his wife, Valentina, a neurosurgeon: ‘Nyet! Nyet! Prostitut! Of course he visited prostitutes! Man wants Woman! Every man wants a woman! So natural!’

From a medical standpoint, the surgeon’s husband believed that Dr Chekhov’s degeneration through tuberculosis would not have stopped him: ‘His consumption was the most severe kind, but this can just make a tubercular patient more active.’

A cordon sanitaire, therefore, is better drawn over this sensitive matter, when even medico-compatriots can’t agree, aside from their separate views, as husband or wife. 

Come with a hundred men in your hair,
Come with a thousand men between your breasts. Laboratory PreventX Testing-by-Mail. 
The Test is free for 16-24 year olds in the UK.
PreventX: Reduce your number of sexual partners
and avoid overlapping sexual partnerships.

A Moral Undrawn.

No moral can be drawn from these musings, obviously. That would be most un-Chekhovian. 

And yet . . . many devotees have commented that in his care for others Chekhov neglected to cure himself, a point made in a sly authorial backhanded observation by a character in Nabokov’s novel The Gift: ‘I wouldn’t have been treated by Dr Chekhov for anything in the world.’

Prostitutes soliciting in Moscow in the late Twentieth Century.

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011) 
and A Bad Case (2015)

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