Truth is, I don’t quite know how to deliver on the promise that my post on Camus and Nagel and absurdity is really about Chekhov’s short story Gooseberries.
If there are a hundred ways to skin a book, there are a million ways to make connections between them. Which is why I’m Hamletizing on doing what needs to get done.
The bit from my previous post that’s important is the idea that perspectives can collide within us, or not. It’s a neat idea. It helps us understand all manner of interesting subjective phenomena: conflicts of duty, clashes of memory and pride, struggles of intellect and conscience, and double-think, absurdity, and even ideaological tribalism and sectarian stupidity.
A good deal of this is made possible by imaginative empathy, our ability to inhabit different perspectives, to regard the world from an ego-structure and a larger family-, community-, nation-, or cosmic-structure.
Imaginative empathy (IE) has a lot of upside, to be sure. Not even an elephant or a porpoise or a bonobo can go cosmic. But IE can be a drag, too: absurdity and its discontents. (Sure, Freud was a great artist with his intuitions, but his science sucked.)
For those of you who are familiar with Chekhov, you know that an atmosphere of congenial acceptance pervades his prose. He’s very healthy-minded that way. I suspect he laughs a lot. Even the bleakest aspects of experience—vanity, indignation, deception, hypocritical outbursts, disease and death—are regarded by him as the common stuff of life.
Gooseberries is no different in this respect: Chekhov doesn’t judge things, he just shows them, cheerfully.
It’s a story about a man who tells a story about his brother who is a poor clerk-turned-landowner. What makes Gooseberries such an interesting study is the manner in which the man’s story fails, not the nesting story (which succeeds), but the nested story (which doesn’t).
The nested story’s failure has lot to say about the lack of contact between perspectives, on the one hand, as well as the novelist’s and short story writer’s task, on the other.
Two friends, Ivan and Burkin, are walking in the countryside. Burkin, who has precisely five lines in Chekhov’s story, says, “Last time we were in Prokofy’s barn, you were about to tell me a story.”
Ivan loves telling a good story, and as he clears his mighty throat, it begins to rain, hard. Then we get Burkin’s second line: “We must shelter somewhere; let’s go to Alehin’s; it’s close by.” They do.
Alehin is a landowner (this is important) who’s farm boasts a windmill (this is important, too), a grassmeadow (as is this, and everything else, so note them well), a millpond, and a bathhouse.
These features of bucolic life are noteworthy because they’ll reappear in Ivan’s story, which is a thinly veiled denunciation and a highly sententious tale with an object lesson. Ivan’s goal is to reprove his listeners, to instruct and change them. He has a very specific goal in mind.
Now Ivan’s story is a rather conventional one. He relates his brother’s life as a poor clerk before becoming a landowner with a house that sports—yep, you guessed it—a windmill, a grassmeadow, a millpond, a bathhouse, and garlands of gooseberry bushes.
Well, after sketching the outlines of his brother’s life, Ivan proceeds to rip him a new one. He tells Burkin and Alehin that he, Ivan, visits his brother one day only to learn that everybody grunts like a pig: the dog grunts like a pig, the cook grunts like a pig, and his brother grunts like one, too. Satisfied pigs wallow in a “general hypnotism” and pursue a kind of monastic egoism that ignores the suffering of others.
Then comes Ivan’s rousing call to action:
Don’t be calm and contented, don’t let yourself be put to sleep! There’s no happiness, and there ought not to be; but if there’s a meaning and an object in life, that meaning and object is not our happiness, but something greater and more rationale: Do good!
As you might suspect, neither Burkin nor Alehin are satisfied with this story, especially Alehin. They yawn. It’s rather dreary, hardly enjoyable. And after an awkward silence, Ivan’s story disappears beneath the surface of idle chit-chat like a stone thrown into a river, and is gone.
Ivan’s story fails because he desperately wants to produce a collision of perspectives. His story is delivered from a larger, more universal structure than egoism, and is designed to achieve a very specific effect: moral instruction. Problem is, his story doesn’t overlap with the highly egoistic-structure and concerns of his listeners who want “talk of groats…, of hay…, of tar…, of something that [has a] direct bearing on life….”
The surest way for a novelist or short story writer to fail is to write too resolutely bent on a definite object, beyond composing a story well, such as entertaining his audience, amusing them, instructing them, edifying them, and so on. If he identifies success with these goals, he’s lost. Beyond writing surpassingly well, Chekhov doesn’t pursue an extra-textual goal. He’s content to show as a glimpse of provincial Russian life, of the countryside, of a man who tells a heart-felt story but ends up only irritating his friends. Chekhov’s nesting story succeeds precisely because Ivan’s nested story fails.
Moral (without a moral) of the story: Write a good one, realease it into the wilderness, and hopefully the gooseberries will grow.