Doctors and kind-hearted relatives only do their best to make humanity stupid, and the time will come when mediocrity will be considered genius, and humanity will perish. – Anton Chekhov, “The Black Monk”
There’s no escaping the hum of troubling discourse pervading America these days. Mouthpieces for the current PEOTUS and Twitter aficionado Donald Trump rally around their man and argue vociferously for positions such as “facts don’t exist anymore” while members of his base rail at anyone who isn’t just like them as “racists.” Meanwhile, supporters of Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton vacillate between feverish (and likely unrealistic) hoping that a recount will miraculously create a reversal of fortunes and feverishly gathering and posting apocalyptic visions of the future of Trump’s America on social media.
Welcome to our America – land of Donald’s tweets and home of malaise.
As for me, I’m reading Chekhov’s short stories in in the Modern Library edition. Reading Chekhov feels right these days. His stories are populated by characters suffering their own malaise.
Two of Chekhov’s stories, “The Black Monk” and “A Woman’s Kingdom,” have resonated with me. The first explores a man’s inability to accept his limitations and the madness that results. The second looks at a woman’s inability to accept her lack of limitations and the loneliness and unhappiness her inability brings her.
Andrey Vasilyevich Kovrin is a literature scholar and professor. Having achieved a good deal in his life and career, Kovrin finds himself exhausted. A doctor friend recommends that he go to the country for a rest cure. He travels to the estate of his former guardian, a dedicated horticulturalist, and for a time finds solace in the company of his friend and of his friend’s daughter. But he begins to experience visits from the Black Monk in a series of hallucinations indicative of a mental breakdown:
Once or twice a week, in the park or in the house, he met the black monk and had long conversations with him, but this did not alarm him, but, on the contrary, delighted him, as he was now firmly persuaded that such apparitions only visited the elect few who rise up above their fellows and devote themselves to the service of the idea.
The simplest explanation is that Kovrin is delusional. His belief in the rightness and genius of his ideas is such that facts fail to penetrate. (Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental, of course.) When he is given treatment and makes a sort of recovery, he is so angered by the ending of his madness that he drives away all who have tried to help him and eventually destroys himself:
Beneath the balcony the serenade was being played, and the Black Monk whispered to him that he was a genius and died only because his feeble, mortal body had had lost its balance and could no longer serve as the covering of genius.
When Varvara Nikoleyevna awoke and came from behind her screen, Kovrin was dead. But his face was frozen in an immovable smile of happiness.
Anna Akimovna, the young woman who is the protagonist of “A Woman’s Kingdom,” has inherited great wealth but is uncomfortable in her role as head of a large factory and with the seemingly endless flow of money into her hands and the seemingly endless requests for financial aid she receives. She longs for the days before her father inherited her uncle’s factory and the family was lifted out of peasant poverty to great wealth – and responsibility. The story covers a single day in Anna’s life, which not coincidentally runs from Christmas Eve night to Christmas night. Anna struggles most with her wealth and privilege on this holiday and, in a fit of unfocused largess, decides to give a poor clerk a large sum of money she has received for a clever business deal arranged by her general manager. When she visits the poor family, however, she is disgusted by their obsequious flattery and grasping greed and ends up leaving them only a few rubles. During that visit, however, she meets the handsome Pimenov, a foreman in her factory, who awakens her romantic desire for love and companionship.
But the strain of getting through Christmas leaves her empty and lonely – and cynical. The money she was going to give to the poor clerk and his family she gives to the oily lawyer who represents her firm. Alone later Christmas night, she reconsiders her romantic dream of marrying Pimenov:
…against her own will, [Anna] imagined Pimenov dining with Lysevitch [the lawyer] and Krylin [a government official], and his timid, un-intellectual figure seemed to her pitiful and helpless, and she felt repelled by it. And only now, for the first time in the whole day, she realized clearly that all she had said and thought about Pimenov and marrying a workman was nonsense, folly, and willfulness. To convince herself of the opposite, to overcome her repulsion, she tried to recall what she had said at dinner, but now she could not see anything in it: shame at her own thoughts and actions, and the fear that she had said something improper during the day, and disgust at her own lack of spirit, overwhelmed her completely.
It’s not hard to draw comparisons between the delusions of grandeur of Kovrin and one sort of American voter and the cynical despair of Anna Akimovna and the other sort. I’d argue, though, that each of these characters represents both types of voters. Kovrin’s unyielding certainty, his disregard for any information that does not support his view of himself and his world fits too many of our electorate. Then, too, Anna Akimovna’s desire for change without the will to change herself is an all too common trait in our electorate. The end result is the same. Feelings of frustration and helplessness abound.
Malaise. It’s what’s happening.