Great writers don’t invite us to themselves; they invite us to the holiness accessible to all.
BY DR.MOHAMMAD MAROOF SHAH“
I’m crazy about Chekhov. I never knew anybody that wasn’t,” said Woody Allen, US filmmaker. Chekhov died at age 44 fighting tuberculosis with rare dignity and fortitude. Great writers are missionaries of Spirit/Life and thus welcome in every land as they don’t invite us to themselves, to airy abstractions, to utopias, to ideologies that come and go. They invite us to the holiness accessible to all and sundry, to common or shared joys and beauty. With them we don’t feel intimidated but a certain fellowship of spirit. The way we need personal/family doctors and Masters we also need writers. West, a Christian and teacher of religion at Harvard, wrote about the agnostic Chekhov: “I find the incomparable works of Anton Chekhov— the best singular body by a modern artist— to be the wisest and deepest interpretations of what human beings confront in their daily struggles. . . . I find inspiration in his refusal to escape from the pain and misery of life by indulging in dogmas, doctrines or dreams as well as abstract systems, philosophic theodicies or political utopias.”
To those living rather drab lives – most if not all of us constituting “dreary, gray crowd of helpless people” – Chekhov tells, “You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that. For him when people realized how badly they lived, they would “create another and better life for themselves.” Regarding the question whether one is cultured or not he answers in a letter, “Cultured people must, in my opinion, … respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. … 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.”
In 1897, Chekhov who appreciated Tolstoy’s mystical religion so much, wrote in his Notebook, “Between ‘there is a God’ and ‘there is no God’ lies a whole vast tract, which the really wise man crosses with great effort.” One can’t live without faith or what one may phrase as faith in faith as distinguished from faith in some object. Chekhov’s Masha notes “I think human beings must have faith or must look for faith, otherwise our life is empty, empty. To live and not to know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why there are stars in the sky. You must know why you are alive, or else everything is nonsense, just blowing in the wind.” One might find, with Walter G Moss, his own statement of faith in the statement of narrator in “An Anonymous Story”: “Listen. I have passed through so many experiences in my time that my head goes round at the thought of them, and I have realized with my mind, with my racked soul, that man finds his true destiny in nothing if not in self sacrificing love for his neighbour. It is towards that we must strive, and that is our destination! That is my faith!”
Moss and Reyfiled trace many associations with the mystical in Chekhov. This illustrates the thesis that greatness has some association with the mystical. Chekhov’s suprarational intuition translates in the conviction, in the words of Reyfield, “the cosmos has a beauty whose meaning eludes us.” Moss notes that in his story “On Official Business” (1899) the character Lyzhin thinks in mystical terms, “Some tie unseen, but significant and essential, existed between them . . . all men; in this life, even in the remotest desert, nothing is accidental, everything is full of one common idea, everything has one soul, one aim, and to understand it it is not enough to think, it is not enough to reason, one must have also, it seems, the gift of insight into life, a gift which is evidently not bestowed on all.” In “The Lady with the Dog” one may read him giving witness of the Beauty metaphysicians identify with the divine: “Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings—the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky— Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.”
Chekhov finds God in work we ordinarily may detest as we don’t realize that human condition requires it and one is ennobled by it as is demonstrated in lives of traditional people whom we find cultivating work as mantra. “Work is what is wanted, and the rest can go to the devil.” Gorky aptly noted about Chekhov: “I have never known a man feel the importance of work as the foundation of all culture, so deeply, and for such varied reasons, as did Chekhov. . . . He loved to build, plant gardens, ornament the earth; he felt the poetry of labor. . . . He used to say: ‘If every man did all he could on the piece of earth belonging to him, how beautiful would this world be!’” One may well find in any profession one finds oneself in meaning of life or reason to commit oneself if one understands the commandment of duty. Chekhov didn’t abandon demanding profession of medicine for writing. “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other. Though it’s disorderly, it’s not so dull, and besides neither of them loses anything from my infidelity.”
God has made Himself accessible to us through prophets, sages and the art of great artists whose one voice is discernible in the Tradition. “The geniuses of all ages and of all lands speak different languages but the same flame burns in them all. Oh, if you only knew what unearthly happiness my soul feels now from being able to understand them.” When small people who know so little about philosophy or gnosis or art or religion as understood by the sages condemn great philosophers and gnostics like Shaykh al-Akbar, Shaykh al-Rayees, Shaykh al-Ishraq, one may pray with Chekhov: “Lord, don’t allow me to condemn or to speak of what I do not know or do not understand.” Chekhov the artist noted “Precious, precious art! . . . Art gives us wings and carries us far, far away! Anyone who is sick of filth, of petty, mercenary interests, anyone who is revolted, wounded, and indignant, can find peace and satisfaction only in the beautiful.” Chekhov was overwhelmed in Italy and felt that “Italy is the one country in which you feel convinced that art is really supreme over everything, and that conviction gives one courage.” In fact art and beauty have helped to save countless millions in situations where sermons haven’t.
Some statements in the Chekhov corpus one may turn to: “Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in love represent a normal state. Being in love shows a person who he should be.” Rumi shows what being in love means. “True talent always sits in the shade, mingles with the crowd, avoids the limelight …” We see, generally speaking, petty writers lobbying for awards and posts. “The task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state the problem correctly.” How many writers in Kashmir do this to allow leadership a better comprehension and pave for resolution of the problem? “To harbor spiteful feelings against ordinary people for not being heroes is possible only for narrow-minded or embittered man.” “We all have too many wheels, screws and valves to judge each other on first impressions or one or two pointers. I don’t understand you, you don’t understand me and we don’t understand ourselves.” How many spouses or daughters/parents-in-law acknowledge this to be little more kind? “They say, tell me what you’ve read and I’ll tell you who you are.” “If an intelligent, educated, and healthy man begins to complain of his lot and go down-hill, there is nothing for him to do but to go on down until he reaches the bottom–there is no hope for him” “Men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself: ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’ ” However, it is not the happiness of which lesser philosophers have made a calculus of. That explains why we also find a qualifying statement “If life has any meaning or purpose, you won’t find it in happiness, but in something more rational, in something greater.” Paradoxically in consuming oneself in something greater than anything personal, one finds real joy.
Lastly about freedom and dignity his mystical remarks: “ … freedom is you want nothing, nothing, nothing.” “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom-freedom from force and falsehood.” This holiness is, for most people, not far or inaccessible. “Why do you style yourself ‘your worth- less and insignificant brother’? You recognize your insignificance? . . . Recognize it before God; perhaps, too, in the presence of beauty, intelligence, nature, but not before men. Among men you must be conscious of your dignity. ..Don’t confound ‘being humble’ with ‘recognizing one’s worthlessness.’”
Dr. Mohammad Maroof Shah is an author and Columnist, interested in the the interface of philosophy, literature, religion and mysticism.