Nothing in This World is Terrible

Abandoned House Wheat Field Ommay
Image by Ommay

I just finished a book on the difficulties in educational reform. On the last page, the author quotes H.G. Wells writing to Joseph Conrad:

You don’t care for humanity, but think they are to be improved. I love humanity, but know they are not.

The quote was given not in the context of defeatism, but of hope. Understanding this is essential to everything, frankly, but certainly to art-making.

Artists are always talking about “humanity” or “the people” or “change for the greater good.” But when engaged in a conversation on the subject, it becomes clear that many of them love only their abstractions and despise actual people. It becomes clear that at the heart of the pedantic placement of symbols on their coexist stickers is the desire for those symbols to disappear. “The people” might be beyond reproach, but actual people, it seems, are in constant need of the artist’s wisdom, help, and correction.

But not for serious artists. Serious artists know they are not teachers, but learners. People––actual people with all their flaws and flares––call up a deep love in the serious artist. Unserious artists approach their audiences with trite socio-political prescriptions and “things to think about.” Serious artists approach their audiences with awe and wonder.

I have said before that great writers rarely write characters they don’t like, and never write characters they don’t love.

Look at Waiting for Godot. I have actually listened to someone tell me with a straight face that the play should be boring (actual word used) and sober, so that the audience will really think about what it’s saying. That is some serious Brechtian BS, and it would be a big surprise to Beckett, who packed the play full of hilarious jokes and antics, and whose one comment on the meaning of the play was that it’s about hope. And it is. In the midst of all the despair, these two clowns show up every single day. Beckett knew there is nothing more beautiful than that. Godot was written right after World War II. He needed those clowns to show him how hope persists.

It reminds me of a moment in War and Peace when Tolstoy writes of Pierre, who has been starved and beaten as a prisoner of war, and who has been marched toward his execution, that “he had learned still another new, consolatory truth: that nothing in this world is terrible.”

It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s a sentiment expressed in various ways by many who have survived the worst of humanity’s atrocities. I don’t know if it’s true––I’ve never been put to that kind of suffering––but I want to understand Pierre. And whether it’s true or not is beside the point. In War and Peace, Tolstoy is not trying to teach us that nothing in this world is terrible. Rather, he wants to learn how people come to that seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion. How do they arrive at that kind of hope in the midst of that kind of suffering? Tolstoy isn’t suggesting we should all be like Pierre. No. Tolstoy is in awe of Pierre.

Our love of humanity is meaningless unless we love the actual people that make up humanity––the actual individuals. Characters made up of the ideals of ideologues are empty and false. Characters made up of the love we have for our audiences become real to our audiences.

I’ll conclude with some Seamus Heaney, from his poem After Liberation.

…to have lived through and now be free to give
Utterance, body and soul–to wake and know
Every time that it’s gone and gone for good, the thing
That nearly broke you–

Is worth it all, the five years on the rack,
The fighting back, the being resigned, and not
One of the unborn will appreciate
Freedom like this ever.

…Omnipresent, imperturbable
Is the life that death springs from.
And complaint is wrong, the slightest complaint at all,
Now that the rye crop waves beside the ruins.

Etragon and Moon

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Chekhov’s Birthday: Medvedenko Needs a Horse

For me, Chekhov is second only to Shakespeare. His plays move me, excite me, bowl me over, delight me. And so it is regretful that I rarely see his plays done well.

Now, I say that, and I realize it sounds very college-boy snobby. But that is not the sentiment at all. When I say “regretful,” I mean it. When I go to see Chekhov, I want it to transport me as I know it can. I want the director, actors, designers, and technicians to succeed. And yet I have to admit that I am often disappointed. I have only seen two productions that I felt succeeded.

Why is that? Can a playwright really be great if his plays are rarely done well? Obviously I believe the answer to that is yes. So is it about education? Do you have to be a literary person who has studied writing and plays to really get it? Absolutely not. Boo. Rubbish. No. I have seen people who rarely ever go to plays and who don’t give a two dollar damn about “great writers” like Chekhov moved to laughter and tears by his plays. So what is it?

Here’s what I think: it’s about understanding how our capacity to feel works. We have been taught to separate tragedy and comedy. If one is present, the other is absent. Now, this is not how we experience our own tragedy and comedy, it’s just how we have been taught to think about it. Chekhov saw that tragedy and comedy are intrinsically connected. He realized that as we open ourselves to comedy, we, at the same time, open ourselves to tragedy––the more we are able to laugh, the more we are able to cry. This is what is meant by “Chekhovian.” (Incidentally, this is exactly the way Beckett works. Beckett was hugely influenced by Chekhov.)

Directors often miss the mark with Chekhov, because they get caught up in the beautiful, profound, deep tragedy of it all. They neglect the comedy, because they so want the audience to get all that other stuff. But, ironically, by neglecting the comedy they make it impossible for the audience to completely experience the tragedy. With Chekhov (and with Beckett), you cannot sound the depths of the tragedy without immersing yourself in the comedy. The comedy is the path to the tragedy. What is brutal and sad in Chekhov is also––at the very same moment––hilarious.

Happy birthday to Anton Chekhov.

"I'm in mourning for my life. I'm unhappy."
“I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.”

While they are talking, Arkadina and Polina are setting up a card table in the middle of the room.

TRIGORIN: Not a very nice welcome from the weather. You couldn’t fish in this wind. If it dies down by morning, I’ll go out to the lake. Incidentally, I want to take a look at that place in the garden––where you had your play. I’ve got a new story and I want to refresh my memory of the scene.

MASHA: Father, can you let Semion have a horse, he has to get home.

SHAMRAEV: A horse? Get home? See for yourself, they’ve only just been to the station. I can’t send them out again.

MASHA: They aren’t the only horses. Talking to you is like…

MEDVEDENKO: I’ll walk, Masha, really…

POLINA: Walk, in this weather…  Come along, then, everyone who’s playing.

MEDVEDENKO: It’s only a few miles. Goodbye. (Kisses Masha’s hand.) Goodbye, Mother.

Polina reluctantly holds out her hand for him to kiss.

MEDVEDENKO: I wouldn’t have wanted to be a nuisance, but the baby…  Well… goodbye. (He bows to everyone and goes out apologetically.)

SHAMRAEV: He’ll make it alright.

(from a version by Tom Stoppard)

"Mankind and monkeys..."
“Mankind and monkeys…”