King Solomon’s Monologue and Prževal′skij’s Obituary: Čexov’s Unwitting Confession

Among Čexov’s unfinished works is a play about King Solomon, of which remains only one fragmentary monologue of Solomon. Solomon speaks of the meaning of life, or more precisely, the impossibility of affirming any meaningfulness in the face the death facing every human being. His “incomprehensible existence” (nepostigaemoe bytie) becomes a source of constant terror and feelings of helplessness for the king. This existential terror is central to a number of Čexov’s works in this period, for example: “A Dull Story” (“Skučnaja istorija”), which in Čexov’s time was read (by Suvorin’s wife, for one) as something of a confession of Čexov’s own dangerous psychological condition. The topic of Čexov’s existentialism in this story, as well as in “Kašatanka” and “The Steppe,” has been discussed most prominently by Marena Senderovich. At roughly the same time as Čexov wrote Solomon’s monologue, he published in Novoe vremja an obituary for the famous Russian explorer, Nikolaj Prževal′skij, the tone of which could not be more opposed to that of Solomon’s monologue. If Solomon’s monologue never saw print in Čexov’s day, then this piece was published anonymously; thus, both remained unknown to Čexov’s readers for many years, and to this date have received little critical attention (Rossbacher; Sobennikov; Polockaia). It is my contention that the two can be taken together as an unwitting confession of Čexov—an author who never openly displayed himself to his readers—made during a turning point in his life and career(his brother’s death, increasing signs of his own mortal illness; breaking into the “thick journals” winning the Puškin Prize). In Čexov criticism there is a tradition of opposing the Prževal′skij of Čexov’s obituary to the characters of his poetic world, with the obituary serving as a hymn to “people of podvig [heroic sacrifice], faith, and clear goals.” I intend to show that these two pieces must be read together, that the idea of the podvig in Čexov cannot be appreciated outside of its relationship to the existential fear of Solomon. Čexov affirms “podvižničestvo” as a solution for Solomon’s unresolvable problem; it comprises an attempt to find an exit where none can possibly be. But as always in Čexov, the answer does not exhaust the question, but causes us to return to the question again and again, if only to discover that the pain of Solomon and the heroism of Prževal′skij—the one life-negating, the other, life-affirming—rather than excluding, in fact complement and condition one another. At the end of my presentation, I will briefly juxtapose Čexov’s distinctive artistic and philosophical position with those articulated in arguably the most important and closest two texts from nineteenth-century Russian literature dealing with such Ecclesiastical motifs: “Enough” (“Dovol′no”) of Turgenev, and Tolstoj’s “Confession” (“Ispoved′”).