Chexov's Fundamental Affinity with Ecclesiastes

Mark S. Swift, University of Auckland, New Zealand

This paper explicates parallels between Chexov's artistic vision and the most radical book in the bible that have not been examined in critical literature.

Chexov's interest in Ecclesiastes and its purported author Solomon is well established from his correspondence, notebook entries and borrowed images in a number of works, as demonstrated by several critics. E. Polotskaia observed that Chexov's story "Pari," in which a young lawyer undergoes voluntary incarceration, most overtly parallels the biblical sage's quest for meaning as described in Ecclesiastes ("Dvizhenie xudozhestvennoj mysli"). In other Chexov works, parallels with Ecclesiastes are less transparent, but nonetheless significant. P. Burge demonstrated that subtexts in "Step'" reveal Chexov's "intimate acquaintance with a precursor to existentialism--Old Testament wisdom literature." A. Sobennikov described how Chexov reformulates musings of the biblical sage in the voice of Nikolaj Stepanovich in "Skuchnaja istorija," and found that the "special meaning" Ecclesiastes had for Chexov is in the book's melancholic lament over the ephemeral nature of life (Badenweiler Conference Proceedings). In N. Kapustin's estimation, the "role of motifs from Ecclesiastes in Chexov's work is so great, they must be taken into account" when addressing the genesis, themes or poetics of Chexov's works (Chekhoviana '93).

In addition to the quintessential religious quest for meaning and the confrontation with the impotence of intellect to grasp ultimate meaning, Chexovian themes with their antecedent in Ecclesiastes include the burden of wealth and fame, failed human potential and the incidence of suffering. Yet it is overstating the case to infer that Chexov borrows from Ecclesiastes in all instances. The themes of Ecclesiastes are universal. The book's timeless relevance (as that of Chexov's art) stems from the simple fact that "the search for abiding certainty and meaning is the search of Everyman in every generation" (Jones, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). With their focus on "images" and "motifs" from Ecclesiastes in Chexov's work, recent studies neglect fundamental affinities in artistic method and perception between Chexov and the radical wisdom writer; nor have they considered scholarship on the most enigmatic book in the bible to clarify the relationship between Chexov and the biblical heretic.

Chexov and the author of Ecclesiastes shared a common purpose in their respective literary activities-the study of life (preamble to Ecclesiastes; Chexov's letter to Suvorin). They shared as well the same method of objective observation, with a refusal "to soar on wings of faith beyond the limits of the knowable" (Gordis, Koheleth). It is therefore no accident that they should arrive at similar conclusions: truth is relative, life's meaning or purpose is elusive and much depends on chance. This explains the striking similarities (and similar diversity) in commentaries on Ecclesiastes and Chexov's work. Both Chexov and the radical wisdom writer are skeptics who subject to critical scrutiny commonly held assumptions, and in so doing challenge prevailing attitudes of their time. Both writers deflate na‘ve optimism, but they have wrongly been labelled pessimists--each in fact advocates active participation in life and affirms the value of work and simple pleasures.

The innate ambiguity of Chexov's work and the manifest contradictions of Ecclesiastes are interpreted as parallel manifestations of a shared vision. Chexov not only incorporates imagery and themes from Ecclesiastes in his work, he shares the wisdom writer's broad and ambiguous perception. This is not to suggest that Chexov modelled a worldview after the most unorthodox book in the bible, but to affirm that it resonates with his own vision as an artist.