A Man without a Spleen: Early Čexov and the Melancholy Tradition

Ilya Vinitsky, University of Pennsylvania

The phenomenon of “two Čexovs” – a young cheerful and a mature melancholy one – has preoccupied literary critics since Čexov’s days. Numerous attempts have been made to reconcile these contradictory images of the same writer. As Vladimir Nabokov put it, “Čexov’s books are sad books for humorous people, that is, only a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate their sadness. Things for him were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked.” The present paper deals with a discussion of early Čexov’s comic mask of a Man without Spleen (Chelovek bez selezenki) considered within the context of European melancholy tradition, - namely, the traditional figure of the Laughing Melancholic which plays a significant role in the history of Western humoristic literature: Laughing Democritus, Democritus Junior (Robert Burton), Doctor Merriman, Neudoborazumoiduxodejatel’nyj (Novikov), etc. The basic features of this old cultural mask, adopted and transformed by the young Čexov, include:

In this paper, I will examine some of Doctor Cexov’s early miniatures (comic questionnaires, diaries, “physiological” notes, a complaint book) which, as a whole (as a collection of pieces – “oskolki”), reveal a deep connection to the melancholy tradition and foreshadow the future development of Cexov as a melancholy writer.