Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Chekhov Revisited

I've been rereading more Chekhov--this guy was so good it's scary. In just the last two stories I've come across both ends of the affective spectrum, and both illustrate his subtle approach to the interplay of psychopathology and social context. "A Dreary Story" (you have to have literary nerve to give your stories titles like that) is about an aging professor who has become deeply embittered and alienated from his profession, his family, and indeed all that he used to hold dear. The prospect of his death, which can't be too far away, is both terrifying and eerily pleasurable. He is tired and isn't sleeping well--is this a geriatric depression? If so, it is a fascinating look at how depression drains the world of value. But we get the impression that this fellow may always have been a prickly and curmudgeonly sort--is this rather the ungraceful aging of a depressive and irritable temperament? (Where did I once come across the comment that in old age people are very much as they were when they were younger, only more so?).

"The Black Monk" features a cerebral and intellectually ambitious student who, while visiting the estate of his future father-in-law, appears to have a manic episode in which he hallucinates "the black monk." But this manic episode is subtle--he sleeps little and seems to take ecstatic pleasure in the luxuriant summer beauty of the rural estate and in the love of his future wife. It is only when he hallucinates more regularly, and becomes convinced that this madness is the mark of distinction setting him apart from "the common herd," that we realize that we have entered for sure the realm of psychopathology. He spurns his wife and father-in-law, and their reaction is interesting: they realize he is mentally ill and therefore not fully responsible for his actions, but since there is no real treatment available (this was in the 1890's), they cannot help but resent his actions. In Chekhov, as in real life, personal freedom and responsibility, versus the lack thereof, always remain murky, although ultimately we must always choose when to view ourselves and others as either agents or as victims. Most important, in his work psychopathology is never a simple natural kind, but is inextricably tied into a network of personal and social meaning. The question is always: where does the person end and the illness begin, and is it even proper to think the two can be separated?

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