Anton Chekhov: How to Become a Cultured Person
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote to his daughter:
“Get a collection of the short stories of Chekhov and read every one. […] I’m not suggesting that you do these things. I am ordering you to do them.”
Chekhov was a master of short fiction, and no great writer has not been touched in some way by his stories.
But what about the man behind the work? What kind of person was he? How did he see the world?
A glimpse at the man behind the stories can be found in Letters of Anton Chekhov to His Family and Friends. In particular, let’s take a look at an excerpt from a letter Chekhov (age 26) wrote to his older brother (age 28).
Note: All ellipses are found in the actual letter.
In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.
Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:
- They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.
- They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see … They sit up at night in order to help P… to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.
- They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.
- They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.
- They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false …
- They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P. [Translator’s Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.], listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns ... If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement ... Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.
- If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity ... They are proud of their talent ... Besides, they are fastidious.
- They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct … What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood ... They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion … For they want mens sana in corpore sano (“a sound mind in a sound body”).
This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read The Pickwick Papers and learnt a monologue from Faust. … What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will ... Every hour is precious for it …
As Chekhov says, reading this letter (or books) is not enough. Getting from where you are to where you want to be is not easy. These eight conditions are not a checklist, but a guideline—a “true north” of sorts that reveals to us the direction we must go…
For more from Anton Chekhov, check out his collection of letters, where he shares his philosophy on writing, his views on great writers like Tolstoy, glimpses of his daily life, and much more.