- Art, Birthday, Nonfiction, Writing

Anton Chekhov on Life, Love, Death, Writing, Happiness, and More

Happy birthday, Anton Chekhov(!), great Russian playwright and short story writer, about whom George Saunders wrote:

That’s one of my favorite things about Chekhov: his ability to embody what I call “on the other hand” thinking. He’ll put something out with a great deal of certainty and beauty and passion, absolutely convincing you—and then he goes, “On the other hand,” and completely undermines it. At the end of this story you ask, “Chekhov, is happiness a blessing or a curse?” And he’s like, “Yeah, exactly.”

Here are some quotes from Chekhov’s writing:

“When a person is born, he can embark on only one of three roads of life: if you go right, the wolves will eat you; if you go left, you’ll eat the wolves; if you go straight, you’ll eat yourself.”

Fatherlessness or Platonov, Act I, sc. xiv (1878)

“Better a debauched canary than a pious wolf.”

Innocuous Thoughts (1885)

 

From The Seagull (1896):

“I try to catch every sentence, every word you and I say, and quickly lock all these sentences and words away in my literary storehouse because they might come in handy.”

“It’s not a matter of old or new forms; a person writes without thinking about any forms, he writes because it flows freely from his soul.”

“I’m in mourning for my life.”

anton-chekhov-in-his-study-in-yalta--1895-1900-600058295-592773c63df78cbe7e6df7fdFrom Note-Book of Anton Chekhov (1921):

“Love is a great thing. It is not by chance that in all times and practically among all cultured peoples love in the general sense and the love of a man for his wife are both called love. If love is often cruel or destructive, the reason lies not in love itself, but in the inequality between people.”

“A nice man would feel ashamed even before a dog.”

“How pleasant it is to respect people! When I see books, I am not concerned with how the authors loved or played cards; I see only their marvelous works.”

“The more refined the more unhappy.”

“People love talking of their diseases, although they are the most uninteresting things in their lives.”

“Death is terrible, but still more terrible is the feeling that you might live for ever and never die.”

“They say: ‘In the long run truth will triumph,’ but it is untrue.”

“Love, friendship, respect, do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.”

“If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.”

“Although you may tell lies, people will believe you, if only you speak with authority.”

“Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

“How intolerable people are sometimes who are happy and successful in everything.”

“When one longs for a drink, it seems as though one could drink a whole ocean—that is faith; but when one begins to drink, one can only drink altogether two glasses—that is science.”

“We go to great pains to alter life for the happiness of our descendants and our descendants will say as usual: things used to be so much better, life today is worse than it used to be.”

“There is no Monday that will not give its place to Tuesday.”

anton-pavlovich-chekhov-30.jpgFrom his letters:

“A grimy fly can soil the entire wall and a small, dirty little act can ruin the entire proceedings.”

“In order to cultivate yourself and to drop no lower than the level of the milieu in which you have landed, it is not enough to read Pickwick and memorize a monologue from Faust….You need to work continually day and night, to read ceaselessly, to study, to exercise your will….Each hour is precious.”

“Isolation in creative work is an onerous thing. Better to have negative criticism than nothing at all.”

“When in a serious mood, it seems to me that those people are illogical who feel an aversion toward death. As far as I can see, life consists exclusively of horrors, unpleasantnesses and banalities, now merging, now alternating.”

“Despite your best efforts, you could not invent a better police force for literature than criticism and the author’s own conscience.”

“Happiness does not await us all. One needn’t be a prophet to say that there will be more grief and pain than serenity and money. That is why we must hang on to one another.”

“Hypocrisy is a revolting, psychopathic state.”

“My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take.”

“Pharisaism, obtuseness and tyranny reign not only in the homes of merchants and in jails; I see it in science, in literature, and among youth. I consider any emblem or label a prejudice…”

“Lying is the same as alcoholism. Liars prevaricate even on their deathbeds.”

“There should be more sincerity and heart in human relations, more silence and simplicity in our interactions. Be rude when you’re angry, laugh when something is funny, and answer when you’re asked.”

“A tree is beautiful, but what’s more, it has a right to life; like water, the sun and the stars, it is essential. Life on earth is inconceivable without trees. Forests create climate, climate influences peoples’ character, and so on and so forth. There can be neither civilization nor happiness if forests crash down under the axe, if the climate is harsh and severe, if people are also harsh and severe….What a terrible future!”

“He who doesn’t know how to be a servant should never be allowed to be a master; the interests of public life are alien to anyone who is unable to enjoy others’ successes, and such a person should never be entrusted with public affairs.”

“Anyone who says that the artist’s field is all answers and no questions has never done any writing or had any dealings with imagery. An artist observes, selects, guesses and synthesizes.”

“You are right to demand that an artist engage his work consciously, but you confuse two different things: solving the problem and correctly posing the question.”

“I don’t care for success. The ideas sitting in my head are annoyed by, and envious of, that which I’ve already written.”

“Neither I nor anyone else knows what a standard is. We all recognize a dishonorable act, but have no idea what honor is.”

“Everyone judges plays as if they were very easy to write. They don’t know that it is hard to write a good play, and twice as hard and tortuous to write a bad one.”

“Life is difficult for those who have the daring to first set out on an unknown road. The avant-garde always has a bad time of it.”

“I divide all literary works into two categories: Those I like and those I don’t like. No other criterion exists for me.”

“In my opinion it is harmful to place important things in the hands of philanthropy, which in Russia is marked by a chance character. Nor should important matters depend on leftovers, which are never there. I would prefer that the government treasury take care of it.”

“One had better not rush, otherwise dung comes out rather than creative work.”

“He who constantly swims in the ocean loves dry land.”

“The wealthy man is not he who has money, but he who has the means to live in the luxurious state of early spring.”

“There is nothing more vapid than a philistine petty bourgeois existence with its farthings, victuals, vacuous conversations, and useless conventional virtue.”

“Despicable means used to achieve laudable goals render the goals themselves despicable.”

“The person who wants nothing, hopes for nothing, and fears nothing can never be an artist.”

“You ask ‘What is life?’ That is the same as asking ‘What is a carrot?’ A carrot is a carrot and we know nothing more.”

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“We live not in order to eat, but in order not to know what we feel like eating.”

The Fruits of Long Meditations (1884)

 

“At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him—illness, poverty, loss—and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of his life stir him only slightly, as wind stirs an aspen—and everything is fine.”

—”Gooseberries” (1898)

 

“By nature servile, people attempt at first glance to find signs of good breeding in the appearance of those who occupy more exalted stations.”

A Futile Occurrence or A Trivial Incident (1886)

“The thirst for powerful sensations takes the upper hand both over fear and over compassion for the grief of others.”

An Evil Night (1886)

“Silence accompanies the most significant expressions of happiness and unhappiness: those in love understand one another best when silent, while the most heated and impassioned speech at a graveside touches only outsiders, but seems cold and inconsequential to the widow and children of the deceased.”

Enemies (1887)

“The unhappy are egotistical, base, unjust, cruel, and even less capable of understanding one another than are idiots. Unhappiness does not unite people, but separates them…”

Enemies (1887)

“One can prove or refute anything at all with words. Soon people will perfect language technology to such an extent that they’ll be proving with mathematical precision that twice two is seven.”

Lights (1888)

“You look at any poetic creature: muslin, ether, demigoddess, millions of delights; then you look into the soul and find the most ordinary crocodile!”

The Bear or The Boor, sc. viii (1888)

“There is something beautiful, touching and poetic when one person loves more than the other, and the other is indifferent.”

After the Theatre (1892)

“Life is a vexatious trap; when a thinking man reaches maturity and attains to full consciousness he cannot help feeling that he is in a trap from which there is no escape.”

Ward No. 6 (1892)

 

It’s even pleasant to be sick when you know that there are people who await your recovery as they might await a holiday.

The Story of an Unknown Man or An Anonymous Story (1893)

 

“There is nothing more awful, insulting, and depressing than banality.”

The Teacher of Literature” (1894)

 

“By poeticizing love, we imagine in those we love virtues that they often do not possess; this then becomes the source of constant mistakes and constant distress.”

“Ariadne” (1895)

 

“It seems to me that all of the evil in life comes from idleness, boredom, and psychic emptiness, but all of that is inevitable when you become accustomed to living at others’ expense.”

My Life (1896)

 

“Exquisite nature, daydreams, and music say one thing, real life another.”

“At Home” (1897)

 

“All of life and human relations have become so incomprehensibly complex that, when you think about it, it becomes terrifying and your heart stands still.”

“A Journey by Cart” (1897)

 

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About John Madera

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.
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