In March of 1886, at the age of 26, acclaimed Russian author and physician Anton Chekhov wrote this fascinating and honest letter of advice to his troubled older brother, Nikolai.
Chekhov’s brother was a talented painter and writer who, despite being just 28 himself, had for many years been plagued by alcoholism to the point where he often slept on the streets, his days were a blur, his notable skills as an artist largely untapped.
This letter and the list it contained– eight qualities exhibited by “civilized” people– were essentially Anton’s attempt at knocking some sense into the brother he was slowly losing.
Sadly, his efforts were ultimately futile. Nikolai passed away three years later.
Moscow, March, 1886
My Little Zabelin,
I’ve been told that you have taken offense at the jokes we have been making. The faculty of taking offense is the property of noble souls alone, but even so, if it is all right to laugh at us, then why is it wrong to laugh at you? It’s unfair. However, if you’re not joking and really do feel you’ve been offended, I hasten to apologize.
People only laugh at what’s funny or what they don’t understand. Take your choice.
The latter of course is more flattering, but—alas!—to me, for one, you’re no riddle. It’s not hard to understand someone with whom you’ve shared the delights of Tatar caps, Latin and, finally, life in Moscow. And besides, your life is psychologically so uncomplicated that anyone could understand it.
Out of respect for you let me be frank. You’re angry, offended… but it’s not because of my teasing. The fact of the matter is that you’re a decent person and you realize that you’re living a lie. And, whenever a person feels guilty, he always looks outside himself for vindication: the drunk blames his troubles, others blame the censors, the man who bolts from his house with lecherous intent blames the cold in the living room, and so on. If I were to abandon the family to the whims of fate, I would try to find myself an excuse. It’s only natural and pardonable. It’s human nature, after all.
And you’re quite right to feel you’re living a lie. If you didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t have called you a decent person. When decency goes, well, that’s another story. You become reconciled to the lie and stop feeling it.
You’re no riddle to me, and it is also true that you can be wildly ridiculous. You’re nothing but an ordinary mortal, and we mortals are enigmatic only when we’re stupid, and we’re ridiculous forty-eight weeks of the year. Isn’t that so?
You often complain to me that people “don’t understand” you. But even Goethe and Newton made no such complaints. Christ did, true, but he was talking about his doctrine, not his ego. People understand you all too well. If you don’t understand yourself, then it’s nobody else’s fault.
As your brother, I assure you that I understand you and sympathize with you from the bottom of my heart. I know all your good qualities like the back of my hand. I value them highly and have only the greatest respect for them. If you like, I can even prove how I understand you by enumerating them.
In my opinion you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, you’d share your last penny, and you’re sincere. Hate and envy are foreign to you, you are open-hearted, you are compassionate with man and beast, you are not greedy, you do not bear grudges, and you are trusting.
You have a gift from above that others lack: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of people, for there is only one artist for every two million people on earth. It places you in a very special position: you could be a toad or a tarantula and you would still be respected, for to talent all is forgiven.
You have only one failing: the cause of the lie you’ve been living and your troubles. It’s your extreme lack of culture. Please forgive me, but its truth among friends.
The thing is, life lays down certain conditions. If you want to feel at home among educated people, to be at home and not find their presence burdensome, you have to have a certain amount of culture. Your talent has brought you into their circle. You belong there, but… you seem to yearn escape and feel compelled to waver between the cultured set and transients.
It’s the bourgeois side of you coming out, the side raised beside the wine cellar and handouts, and it’s hard to overcome, terribly hard.
To my mind, civilized people ought to satisfy the following conditions:
1. They respect the individual and are therefore always kind, gentle, polite and ready to give in to others. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor. They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes.
2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats. Their heart aches for what the naked eye can’t see.
3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.
4. 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.
5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy. They do not play on people’s heartstrings to get them to sigh and fuss over them. They do not say, “No one understands me!” or “I’ve squandered my talent on trifles!” because this smacks of a cheap effect. It is vulgar, false and out-of-date.
6. They have no shallow vanity and are not preoccupied with vain things.
They are not taken in by such false jewels as friendships with celebrities, handshakes with important people, ecstasy over the first person they happen to meet in important places, or popularity among the tavern crowd.
When they have done a penny’s worth of work, they don’t strut about as though they had done a hundred rubles’ worth, and they don’t boast over being admitted to places closed to others. True talents always seek obscurity. They try to merge with the crowd and shun all ostentation and advertisement. An empty barrel has more chance of being heard than a full one.
7. If they have talent, a gift, they respect it. They sacrifice comfort, rest, women, wine and vanity to it. They are proud of their talent and gifts. They do not go out carousing. What is more, they are fastidious.
8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities. They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a crack in the wall teeming with bugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a floor with spit or eat off a stove. They try their best to tame and dignify their sexual instinct… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, but the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the capacity for motherhood. They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying.
They—and especially the artists among them—require freshness, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother… They don’t guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not pigs. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself, for they want a healthy mind in a healthy body.
And so on. That’s how civilized people act. If you want to be civilized and not fall below the level of your surroundings, it is not enough to read The Pickwick Papers and memorize a soliloquy from Faust.
You must work at being cultured constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious. Every hour is a gift.
You’ve got to drop your old way of life and make a clean break. Come home. Smash your vodka bottle, lie down on the couch and pick up a book. You might even give Turgenev a try. You’ve never read him.
You must swallow your pride and drop your vanity. You’re no longer a child. You’ll be thirty soon. It’s high time!
I’m waiting… We’re all waiting…
by Skippy Massey
This post originally appeared at the Humboldt Sentinel. Reprinted with permission.