Translated by Constance Garnett
Russian Literature – Children Books – Anton Chekhov – Ward NO. 6 – Contents
< < < . IX .
. XI . > > >
Ivan Dmitritch was lying in the same position as on the previous day, with his head clutched in both hands and his legs drawn up. His face was not visible.
“Good-day, my friend,” said Andrey Yefimitch. “You are not asleep, are you?”
“In the first place, I am not your friend,” Ivan Dmitritch articulated into the pillow; “and in the second, your efforts are useless; you will not get one word out of me.”
“Strange,” muttered Andrey Yefimitch in confusion. “Yesterday we talked peacefully, but suddenly for some reason you took offence and broke off all at once. . . . Probably I expressed myself awkwardly, or perhaps gave utterance to some idea which did not fit in with your convictions. . . .”
“Yes, a likely idea!” said Ivan Dmitritch, sitting up and looking at the doctor with irony and uneasiness. His eyes were red. “You can go and spy and probe somewhere else, it’s no use your doing it here. I knew yesterday what you had come for.”
“A strange fancy,” laughed the doctor. “So you suppose me to be a spy?”
“Yes, I do. . . . A spy or a doctor who has been charged to test me—it’s all the same ——”
“Oh excuse me, what a queer fellow you are really!”
The doctor sat down on the stool near the bed and shook his head reproachfully.
“But let us suppose you are right,” he said, “let us suppose that I am treacherously trying to trap you into saying something so as to betray you to the police. You would be arrested and then tried. But would you be any worse off being tried and in prison than you are here? If you are banished to a settlement, or even sent to penal servitude, would it be worse than being shut up in this ward? I imagine it would be no worse. . . . What, then, are you afraid of?”
These words evidently had an effect on Ivan Dmitritch. He sat down quietly.
It was between four and five in the afternoon—the time when Andrey Yefimitch usually walked up and down his rooms, and Daryushka asked whether it was not time for his beer. It was a still, bright day.
“I came out for a walk after dinner, and here I have come, as you see,” said the doctor. “It is quite spring.”
“What month is it? March?” asked Ivan Dmitritch.
“Yes, the end of March.”
“Is it very muddy?”
“No, not very. There are already paths in the garden.”
“It would be nice now to drive in an open carriage somewhere into the country,” said Ivan Dmitritch, rubbing his red eyes as though he were just awake, “then to come home to a warm, snug study, and . . . and to have a decent doctor to cure one’s headache. . . . It’s so long since I have lived like a human being. It’s disgusting here! Insufferably disgusting!”
After his excitement of the previous day he was exhausted and listless, and spoke unwillingly. His fingers twitched, and from his face it could be seen that he had a splitting headache.
“There is no real difference between a warm, snug study and this ward,” said Andrey Yefimitch. “A man’s peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but in himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“The ordinary man looks for good and evil in external things—that is, in carriages, in studies—but a thinking man looks for it in himself.”
“You should go and preach that philosophy in Greece, where it’s warm and fragrant with the scent of pomegranates, but here it is not suited to the climate. With whom was it I was talking of Diogenes? Was it with you?”
“Yes, with me yesterday.”
“Diogenes did not need a study or a warm habitation; it’s hot there without. You can lie in your tub and eat oranges and olives. But bring him to Russia to live: he’d be begging to be let indoors in May, let alone December. He’d be doubled up with the cold.”
“No. One can be insensible to cold as to every other pain. Marcus Aurelius says: ‘A pain is a vivid idea of pain; make an effort of will to change that idea, dismiss it, cease to complain, and the pain will disappear.’ That is true. The wise man, or simply the reflecting, thoughtful man, is distinguished precisely by his contempt for suffering; he is always contented and surprised at nothing.”
“Then I am an idiot, since I suffer and am discontented and surprised at the baseness of mankind.”
“You are wrong in that; if you will reflect more on the subject you will understand how insignificant is all that external world that agitates us. One must strive for the comprehension of life, and in that is true happiness.”
“Comprehension . . .” repeated Ivan Dmitritch frowning. “External, internal. . . . Excuse me, but I don’t understand it. I only know,” he said, getting up and looking angrily at the doctor—“I only know that God has created me of warm blood and nerves, yes, indeed! If organic tissue is capable of life it must react to every stimulus. And I do! To pain I respond with tears and outcries, to baseness with indignation, to filth with loathing. To my mind, that is just what is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is, and the more feebly it reacts to stimulus; and the higher it is, the more responsively and vigorously it reacts to reality. How is it you don’t know that? A doctor, and not know such trifles! To despise suffering, to be always contented, and to be surprised at nothing, one must reach this condition”—and Ivan Dmitritch pointed to the peasant who was a mass of fat—“or to harden oneself by suffering to such a point that one loses all sensibility to it—that is, in other words, to cease to live. You must excuse me, I am not a sage or a philosopher,” Ivan Dmitritch continued with irritation, “and I don’t understand anything about it. I am not capable of reasoning.”
“On the contrary, your reasoning is excellent.”
“The Stoics, whom you are parodying, were remarkable people, but their doctrine crystallized two thousand years ago and has not advanced, and will not advance, an inch forward, since it is not practical or living. It had a success only with the minority which spends its life in savouring all sorts of theories and ruminating over them; the majority did not understand it. A doctrine which advocates indifference to wealth and to the comforts of life, and a contempt for suffering and death, is quite unintelligible to the vast majority of men, since that majority has never known wealth or the comforts of life; and to despise suffering would mean to it despising life itself, since the whole existence of man is made up of the sensations of hunger, cold, injury, and a Hamlet-like dread of death. The whole of life lies in these sensations; one may be oppressed by it, one may hate it, but one cannot despise it. Yes, so, I repeat, the doctrine of the Stoics can never have a future; from the beginning of time up to to-day you see continually increasing the struggle, the sensibility to pain, the capacity of responding to stimulus.”
Ivan Dmitritch suddenly lost the thread of his thoughts, stopped, and rubbed his forehead with vexation.
“I meant to say something important, but I have lost it,” he said. “What was I saying? Oh, yes! This is what I mean: one of the Stoics sold himself into slavery to redeem his neighbour, so, you see, even a Stoic did react to stimulus, since, for such a generous act as the destruction of oneself for the sake of one’s neighbour, he must have had a soul capable of pity and indignation. Here in prison I have forgotten everything I have learned, or else I could have recalled something else. Take Christ, for instance: Christ responded to reality by weeping, smiling, being sorrowful and moved to wrath, even overcome by misery. He did not go to meet His sufferings with a smile, He did not despise death, but prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup might pass Him by.”
Ivan Dmitritch laughed and sat down.
“Granted that a man’s peace and contentment lie not outside but in himself,” he said, “granted that one must despise suffering and not be surprised at anything, yet on what ground do you preach the theory? Are you a sage? A philosopher?”
“No, I am not a philosopher, but everyone ought to preach it because it is reasonable.”
“No, I want to know how it is that you consider yourself competent to judge of ‘comprehension,’ contempt for suffering, and so on. Have you ever suffered? Have you any idea of suffering? Allow me to ask you, were you ever thrashed in your childhood?”
“No, my parents had an aversion for corporal punishment.”
“My father used to flog me cruelly; my father was a harsh, sickly Government clerk with a long nose and a yellow neck. But let us talk of you. No one has laid a finger on you all your life, no one has scared you nor beaten you; you are as strong as a bull. You grew up under your father’s wing and studied at his expense, and then you dropped at once into a sinecure. For more than twenty years you have lived rent free with heating, lighting, and service all provided, and had the right to work how you pleased and as much as you pleased, even to do nothing. You were naturally a flabby, lazy man, and so you have tried to arrange your life so that nothing should disturb you or make you move. You have handed over your work to the assistant and the rest of the rabble while you sit in peace and warmth, save money, read, amuse yourself with reflections, with all sorts of lofty nonsense, and” (Ivan Dmitritch looked at the doctor’s red nose) “with boozing; in fact, you have seen nothing of life, you know absolutely nothing of it, and are only theoretically acquainted with reality; you despise suffering and are surprised at nothing for a very simple reason: vanity of vanities, the external and the internal, contempt for life, for suffering and for death, comprehension, true happiness—that’s the philosophy that suits the Russian sluggard best. You see a peasant beating his wife, for instance. Why interfere? Let him beat her, they will both die sooner or later, anyway; and, besides, he who beats injures by his blows, not the person he is beating, but himself. To get drunk is stupid and unseemly, but if you drink you die, and if you don’t drink you die. A peasant woman comes with toothache . . . well, what of it? Pain is the idea of pain, and besides ‘there is no living in this world without illness; we shall all die, and so, go away, woman, don’t hinder me from thinking and drinking vodka.’ A young man asks advice, what he is to do, how he is to live; anyone else would think before answering, but you have got the answer ready: strive for ‘comprehension’ or for true happiness. And what is that fantastic ‘true happiness’? There’s no answer, of course. We are kept here behind barred windows, tortured, left to rot; but that is very good and reasonable, because there is no difference at all between this ward and a warm, snug study. A convenient philosophy. You can do nothing, and your conscience is clear, and you feel you are wise . . . . No, sir, it is not philosophy, it’s not thinking, it’s not breadth of vision, but laziness, fakirism, drowsy stupefaction. Yes,” cried Ivan Dmitritch, getting angry again, “you despise suffering, but I’ll be bound if you pinch your finger in the door you will howl at the top of your voice.”
“And perhaps I shouldn’t howl,” said Andrey Yefimitch, with a gentle smile.
“Oh, I dare say! Well, if you had a stroke of paralysis, or supposing some fool or bully took advantage of his position and rank to insult you in public, and if you knew he could do it with impunity, then you would understand what it means to put people off with comprehension and true happiness.”
“That’s original,” said Andrey Yefimitch, laughing with pleasure and rubbing his hands. “I am agreeably struck by your inclination for drawing generalizations, and the sketch of my character you have just drawn is simply brilliant. I must confess that talking to you gives me great pleasure. Well, I’ve listened to you, and now you must graciously listen to me.”
Russian Literature – Children Books – Anton Chekhov – Ward NO. 6 – Contents
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