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Melancholy and its Correctives: Flaubert, Chekhov, Tolstoy

By Adrian West.


“La mélancolie elle-même n’est qu’un souvenir qui s’ignore.”—Flaubert.[1]  Is this an instance of the false passive, or of a genuine reflexive?  Of memory neglected by an agent outside of it, or of memory ignoring itself?  For while an opposition may be drawn between a subject and his own memories, which take on for him a more or less foreign appearance—the mind’s furnishings, rather than the mind itself—it remains true that without these memories he has nothing, is nothing; that his entire mode of self-presentation—that is, of being—hinges on the constant resort to memory.

The memories that provoke melancholy—neglected, overlooked, forgotten—Flaubert’s verb suggests all these—relate, however obscurely, to duties unfulfilled.  The nature of what has been left undone in relation to the figures of memory is often opaque—the mere fact of my having a mother, for example, sometimes pains me inexplicably—because what we take to be the ideal form of our relation to others and to the world, our understanding of our duty to them, tends toward the vague, half-hearted, and commonplace, to the extent that it can be said to exist at all; perhaps because the enlargement of our understanding of the scope of our moral lives, of the effect our least actions have upon our social and physical environment, has been outpaced by the constantly multiplying amusements, temptations, and merely formal obligations to which we subject ourselves; we are morally confused and exhausted, overwhelmed by the variety of choices that face us and pulled at each instant toward novelty, and have shunted off our ultimate choices, to use Peter Singer’s term, those acts of moral reckoning wherein we tell ourselves the truth about our doings and their aftermath and begin at last to take ourselves seriously as moral subjects, into ever-receding tomorrow.  What is due from us is never clear, and melancholy is nothing more than the intrusion of this lack of clarity, and of the vital longing to dispel it, upon life’s constant progression-into—into love affairs, into acquisitions and enterprises—adherence to which seems to preclude attention to that longing.  Whereas the way is always paved for our instrumental undertakings, for our role in the self-perpetuating and self-aggrandizing impulses of society, to which everyone appears both party and partisan, when, in our hearts, it strikes us it might be better to live according to the dictates of our conscience, the path we are led to is fraught with solitude and uncertainty.


Freud asserts:  “The hysteric suffers mainly from reminiscences.”  Hysteria, in this sense, is the acute form of bad conscience, whereas melancholy is bad conscience in abeyance. If hysteria was once thought to be the quintessentially modern form of neurosis, this relates to the profusion of choices thrust upon modern man, virtually all of which have a moral component but which are decided according to instrumental considerations; the memory of these choices, and of the compromised way in which we make them, continues to weigh on us, along with the intimation that we may someday be made to answer for them, and for the disregard of conscience that enabled them.  When the anxiety they provoke is no longer bearable, the sufferer breaks down.  The attacks of nerves frequently described in Chekhov, in “Terror,” for example, are studies of this sort of hysteria.


If reading Chekhov makes us melancholy, it is doubtless because he is the writer most concerned with, and most effective at, rousing our conscience from its wonted slumber.  At times we are melancholy because of our own bad conscience; but at others—when we read “Heartache” or the last paragraphs of “About Love”—we are moved by glimpses of a world in which the moral imperative has been, or might be, obeyed.  A serenity pervades these examples, such as overcomes us before a painting of Vermeer’s.


Having written the foregoing sentence, I began to think of Vermeer, and then of the death of Bergotte in Proust, after he had gone to see A View of Delft for the last time; and wishing to read again those pages, which describe this serenity exactly, I have taken down my copy of The Prisoner and written down the following passage:

All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there–those laws to which every profound work of the intellect bring us nearer and which are invisible only–- if then!–- to fools.


It is not strange, then, that our response to Chekhov or to Vermeer should have the character of nostalgia, though we have never lived in the “different world” that Proust describes; what we reflect on is the image of that world we dreamed up perhaps when we were very young, when the idea of a moral life had already been imparted to us, and we had begun to envisage what it might be, but before we had grown used to the thought that it was a fiction to be left behind, like all those other fabrications of youth; and because its image is less fanciful than the rest of them, because it continues throughout our lives to throb, particularly whenever we or others depart from the quotidian to do or say something beautiful or true, and because it is into that image that we retreat, forever adding further to it, when the world’s cruelty or paltriness overwhelm us, its appeal is never silenced.


What strikes us about Vermeer or Chekhov is the unobtrusive manner in which life’s passage is observed.  When the voices that normally obtrude upon the world are silent—chief among them our own—we feel as though these voices had hung about the world like a veil, and that for once, it has been rent; these voices, and their erstwhile concerns, were idle, and had only dissuaded us from truth.  The obtrusive element in our voices is the instrumental, expressed in vanity, sarcasm, calculation, pettiness, none of which is appropriate to truth in its moral aspect.


If the vision of a life led according to the dictates of conscience is not without melancholy, this is foremost because, having been born into a world in which truth and goodness are eternally pushed aside in favor of ambition, egotism, and greed, we ourselves lapse inevitably into moral debility, and our awakening, regardless of the purity of spirit with which we conduct our lives thereafter, cannot address the failures of our past, which are frozen inside it as in amber; further, the person who follows the dictates of conscience knows that to do so is to forego the better part of those pleasures that had once made life bearable, that the world will misunderstand and mock his decision, and that whatever suffering he relieves or fails to bring about will be nothing compared to the misery in which the world is steeped, which will persist after he is in his grave.  But his melancholy is of a serene rather than hysterical character.


Truth:  it is because of the constant reliance on this word and its subordinates that Nabokov, full of admiration for Chekhov’s art, still derides him as a purveyor of commonplaces.  What is easier, yet more mysterious, than to exhort that we be true?  Though moral conflict lies at the heart of Chekhov’s stories, his delicate treatment of it contributes little to our understanding of the episodes of our moral lives.  For the many times he writes of infidelity, we come away from his fiction with no clearer an opinion of how adulterers and their wounded spouses should act than that they should be true, and this is too general, too crystalline, to be of broad applicability.

This is not an aesthetic criticism:  in art, the creator’s object is an arrangement of effects and an elegance of structure, and in this respect, Chekhov’s instincts are often impeccable.  But if it is said to be in bad taste to dismiss a work for its didactic or philosophical shortcomings, it remains true that art inspires us to moral reflection, and to censure those reflections would be absurd.  Among other things, Chekhov is a refined moral observer, and as moral actors, we should strive constantly to refine our own such observations; therefore it would be wasteful to forego plumbing morality in Chekhov out of misplaced allegiance to art for art’s sake.


 One of Chekhov’s stock characters is the penitent drunkard.  Through inveterate falsehood and sentimentality, he has squandered his credit with the world.  We should not say he is insincere, for at those moments when he declares his good intentions, he is convinced of the purity of his heart, but rather that he has no strength to live out the consequences of his words.  Without this strength, an honest existence is impossible; from the vestiges of his moral nature, he makes promises he is too weak to keep, and his life becomes a hysteric flight from them and from the people he has made them to; when he begins to yearn for truth, it is primarily for a kind of existence he need no longer flee.

For such a person, the maxim “Be true!” is curative, and as readers, we are moved by the humility that overcomes Chekhov’s characters in the course of their redemption.  But it is curious that those tales in which he plausibly presents a moral awakening in terms of its process are aesthetically of the second rank, while his finest ones, to which the term “nuanced” is often applied, either leave this process in suspension or pass over it diegetically, as with Laevsky’s and Von Koren’s transformations in “The Duel.”  It strikes me that a lack of clarity obtains in critics’ taste for praising Chekhov’s nuance and ambiguity, and that we must distinguish these terms’ ethical and aesthetic acceptations.  In aesthetics, ambiguity and nuance are desirable of themselves, and refer to certain irreducibles without which the work in question cannot properly be called art; whereas in ethics, nuance and ambiguity rather denote a depth of attentiveness than the renunciation of judgment.  In the end, ethical considerations strive for clarity in a way that distinguishes them from art.


Those tales of Chekhov’s in which a moral conversion is rendered plausibly as a process fail aesthetically to the extent that their lesson is too easily generalized; having finished them, we extract their moral, and the subtleties that animated it fade.  In the masterpieces, where the conversion is either halted or alluded to elliptically, the ethical mechanics is shrouded by the imagery’s intensity.  Throughout Chekhov’s work, there is a constant struggle between the ethical and aesthetic impulses to outdo one another in force.


Is an artistically satisfying reconciliation of the two possible?  Outside of popular art, which, while sharing certain characteristics, may be something qualitatively distinct from the high art of the past 150 years, the answer may be no.  The most prominent and rigorous attempt I know of must be the chapters concerning Lyovin’s evolution in his growth toward Kitty in Anna Karenina.  When I read this novel, the temptation to skip them is enormous; they have always marred the book for me, and lacked the luster of mimetic truth.  Are we simply more inclined to accept the etiology of a disaster such as Anna’s than that of a moral evolution like that of Lyovin?  It is true that what passes for evidence, amid the intellectual and aesthetic prejudices of our age, presses us to favor the possibility of collapse over redemption, so that descriptions of growth seem inherently false, and we prefer to take our inspiration and heroism from newspapers and memoirs, where they can be fact-checked.

But to emphasize our cynicism is to overlook a fundamental aesthetic principle that transcends passing attitudes towards morality and valor:  the need of tension to carry a story forward.  This relates to our own struggles for survival and mastery, which are projected into literature as into dreams:  what is unresolved invariably begs for attention, and we turn to it from what appears to be secure.  To the degree that we are assured that all will turn out well, there is no stake for us, and our devotion wanes.  When reading absorbs us, our attention feels necessary to carry the plot forward; we may know the ending, but the thought of it dissipates amid the furor of romance or the hail of enemy fire, just as the certainty that we are safe aboard an airplane is of no use to us in the midst of panic.


Success narratives—guides to a better marriage or financial independence—also illustrate the process of moral evolution, and we may seek to impose their teachings on our own lives.  Though they share many features of fiction and may in fact be fiction, we accept them, they build tension in us, and we peruse them for their guiding principles as we would a novel for its resolutions.  The difference between a success narrative and an illustration of moral evolution in fiction is solely one of credence on the reader’s behalf:  whereas in our hearts we doubt we should redeem ourselves by marrying and retiring to the country, like Lyovin, we believe we might achieve “hot monogamy” by following the steps in the eponymous best-seller.

Supposing it were possible to bring to bear on fiction the same credence we grant newspapers, self-help books, and memoirs, would we maintain the reigning opprobrium on didacticism in art?


We reject didacticism in literature as we do prescriptivism in life:  too simplistic, too reductive; extraneous when the matter at hand is clear, unsuitable when it is not.  Or should we rather say:  the morally unambiguous situation is not appropriate to literature.  Though it is widely accepted that hygiene is important for a healthy life, it is inconceivable that a novel should be written in praise of the benefits of hygiene.  A cautionary tale about the consequences of ignoring hygiene, though perhaps suitable for a child, would be insulting to an adult.  The just precept in literature is of interest in two cases:  when it is adopted quixotically, against the dictates of the protagonist’s world, or when it is broken by a character whose dignity is maintained, as in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.  In the first case, the pleasure afforded is alternately projective and self-congratulatory:  either we identify with the hero, and his struggles, psychologically, become our own, or else we side with him against his oppressors; regardless, we bask in an impression of our own nobility that a sympathetic reading has conferred on us.  In the second, we confront tragedy, in the Hegelian sense of a conflict between two rights—the precept, and the character’s dignity in conflict with that precept—and are afforded two pleasures:  the intellectual thrill of the riddle and the emotional-aesthetic one of proximity to danger—to the contradictions that destroy the protagonist, but leave us happily alive.


The cautionary tale is aesthetically inadequate because it does not respect the dignity of its characters.  When we speak of the requirement that a work of art be true, it is chiefly to this respect for dignity we refer.  But what do we mean when we speak of dignity?

Above all, in spite of those views of the subject that, since the early humanists, have stressed its innateness and inviolability, we must affirm it to be a reaction-formation, born of rebellion against circumstances, that distinguishes abuse from impersonal violence.  We cannot imagine the notion of dignity arising in a world devoid of threats to it any more than one of truth in a world free of ignorance and error.  To look into the nature of dignity, then, is rather to inquire into the circumstances that give rise to the feeling of indignity and lead the subject to armor himself with the concepts of dignity and indignity and imperatives to respect the former.

We need only invert those ideas of dignity that have come to us from the humanists and from Kant.  If we are told that dignity is inviolable, we should say that the concept of dignity exists to preserve the feeling of dignity from violation; if we read in Bettelheim that dignity is “man’s inherent ability to regulate his life,” we may note that in countless circumstances, man is unable to regulate his life, and as he finds this humiliating, he fabricates a concept, and a set of practices surrounding it—really more a set of customs and a manner of speaking than a concept—that guard him from this humiliation.  The root of the idea of dignity is impotent aggression, incapacity to fight back against humiliation; when Jean Améry strikes his aggressor in the face, despite the savage beating he incurs thereby, he affirms that this act constituted a restoration of his dignity.

But the role of altruism is also essential.  If the concept of dignity occurs to us in the course of our own humiliation, it does so equally, as an outgrowth of our empathy, when we observe the infliction of power on the defenseless, so long as we have not perverted our instincts by allegiance to some herd mentality.  This altruism forms the basis for our objections to the simplicity of cautionary tales as well as to the cruelty of caricature; the character has become real to us, but we see him as helpless against the depredations of the author, imposed on him from above; a remarkable example of this is Jean Améry’s defense of Charles Bovary against his treatment by Flaubert in Charles Bovary: Country Doctor; and many novels on behalf of the maligned serve to dignify their subjects against the mass of popular opinion, which is itself only a kind of badly written fiction.

Thus, of a great work of tragedy, we demand that the protagonist be noble; whereas comedy, which appeals most often to the vulturine instincts, has much of its basis in contempt for weakness and joy in the humiliation of others; and the tragi-comic involves a self-chastening according to which we dabble in cruelty before offering the beset character an out, and then reflect warmly on our magnanimity.


 If we truly believed in the free agency of a gambler or adulterer, we could not grant them that empathy that is the animating force of stories.  Our recognition of such characters’ dignity lies not in our acknowledgement of their sovereignty, but in our sorrow when the illusion of it crashes against an ineluctable doom; not of their subjectivity, but rather their subjection; fundamentally, that is to say, of their capacity to suffer.


What is moral ambiguity in a story, then?  A situation where suffering is inevitable.  Our reflection on it relates to competing claims of dignity, to the attempt to determine who is least deserving of a suffering that must be borne by someone.  While the intellectual puzzle of apportioning suffering begs for an elegant solution, relating to the universal instinct for justice, from an aesthetic perspective, this solution can never be definitive, lest the work in question devolve into didacticism.

[1] “Melancholy itself is nothing more than an unconscious memory,” would be an ironed-out but serviceable translation, but the structure Flaubert employs, the false passive or passive-reflexive, allows for the broader range of interpretations explored above.

Adrian West is a writer and translator as well as a contributing editor at Asymptote. His work has appeared in numerous publications including McSweeney’sWords Without Borders, and The Brooklyn Rail.  He has recently completed a novel entitled The Aesthetics of Degradation.  He currently lives between the United States and Spain with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 23rd, 2013.