evacuate & flush
On Violence: Chekhov and Babel
Chekhov once wrote:
As a doctor, he rationally assumed that in a perfect world violence and falsehood would be absent. However, in a world of absolute freedom he did not believe perfection would ever be attainable, human failings would always tumble the rational and bring misery to the world of freedom. As a writer this contradiction manifested itself in a number of his works, most notably Vanka, the story of a child in need of love and care.
In counterpoint to Chekhov's view of the ignobility of violence is Babel's rendition of its visceral passion. Like in Peckinpah's beautiful bloodletting of The Wild Bunch, Babel's stories relate the lives of soldiers with their own code of honor that underscore the harsh realities of the front. Babel takes the horror and emotion evoked on the edge of civilization and shows them off as gems- free from the rational world his characters take on new dimensions and come alive.
The stories of Babel and Chekhov illustrate the double edged sword of freedom, in Babel's hand is the natural power of violence while Chekhov focuses on its abuse. How do these authors portray their respective themes in their works?
Surficially, Vanka is the story of the title character's situation after being orphaned. Vanka's master beats him and gives him little to eat, his life is generally miserable. This premise alone elicits a compassionate response from the reader; the child is acted upon, a victim of circumstance. However, structurally Chekhov does a number of things to make Vanka's situation more poignant. First, Chekhov structures the narrative in the form of a letter to Vanka's grandfather. By doing so, the audience is privy to the direct plaintive needs of the boy as he sees it, not as the reader believes they should be upon mere observation of events. The action of writing this letter, indeed the only action in the entire story, allows Vanka to be more accessible to the reader because she is more conscious of how he feels and his desire for a better life, more so than if Chekhov had objectively recounted the goings on in Vanka's life. Chekhov here is in command of what he wishes to portray.
In these first few sentences Chekhov establishes Vanka's goodness of heart and desperate situation, not only from what Vanka writes but because he is writing a letter. The reader sees implicitly that Vanka is trying to make a connection. What's more, it is unclear that the letter will ever reach his grandfather in the end. That Vanka's efforts may prove to be a useless gesture underscores his innocence and sincerity.
The purpose of the letter also serves to remove the reader a step from Vanka's circumstance, this has the effect that Chekhov describes as follows:
The letter provides a middle ground between objective reporting and direct access to Vanka's thoughts. Chekhov uses this device to subtly give the reader a wider perspective ('a kind of background'), and hence, a more complete understanding of Vanka's grief.
Similarly, Chekhov employs flashback sequences of Vanka's former life with his grandfather. In his mind's eye, Vanka daydreams of a jovial patriarch with whom he had delightful times. He is described as a "nimble old man of about sixty-five whose face was always crinkled with laughter"(34, Chekhov) who cracked jokes and gave snuff to the dogs. Later, Vanka recalls happier times with his grandfather at Christmas getting a Christmas tree and being taught to read and dance by a young chambermaid. These scenes of blissful contentment are in stark contrast to his current plight and adds to the background of his grief, accenting it.
Also incorporated into the flashback sequences, is a masterful use of symbolism. Emphasized in Vanka's reveries was a dog, Wriggles, that followed his grandfather around.
This passage is artfully noncommittal in a typically Chekhovian manner. Whether this description of Wriggles is foreshadowing what Vanka may turn into, a glimpse into Vanka's state of mind, or just more 'background' is unclear, yet it resonates unease and a discomfort that the reader cannot ignore. At the end of the story Chekhov leaves the reader with Vanka dreaming of his grandfather reading his letter to the cooks while nearby Wriggles wags his tail. All at once the reader is left with the image of a child dreaming sweetly of a better life, yet bitterly aware that not all is or will be right.
In contrast to Chekhov's rendition of the injustice of violence, of the power of the strong over the weak, is Babel's depiction of its righteousness, or more correctly violence's Nietzscheanistic purity that lies outside any human concept of morality. Lionel Trilling in his introduction to The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel likens Babel's treatment of violence to the struggle of men against their chains in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, illustrating how violence and reason have complementary goals. Trilling writes:
When Babel's characters realize they can harm and kill with impunity, they comprehend their full potential and thrill in it, in a reality without restraints. Through violence, they achieve a status beyond humanity, and however much Chekhov would view this state negatively, in some sense this dread state of grace is the ultimate affirmation of life, the "glory of conscienceless self-assertion."(29, Babel)
Babel's The Life and Adventures of Matthew Pavlichenko embodies this violent evolution. The story relates the humble beginnings of a general in the Red Army. The plot is fairly straight forward, Pavlichenko, a herdsman on his master Nikitinsky's estate, is kept impoverished by said master. With the coming of the revolution in 1918, he joins. Later, Pavlichenko returns to the estate to take control in the name of the Red Army and then kills his former master Nikitinsky.
On the surface, the story is a simple tale of revenge, but like Chekhov in Vanka, Babel utilizes underlying narrative structures to convey deeper meanings. The most prominent of these is the master-servant relationship couched in Christian and Dionysian imagery, corresponding to Nikitinsky and Pavlichenko, respectively. When Nikitinsky is described he is associated with the number three, the color red, saddles and yokes (sin), and is at one point described as boxing Pavlichenko on the ears "for all the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost's worth."(103, Babel) Pavlichenko on the other hand is attributed with playing "the winds on reeds"(101, Babel), "lively stallions" (103, Babel), wine, and song.
This pagan versus Christian symbolism lends itself conceptually to the death of God and morality. When Pavlichenko comes for Nikitinsky, he is not thinking about long-term rewards in the afterlife but immediate pleasure according to his own rules, he says:
With this realization, Pavlichenko is now operating under his own personal sense of righteousness, he has surrendered completely to his Dionysian aesthetic, and moreover the concept of a higher law (God) has been destroyed in his mind. Undergoing a kind of rebirth after surrendering to absolute freedom, he experiences life anew.
Frightful though it is, the reader cannot mistake this display of violence as completely negative, because for Pavlichenko at least, this violence affirms his life, it is on a basic level a celebration.
Another narrative structure that Babel utilizes which further affirms violence as a celebration, is his use of Pavlichenko himself to narrate the story. Pavlichenko recounts his tale with relish:
It begins like an epic tale or myth, addressing his fellows he expects them to see in him a cultural ideal, a man larger than life. Furthermore, he refers to himself in the third person. This suggests that he has changed, that he considers himself a different (and indeed better) person than the one who started out the story. The reader understanding this through the eyes of Pavlichenko, then, can voyeuristically feel the pleasure in killing Nikitinsky. Babel's ability to immerse the reader in this type of chilling consciousness shows them that everything could be right if they let it, perhaps a more disturbing conclusion than Chekhov's ambiguity.
Chekhov and Babel in Vanka and The Life and Adventures of
Matthew Pavlichenko, respectively, rendered violence according to their fundamental
beliefs. By carefully reading their stories, then, one can deduce their general
philosophies on life. Whereas Chekhov believed that good and evil could coexist, Babel
went one step further and proposed that they could nonexist. In either case, the skill in
which the reviewed authors portrayed their stories -using the right narrative technique,
symbols, and foreshadowing- allowed them to produce compelling pieces of literary