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On Violence: Chekhov and Babel

Chekhov once wrote:

My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom- freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.--The Portable Chekhov

   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.

Dear Granddaddy, Konstantin Makarych,

And I am writing you a letter. I wish you a merry Christmas and everything good from the Lord God. I have neither father nor mother, you alone are left to me. (34, Chekhov)

   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:

When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder--that seems to give a kind of background to another's grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold....The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.--To Lydia Avilova, March 19, 1892 & April 29, 1892

   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 Wriggles was extraordinarily deferential and demonstrative, looked with equally friendly eyes both at his masters and at strangers, but did not enjoy a good reputation. His deference and meekness concealed the most Jesuitical spite. No one knew better how to creep up behind you and suddenly snap at your leg, how to slip into the icehouse, or how to steal a hen from a peasant. More than once his hind legs had been all but broken, twice he had been hanged, every week he was whipped till he was half dead, but always he managed to revive. (35, Chekhov)

   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:

Then how violent they will become against their chains as they struggle to free themselves so that they may perceive what they believe is there to be perceived. They will think of violence as part of their bitter effort to know what is real. To grasp, to seize -to apprehend, as we say- reality from out of the deep dark cave of the mind- this is indeed a very violent action. (31, Babel)

   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:

God has left us... Our destiny's no better than a turkey cock, and our life's worth just about a kopeck. So cut that talk and listen if you like to Lenin's letter... [Pavlichenko makes this up] and for the foundation of a nobler life in the future, I order Pavlichenko, Matthew son of Rodion, to deprive certain people of life, according to his discretion. (105, Babel)

   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.

I stamped on my master Nikitinsky, trampled on him for an hour or maybe more. And in that time I got to know life through and through. With shooting... you only get rid of a chap. Shooting's letting him off, and too damn easy for yourself. With shooting you'll never get at the soul, to where it is in a fellow and how it shows itself. But I don't spare myself, and I've more than once trampled and enemy for over an hour. You see, I want to get to know what life really is, what life's like down our way. (106, Babel)

   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:

Comrades, countrymen, my dear brethren! In the name of all mankind learn the story of the Red General, Matthew Pavlichenko. (100, Babel)

   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 achievement.