To suffer the pain of what is hidden

In the middle of reading Nick Hornby’s clever book about books, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, I came across an amazing letter from an unexpected motivational speaker, Anton Chekhov.

Below are portions of Chekhov’s letter, written in 1886, to his younger brother which were excerpted from the book, A Life in Letters, by Hornby:

You have often complained to me that people did not “understand” you. Goethe and Newton did not complain of that… Christ alone did, but He was speaking not of His ego, but of His teaching.

You have been endowed from on high with that which the bulk of humanity lacks: talent.  This talent would set you apart even if you were a toad or a tarantula, for everything is forgiven to talent.

You have only one fault. … It is your complete lack of manners.  Please forgive me, but veritas magis amicitiae [truth is a better friend] … That telltale lower-class flesh of yours is all too apparent.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, meet the following conditions:

1. They respect human personality, and for this reason they are always affable, gentle, civil, and ready to give in to others …

2. They have compassion for other people besides beggars and cats. Their hearts suffer the pain of what is hidden to the naked eye …

What is needed is continuous work, day and night, constant reading, study, will-power… Every hour counts.

… You must make a clean break. Come to us; smash the vodka bottle; lie down and read … you are not a child. … It is time!

That was written 126 years ago.  Remember it the next time you hear or read someone allude to how people are so different nowadays.

So buck up dear reader(s). If someone is pushing you in life, it could be worse. That person could either not care, or worse, be a world-class writer who’s tracking you with the intensity of a De Niro in The Deer Hunter.  Just don’t go Walken on them.

Most of the letter from Anton to Nikolay is copied in full at end of post. The text courtesy of the Melancholy Korean [seriously] blog.

————————————————————-

March, 1886

Moscow

You have often complained to me that people did not “understand” you. Goethe and Newton did not complain of that… Christ alone did, but He was speaking not of His ego, but of His teaching. You are perfectly well understood. And if you don’t understand yourself, it is not the fault of others.

I assure you that as a brother and a friend I understand you and sympathize with you heartily. I know all your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. I can enumerate those qualities if you like, to prove that I understand them. I think you are kind to the point of spinelessness, sincere, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last copper; you are free from envy and hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, not spiteful, and do not remember evil. You have a gift from Heaven such as others do not possess: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of people, for only one out of two million on earth is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: even if you were a toad or a tarantula, you would be respected, for to talent everything is forgiven.

You have only one fault. Your false position, your unhappiness, your intestinal catarrh are all due to it. It is your utter lack of culture. Please forgive me, but veritas magis amicitiae. You see, life sets its terms. To feel at ease among cultivated people, to be at home and comfortable with them, one must have a certain amount of culture. Talent has brought you into that circle, you belong to it, but—you are drawn away from it, and you waver between cultured people and the tenants opposite.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, meet the following conditions:

1. They respect human personality, and for this reason they are always affable, gentle, civil, and ready to give in to others. They do not raise a rumpus over a hammer or a lost eraser; when they live with you they do not make you feel that they are doing you a favor, and on leaving they do not say: “Impossible to live with!” They overlook noise, cold, overdone meat, jokes, the presence of strangers in their rooms.

***

5. They do not belittle themselves to arouse compassion in others. They do not play on other people’s heart-strings so as to elicit sighs and be fussed over. They do not say: “People don’t understand me” or “I have frittered away my talent,” because all that is striving after cheap effect; it is vulgar, stale, false.

6. They are not vain. They do not care for such paste diamonds as familiarity with celebrities, the handclasp of the drunken P——-, the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture gallery, popularity in beer halls…. The truly talented always keep in the shade, among the crowd, far from the show. Even Krylov said that an empty barrel is noisier than a full one.

7. If they possess talent they respect it. They sacrifice peace, women, wine, vanity to it. They are proud of their talent; they are aware that their calling is not just to live with people but to have an educative influence on them. Besides they are fastidious.

8. They develop their aesthetic sense.

***

And so on. This is what cultivated people are like. In order to educate yourself and not be below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read Pickwick Papers and memorized a monologue from Faust. It is not enough to come to Yakimanka, only to leave a week later.

What is needed is continuous work, day and night, constant reading, study, will-power… Every hour counts.

Trips to Yakimanka and back will not help. You must make a clean break. Come to us; smash the vodka bottle; lie down and read—Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read. Give up your conceit, you are not a child. You will soon be thirty. It is time!

I am waiting… We are all waiting.

Yours,

A. Chekhov

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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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