Chekhov: death and dying

There are quite a number of Chekhov’s short stories that deal in the business of dying and death:‘ The Bishop’, ‘Typhus’, and ‘A Tragic Actor’ are examples. However, my favourite is ‘A Dreary Story From the Notebook of an Old Man’. I suppose I am drawn to the story because our protagonist is an aging professor of anatomy, who is reviewing his contribution to science, to medicine and his relationships. He is in his early 60s and knows that he is dying but the cause is never made explicit. There are hints here of Chekhov himself, who was first diagnosed with TB whilst in his final year of medical school and we know from his letters to his sister and brother that he acted as if he was not aware of his diagnosis and avoided medical treatment as far as possible whilst at the same time self medicating. In addition to the connection to Chekhov himself, I alm also in my 60s, and an academic doctorof sorts, starting to think of retirement and even though I am not dying from any specific disease, it is true that we are all dying in any case- so, the story has this personal aspect to it too.
The protagonist says
You see, my name is closely associated with the conception of a highly distinguished man of great gifts and unquestionable usefulness. I have the industry and power of endurance of a camel, and that is important, and I have talent, which is even more important. Moreover, while I am on this subject, I am a well-educated, modest, and honest fellow. I have never poked my nose into literature or politics; I have never sought popularity in polemics with the ignorant; I have never made speeches either at public dinners or at the funerals of my friends…. In fact, there is no slur on my learned name, and there is no complaint one can make against it. It is fortunate.
There is this preoccupation with “name” which the Yoruba too have, a token of social reputation and standing. Our protagonist Professor Nikolay Stepanovitch, is a name to be conjured with.
He says
The bearer of that name, that is I, see myself as a man of sixty-two, with a bald head, with false teeth, and with an incurable tic douloureux. I am myself as dingy and unsightly as my name is brilliant and splendid. My head and my hands tremble with weakness; my neck, as Turgenev says of one of his heroines, is like the handle of a double bass; my chest is hollow; my shoulders narrow; when I talk or lecture, my mouth turns down at one corner; when I smile, my whole face is covered with aged-looking, deathly wrinkles. There is nothing impressive about my pitiful figure; only, perhaps, when I have an attack of tic douloureux my face wears a peculiar expression, the sight of which must have roused in every one the grim and impressive thought, “Evidently that man will soon die.”
How different the splendour of a name can be in contrast to the physical body. The most accomplished men and women can seem so small, so unprepossessing in comparison to the magnifence of their names. And so it is with Nikolay Stepanovitch. But, it is the decline in his mental powers, the source of his previous intellectual prowess that has started to dry up even if not yet arid and infertile that is of concern to him. He said
Often I write what I do not mean; I have forgotten the beginning when I am writing the end. Often I forget ordinary words, and I always have to waste a great deal of energy in avoiding superfluous phrases and unnecessary parentheses in my letters, both unmistakable proofs of a decline in mental activity. And it is noteworthy that the simpler the letter the more painful the effort to write it. At a scientific article I feel far more intelligent and at ease than at a letter of congratulation or a minute of proceedings. Another point: I find it easier to write German or English than to write Russian.
Here we have an exquisite description of impaired working memory, also of nominal aphasia. What is automatic, writing a scientific paper retains its fluency but letters and novel constructions become effortful. But, in my case it is the resurgence of Yoruba as the foundational language of intellectual work, of the words that are anchored to visceral responses, language and images of anguish and disgust, the rhapsody of love and lust. Nikolay Stepanovitch though finds that it is Russian his primary language that is gradually loosening its hold on his imagination.
It is the estrangement, the increasing detachment and indifference to the world itself, the revelatory ennui that makes the familiar suddenly unfamiliar. I suppose that’s what depersonalisation and derealisation are. He said
I gaze at my wife and wonder like a child. I ask myself in perplexity, is it possible that this old, very stout, ungainly woman, with her dull expression of petty anxiety and alarm about daily bread, with eyes dimmed by continual brooding over debts and money difficulties, who can talk of nothing but expenses and who smiles at nothing but things getting cheaper–is it possible that this woman is no other than the slender Varya whom I fell in love with so passionately for her fine, clear intelligence, for her pure soul, her beauty, and, as Othello his Desdemona, for her “sympathy” for my studies? Could that woman be no other than the Varya who had once borne me a son?
This revision, or should I say the alteration in his vision of his wife, is a symptom really of the pessimism, his disillusionment with himself, his relationships and his professional life. Some would say that this is indeed evidence not merely of a life review but of melancholy, perhaps even of morbid, malignant sadness, to use Lewis Wolpert’s term.
Nikolay Stepanovitch said
On a boy coming fresh from the provinces and imagining that the temple of science must really be a temple, such gates cannot make a healthy impression. Altogether the dilapidated condition of the University buildings, the gloominess of the corridors, the griminess of the walls, the lack of light, the dejected aspect of the steps, the hat-stands and the benches, take a prominent position among predisposing causes in the history of Russian pessimism…. Here is our garden… I fancy it has grown neither better nor worse since I was a student. I don’t like it. It would be far more sensible if there were tall pines and fine oaks growing here instead of sickly-looking lime-trees, yellow acacias, and skimpy pollard lilacs. The student whose state of mind is in the majority of cases created by his surroundings, ought in the place where he is studying to see facing him at every turn nothing but what is lofty, strong and elegant…. God preserve him from gaunt trees, broken windows, grey walls, and doors covered with torn American leather!
How reminiscent of my time too at university. The physical environment did not mimick the loftiness that we aimed for. The imagination had to make up for what was lacking, the spirit or soul, at least, in my case soared above the earthly impediments that the physical environment created. Irregular electricity, unreliable water supply, facilities that were inadequate to the services intended. But, now the physical environment has deteriorated further such that Nikolay Stepanovitch’s Moscow University in the late 1800s is more like the Ibadan University of today. Decrepit is the word.
This is Nikolay Stepanovitch at the height of his powers:
I know what I am going to lecture about, but I don’t know how I am going to lecture, where I am going to begin or with what I am going to end. I haven’t a single sentence ready in my head. But I have only to look round the lecture-hall (it is built in the form of an amphitheatre) and utter the stereotyped phrase, “Last lecture we stopped at…” when sentences spring up from my soul in a long string, and I am carried away by my own eloquence. I speak with irresistible rapidity and passion, and it seems as though there were no force which could check the flow of my words. To lecture well–that is, with profit to the listeners and without boring them–one must have, besides talent, experience and a special knack; one must possess a clear conception of one’s own powers, of the audience to which one is lecturing, and of the subject of one’s lecture. Moreover, one must be a man who knows what he is doing; one must keep a sharp lookout, and not for one second lose sight of what lies before one.
And then he compares himself to an orchestra conductor
A good conductor, interpreting the thought of the composer, does twenty things at once: reads the score, waves his baton, watches the singer, makes a motion sideways, first to the drum then to the wind-instruments, and so on. I do just the same when I lecture. Before me a hundred and fifty faces, all unlike one another; three hundred eyes all looking straight into my face. My object is to dominate this many-headed monster. If every moment as I lecture I have a clear vision of the degree of its attention and its power of comprehension, it is in my power. The other foe I have to overcome is in myself. It is the infinite variety of forms, phenomena, laws, and the multitude of ideas of my own and other people’s conditioned by them. Every moment I must have the skill to snatch out of that vast mass of material what is most important and necessary, and, as rapidly as my words flow, clothe my thought in a form in which it can be grasped by the monster’s intelligence, and may arouse its attention, and at the same time one must keep a sharp lookout that one’s thoughts are conveyed, not just as they come, but in a certain order, essential for the correct composition of the picture I wish to sketch. Further, I endeavour to make my diction literary, my definitions brief and precise, my wording, as far as possible, simple and eloquent. Every minute I have to pull myself up and remember that I have only an hour and forty minutes at my disposal. In short, one has one’s work cut out. At one and the same minute one has to play the part of savant and teacher and orator, and it’s a bad thing if the orator gets the upper hand of the savant or of the teacher in one, or _vice versa_.
So we have Nikolay Stepanovitch, the superlative teacher, a maestro of words and knowledge, performing to the delight of his students. Femi Williams, now deceased, but in his youth a Professor of Morbid Anatomy, elegantly attired in a well pressed  navy blue pair of trousers, a short sleeved white shirt,  finely polished black shoes and a bow tie, all five foot six or seven of him, standing and delivering the most complicated lecture on the architectural disarray of hepatic cells in cirrhosis was the Nikolay Stepanovitch of my day. And he was extraordinary and gloriously exceptional.
But these powers do not last forever and they did not in Nikolay Stepanovitch’s case. In his own words
That was in old times. Now at lectures I feel nothing but torture. Before half an hour is over I am conscious of an overwhelming weakness in my legs and my shoulders. I sit down in my chair, but I am not accustomed to lecture sitting down; a minute later I get up and go on standing, then sit down again. There is a dryness in my mouth, my voice grows husky, my head begins to go round…. To conceal my condition from my audience I continually drink water, cough, often blow my nose as though I were hindered by a cold, make puns inappropriately, and in the end break off earlier than I ought to. But above all I am ashamed.
And, it is this shame I am most fearful of. How long to carry on for, how to know what is obvious to everyone else, that the power to mesmerise is over and done with and the sun is not setting but has set, Nikolay Stepanovitch put it this way
My conscience and my intelligence tell me that the very best thing I could do now would be to deliver a farewell lecture to the boys, to say my last word to them, to bless them, and give up my post to a man younger and stronger than me. But, God, be my judge, I have not manly courage enough to act according to my conscience.
I started writing about Nikolay Stepanovitch because of his illness and his gradual physical decline but I find that I have spent much of my time describing his mental decline. To my surprise, it is his emotional and cognitive disturbance that have attracted much of my attention. Stepanovitch himself says of his mood
As a rule it is after dinner, at the approach of evening, that my nervous excitement reaches its highest pitch. For no reason I begin crying and burying my head in the pillow. At such times I am afraid that some one may come in; I am afraid of suddenly dying; I am ashamed of my tears, and altogether there is something insufferable in my soul. I feel that I can no longer bear the sight of my lamp, of my books, of the shadows on the floor. I cannot bear the sound of the voices coming from the drawing-room. Some force unseen, uncomprehended, is roughly thrusting me out of my flat. I leap up hurriedly, dress, and cautiously, that my family may not notice, slip out into the street. Where am I to go?
What is now clear to me is that whatever the dying process is about, even if physical pain is an accompaniment, it is mental life, the spirit and soul, weariness and fear, the terror and foreboding that determine how life will be lived, how dying will be experienced. In this story Chekhov is examining his own life and works, his relationships and contributions but his reckoning is full of sadness and subjective isolation. He is describing the ultimate loneliness of all life and this account is full of dissatisfaction, of unfinished business and of intense and indescribable sorrow.
Photos by Jan Oyebode

2 thoughts on “Chekhov: death and dying

  1. Hello Femi:
    I do look forward to your musings. The current one definitely has my rapt attention as I grapple with my obviously diminishing aptitude for stringing words together and sustained concept development. Thanks for providing a context for my dread!

    1. Lolu
      Always good to hear from you. Yes, this story is wonderful at the appropriate age as it looks but backwards and forwards but to a foreshortened future. For once Chekhov’s melanchol(ia)y comes through.

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