Raison d’être (Or, The Ramblings of an Unsound Mind)

The following letters are to be sent in the unlikely event of my passing before the person to whom they are addressed.

They are to be sent as they are, and under no circumstances are they do be redacted, abridged or amended.

I would also like the following declaration, as well as my previous directions, to be affixed to the aforementioned letters:

I am of sound body and mind. I am of sound judgement. I am the ruler of no one but myself.

I am Alexander Klein.

I am sane.

May 9

On this day twenty-nine years ago we met for the first time. That’s all I have been thinking about. They said, after I had told them of my intention to write you, that there was a strong possibility my efforts would prove fruitless, that my wishes would likely be dismissed, but I write nonetheless. They stated that our “altercation” meant that I would be forbidden from having any contact with you, yet I will write.

   You probably remember our first encounter better than I ever possibly could, given the circumstances surrounding it. I’m sure you were filled with joy just as I am as I write, thinking about how it was. I’ve discussed with them how my mind becomes distorted,; memories can become quite vague. But those which consist of us remain vivid. Most of them.

   Do you remember the house in which we stayed all those years ago? I recall how I would sit in the kitchen some nights, nights when you would be reading, and I would think about you. I would play out scenarios in my mind in which I would enter the room and take your book. I would take your hands and sit next to you. But that was your time, you would say, to spend alone; the only time you ever had to yourself. You deserved it and I would not disturb it. In the house itself (in fact I’m not sure if you were ever aware of this) there was a copper box filled with old coins. I had found it in the cupboard to the left of the kitchen sink. Some of the coins dated back as far as the war I had read about at school and watched documentaries about on the television. I thought, for some reason, that they would be worth a vast sum of money. I kept them to myself in the case that they were valuable and that I could become quite wealthy. I don’t know why I never told you because I could never leave you. If it had turned out that they were worth something substantial I simply would have spent the money on the two of us, showering you with gifts of course. But they weren’t. I’m telling you this because I always felt terribly guilty at not having shared this information with you. Maybe you had known that they were there, but I still should have said something. For that I apologise.

   When I think about our time in that house I remember you as an effervescent soul. After the hardships you had overcome, one could accept if you were skeptical of the world and those who inhabited it, but you were quite the opposite. You were always quick with a smile, even to strangers, something that, in my opinion, people take for granted. That made me proud. When we would walk hand-in-hand and pass people by, I would watch you smile at them, and I would watch their reactions. I wasn’t being rude myself; I had an indelible smile fixed on my face as a result of merely looking at you.

   They were mostly happy times until Albert returned to live with us. If there is one thing which I am wholly against, something which irks me far greater than any prison cell ever could, it is a person who doesn’t value the gifts offered with life; the gift of independence and responsibility for oneself; the gift of the freedom to pursue greatness. Every individual is born with the freedom to pursue brilliance, regardless of the circumstances into which they are born. Everyone is born with an inherent greatness waiting to be unleashed, to be embraced. Those who choose to ignore it are the burden of mankind. Alas, my brother Albert was one of those who simply couldn’t see past his nose which sniffed only for quick fixes and terminable conveniences.

I believe it was April of that year when he returned 
having spent months living as a vagrant. He carried with him an odour; a stench of parasitic dependency. I always knew he would arrive on our doorstep with outstretched hands — I just didn’t think it would be so soon. The shift in the atmosphere was almost instantaneous. I knew you were always going to be ingratiating towards him. It was in your nature — it is your essence. Although I could never accept it. Nor could I accept him. I wasn’t happy until he left again to roam another city in search of whatever could benefit him in the short term.

   The duration of his stay, short as it may have been, was — as you sure recall — tumultuous. I rarely come to exchange physical blows with people: I am a true believer in  the non-aggression principle, and in the power of words. But on Albert words were lost; in his direction they would travel, only for him to dodge or ward them off. He wasn’t interested in the reason words offered, so a physical exchange was inevitable. One instance which is firmly lodged in my mind is the time (occurring on the seventeenth day of that month, I believe) when Albert had requested money to purchase a car. It was a beat up, hideous jalopy, but he had said it would serve him well, to help him on his way, he’d said. My anger was not in his wanting to leave of course — it was the fact that he had asked you for the requisite money. When I confronted him about his leeching ways we quarrelled. Afterwards I gave him the money myself and told him to purchase the car and to leave us in peace, never to return. This, I am sure, pained you. You didn’t deserve to witness our tempestuous relationship, and for that I also apologise.

I prefer to forget Albert and the period of his lodging 
with us. Dwelling on it has no good to offer either of us. I would assume you feel the same way. Our time spent together was far too precious to place in the same memory vault as the one which stores Albert, or anything else for that matter. The vault is solely for you and I.

It pains me to write with the main purpose of 
apologising for certain things, but in cleansing myself of the guilt which accompanies those memories of you (even if Albert does feature in some), I can recall them with a greater fondness. I hope, too, that this will help you look back on them with a heightened appreciation.

It is my intention to keep my exchanges with you short, 
as I feel it would be inappropriate for me to flood you with the incessant thoughts I have on a daily basis. I have been meticulous in my deciding what to write you.

-Alexander



June 17

   Since I first wrote a letter I had intended to send to you, which they tell me is still pending approval, my thoughts have mostly been consumed by the developments which led to my current state of incarceration.

   I was, at the best of times, one who was extremely passionate in my beliefs and feelings. I can freely admit I was quite an intense person — something for which, in contrast with my previous letter of grovelling (to be critical of myself), I shall never offer apologies. One’s principles are something that can never be stolen or debased. They are mine to alter if I please — no one else has that privilege. It is clear I have never altered those principles or beliefs. In doing so I would be nothing more than a hypocrite.

   The day when our relationship reached a point from which there would be no return — our crossing of the Rubicon — fell on a Tuesday, during winter. I have trouble recalling the month, which is something that greatly irritates me. I remember the day but not the month. Strange as it is I believe my brain has chosen to forget it, in order, perhaps, to spare me the pain that that month may now bring. It is something I have not discussed with a single person. I’m sure you know. What distresses me is how it was simply a misunderstanding that got completely out of hand. I could never harbour any ill feeling toward you, but there is a hint of disappointment which I can never shake from my being. In doing what I did, I felt I was protecting you, even though you did — and always will — refuse to believe it. In my murdering him I was following the instinctive nature of the animal, which is, when one considers our ancestry, what we are essentially. Being protective is innate just like the gift of potential greatness life offers us. In my assaulting you (which I still maintain was a complete accident) I destroyed everything that was precious in my life. The crime I am interned for was hardly down to the display of the dominant male (which they will argue it is) — it is the acts I took against you. It is not the cell which punishes me, it is the knowledge that I squandered the relationship which was so very dear to me.

   I’ve also thought about the media coverage which surrounded the trial. It is without vanity and with the utmost honesty that I can say I am an attractive person, as are you, and as was he. Everyone loves an attractive victim. Don’t you think there is far more coverage from the press when a person who is murdered happens to be quite attractive? Especially when the victim is a woman. ‘So beautiful’ they say. ‘What a terrible loss’ . . . If the victim isn’t the most attractive, well, let us say the victim was horribly deformed. Do you think there would be such a public outcry of grief, as well as that from the press? I do feel, personally, that looks add more to the story. The same goes for the perpetrator; in this case me. In the past, when I have followed a murder trail, I have noticed far greater coverage when the accused is kind on the eyes. I recall an American girl who was accused of murder who practically became a celebrity. I am firmly of the belief that if she was not attractive (and she was indeed very attractive) she and the case would have garnered little attention.

   This is not important of course — merely an observation. What is important is that you know that my feelings toward you have never changed. They will never change. The disappointment may remain but it is more with those who surrounded and misguided you in the aftermath of that life-altering day. I hope — and I believe — that you still think of me and the days we spent together with nothing less than great affection.

-Alexander

 

October 22

Ma chère,

   In the past few hours I have received news that my brother, Albert, has died. Of course you know of this. I would be content if we could grieve together. Sitting alone (as I’m sure you are, too) at a time of desolation is a sentence more unbearable than the one which was handed down to me after our misunderstanding. It is common knowledge shared between the two of us that I had little time for Albert, but he was blood, and the blood of a sibling is greater than that of the blood of a sacrifice offered for the greater good. Is it the greatest paradox to abhor a sibling whom you truly love?

   I’m led to believe he was stabbed to death during an altercation at a bar near a Parisian suburb. I never imagined he would die in France. He had told me he disliked the people, so why he returned there I will never know. The catalyst for his own downfall . . . I expected nothing less.

   My previous attempts to write you were denied so I had refrained from putting ink to paper. It pained me, you see, to waste these words on nothing more than paper. I feel, though, in the event of my death, they may acquiesce and allow you to receive my letters. This would serve as my satisfying last meal. Albert’s passing has prompted me to write again, with my thoughts solely on the pain you must be experiencing at this time. Though he and I had our differences, I’m aware that you were quite fond of him. You were always blinded by your kind nature, something which you should never be ashamed of. It is what defines you.

In thinking about the suffering you may be experiencing 
I have been reminded of a time in my life which, perhaps, defined me. It was the day my father died, which we’ve discussed on numerous occasions. In thinking about my father, I am not reminded of grief, or any feelings of real anguish. These feelings never accompanied his death. We were together when he died of course, and I can still feel the grip of your hand entwined with mine at the funeral. That grip — which was as tight as you had ever held my hand — I was sure would remain the same from that day forward. In losing my father, I had gained a true companion in you. Someone who would be there for me as I would be for them. I remember how you were saddened much more than I was during the months that followed. I had assumed -—and to this day still do — that your pain was in relation to the pain you had imagined I was feeling. It never occurred to me to tell you that, far from feeling grief, I was elated at the
prospect of us being together. Thinking, with the squeeze of your hand on the day of his burial, that I truly had someone who was mine. Not someone to dominate, but to share
my life with.

   There’s a question which has resurfaced in my mind many times since I have been here: Why have our lives turned out this way? How could the predisposition to protect someone
in every way possible lead to a separation of immense tragedy? I have never been able to arrive at a fulfilling answer to the question. But I think of the greatest stories ever told, and they are all tragic. That offers a comfort which I’m sure we can both appreciate until we die.

As always, and forever — with love, mother.

-Alexander

Chekhov Letter to his Brother Nikolai

 

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s letter to his older brother Nikolai – which features his 8 Qualities of Cultured People – has done the rounds, but there’s no harm in sharing it again for any of you who may have missed it. I come back to it regularly, for it’s always an enjoyable read. It was penned in March, 1886, when Anton was 26, before he had written the first of his four major plays which would have a profound impact on the theatre not only in Russia, but around the globe.

Enjoy the words of the master dramatist and short story writer below.

 

Moscow, 1886.

My little Zabelin,

I’ve been told that you have taken offense at gibes Schechtel and I have been making. The faculty of taking offense is the property of noble souls alone, but even so, if it is all right to laugh at Ivanenko, me, Mishka and Nelly, then why is it wrong to laugh at you? It’s unfair. However, if you’re not joking and really do feel you’ve been offended, I hasten to apologize.

People only laugh at what’s funny or what they don’t understand. Take your choice.

The latter of course is more flattering, but—alas!—to me, for one, you’re no riddle. It’s not hard to understand someone with whom you’ve shared the delights of Tatar caps, Voutsina, Latin and, finally, life in Moscow. And besides, your life is psychologically so uncomplicated that even a nonseminarian could understand it. Out of respect for you let me be frank. You’re angry, offended…but it’s not because of my gibes or of that good-natured chatterbox Dolgov. The fact of the matter is that you’re a decent person and you realize that you’re living a lie. And, whenever a person feels guilty, he always looks outside himself for vindication: the drunk blames his troubles, Putyata blames the censors, the man who bolts from Yakimanka Street with lecherous intent blames the cold in the living room or gibes, and so on. If I were to abandon the family to the whims of fate, I would try to find myself an excuse in Mother’s character or my blood spitting or the like. It’s only natural and pardonable. It’s human nature, after all. And you’re quite right to feel you’re living a lie. If you didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t have called you a decent person. When decency goes, well, that’s another story. You become reconciled to the lie and stop feeling it.

You’re no riddle to me, and it is also true that you can be wildly ridiculous. You’re nothing but an ordinary mortal, and we mortals are enigmatic only when we’re stupid, and we’re ridiculous forty-eight weeks of the year. Isn’t that so?

You often complain to me that people “don’t understand” you. But even Goethe and Newton made no such complaints. Christ did, true, but he was talking about his doctrine, not his ego. People understand you all too well. If you don’t understand yourself, then it’s nobody else’s fault.

As your brother and intimate, I assure you that I understand you and sympathize with you from the bottom of my heart. I know all your good qualities like the back of my hand. I value them highly and have only the greatest respect for them. If you like, I can even prove how I understand you by enumerating them. In my opinion you are kind to the point of fault, magnanimous, unselfish, you’d share your last penny, and you’re sincere. Hate and envy are foreign to you, you are open-hearted, you are compassionate with man and beast, you are not greedy, you do not bear grudges, and you are trusting. You are gifted from above with something others lack: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of people, for there is only one artist for every two million people on earth. It places you in a very special position: you could be a toad or a tarantula and you would still be respected, because talent is its own excuse.

You have only one failing, the cause of the lie you’ve been living, your troubles, and your intestinal catarrh. It’s your extreme lack of culture. Please forgive me, but veritas magis amicitiae. The thing is, life lays down certain conditions. If you want to feel at home among intellectuals, to fit in and not find their presence burdensome, you have to have a certain amount of breeding. Your talent has brought you into their midst. You belong there, but…you seem to yearn escape and feel compelled to waver between the cultured set and your next-door neighbors. It’s the bourgeois side of you coming out, the side raised on birch thrashings beside the wine cellar and handouts, and it’s hard to overcome, terribly hard.

To my mind, civilized people ought to satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor, and when they move out, they do not say, “How can anyone live with you!” They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes.

2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats. They are hurt even by things the naked eye can’t see. If for instance, Pyotr knows that his father and mother are turning gray and losing sleep over seeing their Pyotr so rarely (and seeing him drunk when he does turn up), then he rushes home to them and sends his vodka to the devil. They do not sleep nights the better to help the Polevayevs, help pay their brothers’ tuition, and keep their mother decently dressed.

3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.

4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague. They do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar’s eyes. They don’t put on airs, they behave in the street as they do at home, and they do not try to dazzle their inferiors. They know how to keep their mouths shut and they do not force uninvited confidences on people. Out of respect for the ears of others they are more often silent than not.

5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy. They do not play on people’s heartstrings to get them to sigh and fuss over them. They do not say, “No one understands me!” or “I’ve squandered my talent on trifles!” because this smacks of a cheap effect and is vulgar, false and out-of-date.

6. They are not preoccupied with vain things. They are not taken in by such false jewels as friendships with celebrities, handshakes with drunken Plevako, ecstasy over the first person they happen to meet at the Salon de Varietes, popularity among the tavern crowd. They laugh when they hear, “I represent the press,” a phrase befitting only Rodzeviches and Levenbergs. When they have done a penny’s worth of work, they don’t try to make a hundred rubles out of it, and they don’t boast over being admitted to places closed to others. True talents always seek obscurity. They try to merge with the crowd and shun all ostentation. Krylov himself said that an empty barrel has more chance of being heard than a full one.

7. If they have talent, they respect it. They sacrifice comfort, women, wine and vanity to it. They are proud of their talent, and so they do not go out carousing with trade-school employees or Skvortsov’s guests, realizing that their calling lies in exerting an uplifting influence on them, not in living with them. What is more, they are fastidious.

8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities. They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a slit in the wall teeming with bedbugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a spittle-laden floor or eat off a kerosene stove. They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, […] not the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the ability to stage a fake pregnancy and tirelessly reel off lies. They—and especially the artists among them—require spontaneity, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother… They don’t guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not swine. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself. For they require a mens sana in corpore sano.

And so on. That’s how civilized people act. If you want to be civilized and not fall below the level of the milieu you belong to, it is not enough to read The Pickwick Papers and memorize a soliloquy from Faust. It is not enough to hail a cab and drive off to Yakimanka Street if all you’re going to do is bolt out again a week later.

You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious.

Trips back and forth to Yakimanka Street won’t help. You’ve got to drop your old way of life and make a clean break. Come home. Smash your vodka bottle, lie down on the couch and pick up a book. You might even give Turgenev a try. You’ve never read him.

You must swallow your pride. You’re no longer a child. You’ll be thirty soon. It’s high time!

I’m waiting… We’re all waiting…

Yours,
A. Chekhov

 

Source: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2013/07/every-hour-is-precious.html

For a comprehensive selection of Chekhov’s work, visit www.antonchekhov.org