Checking up on Chekhov, Part II: Other People’s Suffering (Plus free books to cheer you up afterwards!)

Happy December! Yes, it’s the last month of 2018 already! How did that even happen?

Somehow it seems like this has been such a long year…and at the same time, such a short one. Have I really accomplished anything in the past year? Have any of us? What are we doing with our lives?!?!! (howl of existential angst).

Well, for myself I can say that as usual I have accomplished much less than I would have liked or that I planned–but I still can take some small comfort in the fact that the first two books in the Dreaming Land trilogy are out, and Part III is now live on Amazon and will have its “official” launch (meaning free giveaway!!!) in just a couple of weeks.

TDLIII Front Cover ebook small

Meanwhile, a huge thank you to all reviewers past and future! Your reviews are much appreciated.

Finishing up this series has been an intensely meaningful experience for me for multiple reasons. It’s also been interesting to reread it a couple of years after the initial composition, and see what I was thinking then, and how my thoughts have changed since then. I wrote the TDL book-that-morphed-into-a-trilogy when I first became seriously ill, as opposed to (I now see) just a little bit ill, which is a state I’d already been in for the previous 20 years.

During that scary time in 2014-2015 when my health took a sudden nosedive I *thought* I was sick (hahahah!), but I also thought that this was just a short-term aberration (wild cackles of hollow laughter). So the book deals with themes of suffering and healing, but on a rather superficial level. The heroine is more a healer than a healee, and while she experiences many of the same physical symptoms that I did at the time, they are transient and secondary to the main story.

Nonetheless, it was a good opportunity to meditate on suffering, something I have had plenty of opportunities to meditate on further since then. And not just suffering, but the indifference of others towards our suffering.

Like a lot of people with Lyme disease and other similar conditions, I had many doctors tell me I wasn’t really ill, or there was no objective proof that there was anything physically wrong with me. Meanwhile, those around me like to tell me that I’ll get better soon–while averting their faces in horror as I walk by.

Suffering, and the indifference of others to it, as I mentioned in my last post, is one of Chekhov’s themes, and one that I am now truly beginning to appreciate. Chekhov was the master of the sad story, something that giddy undergrads such as I once was have trouble appreciating, but that prove their worth once you, too, begin to have real problems. So I consciously worked lots of Chekhov allusions into my own stories.

Perhaps one of the saddest of Chekhov’s many sad stories–other than “Kashtanka,” of course, in which a dog runs joyously back to her abusive master–is “Gooseberries,” in which a man achieves his dream of owning his own estate and eating his own gooseberries. His happiness is shown as a foolish illusion, achieved at the expense of other people’s happiness and even lives, but he fails to see that. After watching his brother greedily gobble down sour, underripe gooseberries, bought with the money of the wife he had starved to death, the narrator observes:

“I saw a happy man whose cherished dream was so obviously fulfilled, who had attained his object in life, who had gained what he wanted, who was satisfied with his fate and himself. There is always, for some reason, an element of sadness mingled with my thoughts of human happiness, and, on this occasion, at the sight of a happy man I was overcome by an oppressive feeling that was close upon despair. It was particularly oppressive at night. A bed was made up for me in the room next to my brother’s bedroom, and I could hear that he was awake, and that he kept getting up and going to the plate of gooseberries and taking one. I reflected how many satisfied, happy people there really are! ‘What a suffocating force it is! You look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, incredible poverty all about us, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying. . . . Yet all is calm and stillness in the houses and in the streets; of the fifty thousand living in a town, there is not one who would cry out, who would give vent to his indignation aloud. We see the people going to market for provisions, eating by day, sleeping by night, talking their silly nonsense, getting married, growing old, serenely escorting their dead to the cemetery; but we do not see and we do not hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. . . . Everything is quiet and peaceful, and nothing protests but mute statistics: so many people gone out of their minds, so many gallons of vodka drunk, so many children dead from malnutrition. . . . And this order of things is evidently necessary; evidently the happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It’s a case of general hypnotism. There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him — disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree — and all goes well. 

Chekhov never did hesitate to spell out a harsh reality when the spirit moved him. I was struck by this passage when I first read it, and even more struck by it now that I find myself in the position of being the person with the hammer, reminding everyone that yes, you might, say, develop a debilitating illness while technically in the prime of your life. People literally turn their faces away in horror as I shuffle past, all the while assuring me that I don’t “look sick.” And I can’t say I would act so differently if I encountered someone like me. Our first instinct when we come face-to-face with mortality is to turn and run the other way, even if standing our ground might be the better response.

This unwillingness to grapple with the bad things in life, even to make them better, is something that Valya in The Dreaming Land faces again and again, both in others and in herself. She often finds herself the person who has to carry out unpleasant tasks, the kinds of tasks that other people consider distasteful or beneath them. This gives her a special insight into her own society, one that is much more critical than that of many of her sister princesses, and leads her to question the economic foundations of her world. This conversation she has in The Dreaming Land II: The Journey

TDLII Front Image with Text

Shameless self-promotion: just a reminder that TDLII is free to read on Kindle Unlimited!

with Valentina Viktoriyevna, a steppe sorceress who wants to train Valya in her magic, about the nature of freedom, bondage, and social responsibility, deliberately alludes to the above-quoted passage from “Gooseberries,” as well as this famous quote about squeezing slave’s blood out of one’s veins:

“No doubt you’re right. I’m not asking you to solve it. I’m just asking you…what advice do you have for me? What can you tell me, what do you think about the nature of freedom and bondage?”

“In that case, Valeriya Dariyevna, I would tell you…I would tell you that no one is free, not truly. Even if we were run away from all the ties that bind us, we are still bound by our bodies and by the inevitable slow rush of time. The question you must ask yourself is not ‘How can we give everyone freedom?’ but ‘How can we make their bondage something they would choose over all other forms of non-freedom?’”

“I…” I said. “I…” I looked down at Zlata’s neck, feeling my thoughts coming together, feeling some kind of salvation waiting for me and those who depended on me, if I could just get out the words… “If she were free, if she were living in the wild, she would still be part of her herd, she would still have to go where the herd went, live as the herd lived, bear her foals for the herd, just as she would for me. But she would be…the chance of her being cold, or hungry, or attacked by predators—that would be much greater. So she wouldn’t be free from that. By giving up her freedom to live in the wild, she has gained freedom from the likelihood of starving to death, or being eaten. It is a trade she seems content to make.”

“And so?”

“And so,” I said, “I would formulate my rule thusly: do not take from others more than what they would give up by choice, and make sure that you give them something they consider to be of equal value in return. It is true for horses, and it is true for all others too.”

“A good start. Now you—all of you—will have to turn it into something more than just a start.”

“How?”

“You—all of you—will have to squeeze the blood of the slave trader, of the peddler of flesh, from your veins, drop by drop, until your hearts and minds and bodies are purified of it, but especially your hearts. That will be the last thing. It is easy to cleanse your body or your mind, but much more difficult to cleanse your heart, especially from the desire to harm others. That is the wisdom of sorceresses, you know: that you must purify your heart. Nothing of worth can be accomplished until you do that, and if you do not, you will do much harm, even if you do not think you intend it. You must let it all go. Free yourself of that.”

“That seems like a tall task.”

“Oh, it is, Valeriya Dariyevna, it is. One too tall even for you to accomplish in one lifetime, or even many lifetimes. But you must make a start on it.”

“How?”

“You must go knocking on people’s hearts, and on their minds too, so that they cannot close their eyes to what takes place all around them every day, what they themselves, often as not, are doing. You must keep knocking, so that they cannot turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to it. Only not too loud, or else they will become blind and deaf to it.”

Earlier I wrote about how Valya is a reworking of Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings, and how Eowyn’s story brings the nature of freedom and responsibility into question. Is our very concept of freedom a zero-sum game, and one that is inherently masculine in nature? For the first both Valya and I would say “yes,” and for the second, “maybe.”

At the same time, we also think of nature as a zero-sum, killing-in-order-to-live game. And we’re fine with that until it’s our turn to be the victim. Then it doesn’t seem so right and fun.

Are there solutions to the problem of suffering? Probably not completely, but there may be cause for hope. After all, in the very, very long run, the natural tendency is towards symbiosis. This is something I’m currently working over in my own mind in preparation for, I hope, writing about it in my next series.

Magical Book of Wands

More shameless self-promotion: you can get a preview of the new, dragon-vampire inspired, series here. Free for just a few more weeks on Kindle Unlimited!

So, while there is an unimaginable–because we refuse to imagine it–amount of suffering in the world, there is also cause for optimism: maybe, if we turn and face it, we can do something about it.

Plus, there’s always literature! For example, you can snap up dozens of free historical fantasy/fiction books in the Historical Fantasy and Fiction Giveaway, running all of December. Maybe–who knows?–the next Chekhov is lurking somewhere in it, just waiting to be discovered? You’ll never know unless you check it out!

Links:

The Dreaming Land I: The Challenge

The Dreaming Land II: The Journey

The Dreaming Land III: The Sacrifice

The Magical Book of Wands

Historical Fantasy and Fiction Giveaway

 

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