Chekhov’s An Artist’s Story: a critique of charitable work

(Anton Chekhov, Wikipedia)

Not long ago I saw a pretty horrible theater production of Anton Chekhov’s An Artist’s Story, also known as The House with the Mezzanine. Despite the bad acting and subpar script adaptation, the central dialogue between the artist in question, N., and a young woman named Lidia Voltchaninov, was fascinating. So I went back and read the original. The exchange between the two protagonists made me think long and hard about the very concept of charitable work.

Lidia is a member of the Relief Committee in the local village, Siyanovo. She is an extremely serious young woman, who doesn’t hide her disdain for N., whom she sees as wasting time painting landscapes instead of doing something socially useful, like art depicting the plight of the peasants. At some point early on in the story N. thinks to himself: “I felt irritated, and said that doctoring peasants when one was not a doctor was deceiving them, and that it was easy to be benevolent when one had six thousand acres.”

The crucial part of the confrontation between N. And Lidia comes a few pages later (section III of the story), when N. says: “To my mind, all these schools, dispensaries, libraries, medical relief centers, under present conditions, only serve to aggravate the bondage of the people. The peasants are fettered by a great chain, and you do not break the chain, but only add fresh links to it. What matters is not that Anna [a local villager] died in childbirth, but that all these Annas, Mavras, Pelageas, toil from early morning till dark, fall ill from working beyond their strength, all their lives tremble for their sick and hungry children, all their lives are being doctored, and in dread of death and disease, fade and grow old early, and die in filth and stench. Their children begin the same story over again as soon as they grow up, and so it goes on for hundreds of years and milliards of men live worse than beasts — in continual terror, for a mere crust of bread.”

Lidia, of course, will have none of it. She replies: “It’s true that we are not saving humanity, and perhaps we make a great many mistakes; but we do what we can, and we are right. The highest and holiest task for a civilized being is to serve his neighbors, and we try to serve them as best as we can.”

N. tells Lidia that she is only creating more wants in the peasants, as well as new demands on their labour, since they have to pay for the medicines they take. He then challenges her conception of the highest task of a civilized being: “The people must be freed from hard physical labor. … The highest vocation of man is spirituality — the perpetual search for truth and the meaning of life. … Once a man recognizes his true vocation, he can only be satisfied by religion, science, and art, and not by these trifles.”

Lidia objects that it simply isn’t possible to free the peasants from physical labor. To which N. retorts: “Yes [it is possible.] Take upon yourself a share of their labour. If all of us, townspeople and country people, all without exception, would agree to divide between us the labour which mankind spends on the satisfaction of their physical needs, each of us would perhaps need to work only for two or three hours a day. … Imagine further that in order to depend even less upon our bodies and to labour less, we invent machines to replace our work, we try to cut down our needs to the minimum.”

Again, Lidia isn’t buying it: “These are the charming things people say when they want to justify their indifference.”

I must confess that I found the whole dialogue deeply unsettling, in part because it reflects my own misgivings about charity. As many Americans, I donate every year to organizations and causes in which I believe. This year, specifically, it’s the American Civil Liberties Union, the International Rescue Committee, and ProPublica. They reflect, respectively, the importance I give to the legal defense of civil rights, to help for refugees across the world, and to investigative journalism as a guardian of democracy.

But, as N. says, sometimes I do wonder what I’m doing here. Are my donations simply a relatively easy way to acquiesce my conscience and to boost my self-image as a relatively good person? I sure hope not, but it is undeniable that I could do more. And I don’t mean just donate more money, or to more organizations. I could, for instance, directly volunteer my time to work with the ACLU, the IRC, or PP. Then again, would that be time well spent in comparison to other activities I could engage in? And would it really make the kind of difference N. is talking about?

I wouldn’t be off the hook, according to N., because I’m not really undermining the basic framework — aggressive capitalism and the corrupt political system it engenders — on which the whole thing is predicated. Sure, I write about it, and I vote accordingly. But am I also not complicit in that very system, from which I derive a number of practical advantages (what these days is referred to as “privilege”)? Unlike Lidia, I don’t own thousands of acres of land, but I am certainly far better off than the people I’m trying to help with my donations (especially those directed at the IRC).

Then again, Lidia has a point when she says that N.’s talk is the sort of thing you expect from people who wish to criticize others for what they do, without doing much of anything themselves. And besides, as my Stoic practice reminds me every day, much of what happens in the world is outside of my control, and it is futile — or even self-damaging — to dwell on it.

Ultimately, N. makes a very good, and uncomfortable, point. But he does not provide an answer. Or at least, not an actionable one. Would the world be better off if everyone had to work less and could devote themselves to the pursuit of science, art, and philosophy (I’m not that big on religion)? Unquestionably. But how do we get there from where we are? And what should our individual contributions to that path be? I’m open to suggestions.

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