The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1917)
SOURCE: "A Sceptic with a Purpose," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 784, January 25, 1917, p. 40.
[Below, The Times Literary Supplement offers a thematic analysis of the critical essays collected in Anton Tchekov and Other Essays.]
Mr. Shestov is evidently a remarkable critic, and these essays of his were well worth translating. He is, Mr. Murry tells us in his introduction, fifty years old and has written little. Criticism with him is not a hand-to-mouth business. He does not choose a subject and then to begin to wonder what he can find to say about it. His criticism is philosophy expounded by means of a particular example, and rather hinted at than expounded. One feels that he has strong convictions but is shy of proclaiming them. Mr. Murry says that he is afraid of being dogmatic. If so it is not a cowardly fear, but a desire to leave the reader to draw his own conclusions. He will lead him to the water and trust in his thirst. Mr. Murry tells us also that, when Shestov began to write nearly twenty years ago, "Karl Marx was enthroned and infallible" in Russia, and that he has always been in reaction against dogmatic materialism. His business is to hint a doubt and hesitate dislike of it. Perhaps he hints and hesitates too much; but he seems to us to make his points clearly enough, just because he leaves them to make themselves.
The first essay on Tchekov may reassure those who wonder whether all Russians are like the people in Tchekov. He was, Mr. Shestov says, a specialist in hopelessness. Something must have happened to him which killed hope in him; and after it he wrote about a world from which hope had been removed. "He refused in advance every possible consolation, material or metaphysical. Not even in Tolstoi, who set no great store by philosophical systems, will you find such keenly expressed disgust for every kind of conceptions and ideas as in Tchekov.… Finally, he frees himself from ideas of every kind, and loses even the notion of connexion between the happenings of life." One can see that Mr. Shestov has a sympathy for this utterly destructive criticism, which is hardly criticism but rather a mode of experience. It was something that happened to Tchekov, not a pose that he assumed for artistic purposes; and therefore the fact that he was able to make real works of art out of this mode of experience is itself valuable. He did, in his negative way, prove something—namely, the supremacy of the spirit of man over its own hopelessness. And he proved it all the more surely because he was not trying to do so. He really was hopeless, and wished that he wasn't. There is no luxury of woe in him. He doesn't want to rub the gilt off the gingerbread, but for him there is no gilt on the gingerbread to begin with. And yet he is interesting and must have interested himself, or he would not have continued to write. He had, by no effort of thought, but by mere calamity, attained to the last scepticism, the disbelief in, and, more, the lack of any sense of,...
(The entire section is 1246 words.)