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In this book, Annie Anargyros, who is a member of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society (SPP) and already the author of a study on Leo Tolstoy (Anargyros, 1999) which has attracted attention, offers us a psychoanalytic reading of the plays and short stories of Anton Chekhov. She uses a psychoanalytic method whose secret she has gleaned from Proust: the true work of art always gives its reader or its spectator the means to read in himself’. If the reader is an analyst, the work of art allows him or her to pursue their own self-analysis. They can then share with the public the best understanding they have obtained from the work. Annie Anargyros' thinking proceeds associatively from a biographical fact to a play, from a play to a short story, from a tale to an aspect of pre-revolutionary Russian society, from Chekhov to Tolstoy, and then to Kafka, thereby offering a fresh perspective on the oeuvre.

We more readily associate Chekhov with nostalgia than with that murderous depression that psychiatrists call melancholia, but Annie Anargyros reveals the violence pervading his work. It may escape the reader and spectator but Chekhov himself was well aware of it: “I make all the action go peacefully and quietly, but at the end I give the spectator a slap in the face“ (cf. Chekhov, 1966, Letter to his brother Alexander, between 10–12 October 1887). The charm of Chekhov's plays is such that one easily forgets that they almost all end in suicide. The Cherry Orchard (1904) ends only with the confinement of Firs, the old manservant who is forgotten and left behind in the abandoned country house, but the trauma of the drowned child haunts all the characters of the drama.

Chekhov's biographers have clearly described what today we would call the mistreatment Chekhov suffered during his childhood at the hands of his father. Annie Anargyros puts this back into its context, that is to say, the recent abolition of serfdom. In 19th century Russia, as in the rest of Europe, it was normal to beat children. But serfs were beaten too. Chekhov internalized this violence and transformed it. He did not allow himself any manifestations of external violence and so became, on the contrary, an adult who was particularly “tolerant and respectful of others“. But part of this aggressiveness was turned back against himself, which explains the frequent bouts of depression from which he suffered.

These never lasted very long for early on he discovered a very effective remedy for them in the form of creation. Like many artists, he was driven by a genuine compulsion to write, to the point that he found the injunction he imposed on himself to do so constantly quite absurd. The close relationship between creation and humour in Chekhov's work leads us into the depths of his creative process. It is surprising to learn that Chekhov considered The Cherry Orchard as a farce, just as Kafka would sometimes laugh hilariously while reading The Castle to his friends. Freud (1927), in his text Humour, shows that the humorist's superego looks down scornfully on the ego and its misfortunes, which appear tiny and trivial. Likewise, the child adopts a similar position of superiority when, with two paper clips and a piece of string, he invents a little theatrical scene in which he makes kings and queens live out dramas based on those experienced by his parents in real life. The creative adult has not lost the child's capacity to transform the disasters of existence into interesting stories.

Chekhov transformed his depression into laughter, and in doing so was able to reverse the humiliating situation of submission in which his father had kept him during his entire childhood. While pursuing his studies in medicine, he was constantly engaged in writing short humoristic sketches or stories which very quickly found a publisher. This enabled him to get his family out of the misery into which they had been plunged by his father's improvidence. In the 1887 short story, The Father, a son gives money to his prodigal father just as Chekhov had provided for his family's needs in his father's stead. This reversal was preceded by a phase of unconscious homosexuality. Traces of this can be found in the long-term relationship Chekhov maintained with his protector, Alexei Suvorin. This homosexual fantasy was coupled with unconscious masochism sublimated in extraordinary loyalty and devotion. Chekhov spared no efforts in coming to the assistance of his family and friends. He created several schools at his own expense for the mujiks [Russian peasants] and played an active part on the ground in the struggle against famine and cholera. Although his tuberculosis was already well advanced, he undertook an arduous journey across Siberia, at the risk of his life, to conduct a survey into the conditions of detention of the convicts of Sakhalin, with a view to obtaining a reform of the Russian penal system. In Ward 6 (1892), the masochism of the hero, the psychiatrist Dr Ragin, drives the latter to take the place of his patients, and he only feels happy when he is himself subjected to the bad treatment of the sadistic ‘carers’.

This masochistic tendency involved an unconscious identification on Chekhov's part with his mother's masochism. Just as he identified with his violent father by taking the opposite course and becoming generous, respectful of others, and capable of showing everyone the difference between good and evil, so too he identified with his exhausted mother by becoming, on the contrary, an inexhaustible, overabundant mother, capable of constantly creating new characters. In his masochistic triumph, Chekhov worked himself to death, but owned the house with its contents, the guests, his brothers and, above all, his sister who was condemned to celibacy in order to devote herself to him. They were all reduced to total dependence on him, including his father who had once been so formidable. In reading Annie Anargyros' book, we can appreciate the extremely poignant impression produced by the last scene of The Cherry Orchard, that is, the confinement of Firs, forgotten in the auctioned house: Firs is the image of the father confined at home, reduced to the shadow of himself.

This rather peculiar resolution of his oedipal conflict nonetheless led Chekhov to an impasse in his personal life. Many characters in his work met with the same fate: it was impossible for him to live with a woman and to have children with her. He felt family life to be a deadly menace for his creativity. It was as if having children with a woman could undermine his capacity to create a multitude of imaginary figures. Chekhov identified himself ‘in opposition’, as it were, to both his parents, but not with each of them as a partner of a sexual couple. This is why Annie Anargyros says that he did not come to terms with his parental objects: he lost and incorporated them separately, but not as a sexual couple. It was only when he was nearing death that he accepted to be married, and even then, only on the condition of changing nothing in his solitary mode of life.

The sumptuous country houses which he bought and converted with care so as to be able to receive relatives and friends, and which are represented in most of his plays, were transformed in his fantasy into prisons full of parasites, from which he felt he had to escape urgently by going off on long travels, in spite of his deplorable state of health. Obtaining the desired object transforms it into a trap (“I'm one crayfish amongst other crayfish Boris Souvarine (1892“ he says, in a letter to Boris Souvarine from 1892 (Chekhov (1966)), describing his country house which had become uninhabitable).

Comparisons between Tolstoy and Chekhov (between The Death of Ivan Ilych and A Dreary Story), then between Kafka and Chekhov (The Verdict and The Judgment) highlight the specific genius of the latter. Chekhov's last Witz [joke] as he was dying (“You don't put ice on an empty heart“) is as good as Kafka's to his doctor (“If you don't kill me, you are a murderer“). Chekhov's ‘cold heart’ could be seen as a precursor of absurd theatre. And yet Chekhov's message is not that life is senseless, but much more that ‘our sufferings are only the effects of our own weaknesses'; and, above all, that, however boring and depressing it may seem, life can always be interesting until the end. The Steppe succeeds in fascinating the reader in the hero's long journey through a monotone landscape.

Annie Anargyros' book is an important contribution to the psychoanalytic theory of literary creation, by virtue of its links with depression, violence and humour.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. References
  • Anargyros A (1999). Tolstoï: La déchirure [Tolstoy: The tear]. Lausanne, Paris: Delachaux & Niestlé.
  • Chekhov A (1966). Tchekhov correspondance, 1887–1904. Paris: Français Réunis.
  • Freud S (1927). Humour. SE 21, 1616.