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Saturday
Jun142014

The Black Monk

You may have heard of something called genius and wondered why its application has broadened in recent years. Perhaps it is because science has forged ahead into blackest night and produced theories to explain why a billion stars still do not tell us precisely how we came to be on this earth. Perhaps it is also because so many nations have obtained their long-coveted self-determination and determined that their selves are no lesser entities than the selves that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Perhaps it is likewise because we have liberated people from the staid and dour mores that claimed, with some peremptoriness, that a woman should probably not dress like a prostitute for men to respect her. These are the same mores, mind you, that say we should work hard, share the wealth, think of others, and think of leaving our world better than how we found it, instead of simply looting it for all it could be worth. If the modern day's emphasis on sexual liberation – as if being obsessed with your sexuality could be deemed in any way liberating – non-conformity, and individual expression regardless of training, skill, or inborn aptitude seems to be not only missing the point, but obliterating it, we offer a lovely alternative. So for those of us who have forsaken sleep for life, for those of us who spend countless hours emboldened by art's eternal and indestructible magnificence, for those of us who believe that this earth is a game of shadows and that reality is but a cage, gilded or otherwise, we offer this classic story

The tale's first three words spell out a hero's name, a true hero's name because he will provide our narrative's epicenter from start to finish. If the story fails, it will be because Andrei Vasil'ich Kovrin has failed; were it, however, to succeed, a dubious proposition given the direction in which events career, all glory should be accorded to the same indefatigable scholar. I give nothing away by the admission that Kovrin's nerves, which betray him in the opening sentence of The Black Monk, will also betray him in its last. His remedy is an inward journey to countryside memories tucked away with the Pesotskii family, father and daughter, the former having been Kovrin's guardian through a childhood that seems in hindsight ever the more bountiful and warm, as all good childhoods do. Igor Pesotskii lost his wife to consumption, and he has always wished to give his daughter Tanya in marriage to his adopted son; the arrangement is made less unnatural by Peskotskii's primary concern: his lush and meticulously tended garden. There is nothing particularly despicable about horticulture, even if it does smack of the bourgeois hobbyist. One description of the estate boasts the indelible mark of long-proven truth:

The Pesotskii house was huge, with columns, leonine statues striped in plaster, and a tail-coated footman at the front door .... That said, next to the house itself, in the courtyard and the fruit garden ... it was merry and joyful even in bad weather. Such breathtaking roses, lilies, and camellias; such tulips of infinite colors, ranging from bright white to black as soot; Kovrin had never encountered anywhere else a wealth of flowers comparable to the Peskotskiis'. It was but early spring and the most genuine abundance of flowers still lay hidden in the hothouses, even if you could already see some of it along the pathways and here and there on the bushes. It was enough for anyone strolling around the garden to feel as if he were amidst a kingdom of gentle colors, especially during the early hours, when dew shimmered upon every petal.  

The same garden in which Kovrin, "as a child, sneezed from the smoke"; the same garden which "once made a magical, fairy-tale like impression upon [him]"; yet it is not the same garden because Kovrin is not the same Kovrin. Could it possibly be coincidence that Pesotskii is derived from pesok, "sand" – time itself, and average, nameless, indistinguishable mediocrity in a billion-year desert of the dead? Could it also just be fictional happenstance that Tanya, a woman not averse to bawling for hours on end, is presented two lines from this masterpiece that has its own Tanya? What can be said is that those melodrama set pieces have little in common with the rather fantastic eponymous anchorite. Admittedly, not all monks are anchorites, nor is the reverse necessarily true. Yet we suspect, given his antics, this one would really have to be.

Now about that monk. About a fifth through our story, Kovrin, who purportedly came back to his childhood home to soothe his nerves, has reassumed his manic, almost insomniac schedule ("In the countryside he maintained that unrestful and nerve-inducing lifestyle"). His days and nights are devoted to that sweetest of fruits, knowledge in its purest form of language, literature, and philosophy. Precisely at this moment, when reality and dream have begun to blur, he recalls a legend that is so ridiculous and un-legend-like as to persuade the reader of one of two possibilities. Firstly, that the "legend" he mentions is nothing more than a fictional strand unravelled from a rather gigantic ball of yarn in Kovrin's mind; secondly, that this same mind may be close to unravelling itself entirely. We will not say which interpretation Tanya, who has little to recommend her except typical bucolic frankness, chooses for Kovrin, who to no one's surprise will become her husband. But we do know what the monk, an omnipresent, water-skimming figure in a cowl, thinks of Kovrin, which may or may not be what Kovrin thinks of himself:

You are one of the few whom we may justly call God's chosen. You are in the service of eternal truth. Your thoughts, your intentions, your surprising knowledge, and all your life bear a divine, heavenly stamp, since they are devoted to the logical and the beautiful, that is, to that which is eternal.

Readers may find the words maudlin, but consider what you would anticipate hearing from what has been portrayed in descendant literature as a spectre on stilts. Our monk and Kovrin will convene on several occasions (precipitated by the very odd detail that the monk initiates each encounter by nearly running Kovrin over) and discuss what lurks in Kovrin's soul, which has its doubts like all intelligent people do from time to stressful time. And for Professor Kovrin it has been a most stressful time. The only question is whether the doubts he expresses are doubts in line with his own intellectual ambitions. 

The Black Monk remains one of Russian literature's greatest stories, which isn't to say it is necessarily one of its best. It is great because the story is about how greatness, or a delusion of greatness, is wrested away from one strange and intellectually curious man who may or may not be a scholar of genius (it also strikingly illustrates a famous quote on geniuses by this author). Chekhov's works invariably lend themselves to simple recapitulation because they are never abstract or impressionist: their brilliance lies in how blunt they allow themselves to become, what hatefulness or loveliness they permit the world to espy, a world, we should mention, that has come to expect literature to furnish it with vague images, inscrutable ideas, or mirages of remembrance upon which we are entitled to project our own visions. Kovrin makes a series of fateful decisions in the two years the story arc encompasses, but none more telling than the opening (raspechatat') of a sealed letter echoing the "divine, heavenly stamp" (pechat') that allegedly "distinguished him from ordinary people." Ordinary people who just want to plant a garden and watch it grow. 

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