Their heart aches for what the eye does not see
February 8, 2013 12:04 PM   Subscribe

"This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read “The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from “Faust.” … What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read. You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty. It is time! I expect you…. We all expect you." - Anton Chekhov on the 8 Qualities of Cultured People, in a letter to his older brother Nikolai
posted by beisny (26 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
While I'm sure a very informative and entertaining read is forthcoming right now I'm struck by how attractive Anton Chekhov is and boy is that a sentence I never thought I'd type.
posted by The Whelk at 12:06 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Well, there goes that, no one will ever think I respect other people's ears.

posted by oddman at 12:13 PM on February 8, 2013

What should I have for dinner tonight, Anton Chekhov? Are jeans and a sport coat to casual for an after hours work function at a work? What should I name my cat?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:20 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Cultured"=elite. But unfortunately it looks like it wasn't a lack of awareness of culture that killed Nickolai. The entreaties to put down the vodka bottle were probably the central message.
posted by Miko at 12:20 PM on February 8, 2013

Miko, is being elite a bad thing?
posted by oddman at 12:22 PM on February 8, 2013

Actually, I pretty much read the letter as saying exactly the opposite. According to Chekov, "cultured" means not being a dick.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:24 PM on February 8, 2013

Chekhov here seems to be using "cultured" in the pearl sense, not in the educational sense, most of these are versions of those Good Christian Virtues, humility, patience, continence, etc.
posted by The Whelk at 12:24 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's a vague use of both words, so eh. I'm noting that Anton mixes the two concepts quite a bit. It's one thing to be cultured, another thing to be elite. Sometimes the cultured are elite, sometimes not, sometimes the elite are cultured, sometimes not. In his day and place it probably went together quite a bit more often, but it's interesting to notice the class markers he insists on, the things that enculturate people into the elite, I suppose.
posted by Miko at 12:25 PM on February 8, 2013

also now I want an Odd Couple-style sitcom set in period Russia between two roommate brothers, the disciplined and tidy playwright and the wanton, dissolute painter.
posted by The Whelk at 12:26 PM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

His guidelines seemed more about being virtuous than cultured.
posted by Lukenlogs at 12:32 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's kind of touching, really. Checkhov had to figure it out, and he's attempting to translate the values of the world he's come to occupy for his brother, who hasn't made it yet.

#1-4 are mostly about not being a dick. #5 starts to hint at what it might be to be "vulgar" and "cheap," something certainly to be avoided. #6 encourages him to eschew notice and not stand out from the crowd - it's also vulgar to call attention to oneself, to be too chummy and too popular in low places. And #8, the "aesthetic sense," is pretty much about how to be a member of the elite, how to refine one's sensibilities so as to recoil from the grit of everyday life rather than accept and be intimate with it. The sense of it all is that you need to be able to be around decent people; you can't " stand below the level of your surroundings."

I think that given their life histories it all makes sense, just noting that it's prescriptive. This letter is personal and intimate, but it echoes a lot of nineteenth-century literature that pushes this sort of rubric as a methodology for living up to Victorian middle-class values. That, plus the complication of Nickolai's alcoholism, gives this its tone. Each item is, presumably, offered as a recommendation because it's precisely where his brother was failing, and the implication is that that brand of failure couldn't be accepted in decent folk, and that he needed to be clued in because he couldn't have been expected to know it based on their upbringing. It's about fitting in with the in crowd, more than about being a cultivated, educated perosn.

That's not to speak about whether each of these are "good" values or not. Mostly I think they are fine advice, with a few excpetions, and they're appropriate (now and then) especially for people in the middle class aspiring to gentility.
posted by Miko at 12:35 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

"not showing off" being a middle-class virtue that bites newly minted freelancers, esp in the arts right in the ass. Sitting back, not causing a fuss, etc makes perfect sense for a stable, check box x and y professional career path but is pretty much career poison for anyone who works in a field where people paying attension to you is vital to your contintued existance.

There are some (of course can;t find now grumble) quotes about Wilde's "vulgar" PR stunts, most of which occurring during the period where he was famous and talked about but he hadn't actually published anything yet.
posted by The Whelk at 12:51 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

then again in the "personal development" tone and context of the letter, it can be read as "Please don't be the loud drunk at the party again." Which is, of course, another kind of social cue but a different kind.
posted by The Whelk at 12:57 PM on February 8, 2013

Some magazine or other, maybe the New Criterion, recently published an article about this letter. More generally, it was about the writer's self-congratulation for believing that Chekhov's middle-class fussiness, as betrayed here, made his art shine the brighter.

Which is hogwash. Chekhov is best when he's observing the world, not trying to clean its cabinets. This letter, on the other hand, is a real cabinet-cleaner. But since he's trying to get his brother to be less obnoxious at parties, that's probably forgivable.

The format makes it ideal for a Brain Pickings listicle, though.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:00 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

In Russian language, "cultured" has a slightly different meaning: it has a tint of virtuousness, hints at inner freedom and "know-thyself" as well as mildness of manners. Checkov here is not trying to redefine it but to break it down, give a thorough, exhaustive definition.

Also: "know as my own five fingers" is a common expression, cf. "know as a palm of my hand".
posted by rainy at 1:13 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Another way to put it is that when in Russian you describe someone as cultured, in English you might say someone is a decent person.
posted by rainy at 1:15 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

While I'm sure a very informative and entertaining read is forthcoming right now I'm struck by how attractive Anton Chekhov is and boy is that a sentence I never thought I'd type.

Eh. He's no Stalin.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:42 PM on February 8, 2013

So this essentially boils down to:
Dear Brother,

Don't be a dick. Oh, and try not to drink so much; you're kind of a dick when you drink.


Fair enough, although point #8 seems to stand out from the rest and is especially loaded with certain ideas about class that probably made some sense at the time but which I feel are a bit troubling (i.e., don't be too much of a commoner).
posted by asnider at 1:59 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

when in Russian you describe someone as cultured, in English you might say someone is a decent person.

That is interesting and I'd like to hear more.
posted by Miko at 2:00 PM on February 8, 2013

I agree with Miko. The easiest way to harmonize

They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.


They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove.

is if it really is all about the vodka bottle.
posted by uosuaq at 2:00 PM on February 8, 2013

There's a bit of an understandable temptation to apply what we think of as Western Middle Class stereotypes to the Russian "middle class" of the time. It's nearly impossible to do so, though. The Russia of Chekov's time was so fantastically different from Europe that the use of the term 'middle class values' has almost no meaning.
posted by spicynuts at 2:12 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

One perspective on what it means to be "cultured".
posted by bonehead at 2:19 PM on February 8, 2013

Ok, to expand: in English, it's a fairly rare word but in Russian it's rather common and a wide-encompassing and a somewhat vague expression. It can often be used in a narrow context to say that someone acted in a tolerant, decent, agreeable way rather than in a douchey, quarrelsome, annoying way, and so can be compared to the British idea of Politeness and acting as a gentleman in the 19th century.

In a wider sense it can be described as having a fairly liberal outlook, in the sense it was viewed in turn of the century Russia, avoiding any kind of fanaticism or overly narrow views.

Since it's such a vague term, many people were inclined to self-describe themselves as cultured and, in a way of speaking, pat themselves on the back and use it to feel good about their failures and flaws -- Checkov is telling Nikolai to avoid this error and that in fact it's a highly exacting standard.

Checkov is trying to say that all of these points are related and are part and parcel of the same thing; even though you may be a highly educated man but at the same time intolerant, or to be a drunkard but have a high aesthetic sense, (or vice versa), -- it will not be a centered, balanced state of being. It will only work for a time but will eventually break down.
posted by rainy at 2:26 PM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I know of many people who could benefit from taking heed of the advice in Chekhov's list.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:29 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Haters gonna hate. #yolo #swag #yoloswag #findesièclephysicianandauthor #cats
posted by Ad hominem at 2:37 PM on February 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's true I don't know that much about Russia, and am probably doing too much conflating, but thinking of the broad historical trend of "Hey we are now getting some real money but we're not part of the aristocracy - what behaviors should go along with that?" as something transnational when maybe it wasn't applicable in Russia.
posted by Miko at 3:20 PM on February 8, 2013

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