Monday, 3 June 2013


Although they have something of a medieval quality, pilgrimages seem to be a continuing part of life. I find myself making them from time to time (to Delft where Vermeer lived, click here, and in Paris to places where Proust lived, click here). A modern pilgrimage of a literary kind struck me especially forcefully. It was by Janet Malcolm (2001) to Russia, to visit places where Anton Chekhov had lived.

Why does one make a pilgrimage? First there is the journey, a time perhaps for mediation, Then there is the arrival. Is it that one wants, by being in a place that an artist has been, to take in some of the atmosphere, to see or hear what that person has seen or heard? Or is the fantasy more intimate? A piece of art, perhaps most especially a novel, a short story, or a play, can be thought of as a piece of consciousness, that one can take in, and make one’s own. By journeying to a place where the artist lived, is one somehow wanting to make that consciousness more real?

Malcolm starts her book on her pilgrimage to Russia with the short story of Chekhov’s which happens to be the one that I admire most in all his work, “The lady with the little dog.” It is about Dmitri Gurov and Anna von Diderits who start an affair at the seaside resort of Yalta.

Malcolm’s first paragraph says that: “After they have slept together for the first time [they} drive out at dawn to a village near Yalta called Oreanda, where they sit on a bench near a church and look down on the sea” (p.3). Then Malcolm quotes this famous passage:
Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist ... The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more (Malcolm, p. 3).
Perhaps visiting this place would provide for Malcolm an unusually clear instance of seeing and hearing what an artist saw and heard ... helped by the very timelessness of the idea suggested by these words. She writes that the scene fell short of her expectations, but because her translator and guide, Nina, had gone to some trouble to find the place, she pretended to be thrilled by it.

When Chekhov wrote, more than 100 years ago, he was struggling with questions of what it is to be a human being, and of what it is to find ourselves with this kind of personality rather than that. He wrote, too, about how we deal with the quirks and unseemly desires that have their way us. In one of his themes, Chekhov, the grandson of a serf, who had been beaten frequently by his father during his childhood, thought how it might be possible to squeeze the slave out of himself, and feel red blood coursing through his veins.

Malcolm found Yalta dull and a bit tawdry and indeed, when he first visited the town inn 1888, Chekhov also found it cheap and shoddy. But because he was suffering from tuberculosis, and the climate there was more benign than that of St Petersburg or Moscow, he built a villa on the outskirts of the town in the late 1890s, It was there that he wrote “The lady with the little dog,” as well as Three sisters and The cherry orchard.

When we read “The lady with the little dog,” we can be ourselves, I think, and at the same time metaphorically we can be Gurov, or Anna. Perhaps, in some curious way, if we make an artistic pilgrimage, it is as if we can be both ourselves and the artist to whom we are trying to become mentally closer?

Chekhov, A. (2000). Stories (R. Pevear & L. Volokhonsky, Trans.). New York: Bantam (originally published 1886-1904).

Malcolm, J. (2001). Reading Chekhov: A critical journey. New York: Random House.
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Paula Cappa said...

I love Chekhov's work. I recently read his short stories and one in particular "A Dead Body" really stayed with me. I featured it on my blog. The ending is quite mysterious. It left a haunting effect on me that I still debate in my mind. I think when we read an "author" rather than read just one piece of work, we connect to that author in a very deep way. So, for me, a pilgrimage isn't just going to an author's location in the world(which I'd love to), but reading and exploring the artist through all or most of the pieces of work.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much Paula for this interesting idea of reading an author. I rather agree that one wants to connect with an author in whom one is interested in a deep way. So the idea of the pilgrimage isn't so much geographical as mental. Perhaps making an actual journey should really be thought of as a symptom of fascination rather than anything that will necessarily bring closeness. I seem to remember that Erasmus puzzled about why people in his time travelled to visit relics of saints, and said something like: "Why don't they just read what this person wrote?"

formerly a wage slave said...

I once made two pilgrimages, in Prague, and then Vienna--- both when I was nineteen years old during the dark days of communism. In Prague, at the urging of a friend, we only just managed to find Kafka's grave. In my memory the cemetry was largely overgrown, and far above the writer's grave hanging in the air was a rusty metal sign in red letters. But now it seems more like a dream or something I only imagined. I haven't the time to catalogue Kafka's presence today as a commodity--and in any case, it is probably unnecessary because the briefest entry to any part of that city will leave you face to face with the Kafka industry-- but the diiference now seems to be that the man's name is shouted on every streeet corner as individuals try to earn their daily bread under the new rules of freedom. In Vienna, not knowing German, I somehow managed to find the house that Wittgenstein had planned, viewing it, seemingly as abandoned as Kafka's grave, from behind a chain link fence. I could only just see inside, and thought I saw suggestions of a sort of austere elegance--- but maybe I am making that up too. I believe that Wittgenstein's house is today a museum. In 2008-2009 when I lived in Vienna I think I heard that the Wittgenstein house is now a museum. I was living a busy life, but it was not that busyness which prevented me from returning.
Recently I began to read a Czech translation of "The Castle" and I was surprised to realize it was familiar. I must have read an English translation thirty or more years ago. And that world I found myself entering again now was Kafka's, and it stands there with its own meaning no matter how hard they try to make a commodity of a man.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much Mark for this comment about your pilgrimages.

I too once made a pilgrimage to Kafka's grave in Prague. Looking back I have the same kind of slightly dream-like memory of it, and remember the overgrownness. You put it very well.

And as to the way Prague has created a Kafka industry, I think that it had cannot properly have started up when I was there, which was indeed some time ago. But this industry has something of a medieval quality, like pilgrimages. Only now, instead of a saint a town needs a celebrity.

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