10-2 polis2

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

10.2 (Spring 2010)




courtesy of artrenewal.org

The Importance of Reading Great Fiction to Building a Strong State

John R. Harris

   Occasionally I read a work of literature that moves me to the point of responding viscerally.  I believe it was Marshall McLuhan who described in The Gutenberg Galaxy how a group of African villagers, when exposed to a film for the first time, jumped up and shouted at the villain, tried to scream warnings at the innocent victim, and so forth.  No doubt, I retain something of the primitive myself, for this was my reaction to the ending of Chekhov’s Room Number 6.  The novella describes the journey of a small town doctor deep into despair.  Professionally exiled to a provincial hospital, he exhausts his physical and moral energy early on during twenty years of service.  Patients are rarely cured.  Medicine is lacking, and when some is available for dispensing, the doctor’s peasant clientele can rarely be trusted to take it in the proper doses.  People file in daily with petty complaints that either do not exist or are part of ordinary mortality.  Others are brought in at death’s door and can only be left to waste away on their cots.  The staff, as these dramas endlessly repeat themselves, pilfers the belongings of unconscious sufferers, plunders supply cabinets, sets up house in quarters reserved for wards of the state, and otherwise exploits the situation to the hilt.  The doctor finally forms the unwholesome habit of neglecting his duties in favor of good books and vodka lest he have his soul ground in this sordid futility beyond the limits of endurance.

    One inmate, in particular–Ivan Dmitrich–has already been forcibly interned among the hospital’s mental patients for years when the doctor discovers him.  Ivan is a paranoid who has every right to have snapped.  His bureaucrat-father having been sent off to die in prison for pocketing government funds while Ivan was halfway through college, the young man watched his entire family collapse as he himself tried to provide for them and for his education at the same time, managing at last to do neither.  Soon he degenerated into what we call a street person, without home or income or prospects, in constant terror of some unnamed calamity which he came to associate confusedly with harassment by the police.  Ivan Dmitrich appears to have been committed to the “asylum” (a highly ironic word, when we consider that its literal meaning is “place beyond pursuit”) for no better reason than that his presence troubled respectable people.  Of course, his mild paranoia can only worsen as he passes years in the company of indiscriminately mixed lunatics and imbeciles.  After a few years, he is aware in his coherent moments (which are torturously many) that he will never exit this terrestrial hell except in death.

    The doctor (Andrei Yephemich, he is called) finds in Ivan the profoundly thoughtful and morally sensitive person he has before sought in vain throughout a shallow and hypocritical provincial society.  The paranoid, of course, mistrusts the doctor’s friendly overtures, yet Andrei is a gentle man (he had wanted to be a priest, but his father wouldn’t hear of it) and absorbs regular abuse for the sake of the philosophical discussions which are likely to follow.  This proves to be his undoing.  In some manner which I found disturbingly straightforward, Andrei Yephemich is himself interned as a mental patient in the same ward as his “friend”.  (My Russian still has several holes in it, but I could scarcely have missed more than a word or two here: I am convinced that Chekhov assumed his readers to know how easy a bureaucratic railroading could be in Tsarist Russia.)  The maneuver seems to have been accomplished through behind-the-back testimony from another doctor (an ambitious man) and an aristocratic wastrel who owes Andrei money… yet the single most significant element in whatever formal process of commitment took place sub rosa must surely have been the doctor’s “scandalous” sympathy with a “madman”.

    Though a model of good-natured endurance, Andrei Yephemich insists one ill-starred evening that he be allowed to exit the ward just for a brief stroll–a breath of fresh air.  A shouting match ensues with the guard, a retired soldier who has stolen from the inmates for years.  The guard, having lost his temper, pummels Andrei Yephemich into unconsciousness.  The doctor dies shortly thereafter in consequence of injuries sustained.  No inquiry is initiated.  The burial is all but unnoticed.

    I required about two months to finish this appalling little work, whittling away at it nightly with my Russian dictionary in hand.  By the time I reached the last pages, I was so furious that I physically sprang up from the sofa and and paced the room, wishing devoutly that I had the guard’s throat within my hands.  That civilized people should ever have allowed such behavior to pass unremarked right under their upturned noses seems incredible.  (One of Andrei Yephemich’s last reflections is indeed that beatings such as his must have been going on for years without attracting his interest.)  At the very least, one can see why so many intellectuals were so disaffected with the status quo in nineteenth-century Russia.

    Yet a work of literature should never be treated as a facile illustration in the margin of a political manual (which is, of course, precisely how literature has been treated in Western academe for about the past half-century now).  Stories are case studies in human nature, and human nature does not change with elections or political systems or even revolutions.  It occurred to me, as I calmed down and pondered what I had so laboriously read, that the progressive quest of universal health care–as it is now being played out before our eyes–is at least as aptly allegorized by Room Number 6 as a corrupt bourgeoisie in need of revolutionary overthrow.  Interestingly, the incompetent self-administering of prescribed medicines which Chekhov (himself a doctor) noted of Andrei Yephemich’s peasant patients is precisely the cause of emergent “super-bugs” today–bacteria which have evolved to resist doses of penicillin thanks to the careless dispersal of the drug through uneducated populations.  An overstrained system wherein a pharmacist sends a flu patient home with a bottle of pills (this is essentially the European system as I myself experienced it) will eventually breed mutated monster-contagions like a great Petrie dish.  Thanks to limited resources, as well–specialized resources, not miracle-pills in generic bottles–society’s dregs and leftovers will increasingly be rounded up and isolated with no realistic option other than to die.  Diagnosis and treatment of wandering outcasts and the deserted elderly–people with few “socially productive” assets and no advocates to lobby in their behalf–will represent an unjustifiable expense.

    Yet perhaps the most telling element of the parallel is the thuggish guard.  Do not suppose that, where long lines form demanding guaranteed benefits, “enforcers” will not be present to “discipline” those who object to the long wait or who try to force open a closed door.  With growing “benefits” will come a growth in police power.  It has always been so.  Naturally, those among us who are “important” to the governing process–our elected representatives, their donors and families and advisors, the chief officers of order and enforcement (a small circle with multiple means of entry, but none for you and me)–will not be waiting in any line at all.  They will receive special attention, because the show cannot go on without them.  In short, we shall see on a national level small-town hypocrisy in full swing, the corrupt judge and the factory owner and the sheriff’s goons versus all the rest of us disarmed peons.

    I urge parents to put before their children more literature–real literature, not Newberry Award winners from the past twenty years about children who live in a museum or cartoonish characters waging futuristic war with mean old authority-figures.  The value of which I speak is not purely literary, to be sure, and I am not accustomed to extolling it.  Yet I have come to realize myself in recent years, as a father, that literary classics about “real life” teach us more than a little of whatever we grow up knowing about human nature.  Without great books, we who are insulated in high-tech, on-demand culture acquire virtually no knowledge early in life of how people work.

    To the chorus of voices, then, advocating that we have our children read the Constitution and other documents of historical import, I would add my plea that we simply have them read works by and about genuine human beings: fictional works, but fictionalized so as to underscore the impact of human character–for good and for bad–upon worldly events.  We should not choose with didactic intent, but  rather with the utmost respect for truthful portraits, wherever they may be found.  Of what use, after all, is a doctrine whose promotion requires the suppression of the truth?