Reading along in Old Truths and New Clichés, a recently published collection of the essays and lectures of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I came across Singer’s extraordinary notion that talented people “cannot be atheists for the simple reason that by their very nature they must wrangle with the higher powers. They may revile God, but they cannot deny God.” Elsewhere in the book, Singer notes that “God is a writer and we are both the characters and the readers,” and that “the fear of death is nothing but the fear of having to close God’s book.” He adds that, if God is an artist, “he is not a modernist.” 

The division between artists who believe in God and those who do not suggests another of those binary divisions among artists, writers in particular, such as those between Palefaces and Redskins, Hedgehogs and Foxes, Realists and Symbolists, and others. As large and risky generalizations go, talented people cannot be atheists resoundingly rings the gong. How high, though, is its truth quotient? Is it true that the greatest artists have never been atheists? How can one determine whether this is so or not? Dead writers, after all, cannot be polled on the question of their beliefs. Nor are living ones likely to be eager to come forth on so personal a question. One can only consult their works, looking for the effect upon them of a belief in God. 

One could, of course, puncture Singer’s generalization by pointing out a number of superior writers who declared their atheism or even their strong agnosticism. But those who in recent years have declared themselves atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens—are none of them imaginative writers. Voltaire, Diderot, and the other writers of the Enlightenment made a direct attempt to shed religion from their writings, but none among them was a superior artist. Was Flaubert an atheist? Was Émile Zola? Was Sinclair Lewis? I cannot say with certainty. All I can say is that God, or the presence of a higher power, does not seem to have played much of a role in their novels. 

By “belief in God,” Singer did not necessarily have in mind the God described in the standard religious works of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism. His own belief, as he sets it out in another of his essays, “Why I Write As I Do,” was in a non-revelatory God. Of his religion, he writes: “I had, in a curious way, combined the Ten Commandments, Humean philosophy, and the kabbalistic writing of Rabbi Moshe of Cordova and the Holy Isaac Luria, as well as the occultism of Flammarion, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Sir William Crooks.” But, then, there was never anything conventional about Isaac Bashevis Singer. When asked if his vegetarianism qualified him as kosher-keeping, he replied that he became vegetarian not for religious reasons or to save himself but to save the chickens. When asked if he believed in free will, he replied, “Of course I believe in free will. What choice have I?”

Singer is joined by Tolstoy in the belief that no true artist can be an atheist. In an essay Tolstoy wrote on what he thought the deficiencies in Shakespeare, he notes that by what he, Tolstoy, termed “the religious essence of art,” he understood “not the direct inculcation of any religious truths in an artistic guise, and not an allegorical demonstration of these truths, but the exhibition of a definite view of life corresponding to the highest religious understanding of a given time, which, serving as the motive for the composition of the drama, penetrates, to the knowledge of the author, through all of his work. So it has always been with true art, and so it is with every true artist in general and especially the dramatist.” George Balanchine put it more simply, saying, “The first subject of art is the love of God.”

Some prominent writers have declared their religion through regular religious practice. Among them have been S.Y. Agnon, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, and John Updike. But it is not religious practice that Singer had in mind when he claimed that no true artist can be an atheist. Instead it is the belief, in some writers more evident than in others, of a higher power working decisively in human life. This higher power cannot be denied or defied without cost, though he can be argued with. Why would such a God allow the Holocaust, or the 72-year reign of the Soviet Union, which brought nothing other than envy, starvation, and mass murder to millions of people? If, as Singer affirms, God is a novelist, why would he wish to have written such horror stories?

If God is a novelist, in a sense novelists are mini-gods. They bring characters to life, complicate their lives, drive them to success or failure, sometimes kill them off. One always senses the presence of God in Willa Cather’s writing. So, too, in that of Joseph Conrad, Boris Pasternak, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This sense is what gives gravity to their works. So, too, does one find it in the novels of Theodore Dreiser and William Faulkner. The same is true of James Joyce. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the character Cranly says of Stephen Dedalus, “It is a curious thing… how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.”

In many ways a crucial test of Singer’s generalization is Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, perhaps the most famous Russian writer of short stories and without question his nation’s most popular playwright. On more than one occasion, Chekhov declared himself an atheist. He was, however, never a militant one. As the English professor Bill Blaisdell writes in his recent study Chekhov Becomes Chekhov, “he was never smug about his atheism.” Many of his characters find their only hope in religion, and Chekhov never mocks that outlet for hope. It is almost as if he wished he could find that hope, that faith, for himself, but he could not. In a letter to the novelist and playwright I.L. Leontyev-Shcheglov, Chekhov wrote that in his childhood he received what he termed dismal religious instruction and education and added, “I have no religion now.” Later, he would write that “it is necessary to believe in God and if one has no faith, one ought not to replace it with ballyhoo, but seek, seek, seek alone, face to face with one’s conscience.” 

To Sergei Diaghilev, Chekhov wrote: “Modern culture is the beginning of an effort, in the name of a great future, an effort that will continue for tens of thousands of years, to the end that, if only in the distant future, mankind may know the true, real God, i.e. not conjecturing, not seeking for Him in Dostoyevsky,1 but will know Him clearly, know as it knows that two times two is four.” Chekhov, then, was an atheist, but rather a pious one, the best kind of atheist: one without the zeal to argue others out of their religion and one whose first principle was that “people should never be humiliated—that is the main thing.”

Among writers, Chekhov was in that minority of truly good men. “My holy of holies,” he wrote, “is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom—freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two may manifest themselves.” Born in 1860, the third of six children, he lived only 44 years. As a very young man, he became head of his family and through his writing provided the financial upkeep for his brothers, sisters, and parents. His grandfather bought his own way out of serfdom; his father, a cruel and narrow-minded man, failed as shopkeeper. As a physician—not the socially high-level occupation it has been in the West—Chekhov took care of peasants without charge and helped build schools, libraries, and hospitals. He tendered advice to many a would-be writer. For a Russian of his day, he showed scarcely any anti-Semitism and was a Dreyfusard who fell out with his right-wing publisher, Aleksei Suvorin, during Dreyfus’s trial.  

In an 1889 letter to his publisher Suvorin, Chekhov wrote of himself:  “Go ahead and write about a young man, the son of a serf, an ex-small shopkeeper, a choir boy, a high-school and university student, brought up on respect for rank, kissing priests’ hands, and the worship of others’ ideas, offering thanks for every mouthful of bread, often whipped, going to school without shoes, fighting, torturing animals, fond of dining with rich relatives, playing the hypocrite before God and people without any cause, except that of a consciousness of his own insignificance—then tell how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself one drop at a time and how he wakes one fine morning to find that in his veins flows not the blood of a slave but real human blood.”

Chekhov believed in progress but was otherwise without politics. “I acquired my belief in progress when still a child,” he wrote. “I couldn’t help believing in it, because the difference between the period when they [his father and his teachers] flogged me and the period when they stopped flogging me was enormous.” As for this politics, in a letter to the writer Aleksey Pleshcheyev, he wrote: “I am not liberal, not a conservative, not a gradualist, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one. I hate lying and violence in all their forms. I regard trademarks and labels as prejudicial.” 

The writer Ivan Shcheglov criticized Chekhov for writing in his story “Lights” that “you can’t figure out anything in this world,” to which Chekhov, in disagreement, replied: “We shall not play the charlatan, and we will declare frankly that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.”

Chekhov carried such views over into his art. In reply to a criticism by Suvorin about the inconclusiveness of one of his stories, he wrote: “The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness…. Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is, the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.” 

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Is such cool detachment—an author who claims not to sit in judgment of his characters—desirable? Is it likely to be successful as art? Consider a characteristic Chekhov story called “An Attack of Nerves.”

Three university students—a medical student, an art student, and a law student—go off whoring in the red-light district of Moscow. This is the first such visit by the law student, Vasilev by name, who is shocked by the awfulness of the settings and the wretchedness of the lives of the prostitutes. The story is told chiefly from his point of view. “What is there in all this trumpery I see now,” he thinks, “that can tempt a normal man and excite him to commit the horrible sin of buying a human being for a ruble?”

Vasilev is said to have “a talent for humanity. He possessed an extraordinarily fine delicate sense for pain in general.” This sense is aroused in extremis at the utterly degraded lives of the prostitutes he and his friends encounter at the brothels they visit. He cannot bear the thought that women lived in such moral squalor. Returning to his rooms, he becomes greatly agitated at the thought and attempts to devise ways to remove these women from their utterly degrading lives. His agitation grows deeper and deeper, leaving him on the edge of nervous breakdown. 

Vasilev’s two friends, the medical student and the artist, call on him the next day and take him to a psychiatrist who interviews him, examines him, and  provides medicine for him to drink. The despair lifts, “and the load under his heart grew lighter and lighter as though it were melting away.” The story ends: “In the street he stood for a while and, saying good-by to his friends, dragged himself languidly to the university.” The story provides a true picture of the lives of prostitutes, but of the conclusion to Vasilev’s spiritual travail we learn no more, nothing is resolved, no real ending is provided.

And so it is with many of Chekhov’s stories, which do not so much end as fade away.

His story “Peasants” tells of a man who loses his job as a waiter and must return to his peasant village with his family. An unrelieved account of the sordid details of peasant existence—the filth, the wife beating, the crowded conditions, the overall harshness of quotidian life—is set out. The man dies, owing to crude medical techniques. His wife and daughter depart the peasant village, with nothing but their vague religious hope for a better life. Brilliant material once again goes unresolved. 

Even in “The Lady with the Lap Dog,” perhaps Chekhov’s most famous story, no resolution is offered, and the story ends with its two lovers, Anna Sergeyevna and Gurov, meeting for a final time at the theater, then parting. “She pressed his hand and walked rapidly downstairs, turning to look round at him, and from her eyes he could see she was really unhappy. Gurov stood for a while, listening, then when all grew quiet, he found his coat and left the theater.” Again: Brilliance of portrayal, detail, scene are all provided without anything resembling a satisfactory or minimally satisfying ending. The plane soars but never lands. 

In Chekhov Becomes Chekhov, Bob Blaisdell offers a defense for what he calls “the open-endedness” of Chekhov’s stories. “Chekhov won’t comfort us with an answer that isn’t there,” he writes. He then quotes Chekhov, in a letter to Suvorin, noting that “the time has come for writers, especially those who are artists, to admit that in this world one cannot make anything out, just as Socrates once admitted it, just as Voltaire admitted it…. And if an artist in whom the crowd has faith decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great leap forward.”

Chekhov argued that it was the writer’s task “to depict life truthfully and to show in passing how much this life deviates from a norm.” He went on to claim that we do not really know what that norm is: “We all know what a dishonest deed is, but what is honor?—we do not know.” Really? I believe we do, and I also believe it is the writer’s task to set out, through the complications that life so often presents, how difficult it is to attain. 

Although he could chronicle obsessions, depict love and cruelty, strike the lyrical note in his descriptions of nature, and much else, Chekhov chose not to render judgment of his characters. In “In the Ravine,” the character Asinya Abramovich, in anger after being written out of her father-in-law’s will, pours scalding water over the infant of the woman who replaces her in the will. This same woman, the murderer of a child, goes on in the story to become “a person of power” in her village, “handsome and happy, with the naive smile on her face…. Everyone is afraid of her in the house and in the village and in the brickyard.” Is Chekhov saying, or at least suggesting, that this is how a godless world works, with evil often going unpunished and the good made to suffer? 

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Chekhov has not been without his critics. Tolstoy, who loved Chekhov personally, did upbraid him for his suspension of judgment. He also praised him: “He is a strange writer. He throws words about as though at random, and yet everything in his writing is alive. And what great understanding! He never has any superfluous details, every one of them is either essential or beautiful.” Philip Rahv wrote that Chekhov “believed that life could be lived with intelligence and love, without coercion and falsehood, at the same time as he concentrated on showing that life as actually lived was sad and boring,” and concluded with the faint praise that Chekhov was “an artist of unmistakable originality, though not of the very first order.”

Perhaps Chekhov’s harshest judge was D.S. Mirsky, who in his History of Russian Literature writes that “the unsurpassable isolation of human beings and the impossibility of understanding each other” is the idea that is at the heart of “almost every one of his stories,” yet “his characters are singularly lacking in individual personality.” His plays, Mirsky claims, are worse: “Even more than in his stories, the dominant note in Chekhov’s plays is one of gloom, depression, and hopelessness.” (“As long as I understand the order of things,” Chekhov wrote, “life is made up only of terrors, squabbling, and stupidities, all mixed up and in alternation.”) He goes on to criticize Chekhov’s prose, holding that “no Russian writer of anything like his significance used a language so devoid of all raciness and nerve,” adding that “of all Russian writers, he has the least to fear from the treachery of translation.”

The very godliness that is missing from Chekhov’s writing lends to fiction an aura of mystery, a weight, a variousness and richness unavailable without it. Without the possibility of a higher power, determining fate, dispensing an ultimate justice, characters in novels and stories tend to go flat, their destinies robbed of interest. Perhaps even vastly talented people, as Isaac Bashevis Singer had it, cannot be atheists.


1 Chekhov disliked Dostoyevsky’s work.

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