Monday, April 13, 2009

Chekhov's Man in Black

'”I wrote 'The Black Monk' without any melancholy, in cold reflection,'” the Russian writer Anton Chekhov informed the publisher Aleksei Suvorin. . “I simply took it into my head to picture megalomania. As for the monk scudding along over the fields, I saw him in a dream.” [1]

The protagonist of Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” is a brilliant young philosopher, Kovrin. He is gripped by the vision of a man in black that he thinks he might have heard about in an Arabian legend he cannot recollect. As he describes this to Tanya, the young woman he will marry, it involves a monk, dressed in black, wandering in the desert a thousand years ago. At the same time, miles away, a fisherman sees a monk in black moving slowly over the surface of a lake. The second monk is a mirage and yet “from that mirage was cast another mirage, then from that a third, so that the image of the black monk began to be endlessly repeated from one layer of the atmosphere to another.” He is seen all over the world, then he passes beyond the Earth’s atmosphere to wander among the stars. The legend says he is about to appear on Earth again, “perhaps tomorrow.”

After sharing what his fiancée calls a “queer mirage”, Kovrin wanders towards sunset into a field of rye across a stream. Waves start running through the rye then

From the horizon there rose up to the sky, like a whirlwind or a waterspout, a tall black column. Its outline was indistinct, but from the first instant it could be seen that it was not standing still, but moving with fearful rapidity, moving straight towards Kovrin, and the nearer it came the smaller and the more distinct it was.

When Kovrin makes way for it, it turns into a monk, dressed in black, with gray hair and black eyebrows set in a “fearfully pale” face. Arms crossed over his chest, the monk glides above the rye for twenty feet, never touching the ground. Then he turns and nods before he expands again, passes through the landscape and vanishes like smoke.

Later the monk in black turns up for conversations with Kovrin. They sit together on a park bench, or in a room. Kovrin’s man in black assures him that he is a genius who is working in the cause of the "kingdom of eternal truth", in which the highest value and pleasure is wisdom. He discloses early on that he is a “phantom” of Kovrin’s imagination, then adds that the products of imagination are “part of nature” and so he is also quite real. When Kovrin questions his own sanity, the phantom tells him to be bold in accepting the price of creative genius. Normality is the state of the herd; gifted people are hardly normal and often near madness in the eyes of the world. Kovrin is spurred to work day and night on his books and researches.

Alas, his new wife wakens in the middle of the night to catch him talking to himself. When he explains that he is actually talking to a monk in black, she declares that he is mentally ill and must seek help at once. Carted off to the country, doped with bromides and stuffed with food, force-fed milk instead of his wine and good cigars, Kovrin stops seeing and hearing the black monk. He also loses his gifts and his brains and is soon spitting blood. He goes fast downhill, wasting his years. He leaves the wife who pushed him on this course, but it’s too late to halt his own decline. He sees the whirling monk just once more, at the moment of his early death, just before his life’s blood spews from his lungs and mouth in a terminal hemorrhage.

I was struck by the way the "black monk" appears, rises in the distance like a tornado, or a whirlwind, very much like a desert jinn, before he assumes human proportions as he approaches Kovrin. I felt sympathy between the author and this jinn-like monk.

Dr Chekhov knew all about the symptoms of tuberculosis. He died of it, at 44, as did his brother before him. "I have everything in order except my health," he told Olga Knipper just before their wedding. One of the cures that failed to fix Chekhov was large infusions of fermented mare’s milk. The autobiographical element in “The Black Monk” is strong. Chekhov wrote it in the summer of 1893 at his country estate at Melikhovo, which his disease later forced him to give up. That summer he took a very keen interest in gardening (like the obsessive Pesotsky, father of the bride in the story) spending hours minutely examining roots and fruits and vines. He also took time that summer to expand his knowledge of clinical approaches to mental illness, with the help of Russia’s leading psychiatrists of that era.

Chekhov transferred to his character Kovrin his symptoms, and his dream of the monk in black, and also his keen awareness of how life can present wrenching life choices.
Is it possible that Chekhov contemplated a different ending for “The Black Monk”? Might the act of imagination involved in that have helped the author as well as his character?

Let's see - how else might Chekhov's story have ended? He could have allowed Kovrin to defy the world and live the creative life the phantom promised, sending his wife home to garden with her father. Then Kovrin might have written all those books and given lectures that astonished Moscow. He might have pulled off some of those all-but-impossible things that the creative daimon is forever demanding.

This would have brought him to more forking paths, where the author - or the character, if he had taken full charge of his own fortunes, as the best characters in fiction tend to do - would need to make further choices. Kovrin could expire in a torrent of blood as he did before. But now he would be seen by the world as the very model of the romantic hero wracked by consumption – or (wait) perhaps as a vampire lord spewing up his night feasts – or (another choice) as a madman whose scripts must be anathematized and burned. Or Kovrin could come through well in all ways, healed by living his creative assignment, even with Tanya making up a threesome with him and the man in black on the loveseat.

In any of these versions, I would want to see the author amend his title. The story should surely be called “The Monk in Black” (as in “men in black”) rather than “The Black Monk”.

Maybe I'm waxing too fanciful, under the spell of Chekhov's only "gothic" piece. He did tell the publisher, after all, that he made a cold and rational decision to "picture megalomania", implying that he would take the same naturalistic approach as he did in describing wedding luncheons or apple-grafting. And yet....

Maybe someone in this moment is digging in an old cherry orchard, near Chekhov’s former country home. Could that be the chink of a spade clipping a buried trunk, that will prove to contain the manuscript of the “Monk in Black” (the version that got the title right)?


Music helped Chekhov to bring through “The Black Monk”, specifically Braga’s “Valakhian Legend”, sung at the piano by Lika Mizinova, the mistress of his friend Ignaty Potapenko when they stayed with him in the country that summer. The composer Shostakovich later observed that “The Black Monk” has the form of a perfect sonata.

Three decades later, in amazing counterpoint, Shostakovich was inspired by a dream of a monk in white. The composer recounted the experience this way in a letter to music theorist Boleslav Leopoldovich Yavorsky:

"On the night from 31st of December to 1st of January [1926] I had some dream, which, despite my complete disbelief in dreams, still somewhat stirred me up. This dream was rather sad, yet I will describe its content for you. I walk in the desert and suddenly meet "an elder" in white robes, who says to me: this year will be happy for you. After this I woke up with the sensation of tremendous joy. This joy was so great that I could not fall asleep until morning and stayed in bed awake despite retiring at 3 am yesterday. Ah, how wonderful it was.

“Now I remembered Chekhov's story The Black Monk’ and recalled that Kovrin had the same state of great joy that he did not know what to do with it. Ah how good it was, for the new year I have great hopes. Firstly, to finish the second symphony, which I have started two days ago. And I know that this symphony will be written and finished. These are not my fruitless attempts to compose, which I had lately. So far so good. I am content and happy. The throes of creativity trouble me, but I am glad to suffer this agony my whole life non-stop…. Everything is unexpectedly joyful." [2]

This energizing dream helped pull Shostakovich out of a profound creative crisis that had led him to burn many of his compositions the previous year. Interestingly, towards the end of his life Shostakovich wanted to write an opera based on “The Black Monk” as a study of failed genius, but died with this work undone.


1. Chekhov to Suvorin, January 25, 1894. In Michael C Finke, Seeing Chekhov (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2005) p 120.

2. Laurel E. Fay, Shostakovich: A Life, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.20, 274


Simon Vigneault said...

I find this fascinating due to a visioning I had (mentioned on the forum) re 'reinventing madness,' that was specifically directed to those who are on a creative borderline, who could slip either way--toward a cultural cul de sac of mental illness categorization; or toward perhaps iconoclastic creative breakthrough into a wider horizon.
I've been studying Sartre due to finding RD Laing was very influenced by him. Both of them I feel escaped the cul de sac, but were on the edge at one point...

Robert Moss said...

Yes Chekhov does lead us on a brisk walk along that borderline in his "Black Monk". The difference between creatives and crazies may be that the creative mind learns to swim or sail in the deep waters in which the crazy person drowns.

However, I've never been especially impressed by theories of creative "genius" that over-emphasize its supposed near kinship to disorders of mind or body. There are a great many more people with bipolar symptoms than will ever write a sonata or a novel, for example; and lots more people with temporal lobe epilepsy than will ever experience true visions. We have to seek the roots of high creativity beyond the human complaints that are the context for many lives - in the courage to bring something new in the world, and the connection with the energy and inspiration of that helping power the Romans called the "genius" (avoiding the modern mistake of confusing the creative individual with the creative power that he draws when he gives his best to the work).

Simon Vigneault said...

Actually that's where I was at in relation to RD Laing's theories. In giving him a closer look it quickly became apparent that his view was more nuanced, only seeing the more creative unfolding aspect in 'madness' in certain cases, while in others he worked intensely at the level of undoing tangled thought forms (born of individual meeting collective), rather than rest on the hard and fast types of classification like Freud's or on the more bluntly materialistic variety.

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