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Chekhov for the 21st Century. Carol Apollonio and Angela Brintlinger, eds. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2012, 13–30.       The Spaces Between the Places: Chekhov’s “Without a Title” and the Art of Being (Out) There Cathy Popkin In  Chekhov’s  only  story  set  in  the  fifth  century,  the  principal  venue  is  a  holy   monastery,  a  stronghold  of  chastity,  obedience,  and  self-­‐‑abnegation  under  the   leadership  of  a  charismatic  father  superior,  whose  mere  word  is  the  monks’   command.1   Offsetting   this   bastion   of   piety   in   Chekhov’s   untitled   story   is   a   nameless  city  that  offers  up  the  most  impressive  array  of  sensual  pleasures   since  God  leveled  Sodom  and  Gomorrah.  The  city  folk  feast  and  drink  wine   with   abandon;   they   think   nothing   of   uttering   unspeakable   profanities;   steeped   in   vice,   the   men   are   in   thrall   to   their   unchecked   libidos,   and   the   women,   shameless   and   insolent,   half-­‐‑naked   and   wholly   intoxicated,   bestow   their  favors  upon  anyone  who  displays  the  slightest  interest.   Predicated  on  the  opposition  between  the  cloistered  space  of  the  monas-­‐‑ tery  and  the  unbridled  debauchery  of  the  city,  the  story  pits  salvation  against   perdition,   abstinence   against   indulgence;   it   quarantines   the   saints   from   the   sinners,  sacred  vows  from  rank  obscenity,  the  “city”  of  God  from  the  city  of   man.   (As   a   kind   of   fairy   tale—“Skazka”   was   the   original   title—the   story   is   well  suited  to  this  kind  of  moral  dualism.)   But  while  there  may  be  lots  of  “action”  on  one  side  of  the  divide,  there   can  be  no  real  narrative  until  the  inviolable  boundary  between  these  opposing   semantic  fields  is  violated,  and  people  venture  where  they  do  not  belong.2  In   this  story,  the  border  is  breached  in  both  directions;  first  a  sinner  turns  up  at   the  monastery,  not  only  penetrating  the  monastery  grounds,  but  also  calling   into   question   the   moral   logic   of   sequestration   (what’s   the   point   of   sitting   around  in  perfect  isolation  saving  your  own  unsullied  souls  while  dissolute   urbanites   sink   ever   deeper   into   iniquity   and   urgently   require   rescuing?).   Taking  this  reproach  to  heart,  the  father  superior  in  turn  visits  the  city  to  try   to  save  those  profoundly  errant  urban  souls.     Returning  horror-­‐‑stricken  three  months  later,  he  describes  the  debauch-­‐‑ ery  so  vividly  and  with  such  artistry  that  when  he  wakes  up  the  next  morn-­‐‑ ing,  not  a  single  monk  is  left  in  the  monastery—“Every  one  of  them  had  run                                                                                                                             1  “Without  a  Title”  (“Bez  zaglaviia,”1888).   2  Iu.  M.  Lotman,  Struktura  khudozhestvennogo  teksta  (Providence,  RI:  Brown  University   Press,  1971),  278.   14 CATHY POPKIN off  to  the  city.”3  Obviously,  sacred  vows  are  as  ineffectual  as  the  physical  bar-­‐‑ riers  erected  to  keep  the  monks  in  line  and  the  world  off  limits.4  But  had  the   pat  opposition  between  monastery  and  city  remained  intact,  Jack  would  be  a   dull  boy;  for  the  sake  of  a  story,  we  forgive  the  monks  their  trespasses  onto   the  opposing  semantic  field.   Indeed,  as  the  wholesale  defection  of  the  monks  makes  manifest,  the  stark   disjunction  contrived  by  the  cloister  is  spurious;  the  monks  are  subject  to  the   same   longings   as   their   iniquitous   brethren.   Even   before   their   mass   exodus,   the  monks’  attachment  to  their  eloquent  father  superior  is  fraught  with  desire:   they  NEED  his  music;  they  crave  his  verse;  they  drink  in  his  words  greedily.   His   prolonged   absence   had   been   almost   unendurable.   Predictably   enough,   our   binary   oppositions   have   collapsed   in   on   each   other;   even   Jacques,5   it   seems,  has  become  a  dull  boy.  Still,  no  matter  how  bankrupt  binary  thought   turns  out  to  be,  something  still  keeps  the  two  realms  apart:  Ward  6  is  not  the   same  thing  as  a  warm  study.6     In  “Without  a  Title”  it  is  Chekhov’s  mapping  of  artistic  space  that  keeps   us  honest:  what  is  missing  from  both  the  structuralist  paradigm  and  the  de-­‐‑ constructive   scenario   is   something   more   intractable   than   difference—namely   distance. Chekhov  has  concocted  his  setting  to  emphasize  above  all  the  mon-­‐‑ astery’s   remoteness   from   civilization:   100   versts   of   formidable   wilderness   lie   between  it  and  the  closest  population  center  (our  city  of  ill  repute):  instead  of                                                                                                                             3  “Все   они   бежали   в   город”   (Works   6:   458).   All   translations   mine—C.P.   This   is   the   final  sentence  of  the  story,  which,  while  without  a  title,  is  clearly  not  lacking  a  punch   line,   one   that   takes   its   own   jab   at   Tolstoy’s   diatribes   against   urban   life.   Following   immediately   on   the   heels   of   “The   Kiss”   (“Potselui,”   1887),   in   which   the   story   of   an   erotic  encounter  fails  miserably  to  hold  anyone’s  attention,  the  father  superior’s  sen-­‐‑ sational  success  in  putting  eros  into...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780893578923
Related ISBN
9780893573928
MARC Record
OCLC
859687104
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-20
Language
English
Open Access
No
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