Psychology and Literature

I have often thought (and have been known to remark in public) that there is more insight into the human psyche in a good novel than there is in many a psychology text-book. I would modify that somewhat and now remark that there is considerable psychological insight even in the short stories of consummate writers such as Anton Chekhov.

Indeed, in “A Calamity” written by this medical man only about eight years after he started publishing his short stories, Chekhov presents us with a wonderfully understated  study of a young woman who finds herself suddenly at war with herself. His heroine, Sofya Petrovna, is a happily married woman with a husband she loves and a daughter she adores. But she is pursued by a suitor, Ivan Mihailovich, who worships the ground she walk on. Despite her conscious repulsion from the fact that she finds the man’s advances flattering and even desirable, she finds herself drawn toward Ivan and unable to shake herself loose from her fascination with him and his love for her. She attempts to push him away, with little effort and no effect whatever, and begins to look at her husband and even her daughter differently. The husband she has loved now appears dull and insipid. “My God,” she thinks to herself, “I love and respect him, but. . . . why does he chew his food so disgustingly?” Later as she examines him napping after dinner, she notices “his feet, very small, almost feminine, in striped socks; there was a thread sticking up at the tip of each sock.” Even her daughter puts her off; as she picks her up she finds her “heavy and irresponsive.” Clearly, her perspective has altered and as she admonishes herself, calling herself “shameless thing,” and “vile creature,” she leaves her husband and “choking with shame” finds herself “pushed forward” by something “stronger than shame, reason, or fear” away from her husband and daughter and toward a clandestine meeting with Ivan.

There are a number of things that strike the reader about this remarkable story. For all its brevity, it is beautifully written and a subtle study of the battle that is going on inside this young woman as she struggles with her sense of propriety and respectability coupled with her mindless conviction that her respectable marriage is really all she could possibly want — and the compulsion to go to the man who loves her deeply and provides her with the excitement and deep feelings she has never previously allowed herself to feel. We have one of the early suggestions, before Freud, that there are unconscious urges that fight against reason and habit and which compel us in directions we would really rather not take.

David Hume once said that reason is the slave of the passions and Chekhov seems to be presenting us with a test case that demonstrates this profound truth. We might want to think that we can be directed by reason and what we think is the right thing to do — and we may even spend our lives trying to follow that path. But at times there are urges beneath the conscious level that draw us in directions we find repugnant. The struggle was studied in depth by Immanuel Kant who insisted that the right thing is always to follow one’s sense of duty, as dictated by reason, and fight against inclination. But as Chekhov suggests it is sometimes not quite that simple. Fight as we might, the inclinations are often stronger and do not allow reason to rule. Sometimes we do what we really (unconsciously) want to do rather than what we ought to do, despite the fact that we know it is wrong.

Long ago Socrates was convinced that if we knew what was the right thing to do, we would do it. But he had no clear notion of what we now call “will” and he doesn’t seem to have been fully aware of the battle that goes on inside us when we fight against inclinations that we might regard as “vile” and “shameless.” Aristotle faulted Socrates for his simplistic take on this issue. But I don’t think either Aristotle or Kant gave the struggle full measure. Chekhov did, and in this very short story, a mere fifteen pages long,  he makes it clear that at times we simply cannot muster the “willpower” to do the right thing, much as we might think we want to.

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4 thoughts on “Psychology and Literature

  1. How fitting for your synopsis “right vs. will” to appear, especially since the movie “Enough Said” portrays that very same dilemma although in very simplistic, very Hollywood terms. The answer, doing right vs. following one’s passion, remains just that…a struggle to find.

    “Do overs” when all goes wrong is not always a probable or possible part of an answer.

    Back to square one…

    PS: Sincere gratitude this a.m., Mr. C. for raising the level of my own expectations of…myself.

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