The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

July 15, 2013

July 15, 1904

Anton Chekhov  (January  29, 1860 to July 15, 1904) was a Russian writer renowned for his insight into people and ability to convey that in the format, especially, of the short story. The ambition which led his grandfather to buy his own and his family's freedom from serfdom, continued in the grandson and his short life was notable not just for his genius, but his unceasing intellectual curiosity and ambitious work loads which were necessary to support his siblings and parents as well as secure a comfortable life, and literary oeuvre. In all of this he succeeded, despite a longstanding terminal illness.

A volume of his correspondence, Letters of Anton Chekhov to his Family and Friends (1920) was selected, edited, translated, and introduced by Constance Garnett. Here we find Anton's advice to an older brother regarding the nature of a cultured person. This list I encountered not in the book above, first, but in the newsletter Brain Pickings, Maria Popova's consistently interesting digest.

In 1886 Chekhov listed the qualities of a cultured person. We quote and excerpt a text which was excerpted before we found it 

“In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent....

They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber;... They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes. 

They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night... to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother. 

They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts. 

They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. ... They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk. 

They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. ... The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. 

If they have a talent they respect it. ... Besides, they are fastidious. 

They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow …  They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. 

The items above strike one as brilliant, wrong, and besides the point. Chekhov is actually describing not just a social world , but making of civility a religion. And how interesting to note that in late 19th century Russia, compassion for cats was taken as a minimum for a cultured person. Check out the original text, it is fascinating.

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