Just over a year ago I wrote about Janet Malcolm’s “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” in the New Yorker; Malcolm has now published the book from which that was excerpted, and the NYRB has a review by Geoffrey O’Brien. It’s a good review of what sounds like a good book, but what I want to focus on here is O’Brien’s mention of a quote by Chekhov that sums up (as Chekhov so often does) my own view of life:

We want the elements to add up to a satisfying and coherent story. But as Anton Chekhov wrote—in a letter quoted by Malcolm in Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001)—responding to a reader who had complained of the writer’s having evaded a proper explanation of his protagonist’s motives: “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.”

“A reader” is an unsatisfactory way to describe Ivan Leontiev, who wrote under the pen name Shcheglov (his Dachny muzh [The suburban husband] was a big hit in the 1880s) and was an old friend of Chekhov’s. Leontiev had complained about the ending of Chekhov’s story “Lights” (“Огни“; note that it opens with the barking dog motif), but before responding to him directly, Chekhov discussed it with another friend, the publisher Suvorin, in a letter of May 30, 1888 (I take the English version from the translation available online here, since I don’t feel like retranslating it myself):

What you say about “The Lights” is quite just. […] You say that neither the conversation about pessimism nor Kisotcha’s story in any way help to solve the question of pessimism. It seems to me it is not for writers of fiction to solve such questions as that of God, of pessimism, etc. The writer’s business is simply to describe who has been speaking about God or about pessimism, how, and in what circumstances. The artist must be not the judge of his characters and of their conversations, but merely an impartial witness. I have heard a desultory conversation of two Russians about pessimism—a conversation which settles nothing—and I must report that conversation as I heard it; it is for the jury, that is, for the readers, to decide on the value of it. My business is merely to be talented—i.e., to know how to distinguish important statements from unimportant, how to throw light on the characters, and to speak their language. Shtcheglov-Leontyev blames me for finishing the story with the words, “There’s no making out anything in this world.” He thinks a writer who is a good psychologist ought to be able to make it out—that is what he is a psychologist for. But I don’t agree with him. It is time that writers, especially those who are artists, recognized that there is no making out anything in this world, as once Socrates recognized it, and Voltaire, too. The mob thinks it knows and understands everything; and the more stupid it is the wider it imagines its outlook to be. And if a writer whom the mob believes in has the courage to say that he does not understand anything of what he sees, that alone will be something gained in the realm of thought and a great step in advance.

Over a week later, on June 9, he wrote back to Leontiev; the response to the complaint takes up only a few lines at the end, and I will quote the translation from Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentaries:

I permit myself not to agree with you about my ‘Lights.’ It is not the psychologist’s job to understand things that he in fact does not understand. Let us not be charlatans and let us state openly that you can’t figure out anything in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.

(The Russian of both letters is after the cut.)
While I have your attention, here‘s a wonderful page (in Russian) about Gorky’s famous line “Глупый пингвин робко прячет тело жирное в утесах” [‘The stupid penguin shyly hides his fat body among the cliffs’), with its very unorthodox initial stress on пингвин ‘penguin’; I particularly recommend the nine-minute YouTube clip of a delightfully animated performance of the awful poem from which it comes, «Песня о буревестнике» (Song of the Stormy Petrel).

Russian text of the May 30 letter:

То, что пишете Вы об “Огнях”, совершенно справедливо. […] Вы пишете, что ни разговор о пессимизме, ни повесть Кисочки нимало не подвигают и не решают вопроса о пессимизме. Мне кажется, что не беллетристы должны решать такие вопросы, как бог, пессимизм и т. п. Дело беллетриста изобразить только, кто, как и при каких обстоятельствах говорили или думали о боге или пессимизме. Художник должен быть не судьею своих персонажей и того, о чем говорят они, а только беспристрастным свидетелем. Я слышал беспорядочный, ничего не решающий разговор двух русских людей о пессимизме и должен передать этот разговор в том самом виде, в каком слышал, а делать оценку ему будут присяжные, т. е. читатели. Мое дело только в том, чтобы быть талантливым, т. е. уметь отличать важные показания от не важных, уметь освещать фигуры и говорить их языком. Щеглов-Леонтьев ставит мне в вину, что я кончил рассказ фразой: “Ничего не разберешь на этом свете!” По его мнению, художник-психолог должен разобрать, на то он психолог. Но я с ним не согласен. Пишущим людям, особливо художникам, пора уже сознаться, что на этом свете ничего не разберешь, как когда-то сознался Сократ и как сознавался Вольтер. Толпа думает, что она все знает и все понимает; и чем она глупее, тем кажется шире ее кругозор. Если же художник, которому толпа верит, решится заявить, что он ничего не понимает из того, что видит, то уж это одно составит большое &#
1079;нание в области мысли и большой шаг вперед.

The June 9 letter:

Относительно конца моих “Огней” я позволю себе не согласиться с Вами. Не дело психолога понимать то, чего он не понимает. Паче сего, не дело психолога делать вид, что он понимает то, чего не понимает никто. Мы не будем шарлатанить и станем заявлять прямо, что на этом свете ничего не разберешь. Всё знают и всё понимают только дураки да шарлатаны.


  1. That’s why it’s practically impossible to ‘interpret’ Chekhov. I like Herzen’s version of the idea: ‘We are not the doctors, we are the pain’.
    Chekhov of course has his own stash of wonderful dacha stories. The mastery of phsycological turns is amazing in the little gem of a story, A Transgression (Беззаконие). The whole of human nature on just two pages.

  2. Has anyone studied the origin of the penguin stress in Gorky’s poem? Is there a theory or a definite comment?

  3. Hat, I thought you had taken the parenthesis pledge ?

  4. Sashura: the origin of the penguin stress in Gorky’s poem
    Here is another example of penguin stress.

  5. what is ‘dang’ cute?

  6. “Dang” is a down-country bowdlerization of “damn” (meaning “very”). “Down-country” people are friendly, right-living and clean-talking folks. That is, they don’t live in big cities.

  7. dearieme says

    Swipe me for a Dutchman, is that what “dang” means?

  8. What had you believed that it meant ??

  9. … meaning “very” in this instance but not in every instance, as I’m sure Stu the West Texan would agree. For example, I believe you can also say:
    “Dang it!”
    “Wait a goll-dang minute”
    “a dang nuisance”
    “Well, I’ll be danged”

  10. Yup, those are all danged appropriate examples.

  11. Ø,
    Even my more clean-talking acquaintances probably wouldn’t say “I’ll be danged”. If they feel they really need to bowdlerize, they might go for “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle”, though that’s hard to use unironically.
    I was going to say that I’m pretty sure “dang” can’t be substituted for “damn” in those cases where it’s still clearly acting as a verb (“damn it” being an idiomatic expletive), but dang it if I’m no longer sure about that generalization.

  12. Strike that:
    “I’ll be darned” is the likeliest substitution.

  13. @Ø: Quite right. It can also be used as an interjection on its own — just “Dang!” — as in “Dang, you’re right! ‘Dang’ has lots of meanings!” It’s mostly interchangeable with “darn” (or dialectal “dern”), though some fixed expressions might only allow the latter (“Darn shootin’!” and “by darn” sounding much better, to me at least, than “Dang shootin’!” and “by dang”).
    By the way I wasn’t familiar with “goll-dang”. Maybe that one’s dialectal? Can “goll” be used otherwise as a bowdlerization of “G-d”, or just in the one phrase?

  14. By the way, in the second paragraph of the story Sashura links to, the outraged maid says “Такого тебе рака испеку…” The translator takes it literally (“I’ll cook you such a crab…”), but that makes no sense. It appears to be a nineteenth-century idiom; I found a nice example in Daniil Mordovtsev‘s “Свету больше,” in Наблюдатель, Vol. 1, p. 89: “Молодые люди поняли друг друга, и теперь Оленушке пришлось «рака испечь»:— она вся до ушей вспыхнула” [‘The young people understood each other, and now Olenushka “baked a crayfish”: she blushed to the ears’]. Compare the current idiom покраснеть как рак ‘to turn red as a crayfish.’ (Actually, I say “crawfish,” but that’s my Ozark roots talking.)

  15. I made up the spelling of goll-dang, but I’m pretty sure it’s a word, or two. The counterpart of gosh darn. I can’t think of another context for goll, except in the form golly. Neither darn nor dang is a word I would spontaneously use.

  16. empty: Neither darn nor dang is a word I would spontaneously use.
    I guess you a city boy from up North, then. Everbody born in Texas is grassroots, so city and country is the same.

  17. Anyone ever seen this idiom?: “he took it and looked at me just like the West Point cat.” (From Miles Davis interviewed by Alex Haley.)

  18. The other day when the driver in front of me slammed on her brakes and I slammed on my brakes and my car slammed into hers, I believe what I spontaneously said was “God damn it!” Even though I had a child in the back seat. “Gosh darn it” would have been inadequate.

  19. At that rate the Rapture gonna pass you by, empty. I hear tell my momma has no further plans after December 2012.

  20. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.
    I’m almost sure there is a similar quote in English, but I can’t put a danged finger on it.
    as red as a crayfish is a standard Russian simile, but what is as red as *** in English? lobster?

  21. …as red as a beetroot.

  22. Never heard “beetroot,” just “beet.”

  23. I don’t know about an English equivalent, but one of Hugo Grotius’ Latin epigrams encapsulates much the same idea:
    nescire quaedam magna pars sapientiae
    ‘Not to know some things is a great part of wisdom.’
    The meter is an iambic senarius (- – v – – – v – vv – v -).

  24. Oops. Add a (prodelided) ‘est’ to the end of the Latin in my last comment.
    When I taught Etymology at the Center for Talented Youth in Lancaster, PA in 1990, I had a Vietnamese-American student whose last name was Dang. When I showed them the unabridged OED, they all decided to look up their first and last names to see if they meant anything. He was amused to see that his name was not only a euphemism for ‘damn’ but a jocular past tense of ‘ding’. Another student found nothing under ‘Janet’ and looked up ‘Jenny’ as the next best thing. She was not happy to find “female donkey or ass” as the definition.

  25. In UK “beet”, on it own, usually refers to “sugar beet”.

  26. As red as a shrimp, in Portuguese. I’d bet it’s related to the English lobster. We also use tomatoes and bellpeppers. Shrimp-red seems to be particularly suited for sunburn, and the others for when you’re ashamed.
    Chekov’s letters were the crux of my best literary theory course so far. It was Frankfurtian and I don’t even particularly favour Frankfurtian, but dang if that teacher wasn’t great.

  27. Bathrobe says

    My first thought on seeing this thread was that Gorki might have been talking about an auk, not a penguin, since an auk (specifically a Great Auk, now extinct) is a more likely candidate for hiding among the rocks. The French word pingouin refers to the Great Auk, not a penguin, so I even thought that maybe Russian followed French usage. But I was wrong; in this case it’s French that is the odd one out. Just about all languages that use ‘penguin’ or a similar term apply it to the penguins.
    Checking out online sources, however, I found that ‘penguin’ in English originally was applied to the Great Auk, and that the name was later used for the penguins because penguins and the Great Auk were both large flightless birds with black and white plumage adapted to life in freezing waters (Oxford Dictionaries).
    The etymology of ‘penguin’ is still disputed.

  28. Нельзя ставить на сцене заряженное ружье, если никто не имеет в виду выстрелить из него is religion for American prime-time TV drama.

  29. Bill Walderman says

    I just reached the discussion of Chekhov in part 1, ch. 66 of Zhizn’ i sud’ba. It ties in with your post. In an after-dinner conversation in which Viktor Shtrum participates, a historian by the name of Madyarov praises Chekhov as the most democratic and humane of Russian writers because of the enormous range of his characters from all social classes and all walks of life, because of his refusal to moralize or to advocate any ideology or philosophy, and because of his attention to and compassion for the individual person.
    As I make my way through Z. i S. that seems to be exactly what Grossman is trying to do, when, for example, he describes the genuine devotion and tenderness of the Stalinist party hack Getmanov for his wife and children.

  30. Chekhov in what I read recently had, as I remember, a strong tendency toward pessimism and toward a low opinion of people, especially women. But he wasn’t especially angry, more resigned, and didn’t paint people with one bad trait as all black, and didn’t organize stories in such a way as to blame everything on one bad individual.

  31. Is there really a dispute about the etymology of “penguin”? Isn’t it obviously Welsh for “white head”? American Heritage says “perhaps”.

  32. This is what the OED says (I like “in the opinion of zoologists”, so snotty):

    It appears that the name was first given to the Great Auk or Gare-fowl of the seas of Newfoundland, still called in F. pingouin or pinguin (1600 in Hatz.-Darm.). But it was soon applied also to the birds now called penguins, in F. manchots (found by Drake at Magellan’s Straits in 1578), which have a general external resemblance to the northern bird, though, in the opinion of zoologists, widely removed in structure. In this sense, also, Du. and Ger. pinguin, Da. and Sw. pingvin, all from English.]
    […] 1582 Ingram’s Narrative in Hakluyt Voy. (1589) 560 The Countrey men call them Penguins (which seemeth to be a Welsh name) […] 1638 Sir T. Herbert Trav. (ed. 2) 13 Here [‘Pengwin’ or Robben Island, near Cape Town] are also birds cal’d Pen-gwins (white-head in Welch) like Pigmies walking upright.
    [Note. Our earliest examples of the name penguin are due to Hakluyt. His account of Hore’s Voyage to Cape Breton was taken down by him, some fifty years after the event, from the mouth of Thomas Buts, a survivor of the voyage. If we could be sure that the name ‘Penguin Island’ dated back to 1536, this would be the earliest occurrence of the word, as it is certainly the earliest English notice of the bird. Ingram’s Narrative, if reliable, would be evidence for the name in 1568–9; but his tale is discredited, and is thus evidence only that he had heard of the penguin by 1582, four years later than Parkhurst’s letter to Hakluyt. The southern fowl, found by Drake (as by Magalhaens before him) at Magellan’s Straits, is fully described in The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, published by his nephew in 1628, ‘out of the Notes of Mr. Francis Fletcher’, Drake’s chaplain (ed. Hakl. Soc., 1854, p. 75), but no name is there given to it. The name occurs however in a MS of 1677, stated to be a transcript of Fletcher’s original Notes of 1578: ‘infinite were the number of fowles, which the Welsh men named Penguin, and Magilanus tearmed them geese’ (ibid. 72); but the absence of the name from the printed work of 1628, and from three other 16th c. accounts of the voyage (ibid. Appendix 217, 237, 279), in which the bird is described, makes the occurrence of penguin in Fletcher’s original Notes somewhat doubtful. The name certainly occurs in the narrative of Candishe or Cavendish, 1588; though his statement that Drake named one of the isles ‘Penguin Island’ is at variance with that of the eye-witnesses Fletcher and Winter (ibid. 76, 279), who both state that he named it St. George’s Island ‘in honour of England’. The attribution of the name penguin to ‘the Welsh men’, and its explanation as Welsh pen gwyn ‘white head’, appears also in Ingram, and later in Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels—in ed. 1634 as a surmise, in ed. 1638 as an accepted fact. But, besides that the Great Auk had not a white head (though it had white spots in front of the eyes), there are obvious historical difficulties, which some would remove in part by supposing the name to have been originally given by Breton fishermen. Other suggestions that the name is derived from L. pinguis ‘fat’, or is an alteration of ‘pin-wing’, referring to the rudimentary wings, are merely unsupported conjectures.]

  33. he describes the genuine devotion and tenderness of the Stalinist party hack Getmanov for his wife and children.
    Bill, don’t take it entirely on face value: at the table they are talking about building the next generation of nomenklatura elite through children, but then in the final scene of the chapter Getmanov is genuinely moved – and confused by his love for the children.
    There is a whole gang of Grossman readers now!

  34. (I like “in the opinion of zoologists”, so snotty)
    Is it snotty? Maybe appropriately cautious. When writing an evidence-based dictionary, you are careful not to say more than you know.

  35. Isn’t it obviously Welsh for “white head”?
    That’s the problem with words reshaped according to folk etymology—the etymology then appears obvious, even though it isn’t. If “sparrowgrass” had entirely displaced “asparagus” at an early stage, its etymology too would appear obvious, but it would be wrong. It is entirely conceivable that Welsh sailors heard some word that sounded to them like the Welsh for “white head.”

  36. I just reached the discussion of Chekhov in part 1, ch. 66 of Zhizn’ i sud’ba.
    I’m only a couple of chapters behind you!

  37. Ø, saying it’s an opinion implies a whole lot more than a lexicographer is entitled to. See The Big Lebowski:

    Jesus Quintana: You ready to be fucked, man? I see you rolled your way into the semis. Dios mio, man. Liam and me, we’re gonna fuck you up.
    The Dude: Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

  38. On penguin, I am most interested in the stress, not etymology. My theory is that Gorki shifted it deliberately, to create/reinforce the image of a frightened bourgeois/aristocrat – in tails (tuxedo), also called ‘penguin’ suite. Hence the anglicised stress.
    I was wondering if anyone had seen any research or study supporting the theory. There is nothing on this in the commentary to Gorki’s poem in the academic 30 vol. collection.

  39. Bathrobe says

    It does sound snooty because the birds are really rather far apart zoologically. The snootiness comes from the attitude of ‘Well, the zoologists say they’re different in structure, I suppose we had better listen to them’.

  40. re Chekhov discussion in Life and Fate:
    what Madyarov says about him is extremely provocative, for the time – 1942 or 1959. After some struggle Chekhov was classed as a denouncer of bourgeois hypocricy and conformism, but not a truly revolutionary writer, en derier of Gorki, the proletarianwriter. (Madyarov’s name is itself provocative, a derivative of Hungarian, when the uprising of 1956 was fresh in memory).

  41. J. W. Brewer says

    My almost-10-year-old daughter has taken to using “dang” as her expletive/interjection of choice, at least when I am within earshot. I really don’t know where she got it from (some bowdlerized Disney Channel show?), since none of her family or school peers are from the rural/country/downhome segments of the AmE speech community. And she hasn’t started reading Chekhov yet, so that can’t be the source . . .

  42. J. W. Brewer says

    Oh, and on OED v. zoology, certainly the notion that animals ought to be named similarly iff they are considered closely-related taxonomically (as opposed to based on visual similarities obvious to a non-scientist) is a rather obvious prejudice of specialists (perhaps a subset of what GKP calls “nerdview”?) that should not necessarily be binding on normal users of a normal language. Zoology dudes: that’s why you have those fancy Linnean cod-Latin names that situate species within your taxonomic diagrams. Don’t be all imperialistic and demand that the common names follow the same schema.
    Put more generally, species A and species B may be similar in feature x yet dissimilar in feature y. That the zoologists, for professional reasons of their own, may believe feature-y comparisons (whether they reveal similarities or dissimilarities) to be salient to their taxonomic work but feature-x similarities to be uninteresting coincidences should not preclude others who have other interests from finding feature-x similarities salient to their own analysis.

  43. The whale is a fish, per Melville and fisheries bureaus, and rabbits are poultry, per grocers.

  44. Bathrobe says

    I tend to agree with J.W. Brewer.

  45. I see little evidence that either a zoologist or a lexicographer has a problem attitude in this case. The lexicographer is neither for nor against using the same word for both birds, and he passes no judgement on those who (apparently finding them similar to look at) did so. He mentions in passing that experts say these two birds are more different than they may appear, but he does not claim to know this firsthand–he may have been too busy in his cluttered little room full of citation slips to ever pay much attention to real-life birds). On the other hand, he is not reporting that the zoologist raises any objection to people using the same common name for two rather distantly related birds.
    I believe that where birds are concerned it’s often a matter of a pinion.

  46. Ouch!

  47. Bill Walderman says

    “Madyarov’s name is itself provocative, a derivative of Hungarian, when the uprising of 1956 was fresh in memory.”
    Actually, Grossman overtly expresses sympathy for the Hungarian uprising and also for the Berlin uprising of 1953, in a chapter of reflections on the human urge for freedom (ch. 51 of part 1, I think). I wonder whether that chapter was in the version Grossman submitted for publication.

  48. [Penguins] have a general external resemblance to the northern bird, though, in the opinion of zoologists, widely removed in structure.
    Two zoologists might have quite different opinions about the significance of something zoological. In the best case, an “opinion” is a subjective conclusion that is reached after having sifted the facts. It is, presumably, a fact that penguins & great auks don’t share the same anatomy, so calling it their “opinion” – that’s just, like, your opinion, – is belittling zoology. Of course that’s just my opinion.

  49. We’re on the verge of a Monty Python sketch about what “widely removed” means.

  50. Damn! That would be funny. An auk, a penguin, one of the old ladies, and John Cleese.

  51. It’s a good question, what does “widely removed” mean? I’m not sure there would be much point in having an auk and a penguin. In some people’s opinion, they look pretty similar. I’d rather have John Cleese and Michael Palin.

  52. Is the Norwegian blue a true parrot or a macaw?

  53. To the old lady the auk and the penguin are almost exactly alike. It’s Cleese’s job, or maybe Palin’s, to explain that they are widely removed AND to explain what “widely removed” means.

  54. In my opinion, the Norwegian blue is an ‘awk.

  55. It’s in the opinion of geographers that penguins and auks are widely removed.

  56. Maybe Anne Elk has a theory about this, or at least an opinion.

  57. Do you by any chance mean A. Moose?

  58. Private Eye Pseudo Names

  59. Bathrobe says

    Given that the Great Auk is no longer with us, I’m not sure it would be suitable for a Monty Python sketch. Although, of course, something along the following lines might be possible:
    Cleese: You’ve sold me a dead auk! Look at it, it’s dead!
    Shopkeeper: No it’s not, it’s just extinct.

  60. No, he means A. Pushpin.

  61. elk = moose = Alces alces
    auk = Alcidae

  62. The moose and the auk are regarded by biologists as widely separated, for all interpretations of the phrase “widely separated”.
    In Portland Oregon there was a Rocky & Bullwinkle themed civil liberties lawsuit called “Squirrel v. Moose”. It can be Googled.

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