Working Hard, or Hardly Working? Justifying Idleness and Art

If you want the view of a respected literary critic on art, idleness, and the story “House With a Mezzanine,” you should probably consult Carol A. Flath’s 1999 article “Art and Idleness:  Chekhov’s ‘House With a Mezzanine'” (The Russian Review, Vol. 58).  I say “probably” because I haven’t actually read it myself.  The Wiley Online Library charges the extortionate fee of $35 to download the article, and it seemed like too much work to ask my local public library to get me a copy from a university library.  To quote the story’s anonymous narrator:  “And I don’t care to work and I won’t work….”

I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in the narrator, who tells us that he had been “trying to find justification for [his] perpetual idleness.” I’ve been trying to find justification for my own idleness for the last three years.

Technically, I’m young enough to aspire to a second, very full, post-retirement career in Federal civil service or teaching.  But before I retired from the Navy three years ago, I very carefully declined to update my security clearance (a highly marketable asset in metro Washington, D.C.) so that I would not be tempted to join the ranks of Beltway Bandits.  I have yet to apply to a program in which I could use the remainder of my G.I. Bill for a master of arts in secondary education or a doctorate in literature, either of which would give me better teaching credentials.  My husband is still working; we’re careful with his salary and my military pension; why shouldn’t I allow myself to pursue the writing life without reservation or guilt?

Sometimes, when I’ve been on a writing jag and the breakfast dishes are still on the table and dinner isn’t started by the time my husband comes home, I feel like I should have to justify what I’ve done with my day.  The desire to justify my “idleness” is stronger when I try to talk about work and life with my sister: she’s the director of a prestigious mental health clinic, an adjunct professor in a graduate department of an Ivy League university, and the mother of two young sons.  Sis, I am not worthy!  The social encounters I had with three admirals — three of my former bosses — were the worst.  Each was appalled to learn that I’m not using my military background to pursue a second career.  I couldn’t tell them that I’m trying to become a “writer.”  Admirals focus on results, and I have yet to publish a word of fiction.  So I mouthed the latest platitudes about the value of being a stay-home mom.  Their knowing expressions while they listened and pretended to agree made me feel like Seaman Schmuckatelli trying to lie her way out of a captain’s mast.  But telling those three worthy gentlemen that I’m trying to spend the next phase of my life creating art would surely have sounded like a lame justification for doing…nothing that they would consider productive. 

Boris Kustodiev, "On the Terrace" (1906, oil on canvas)

I made a conscious decision to embrace “idleness.”  The anonymous narrator of “House With a Mezzanine,” however, claims that he has been “condemned by destiny to perpetual idleness.”   A landscape painter, he is spending the summer doing nothing in a country estate not far from a house where two wealthy young ladies, Lida and Zhenia, live with their mother.  While the house has a mezzanine — a kind of middle ground — Lida and Zhenia live their lives at two extremes.  Lida is beautiful, strong, and politically active.  She teaches in the zemstvo (local) school and is passionately committed to improving the life of the local peasantry, who still lack basic education and medical services despite their liberation from serfdom thirty years earlier.  Zhenia is weak, pale, fragile, thin, childlike.  She spends her days in idleness — reading until it “exhausted her brain,” or wandering the fields and lanes.

Zhenia, who seems to have no opinions of her own except that she admires her older sister, flatters the narrator with her company and interest in his ideas.  He believes that Zhenia longs for him “to initiate her into the domain of the Eternal and the Beautiful — into that higher world in which, she imagined, I was quite at home.”  Self and imagination are so important to him that he cannot conceive of their loss after his death.  He has high esteem for art and its aims:  “We are higher beings,” he says to Zhenia, “and if we were really to recognize the whole force of human genius and lived only for higher ends, we should in the end become like gods.”  Hubris, anyone? 

His attitude annoys Lida, who believes that “the highest and holiest task for a civilized being is to serve his neighbors.”  He argues that “The highest vocation of man is spiritual activity — the perpetual search for truth and the meaning of life….Once a man recognizes his true vocation, he can only be satisfied by religion, science, and art.” 

In his more thoughtful moments, the narrator voices more universally held beliefs:  that the spirit is “what distinguishes man from the brutes and is the only thing which makes life worth living”…and that “When science and art are real, they aim not at temporary private ends, but at eternal and universal — they seek for truth and the meaning of life, they seek for God, for the soul….”  However, his arguments with Lida grow progressively more destructive.  His line of reasoning becomes downright outlandish:  if everyone did physical labor three hours a day, no one would have to labor all day…peasants don’t need medical clinics or elementary education — they need universities.

Lida says that these opinions mark him as indifferent to human suffering, and that she values the meanest dispensary or library over any landscape.  She dismisses him, bending over a newspaper on the table “as though she were short-sighted.”  The narrator finds her short-sighted indeed. 

When he decides that he is in love with Zhenia, the narrator’s desire to paint is revived: 

“I had a passionate desire to paint for her sake alone; and I dreamed of her as of my little queen who would with me possess those trees, those fields, the mists, the dawn, the exquisite and beautiful scenery in the midst of which I had felt myself hopelessly solitary and useless.”  All his high-minded notions of art and spirit and the search for eternal beauty aside, it is the real world — specifically, the presence of this woman in it — that has at last inspired him to work again.

Evgenii Rachev, illustration for Ivan Krylov's "The Fox and the Crow" (1806)

When he returns the next morning, Lida is giving a lesson to one of the peasant girls.  Over and over, she repeats parts of a sentence:  “God sent a crow a piece of cheese.”  This is the opening line of “The Fox and the Crow,” Ivan Krylov’s 1806 retelling of the Aesopian fable in which a crow learns never to trust a flattererZhenia is gone:  Lida has forbidden the connection with the narrator, and has sent her sister and their mother away.

It’s tempting to read the story from a social and historical perspective.  Chekhov, having been a provincial physician, was deeply concerned with medical care and the plight of the Russian peasant.  The anonymous narrator is a victim of his own hubris.  He falls in love because Zhenia flatters him; he loses his love because he values art for art’s sake, art detached from any practical object (in a manner of speaking), over all practical ways of serving others and improving the world.  The moral of the story is black and white, right?

The title, emphasizing the mezzanine or middle, suggests that the conclusion shouldn’t be so facile.  I read the story as an invitation to engage in an ongoing meditation about the value of art — a question that should be asked repeatedly, frequently, and perhaps never answered in the absolute. 

So here’s my current meditation on the nature and value of the short story.  Earlier in the week I was going through a backlog of blog posts in my Google reader.  So many short stories were reviewed near the end of Short Story Month; they seemed to be proliferating endlessly in my message queue.  Because of a little ADHD problem I’m prone to a phenomenon that I call “kangaroo brain” — thoughts that bounce off walls like “Hippety Hopper” in the old Warner Brothers cartoons — and as I struggled with the backlog of blog posts, my inner kangaroo suddenly drew a mental picture of the short story as a fractal series.

Koch Snowflake

Mathematician Alan Beck calls a fractal “any pattern that reveals greater complexity as it is enlarged,” a way of graphically portraying the notion of “worlds within worlds.”  A Koch snowflake is a kind of fractal in which a triangle is placed inside a circle.  The outside edges of the triangle are altered by a kind of folding, in repeated iterations, until the length of the figure’s perimeter is far greater than the perimeter of the circle within which the figure is inscribed.  The perimeter’s length approaches infinity; says Beck, “Infinity is implicit and invisible in the computations of calculus but explicit and graphically manifest in fractals.”  That’s what I mean by the fractal nature of short stories.  Infinity is explicitly and graphically manifest in a good short story.  The figure that circumscribes stories is the whole sphere of human experience; the possibilities for describing human experience through the short story equal the perimeter of a Koch snowflake — confined inside that sphere but not limited by it, endlessly folding and repeating and creating more beauty.  Lest a mathematical expression of the nature of short stories seem ridiculous, because human experience and the short story form are more complex than mathematics can describe, let me point out that fractals are found in nature in the forms of lightning, trees, crystals, coastlines, and even heads of broccoli. 
Short stories seem to me to be just another of nature’s complex and beautiful manifestations.  We don’t question the value of lightning, trees, crystals, coastlines, or broccoli (well, my husband does question the value of broccoli — but he’s an astrophysicist, so we’ll cut him some slack).  Maybe the ultimate value of any good short story is just…that it exists as a complex and beautiful expression of the human spirit.

About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
This entry was posted in Chekhov, Reading, Stories and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Working Hard, or Hardly Working? Justifying Idleness and Art

  1. I love this post! And I face the same dilemma as you – how do I justify my idleness? I rushed through college – getting a bachelor’s degree in 3 years instead of 4, then when straight to work. When my husband’s job required that we move a while back, I thought I might try something different. I took some computer classes for a semester then spent the next few months looking for a job. I wasn’t willing to settle for just “whatever” and when I didn’t find what I was looking for I quite literally gave up and decided instead to take some time to read great literature, dissect poetry, watch amazing films, and explore in a way that I never allowed myself to do when I was younger.
    We live in a society where what you do is who you are – it’s the first question to be asked by a new acquaintance and I squirm every time it pops up. What to say, how to explain?
    I sometimes justify my idleness by doing virtually everything around the house. Try explaining that to old friends! Sounds really feminist, doesn’t it? I can just see the images of Archie and Edith Bunker flashing in their heads.

    But I think idleness gets a bad rap. Perhaps it’s just my perception but I think it used to be more valued than it is today. Now, we’re all about what you do not what you think or what you know.

  2. readersquest says:

    I also see among the stay-home-Mom mafia a tendency for women, especially women who had been out in the work force before having children, to define themselves by their children’s accomplishments — and as a corollary, to put excessive pressure on their children to pursue and excel in school and extracurricular activities. I’ve also seen empty-nester moms go into hyperdrive on church & other similar community activities. Committing to a reading-and-blogging project forces me to step back a little from the kids’ lives and to live my own a bit more. And it guarantees me some quality leisure, not the must-see-and-do-everything-in-Orlando kind of leisure that makes some family vacations more tiring than the regular work/school week.

    We may have to do the self-justification tap dance now and then, but I think that in the final analysis, we’ll be happier and live longer!

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