Viewed by Penelope J. Corfield and Tony Belton 14 December 2012

‘Basically, life in Russia sucks’, summarised the young man in the row behind us, for the benefit of his somewhat bemused companions, who had obviously expected something jollier. We had all shared the experience of seeing a beautifully staged and thrillingly enacted production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (first published 1897 and premiered 1899). By the end, its bleak tragi-comedy left the audience appreciative but stunned. The story was so much more one of tragedy than comedy. To be sure, no-one actually dies. But all the main characters are revealed as thwarted and diminished by life deep in the Russian provinces. They are failures who live daily with their wounds raw. When the audiences laugh, the mirth is hardly differentiated from a painful sorrow.

Dramatically, it’s a great achievement by Chekhov. He forces laughter from the audience, even while telling a sad story. For example, we are amused when, at one point, the two leading ladies are sobbing convulsively, one at one side of the stage crying noisily ‘I’m so unhappy’ and the other at the other side crying hysterically ‘I’m so happy’. But we laugh with a sad, wry laughter. We are already becoming aware that the unhappy leading lady is a heartless sham and that the (briefly) happy young lady is deceiving herself.

Indeed, Chekhov’s six leading characters are all in their different ways sad failures. The eminent professor Serebryakov (Paul Freeman), visiting the provinces from Moscow, is revealed as a sententious and selfish windbag, who is unworthy of his (over-inflated) reputation. His charming young second wife, Yelena (played lustrously by Anna Friel), is revealed as a vacuous beauty, who disrupts people’s lives heedlessly and cannot respond to the passions which she arouses – passions which perhaps she even begins to feel but cannot accept. Uncle Vanya and his niece Sonya (Laura Carmichael), who is the professor’s plain but worthy daughter by his first wife, are revealed as deadened by their selfless toil in running the family estate. They scrimp and save to fund the professor, who is both unworthy and ungrateful. At the end, Vanya, impressively played by Ken Stott, is unable even to commit suicide successfully. The uncle and niece are disillusioned. Their personal hopes of love are thwarted. Yet they remain noble in their tedium. They continue to run the estate and to support the family. They have no hope but endurance. ‘We shall live all through the endless procession of days ahead of us, and through the long evenings’, as Sonya foresees. Only at some unspecified future date, in the next world, will they find solace. So Sonya reassures Uncle Vanya in the famous incantation that ends the play: ‘We shall rest. We shall rest. We shall rest’.

Little alleviates the gloom. Another character Telegin (Mark Hadfield), who is nicknamed ‘Waffles’ for his pockmarked skin, appears essentially as a butt for familiar banter and humour. He is an impoverished landowner, who lives on the estate as a dependent of the professor’s family. So Waffles exemplifies prior failure, now domesticated within the provincial scene as a reminder that careers are liable to go downwards as well as upwards.

Even the relative newcomer to the area, the youthful Doctor Astrov (played with unself-conscious charm by Samuel West,) who is the most dynamic of the assembled party, is revealed as ultimately thwarted. He is able, active, and impressive. Yet Astrov cannot stir the superficial Yelena to reciprocate his passion. And he entirely fails to notice the devoted love that he has aroused in the heart of the luckless Sonya, who would seem a much more suitable partner for life in the provinces. At the end, Astrov too is facing a future of duty without companionship. His hobby is healing and planting trees, which he does in the service of ‘future generations who will be happier than us’.
review001Is there any hint of an escape-route for these educated but melancholy people, deep in nineteenth-century Russia’s remote provinces? They had no electronic media to link them to friends around the world. They could not sign up to courses of distance learning. And they could not all manage to move to Moscow, where, even so, they might end up as self-deceiving mediocrities like the professor. Chekhov does not suggest anything positive. He himself was a chronically busy and active person. So his life’s message might be to discover one’s chosen metier and to work at it. But how to find and then to cultivate it?

In this play, pre-revolutionary Russia’s political and educational system, which wasted human talent, is implicitly rebuked. But the problems were not readily solved by the post-revolutionary settlement either. The Tsars were replaced in 1917 by the communist dictatorship, and after 1991 by a new muddle of democracy and kleptocracy. Educational levels have undoubtedly risen; and the material conditions have changed, often massively but not always for the better. How do individual life-opportunities fare throughout all this? In particular, what should the countless Uncle Vanyas, adrift in Russia’s vast provinces, choose as a career, when they are not chess prodigies or gifted musicians or sporting heroes or ballet stars or nuclear scientists or even frontier trappers? How can ordinary people find joy? What would Dr Astrov alias Anton Chekhov say? Basically, that life in Russia is always work in progress. Seek for love but settle for duty – and, in the meantime, plant some more saplings.
review002Illustrations: (1) Birch woods in Sosnovka Park, St Petersburg, Russia from www.asergeev.com: Photo 758-22, dated 11/6/2009; (2) Birch saplings: from www.trees2mydoor.com with cashback, downloaded 29/4/2013.

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

How do we champion (not merely defend) the study of History in schools and Universities? Against those who wrongly claim that the subject is not commercially ‘useful’.

Here are three recommendations. Firstly, we should stress the obvious: that a knowledge of history and an interconnected view of past and present (cause and consequence) is essential to the well-functioning not only of every individual but also of every society. The subject roots people successfully in time and place. Individuals with lost memories become shadowy, needing help and compassion. Communities with broken memories, for example through forced uprooting, exhibit plentiful signs of trauma, often handed down through successive generations. Civics as well as economics thus demands that people have a strong sense of a sustained past. That entails learning about the history their own and other societies, in order to gain an understanding of the human condition. All knowledge comes from the past and remains essential in the present. Nothing could be more ‘useful’ than history, viewed broadly.

december003The second recommendation links with the first. We should define the subject as the study not of the ‘dead past’ but of ‘living history’.

In fact, there’s a good case for either usage. Historians often like to stress the many differences between past and present. That’s because studying the contrasts sets a good challenge – and also because an awareness of ‘otherness’ alerts students not simply to project today’s attitudes and assumptions backwards in time. The quotation of choice for the ‘difference’ protagonists comes from an elegiac novel, which looked back at England in 1900 from the vantage point of a saddened older man in the 1940s. Entitled The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953), it began with the following words: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

It’s an evocative turn of phrase that has inspired book titles.1 It’s also widely quoted, often in the variant form of ‘the past is another country’. These phrases draw their potency from the fact that other places can indeed be different – sometimes very much so. It is also true that numerous historic cultures are not just different but have physically vanished, leaving imperfect traces in the contemporary world. ‘Ancient Ur of the Chaldees is covered by the sands of southern Iraq. … And the site of the once-great Alexandrian port of Herakleion lies four miles off-shore, under the blue seas of the Mediterranean’.2

december002On the other hand, while some elements of history are ‘lost’, past cultures are not necessarily inaccessible to later study. Just as travellers can make an effort to understand foreign countries, so historians and archaeologists have found many ingenious ways to analyse the ‘dead past’.

There are common attributes of humanity that can be found everywhere. We all share a living human history.3 Ancient cultures may have vanished but plenty of their ideas, mathematics, traditions, religions, and languages survive and evolve. Anyone who divides a minute into sixty seconds, an hour into sixty minutes, and a circle into 360 degrees, is paying an unacknowledged tribute to the mathematics of ancient Babylon.4

december001So there is an alternative quotation of choice for those who stress the connectivity of past and present. It too comes from a novelist, this time from the American Deep South, who was preoccupied by the legacies of history. William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun (1951) made famous his dictum that:
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

No doubt there are circumstances when such sentiments are dangerous. There are times when historic grievances have to be overcome. But, before reconciliation, it’s best to acknowledge the reality of such legacies, rather than dismissing them. As it happens, that was the argument of Barack Obama when giving a resonant speech in 2008 about America’s festering ethnic divisions.5

Historians rightly observe that history contains intertwined elements of life and death. But when campaigning for the subject, it’s best to highlight the elements that survive through time. That is not romanticising history, since hatreds and conflicts are among the legacies from the past. It’s just a good method for convincing the doubters. Since we are all part of living history, for good and ill, we all need to study the subject in all its complexity.

Thirdly and finally: historians must make common cause with champions of other subjects. Obvious allies come from the Arts and Humanities. But we should appeal especially to the Pure Sciences. They too fail to meet the test of immediate economic ‘usefulness’. There is no instant value in a new mathematical equation. No immediate gain from the study of String Theory in physics. (Indeed, some physicists argue that this entire field is turning into a blind alley).6 But the pure sciences need essential scope for creativity and theoretical innovation. Some new ideas have become ‘useful’ (or dangerous) only many years after the initial intellectual breakthrough. Others have as yet no direct application. And some may never have.

Humans, however, are capable of thinking long. It is one of our leading characteristics. So we must not be bullied into judging the value of subjects to study solely or even chiefly in terms of short-term criteria. The Pure Sciences, alongside the Arts and Humanities, must combat this blinkered approach. There are multiple values in a rounded education, combining the theoretical and the practical. In the case of History, the blend must include knowledge as well as skills. In the sciences, it must include the theoretical as well as the applied. One without the other will fail. And that in the long-term is not remotely useful. In fact, it’s positively dangerous. History confirms the long-term usefulness of the sciences. Let the scientists repay the compliment by joining those who reject crude utilitarianism – hence in turn championing the study of History.

1 Notably by David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1983)

2 Quoting from an essay by myself, entitled ‘Cities in Time’, in Peter Clark (ed.), Oxford Handbook on Cities in World History (Oxford, forthcoming May 2013).

3 See Ivar Lissner, The Living Past (1957), transl. from German So Habt Ihr Geleb = literally Thus Have They Lived; and my personal response in PJC Discussion-Point Nov. 2011.

4 For the social and intellectual context of Babylonian mathematics, see Eleonor Robson, Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History (Princeton, 2008).

5 For Barack Obama’s speech ‘A More Perfect Union’, delivered at Philadelphia, PA, 18 March 2008: see video on www.youtube.com.

6 See references to the usefulness or otherwise of pure maths in PJC Blog Oct. 2012.

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