The Madman and The Black Monk

by Dana Davison

Lately, I’ve got madness on the mind. I suspect this is a result of the brutal winter and diving back into the Russian literature. They go so well together. I’ve been finding that a lot of people are thinking about some of the eternal questions that arise from feeling mad. A good fairy angel gave me a wonderful seat last week for Gogol’s Diary of a Madman at the BAM Harvey Theater. It’s my favorite Brooklyn theater, all crumbling in its splendor. The stage had been transformed into an attic room, with red brick walls and a slanting tin roof. Rain was falling onto the skylight and dripping into buckets on the stained floors. In the back, a little bed with a trunk at the foot of it, and in the middle a desk lit by candle. Poprishchin’s room. The adaptation made him a bit more British than Russian, but the Australian Geoffery Rush gave a magnificent performance. I watched him slowly losing his mind.

Afterward, I went up to the psychiatry ward at Lenox Hill Hospital to visit a friend there, who seemed to me no different than her usual loony self. But still it seems everyone is feeling a bit crazy these days. Maybe because of the current scary state of the world, but maybe it’s something smaller, something old; age-old questions, in any case. While this may not fall directly under Ethical Realism, I’m posting here my response to reading the Chekhov story called The Black Monk, with a link below to the story itself… a pleasant diversion, and a gentle contrast to Madman.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Though not a typical Chekhov story, The Black Monk (1894) embraces the major themes of the times in which it was written: nature, the supernatural and psychology.

Nature comes into play with the beautiful descriptions of the garden, the explanation of using smoke to combat the frost and the articles written by Igor Semenich. It is the decorative part of the story, exhibiting desire and aesthetics. Nature becomes human, providing different views to the world. The Black Monk himself is a mystical mythic creature. Born of a legend, perhaps of Kovrin’s own imagination, a thousand-year-old ghost. Some critics put the story in the genre of the fantastic, but it seems more easily categorized as magical realism today, as the story contains elements of both the usual and unusual. However, even that might be a stretch and perhaps moot, as Chekhov himself did not subscribe to one genre but sought to conquer general problems in his stories. Because he was a doctor and medicine was such a big part of his life (“Medicine is my wife, and literature my mistress.”), it seems more likely that the psychological aspects drive the story as a study of mental illness.

All three of the main characters live with their own double personalities. Igor Semenich says he wants Kovrin as his son-in-law, but then worries when it comes to pass. His ego shows in his attitude toward his garden and his daughter. Tanya worries about Kovrin, and alternates between pride and jealousy. For her, marriage is an illusion and not a happy one. The way she and her father relate to each other also illustrates dysfunction. The states of mind of Igor Semenich and Kovrin run parallel and in the end they share the same destiny. Everyone seems to be looking out for themselves and blind to the needs of others. But truth has different perspectives, and not everyone sees things in the same way.

It is the figure of Kovrin who best exemplifies the central theme of the story. Through this main character, Chekhov raises questions that are eternally relevant, such as: What makes a person happy? How does one live an interesting life not muddled with mediocrity and remain sane? How to find the way and know your place in the world? What is and is not important? What does it mean to heal a person? Is it better to live with joyful illusions? What is the meaning of life and death? These questions are not answered in the story but examined without judgment, in my opinion, so the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.

Kovrin feels he does not know anything but his studies. When he arrives at Borissovka, he is still studying all night. Already his mental state is altered. He thinks about how much he has accomplished so far in life, but he wonders about the purpose. He comes to think that the practical things are for nothing. His encounters with the Black Monk make him feel important and happy, and others notice how interesting he is. When he is cured of his visions, he feels completely ordinary and depressed. The most meaningful passage regarding the psychology appears in part five, where Kovrin converses with the Black Monk on connections between immortality, enjoyment and knowledge, sanity, health and normalcy. It ends with the Black Monk slowly vanishing.

“The hallucination is over,” said Kovrin; and he laughed. “It’s a pity.” It is.

The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov (translated by Constance Garnett)