Literary hubris? I've got it in spades! Earlier this month I hauled 7 (seven!) books in my carry-on luggage to Massachusetts and back, planning to immerse myself in them during the week there. I finished one—skipping over boring sections.

Among the unread volumes that took the train with me was Stephen Dobyns's Best Words, Best Order, a collection of essays on poetry. Random-walking in it this morning I tripped over (in Chapter 11, "Chekhov's Sense of Writing") a marvelous excerpt from a letter that Anton Chekhov wrote to M. O. Menshikov on 28 Jan 1900 concerning my currently-favorite Russian writer:

... I fear Tolstoy's death. His death would leave a large empty space in my life. First, I have loved no man the way I have loved him. I am not a believer, but of all beliefs I consider his the closest to mine and most suitable for me. Second, when literature has a Tolstoy, it is easy and gratifying to be a writer. Even if you are aware that you have never accomplished anything, you don't feel so bad, because Tolstoy accomplishes enough for everyone. His activities provide justification for the hopes and aspirations that are usually placed on literature. Third, Tolstoy stands firm, his authority is enormous, and as long as he is alive bad taste in literature, all vulgarity in its brazen-faced or lachrymose varieties, all bristly and resentful vanity will remain far in the background. His moral authority alone is enough to maintain what we think of as literary trends and schools at a certain minimal level. If not for him, literature would be a flock without a shepherd or an unfathomable jumble.

Reading that, I suddenly understood science, and art, and society, and a host of other collective human endeavors. They're universes, alive both with brilliant stars and infinitesimal motes ...

(from Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, translated by Michael Henry Heim, with Simon Karlinksy, as quoted in the 2003 second edition of Stephen Dobyns's 1996 Best Words, Best Order; cf. TruthInBattle (11 Feb 2001), UntutoredVoice (3 Nov 2004), PerfectCommunication (14 Feb 2005), BeaconOfHope (17 Apr 2005), WhereWeAre (24 Apr 2005), GlobeOfLife (25 Jun 2005), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicPoetry - 2005-07-15

(correlates: PoeticCredo, Kenosis, ProcessVersusOutcome, ...)