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How To Be Civilized

This one’s a gem. It’s from an 1886 letter Anton Chekhov wrote to his older brother Nikolai [1], trying to convince him to quit drinking and carousing and to grow up. He failed, and Nikolai ended up dead. This is the heart of the letter, Chekhov’s list of the qualities of a civilized man — this, in contrast to the false life Nikolai was living at the time. Nikolai was a talented artist, but was wasting his gifts. Excerpt:

To my mind, civilized people ought to satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor, and when they move out, they do not say, “How can anyone live with you!” They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes.

2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats. They are hurt even by things the naked eye can’t see. If for instance, Pyotr knows that his father and mother are turning gray and losing sleep over seeing their Pyotr so rarely (and seeing him drunk when he does turn up), then he rushes home to them and sends his vodka to the devil. They do not sleep nights the better to help the Polevayevs, help pay their brothers’ tuition, and keep their mother decently dressed.

3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.

4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague. They do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar’s eyes. They don’t put on airs, they behave in the street as they do at home, and they do not try to dazzle their inferiors. They know how to keep their mouths shut and they do not force uninvited confidences on people. Out of respect for the ears of others they are more often silent than not.

5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy. They do not play on people’s heartstrings to get them to sigh and fuss over them. They do not say, “No one understands me!” or “I’ve squandered my talent on trifles!” because this smacks of a cheap effect and is vulgar, false and out-of-date.

6. They are not preoccupied with vain things. They are not taken in by such false jewels as friendships with celebrities, handshakes with drunken Plevako, ecstasy over the first person they happen to meet at the Salon de Varietes, popularity among the tavern crowd. They laugh when they hear, “I represent the press,” a phrase befitting only Rodzeviches and Levenbergs. When they have done a penny’s worth of work, they don’t try to make a hundred rubles out of it, and they don’t boast over being admitted to places closed to others. True talents always seek obscurity. They try to merge with the crowd and shun all ostentation. Krylov himself said that an empty barrel has more chance of being heard than a full one.

7. If they have talent, they respect it. They sacrifice comfort, women, wine and vanity to it. They are proud of their talent, and so they do not go out carousing with trade-school employees or Skvortsov’s guests, realizing that their calling lies in exerting an uplifting influence on them, not in living with them. What is more, they are fastidious.

8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities. They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a slit in the wall teeming with bedbugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a spittle-laden floor or eat off a kerosene stove. They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, […] not the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the ability to stage a fake pregnancy and tirelessly reel off lies. They—and especially the artists among them—require spontaneity, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother… They don’t guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not swine. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself. For they require a mens sana in corpore sano.

And so on. That’s how civilized people act. If you want to be civilized and not fall below the level of the milieu you belong to, it is not enough to read The Pickwick Papers and memorize a soliloquy from Faust. It is not enough to hail a cab and drive off to Yakimanka Street if all you’re going to do is bolt out again a week later.

You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious.

This is so great, so great. I found it in Prufrock, the daily arts, literature, and culture e-mail sent out by Micah Mattix. It’s free; subscribe by clicking here [2] and doing what it tells you.

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13 Comments To "How To Be Civilized"

#1 Comment By JParker On July 25, 2013 @ 9:30 am

“they do not go out carousing with trade-school employees”

this remains sound advice.

#2 Comment By Sam M On July 25, 2013 @ 9:33 am

“a talented artist, but was wasting his gifts.”

Hmm. Good thing I subscribed to Prufrock, because today I got this awesome review of a book about why writers get so drunk all the time:

[3]

I presume this might apply to painters as well. Meaning… was he wasting his gifts? Or wrestling with them? Lots of artists use lots of drugs, and I am not sure Jimmy Hendrix would have been a better guitar player if he had been a tea-totaller. Etc.

Which, oddly, comes back to the question of sticking versus leaving. Can you leave home and family, even if it pains them, if you are called to be a (writer/painter/corporate lawyer) in San Fran? What about leaving by taking leave… of your senses, even… because that’s what your calling entails?

All of which means that, for some people, respecting their talent and getting drunk all the time are synonymous, or at least so closely related that they cannot be extricated.

Interesting. Thanks for the heads up on Prufrock.

#3 Comment By American in Istanbul On July 25, 2013 @ 10:09 am

“They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat ….”

The best you can say about this part is Chekov didn’t live up to his own ideal, because he was something of a Don Juan. [4]

#4 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On July 25, 2013 @ 10:17 am

That bit about ‘trade school employees’ creeps me the hell out.

Classism, ugh.

#5 Comment By Charles Cosimano On July 25, 2013 @ 11:20 am

Now, try to find a real human like that.

The first rule of how to be civilized is to learn to sneer, especially at folks who seek to tell you how to be civilized. What a load of Chekov!

#6 Comment By Mike W On July 25, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

Good stuff. I subscribed to Prufrock as a result of an earlier post by you, Rod. Thanks for the heads up.

#7 Comment By Beyng On July 25, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

Hector:

You find classism “creepy”? That’s an odd reaction, to be sure.

In any case, it is classist. But it’s also to some degree accurate. Trust me: I grew up in “trade school” Appalachia, and my redneck neighbors did not usually spend their weekends invested in uplifting activities–unless you consider unprotected and “casual” sex, black-out drunkenness, cavorting with firearms (by which I do not mean respectable target-shooting or hunting), and so on to be “uplifting.” I don’t, and folks who were more “well-bred”–which had little to do with income–rejected their company, at least on the weekends. Surely you know the type. The underachieving partier in high school with no life ambitions who ends up in the local community college by default studying a mindless trade suggested by a guidance counselor somewhere. What does he spend his off-hours doing? Not usually something you would want your kids doing. Go ahead–call me a snob.

#8 Comment By EngineerScotty On July 25, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

Forget Chekov. This needs to go to Captain Kirk. 🙂

#9 Comment By Lancelot Lamar On July 25, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

I suppose this is wise advice, but also useless in that we cannot save ourselves and seeking salvation through being “civilized” is just a horrible delusion. It is like Aunt Emily’s rant to Binx; it is just another prescription for despair. The despair of duty, morality, and civilization (the Law) is just as great or greater than the aesthetic despair of Nikolai. They are both ways to try to find and establish a life without God.

“It is by grace that we are saved, through faith, and that not of ourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works lest any should boast.” Only God’s grace could save both Nikolai and Anton.

#10 Comment By Charles Cosimano On July 25, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

Ok, here is the Cosimanian Orthodox guide to being a civilized person.

1. Never become involved with women with ridiculous names. They will lead you to the road to sexting the neighbors.

2. Avoid all things French. Remember, the French are descended from the Franks a people so degraded in all their habits that even the Burgundians were ashamed to have them as neighbors.

3. Listen to classical organ music. You can never go wrong with 18th century German and it scares the living daylights out of the neighbors.

4. Never forget that the working and underclass are not really human and one must never expect them to behave as humans.

5. Acquire a taste for natural disasters that happen in other parts of the world. They are good source of free entertainment.

6. Wear sunglasses as much as possible. Overmuch light is bad for the eyes. Besides, they make you look cool.

7. It is better to smile than frown. It is better to laugh than to cry, especially at things making other people frown and cry.

8. The key to happiness is not to worry about what makes strangers happy.

9. Cultivate a sense of boredom that comes from the knowledge that nothing really matters very much and that people that think things matter are usually pretty dull.

10. Remember, deep down, there is nothing wrong being any “ist” that folks do not approve of. Their disapproval only makes them boring and good targets for ridicule.

#11 Comment By RB On July 25, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

I’d like to print this out and put it in the kids’ bathroom, next to the poetry. I especially like the rules about not TMI-ing people or humblebragging.

#12 Comment By JonF On July 25, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

Beyng, the people who go to trade school are the ones trying to make something of themselves, and we should not sneer at them. How many times have any number of us here pointed out that we need to drop “college for all” and replace that with good apprenticeship programs for those who are not academically gifted?
There’s rif-raf at all levels of society. Paris Hilton comes obviously to mind among the jet-set. But you can find middle class people with drinking and drug problems (Chekhov’s brother being a Russian 19th century example), or who step out on their spouses, or mistreat their children. The Devil can wear saggy pants, or khakis or a tuxedo.

#13 Comment By JonF On July 25, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

Re: You can never go wrong with 18th century German and it scares the living daylights out of the neighbors.

Jawohl, lebe Herr Bach für immer!