Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chekhov's Russia

"Русскому человеку в высшей степени свойственен 
возвышенный образ мыслей, 
но скажите, почему в жизни он хватает так невысоко? Почему?"

"The Russian person is extremely gifted at thinking on a sublime level, 
but, tell me, why do we aim so low in real life? Why?"

Chekhov penned this words in his work "Three Sisters" in 1900.  Although over a century old, I cannot better express this very thought provoking Russian paradox today.  Russians are some of the deepest, most philosophically minded, intelligent, and compelling people I know.  Yet, stepping off a plane and taking in one's first glimpse of the mother land, one would hardly guess that that could be so.  There is such a disparity here between the world of the mind and the world of the senses.  Obviously this is not a new trend, nor a product of the Soviet era, it has been this way at least the past one hundred years.  How and why this is the case, though, remains somewhat of a mystery, seemingly ingrained the genetic make-up of the people.   

A professor once told me that the best three countries for literature are Russia, France, and Britain.  After my initial arrival in Russia (almost 10 years ago,) I remember my surprise and amazement at finding pieces of these legendary characters, Roskolnikov, Vronsky, Levin, Ivan Karamazov, Bulgakov's Pilate, etc., etc., etc., alive within my new Russian friends.  It felt like meeting little modern Dostoevskies all over the place!  I began then to wonder if it wasn't the authors that made these countries so remarkable in literature, but actually the people themselves.  Dostoevsky "simply" put the dialogue of his time into text.  It's a dialogue that continues today in the same very profound and interesting way.  What Chekhov has noticed nearly 100 years ago remains true of his people today (self-fulfilling prophecy or just life in Russia?)  The capacity for this sublime level of thought has not dwindled over time.  At the same time, the standard of living has not dramatically improved either, or at least the desire for such.  Russians are the same Russians of which Chekhov and Dostoevsky wrote so many years ago.  Chekhov's paradox continues to knock on the decrepit and deteriorating concrete door.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Simple is as simple does.

Simplicity has always been a high value for me, at least so I thought...  Reading up a bit on the recent trend of "simplicity," however, has left me a bit at odds with my former ally.  Perhaps this is because I mistakenly equate simplicity with ease.  Easier almost always seems better to me.  For example, packing light means less awkward, sweaty, explosive fits of rage at the airport:  easier, simpler, better.  Having fewer things means fewer spousal arguments or manipulative tactics about what makes the cut moving to a new apartment:  easier, simpler, better.  Choosing to do one thing a day, rather than seven, means I might have time to make dinner:  easier, simpler, tastier.

Although I recognize that easy does not necessarily always mean simple, it seems nowadays that simple does not necessarily mean simple either.  Simple, it seems, has become a brand, a lifestyle, a luxury.  Simple is planting an extensive garden in your backyard to grow your own produce and herbs organically and affordably:  fresh, delicious, and fun (if you like that kind of thing,) but also time-consuming, messy, and complicated.  Simple is starting a blog explaining how you have reorganized and "simplified" your kitchen utensils to achieve a maximum level of efficiency in the kitchen.  While perhaps nice to no longer rummage around lesser-used items, doesn't the creation of the blog negate the purpose of stream-lining one's time and energy?  Oh, the irony.  Simple is buying only certain foods, at rather high prices, to avoid processed, saturated, sugared, salted, manipulated, altered, etc., etc., etc.:  cleaner, greener, leaner, purer, but perhaps not simpler.

Simple has become exactly what it is not:  complicated, demanding, and difficult to attain.

While these new trends are not in and of themselves bad at all, they do not seem simple to me.  As we, particularly Americans, transition from our pendulum swing of excess and "more," I can understand the desire to trend toward simplicity.  However, let's keep simple simple.  Let's dumb it down again.  Let's make it easy again - or at least easier, plain, and simple.