Chekhov’s Ivanoff and the inability to understand oneself or others

In Chekhov’s comedy Ivanoff (sometimes written as Ivanov), revised and first performed in St. Petersburg in 1889, Chekhov explores the impossibility of understanding oneself or others.

Human beings can never really understand themselves. The effort to understand oneself is based on the paradox of self-reference. Understanding, in the traditional sense, implies a subject-object relationship. There is a subject that understands or does not understand an object, as an auto mechanic understands how a car works. But a mind must use itself as it tries to understand itself. Nor can one mind understand another mind, because minds are operationally closed. A mind (or psychic system) can structurally couple with language but not with another mind.

Speaking more precisely, a psychic system can only irritate itself, as irritations arise from internal comparisons. Irritation is always self-irritation. Irritation is structurally determined.

The “comedy” of Ivanoff is all about the inability to understand oneself or others. It is not about the failure to understand, but rather the complete impossibility to understand. This is why the famous aphorism “Know thyself” is so misleading. The comedy of human interaction derives from the impossibility of understanding either other people or oneself. T.S. Eliot‘s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” captures this experience very well with the words,

Should I say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

Prufrock is a man who cannot form a satisfying social connection. But in Ivanoff, we have dialogue such as the following:

LVOFF. Look here, whom are you trying to deceive? Throw off this disguise!

IVANOFF. You who are so clever, you think that nothing in the world is easier than to understand me, do you? I married Annie for her money, did I? And when her parents wouldn’t give it to me, I changed my plans, and am now hustling her out of the world so that I may marry another woman, who will bring me what I want? You think so, do you? Oh, how easy and simple it all is! But you are mistaken, doctor; in each one of us there are too many springs, too many wheels and cogs for us to judge each other by first impressions or by two or three external indications. I can not understand you, you cannot understand me, and neither of us can understand himself. A man may be a splendid doctor, and at the same time a very bad judge of human nature; you will admit that, unless you are too self-confident.

LVOFF. Do you really think that your character is so mysterious, and that I am too stupid to tell vice from virtue?

As psychic systems, we are black boxes to society. Society is nothing more than communication, but psychic systems do not communicate and they are inaccessible to communication. A mind, consciousness, psychic system (or whatever you choose to call it) is operationally closed. Interaction systems (conversations) and larger social systems can irritate psychic systems, but that is all.

Here is Ivanoff talking again with the foolish doctor, Lvoff (who serves as his dramatic foil):

LVOFF. . .  The best cure for consumption is absolute peace of mind, and your wife has none whatever. She is forever excited by your behaviour to her. Forgive me, I am excited and am going to speak frankly. Your treatment of her is killing her. [A pause] Ivanoff, let me believe better things of you.

IVANOFF. What you say is true, true. I must be terribly guilty, but my mind is confused. My will seems to be paralysed by a kind of stupor; I can’t understand myself or any one else. [Looks toward the window] Come, let us take a walk, we might be overheard here. [They get up] My dear friend, you should hear the whole story from the beginning if it were not so long and complicated that to tell it would take all night. [They walk up and down] Anna is a splendid, an exceptional woman. She has left her faith, her parents and her fortune for my sake. If I should demand a hundred other sacrifices, she would consent to every one without the quiver of an eyelid. Well, I am not a remarkable man in any way, and have sacrificed nothing. However, the story is a long one. In short, the whole point is, my dear doctor—[Confused] that I married her for love and promised to love her forever, and now after five years she loves me still and I—[He waves his hand] Now, when you tell me she is dying, I feel neither love nor pity, only a sort of loneliness and weariness. To all appearances this must seem horrible, and I cannot understand myself what is happening to me.

To understand oneself must mean something like to understand how one understands oneself, and then to understand how one understands how to understand oneself. It’s a like a dog chasing its tail. If one wants to understand something, that something must be different from the one trying to understand.

In On the Genealogy of Morals, published in 1887, two years before the premier or Ivanoff, Nietzsche (1887) wrote

Of necessity we remain strangers to ourselves, we understand ourselves not, in ourselves we are bound to be mistaken, for us holds good for all eternity the motto, “Each one is the farthest away from himself”–as far as ourselves are concerned we are not “knowers.”


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