Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Lament

It goes without saying that the human condition - this collective experience, if you will - has long been the subject of deliberation by poets and pundits alike. It is this universal theme which has unified the minds of innumerable artists in a common pursuit, only to spawn equally as many unique perspectives, each obscured in their own singularity; and it is this of which countless volumes have been recorded. It is not wholly remarkable, then, that Russian writer and physician Anton Chekhov's The Lamentendeavors to relate to us exactly that. Rather, what is truly surprising is the extent to which Chekhov succeeds in his depiction.
The Lament tells the story of Iona Potapov, a poor Russian cabdriver who is inundated with grief at the loss of his only son. The archetypal Potapov appears as silent, pale, and still as the heavy snow that wraps itself around his hunched shoulders and back. Numb from his overwhelming sadness, Iona perches on his carriage in deep thought, doubled over himself and rigid, waiting for a fare to temporarily deliver him from the agony of his solitude. The prison of his own mind is unbearable for Iona, his thoughts tormenting him with every moment of silence, and he welcomes the transient company of his fares, hoping for a friendly soul with whom to share his immeasurable grief, to properly recount his, Iona Potapov's, tragic tale in its entirety. The company momentarily relieves his anguish, but as the night progresses and fares come and go, Iona realizes that there is no one willing to share his burden. Iona's desperation eventually becomes too much for him, and he turns to his faithful horse, to whom he can finally, properly recount the grotesque reality of an ailing old man outliving his young, healthy son.
Chekhov's character is at first glance a pitiful wretch, a shell of a man who has lost his touch with reality; yet the reader feels a sense of sorrow, of empathy for an aging man who, having lost his most beloved treasure, is wracked with grief as he struggles to reach out to his fellow man. It is this struggle that exemplifies the human condition. As Iona turns, so turns Humanity to seek solace in his fellow, to seek validation through shared sorrow, and to seek reprieve from his fear. Ultimately he must carry on, for grief, he will learn, can never be shared.


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