‘”I wrote ‘The Black Monk’ without any melancholy, in cold reflection,’” the Russian writer Anton Chekhov informed the publisher Aleksei Suvorin. He said he had dreamed of a ‘”monk who floats over the field and when I woke up I wrote about him.”
The protagonist of Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” is a brilliant young philosopher, Kovrin. He is gripped by the vision of a man in black that he thinks he might have heard about in an Arabian legend he cannot recollect. As he describes this to Tanya, the young woman he will marry, it involves a monk, dressed in black, wandering in the desert a thousand years ago. At the same time, miles away, a fisherman sees a monk in black moving slowly over the surface of a lake. The second monk is a mirage and yet “from that mirage was cast another mirage, then from that a third, so that the image of the black monk began to be endlessly repeated from one layer of the atmosphere to another.” He is seen all over the world, then he passes beyond the Earth’s atmosphere to wander among the stars. The legend says he is about to appear on Earth again, “perhaps tomorrow.”
After sharing what his fiancée calls a “queer mirage”, Kovrin wanders towards sunset into a field of rye across a stream. Waves start running through the rye then
From the horizon there rose up to the sky, like a whirlwind or a waterspout, a tall black column. Its outline was indistinct, but from the first instant it could be seen that it was not standing still, but moving with fearful rapidity, moving straight towards Kovrin, and the nearer it came the smaller and the more distinct it was.
When Kovrin makes way for it, it turns into a monk, dressed in black, with gray hair and black eyebrows set in a “fearfully pale” face. Arms crossed over his chest, the monk glides above the rye for twenty feet, never touching the ground. Then he turns and nods before he expands again, passes through the landscape and vanishes like smoke.
Later the monk in black turns up for conversations with Kovrin. They sit together on a park bench, or in a room. Kovrin’s man in black assures him that he is a genius who is working in the cause of the “kingdom of eternal truth”, in which the highest value and pleasure is wisdom. He discloses early on that he is a “phantom” of Kovrin’s imagination, then adds that the products of imagination are “part of nature” and so he is also quite real. When Kovrin questions his own sanity, the phantom tells him to be bold in accepting the price of creative genius. Normality is the state of the herd; gifted people are hardly normal and often near madness in the eyes of the world. Kovrin is spurred to work day and night on his books and researches.
Alas, his new wife wakens in the middle of the night to catch him talking to himself. When he explains that he is actually talking to a monk in black, she declares that he is mentally ill and must seek help at once. Carted off to the country, doped with bromides and stuffed with food, force-fed milk instead of his wine and good cigars, Kovrin stops seeing and hearing the black monk. He also loses his gifts and his brains and is soon spitting blood. He goes fast downhill, wasting his years. He leaves the wife who pushed him on this course, but it’s too late to halt his own decline. He sees the whirling monk just once more, at the moment of his early death, just before his life’s blood spews from his lungs and mouth in a terminal hemorrhage.
I was struck by the way the “black monk” appears, rises in the distance like a tornado, or a whirlwind, very much like a desert jinn, before he assumes human proportions as he approaches Kovrin. I felt sympathy between the author and this jinn-like monk.
Dr Chekhov knew all about the symptoms of tuberculosis. He died of it, at 44, as did his brother before him. “I have everything in order except my health,” he told Olga Knipper just before their wedding. One of the cures that failed to fix Chekhov was large infusions of fermented mare’s milk. The autobiographical element in “The Black Monk” is strong. Chekhov wrote it in the summer of 1893 at his country estate at Melikhovo, which his disease later forced him to give up. That summer he took a very keen interest in gardening (like the obsessive Pesotsky in the story) spending hours minutely examining roots and fruits and vines. He also took time that summer to expand his knowledge of clinical approaches to mental illness, with the help of Russia’s leading psychiatrists of that era.
Chekhov transferred to his character Kovrin his symptoms, and his dream of the monk in black, and also his keen awareness of how life can present wrenching life choices.
Is it possible that Chekhov contemplated a different ending for “The Black Monk”? Might the act of imagination involved in that have helped the author as well as his character?
I am starting to imagine that alternative ending. Kovrin decides to defy the world and live the creative life the phantom promises. He sends his wife home to her father – who is as obsessive as Kovrin, but in a different way, with dirt under his fingernails from his experiments in horticulture and his orchard-tending. Kovrin writes and publishes all those books and gives those lectures that amaze Moscow. He trusts the black monk’s assurance that his genius is real, and great enough for him to do the all-but-impossible things.
How would the story have run then? The author would need to choose between forking paths, once again. Kovrin could die in a torrent of blood as he did before, seen by the world as either the very model of the romantic hero wracked by consumption – or as a vampire lord spewing up his night feasts – or as a madman whose scripts must be anathematized and burned. Or he could come through well in all ways, healed by living all of his creative assignment.
In any of these versions, I would want to see the author amend his title. The story should surely be called “The Monk in Black” (as in “men in black”) rather than “The Black Monk”.
Maybe someone in this moment is digging in an old cherry orchard, near Chekhov’s country estate, and is startled by the chink as his spade clips a buried trunk containing the manuscript of the other“Monk in Black” (the version that also got the title right).
Illustration to Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” by Yury Chistyakov
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