A textile design by Varvara Stepanova, 1924.
That civilization, in addition to its benefits, has also brought humanity terrible harm, no one now doubts. Doctors especially insist on it, not unreasonably locating in progress the source of those nervous disorders which have been observed with such frequency throughout the past decades. In America and Europe, one encounters everywhere all sorts of nervous illness, starting with common neuralgia and ending in serious psychosis. I myself have observed cases of serious psychosis, the causes of which should be sought only in civilization.
I know one retired captain, a former police commissioner, who has been driven mad by the idea that “assemblies are prohibited.” So, just because assemblies are prohibited, he had his forest property razed, won’t dine with his family, doesn’t let the peasants’ cattle onto his land, et cetera. When he was once invited to vote, he exclaimed: “Don’t you know that assemblies are prohibited?”
One retired sergeant, sent into exile, it seems, for honesty or for bribery (I don’t remember which), has lost his mind on the subject of incarceration: “You’re booked, brother!” He traps cats, dogs, and chickens in a trunk and holds them captive for set periods. He’s got roaches, bedbugs, and spiders serving sentences in bottles. When he has money, he walks around the village and hires anyone willing to be arrested.
“Get booked, ducky,” he pleads. “What have you got to lose? I’ll let you out, give me some credit!”
Finding a volunteer, he locks him up, guards him day and night, and lets him loose no earlier than the end of his term.
My uncle, the quartermaster, eats rotten bread crusts and wears cardboard soles. He generously rewards those of his servants who emulate him.
My brother-in-law, the tax collector, is mad regarding the notion that: “Reforms—rubbish!” Some time ago he was reprimanded in the newspapers for extortion, and this became the pretext for his insanity. He subscribes to nearly all the Moscow papers, but not to read them. In each edition, he searches for the “disgraceful;” discovering such, he arms himself with a colored pencil and marks it up. Having marked up the entire newspaper, he gives it to the coachmen for cigarette papers, and feels quite well until the next edition.
Translated from the Russian by Elina Alter.
Alter is a writer and translator in New York. Look for her translations of Chekhov sketches each day this week on the Daily.
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