Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Chekhov on Data

From On Official Business:
“Tell me, old chap, how long have you been village constable in these parts?” 
“Well, must be nigh on 30 years. It was about five years after the serfs was freed that I began, so you can work it out for yourself. Since then I’ve been doing it every day. … To the treasurer’s department, to the post office, to the police inspector’s house, the magistrate, council offices, tax inspector, gentle folk, village folk, and all God-fearing Christians, I carry parcels, summonses, letters, all kinds of forms and lists. Nowadays, my good sir, there’s no end to these forms — yellow, white, red — all for writing figures on. Every squire, parson and rich farmer has to write down, ten times a year, how much he’s sown or reaped, how many bushels or hundredweight of rye he’s got, how much oats and hay, what the weather’s like, and about different sorts of insects. They please themselves what they write, of course, it’s only just forms, but I has to run around handing them sheets of paper out — and then it’s me what has to collect ‘em all in. Now, that dead gent over there. There’s no need to slit him open, you yourself know it’s a waste of time and you’ll only get your hands dirty. But you’ve had to go to the bother, sir, you’ve driven out here, all because of those forms.”
It’s a reminder that underlying every economic statistic is a concrete process of making human activity legible as quantities. One person asks another person a question, and the other answers (or doesn’t) in the context of some particular relationship between them.

People often quote  Josiah Stamp to make this point. Nice to have another option.

UPDATE: While we are talking about Chekhov, I can’t resist sharing this passage from “Rothschild’s Fiddle”:
There before him stood an ancient, spreading willow tree with a massive trunk, and a crow's nest among its branches. … He sat down at its foot and thought of the past. On the opposite shore, where that meadow now was, there had stood in those days a wood of tall birch-trees, and that bare hill on the horizon yonder had been covered with the blue bloom of an ancient pine forest. And sailboats had plied the river then, but now all lay smooth and still, and only one little birch-tree was left on the opposite bank, a graceful young thing, like a girl, while on the river there swam only ducks and geese. It was hard to believe that boats had once sailed there. It even seemed to him that there were fewer geese now than there had been. …
He was puzzled to know why he had never once been down to the river during the last forty or fifty years of his life, or, if he had been there, why he had never paid any attention to it. The stream was fine and large; he might have fished in it and sold the fish to the merchants and the government officials and the restaurant-keeper at the station, and put the money in the bank. He might have rowed in a boat from farm to farm and played on his fiddle. People of every rank would have paid him money to hear him. He might have tried to run a boat on the river, that would have been better than making coffins. Finally, he might have raised geese, and killed them, and sent them to Moscow in the winter. Why, the down alone would have brought him ten rubles a year! But he had missed all these chances and had done nothing. What losses were here! Ah, what terrible losses! And, oh, if he had only done all these things at the same time! If he had only fished, and played the fiddle, and sailed a boat, and raised geese, what capital he would have had by now! But he had not even dreamed of doing all this; his life had gone by without profit or pleasure. It had been lost for nothing, not even a trifle. Nothing was left ahead; behind lay only losses, and such terrible losses that he shuddered to think of them. But why shouldn't men live so as to avoid all this waste and these losses? Why, oh why, should those birch and pine forests have been felled? Why should those meadows be lying so deserted? Why did people always do exactly what they ought not to do? Why had Yakov scolded and growled and clenched his fists and hurt his wife's feelings all his life? Why, oh why, had he frightened and insulted that Jew just now? Why did people in general always interfere with one another? What losses resulted from this! What terrible losses! If it were not for envy and anger they would get great profit from one another.

UPDATE 2: Not like anyone is reading this, but I feel obliged to point out that while I find this passage affecting, I certainly don't endorse it or anything. What Chekhov has captured perfectly is the attitude of what we used to call, quite precisely, the petty bourgeoisie, the self-employed commodity producer. (In this case, a coffin-maker and musician.) The mixing-up of personal virtue, use-values and profit is characteristic, along with the fretting about "envy" and "interference" as the obstacles to mutual profit. If a real-life Hank Rearden were described by someone with a deep and sympathetic understanding of human nature, he might sound something like this.

Which reminds me -- on a very different note, does anyone who lived in Chicago in the 1990s remember a play at the Annoyance Theater called "Ayn Rand Gives Me a Boner"? The protagonist was the world's most insufferable micromanaging boss, a supervisor at a grocery store obsessed with perfecting the checkout process. His adversary was a man with terminal cancer using the sheer power of sympathy to take over the world. Whatever you think of the title, it was kind of brilliant.


  1. I'm sure that Hank Rearden would have been all about felling the pines and overfishing the river, but his more efficient use of time (and by that rationale, higher calling) was in producing his metal. Rand seemed to be all about humans improving nature for its higher purpose... the creation of stuff and sale for profit.

    I do, however, love that first quotation, and appreciate the aesthetics (if not necessarily the rent-seeking foregone sentiment) of the second.

  2. Hi Nina!

    I never could finish Atlas Shrugged -- is Galt's Gulch a reeking satanic mill, or a lovely pristine wilderness? (Honest question.) Anyway, the connection I was trying to make is that Rand is petty-bourgeois in the sense that (1) her heroes are directly involved in the production process, on almost a handcraft level -- one of the most memorable scenes in the book to me is where Francisco d'Anconia is mixing copper by hand. (The way I recall it, he's hurling ingots into a vat and stirring them with a giant ladle.) And Rearden seems to have developed his metal all on his own, carries around that ring. This is not a world where labor has been separated from control of the means of production. (2) These guys don't seem actually that oriented toward profit, it's more they want to make stuff and expect profit as the reward for doing it well. And (3) there's no distinction between economic rationality and personal virtue. That is sort of Rand's whole thing.

    I do, however, love that first quotation, and appreciate the aesthetics (if not necessarily the rent-seeking foregone sentiment) of the second.

    Ah, where are the unsought rents of yesteryear?

  3. I stopped reading shortly after Dagny Taggart returned to Galt's Gulch, which is like the Platonic(Randian, I suppose) ideal of a Western-frontier town, with every productive member of society that has given up producing stuff; Ragnar is married to a beautiful actress that refused to play needy people and they run the general store, the composer is making music, and so on. I see what you mean about the petit-bourgeois involvement; no managerial capitalism for them. My response was prompted by two almost throw-away moments that have stuck with me from the book -- early in it, Dagny and Rearden are sitting on a hillside looking at nature in the northern midwest, and apparently both thinking that the highest use of nature is to be transformed into something productive; and shortly before she returns to Galt's Gulch, she is in a small cabin in the woods, trying to be as productive a homemaker (since she has nothing else to do), and in the process of cleaning she thinks about how nature moves in a circle, but only man can think to move out in a straight line. So maybe the more accurate statement is that Ms. Taggart would be the one moving to fell pines in order to lay rail...