Chekhov hunts his hares, I haunt mine
A conversation with a friend this week reminded me of Chekhov. He was a Russian playwright, but also a medical doctor — caught, like many of us here at MIT, between the humanities and sciences. In 1888, he wrote a letter to a friend:
… You advise me not to hunt after two hares, and not to think of medical work. I do not know why one should not hunt two hares even in the literal sense.... I feel more confident and more satisfied with myself when I reflect that I have two professions and not one. Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other. Though it’s disorderly, it’s not so dull, and besides neither of them loses anything from my infidelity. If I did not have my medical work I doubt if I could have given my leisure and my spare thoughts to literature. There is no discipline in me.
I think about Chekhov’s pair of hares all the time. Academia is strangely resistant to them. Departments around the world, including mine, pride themselves on the radically interdisciplinary research environments they foster. But when it comes down to making pragmatic career decisions, students are typically advised that they have to find a single home community and invest their time and energy into building an identity there.
I know my advisors mean well when they say things like that. But—maybe because I am stubborn, maybe because I am naïve—I can’t bring myself to follow their advice. I was not raised to seek home communities and build an identity; if anything, my childhood has taught me to find peace in the interstices between established ways of thinking.
Chekhov says there is “no discipline” in him. I imagine him, and myself, dancing on a tightrope between skyscrapers. It would be so easy to crawl to one end or the other, to nestle ourselves into the safe foundations others have built. Our friends holler to us from the balconies. But we keep on dancing, specks in the sky, bobbing gently on a thin, long wire.