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Poetry and Medicine
January 28, 1998

Chekhov's Doctors

Author Affiliations

Edited by Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 1998;279(4):270E. doi:10.1001/jama.279.4.270

I'm a stout man with a baritone voice
who never reads much and lacks the grace
of refinement. You'd wonder what makes
me think I'm a judge of character.
Laevsky, who stands to his knees
in waves of learning—he believes
his life is absurd and comforts himself
by clamoring about Tolstoy,
while the rest of us suffer. He trumpets
our degeneracy—corrupted Russia
sucks the moral fiber of its young.
I don't think it's evil that makes him
say ‘love is impossible' or behave
so callously toward his mistress
who relinquished prudence for his bed.
Instead of depravity, I'd give him
a diagnosis—softening of the brain.
Von Koren—let's call him a naturalist
whose blind faith in science is touching.
To him, a mole's thorax is like the nave
of a church, or so he talks—too much.
The embryology of jellyfish
inflames him—but you'd think he burns
with nastiness on the route to fame.
Von Koren hates Laevsky's guts
and mocks the drivel, How I envy
the happy children of nature
who know nothing of civilization!
My diagnosis? A virus of the heart
that makes him pompous, cruel and dense.
Now, to the duel—Laevsky defends
his mistress' honor, though he doesn't
subscribe to honor. The scientist
plans to kill the aesthete. Laevsky plans
to fire astray. If I told you
the match's outcome, you'd regret
that it lacks a definitive stroke—
you'd want a death, at least, or a burst
of truth. As it is, their lives go on.
Suddenly, you see—Laevsky's worked
for months to pay his debt, Von Koren shakes
Laevsky's hand. So much for insight,
so much for the world of ideas.
As for me, I'm satisfied that I escaped
from doing them harm. I chalk it up
to experience. Now, let's talk about love.