Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, March 24, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 7)

There’s an old country song that goes: “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, We've been talkin' 'bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out.  I'm goin' to Jackson…”  Anna and Vronsky didn’t get married in a fever because Anna was already married to another man.  But they were both “hotter than a pepper sprout” for a while.  Then in Part 7 that fire of desire starts cooling off.  Anna wants to go back; not to Jackson, but to Vronsky’s country estate at Vozdvizhenskoe.  That way they can be alone, away from the harsh judgments of Petersburg and Moscow.  Anna was battered by social scandal and Vronsky was defiant.  In Part 6 Dolly admits that Anna’s “position in the world is difficult.”  Vronsky replies, “In the world it is hell!  You can’t imagine moral sufferings greater than what she went through in Petersburg.”  But it’s not just the critique of society putting pressure on their relationship.  They’re also plagued by their own domestic problems.  In one scene Anna says “let me tell you that a heartless woman, whether she’s old or not old, your mother or anyone else, is of no consequence to me, and I would not consent to know her.”  Vronsky’s reply is blunt.  “Anna, I beg you not to speak disrespectfully of my mother.”  But Anna persists.  “A woman whose heart does not tell her where her son’s happiness and honor lie has no heart.”  Vronsky’s response is stern.  “I repeat my request that you will not speak disrespectfully of my mother, whom I respect.”  That’s not really true.  Earlier in the novel we learn that Vronsky did, in fact, love his mother; but he did not respect her.  Her promiscuous lifestyle troubled him.  Underneath the love Vronsky and Anna felt toward one another was another troubling fact.  Polite society considered their love affair an illicit relationship, which it was.  Anna was not one of those heartless women.  When she protests that the opinions of “your mother or anyone else, is of no consequence to me” she’s being as dishonest as Vronsky.  They do care what people think.  Anna’s heart is deeply wounded by her position in society and despite what Vronsky says in public, so is his.  All they have is each other and this arrangement puts tremendous pressure on their relationship.  At one point Anna says “if you don’t love me anymore, it would be better and more honest to say so.”  Vronsky feels stifled by Anna’s constant need to be reassured of his love for her.  He replies “no, this is becoming unbearable!  What do you try my patience for?  It has limits.”  This should be a warning to Anna to back off but instead she keeps pushing those limits.  Something has to give.  What finally gives is Anna’s mind.  Earlier in the novel the reader sees a troubled mind going into free fall.  In Part 4 Vronsky is despondent and begins talking to himself.  That’s bad.  Then he begins answering himself.  That’s worse.  “What’s this?  Am I going out of my mind?  Perhaps.  What makes men go out of their minds; what makes men shoot themselves?

…This is how people go mad and how they shoot themselves; to escape humiliation.”  Vronsky did not kill himself.  But he tried.  Anna’s descent into madness and suicide was more serious.  Tolstoy shows the relentless logic of madness by revealing what was going through Anna’s mind.  “Now nothing mattered… the one thing that mattered was punishing him… she began musing with enjoyment on how he would suffer, and repent and love her memory when it would be too late.”  In calmer moments she’s aware of what’s happening to her.  “What am I going to do?  Yes, I’m going to Dolly’s, that’s true or else I shall go out of my mind.”  So she goes to Dolly’s.  But the logic of madness pursues her there too.  Dolly saw “it was obvious that nothing interested Anna” and “Anna got into the carriage again in an even worse frame of mind than when she set out from home.”  Then the logic of suicide sets in.  “We are all created to be miserable, and we all know it, and we all invent means to deceiving each other.  When one knows the truth, what is one to do?”  For Anna there’s only one answer.  Somehow the fever of love went wrong.  Love Gone Wrong is a theme for a great country song.  Or a great novel.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 6)

How should we live?  That’s the question every generation in every country in every age must face.  How should we live or, to put it a little differently, how can we live a good life?  Aristotle once said “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  We could replace the word “happiness” and use “the good life” instead.  Then we’d have a definition that says “the good life is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  But that still doesn’t answer the question how should we live?  What kind of activity are we talking about?  And what virtues (or in today’s terms “whose values”) are we to follow?  Aristotle says people have various opinions about what what they want out of life but “both the common run of people and cultivated men call it happiness, and understand by ‘being happy’ the same as ‘living well’ and ‘doing well.’”

That’s one framework for understanding Anna Karenina.  All the characters in this novel want to be happy.  But they can’t even agree on what happiness is, much less how to get there.  And they can’t agree whether happiness is best sought in the city or in the country; in an urban or in a pastoral setting.  Tolstoy has a deep understanding of human psychology and shows us several paths people take in their quest for happiness.  The Great Books approach is similar to the path Sergey and others tried.  They wanted to read and discuss the best that has been thought and said throughout history.  They tried to find happiness by pondering ideas and sharing them with others.  Religion is another path.  Tolstoy portrays the Countess Lidia using religion in a harmful way, as a crutch or an excuse for her own misfortunes in life.  But he also shows the positive side of religion in Varenka, whose life is a kind of spiritual dedication of service to others.  Art is another path.  For some people the search for happiness and the search for beauty are pretty much the same thing.  Mikhailov takes this path.  Vronsky tries art for a little while, then abandons it when it ceases to make him happy.  Social activism is the chosen path for others.  Levin’s brother Nikolay tries, and fails, to find happiness in his plans for restructuring the social order of Russia.  Living in harmony with nature has appealed to many people, including the American writer Henry David Thoreau.  Some of the peasants in this novel seem to have found happiness in nature.  Other characters have not.  Dolly is disappointed when living the country life as a grown woman does not recapture the happiness she had as a child.  But she does find a different kind of happiness in country life by focusing her attention on her own children.  Sport also promises a certain amount of happiness and several men in the story get a great deal of pleasure from horse racing and hunting.        

Tolstoy is well aware of all these approaches to the ongoing human project of finding and holding on to happiness.  There are lots of ways people can find pleasure in life but happiness is elusive.  Tolstoy’s theme seems to be this.  There are many pathways to pleasure but, as the Bible says, the greatest of these is love.  What all these characters are really searching for, whether in great books, religion, art, social activism, nature or sports, can only be found in love.  Sergey has his books, but something is missing.  He considers marrying Varenka, then misses his chance to share his life with hers when he backs out at the last moment.  Countess Lidia has her religion.  What she really wants is a husband who will love her.  Mikhailov has his art, but art’s abstract beauty means more to him than his real flesh-and-blood wife.  Anna and Vronsky want love so badly they’re willing to destroy the lives of others, and even their own, to find it.  Maybe they’re asking more from love than love is able to give them.  But of all these characters it’s Levin and Kitty who seem to be on the right path.  Love is not what either one of them pictured it to be.  For that very reason, Tolstoy apparently thinks that’s the real deal; love is a shared life.      

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 5)

Many of the most basic themes of life recur over and over in this story; love, marriage, work, money, education, politics and religion are all examples.  Religion means nothing to some the characters in the novel.  For others, such as Karenin, religion is seen primarily as a way to get social and political advancement.  The Countess Lidia Ivanovna takes religion very seriously, although the way it’s presented Tolstoy thinks she embraces a warped form of it.  The subject comes up again when Levin decides to marry Kitty.  Oblonsky asks a practical question: “have you a certificate of having been at confession?”  Apparently confession is necessary before a couple can be married in the church.  Levin is surprised by the question.  “Why, I believe it’s been nine years since I’ve taken the sacrament!  I never thought of it.”  He had given a lot of thought to subjects like love and marriage and work and money and education and politics; but “Levin found himself, like the majority of his contemporaries, in the vaguest position in regard to religion.  Believe he could not, and at the same time he had no firm conviction that it was all wrong.”  Levin wasn’t sure what he thought about religion.  But he knew one thing for sure; he wanted to marry Kitty.  And if he had to go to confession first, well, so be it.  Before going to confession Levin attended the church service and was baffled by all the ceremony and ritual.  “Yes, now it will soon be over, he thought.  No, it seems to be beginning again, he thought, listening to the prayers.  No, it’s just ending; there he is bowing down to the ground.  That’s always the end.”  Levin went to confession and got his certificate.  But his confusion persisted.  Once he got married he found out how confused he had been about marriage too.  It wasn’t at all like he thought it would be.  Even the marriage ceremony had come as something of a surprise.  The head-deacon intoned the words: “Vouchsafe to them love made perfect, peace and help, O Lord, we beseech Thee.”  These were just boilerplate words; part of the church’s routine ceremony and ritual.  But these weren’t just boilerplate words to Levin.  “Levin heard the words, and they impressed him. ‘How did they guess that it is help, just help that one wants?’ he thought, recalling all his fears and doubts of late. ‘What do I know?   What can I do in this fearful business,’ he thought, ‘without help?  Yes, it is help that I want now.’”  These were just the words Levin needed to hear when he was feeling insecure about fulfilling the duties of being a good husband to Kitty.  As for Kitty, the ceremony, the vows, the words, these were all just part of the way things are supposed to be.  She didn’t probe on an intellectual level.  They were just part of who she was.  Levin reflected that “Since their conversation about religion when they were engaged neither of them had ever started a discussion of the subject, but she performed all the ceremonies of going to church, saying her prayers, and so on, always with the unvarying conviction that this ought to be so.”  For Kitty religion wasn’t a problem to be solved; it was a way of life.  It was a certain kind of love developed within the context of a conventional marriage; in doing her own work and raising her own children.  That’s what Kitty wanted.  Levin’s brother Nikolay was different.  For Nikolay religion was merely an intellectual problem.  “Levin knew his brother and the workings of his intellect: he knew that his unbelief came not from life being easier for him without faith, but had grown up because step by step the contemporary scientific interpretation of natural phenomena crushed out the possibility of faith…”  Kitty believed, Levin wasn’t sure and Nikolay did not believe.  These three views intersected when Nikolay lay on his deathbed.  Kitty took charge.  She felt sorrow and pity, made sure Nikolay was as comfortable as possible, and arranged for him to receive the sacraments.  Levin “strange to say, felt utterly cold, and was not conscious of sorrow nor of loss, less still of pity for his brother.”  Meanwhile Nikolay’s “sufferings, steadily growing more intense, did their work and prepared him for death.”

Thursday, March 02, 2017

TOLSTOY: Anna Karenina (Part 4)

Americans living in the 21st century believe we all inherit inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Did 19th century Russians believe that too?  In Tolstoy’s novel this question is a practical one.  How did people live in 19th century Russia?  How much freedom did they have?  Were they happy?  Tolstoy gives no easy answers.  Some Russians seem to have had freedom, while others did not.  Vronsky was free to choose his career, his friends, his lovers.  Varenka didn’t have much choice; she was bound to her duty by the conditions of her life.  Some Russians seemed happy, while others did not.  Stiva (Oblonsky) enjoyed life immensely in spite of its minor irritations (such as getting caught in adultery).  Levin’s brother Nikolay never found happiness in his own short and miserable life.  Sometimes the same character would be in despair at one point and experience ecstatic joy at another.  Levin thought he would never recover from Kitty’s refusal.  He pondered the problem of mortality and a cloud of gloom hovered over him for several months.  Here’s an example of what Levin was thinking in his gloomy period: “for us to suppose we can have something great (ideas, work) it’s all dust and ashes… When you understand that you will die tomorrow, if not today, and nothing will be left, then everything is so unimportant… but one goes on living, amusing oneself with hunting, with work; anything so as not to think of death.”  Then all of a sudden Kitty comes back into his life and voila!  “All that night and morning Levin lived perfectly unconsciously, and felt perfectly lifted out of the conditions of material life… He was convinced he could fly upwards or lift the corner of the house, if need be.”  In short, Levin was in love and all of a sudden the gloom was gone.  Obviously from this novel we can’t answer for sure if “Russians” were a free and happy people.  We can only say that this particular character was or was not free or happy, at this or at that particular point in the story.  But one thing we can say for sure is that 19th century “Russians” had much the same concerns as modern-day “Americans” do.  Take this example: “the Karenins, husband and wife, continued living in the same house, met every day, but were complete strangers to one another.”  Would this observation apply to any modern-day American marriages?  Or take another example: “Vronsky had that winter got his promotion, was now a colonel, had left the regimental quarters, and was living alone.”  Sounds like this handsome young upwardly-mobile 19th century Russian bachelor would fit right in at any exclusive downtown condo in any modern cosmopolitan American city.  Reading this novel we find that many of the pressing social issues in contemporary America were the same pressing social issues in 19th century Russia.  Listen in on this conversation taking place in Chapter 10.  Pestsov: “Woman is deprived of rights from lack of education, and the lack of education results from the absence of rights.”  Sergey: “meaning the right of sitting on juries, of voting, of presiding at official meetings, the right of entering the civil service, of sitting in parliament… but if women can occupy such positions, it seems to me you are wrong in using the expression ‘rights.’  It would be more correct to say duties.”  Pestsov: “Duties are bound up with rights: power, money, honor; those are what women are seeking.”  In other words, most women want the same things most men want: power, money and prestige.  Education is the best emancipation.  Tolstoy uses the character of Dolly for a counter-argument.  If men haven’t found happiness seeking power, money and prestige, why would women?  Dolly believes the emphasis should be on family, not on grasping for power, money and prestige.  Oblonsky asks “but what is a girl to do who has no family?”  Dolly answers: “If the story of such a girl was thoroughly sifted, you would find she had abandoned a family (her own or her sister’s) where she might have found a woman’s duties.”  Pestsov: “Woman desires to have rights, to be independent, educated.”  But Dolly thinks “Woman” desires a home; to love and to be loved is really what we all want.  Tolstoy agrees.