Monday, September 6, 2010

Summer Reading: Anna Karenina Part 1

***Spoiler Alert. I highly recommend this book, so don't read this post if you think you might try Tolstoy:)

Just the other night a hometown football game/My wife and I ran into my old high school flame...

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers...

How many times have you heard a friend say about an old boyfriend/girlfriend, "I'm so glad I got out of that, because now I see what [that person] really was."

Did you ever wonder whether the changed perspective was really based on truth, or was it based on self-preservation?

The idea of (1) mental self-preservation techniques, and (2) limited and/or shifting perspectives due to pride, lust, love, or any other human basic need continually crops up to me as I read Anna Karenina.

First, a newfound religious zeal becomes the salve, or maybe even the lifeboat, to Alexey Alexandrovitch's injured pride.

Alexey Alexandrovitch did not merely fail to observe his hopeless position in the official world, he was not merely free from anxiety on this head, he was positively more satisfied than ever with his own activity.

"He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: but he that is married careth for the things of the world, how he may please his wife," says the Apostle Paul, and Alexey Alexandrovitch who was now guided in every action by Scripture, often recalled this text. It seemed to him that ever since he had been left without a wife, he had in these very projects of reform been serving the Lord more zealously than before.

And then a small scene in the middle of the book, that so far seems to me to be superfluous to the main plot, shows on a very small scale the violent changes that can happen to our mood, perspective, and candor with new acquaintances. Violent changes that can happen, and yet, like a sort of pin-wheel, still allow our pride to remain intact.

Vronsky and Anna, but especially Vronsky, are mentally thrashing about trying to find meaning in their newly isolated, carefree lives. Vronsky has taken up painting, and hears about another Russian painter in the Italian town where Vronsky and Anna are vacationing. Vronsky feels that it is his duty to support this painter, Mihailov; and Tolstoy gives us a peek into this obscure character's brain:

For the few seconds during which the visitors were gazing at the picture in silence Mihailov too gazed at it with the indifferent eye of an outsider. For those few seconds he was sure in anticipation that a higher, juster criticism would be uttered by them, by those very visitors whom he had been so despising a moment before. He forgot all he had thought about his picture before during the three years he had been painting it; he forgot all its qualities which had been absolutely certain to him - he saw the picture with their indifferent, new, outside eyes, and saw nothing good in it.

Like I said, violent shifts in perspective. Sometimes we encounter another creature of our own kind, another being created in God's image, and those people become the world to us. But thankfully for this guy, his pride comes back. Golenishtchev, Vronsky's friend, breaks the silence after everyone has been uncomfortably looking at Mihailov's most important painting and says a random, positive comment.

All Mihailov's mobile face beamed at once; his eyes sparkled. He tried to say something, but he could not speak for excitement, and pretended to be coughing. Low as was his opinion of Golenishtchev's capacity for understanding art, trifling as was the true remark upon the fidelity of the expression of Pilate as an official, and offensive as might have seemed the utterance of so unimportant an observation while nothing was said of more serious points, Mihailov was in an ecstasy of delight at this observation. He had himself thought about Pilate's figure just what Golenshitchev said. The fact that this reflection was but one of millions of reflections, which as Mihailov knew for certain would be true, did not diminish for him the significance of Golenishtchev's remark. (emphasis mine)

And there, in micro, I believe is what Tolstoy conveys in many other major characters and plots, that we will use any tool available to justify our decisions, or our circumstances, or just ourselves.

I guess God has given us these instincts to protect us. I guess. I think we are all thankful that love is blind. I consider Levin and Kitty (although I haven't finished the book and can't be sure that they are an appropriately happy blog post ending.)

Example 1. In the beginning of the book Levin comes to Moscow and finds Kitty at the skating rink. To him it seems that wherever she skates or wherever she finds to sit down and rest, the entire crowd is focused and aware of her. And she brings light and gladness to it all.

Example 2. Levin, once feeling that he has been denied any opportunity of marrying Kitty, finds peace in his life calling of farming; (self-preservation) only to have the peace shattered by one split second glimpse of Kitty. (violent changes)

Example 3. And Levin, after being married, and experiencing the exponentially more shifting perspectives of being one flesh with another human being, is able to think outside of himself.

In attending the elections, too, and taking part in them, he tried now not to judge, not to fall foul of them, but to comprehend as fully as he could the question which was so earnestly and ardently absorbing honest and excellent men whom he respected. Since his marriage there had been revealed to Levin so many new and serious aspects of life that had previously, through his frivolous attitude to them, seemed of no importance, that in the question of the elections too he assumed and tried to find some serious significance. (emphasis mine)

Oh Tolstoy, what does this all mean for me, and for epistemology? Will I someday marry a redhead, because he showed me attention, and say that all along I really DID find redheads attractive? Will I look at a Catholic friend's from-childhood guilt, only to quickly place it into an apologetic-for-Protestantism's grid?

I'm not sure, but I think Anna has thus far been exempt from any of this self-convincing thought monologue from Tolstoy's pen. And we all know what happens to her. Any thoughts?

No comments:

Post a Comment