Friday, September 11, 2009

Anna Karenina

I did it.

I finally plodded my way through the last 300 pages of Anna Karenina. Having raced through the first 700 pages, I found the last third of the novel dragged on a bit. There were only so many fights between Vronsky and Anna, or examples of Levin hunting or disagreeing with his intellectual peers, that I wanted to read and it began to feel a bit repetitive to me.

However...after having read through the sometimes sublime, sometimes laborious, detailed pictorials drawn by Tolstoy, I was rewarded with the last few chapters of Part 8 of the novel--Levin's mystical conversion to faith. Up until these last few chapters, I was wondering where Tolstoy was going in all this. Almost a thousand pages to tell the stories of a few intertwined families and all of the troubles they endure and cause, without any overarching theme, seemed excessive. I hadn't found the key to unlock the story yet. When I found it, I was surprised because it was just what I needed to hear:

The contrast between selfish living and unselfish living.

Anna Karenina illustrates the dangers of living selfishly in pursuit of one's own desires. She pursues her passion for Vronsky knowing it will cost her her honor, her position in society and her only son.

She's aware of her selfishness, aware that she doesn't love the daughter she had with Vronsky, aware that by preventing herself from becoming pregnant, or terminating any further pregnancies, that she is denying Vronsky the heir that he wants, aware that she manipulates him. She dismisses the reproaches of her conscience by telling herself that "It can't be helped."

Anna ends her life as selfishly as she lived it, throwing herself in front of a train with the hopes that Vronsky will suffer, knowing that he should have paid more attention to her. She has driven herself mad with jealousy and the fear of losing Vronsky's love though he has been faithful to her.

She is doomed by her own unrelenting self-interest.

Levin, who constantly struggles with himself, illustrates living unselfishly. He defers to his wife even at the expense of his wishes. He supports his family members in any way he can, though he fumbles through his brother's death and how to incporporate his wife's family into his life. It's never easy, but he finds a way to overcome his irritations and temper.

Anna thinks of suicide as an end of her troubles and a way to punish Vronsky. Levin considers suicide as an escape from the existential despair which overtakes him when he contemplates his lack of belief in God. After spending several months reading philosophy and trying to come to a conclusion about the moments of belief he has felt during his life, Levin is overwrought.:
All that spring he was not himself, and went through fearful moments of horror.

"Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life's impossible; and that I can't know, and so I can't live" Levin said to himself.

"In infinite time, in infinite matter, in infinite space, is formed a bubble-organism, and that bubble lasts a while and bursts, and that bubble is I."

It was an agonizing fallacy, but it was the sole logical result of ages of human thought in that direction.

This was the ultimate belief on which all the systems elaborated by human thought in almost all of their ramifications rested. It was the prevalent conviction, and of all other explanations Levin had unconsciously, not knowing when or how, chosen it as, at any rate, the clearest, and made it his own.

But it was not merely a fallacy, it was a cruel jest of some wicked, some evil, hateful power, to whom one could not submit.

He must escape from this power. And the means of escape every man had in his own hands. He had but to cut short this dependence on evil. And there was one means--death.

And Levin, a happy father and husband, in perfect health, was several times so near suicide that he hid a rope so that he might not be tempted to hang himself, and was afraid to go out with his gun for fear of shooting himself.

But Levin did not shoot himself, and did not hang himself; he went on living.
I read that description of Levin's state of mind and instantly recognized it as my own, which is not to say that I've hidden ropes or pointy objects, afraid that I might take my own life.
No. But I have experienced the unnameable desperation that can overtake a person when one's "soul" is at odds with one's beliefs...or non-beliefs. How a person with so many good and happy things in life can be brought to such low and empty places internally, incongruent feelings battling for dominance, is one of the mysteries of human life and a testimony to the idea that we are more than our appetites.

Levin, during a brief conversation with a peasant, has a sudden change of heart. He realizes that although he has made no claims to belief in God, he has lived his life according to the Christian virtues he had learned as a child. Despite repudiating them in adulthood, he recognizes that his moral choices have all been made and directed by these beliefs:
He had lived,(without being aware of it) on those spiritual truths that he had sucked in with his mother's milk, but he had thought, not merely without recognition of these truths, but studiously ignoring them.

Now it was clear to him that he could live only by virtue of the beliefs in which he had been brought up.

"What would I have been, and how would I have spent my life, if I had not had these beliefs, if I had not known that I must live for God and not for my own desires? I would have robbed and lied and killed. Nothing of what makes the chief happiness of my life would have existed for me." And not in the further reaches of his imagination could he conceive the brutal creature he would have been had he not known what he was living for.
Levin's thoughts mirror exactly what happens to Anna Karenina who chased her own desires down a path of self-destruction.

Over the last few years as my beliefs have changed and morphed, I have had moments of severe doubting. I have questioned whether what I believe now is really any sort of belief at all. It's so different in character than it used to be. However much things have changed, I live no differently.

And yet....every good thing in my life, and I mean every thing can be traced back to my Christian beliefs. The power to forgive and create a life filled with hope and love, not overshadowed by the past, the power to sacrifice my own wants and desires to serve my family, the power to not let my own pride and self-satisfaction interfere in my relationships with other people, the power to bless and not curse; these are all things I never knew or believed in before I came to Christ. Attempting to live by those principles has not only given my life meaning, but has contributed to the overall satisfaction I find in my life. No amount of reason or questioning can take those principles and convictions from me.

And that is what Levin finds:
"I looked for an answer to my question. And thought could not give an answer to my question--it is incommensurable with my question. The answer has been given me by life itself, in my knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. And that knowledge I did not arrive at in any way, it was given to me as to all men, given because I could not have got it from anywhere.

"Where could I have got it? By reason could I have arrived at knowing that I must love my neighbor and not oppress him? I was told that in my childhood, and I believed it gladly, for they told me what was already in my soul. But who discovered it? Not reason. Reason discovered the struggle for existence, and the law that requires us to oppress all that hinder the satisfaction of our desires. That is the deduction of reason. But loving one's neighbor, reason could never discover, because it's unreasonable."
I'm left with one of Levin's closing thoughts:

"What am I about? To me individually, to my heart has been revealed a knowledge beyond all doubt, and unattainable by reason, and here I am obstinately trying to express that knowledge in reason and words."

Yes...I too am obstinate in trying to use reason to express the "unreasonable".

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