Monday, October 09, 2006

AK: (I.4-6) Making introductions

Side note. My son Alexander turned two on Saturday. He is a wonderful boy. We took him to the doctor today for a scheduled checkup. He's growing well and all. Our pediatrician noticed my battered copy of Anna Karenina, and asked me how far I was into it. I explained that I was reading it once again, and he said he recognized it because of the front cover, which is a painting called "The Spinet". Spinet means upright piano, as opposed to grand piano, and the picture shows a lady playing the piano. (Spinet is also a term for harpsichord-like keyboard instruments (presumably popular in the 19th century) that pluck strings rather than hammering them like the piano does.) Anyhow, the doctor too has the Magarshack.

Meet Dolly. Chapter 4 introduces Oblonsky's wife, Dolly. She was once beautiful, but the strains of seven pregnancies in nine years, raising five children, and running a house on nothing while Oblonsky fritters away his living and her fortune have aged her prematurely. When she discovered Oblonsky's betrayal, it probably should have been the final straw. As the chapter opens, we hear Dolly's indecision as she tries to pack up the children's things. She has been on the verge of leaving Oblonsky for days, but can't quite cross the threshold.

Here are a few interesting verbal coincidences that explain why, at least to me. At the end of Chapter 3, Oblonsky says, "it can't be left as it is," then marches into Dolly's bedroom to have it out. A mirror image at the beginning of Chapter 4 reads, "[Dolly] kept saying to herself that it could not go on like that, that she had to do something to punish and humiliate him." Notice how Oblonsky thinks the status quo is too harsh, but Dolly thinks that the pain hasn't even begun to touch him. But it's essentially the same language, the same phrase. Another one says that Dolly "could not break herself of the habit of looking upon him as a husband and loving him." Compare to the first three chapters, which repeat almost obnoxiously that Oblonsky is a creature of habit. Finally, there's the last line in the chapter, which explains how Dolly's reflection on the tragic state of her marriage is interrupted by another household crisis: "And Dolly, absorbed in her daily cares, drowned her grief in them for a while." This reminded me very strongly of the "dream of life" image used for Oblonsky. Again, the mirror: life is what happens to Oblonsky while he's waiting for his dreams of decanter girls and sybaritic pleasures to start up again, but Dolly uses life as a soporific against her deep sense of despair for her family and her situation. Oblonsky escapes from life, Dolly escapes to life.

Why are husband and wife described with such similar language? I started to get the feeling that Oblonsky and Dolly fit together, or deserve each other somehow. They float along on the sea of their quotidian arrangement. She bails water and he fiddles. Neither one of them is willing to make a real break, a big change. They've been doing it for so long that they forget why they're doing it.

The quarrel scene is quite tragic to me. Oblonsky is not moved, in the end, by Dolly's hatred. She says, "I loathe you. I hate you. You're a stranger to me, yes, a perfect stranger!" He says, "And the maids may have heard! Terribly unladylike, terribly." But the most tragic thing of all is that Dolly still loves this boob.

Ellipsis is used to hint at things the characters don't want to say out loud. In one of the first chapters, Oblonsky almost says that the situation has gone from bad to worse because he's gotten his mistress pregnant. In this chapter, Dolly says last, "How I loved! And don't I love him even now? Don't I love him even more than ever now? What's so dreadful is that..." I think the end of this sentence is that Oblonsky doesn't love her anymore. Dolly can't say it out loud. The very idea deprives her of oxygen.

Meet Levin. Konstantin Levin is a mass of contradictions, like most of the characters in this novel. Levin runs onto the stage as a strong, broad-shouldered man climbing the steps to Oblonsky's office "swiftly and lightly". He feels out of place and shy in Oblonsky's office, but also feels contempt for Oblonsky's meaningless sinecure and government jobs in general. He detests the town and he detests the rural council, but he especially hates Grinyevich's well-manicured fingers.

Levin and Oblonsky are unlikely friends. "Each believed that the life he himself led was the only real life and the life led by his friends was nothing but an illusion." Oblonsky is the ambassador of the world, reflexive smile firmly and involuntarily in place, stranger to none and making no distinctions of place or status. Levin, on the other hand, is a man of ideas, popping up with a frown and "some totally new and unexpected views on things in general."

That is, Oblonsky and Levin reflect another great division, between what you might call the physical life and the spiritual life. Levin thinks that Oblonsky's hedonism, for lack of a better word, is worthless, and ignores questions of meaning. Oblonsky thinks that big ideas are a big waste of time, and that a world beyond the material doesn't even exist.

Along this line, here's a short passage from Kierkegaard's The Single Individual (from a page of Kierkegaard commentaries and translations):

There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that "the crowd" received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.

"Oblonsky, doing the same things as everyone else, laughed confidently and good-humoredly, whereas Levin laughed not so confidently and sometimes angrily." Levin is the great individual, but he often stands alone, unsupported by his culture or even universal ethical principles. His ideas are always earnest, but are not always grounded and consistent, as is evident when Levin and Oblonsky talk about the rural council. Oblonsky needles Levin, "I can see that you've now entered a new phase, a conservative one this time." Levin blushes at this kind of talk like a schoolboy. He knows that Oblonsky thinks he's naive and that he looks like a wild man to the worldly set, but he can't bring himself to give up his quixotic quest for meaning.

Oblonsky's last word on the subject reminds me of Re-Neducation, and of course of the last line of 1984: "But even you will come over to us in the end." One of us! One of us!

Meet Levin's Kitty. Kitty Shcherbatsky (not a typo) is Dolly's sister. We meet her in Chapter 6 as the object of Levin's affection. The Shcherbatskys were a surrogate family for Levin, his father and mother being dead and his only sister older than him. He idealized the women: "he imagined... the most elevated sentiments and every conceivable perfection." Shopping, piano, French literature, dancing lessons, might very well seem mysterious and opaque to Levin. There's nothing mysterious, though, about why Levin admires Kitty's legs in their tight red stockings. Meow. The paragraph concludes, "it was with this aura of mystery that he was in love." Along with the obvious reasons, Levin is a man searching for meaning, and that makes him a mystery-lover.

The paragraph on how Levin fell in love with Dolly and Natalie, the older sisters, before Kitty is quite funny. I've mentioned before that my love-dar was quite unmanageable in high school, but this reminded me of another pertinent high school memory, one of those poetic coincidences that explains everything, but goes unnoticed at the time you're living it.

I was in drama for a while. I wasn't very good at it, I think, because I never thought of how I appeared to the audience, or even about being a character instead of just a version of myself saying some words. Anyway, we played this drama game for most of a year, improvising scenes in an elevator as delightfully wacky characters. Eventually, the drama advisor (Tristan and Jessica Devin's mom, Lynne Devin-Smith (spelled right?)) wrote up our scenes into a play called Ups and Downs. It was me, Heather Moon, Nate Todd, Deanna Gauthier, and Amber Anderson.

Here's Heather, Amber, and Deanna, as a runner, deaf girl, and bug lady respectively, encountering me in the elevator (slightly changed my name in the script to keep alive the surprise, and a few stage directions for clarity):

BUG LADY enters elevator, searching for bugs. RUNNER enters jogging, and sees BUG LADY catching bugs [perhaps nonexistent]. DAN enters from SR, gets on elevator, notices RUNNER. He gradually moves next to her.

DAN: Hi!

RUNNER: Hello...

DAN: You know, you might think this is a bit... well, odd, but I think... well, I have the feeling that we know each other.

RUNNER: ... uh... I don't think so - no, you don't look familiar...

DAN: Well, I have a very strong feeling about you... I think... well, I think we're probably soul mates...

RUNNER: Excuse me?

DAN: I think we're destined for each other - destined to be together.

BANKER [Nate] gets on. RUNNER jogs off. DEAF GIRL gets on.

DAN [to DEAF GIRL]: You know, you might think this is a bit... well, odd, but I think... well, I have the feeling that we know each other.

DEAF GIRL [signing]: Excuse me?

DAN: I have a very strong feeling about you... I think... well, I think we're probably soul mates...

DEAF GIRL [signing]: I don't think so...

DAN: I think we're destined for each other - destined to be together.

DEAF GIRL [signing and exiting]: This guy is really off his rocker...

DAN notices BUG LADY.

DAN: You know, you might think this is a bit... well, odd, but I think... well, I have the feeling that we know each other.

BUG LADY doesn't acknowledge him, but finds a bug on his jacket. ...

Pretty much says it all, huh? I invented "everyone's soul mate" and didn't even realize it was me. I can laugh about it now.

That's why Levin is so funny here: "He seemed to feel that he had to fall in love with one of the sisters, only he could not make up his mind with which." He falls in love with Dolly, but she marries Oblonsky; then he falls in love with Natalie, but she marries Lvov. Levin doesn't see them for a while, but after visiting them again, "he realized which of the three sisters he was really destined to fall in love with." And of course, it was the one who wasn't married yet. Of course. I feel like I'm noticing the irony more on this read through.

Levin's been shy about popping the question, though. One reason, that he was worried about what people would think of him, a landowner without a profession, dovetails with the stuff above where he is embarrassed by his individuality and his difference from the crowd, like a schoolboy. But the more intriguing reason is that he sees himself as flawed and dirty, but if he were the girl, he would only pick someone handsome and remarkable. Levin judges by himself, and what he's looking for is perfection. Not just in love, but in his search for the answers to life's persistent questions, he isn't going to settle. Feels like a setup for a rude awakening, doesn't it?

Twice in the last paragraph in Chapter 6, this love is linked ominously with death. He realizes that "he could not live without having settled the question whether or not she would be his wife," and "he could not imagine what would become of him if she were to refuse him." Without getting too far ahead of the story, the meaning of life and the meaning of death bring continual pressure on Levin's self-image. So we might ask ourselves, is Levin planning to propose out of love, out of fear, out of his personal quest for answers? We don't actually know fact two about Kitty (fact one: Meow) because Levin idealizes her so completely. She could be anyone once you get her down from the pedestal, out of the heavenly lighting. So who does Levin think he's marrying, anyway?

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