Monday, October 16, 2006

AK: (I.7-8) Sergey my brother, you are older than me

I'm reading for chunks. Maybe two or three chapters will turn out to be more appropriate than four or five.

Meet Kozneyshev. Yes, yes, every single heading I've used so far has said "Meet X". It's like there's a party in my book, and everyone's invited. Things are going to start happening soon, I promise.

For some reason now unfathomable to me, after the better part of a decade reading this book, I never picked up on the fact that these chapters with Levin's brother are a flashback, which occur in the morning before Levin goes to see Oblonsky. At the end of the Chapter 5, Levin bounded off to find Kitty at the skating rink. Along with Chapter 6, the backstory on Levin and Kitty, these chapters interrupt the action to characterize Levin and his brother Koznyshev, and to introduce Levin's other brother, Nikolai.

This kind of interruption would be a no-no on the airport rack. The exciting narrative is put on hold for these expository lumps. The fact that I didn't notice for years probably means it's no big deal. Maybe it also shows that the exposition is interesting enough in its own right.

Levin's brother Sergey is renowned as a thinker, a member of the intelligentsia who enjoys nothing more than seeing around all sides of an issue and arguing articulately about it. I understand why; just this was my favorite thing for a long time.

When I was in high school, I was a policy debater. It's an intellectual game where the object is to score points in an argument game. A resolution, chosen at the beginning of the year (actually, before the summer break preceding), delineates the sides of the debate. One team, the Affirmative, must argue in favor of the resolution (e.g., "The US should change its foreign policy towards Iraq"), and they essentially set the ground for the hour of debate that follows; the other team, the Negative, explains why the Affirmative is totally wrong, even if the Affirmative plan is to give everyone a pony and live happily ever after. In the course of a typical tournament, you might take the Affirmative 3 times and the Negative 3 times. You might say things that you don't believe, or further, things that contradict the statements you made to win the last debate.

For me, the system started breaking down in my senior year. People started making philosophical arguments about the way people talked in the debates, essentially playing the Race card or the Class card or the Patriarchy card or the Sins of the State card. Environmental debates lend themselves to this kind of indictment of how you speak rather than what you're saying, owing to the variety of philosophical takes on the environment. All of a sudden, you're a misogynist who wants to oppress people because you're interested in funding the ethanol industry. The debates could get pretty ugly. Once, a team brought up suicide during a critique of Western morality. Not in a good way. It was me and Geraldine, and we were both friends of Chris. That one was ugly.

Words do matter. They can kill and heal, build up and tear down, just like in the poem. They cut you, you bleed. They lift you, you fly. But Koznyshev doesn't treat words like that anymore. He refuses to take them seriously. That's why it says in the first paragraph of Chapter 7, first, that the professor came to talk about "a very important philosophical question", and second, that their discussion is a "fashionable question." These two opposed views brought me up short. Is it more irony? Is there just irony on every page of this book now that I am 26? Am I ironic?

Here's another explanation. For Koznyshev, there has long ceased to be a distinction between what is very important and what is fashionable. He doesn't take a position because he has no positions. He understands everything except for himself. Levin, on the other hand, feels forced by a kind of innate honesty or maybe courage, to take stands that he must later retract. He is interested in questions as Koznyshev never can be, because he sees the mystery of himself at the heart of all of life's questions.

This is why Kozneyshev and the professor dance around questions of sensation, being, and death. It takes a man who looks like a barge hauler, like the man who sings "Old Man River", to bring them face to face with the very real implications of the ideas they toss around like coins. They are good at the debate game, but no one gets good at death. Koznyshev is a great debater, and saves the game by pointing out that there is no data beyond death; only theory remains.

The next chapter has more of the same, as Koznyshev dispassionately chats about things that he has no personal stake in. Even the news that his brother Nikolai is back in town does not sway him. When Koznyshev pays a debt for Nikolai and sends him the receipt, Nikolai responds with a sarcastic note asking to be left alone. Then Koznyshev makes a very telling statement: "'He obviously wants to insult me,' Koznyshev went on, 'but he can't do that.'" That's because Koznyshev isn't enough of a person to be insulted. He doesn't take any stands worth fighting about, or even worth some mild indignation. Nikolai can't hurt what he can't touch. Nikolai, can, however, inspire Koznyshev to soar to new heights of personal moral rectitude by his example. In theory, Koznyshev is a towering intellect, a respected moralist and thinker; in reality, he is a ghost.

One thing to keep in mind as you read about Nikolai, Levin, and Sergey is to remember that they are brothers, and in some way may represent a kind of continuum. Sergey and Nikolai are estranged, and Levin travels between them. Sergey is well-respected, Nikolai is reviled, and again Levin is about halfway between. I'll revisit this idea when we meet Nikolai.

Levin decides that letters and paid-off IOUs aren't enough, even for a wastrel like Nikolai, and wants to go see his brother. He is tempted to blow it off because his mind is full of Kitty and his plans to propose, but he still decides to go that evening. The flashback ends as Levin sets out for Oblonsky's office.

These two chapters aren't very far out of order, so why do it as a flashback at all? Consider where Tolstoy had to begin the novel. The precipitating event for all the action that follows, one way or another, is the Oblonsky crisis. Levin is also introduced from Oblonsky's point of view, rather than appearing first waiting around in his brother's office. Instead our first impression of Levin is as an impulsive man of action. The Oblonsky crisis is more interesting, and provides some unresolved tension to carry us through the first chapters of the book. It also drops the name of the main character, Anna, who we don't see for a while yet.

Why have the two chapters at all? We could just go straight from Oblonsky's office to the rink. I think it was important to get Nikolai into the backstory quickly, and perhaps to characterize Koznyshev. These things set up the promised scenes with Nikolai in the evening.

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