Friday, December 08, 2006

AK: (I.9-11) Love in the time of Cachet Blanc

We're back! I had a rough time deciding how to write about this next section. But a passage from The Genesee Diary showed me the way. Like I said earlier, it's an account of a Dutch Catholic writer and priest who goes to spend seven months in a Trappist monastery, living as a monk.

Here's the passage:

Contemplative life is a human response to the fundamental fact that the central things in life, although spiritually perceptible, remain invisible in large measure and can very easily be overlooked by the inattentive, busy, distracted person that each of us can so readily become. The contemplative looks not so much around things but through them into their center. Through their center he discovers the world of spiritual beauty that is more real, has more density, more mass, more energy, and greater intensity than physical matter. In effect, the beauty of physical matter is a reflection of its inner content. Contemplation is a response to the world that is built in this fashion. That is why the Greek fathers, who were great contemplatives, are known as the dioretic fathers. [not diuretic - ed.] Diorao means to see into, to see through. In celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, we celebrate the presence of the risen Christ among us, at the center of our lives, at the center of our very being, at the heart of our community, at the heart of the creation...

Keep this in mind as we talk.

Mountaintop At The Garden. Levin meeting Kitty at the ice skating rink might be described best as a mountaintop experience.* In the full flush of his yearning to be joined to Kitty, he uses language that is religious in its fervor to praise her: "Everything became bright in her presence. ... The spot where she stood seemed to him an unapproachable sanctuary... He went down, trying not to look long at her, as though she were the sun, but he saw her, as one sees the sun, without looking." And like someone who looks too long at the sun, he is blinded.

Here's a poem I wrote way back when. If I explain much about what it means, it'll be obvious who it was about. The title is the name of a place on the moon, originally thought to be a sea, and thus called Sea of Tears. One night I looked into the sky, which was quite clear, and saw an enormous silver ring around the moon. Think of it, if you like, as another take on Levin.

Mare Imbrium

Your halo crowning the dark skies
You're too far above me
I sought the sun and I found you
I stared so long my eyes hurt
When I looked around, your image
Was reflected in all I saw
You were imprinted in my brain
I staggered blindly and still your face
Stared back at me endlessly

Maybe you didn't know, when I went into orbit
Circling around, in empty space
Pulled by an irresistible force
I was not an immovable stone
I hate to think you ignored it.

Stay blameless
You'll remain pristine forever in my memory
That is what you deserve-
You never attacked
But maybe I did
And I burned out my own eyes
For sight of you

It's a little hard for me to write about this particular chapter, Chapter 9, because of stuff like this. Not God's gift to poetry. I see several changes to make ten-ish years later, including some ghastly punctuation, some clunky phrases. But I was idealistic enough then to believe that Levin was piercing the mystical veil and seeing Kitty as she is. I thought you could have "childlike serenity and goodness," "gentle, calm, and truthful eyes," "an enchanted world," if you only went on a quest for this perfect woman. This attitude spills from the margin, from my high school attitude, into my reading.

Only lately have I seen Levin's attitude being portrayed here as quixotic and a bit unreliable. I transcribed that passage on contemplation, though, because perhaps I have this exactly upside down. It's hard to tell whether visionaries are mad or geniuses. We could all be wrong. Even Tolstoy could be wrong, in a sense, about Levin. Maybe we have only the common sort of sight and he sees the things that are really important.

Faith is the belief in things unseen. That's the common point of view, straight from a quotable Bible verse. The spiritual realm that lies behind or permeates the physical realm is not accessible to our senses. But faith is also the seeing of things believed. Sometimes when I am in the church building, I imagine to myself, what if we could see through this physical thing to the spiritual thing behind it: a pristine church as beautiful as a Monet painting, angels singing in the rafters along with the congregation, the radiance of God shining in every person and from every corner. Sure, there are these brown wooden pews, and the water damage, and the PA is a little too loud this morning and they're out of stubby pencils. And now we must decide which view, which vision of the church is more essential. My instinct is to say that the first one is more real, even though it is, from the common point of view, wholly imaginary.

Once Levin's head floats off its shoulders, action that is altogether prosaic becomes gold-leafed. "Skate together?" Levin asks himself. "Is that possible?" The undercurrent of this action is not Levin's epic romantic destiny, though. Back on the ground, Kitty is frowning and turning things over in her mind. When Levin lets slip his intentions, saying to Kitty regarding the length of his stay in Moscow, "It all depends on you," she is shocked and runs away from him.

We are thus not surprised that she thinks of him as "her favorite brother", and says "I know that I don't love him." On this paragraph, the story pivots, and we grimly anticipate the failure of Levin's marriage proposals, and understand how loosely he is anchored to reality. To his credit, Levin is at least by turns hopeful and hopeless about his prospects. But again, this has more to do with his uncertain view of himself than anything Kitty might have said or done, which he might have paid attention to.

It's a pitiable situation; Tolstoy skillfully sets it up so we tensely await the reveal throughout the following action, until Levin asks Kitty, as he's come to Moscow to do, to fulfill his destiny, to be complete, to find Jesus and God and heaven and be burned up in the sun. Then, presumably, she will say no.

Coming Down The Mountain. Once the radiance of Kitty fades away, Levin finds himself down in the twilight of a dinner with Oblonsky. Quickly, he feels like he and his idealistic thoughts of beauty and truth and Kitty do not belong in this sybarite's world. A woman wearing makeup is the first target of his ire, but more follow over the course of their luxurious meal. "He was afraid of besmirching that which filled his soul." And if there's one thing that really smirches the place up, it's Flensburg oysters.

Levin can't tell Oblonsky all that, so he channels his discomfort into classic town mouse, country mouse talk:
O: "Well, naturally. But that's the whole aim of civilization: to make everything a source of enjoyment."
L: "Well, if that is so, I'd rather be a savage."

The friendly banter starts to unravel as Oblonsky brings the conversation back around to the Shcherbatskys, though. It's hard not to hear Oblonsky dragging a source of holiness for Levin down into a source of enjoyment for himself. Levin reaffirms, once more in religious language, both what this love means to him ("It is not mere feeling, but a sort of force outside me which has taken possession of me") and why he feels unworthy of it ("that we--who are no longer young and have pasts... er... not of love but of sins--that we find ourselves drawn close suddenly to a pure, innocent being!").

But in this affirmation we can hear Levin's confession that all the disgust he had directed outward at the evening, the tarted-up woman, the luxuries, and Oblonsky, the paunchy nobleman, also convicts him. I am tempted to say that Levin's opinion of himself is just as valid as his opinion of Kitty. Another phrase springs to mind: "in humility, consider others better than yourselves." Is Levin's attitude humility, or do we need a more destructive word?

As If. As if the night couldn't get any worse, Oblonsky talks about one of Kitty's suitors, the handsome, intelligent, young Vronsky, then forces Levin to talk about adultery. I have wondered for a while whether there is a subtext here that Levin is too old for Kitty. No one really comes right out and says it. It's all couched in terms of experience.

I'll leave the talk of Vronsky for another night. As for the talk on adultery, it's fairly predictable when you think about where they're both coming from, but it's fun to read. There are some great lines and moments in this chapter, and this is already getting long, so I'm going to cut this thing short.

I really like the moment when Levin is talking about how pure love should be, but all of a sudden he realizes that he is not so pure and becomes confused: "However, perhaps you're right. Yes, perhaps you are. ... But I don't know. I really don't know." This is the culmination of Levin's being pulled between the two versions of his love all day long, masterfully depicted by Tolstoy. Oblonsky has a great line in response: "You want the activity of every single man always to have an aim, and love and family life always to be one and the same thing. But that doesn't happen either. All the diversity, all the charm, and all the beauty of life are made up of light and shade."

Finally done! Hopefully the next installment won't take so long to get out.

* The reference is to the Transfiguration, a story in the Gospels where Jesus takes John, Peter, and James up on a peak, where they see him transformed and conversing with Moses and Elijah. (Incidentally, Wikipedia informs me that the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches celebrate this event on August 6, a day I have always firmly associated with the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.)

I had a mountaintop experience in the summer of 2000, when I spent several weeks in South Lake Tahoe with Campus Crusade for Christ among adults in ministry and 80 like-minded students on a mission. I don't regret the weeks. They rank with some of the best I've ever had, and that's where I met Sarah Conrad from Utah. There was even a literal, yet symbolic mountain to climb where you could see for miles into the blue, Mount Tallac. I picked wildflowers to give to Sarah. I had a two-liter bottle full of them before Matt Stumbaugh educated me about zero-impact principles.

It was a perfect environment for living as a Christian and being close to God. There are all kinds of things I could say from here, like "too perfect...?" and "for that reason, to be mistrusted" but they're not quite true. The mountain is real, and the valley and the flatland are real too. What you learn on the mountain is for the rest of your life, but it requires a bit of translation to the rest of your life first.

No comments: