Thursday, December 23, 2010

An Encounter With Tolstoy

I took the past few days to read Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina, my first full-length encounter with his work, and am ever more convinced that what makes a great artist is a great degree of self-knowledge.  The 19th century English poet Matthew Arnold said on the back of my edition that the book was not to be taken as a work of art, but as a piece of life.  I think he misses the point of the kind of awareness that authors like Tolstoy possess.  Art and life overlap and are intertwined…how do we define one without the other?  How can we say we understand life without resolving conflicts, without understanding that those conflicts do exist, and without having the ability to “separate” from the absurdity of it all to recognize what reality is really comprised of? 
                A book as layered as Anna Karenina is hardly explained through any particular theme or genre.  Tolstoy believed in the novel as a treatise on life, and to reduce this work to a story of romances interlaced with episodes of “realism” would be to miss the point.  My first thought after finishing the last page was that the romances were used by Tolstoy to point us towards the larger love that IS.  The tragic element of the love myth is emblematic in the main character’s fate, and the base desires of the libido are interspersed at various points throughout the book.  The search for the higher love of the universal is best portrayed in the philosophical yearnings of the character Levin, Tolstoy’s alter ego in the novel, and the character that I most identify with as well. 
                The great artists must have a deep understanding of life, first of themselves, and then of others.  Understanding of self leads to understanding of others through those embodied interconnections that are what makes us human.  Through being able to clearly identify those incoming and outgoing signals in relation to our own humanity means that we can also understand the other.  When Tolstoy addresses death in the book, he uses this embodied understanding in the character of Kitty dealing with Levin’s brother.  Levin had all the intellectual knowledge in the world about death, but it took the understanding of the reality of death, apart from the abstract, for death to be dealt with.   Kitty had the ability of empathy, that element of love, which was essential in the context of the situation.  Levin was only to develop that ability later, and through a different path…which was illustrative of one of the many subtleties that Tolstoy incorporates into his writing. 

                Anna was searching; she was going through the normality of life.  However, Tolstoy made the book real in the sense that Anna, as the main character, was the one person who we thought had a handle on “who she was”.  Anyone would have been attracted to Anna, and everyone was.  However, as much as Anna seemed to transcend the absurdities of society, and to be able to see right through it, she was still looking at it from a vantage point that left nothing to be seen past it.  We saw this with a lot of the characters, and this was one of the fascinating elements that Tolstoy incorporated.  “Realism” as the style of this type of writing was apt as the book took us down many paths where I thought I knew the character, only to be confronted with some element of their personality that blindsided me.  Tolstoy gave us the idea of the character, and let the reality develop on its own and in its time. 
                This was a book that was written over a period of four years.  We can see Tolstoy’s view on life developing, especially at the end of the book, with the existential and spiritual crisis that we find Levin articulating.  Levin eventually discovers his peace, as did Tolstoy in his own life.  From that point on in Tolstoy’s life and writings, he further incorporated his convictions of nonviolent Christian anarchism…or resistance to power structures through a life lived with the highest principle of love.  Love as power, and not power as power was what Tolstoy believed in and exemplified. 
                I became fascinated with Tolstoy from a course on nonviolence that I took at Eastern Mennonite University this past semester.  Hearing that Tolstoy had a huge influence on Gandhi and MLK made me resolve to dive into his works the minute I had the chance.  Through further research, I can see that Tolstoy went through the same restlessness that I’ve gone through in my own life, and that many of us go through.  Ultimate meaning for him meant seeing himself in the other, and seeing the divine or the universal in all of us and through all of us.  This continues to be the common thread that is always presenting itself to me, and that I find in scriptures, philosophy, metaphysics, art, literature and music.  Perhaps it’s the paradigm I’m incorporating to view life, but it’s the only paradigm I’ve discovered that makes sense. 
                There is a line that runs through the philosophy of Tolstoy as portrayed in Anna Karenina.  It is a line that Levin discovers at the end of the book, and is grounded in Levin’s heritage.  Levin acknowledges the narrative structure of the individual life, and starts to make sense of his own story just as the book ends.  This is what can be said to be the discovery of voice.  Tolstoy certainly found his, and recognizing what he discovered as the foundation of his voice is the key to understanding Anna Karenina, and is the key to understanding life.

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