Monday, December 17, 2012

Anna Karenina: passion and the dead



Peter Gibbins, a union organizer and a student and friend of mine at Metro, has been working creatively on Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism and how it influenced Gandhi. Panchayats - self-government by groups of five villages - and nonviolent noncooperation are ways of challenging the state. These come from Tolstoy’s powerful ideas in the dying imperial Russia of the late 19th century as Peter has already suggested to me in a “sophomore” independent study.

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Some of this is on view, as a powerful undercurrent, in the playwright Tom Stoppard’s translation of Anna Karenina into a filmed play (director: Joe Wright).

The theme of the story is the power of love, particularly for a woman. Married to a stiff bureaucrat, someone who lives by the rules of Imperial Russia and does not see her, Anna is chased by Count Vronsky, an initially thin and dissolute officer, a man with little honor, and falls – they both fall – passionately in love.

The behind the scenes walkways onto stages or into railways (the last scene is one of the grass growing into and through the arch of the theatre, the artifice of film at last trumping the artifice of theater) freeze many of the passersby/actors and give an inner sense of her passion, that there is suddenly only one other person real for her in the world...

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If Brecht does alienation effects with the theater, making the viewer think about what happens in the play critically, Stoppard does far less of this. His main purpose is to convey the sense of love from within, how only passion and the lover are alive, everything else frozen, dead.

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If anything, Stoppard condenses in play/film the passion in the novel more intensely than Tolstoy’s sometimes sprawling style. The artifice of theater/film oddly strengthens nature rather than challenging or diluting it.

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I spent a lot of time as a teenager reading Russian novels. JJ, my maternal grandfather and an anarchist and his wife Sofie, also an anarchist (died just after I was born) came from Russia, and my mother loved Dostoyevsky’s Poor People, had wept reading it as a teenager – see here - and started my reading in the Russians.

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Bureaucrats have little sense – make robots seem…human - even though Alexei reaches a Christian sense of forgiveness of everyone, and lives with the two children, Seryosha, his own child with Anna, and Anna and Vronsky’s daughter. Awful and formal, he is made human slightly by his initial hatred of Anna (a real feeling of hurt, though creepy enough), and then by his Christianity and at last, his love for the children…

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He is somehow a velveteen rabbit. He - almost - becomes real at the end.

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But Anna and some of the other men (Kostya Levin) are passionate. And their passions come through in this play/film, in the novel, and in Russia in a way which resembles, say, Spain or Ireland rather than England or France. In the latter, passion is often bottled up, less on the surface.

This is a tragedy of the heart, resisted but overwhelming, shaping lives caught within the stiff hierarchy of imperial Russia.

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Anna’s great love is for her son Seryosha who returns it. She, and not the father, has the real relationship with him, as Seryosha says to her when she brings, living away and forbidden, a gift early in the morning for his birthday.

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To do this, she engages bravely in a kind of civil disobedience (to laws which make the child property of a man) and is shunned.

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Her whole series of actions, including the terrible scene where the audience at the theatre is cruel to her, men and women, where Vronsky holds back in fear and recognition, where she alone, head high, is then subjected to scorn – and being a feeling person, takes it in - are a kind of civil disobedience.

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Her love for her son resembles that of Antigone (a founder of what we call civil disobedience) for her brother. Antigone fulfills her social station, cares for her "traitor"-brother who has been killed but not buried by royal order, covers him with dirt, and is then killed by the patriarch Creon on his first day of rule.

Creon then loses everything; by evening, his son, in love with Antigone, goes into the cave and is buried with her, his wife commits suicide. The fat-headedness and often bitter end of patriarchs – we are all mortal, whatever the ring of Gyges surrounds us with - is stark here.

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But Anna’s passion and honesty are her own.

Passion is also Vronsky’s, a thin man in a white uniform who grows some because of love, but for him as a man, seductions are socially permissible. Is there anything to Vronsky?

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It is the woman who loses everything, who at the last on the train platform, throws herself under a railway car and dies.

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Her protest, beyond Antigone, is her own, for love, her passion a more intense version of everyone who has ever fallen suddenly and deeply in love with someone, socially forbidden, and has lost the thread of social approval.

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Anna is real here, as no one else, consumed by her passion, acting freely for it, broken, crazed and despairing...

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She does not get to grow old with, become bored eventually by Vronsky, have a more or less happy life, keep note books full of her own secrets (as Adrienne Rich writes memorably in the end of her long poem "For Ethel Rosenberg").

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Tolstoy captures – Stoppard presents - with an almost Chekhov-like starkness the dyingness of Imperial Russia.

Anarchy and revolution are an intense undercurrent in the play/film.

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As a counterpoint, the awkward Kostya is in love with the naive Kitty, a relative of Anna’s; he has not gotten up the courage to propose. Kitty, at 18 has fallen for Vronsky, When Levin finds words, she rejects him and is in turn rejected by Vronsky at the ball in a wild dance in being possessed by a passion for Anna.

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Kostya goes back to his estate. He works in the fields with the peasants, the former serfs as he remarks. He is for decisions based on reason and not faith and tradition which sustain the regime's horrific oppressiveness.

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One of the men – his manager? - speaks of the way things are, how others are uncomfortable with him working with them. He says to the man: you are no longer a serf (revolts had led to the tsar’s reform…).

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A contrasting happiness: he and Kitty recover a chance at love through a silent board game. They must make their love on a board of words because neither of them is a person of words, with a voice (they are, in this way, unlike Anna and Vronsky).

It is not quite Elizabeth Bennett – Kitty is very young and not very articulate - and Mr. Darcy, but it has elements of it.

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But do women, even Anna, have inner lives aside from men?

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Kitty and Levin go on and have a child.

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And Kostya's elder brother, the sickly anarchist who has married an Indian woman, a prostitute from a bordello who takes care of him, is cared for by the younger Levin.

The brother blurts out that she is a prostitute and proclaims that he has forgiven her, married her as an act of social defiance – he could more politely and subtly have kept his mouth shut rather than illustrating his “goodness” at her expense.

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She does not speak about this. She nobly takes care of him.

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It is a fine line, Tolstoy (and Stoppard) walk, between a man’s point of view and the tragedy of a woman.

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This is not Jane Austen in rendering the subtleties of Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters in a relentlessly oppressive patriarchy (marry to live invisibly in poverty as a spinster, or if you give way to passion, you are ruined and flung into deeper poverty…)

It is not a woman’s account.

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Still, when the brother and his wife come to stay with Kostya, Kostya, unreasoning, prepares to throw the ex-prostitute out of the house because he is "worried" about Kitty.

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But Kitty joins the wife in nursing the brother. She acts as a serious Christian in Tolstoy’s terms, and here is a moment of sisterly solidarity. It is that which gives her relationship with Levin and their child its happiness,

It is almost a moment of redemption for Tolstoy and Stoppard.

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Keira Knightley, who shines as Anna, speaks of an element of misogyny in Tolstoy.

What happens to Anna is tragic – she gives way to her passion, nature rises up in her – and cruel.

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The ostracism that she sustains, the strangling of a social life in the Empire, the disapproval of the prissy ladies who have squashed their feelings and the man who is "kind" only in a dream of sex, the unwillingness of Alexei to divorce her and thus, her incapacity/unwillingness to be married to Vronsky (who is willing to marry her but has flitted to another), her separation from her son Seryosha whom she most loves, eventually breaks her spirit.

She throws herself under the train.

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Recalling the coughing anarchist who brags of his noble deed, Anna is like anarchist's long suffering wife. Her tragedy or, in the wife’s case, salvation for each depends on a man and the men, on Tolstoy’s point of view.

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Oddly for a subtle and radical Christian, Tolstoy (or Stoppard) does not give us Anna’s thoughts beyond her love for her son, her sense of and need to defy social or conventional obligation, her love for a man, and the terrible oppression visited upon her (the frequent thinness of men, beyond inarticulate passion, is on the surface in the play/movie).

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Curiously, Tolstoy seems not to have empathy for Anna quite. I am not sure it is misogyny – though Knightley has lived this so much that she may just have a deeper sense of it. But it is a man’s point of view, as my wife emphasizes, not a woman’s that Tolstoy brings to her, that accounts not just for the tensions in the life, but in the fact that he throws her down a well (as Mark Twain used to say).

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Alexei survives, with deep hurt but also happily, with the children. He has forgiven and been forgiven. Nature flourishes. Nonviolence in spirit is near (not quite Gandhi, who also had problems in this regard). The grass spreads from this bucolic scene of Alexei with the children through the archway of the theatre toward the audience of the film...

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Alexei is real in his Christianity, in forgiveness, but as a type.

Whether he is real as a person – he feels hatred and then forgives – is less clear.

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But Anna throws herself under the train asking to be forgiven. She has somehow wronged others in being alive.

But what has she done wrong?

Why is she the sacrifice?

Why is her death – her moment of death - so bleak, so unredeemed?

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Is Christianity of forgiveness or of the cruel social judgment of imperial patriarchy about "a woman's" sin, that Anna has sinned (Eve all over again)…

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Did she not love as fully as she could (her son, Vronsky - her daughter who remains with Alexei she does not reach)?

Did she not live more fully, with greater honesty than others?

Could the grass not have grown for her?

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This is the driving sadness of the novel/play.

The tragedy of Anna Karenina is from a man’s point of view (the writers, the Director) and borders on misogyny.

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In America and elsewhere in the West, a new era has dawned (and even in Palestine, in its many colleges – Palestinians strikingly have as much affection for education as…Jews). In America, young women are the majority of students in graduate and professional schools (I recently gave a seminar on nonviolence which was 10 women and 3 men, counting me).

Women now have careers and incomes. There is still the question of children and who cares for them. But women are writing a new era, one in which the destruction of nature for humans – climate change – and militarism might be challenged (women were among those of us who reelected Obama, headed off the misery that is the party of the – more extreme - Right) and a multiracial and nondiscriminatory society might result.

Men, often more frail psychologically and in nurturing than women, have a hard time in this environment. For the stamp of patriarchy is still vividly here even as the mores and feelings change. Stop keeping the women down and the fragility of men is made visible. Soldiering, militarism, and being, over a long time, worked to death in many core industrial jobs once concealed the harms to men. It is harder now – and many do not – to find their own way.

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Seeing Anna Karenina or reading Jane Austen shows how much – and for the better – society has changed.

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Whether with the survival and increasing awfulness of capitalism (a thousand mechanical hands - bank charges and the like - now pick our pockets along with the soulless crushing of unions by mechanized, unredeemed Scrooges, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers strut the stage, Karenins without the robotic decency), such changes will be enough – whether the hope of a non-patriarchal, multiracial democracy can prevent the dead from bringing down human life and passion of which Anna is an emblem – is, however, a question.

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