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Women

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Well, okay.  Not quite.

But I was bringing together a bunch of things–one of them JD’s comment a week or so ago that although Hanson says that the liberal arts teach logical thinking, etc, apparently they don’t anymore.

And that, believe it or not, popped to the surface of my brain while reading Steiner on Anna Karenina.

So, let’s go back.

JD’s comment assumes that what goes on in humanties classrooms these days is “teaching the liberal arts.”

But that’s not the case.   We may call these departments “English Literature” and “Philosophy” and “History” and “Classics,” but the content of the work in the classrooms has nothing at all to do with the liberal arts, Humanities division, as it was traditionally understood, or as Hanson meant by using the term.

Steiner, however–I’m still on the book Tolstoy or Dostoyevski–is in fact teaching the liberal arts, or maybe practicing them. 

This consists, at this point in this book, of looking at Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina as part of the tradition of the novel as an art form, and as part of the tradition of the novel in Russian, and then tracing its connections with the history of idea in the West in general and in Russia in particular.  Then you’d take the book apart scene by scene, character by character, and see how it worked.

If you read Anna Karenina in a college classroom today, this is not how you would read it.  It is not how you would read it even if you got lucky enough to have it assigned as part of a course in “19th Century Russian Literature in Translation.” 

It’s much  more likely that, if you were assigned it at all, it would be in a course called something like  “Women and Sexuality in Literature,” and then you’d really be in a mess.

Let me backtrack yet again, this time very far. I remember reading Anna Karenina.  I remember picking up the book for the very first time, taking it out of the very bottom shelf of the upstairs “classic fiction” reading room in my local public library.   I couldn’t have been any more than twelve years old at the time.  I was probably more like ten.

And here’s something else:  I hate Tolstoy.  I really hate him.   There is something about Tolstoy’s fiction that just repulses me.

I often say that I’ve never gotten past the first of the Napoleanic War scenes in War and Peace, and that’s why I’ve never finished it–and that’s true, up to a point.

The fact is that I would probably have bulled my way through the battle scenes by now if I wasn’t already put off the book because of an earlier scene, where the pregnant Princess Natasha is described as sitting at a ball looking ill and frightened because she’s anticipating all the pain she will have to experience in childbirth.

Ech.  I can’t quite capture the emotional tone of that scene, at least in the old Constance Garnett translation.

But it always appeared to me to be the author absolutely relishing the anticipation of that pain, as if Tolstoy wanted Natasha to hurt and took positive glee in the inevitability of it.

For many years, I thought my impression of this scene had something odd about it–that I was responding not to what was actually there but to some unresolved issue in myself.  Then I read “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and I can tell you that the man who wrote that would be fully capable of relishing the idea of a pregnant woman anticipating and then suffering severe pain in childbirth.   And it surprises me not at all that the real-life Tolstoy opposed the use of anesthesia in childbirth as not being “natural.”

So, I really feel repulsed by Tolstoy, but repulsed or not, I know that Anna Karenina is a powerful book.  I know it because, having read it that one time, I retain the names of the characters, most of the major scenes, and some of the minor ones, and even some of the descriptions.  

I remember more of Anna Karenina than I do of most books I’ve read more than once.   I remember more of it than I will ever remember of, say, Buddenbrooks.  Or even Bleak House, which I’ve read three or four times, and absolutely love.

For those of you who don’t know, Anna Karenina is the story of a woman–a comfortably situated, upper class woman with a husband and family–who falls in love with a handsome, utterly amoral rock star of a single man.  He seduces her, but she doesn’t have to try very hard.  They are found out, and in the way of society at the time, she is ostracized and he is let off with nothing but a few half-admiring sniggers.

It’s at this point that Anna realizes she’s made the worst kind of mistake. She has given everything to Vronsky on the assumption that he loved her as she loved him.  She expects him to run away with her when the scandal breaks, because nothing else matters but that they are together.

Vronsky, however, is not in love at all.  In fact, having had his fling, he’s in search of newer and fresher pastures. He cares not at all what happens to Anna, and he certainly has no intention of ripping up the pleasant routine of his life in society to live out his days in sin with Anna in some dreary resort town a couple of countries away.

Anna finds herself deserted by her husband, prevented from ever seeing her children again, with nowhere to go, no place to be willing to take her in, and looking forward to nothing better than to spend her life as a common prostitute.

So she throws herself under a train. 

There is nothing particularly original in this story.  By the time Tolstoy wrote his book, Flaubert had already produced Madame Bovary, and the similarities between the two novels are close enough so that there has always been speculation that Tolstoy took his inspiration from Flaubert. 

Of course, the differences are also significant, so there’s that.

If I tried to teach this book in a literature class today, what I would almost certainly get would be a lot of people telling me that the book was boring and not relevant, because we don’t feel that way about women committing adultery these days.  We don’t like it, but we don’t ostracize them to the point where they feel they have no other option but to commit suicide. 

If those same students took a modern literature course, they would hear that Anna Karenina represented Tolstoy’s deep seated misogyny, and that literature was one of the devices men used to “keep women down” and to “control women’s sexuality.”

Ditch the oppressive men, students would be told, and women could come in to the joyous expression of their sexuality.

Well, I’m not going to dispute Tolstoy’s misogyny.  That the man had a totally foul attitude to women can be figured out by any intelligent ten year old willing to read through the work.

But the actual message of Anna Karenina is almost absolutely the opposite of the one the modern academic English professor wants to make of it.  It is not that women’s sexuality is being repressed by men, but that sex–all sex–is inherently dangerous. 

“Safe sex” is, and always will be, an oxymoron.

Anna Karenina is the story of a woman so lost in passion that she can “think” only through it, it distorts her personality, her thought processes, her reason, her faith, everything.

And she has plenty of real-life counterparts, even today, when nobody would stop speaking to her–or most people wouldn’t–because she cheated on her husband.

Some of Anna’s present day counterparts do, indeed, commit suicide–and men do it as well as women.

But Anna’s real representatives in the modern world are the men and women who “do” things for love that ruin their lives in much more dramatic ways.

They show up on all those true crime documentary shows every day.  The woman in Florida so in love with her husband that she killed his ex-wife for him, only to have him throw her under the train (claiming it was all her idea) when they got caught.  Or the woman prison guard who fell so in love with an inmate that she engineered his escape and took down at least one other guard to make sure she got away.  Or the man whose online “affair” turned into a real affair and whose lover convinced him that her husband was beating her–so our online Romeo murdered the husband, only to be ditched in the aftermath as the lady had fun spending hubby’s life insurance payout.

Oh, and in that last case, the guy did in fact commit suicide when he got ditched.

I should really keep a file on the names and dates.  But you see what I mean.

Actually teaching Anna Karenina as literature might actually lead to students who think more deeply and logically about all kinds of thing, including “safe sex.”

But nobody teaches literature any more.

I’ve got to go. 

I’m glad I found the Steiner book, though, no matter how idiotic he gets about why artists feel alienated.

Written by janeh

December 19th, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Women'

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  1. Call the thing by its right name. Sex is safer than horseback riding. Love is unpredictably dangerous.

    Karenina and Bovary always call to my mind Caro Lamb: 27 years old, aristocratic, wealthy, married to a rising politician. In 1812, she had a two month affair with Lord Byron, loved him deeply, and it destroyed her. Byron, who loved only Byron, was at worst mildly inconvenienced. He wrote verse mocking Lamb when she wouldn’t go away at his convenience. When she stopped eating he called her a skeleton. It speaks poorly for the English Regency that Byron wasn’t shot long before he went to Greece.

    And no, it’s not just a man thing. Caro is a close contemporary of Pauline Bonaparte, and the longest time Pauline ever stayed faithful to one man was a three-day weekend. Doctors warned her about her sex life, but it was cancer that killed her. She never took the least harm from men–but then she never loved one.

    I just spent half an hour or so not finding the passage I wanted in Sayer’s GAUDY NIGHT, contrasting “passion” and love. The gist of it is that sex is the reliable workhorse given its oats, but love is an uncontrolable beast. Hard to deny on the evidence.

    As regards proper literary analysis–what is the author saying, and why is he saying it this way?–it’s still done. I’ve picked up several decent pieces over the past five years. You just don’t have to do it to get an English degree in most places–which may account for a certain falling off.

    robert_piepenbrink

    19 Dec 10 at 4:50 pm

  2. just a bit of clarification. When I made my comment, I was thinking of complaints that students can’t write a grammatical sentence and are very poor at essay writing.

    jd

    19 Dec 10 at 6:08 pm

  3. Surely sex is inseparable from this issue. Any form of love, even love for, say, a stamp collection, can lead people into the kind of obsession that makes them betray everything they were and had believed right, but sexual love or passion or whatever you want to call it seems to have that effect a lot more often than anything else. The only kind of love I can think of that might be similar to sexual love in destructive potential is the love of a mother for a child, and even that one seems to be more easily tamed, or at least more easily directed in less harmful and more beneficial directions than sexual passion.

    I must confess that I’d heard the ‘It shows how women’s sexuality was repressed by men’ explanation of various works and only now wondered if maybe the works in question were about the obsession, not female sexuality in general.

    Cheryl

    20 Dec 10 at 7:34 am

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