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Two clashing movements existed within Russia in the 19th century. In the rural areas existed a movement that could hardly be called a movement. It was, in fact, more of a planted fixture. The indigenous foundation that had existed for time immemorial kept alive the spirit of the land and the system of a subjugated underclass. Many of the elements that were most representative of this fixture actually existed in the underclass (the pre-emancipation serfs and post-emancipation peasants). This movement rarely had a visible voice because it was uneducated, and unexposed to the means of amplification. Other writers of the time presented idealized conceptions of the fundamental aspects of these indigenous people. Ivan Turgenev in his serialized Sketches from a Hunter’s Album attempted to capture the plight of this group. In this work can also be seen the fundamental human characteristics of these people. Two particular pieces, “Living Relic” and “Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands” ignored the hardships of the peasants, and focused on the description of two quintessential examples of the eastern conception of man. In “Living Relic” the subject is Lukeria, a completely disabled peasant who lives alone in a shed on the narrator’s estate. Kasyan, the focus of the other story, is a quiet wandering peasant.
The ideas of the west came sweeping in through the cities. The proponents of the western movement often looked to rationally tear away the mystical covering that Russia had unconsciously used to cover its unprogressive ways. This group had a loud voice, and knew how to use it. Because of the plethora of proponents the westernizers moral or historical teachings cannot be reduced to a single voice. However, Nicholas Cherneshevsky represented many of the most important characteristics of the westernizers, most fundamentally in his pure faith in rationality. Cherneshevsky, of course, had specific lessons of utility that sprung from his own rationality. He believed that rationality could only lead one to the pursuit of maximum pleasure, and therefore utility in life. This idea was also en vogue among the rationalists in Russia at the time of all the works being discussed.
Out of these two poles came Konstantin Dimtrievich Levin in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. On the question of utility, and matters of everyday living Levin seems to agree with Cherneshevsky. He is very different from the completely a-practical eastern image in this respect. Yet, while this difference is not insignificant, he is inescapably closer to the eastern conception of man than to the conception represented by Cherneshevsky, and his own brother, Koznyshev. Levin’s thought process, and essential demeanor – his soul as Tolstoy might want to call it – mark him as fundamentally similar to these characters.
Levin supports Cherneshevsky’s primary statement on the correct activity of man. Both agree that utility is the object of everyday life. Cherneshevsky says that, “He [man] is guided by self-interest, which causes him to abstain from a smaller gain or a lesser pleasure in order to obtain a larger gain or a greater pleasure” (52). This pleasure can be reached through action, and work. In his words, “Idleness is the absence of action; obviously it cannot produce the phenomenon that is called pleasant sensation” (47). Utility is Cherneshevsky’s name for the good achieved when all strive for greater personal pleasure. Levin finds great joy in his own work, so much so that at one point, while considering his ideas to improve the efficiency of his estate, “The idea threw Levin into a great excitement. He did not sleep half the night, thinking over in detail the putting of his idea into practice” (388). Levin discover Cherneshevsky’s lesson on idleness. Each time he returns home from the city where idleness is the way of life, he feels satisfied as he returns to work. After his last trip to the city Tolstoy says of Levin in hindsight, “living so long in Moscow, a life of nothing but conversation, eating, and drinking, he was degenerating” (796).
Their similar views of specific utility can be seen on their reflections on physical beauty. Cherneshevsky remarks that, “Flowers, those enchanting sources of fragrance, those exquisite but fleeting fountains of delight to our eyes, are pleasure or enjoyment. The plant on which they grow is utility” (57). As Levin sits eating with Oblonsky, Levin similarly talks of the carefully manicured nails of one of Oblonsky’s friend, and goes on to say, “We in the country try to have our hands in such condition as will be most convenient for working with” (43). Levin’s sense of utility, and singular concern for the unglorified life as well as his desire to spread these ideas through his writing, seems to be the end good of Cherneshevsky’s scheme of utility.
Unlike the Sketches, and Levin at the end of Anna Karenina, Cherneshevsky believes that utility is the source of meaning in life. Cherneshevsky boldly states that, “As in human life as a whole, all the diverse phenomena in the sphere of human motives and conduct spring from one nature, are governed by one law” (49). This one law is that of maximum utility.
Cherneshevsky offers the connection between utility and rationality. Not all rationalists in Russia ended with the conclusion that utility is the final aim of all lives, yet Cherneshevsky believes it could not be otherwise. “Only good actions are prudent; only he who is good is rational; and he is rational only to the degree that he is good” (57). While Levin agrees with the fruit of Cherneshevsky’s rationality he does not feel as akin to Cherneshevsky in the mode of thought that helped reach this conclusion. In this difference the easterner in Levin can be seen.
Kasyan and Lukeria do not possess any apparent practical utility. Kasyan opens up for a brief conversation to tell the narrator that, “I don’t have an occupation of any kind. ‘Tis a poor mentality I have, right from when I was small. I work so long as I can, but it’s a poor worker I’m being” (133). It is said that Kasyan has the ability to ‘heal’ people, but he uses this skill at his discretion, and often not when another asks for it. Kasyan is a defined nomad, and makes no pretensions at being useful to anyone else. The ability to be in any way practically useful has been taken from Lukeria. Luckily her condition does not require another persons care or time, but she is clearly not able to do anything for anyone else. She can do no more than reach her water mug. Turgenev makes it clear that their lives do have meaning, but this meaning does not come from utility.
The mode of thought that Cherneshevsky used to reach his conclusion on utility, rationality, involves one important tool: words. He feels each and every question in life can be simplified to a simple syllogism or metaphor. With a couple of cleverly placed words Cherneshevsky believes that he can dispense with even the worlds most lasting questions. At one point he asks, “Is man a good or an evil being?” He quickly goes on to say, “At the very first application of scientific analysis the whole thing turns out to be as clear as can be” (38). After demonstrating the ease with which this problem is solved by throwing around such catchwords as “predicate” and “deductions” he concludes, “Thus from the theoretical side the problem of the good and bad qualities of human nature is solved so easily that it cannot even be called a problem” (39).
In the first paragraph of the essay he does away with any idea of a God. “The sciences prove that no dualism is evident in man… since everything that takes place and manifests itself in man originates solely from his real nature, he cannot have another nature” (29). This quote is important because it demonstrates Cherneshevky’s faith in words. But it is also important because here, at the outset of his work, we see Cherneshevky’s rejection of anything higher than words and rationality, anything more than a singular nature.
While he moves through these supposedly big questions in a few paragraphs Cherneshevsky could never be called concise. The most astounding aspect of Cherneshevsky’s work is that at 120 pages its essential ideas can easily, and probably for the better, be compressed down to 15 pages (as we learned the hard way). Even at 15 pages there is plenty of room for Cherneshevky’s almost comical, logical wandering.
As was mentioned; while Levin finds agreement with Cherneshevsky on utility he has a more fundamental difference that cannot easily be reconciled. This problem begins with words, the tool of the rationalist. It is with words, and what they represent that Levin parts with Cherneshevsky and joins the eastern characters in Sketches.
When Lukeria introduces herself, she immediately volunteers, “See how talkative I’ve become”. As the story develops the sentiment described in this statement becomes the great irony of the story. She is described by the farm overseer as, “a quiet one, if ever there was a quiet one” (p367). There is an obvious physical reason that forces Lukeria into silence in that Lukeria lives in a shed where no one visits her. Yet it is more than this physical eventuality that defines Lukeria as quiet. While Lukeria is glad to have a conversation with the narrator it is clearly no great loss for her when he leaves her to quiet and loneliness again. “Now that you’ll be going I’ll be quiet as long as I wish” (366). When the narrator proposes that Lukeria could be taken to a hospital she tells him that she does not want that, “I’m not frightened of being by myself. Truly it’s better, truly it is!” (361). Lukeria is not only able to do without words and people, she consciously rejects these things.
Kasyan is a ‘roaming sheep’ and clearly does not look for either people or conversation. Even once he is with the narrator Kasyan, “maintained a stubborn silence and answered all my questions peremptorily and unwillingly” (128). After the pair goes out into the forest to hunt the narrator is “Bored by his [Kasyan] silence” (131). This causes the narrator to sit down to unwittingly partake in the beauty of a silence existence. The narrator says of the experience, “You lie still and you go on watching: words cannot express the delight and quiet, and how sweet is the feeling that creeps over your heart” (131).
In this short passage some inkling of the meaning that these figures lives possess. These eastern characters gain no meaning through Cherneshevsky’s utilitarian conception of life. They are not practical to other humans themselves, and, in addition, reject the tool of rationality (i.e. words) that redeems utility. The meaning of life seems to be based in a beauty intrinsic in life that is completely removed from anything valued or determined by rationality, anything that could possibly be placed within Cherneshevsky’s single nature.
Turgenev illustrates this principle most effectively by stripping anything of conventional value from Lukeria’s life, and examining the pure act of living through her. Nothing more than the barest existence is given to Lukeria, “I sense that I’m alive, I breathe – and that’s all there is of me” (359), and yet, her life seems to be filled with nothing but beauty. As she describes her time alone,
“Sometimes I lie by myself like I am now – and it’s just as if there was no one else on the whole earth except me. And I’m the only living person! And a wondrous feeling comes over me, as if I’d been visited by some thought that seizes hold of me – something wonderful it is” (361)
Since Kasyan does not share his solitary experiences with the narrator we are left with the small glimpse of his private life given during the hunting trip. The tone there is reminiscent of the mystical and wonderful tone of Lukeria’s time alone.
Kasyan’s and Lukeria’s existence are imbued with such beauty that, in the end, they seem to transcend mortality in a way that Cherneshevsky could only categorically reject in reference to his unified nature of man. The titles of ‘healer’ and ‘holy man’ have been bestowed upon Kasyan. While Lukeria is given no such titles her physical description mark her as practically an idol herself. This physical description is not of her appearance, but rather of an aura that accompanies her existence. She glows bronze; it seems with the light of life. This light surely comes from no earthly source, as she takes in no ordinary vitals. Lukeria is able to live and glow without any earthly subsistence. She eats nothing, and survives on nothing but water. This harks to an intrinsically suprahuman composition. While Kasyan magically keeps others alive, Lukeria magically maintains her own earthly existence. This must be strongly qualified for eventually the eastern image culminates in a strong sense of an omniscient God. The holiness of the characters intrinsically comes with a complete faith in a higher God. Because of the static glance at these characters it is unclear whether their holiness is directly attributable to their faith in God. What we do know is the beauty and sustenance that these characters find in existence unfettered with the routine of normal existence.
From Levin’s first appearance his hesitancy towards conversation is noticeable. When we meet Levin he is reservedly approaching his good friend Oblonsky with little to say. In the first visible meeting with his deeply rationalist brother, Koznyshev, Levin walks in to find him debating furiously with a ‘professor’. Levin seemingly cannot decipher the cryptic talk of the rationalists, and categorizes the talk as, “a sea if subtle distinctions, reservations, quotations, allusions, and appeals to authorities, and it was with difficulty that he understood what they were talking about” (30). Yet the moments when he ultimately realizes the uselessness of words is in those fleeting moments when his life finds pure, unreserved joy. The first of these grand events occurs when Levin becomes swept away by mowing the fields with the peasants. In a small segment of the sweeping panoramic look that Tolstoy offers this scene, Tolstoy says,
“The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed that the scythe was mowing by itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own and as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and precise by itself. These were the most blissful moments” (289).
Levin had found a phenomena completely unexplainable by rational methods, but it seems boundlessly filled with happiness. This moment gives a glimpse at a phenomena reminiscent of the unexplainable force driving Lukeria. After the timeless day in the field, Levin goes back to his brother, with whom he had had an irritating argument the night before. Koznyshev immediately pounces upon Levin to talk about everything, but specifically their conversation of the night before. Tolstoy says of their encounter, “Levin listened to his brother and did not understand a single word, and did not want to understand” (295).
The more immediately apparent moment of glistening but wordless beauty comes when Levin and Kitty are at last united in their love. Levin and Kitty first meet in the drawing room of the Oblonskys’. From the first sight Kitty is, “delighted, and so confused at her own delight that there was a moment . . . [she] thought she would break down and would begin to cry” (437). At the same time, Levin is, “feeling as if he would sob with the rapture that was flooding his heart” (437). They reach this point without more than a few meaningless words passed between them. When they sit down to dinner for Levin, feelings reminiscent of the night after the mowing return. “Everyone took part in the conversation except Kitty and Levin . . . But these ideas, once of such importance in his eyes, seemed to come into his brains as in a dream, and had now not the slightest interest for him. It struck him as strange that they should be so eager to talk of what was of no use to anyone” (445).
It is after dinner when the true worthlessness of words is affirmed in the face of true meaning.
As Levin begins to speak to Kitty he finds that all that he can get out is a “badly expressed idea”, however they soon move completely to a realm of speechless communication. Each writes the first letter of the words he or she is thinking of, and the answer is invariably similar to Kitty’s mumbled, “I understand”. At the outset Levin realizes the difference between the rational discussion at the table, and that one between Kitty and himself. “He was struck by this transition from the confused, verbose [my emphasis] discussion with Pestsov and his brother to this laconic, clear, almost wordless communication of the most complex ideas” (453). In the end, not a word is spoken but a few meaningless mumbles, and yet, “In their conversation everything had been said” (455).
When Koznyshev initially arrives on Levin’s estate the two men tour the estate by horseback. Koznyshev makes an attempt to describe the aesthetic allure of the country that brought him from the city. Koznyshev’s visit is before either of the intense moments discussed above, yet, even here Levin, it is said, “did not like talking and hearing about the beauty of nature. Words for him diminished the beauty of what he saw” (p275). This is the same sentiment that the reader and Levin alike leave the fields of Mashkin Upland, and the dining room of the Oblonskys’.
One other revelatory time in the novel comes when Levin thinks that he has found the meaning to life in striving to achieve ultimate utility. This is the moment mentioned above when he stays up all night in excitement. It appears that this excitement comes from “the vague hope of finding a remedy for all this [the inefficiency of his farm] – all was blended in a sense of inner turmoil, and anticipation of some solution near at hand” (387). At the time Levin thinks that this answer, which will apparently provide him lasting happiness, will come through the improved efficiency of his farm and the peasants. Levin believes that he can find happiness through utility, as Cherneshevsky proposed. But there is a clear sense of uncertainty. All of his excitement is based on the hope that happiness can be achieved through his work.
In the moments before his final epiphany Levin astonishedly asks himself, “Why is it all being done? Why am I standing here, making them work?” (896). In finding God, supposedly the last epiphany (when the final truth is reached) Levin realizes that the happiness that he had hoped to find through utility could not exist. Because this last epiphany can be so easily explained it falls outside the realm of true beauty. In the end this scene of joy is qualified as the other scenes of beauty are not.
All of the discontent and random run-ins with beauty culminate in Levin converting from atheism to an apparently strong religious faith. The moment of conversion is a moment of beauty similar to the two earlier scenes. This is reflected in his words. “My heart has been revealed a knowledge beyond all doubt, and unattainable by reason, and here I am obstinately trying to express that knowledge in reason and words” (p921). At this point he does not reject utility. Levin finds utility still worthy, but this ‘one nature’ alone is not enough to make life worthwhile. After Levin’s religious epiphany, Tolstoy remarks that, “He [Levin] had been living rightly but thinking wrongly” (p900). There had been nothing wrong with the utility that Levin strove for in life, yet it is not what could provide true meaning. All meaningful events for Lukeria, Kasyan, and Levin occur supraverbally and therefore suprarationally. Beauty in life comes from no definable quantity such as utility, but rather from something outside of this aspect of man, the ‘one nature’ of Cherneshevsky. This other nature is found in God, an idea that is an anathema to Cherneshevsky.
This final epiphany alone does not mark Levin as an eastern character. As Tolstoy remarked, “All of the people near to him, who lived good lives, were believers. The old prince, and Lvov, whom he liked so much, and Sergey Ivanovich [Koznyshev], and all the women believed” (889). These peoples had faith but they did not find fraternity with the peasants. Tolstoy’s mention of Koznyshev as a believer provides evidence that a fundamentally rational person can still share the faith of Levin and the peasants. From a purely secular perspective (mine) it seems reasonable to say that this last intense moment is of equal importance as the other two moments in defining the fundamental aspects of Levin. Tolstoy would surely not agree with this interpretation, yet after the conversion Levin shows no immediate change. Only a few minutes after his epiphany he becomes angry with his coachmen and disappointedly remarks, “He felt sorrowfully at once how mistaken had been his supposition that his spiritual condition could immediately change him in contact with reality” (905). A little while later he asks himself, “Can it have been only a momentary mood, and will it pass and leave no trace?” (908). While Levin determines that it will not be momentary he only reaches this conclusion after consciously reconsidering the epiphany. This epiphany has not become anymore enmeshed in his soul than the other two. It was the way that Levin found truth, not the truth that he found that set him apart from the other believers. This revelation allows the clarification of the excitement over work, but its true essence is that it allows the reader to see once more the deeper similarity between him and Lukeria and Kasyan.
In Anna Karenina Levin is battling towards the east. This becomes immediately apparent when he is juxtaposed to his brother. Koznyshev is a firm representative of the Cherneshevsky type, against which we can consider Levin. There is no such representative for the eastern image but the shortly considered peasants who Levin mows with. In a poignant moment during the relatively short mowing scene Levin’s kinship with the east rather than the west (his brother) is illuminated in only a few words. Levin is sitting with the older peasant with whom he has shared much of the day, and Tolstoy quietly remarks that after the transcendental experience Levin had in the fields, “He [Levin] felt much closer to him [the older peasant] than to his brother” (290).
Cherneshevsky, Nikolai. “The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy” in Edie, Scanlan and Zeldin, eds.,
Russian Philosophy (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965).
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: The Modern Library, 1993).
Turgenev, Ivan. Sketches From a Hunter’s Album, trans. Richard Freeborn (London: Penguin Books, 1990).
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