Writing a review of a book like Anna Karenina might be compared in its presumption and absurdity to writing a review of life itself. Some things are too large and complex to allow for comprehensive judgment. But reflection is possible even when judgment is difficult, so what I offer here are merely a few reading notes.
“When his conclusion corresponded, it seemed to him, with the requirements of religion, this religious sanction to his decision gave him complete satisfaction.”
How convenient when God blesses our prior conclusions. But this is a habit of mind indulged in by the non-religious too. Who has never imagined he had absolute sanction for his desires or judgments? If it’s not God that we apply to for endorsement, then it’s to a syllogistic chain of reasoning, a psychological compulsion or an imperative of biology beyond our control, or a complex unfolding of material cause and effect. How rarely we desire or judge from ourselves alone.
“In the discussions that arose between the brothers on their views of the peasantry, Sergey Ivanovich always got the better of his brother, precisely because Sergey Ivanovich had definite ideas about the peasant – his character, his qualities, and his tastes. Konstantin Levin had no definite and unalterable ideas on the subject, and so in their arguments Konstantin was readily convicted of contradicting himself.”
Deep familiarity with a subject may be a hindrance in argument. Complexities unveil themselves with repeated exposure and reflection, but a casual familiarity allows us more easily to generalize. Sergey Ivanovich, who lived in the city, “knew the peasantry as something distinct from and opposed to men generally” but Levin, who lived and worked among the peasants, knew them as individuals who, no less than other men, defied generalization.
In order to generalize at all we must step away from the particulars of lived experience. The trouble comes when we forget the step that we have taken, become infatuated with our ideas, and imagine that our generalizations (imposed, as it were, from above) say something definitive about the world.
On odium theologicum and odium politicum:
“No difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions.”
“In former days the freethinker was a man who had been brought up in ideas of religion, law, and morality, and only through conflict and struggle became a freethinker; but now there has sprung up a type of born freethinker who grows up without even having heard of principles of morality or of religion, of the existence of authorities, who grows up in ideas of negation in everything, that is to say, a savage.”
At a wedding reception a few years ago I spoke with a man who had raised a daughter in the liberal political opinions that he’d adopted in college after rejecting the conservatism of his childhood home. His daughter had taken his politics and bettered them by becoming a fire-breathing “progressive” of the far left. This gratified him but also left him somehow dissatisfied. She was everything he had raised her to be, he admitted, but he felt that she had not “earned the right to her opinions” in the same way he had.
Levin at the birth of his son:
“What he felt toward this little creature was utterly unlike what he had expected. There was nothing cheerful and joyous in the feeling; on the contrary, it was a new torture of apprehension. It was the consciousness of a new sphere of liability to pain. And this sense was so painful at first, the apprehension lest this helpless creature should suffer was so intense, that it prevented him from noticing the strange thrill of senseless joy and even pride he had felt when the baby sneezed.”
I’ve never read a better description of new fatherhood. When my son was born, nearly sixteen years ago, I blamed myself for not feeling the way I had been told by popular culture that I should feel. All my love and worry had been concentrated on my wife as she endured a long and difficult labor. Then, suddenly, there was another person in the room, someone who was at that moment a stranger to me. I was supposed to feel a rush of love for this little wailing thing. That love came soon enough, but in those first hours it was knotted up with other new feelings that took me some days to untangle.
Tolstoy’s summary of all merely scientific/materialist knowledge:
“In infinite time, in infinite matter, in infinite space, is formed a bubble-organism, and that bubble lasts a while and bursts, and that bubble is I.”
We’re sometimes tempted to accept the miserable and unsatisfying as Ultimate Truth simply because it is miserable and unsatisfying. We have an inclination toward despair, a sense that the truth of things must be horrible. The unaccountable sublimities and joys of life are easier to accept (that is, to brush off) as aberrations or figments. Otherwise, we might have to reconsider things.