Tolstoy, Anna Karenina & Moral Judgment

» What makes so many writers consider Anna Karenina the greatest novel written? .. in any language .. ever!

The short answer » Tolstoy. A better answer » the Tolstoys .. which includes his WIFE » Sophia [.. and not unlike the Hitchcocks, who directed the greatest FILM ever ].

Tolstoy's Anna Karenina starring Keira KnightleyThe movie / film is being released this Friday (the 16th) .. starring Keira Knightley & Jude Law.

The book has been made into film at least a dozen other times .. the most critically acclaimed version coming in 1935, starring Garbo.

I may go see the newly updated release (.. with Count Petraeus & Princess Paula in mind). [ Petraeus' Light Punishment. ]

Anna Karenina is what made Tolstoy Tolstoy. Certainly a big part of that making. Anna's unspoken subtext .. concerns the moral judgment that people (society) tend to cast on their fellow (wo)man ..

.. when we should perhaps REFRAIN.

As you surely know, this 'refraining' business can be terribly difficult. A feat of sorts. Maybe even impossible .. especially for judgmental, holier-than-thou types. The self-righteous.

[ Back in my nuclear days, I used to be critical and judgmental of the imperfections of others .. cuz I myself was flawless (.. and of course, I knew better than everybody else).

Today however, I am more forgiving and understanding. More compassionate. Much more. Not because I am more flawed, but because I "understand" more.

"I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now."

Tho there are still a few things that really frost my ass. Even Jesus had limits to the bullshit he could endure (..tho adultery doesnt seem to be one of them). ]

» Portrayed Not as Guilty, But as Deserving Only Pity

Tolstoy began his story .. in the spring of 1873 .. with the express intention .. to portray his heroine (Anna) NOT as guilty .. but as deserving only pity & compassion ..

Tolstoy's Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley.. hence the biblical quote he sticks at the very beginning .. as a tone setter (quoting God Himself) » Vengeance is Mine. I will repay.

Pity & compassion for an adultress? Really? How do you do *that*? That would be a good trick.

[ Having grown up Catholic, I know all about both guilt and guilt-trips. Both parents attended Catholic grade school.

The nuns taught them well. Excellent students were they. So you could say I was raised by experts. =) Makes me qualified to comment on the subject. ]

In the Bridges of Madison County, for example, Waller condemns both his characters to live out their remaining years in dreary, yet dutiful nostalgia. (After you've been to the summit of Mt Intimacy or Mt Ecstasy .. what else is there? Where do you go from there? Because nobody can stay there, permanently.)

You will have to read Tolstoy's novel yourself .. to determine whether you think he succeeded. Tolstoy himself "struggled bitterly" with the story [ .. published in the Russian Messenger, in 8 serial installments, from 1873 to 1877 ] .. wanting to punish Anna the Adulteress for her infidelity.

This is why the translator [ Richard Pevear ] includes the following tone-setting passage from Yeats at the beginning of his intro.

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric.
But of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.

Anna Karenina is Tolstoy's poetry. His "first true novel" .. where being 'ordinary' suks [ is considered "most terrible" ].

It was as tho one part of him [ the part that loved her ] wanted only pity & compassion for her .. while another [ the part that hated her ] .. wanted to throw her under a bus .. uh, I mean, a train.

Leo Tolstoy | 1828-1910And these two went to war .. in Tolstoy's soul. And the compassionate part won. [ We'll call that part 'Anna'. ]

» Tolstoy the Ultimate Family Man

You must understand that life, for Tolstoy, was all about » family.

Family happiness, he felt, represented the "highest human ideal."

Nabokov [ who taught classes on Anna Karenina, both at Wellesley and later at Ivy League Cornell ] said that Tolstoy "considered two married people with children as tied together by divine law forever".

In other words, Tolstoy was Old School .. what some might call 'conservative'. And he purposefully went after the Liberal Intelligencia (nihilists) .. who were badmouthing the family.

But he didnt stop there. No, sir. Rather he went after countless other purveyors of bullshit. He was definitely in the mood. Definitely inspired.

Something about Anna obviously inspired him. He named his "first-ever novel" after her. That is no ordinary honor. Your name on the cover .. of what has come to be known as the greatest novel ever written.

Dostoevsky, for example, the only author to place 4 titles on the list of the 100 Greatest Books of All Time - in any language [ the same list upon which Tolstoy and Shakespeare each placed 3 titles ], and who was 7 years older than Tolstoy, called Anna Karenina a "flawless" work of art.

Tolstoy wrung out his soul for her. And Anna rewarded him .. with inspiration and insight. And in the end (.. tho he surely loved her) .. he killed her.

Did he kill her because he HAD to? .. or because he WANTED to? In other words, what was his » inner motivation?

Tolstoy has already stated from day-1 that his intention was to present Anna NOT as guilty .. but rather in a light that cast only » pity. So .. if Tolstoy really did intend to portray Anna as NOT GUILTY .. why is she dead? =)

••• today's entry continues here below •••

The question, then, becomes » who would pity her .. if she hadnt died a truly horrible death?

WB Yeats, Irish poet | 1865-1939In other words the real question is not whether she HAD to die .. but rather » why? « A heavy philosophical question we might revisit later.

[ My suspicion here is that you and I are the reason. Society. We demand it.

"Kill her, Leo! She must DIE, badly." ]

» Tolstoy's Middle Finger

In the 1870's the book was considered an Act-of-Defiance .. and Tolstoy meant it that way.

So Anna Karenina was a middle-finger of sorts .. a literary middle-finger. Tolstoy was not shy about calling 'bullshit' when he saw bullshit.

"There was always a PROVOCATIVE SIDE to Tolstoy's genius," writes the translator, "and it was often what spurred him to write." [ If noting else, a middle-finger salute is 'provocative' .. a provocative salute. ]

The word polemic has been used to describe Anna Karenina .. defined as:

"an aggressive attack on the opinions or principles of another."

It comes from the Greek word meaning 'warlike' or 'hostile'. So you might say that .. Tolstoy was a hostile warrior .. particularly when it came to attacking the opinions or principles of others.

Maybe this is why the translator (quoting others) says "There is no neutral ground in Tolstoy's novel. His writing is characterized by a sharp internal dialogism."

The eighth-and-final part was "so hot" that his publisher refused to publish it. It would burn your hands in the 1870's. So Tolstoy had to bring out the final installment at his own cost.

The book in complete form first appeared in 1878. Tolstoy died in 1910. (100 years ago.)

I have not finished the book myself, but I hear that Anna's final hours represent "what are surely the most remarkable pages in the novel .. and some of the most remarkable EVER WRITTEN."

Tolstoy's Anna Karenina starring Keira KnightleySo I suspect that this is where I will find my answers.

The (10-page) intro to the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation (© 2004, and still selling strongly) says that Anna (the character) finally "overcame the severe moral judgment he [Tolstoy] tried to bring against her."

[ This might be a good place to mention .. that Russians who know the language (such as Brodsky and Nabokov) hate the Constance Garnett translations (.. which, for many years, were the most popular versions). I mean, they get physically ill.

Nobody wants to commit a chunk of their soul to a book .. only to discover that what-they-read was not what the author had in mind. In other words, translators are important people. ]

» When 15 Days Become 4 Years

Tolstoy got 'rope-a-doped' into writing Anna. Rope-a-dope is term I borrow from Muhammad Ali .. to describe what happens when you get a vision .. a nice clean vision .. of something you feel you should write about (.. for whatever reason) ..

.. but after you begin, the initial vision turns into an entirely different animal .. much bigger, more complicated. But now that you are in it .. you must continue. (Cuz there's no turning back.)

The central idea/vision invariably remains the same .. but everything surrounding that initial (simplistic) vision grows exponentially. As tho the idea is like a seed that comes with its own ecosystem.

My sense here is that .. if you saw the (invisible) ecosystem along with the seed, you would never attempt such a thing.

So it has to do with the fact that you are ignorant .. of the ecosystem. Because, with most challenging entries .. you know ahead-of-time that they will be challenging.

[ And yes, the writer (or artist or craftsman or programmer) .. must continue to challenge themselves .. in order to grow / develop.

But I'm talking rather about the feat that genuinely feels beyond your scope .. of skill / ability. That kind of 'challenge'. ]

And the Central Idea is ALL ABOUT the surounding ecosyetm (.. or perhaps Tolstoy's own term 'network' would apply here).

Tolstoy wrote to his friend, the critic Nikolai Strakhov (on May 11, 1873) .. saying that he thought he'd be finished "in another 15 days" .. after he had been working on it for "more than a month now".

Tolstoy at age 20 in 1848Not 15 days, but four years later did he finish (1877). Serious rope-a-dopeage there. =)

Does not the young Tolstoy here look arrogant? (Age 20, photo taken 1848.) Like a bad ass?

"If you point that stupid thing at me again, dude, I'm going to kick your ass. You know what happened to Napoleon, right?" 

I suspect that this attitude somehow played into his later life spiritual crisis.

Later I will discuss Tolstoy's authenticity .. because it is this authenticity that is behind the rope-a-dope .. behind the drive (.. for me, anyway).

And Tolstoy was obviously operating in the realm of morals (.. infidelity for a strong family-oriented man) ..

.. and our feelings about right and wrong .. what-is-right and what-is-wrong .. these are powerful things .. that function below the level of conscious thought ..

(.. an insight that I stumbled upon .. from my study of Nietzsche.).

In other words, you can feel strongly .. and not know why.

Does the young Tolstoy not look almost arrogant in this photo?

» Tolstoy's Creative Process

I've been thinking, lately .. about a passage (from the intro) where Tolstoy describes his artistic / creative process. He says:

"In everything, or almost everything I write, I have been moved by the need to BRING TOGETHER ideas that are closely knit, in order to express myself.

But each idea, expressed SEPARATELY in words, loses its meaning, is enormously impoverished when removed from THE NETWORK.

This network itself is not made up of ideas (or so I think), but of something else [ What Leo? Tell us! What is this "something else".. that your creative NETWORK is made up of? ] ..

.. and it is ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE TO EXPRESS [ Arguably the greatest novelist of all time cannot express something? What is it that he cannot express? ] the substance of this network directly in words.

It can be done only INDIRECTLY .. by using words .. to describe characters, acts, situations."

Tolstoy is reaching here, grasping at water, liquid. Notice where he says (parenthetically) » "Or so I think". In other words, he is not sure himself .. about the creative framework for his craft, his art, his world-class creations.

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy | Only known color photo 1908 age 80But he seems to be saying » "it's all about the network" .. since his ideas are "enormously impoverished" when removed from it.

You will hear Dylan say a similar thing, when he says [ as quoted by Joan Baez ] » "I dont know where this stuff comes from" .. even tho he has obviously spent countless hours at it.

No doubt that Tolstoy is also intimately familiar with his craft .. having spent some 60 years honing his art (storytelling).

Notice also the similarity between the terms knit and network. Both knitting and networks are about the proximity (tightly-knit, loosely-knit) of one thing to another ..

.. and about providing a framework (network) for connecting those things (ideas). [ That's a lot how the mind works. ]

» Tolstoy's Hidden Architecture

Another fascinating passage for me (as a writer of words) comes after Tolstoy's friend, the editor S. A. Rachinsky complained that the story had "no architecture". Tolstoy replied:

"Your judgment of Anna Karenina seems wrong to me. On the contrary, I am proud of my architecture.

But my vaults have been assembled in such as way that the keystone cannot be seen.

Most of my effort has gone into that. The cohesion of the structure does not lie in the PLOT or in the relations (the meetings) of the characters.

It is an INTERNAL cohesion. Look well and you will find it."

Whenever I read that passage, I can't help but think of Tolstoy .. with an image in mind of a middle finger. "Can ya see it now, b**ch?" =)

My sense is that you dont jump into Tolstoy .. but rather approach respectfully and let yourself become one with the story .. gradually .. let it take you .. instead of you taking it. (I know that sounds corny, but you get my drift.)

Tolstoy is not pulp fiction. (And yes, I enjoy Pulp Fiction.)

» Tolstoy's Authenticity

Tolstoy starts his 817-page novel with the following line (also its own paragraph):

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Nietzsche (1844-1900)Here Tolstoy is letting you know that he knows whereof he speaks. He is throwing down his own Authenticity .. and qualifications to write this particular story ..

.. because .. if you do the research, you will see that he is right.

[ Tolstoy did a YEAR of research before even beginning Anna. Zeitgeist-y research. And I doubt he stopped there.

Many such questions-of-the-day did he dig into .. not unlike what you and I have been doing today. ]

Tolstoy obviously made this statement after much observation and giving it thought.

He is not going to begin the greatest-novel-ever-written with a statement that can be easily dismissed.

If I know Tolstoy, I would wager that he wants to begin his story with statement that will get people thinking and get them talking .. because this is exactly what he has been doing for more than a year now. And he is about to join that conversation .. in a BIG way.

For me, writing is very much about about authenticity. I find it difficult to respect a writer who is not authentic .. which leads me to sacrifice frequently to the gods of authenticity.

This may, at times, come off as arrogant .. when I can find no other way. But arrogance (to me) is better than being inauthentic. Far better.

Nietzsche may have been crazy .. but no one will argue that he wasnt authentic. He's not parroting the party line. He was determined to think for himself .. even if it drove him insane.

For example, I can't see Tolstoy writing War and Peace [ pub 1869, 100 years before Woodstock ] .. if he hadnt fought in the Crimean War [ 1853-1856, age 25-to-28 ] ..

.. called the "first modern war" .. and seen the shit himself. First hand. Up close and personal. [ You will hear Hemingway echo similar sentiments. ]

[ I have more thoughts regarding how and why Tolstoy came to include that sentence above as his novel's opener. Of course, these are merely speculations, so  I will not indulge here-n-now. But they are related to the tone-setting quote he includes on the facing page. ]

» Tolstoy's Freedom of Expression

I should also mention the final few sentences in the Translators Note (by Richard Pevear), because this kind of stuff fascinates me. In the first part below, Pevear is quoting Nabokov ..

.. a Russian born in Saint Petersburg the same year that Hemingway was born (1899). Nabokov not only taught himself English, but then he wrote it better than most Americans, and even taught classes on Tolstoy to Ivy League students.

That would be like you learning Russian, writing a few books in Russian, and then teaching Hemingway to Russians at Russia's finest universities. See here »

".. the repetition is characteristic of Tolstoy's style with its rejection of false elegancies and its readiness to admit any robust awkwardness if that is the shortest way to sense.

In previous English translations such passages have been toned down if not eliminated. We have preferred to keep them as evidence of the freedom Tolstoy allowed himself in Russian."

Key phrase » the freedom Tolstoy allowed himself.

Gandhi 1869-1948» Tolstoy's Understanding of the Feminine Psyche

Many people feel that Tolstoy understands women. Now I may be projecting onto him my own inability to comprehend the feminine mystique ..

.. but uh, I think that it is rather Tolstoy's WIFE (Sophia) who is the one who understands women.

They would spend long afternoons together, sipping tea by the fire .. discussing the book he was working on (.. such as War & Peace) ..

.. where Sophia would say things like, "Tatiana would never say such a thing, you silly man." Tho I will not deny that Anna obviously 'spoke' to him.

»Tolstoy, Social Justice & Influence

Later in life, Tolstoy was very much into Social Justice. I'm talking about the days after he wrote Anna. Wikipedia talks about a "spiritual awakening" in the 1870's. [ Tolstoy turned 50 in 1878. ]

As tho Anna smacked him so hard upside the head .. that he saw the light.

His later works [ e.g. The Kingdom of God is Within You ] had "a profound effect" on such pivotal 20th Century Figures as » Gandhi and » Martin Luther King Jr.

THAT's a lot of influence .. a lot of nation changing influence. Ergo, one might argue .. that Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy is a big part of the reason .. that we have today a black man sitting in the White House .. as President of these United States.

Martin Luther King Jr | 1929-1968» The Tolstoy-Obama Connection

Without Tolstoy, it's unlikely that Gandhi would have been Gandhi.

And if Gandhi wasnt Gandhi, then it's doubtful that MLK would have been MLK.

And I can't see how Obama gets to the White House without Martin Luther King Jr. Do you?

[ I'm talking about him *living* there .. with his family .. not washing pots-n-pans in the kitchen. ]

See? I like to connect things together, myself. =) Tolstoy and Obama. "Surprise!"

[ And that's what I call » relevance. =) ]

The last letter Tolstoy ever wrote .. was to » Gandhi.

Gandhi wrote in his autobiography that Tolstoy's book "overwhelmed" him.

Gandhi considered Tolstoy's book one of the three most important modern influences in his life.

Social Justice and Inequality are [ very much ] issues you & I face today .. here in the States (as you know) as others do globally.

And after Tolstoy » Gandhi » Martin Luther King .. you have » the Professor. [ BBC, NY Times, CNN, Wikipedia. ] The Professor was born (by the way) in 1928 .. exactly 100 years after Tolstoy.

» Love is Very Much About Chemistry | Insanity is Often About Chemistry

Anna Karenina is about love .. the kind you cannot ask 'why' about.

That is because some types of love are crazy .. temporary insanity. Quixotic .. which can ruin your life. (Forever.)

An exhilarating ride over the rainbow on a rocket-powered sled .. followed by a 20-mule team .. dragging your ass over the cliff and into the abyss.

Gnawing off both your arms seems to represent the only chance to extricate your ass. But you'll need to gnaw fast .. or you'll plunge into the abyss armlessly.

Love is very much about » chemistry .. chemistry that feels so perfectly excellent .. that you are certain God Almighty Himself must be smiling down upon you right now .. at this very moment.

The stars sing to you at night and your lungs breathes something more than air .. right into your soul. Everything becomes 3-D, alive, with a tinge of surreal reality. You live in Rollercoaster nation. So it feels as tho such-a-thing could not last very long.

Tho the juice is so sweet that it is hard to set aside the cup .. even when you have had your fill.

JFK & Marilyn. Bill & Monica. David & Bathsheba. [ "Thou art the man." ] Sergey and ...

General David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell» Infidelity Today | Count Petraeus

And that's exactly what many jealous men are saying today .. about General David Petraeus » "Dude! Thou art the man!" ..

.. for throwing down such an outstanding woman ..

.. not to mention that she is 20 years younger. Talk about "an education." I bet he learned a lot from Paula.

[ Did you see the "guns" on that girl? (muscular arms) Baby pythons. And she likes to wear outfits that display them.

I've always been attracted to athletic women. (They hold up better.)

I bet the general has bite marks on his medaled chest and claw marks on his back. You must admit .. they *do* look like they're in love.

My buddy the Dog (Hoboken born-n-bred) married a Czech girl 20 years his junior (from Prague). He says all his friends say he is "the man!" She is pregnant with their second child.

Paula Broadwell guns (muscular arms)And yes, he *is* the man .. tho not because of his pretty, young wife (.. of prime child-bearing years).

The Dog (who used to have vampire blood coursing thru his veins) used to sing 'Roxanne' to me .. walking down the balmy streets of downtown Waikiki late at night ..

.. on our way home (to Ala Wai Blvd .. an apartment directly below two strippers .. who always seemed to need help with things).

Well .. he was singing to somebody. =) He really liked that song. ]

I hope Paula does not throw herself under a train. Tho I have to wonder what the general's wife thinks about the title of Paula's intimate biography that contains unmentionable insights into her heroic 4-star hubby.

Wouldnt you just LOVE to have been a fly-on-the-wall at the Title-Selecting brainstorming session there in the publisher's conference room?

Parting Thoughts

As you step out of the theater, ask yourself » "Do I feel only pity for her? Or was I glad that her ass greased the locomotive?" [ Is that moral judgment? ]


An afterthought re moral judgment. I once had a guy come up to me and spew moral judgment on me. (No, he didnt come within striking distance.)

But what really surprised me .. was that .. I had NEVER MET this man. In other words, HE HAD NEVER MET ME.

God only knows where he got his misinformation (.. tho I have a good guess).

Now, scripturally speaking, yes, we should not judge our fellow man. But even society says that we NEED TO UNDERSTAND the person before we can cast judgment upon them .. does it not?

That is why a court at least pretends to hear both sides of the story .. before a judge/jury renders their verdict.

This dude knew nothing about me .. other then the twisted truths and outright fabrications (lies) he had been told.

"Go fuck yourself" .. is what I wanted to say. =)

"What a fool," I thought as he walked away .. to believe things about people you have never even MET .. never even exchanged a greeting with.

"Talk to me, Goose."

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