Monday, November 4, 2013

Thomas Mann on Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (Anna Karina) (Part 1 of 3)

TODAY high tide is at ten. The waters rush up the narrowing strand, carrying foam-bubbles and jelly-fish - primitive children of an unnatural mother, who will abandon them on the sands to death by evaporation. The waves run up, almost to the foot of my beach ­chair; sometimes I must lift away my plaid-wrapped legs as the waters encroach and threaten to cover them. My heart responds blithely, though also with utter respect, to these sportive little tricks the mighty ocean plays me; my sympathy, a deep and tender, primitive, soul-extending stirring, is far indeed from any annoyance.
No bathers yet. They await the midday warmth to wade out into the ebbing tide, little flutters and shrieks escaping them as they begin their pert yet fearful toying with the vast. Coast-guards in cork jackets, lynx-eyed, tooting their horns, watch over all this amateurish frivolity. My "workshop" here surpasses any I know. It is lonely; but even were it livelier, the tumultuous surf so shuts me in, and the sides of my admirable beach-chair, seat and cabin in one, familiar from my youth up, is so peculiarly protective that there can be no distraction. Beloved, incomparably soothing and suitable situation - it recurs in my life again and again, as by a law. Beneath a sky where gently shifting continents of cloud link the blue depths, rolls the sea, a darkening green against the clear hori­zon, oncoming in seven or eight foaming white rows of surf that reach out of sight in both directions. There is superb activity far­ther out, where the advancing waves hurl themselves first and highest against the bar. The bottle-green wall gleams metallic as it mounts and halts and curls over, then shatters with a roar and an explosion of foam down, down, in ever recurrent crash, whose dull thunder forms the deep ground-bass to the higher key of the boil­ing and hissing waves as they break nearer in. Never does the eye tire of this sight nor the ear of this music.
A more fitting spot could not be for my purpose: which is to re­call and to reflect upon the great book whose title stands at the head of my paper. And here by the sea there comes to mind inevi­tably an old, I might almost say an innate association of ideas: the spiritual identity of two elementary experiences, one of which is a parable of the other. I mean the ocean and the epic. The epic, with its rolling breadth, its breath of the beginnings and the roots of life, its broad and sweeping rhythm, its all-consuming monot­ony - how like it is to the sea, how like to it is the sea! It is the Homeric element I mean, the story going on and on, art and nature at once, naive, magnificent, material, objective, immortally healthy, immortally realistic! All this was strong in Tolstoy, stronger than in any other modern creator of epic art; it distinguishes his genius, if not in rank, yet in essence, from the morbid manifestation, the ecstatic and highly distorted phenomenon, that was Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy himself said of his early work Childhood and Boyhood: "Without false modesty, it is something like the Iliad." That is the merest statement of fact; only on exterior grounds does it fit still better the giant work of his maturity, War and Peace. It fits every­thing he wrote. The pure narrative power of his work is un­equalled. Every contact with it, even when he wished no longer to be an artist, when he scorned and reviled art and only employed it as a means of communicating moral lessons; every contact with it, I say, rewards the talent that knows how to receive (for there is no other) with rich streams of power and refreshment, of creative primeval lustiness and health. Seldom did art work so much like nature; its immediate, natural power is only another manifestation of nature itself; and to read him again, to be played upon by the animal keenness of this eye, the sheer power of this creative at­tack, the entirely clear and true greatness, unclouded by any mys­ticism, of this epic, is to find one's way home, safe from every danger of affectation and morbid trifling; home to originality and health, to everything within us that is fundamental and sane.
Turgenyev once said: "We have all come out from under Go­gol's Mantle" - a fiendishly clever pun which puts in a phrase the extraordinary uniformity and unity, the thick traditionalism of Russian literature as a whole. Actually, they are all there simul­taneously, its masters and geniuses, they can put out their hands to each other, their life-spans in great part overlap. Nikolai Gogol read aloud some of Dead Souls to the great Pushkin, and the author of Yevgeny Onyegin shook with laughter - and then suddenly grew sad. Lermontov was the contemporary of both. Turgenyev, as one may easily forget, for his frame, like Dostoyevsky s, Lies­kov's, and Tolstoy's, belongs to the second half of the nineteenth century, came only four years later than Lermontov into the world and ten before Tolstoy, whom he adjured in a touching letter ex­pressing his faith in humanistic art, "to go back to literature." What I mean by thick traditionalism is illustrated by an anecdote that most significantly connects Tolstoy's artistically finest work, Anna Karenina, with Pushkin.
One evening in the spring of 1873, Count Leo Nikolayevich en­tered the room of his eldest son, who was reading aloud to his old aunt Pushkin's Stories of Byelkin; the father took the book and read: "The guests assembled in the country house." "That's the way to begin," he said; went into his study and wrote: "In the Oblonsky house great confusion reigned." That was the original first sentence from Anna Karenina. The present beginning, the apercu: about happy and unhappy families, was introduced later. That is a marvelously pretty little anecdote. He had already begun much and brought much to triumphant conclusion. He was the feted creator of the Russian national epos, in the form of a modem novel, the giant panorama War and Peace. And he was about to excel both formally and artistically this chef-d'eeuvre of his thirty-­five years in the work he had now in hand, which one may with an easy mind pronounce the greatest society novel of world literature. And here he was, restlessly prowling about the house, searching, searching, not knowing how to begin. Pushkin taught him, tradi­tion taught him, Pushkin the classic master, from whose world his own was so remote, both personally and generally speaking. Push­kin rescued him, as he hesitated on the brink; showed him how one sets to, takes a firm grip, and plumps the reader in medias res. Unity is achieved, the continuity of that astonishing family of intellects which one calls Russian literature is preserved in this little piece of historical evidence.
Merezhkovsky points out that historically and pre-modernly only Pushkin among these writers really possesses charm. He in­habits a sphere by himself, a sensuously radiant, naive, and blithely poetic one. But with Gogol there begins what Merezhkovsky calls critique: "the transition from unconscious creation to creative consciousness"; for him that means the end of poetry in the Push­kin sense, but at the same time the beginning of something new. The remark is true and perceptive. Thus did Heine speak of the age of Goethe, an aesthetic age, an epoch of art, an objective-ironic point of view. Its representative and dominant figure had been the Olympian; it died with his death. What then began was a time of taking sides, of conflicting opinions, of social consolidation, yes, of politics and, in short, of morals – a morality that branded as frivolous every purely aesthetic and universal point of view.
In Heine's comments, as in Merezhkovsky's, there is feeling for temporal change, together with feeling for its opposite, the time­less and perpetual. Schiller, in his immortal essay, reduced it to the formula of the sentimental and the naive. What Merezhkovsky calls “critique” or “creative consciousness,” what seems to him like contrast with the unconscious creation of Pushkin, as the more modern element, the future on the way, is precisely what Schiller means by the sentimental in contrast to the naive. He too brings in the temporal, the evolutional, and - "pro domo," as we know­declares the sentimental, the creativeness of conscious critique, in short the moralistic, to be the newer, more modern stage of de­velopment.
There are now two things to say: first, Tolstoy's original con­victions were definitely on the side of the aesthetic, of pure art, the objectively shaping, anti-moralistic principle; and second, in him took place that very cultural and historical change which Merezh­kovsky speaks of, that move away from Pushkin's simplicity to­wards critical responsibility and morality. Within his own being it took such a radical and tragic form that he went through the severest crises and much anguish and even so could not utterly repudiate his own mighty creativeness. What he finally arrived at was a rejection and negation of art itself as an idle, voluptuous, and immoral luxury, admissible only in order to make moral teachings acceptable to men, even though dressed in the mantle of art.
But to return to the first position: we have his own unequivocal declarations to the effect that a purely artistic gift stands higher than one with social significance. In 1859, when he was thirty-one years old, he gave, as a member of the Moscow society of Friends of Russian Literature, an address in which he so sharply empha­sized the advantages of the purely art element in literature over all the fashions of the day that the president of the society, Kho­myakov, felt constrained to rejoin that a servant of pure art might quite easily become a social reformer even without knowing or willing it. Contemporary criticism saw in the author of Anna Karenina the protagonist of the art for art's sake position, the rep­resentative of free creativeness apart from all tendentiousness or doctrine. Indeed, it considered this naturalism the characteristi­cally new thing; the public must in time grow up to it, though at present they had got used, in the works of others, to the pres­entation of political and social ideas in the form of art. In point of fact, all this was only one side of the business. As an artist and son of his time, the nineteenth century, Tolstoy was a naturalist, and in this connection he represented - in the sense of a trend - the new. But as an intellectual he was beyond (or rather, he struggled amid torments to arrive beyond) the new, to something further still, on the other side of his, the naturalistic century. He was reach­ing after conceptions of art which approached much nearer to "mind" (Geist), to knowledge, to "critique" than to nature. The commentators of 1875, impressed by the first chapters of Anna Karenina as they appeared in a Russian magazine, the Messenger, seeking benevolently to prepare the way with the public for the naturalism of the work, did not dream that the author was in full flight towards an anti-art position, which was already hampering his work on his masterpiece and even endangering its completion.
This development was to go very far, the vehemence of its con­sistency shrank from nothing: neither from the anti-cultural nor even from the absurd. Before long, he was to regret in public hav­ing written Childhood and Youth, the work of his freshest youth­ful hours - so poor, so insincere, so literary, so sinful was this book. He was to condemn root and branch the "artist twaddle" with which the twelve volumes of his works were filled, to which "the people of our day ascribe an undeserved significance." It was the same undeserved significance that they ascribed to art itself _ for instance, to Shakespeare's plays. He went so far - one must set it down with respect and a sober face, or at least with the small­est, most non-committal smile - as to put Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, far above Shakespeare.
We must be at pains to understand this. Tolstoy's hatred for Shakespeare dated from much earlier than is usually supposed. It signified rebellion against nature, the universal, the all-affirming. It was jealousy of the morally tormented for the irony of the abso­lute creator, it meant the straining away from nature, naïveté, moral indifference, towards "Geist" in the moralistically critical sense of the word; towards moral valuations and edifying doctrine. Tolstoy hated himself in Shakespeare, hated his own vital bearish strength, which was originally like Shakespeare's, natural and crea­tively a-moral; though his struggles for the good, the true and right, the meaning of life, the doctrine of salvation, were after all only the same thing in another and self-denying form. The immen­sity of his writings sometimes resulted in a gigantic clumsiness which forces a respectful smile. And yet it is precisely the para­doxically ascetic application of a titanic helplessness arising from a primeval force that, viewed as art, gives his work that huge moral élan, that Atlas-like moral muscle-tensing and flexing which re­minds one of the agonized figures of Michelangelo's sculpture.
I said that Tolstoy's hatred of Shakespeare belongs to an earlier period than is generally thought. But all that which later made his friends and admirers like Turgenyev weep, his denial of art and cul­ture, his radical moralism, his highly questionable pose of prophet and confessor in his last period - all that begins much further back, it is quite wrong to imagine this process as something suddenly oc­curring in a crisis of conversion in later life, coincident with Tol­toy's old age. The same kind of mistake occurs in the popular opinion that Richard Wagner suddenly got religion-whereas the matter was one of a development vastly and fatally consistent and inevitable, the direction of which is clearly and unmistakably trace­able in The Flying Dutchman and in Tannhauser. The judgment of the Frenchman, Vogue, was entirely correct when, on the news that the great Russian writer was now "as though paralyzed by a sort of mystic madness," Vogue declared that he had long ago seen it coming. The course of Tolstoy's intellectual development had been present in the seed in Childhood and Boyhood and the psychology of Levin in Anna Karenina had marked out the path it would take.

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