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Wednesday
Dec242008

The Kreutzer Sonata

He shook my hand and smiled at the same time, a smile which seemed unabashedly mocking, and then began to explain to me how he had brought the notes to prepare for Sunday and that they were in disagreement as to what to play: should they tackle something more complicated and classic, namely Beethoven's violin sonata, or resign themselves to smaller, trivial pieces?

In the last century and a half – since, as it were, the dawn of science's urge to explain everything – we have come to impute our irrationalities to faults of nature.  No longer are we responsible for the evil thoughts we harbor (childhood anxieties writ large) or the actions that we take against the freedoms and rights of others (we only care about ourselves, anyway), nor the crimes for which we are ultimately tried and acquitted because we are insane.  Insane has come to mean irrational, and anyone who is irrational is clearly not in control of what he may inflict upon his fellow humans and their environment.  I cannot speak for all my readers, but you may want to consider what part of your day you actually spend in unadulterated rationality.  Are the caffeine and alcohol you imbibe or grease you consume helping you live longer and in better health?  The casual encounters with persons whose sexual histories could not possibly be known to you?  The wild thoughts scattered throughout your day about promotions, raises, sports teams, past relationships, annoyances, physical tics, and other neurotic trivialities that seem to be the hallmark of modern societies of privilege?  If we were truly rational, we would be very careful with what we eat, choose one mate and stay with her forever, exercise regularly, stop worrying about whether we will make our payment on our car or home, and be nice to everyone and everything, because over time most intelligent people come to see that so-called 'rational behavior' comprises only caring about your survival to the possible detriment of everyone else's.  Yet for people of faith, faith and rationality are synonymous.  They are synonymous not because we are too foolish to think for ourselves, but because believing in something greater than yourself becomes, with the proper spiritual insight, the most rational thing you could ever do precisely because there is no reason to do it other than itself.  Belief is how we form friendships, think of country, nation, and heritage, and, perhaps most importantly, how we love.  We love without evidence, because there can be no evidence for the intangible twine that binds one soul to another.  I may believe someone loves me, but I am guided in my belief by a covenant that what that person and I have is sacred and can defeat time, space and every other obstacle to immortality.  A fine way to segue into this controversial novella.

The narrator and the reader will spend their time fascinated by one lowly man, Pozdnyshev, whom the narrator meets in a train compartment as marriage and love are being discussed.  The time is the late nineteenth century and Romanticism has been replaced by railroads, distant love by the all-too-familiar commute of the factory worker.  What love used to be – wild, enchanting, a font of salvation – has now become a series of morose gestures packaged in the understanding that we must continue evolution from amoeba to ape to human to enough humans to conquer the globe with the breadth of our immediate desires.  And Pozdnyshev has indeed been very unlucky in love.  His views stem from a long marriage to a woman he once loved and the five children she bore him.  They married when he was still young and after he had had his fill of public houses, and they quickly settled into the habits of a typically haute bourgeoisie household.  Soon all aspects of what should have been love and affection begin to shrivel and flake, and it is, surprisingly enough, family life and marriage that are to blame.  Pozdnyshev comments that, "the attraction to children, the animal need to feed, nurture, and defend them, was present in my wife as in so many women as nothing more than precisely an animal instinct and the complete lack of imagination or reason."  The reproduction of the human race is exactly what Pozdnyshev sees as its downfall: an attempt to immortalize the flesh instead of the soul, a very topical retort in the late nineteenth century.  But this is not the crux of his issue with his family.  No, his problems commence when his wife decides to return to playing the piano.  

Little by little, it is this common if somewhat privileged life (the Pozdnyshevs reside in a much more splendid house than your average city dweller) that Pozdnyshev comes to see as a "vile lie."  And with his whole existence now subject to scrutiny in every detail, it is hardly remarkable that he hears more than one layer of meaning in his wife's everyday statements:

She began thinking of another love, one pure and new, or at least that's what I thought.   And here is where she began looking about as if in expectation of something.  I noticed this and could not help but feel an onrush of panic and anxiety.  She would talk to others, people she would happen to meet or accost, and I understood that what she was saying was actually directed at me.  She expressed herself boldly with nary a thought for the fact that merely an hour ago she had endorsed a wholly opposing position; she spoke half in jest about a mother's concerns – and any mother who says she doesn't have such concerns is lying – about devoting herself to her children while she is still young and while she can still enjoy life.  She looked after the children less, but not with the despair of before, and spent more and more time tending to herself, to her appearance, although she tried to hide this, as well as to her pleasures and her self-perfection.  It was then that she returned to the piano with great interest, the piano which she had once completely abandoned.  This is where it all began.

Whatever one may think of The Kreutzer Sonata, this passage contains its essence, but not in the form assumed by the cursory reader who might believe that Tolstoy is valuing family over individualism.  Once upon a time, a rakish and rather immoral young Lev regaled himself on the sweetness of life, on Wein, Weiber und Gesang, as Pozdnyshev himself comments, and forgot his greater purposes.  After a long, troubled, and fecund marriage to a woman who simply could not compare to his interest in writing, Tolstoy abandoned everything and condemned both facets of his previous existence: that of a Lothario and of a family man.  Neither one is praised because both in tandem represent the two easy options for modern human beings, be it the comfort of home and its concomitant security, love and plain living, or the lascivious freedoms and lightness of a life without any responsibility to anyone except yourself.  What Tolstoy comes to advocate is a life of abstinence and self-discovery in unison with one's spiritual beliefs – a noble cause if one taken to an unnecessary extreme by a mind that was always prone to extremes.  Pozdnyshev has lived both parts of Tolstoy's life and, while it is unproductive to weld fiction to fact, has decided on the basis of one important event to join his creator in hermitage.  That event is the arrival of the music teacher Trukhachevsky.

His father was a petty merchant; he was the youngest of three boys and the only one sent to his godmother in Paris to study at the conservatory.  And yet Trukhachevsky wasn't even a professional musician, but a "semi-professional."  He was not particularly handsome, but he did not need looks to attract a woman, he needed music.  And to Pozdnyshev there was something positively demonic about music:

They say that music has an elevating and sublimating effect on the soul.  Untrue!  Utter nonsense!  It most certainly has an effect, a terrible effect, not of sublimation nor of denigration, but one of disturbance.  How should I put it ... music forces me to forget myself, my true position in life, and under music's spell I seem to feel what I actually do not feel and understand what I don't really understand, and be able to do what I in fact cannot.  I would explain this phenomenon by saying that music acts like a yawn or like laughter; I am not sleepy but I yawn looking at someone yawning; and there is nothing to laugh about and yet I laugh when I hear someone laughing.

In other words, music, because of the rigidity of its form and the ineluctability that is its nature, must be understood by the common man as something to be understood, something that is done, something that everyone does.  It is, for Pozdnyshev, the bellwether of common values, easy morals, and plain decisions that shape the vast majority of human lives, and his wife is about to be cheapened by all these banalities and perhaps slip into that most banal and horrific crime of all, betrayal.  This is why Pozdnyshev finds the most insufferable circumstances that plague men of jealousy to be "those well-known bourgeois conditions in which the great and dangerous proximity of man to woman is permitted."  These circumstances are numerous: doctor's visits, balls, art lessons, and that most pernicious of all situations, music.  His wife's return to her piano, her neglect of her children (in her husband's estimation), and most of all, her interest in something greater than herself and her family all damn her to a crime that she may or may not have committed, although on more than one occasion we are presented with some ocular proof and left to ponder the ending without either possibility being confirmed.

Yet this story is not really about jealousy, it is about the decisions of man.  While his monumental novels are widely praised, Tolstoy is the type of writer who thrives on two great facets for short story writers: directness of characterization and a certain momentum that gets derailed in longer narratives.  As such, many have quibbled that The Kreutzer Sonata is one of his weaker works, in no small part to the moral framework that seems superimposed.  But the work must be commended on its clarity: the concatenation of small details of jealousy, one of the easiest emotions to write about because it is, with hatred, one of the most consuming, is made more remarkable by how similarly most tales of jealousy progress.  Jealousy allows one to find everything wrong and nothing right; to depict the world in conspiracy against you; and to portray the greatest crime of all, the one for which Judas and Pilate were sentenced to the last circle of hell.  There are many stories that start with ridiculous, almost insane premises, but very few follow them to their illogical ends.  More often than not, the reader is emotionally manipulated into seeing a world that appears far removed from contemporary reality and then provided with a last minute explanation for this odd state.  But bold is the tale that shirks the need for a comprehensive ending and sticks to its guns.  Or, in this case, its daggers.

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