Every year I reread the wonderful novel that is Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. Every time I come across different things within the book, different details that capture my attention and imagination, and this year was certainly no exception. I’m going to share some of my annual insights with you, my lovely readers, and this year I’m focusing on religion and morality within the text, particularly in the last two chapters of the book.
Let us begin with a bit of backstory on Levin’s religious struggle. He is an athiest who rationalizes every action of his life in an attempt to find truth, and when he marries the love of his life he finds that while she cares not about his religious issues (for she has faith that he will find his own way in time through her loving kindness), he’s very disturbed that he cannot at the time of their wedding, align himself with her religious beliefs, and spends much of the rest of the book trying to understand the beliefs she holds so dear.
My first passage begins with Part Eight, chapter twelve (p 719 in the 1995 Norton Critical Edition), where Levin has just been told something very important about goodness that sends Levin into a great string of epiphany:
To live not for one’s needs but for God! For what God? What could be more senseless than what he said? He said we must not live for our needs – that is, we must not live for what we understand and what attracts us, what we wish for, but must live for something incomprehensible, for God whom nobody can understand or define. Well? And did I not understand those senseless words of Theodore’s? And having understood them, did I doubt their justice? Did I find them stupid, vague, or inexact?
No, I understood them just as he understands them: understood completely and more clearly than anything in life; and I have never in my life doubted it, and cannot doubt it. And not I alone but every one – the whole world – only understands that completely. Nobody is free from doubt about other things, but nobody ever doubts this one thing, everybody always agrees with it.
And I sought for miracles, regretted not ot see a miracle that might convince me! A physical miracle would have tempted me. But here is a miracle, the one possible, everlasting miracle, all around me, and I did not notice it!
Theodore says that Kirilov, the innkeeper, lives for his belly. That is intelligible and reasonable. We all, as reasoning creatures, cannot live otherwise. And then that same Theodore says that it is wrong to live for one’s belly, and that we must live for Truth, for god, and at the first hint I understand him! I and millions of men who lived centuries ago and those who are living now: peasants, the poor in spirit, and sages, who have thought and written about it, saying the same thing in their obscure words – we all agree on that one thing: what we should live for, and what is good. I, and all the other men, know only one thing firmly, clearly, and certainly, and this knowledge cannot be explained by reason: it is outside reason, has no cause and can have no consequences.
If goodness has a cause, it is no longer goodness; if it has a consequence – a reward, it is also not goodness. Therefore goodness is beyond the chain of cause and effect.
In this discovery, Levin believes he has found not only the intrinsic proof of God’s existance, but also the means by which he can be instantly a good man. His life is changed in his mind, from this instance of understanding. And so we begin his complex and quick journey to true spiritual understanding. This passage speaks for itself, so I will go immediately to the next.
At the beginning of the very next chapter, Levin thinks of his sister-in-law’s children, and how they like to play with their food. Their mother explains to them that they are destroying that which others have so carefully worked to prepare for their nourishment, and the children do not understand because they do not waste the food, merely have a bit of fun with it before it’s eaten. Levin finds a way to equate this to his own spirituality:
I, educated in the conception of God, as a Christian, having filled my life wiht the spiritual blessings Christianity gave me, brimful of these blessings and living by them, I, like a child, not understanding them, destroy them – that is, I wish to destroy that by which I live. But as soon as an important moment of life comes, like children when they are cold and hungry, I go to Him, and even less than the children whose mother scolds them for their childish mischeif do I feel that my childish attempts to kick because I am filled should be reckoned against me.
This recognition of childishness before good, that all mankind is truly childlike in their treatment of goodness and morality, is an insight I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with, and the metaphor is one that can be understood and agreed with by anyone who remembers what it is like to be a child at all, whether through their own memories of experience, or because they have been around children recently, as had Levin.
After he realizes that he has been a child in his resistence to faith, Levin then considers the teachings of the Church.
‘But can I believe in all that the Church professes?’ he asked himself, testing himself by everything which might destroy his present peace of mind. He purposefully thought of those teachings of the Church which always seemed most strange to him, and that tried him. ‘The Creation – But how do I account for existence? By existence! By nothing! – The devil and sin? – And how do I explain evil?… A Savior?…
‘But I know nothing, nothing! And can know nothing but what is told to me and to everbody.’
And now it seemed to him that there was not one of the dogmas of the church which could disturb the principle thing – faith in God, in goodness, as the sole vocation of man.
This coming to peace with his feelings about his faith and the church are then so exciting to Levin that he believes his whole life has changed. He is a new man, and he will be a much better person from now on. Or so he thinks.
Levin realizes after several events that the gaining of faith and the realization that he believes in God will not completely change his life simply because they’ve happened. He is still the same person and he will still, therefore, make many of the same mistakes. This is all delinated in the final two chapters of the novel:
This new feeling has not changed me, has not rendered me happy, nor suddenly illuminated me as I dreamt it would, but is just like my feeling for my son. It has not been a surprise either. But be it faith or not – I do not know what it is – this feeling has also entered imperceptibly through suffering and is firmly rooted in my soul.
I shall still get angry with Ivan the coachman in the same way, shall dispute in the same way, shall inopportunely express my thoughts; there will still be a wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people; even my wife I shall still blame for my own fears and shall repent of it of it. My reason will still not understand why I pray, but I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.
This tidbit is not only something that reminds me of how silly people can be when they come to some great revelation about something in their life, thinking that everything will suddenly change (when it never does), but it also reminds me of a very important thing I read in my German history course last fall. Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi in his novel I sommersi e i salvati (translates as The Drowned and the Saved) discusses how the people who coped the best with the horrors of their lives were the the ones who had faith in something. It didn’t really matter what religion they had, or even if it was a religion of sorts, but even faith in science could keep people sane in a chaotic hell like concentration camps in Poland.
So even though Levin will not be perfect flat off, as he realizes, he’s also found a faith in something, something he flounders about trying to find throughout the novel, and so he will be better equipped now to handle the ups and downs in his life.
And that’s what I learned this year! Now I’m off to read it all over again and take notes for my thesis next year (which you’ll all get to hear all about).