Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Kreutzer Sonata: Penguin Great Love Series

The Penguin Great Love Series, as I have remarked earlier, is a brilliant collection, exploring some famous and intriguing writings on the subject of love. (My previous posts on books from the series can be found here, here and here.) I recently read another work from the collection: the controversial short novel from Tolstoy,The Kreutzer Sonata, which completely denounces the notion of love and much more.
Kreutzer Sonata is very artificially structured - the narrator meets the protagonist on a train, where the protagonist recounts his entire story. It is a story that begins in his youth of debauchery, leading to a ritualistic marriage. The marriage is far from smooth, as the couple alternates between ugly altercations and passionate love-making. They sail through this time with the ritual of child-births, until the wife decides to shift her focus from her children to herself. Her beauty attracts attention from men, among them a musician. Both of them pursue music together, while the husband is inflamed with jealousy. One day, upon finding them together in his house in the middle of the night, he murders his wife in a fit of rage.

On the face of it, it is a story of envy and possessiveness, which is a very common tale. However, more than the plot, what is remarkable about the work is the observations of the husband, Pozdnyshev. He believes that what led to the murder of his wife was not jealousy so much as it was his own physical relationship with her. That it was the destructive forces of sex , which consumed their relationship and her life. These observations are a reflection on Tolstoy's own ideas about chastity and physical intimacy at the time of writing this book, and were widely condemned for obvious reasons.

It is interesting how Tolstoy falsified the whole notion of marriage, holding it no higher than a state and family accepted prostitution. He claimed that an unselfish love does not expect physical gratification, but at the same time he ruled out the possibility of this love in a marriage, as marriages are based on the animal principles of lust. His views are strong - he denounces the physical need for sex as exalted by doctors. He believes that art, which is considered a higher and sacred virtue, is often the breeding ground for this unholy passion. The title of the story is meant to be an allusion to this idea.
The novel, as in the time of publication as now, brings to forefront some relevant questions. It highlights the struggle between superego and id, and it is clear that though Tolstoy is a champion of the former, he is unable to free himself from the latter and is constantly guilty on that account. This is a caricature reflection of the guilt felt everyday, by almost everyone - the desire to follow collective conscious and morality against the compelling greed which detracts from doing so, leading to a constant feeling of remorse. The book also questions the role and perception of women, criticizing their use as property, though in the end, it delivers them exactly that role. However, the criticism is genuine and strongly put across (like most other emotions expressed). Lastly, it also criticizes doctors and their manipulation of individuals and societies by advertising notions like sex is necessary for well-being or that there are specific rules that are critical for bringing up children in a healthy manner. I completely agree with this sentiment - the health industry for its sustenance has made life too managed - mandating several things which perhaps never even entered the minds of previous generations. Most food is off-limits, so is anything which is pleasing to the senses. The frenzy of new parents to give the best to their child is akin to a paranoia, and it is disgusting to hear them go on and on about what they can and cannot do as long as their little chickens have not become independent birds.

After his book met with severe criticism, Tolstoy published an epilogue to the story explaining his views. The views are mostly of a religious color, but are interesting to read.


Alok said...

I wrote some Tolstoyan comments about sex on the blog some time back and got a comment telling me that I must be having "wrong kind" of sex :)

I think his views are a bit extreme but the essential fact remains that sexual desire is inherently objectifying and alienating. It turns a person into a possession and alienates him or her from the real "essence" or self.

This has also become much worse in our culture which is highly sexualized. Even the traditionally non-sexual aspect of one's personality. They can't even sell toothpastes without making white teeth as a sexual accessory! In this context Tolstoy advocacy of "fraternal relations" between men and women is actually quite liberating.

Brian said...

"He believes that art, which is considered a higher and sacred virtue"

Interesting. I've heard a theory before that classical art, though erotic at times, is never sexual not because it would be distasteful, but because at some deep level, those impulses are connected with our inherent anxiety about death. The 'eros' in art needing to be transformed through aesthetics and religious/mythological references in order to transcend our earthly condition. While I have not yet personally delved into Tolstoy, the theory seems to fit into his views. It also helps explain why modern art is often profane. Not because the artists want to be controversial (though there is some of that), but because it expresses aspects of the human condition which were previously withheld from the arts.

Madhuri said...

Wrong kind of sex...ouch! That must have hurt :)
I disagree with the notion of the real essence of a person as separate from his sexual self. I do believe that a person's complete essence is in these conflicting facets - virtue and earthiness. To preclude anyone for the other would be un-natural. In the face of omnipresent sexuality, it is freshening to hear a discerning voice. But the excess in Tolstoy's voice sounds irrational, especially since he clearly seems unable to escape from what he denounces as vice.
Maugham once made a quote in one of his books (think it was Of Human Bondage): He had heard people speak contemptuously of money: he wondered if they had ever tried to do without it.
I think a similar concept applies here as well.

Madhuri said...

Brian, Tolstoy is apparently blaming art and music for exalting the virtues of love, which he sees as (and I agree with him) sensual love in stead of fraternal love.
It is surprising how beliefs can undergo such a fundamental change. A lot of life-affirming literature/cinema now exclusively focuses on a very direct and descriptive eroticism, which was earlier a symbol of death or earthiness.

Alok said...

I disagree with the notion of the real essence of a person as separate from his sexual self.

I agree with this too but this "sexual self" (or what philosophers call "Eros") never really finds an expression in our society or what we normally mean by sexual desire. Sexual desire instead reduces other person to a set of attributes so that he or she then becomes an "object" something that can be replaced easily. Love means you care for a person for who he or she *really is* but sexual desire works in the opposite desire a person for what is attractive in her and conversely you project only that side of yourself which you think can attract the other person (or worse, even invent a fictitious persona). That's why I said it is alienating. In our capitalist advertising-saturated culture it has become even worse...sexual persona has become totally commodified, basically just a set of standards. Those who can fit the standard are thought to be lucky and those who don't are treated as losers.

There is another book in the love series - Stendhal's "On Love". In it he coins a term called "crystallization" which he means the process by which love turns the other person into someone unique and irreplaceble, which is what makes it "ethical". One of the universal ethical imperatives is that we should treat the other person as unique and as ends in themselves and not as a means for some personal fulfillment and enjoyment. In this sense Love and sexual desire create problems for each other. This is also what moral philosophers like Kant or Tolstoy find so problematic in sexuality.

It is not always possible (and contrary to what Tolstoy says, neither advisable) to negate or even sublimate sexual desire but one should be aware of its implications...human condition is full of such conflicts and dilemmas :) Great literature makes us aware of all this...

Alok said...

Actually when he was writing Kreutzer Sonata Tolstoy was himself tortured by his sexuality...his wife became pregnant just a few months before he started writing the book. He writes about his shame and self-disgust in the diary. In his youth he also had a lot of affairs and went to prostitutes and kept a record in his diaries and on his wedding night showed it to his wife..i think it is there in the story too. His poor wife had to suffer a lot for her entire life. Andrea Dworkin in her book "Intercourse" writes about this story and Tolstoy's life and what she thinks are his hypocrisies.

Long comment but I have been thinking about these things recently about authenticity, sexuality and commodification and alienation in capitalist societies...

Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles ("Atomised" in British edition) is another very interesting book on the subject. It's a critique of sexual liberation movements..basically a critique of modern society which he thinks has totally perverted the ideals of sexual freedom espoused in the 60s in Western Europe and US. It is very dark and disturbing and full of completely joyless explicit sex so I recommend it hesitatingly but it really shocked me and changed the way I looked at these things when I read it a few years ago. His other book "Platform" is not so successful but a pretty funny satire about hedonistic and commercial tourism.

Arun Meethale Chirakkal said...

This is a fine blog. Let me say 'thanks'. I'm gonna blogroll this site. I've read some of your posts and I feel the urge to say something about 'Things Fall Apart'. No doubt it's a good novel, but I often feel that it's so overrated too. Chinua Achabe has been a familiar name (though I've read 'Things Fall Apart a few months back)for quite some time. But I came to know about Alex Haley only when I got 'Roots' as a present. Though a thick volume, it was so intensely written and it has the capacity to move one to tears. It truly presents the history of the black people. One can't help wondering, reading about the systems, culture, civilisation prevailed in 'Juffure'(where the story is being taken place)and the white people calling Africa, 'heart of darkness'. After 'Roots', I moved to 'Things Fall Apart', though I'd maintained enough, and I enjoyed 'Things Fall Apart', it couldn't move me the way 'Roots' did, I might'ven't been able to shrug off the influence of 'Roots'. Hope you don't have any problem in me blogrolling you...

Madhuri said...

Hi Arun, thanks for dropping by and for adding me to your read-list.
I have not read Roots yet, apart from a feeble start once long time ago, so I cannot compare the two books.
I liked Things Fall Apart because it tried to present the story from a different side,the tribal, ethnic side, blending in all exoticism with a natural reality. It looks at colonialism not simply as the perpetrator of violence and injustice, but also as a death of beliefs and denial of what has been identity for a tribe. Being taken over is a loss of independence and self-respect, which is what the book depicted in a very novel way.

Arun Meethale Chirakkal said...

"Being taken over is a loss of independence and self-respect, which is what the book depicted in a very novel way."

That's true. And as a fiercely independent and pride man Okonkwo just couldn't adopt himself to the changes (recently I've read somewhere that adopting oneself to the changes is a criterion to decide one's IQ, that means all the rebels and romantics will be omitted huh?) taken place in his village during his stay outside (due to the accidental fire during a funeral and his subsequent exile)I think the character of Okonkwo is extremely powerful and intense, the portrayal is beautiful. I still remember his recollections; how he loathed his own father or even others who showed even a trace of laziness. He's a self made man, and that was my reason for his hot temper and even beating his wives, where as in Juffure, Kunta Kinte's father was highly civilised and matured. One can't help looking with awe at the customs and society prevailed there during those periods. In fact I found it shocking that Okonkwo beat his wife, but later I realised or made myself believe that a self made man can't show much sophistication.