Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"Anna Karenina" THE MOWING SCENE

Orest Verejsky, Illustration for "Anna Karenina"

(17) The Mowing Scene (Part Three, Ch. 4-6)

Lyovin out mowing with the peasants:

"In the very heat of the day the mowing did not seem such hard work to him. The perspiration with which he was drenched cooled him, while the sun that burned his back, his head, and his arms, bare to the elbow, gave vigor and increased his perseverance to his labor; and more and more often now came those moments of unconsciousness, when it was possible not to think of what one was doing. The scythe cut by itself. These were happy moments. Still more delightful were the moments when they reached the stream where the rows ended, and the old man rubbed his scythe with the wet, thick grass, rinsed its blade in the fresh water of the stream, ladled out a little in a tin dipper, and offered Lyovin a drink.

"What do you say to kvas, eh? Good, eh?" said he, winking.

And truly Lyovin had never drunk anything so good as this warm water with bits of grass floating in it, and a taste of rust from the tin dipper. And immediately after this came the delicious, slow saunter, with his hand on the scythe, during which he could wipe away the streaming sweat, take deep breaths of air, and look about at the long string of mowers and at what was happening all around in the forest and in the country.

The longer Lyovin mowed, the more often he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed that the scythe was mowing by itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and, as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and precise by itself. These were the most blissful moments.

It was hard work only when he had to break off the motion, which had become unconscious, and think. . . ." (267).

Here we have one side of Tolstoy, and an important side: the corporeal and earthy side, his love of nature and the earth, his desire to commune with nature, his distrust of abstract thought--represented by Lyovin's half-brother, Koznyshev, who all day long, while Lyovin is out in the fields, sits occupying himself with non-physical, intellectual things.

The mowing scene, describing how Lyovin throws himself into labor and achieves a state of mind above and beyond mere rationality, is the quintessence of the anti-rational, "natural" theme in "Anna Karenina."

Compare Karenin's spiritual bliss after he forgives his wife, the dying Anna. His emotional rapture probably reaches greater depths of spirituality than Lyovin's rapture out in the meadows, but it is inevitably fleeting and lacking in the placid contentment that Lyovin experiences. When he returns to the manor house at the end of the day, Lyovin is exhilarated, and he tells his brother that he has found a new treatment for physical and emotional ills: Arbeitskur (272).

At several other points in the novel Tolstoy describes certain exalted states of mind, which are always non-rational states. For example, as Lyovin awaits the birth of his child he thinks about the joy of this coming event and somehow equates it to the grief he experienced at the time of his brother Nikolay's death. Both experiences are "openings, as it were, in that ordinary life through which there came glimpses of something sublime. And in the contemplation of this sublime something the soul was exalted to inconceivable heights of which it had before had no conception, while reason lagged behind, unable to keep up with it" (742; my emphasis).

Tolstoy makes something of a summation of Lyovin's, and his own, anti-rationalist position near the end of the book:

"And I and millions of men, men who lived ages ago and men living now--peasants, the poor in spirit and the learned who have thought and written about it, in their obscure words saying the same thing--we are all agreed about this one thing: what we must live for and what is good. I and all men have only one firm, incontestable, clear knowledge, and that knowledge cannot be explained by reason--it is outside it, and has no causes and can have no effects" (828).

Only a few pages later Lyovin concludes that "thought cannot keep pace with feeling," but then:

"Yes, looking at the sky, I thought that the dome I see is not a deception, and then I thought something, I shirked facing something," he mused. "But whatever it was, there can be no disproving it! I have but to think, and all will come clear!" (847; my emphasis).

See the contradiction? Think and think and think, and by thinking, you think your way through to a refutation of the process of thinking! Lyovin, and his maker Tolstoy, are caught up in perpetual contradictions. Just like Tolstoy, Lyovin is too much of a rationalist to give up his rationalizings, even after he has reasoned his way through to a refutation of reasoning.

This contradiction remains to the very last page of the novel, and that is one big reason why the reader is reluctant to believe that Lyovin's new-found peace of mind (in his final appearance) will last long. He, as the character most like Tolstoy himself, inherits Tolstoy's lifelong dilemma: "He [Lyovin] was miserably divided against himself and strained all his spiritual forces to the utmost to escape from this condition" (820).

Practically for the whole of his long life Tolstoy was fighting an internecine war: inside himself. He finally won a Pyrrhic victory--when he died.

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