Monday, February 16, 2015


(18) On Not Being and Other Nonevents

In Part VI, Ch. 23, Anna and her sister-in-law Dolly converse, shortly after Dolly has had a conversation with Anna's estranged husband. "The main thing he desires [says Dolly]. . . he desires that you should not suffer."

"That's impossible. Well?"

"Well, and the most legitimate desire--he wishes that your children should have a name."

"What children?" Anna said, not looking at Dolly and slitting her eyes. [see previous post, "Big Brother and the Russian Slit-Eyed Squint"]

"Annie and those to come . . . "

"He need not trouble on that score; I shall have no more children."

"How can you tell that you won't?"

"I shall not because I don't wish it." And, in spite of all her emotion, Anna smiled as she caught the naive expression of curiosity, horror, and wonder on Dolly's face.

"The doctor told me after my illness . . . "

             . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"Impossible," said Dolly, opening her eyes wide (p. 665-66).

Note the line of dots across the page, indicating that, in Tolstoy's time, the subject (contraception) was so controversial or intimate that it could not be expressed in the words of a novel.

The conversation goes on [abbreviated somewhat here].

"N'est-ce pas immoral?" was all she [Dolly]said, after a brief pause.

"Why so? Think, I have a choice between two alternatives; either to be pregnant, that is, an invalid, or to be the friend and companion of my husband--he is, after all, my husband," Anna said in a tone intentionally superficial and frivolous.

"Yes, yes," said Darya Aleksandrovna, hearing the very arguments she had used to herself, and not finding the same force in them as before.

"For you, for other people," said Anna, as if though divining her thoughts, "there may be reason to hesitate; but for me . . . You must consider. I am not his wife; he loves me as long as he loves me. And how am I to keep his love? Not like this?"

She moved her white hands in a curve before her belly.

With extraordinary rapidity, as happens during moments of excitement, ideas and memories rushed into Darya Aleksandrovna's head. 'I,' she thought, 'did not keep my attraction for Stiva; he left me for others, and the first woman for whom he betrayed me did not keep him by being always pretty and lively. He deserted her and took another. And can Anna attract and keep Count Vronsky in that way? If that is what he looks for, he will find dresses and manners still more attractive and charming. And however white and beautiful her bare arms are, however beautiful her full figure and her eager face under her black curls, he will find something better still, just as my disgusting, pitiful, and charming husband does.'

Dolly made no answer, she merely sighed. Anna noticed this sigh, indicating dissent, and she went on. In her armory she had other arguments so strong that no answer could be made to them.

"Do you say that it's not right? But you must consider," she went on; "you forget my position. How can I desire children? I'm not speaking of the suffering, I'm not afraid of that. Think only, what are my children to be? Ill-fated children, who will have to bear a stranger's name. For the very fact of their birth they will be forced to be ashamed of their mother, their father, their birth."

"But that is just why a divorce is necessary."

Anna did not hear her. She longed to give utterance to all the arguments she had used so many times to convince herself.

"What is reason given me for if I am not to use it to avoid bringing unhappy beings into the world?" She looked at Dolly, but without waiting for a reply she went on:

"I should always feel guilty for having wronged these unhappy children," she said. "If they don't exist, they are at any rate not unhappy, while if they are unhappy, I alone would be to blame for it."

These were the very arguments that Darya Aleksandrovna had used in her own reflections; but she heard them now without understanding them. 'How can one wrong creatures that don't exist?' she thought. And all at once the idea struck her: could it possibly, under any circumstances, have been better for her favorite Grisha if he had never existed? And this seemed to her so wild, so strange, that she shook her head to drive away this tangle of whirling, mad ideas (Part VI, Ch. 23, p. 666-667).


So here we have entered the realm of deep metaphysical cogitation. If you don't exist are you, at least, not unhappy? The Russian text is interesting here. The literal translation: "If they are not, then they at least are not unhappy (Если их нет, то они не несчастны по крайней мере (Sob. soch. IX, 241). I like the little stutter there in the middle of the sentence: ne neschastny. In response to this, Dolly thinks (literal translation), "How can you be guilty before existent creatures that don't exist? (Как быть виноватою пред существами не существующими?)." That's a wonderful line in the Russian.

This way of discussing important issues by way of bringing non-creatures into the discussion recalls the importance of nonevents about a hundred pages earlier in the novel. One of these is the non-proposal of Koznyshev to Varenka.

"During the time of the children's tea the grownups sat on the balcony and talked as though nothing had happened, although they all, especially Sergey Ivanovich and Varenka, were very well aware that there had happened an event that, though negative, was of very great importance" (p.592). In other words, an important event, one with consequences, was a nonevent. A few pages later Lyovin is vexed over the non-arrival of Kitty's father (p. 595).

Of course, the biggest nonevent of the novel is the divorce that Anna never gets from Karenin and her subsequent non-marriage to Vronsky. In Part Five, Ch. 33, Vronsky's friend Yashvin looks at the Anna-Vronsky non-marriage and thinks, "With a wife you've got problems, but with a non-wife it's even worse (С женою забота, с не-женою еще хуже)".You could come up with a whole series of things NOT taking place and, consequently, influencing the fates and fortunes of the main characters.

But in terms of philosophical depth, there is probably no more important dialogue in the novel than this one between Anna and Dolly, about whether non-being can somehow be equated with happiness. Push it just a touch and you're into the problem of Hamlet, "to be or not to be": If I kill myself and become NOT, then I am not, at least, unhappy."

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