The Aching Place

[Yamamoto via lens culture]

Whether he was acting rightly or wrongly he did not know, and far from trying to prove that he was, nowadays he avoided all thought or talk about it. Reasoning had brought him to doubt, and prevented him from seeing what he ought to do and what he ought not. When he did not think, but simply lived, he was continually aware of the presence of an infallible judge in his soul, determining which of two possible courses of action was the better and which was the worse, and as soon as he did not act rightly, he was at once aware of it.

So he lived, not knowing and not seeing any chance of knowing what he was and what he was living for, and harassed at this lack of knowledge to such a point that he was afraid of suicide, and yet firmly laying down his own individual definite path in life.

Anna Karenina

How does one begin after such a long separation? Speak of the mundane, just to warm up? Jump right into the struggles and successes? Or is it distance that helps -- select the words of another and display those instead of one's own?

Returning, beginning, these have kept me distant. But as I find myself in moment after moment -- wondering what to make of this, how to understand that, why I can't articulate what I have inside of me -- I am driven to just sit and extract something meaningful, even if it's unsuccessful, even if it's a failure.

As I faced my students today -- we were speaking of egoism, something they always have much to say about -- I thought of Anna Karenina, not the character, but the book. It would be correct to say that I read Anna Karenina over the holidays, but it would be more correct to say that Anna Karenina infected me. Perhaps it was the time that had passed since I last read a novel of such delicate psychological investigation, but I was infected -- to every off-chance comment and glance I imparted nuance, deception and catastrophe. It was unbearable.

But when I finished that book I was overwhelmed by puzzlement -- why on earth is this book called 'Anna Karenina'? Her story is the tragedy, but I found it so devoid of any originality or interest -- she was beautiful and I loved her in the beginning (as I was meant to), but this was not the story that kept me reading -- Levin's story kept me reading. The story of success through learning, of mistakes and flaws, of stubbornness and idealism and eventual understanding. What is Anna's story? The trials of passion -- of loving too much or too recklessly? Is it just a cautionary tale? There is no doubt she felt deeply, that she was honest with herself, if not entirely honest with others. Hers is the story of beauty and tenderness, the story of one who feels and is yet trapped by so many inextricable threads that her feeling consumes her.

Levin is also trapped -- he feels constantly the bonds of custom and opinion, of what is expected and demanded of him. But he is a man and he can act as Anna cannot. Her story is the tragedy, his is not.

But as I stood in front of my students today, I wasn't thinking of tragedy, I was thinking of altruism, and I was thinking of Levin -- not of his discovery, the discovery which follows the passage above, but of a quarrel between he and his wife:

This first quarrel arose from Levin's having gone out to a new farmhouse and having been away half an hour too long, because he had tried to get home by a short cut and had lost his way. He drove home thinking of nothing but her, of her love, of his own happiness, and the nearer he drew to home, the warmer was his tenderness for her. He ran into the room with the same feeling, with an even stronger feeling than he had had when he reached the Shtcherbatskys' house to make his offer. And suddenly he was met by a lowering expression he had never seen in her. He would have kissed her; she pushed him away.

"What is it?"

"You've been enjoying yourself," she began, trying to be calm and spiteful. But as soon as she opened her mouth, a stream of reproach, of senseless jealousy, of all that had been torturing her during that half hour which she had spent sitting motionless at the window, burst from her. It was only then, for the first time, that he clearly understood what he had not understood when he led her out of the church after the wedding. He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began. He felt this from the agonizing sensation of division that he experienced at that instant. He was offended for the first instant, but the very same second he felt that he could not be offended by her, that she was himself. He felt for the first moment as a man feels when, having suddenly received a violent blow from behind, he turns round, angry and eager to avenge himself, to look for his antagonist, and finds that it is he himself who has accidentally struck himself, that there is no one to be angry with, and that he must put up with and try to soothe the pain.

Never afterwards did he feel it with such intensity, but this first time he could not for a long while get over it. His natural feeling urged him to defend himself, to prove to her she was wrong; but to prove her wrong would mean irritating her still more and making the rupture greater that was the cause of all his suffering. One habitual feeling impelled him to get rid of the blame and to pass it on to her. Another feeling, even stronger, impelled him as quickly as possible to smooth over the rupture without letting it grow greater. To remain under such undeserved reproach was wretched, but to make her suffer by justifying himself was worse still. Like a man half-awake in an agony of pain, he wanted to tear out, to fling away the aching place, and coming to his senses, he felt that the aching place was himself. He could do nothing but try to help the aching place to bear it, and this he tried to do.

I think about this quarrel often -- and not just when I'm standing in front of my students and simplifying for them that which can't be simplified.