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Monday, May 30, 2011

Unhappy Families

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

The above quote is the famous opening line of Anna Karenina.  Let's look at the unhappy families in the novel's first section:

*The Oblonsky household has been upset by Stepan's affair with the children's former French governess.  Stepan himself no longer finds his wife attractive, for which reason he cheated on her.  He and his wife Dolly do not speak for several days.  Anna Karenina arrives from St. Petersberg at her brother Stepan's request and helps the couple reconcile to a point.

*Konstantin Levin is a rich landowner that lives in the country who has come to Moscow to declare his love for Kitty, the sister-in-law of Stepan.  Levin proposes to Kitty but she rejects him, having set her eyes on Vronsky, a wealthy military officer, who shows a definite interest in her.  Kitty is later heart-broken when Vronsky shows his preference for the married Anna Karenina.  Levin has a brother Nikolai who is a poor, quarrelsome alcoholic whom he has not seen in three years, and a half-brother Sergei whose philosophical way of speaking confuses Levin.

*Alexei and Anna Karenin are a married couple that lives in St. Petersberg and are well-connected within that society.  Nevertheless, Anna's trip to Moscow and her meeting of Vronsky excites her passionate side and prompts her to reject her husband's cold nature.  Her only regret is the effect her affair will have on her eight year old son. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Nabokov on Anna Karenina

In the Street (1880) by George Clausen
According to Nabokov*, Anna is "fundamentally good" but "fundamentally doomed."  Essentially she is a moral adultress, an oxymoronic characterization that allows one to distinguish her from Emma Bovary.  The latter is morally depraved and self-centered while Anna can no longer put up with her husband and refuses to live a lie.  Hers is a principled unfaithfulness to man whose main concern is the perception of their relationship within his society.  Anna and Emma meet similar fates though for different reasons that will be discussed later.

*In Lectures on Russian Literature (1981).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born in Yasnaya Polyana, located in western Russia, to a family of Russian nobles.  His mother inherited an estate that employed 800 serfs.  Tolstoy was a Count by birth, an honor bestowed on his ancestors by Peter the Great.  Losing both parents while still young, Tolstoy received instruction from his deeply religious aunt who had a profound effect on him.  Due to a dissatisfaction with the teaching style, Tolstoy removed himself from the university and returned to the family estate.  He developed a severe gambling habit that nearly ruined him several times.  He joined Russian army in the 1850s, much like his father who had fought during the French invasion of Russia.  His participation in the Crimean War led to the work Sevastopol Sketches, which describes the horrors Tolstoy witnessed during the siege of the title city. 

After the success of this work, Tolstoy continued to write, eventually publishing his masterpiece War and Peace (1869), which provided a panoramic view of Napoleonic Russia.  Starting in the 1880s, Tolstoy began to shift from novels to philosophical and religious works, such as A Confession and What I Believe.  His What is Art details the significance of art and its influence on the actions of others.  His religious transformation, which caused him to be excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, developed from a re-reading of the biblical Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  From this passage, Tolstoy established a foundation of five principles of behavior that served as the basis of his transformation:  renounce anger, take no oaths, give no resistance to evil, engage in no extra-marital sex, and love one's enemies.  As a result, he adopted principles of Christian anarchism and pacificism, which caused him to influence Gandhi.

Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina after War and Peace proved high successful but still called the former his first true novel.  In the novel he investigates the human conscience in the face of temptation.  The opening line is famous, the storyline epic, and the fate of the title character tragic.

Source:  Leo Tolstoy (1986) by William Rowe

Monday, May 23, 2011

Victoria Day 2011

Victoria Day is a Canadian national holiday observed to honor the namesake 19th century British monarch.  Though her actual birthday is May 24th, the holiday occurs on the Monday that immediately precedes the 25th.  The former Queen's birthday was declared a holiday in Canada in 1845 and has been celebrated consistently since then.  The holiday is used to mark the beginning of summer for Canadians.  Below are some articles describing the holiday.

Victoria Day is of special significance to Prince Edward Island

Fireworks in Toronto to celebrate Victoria Day

British Columbia parade features over 2,000 Americans

Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg on hold due to Victoria Day

Friday, May 20, 2011

Aurora's Light

Sunday Morning (1871) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
In the final book of Aurora Leigh, Browning establishes a seemingly contradictory contrast between light and dark to characterize the changing relationship between the titular heroine and her cousin Romney.  As in Book I, the two cousins meet and discuss their philosophical approaches to life.  However, their views have changed significantly since that meeting years ago.  Aurora recalls that their first meeting occurred during the morning while they now meet at night:

I said,–'I'm thinking of a far-off June,
When you and I, upon my birthday once,
Discoursed of life and art, with both untried.
I'm thinking, Romney, how 'twas morning then,
And now 'tis night' (VIII, 301-5).

Despite the apparent lack of light, Romney can "see" better now, particularly with respect to Aurora's ability as a poet, than he could before:

'Can I understand?'
I broke in. 'You speak wildly, Romney Leigh,
Or I hear wildly. In that morning-time
We recollect, the roses were too red,
The trees too green, reproach too natural
If one should see not what the other saw:
And now, it's night, remember; we have shades
In place of colours; we are now grown cold,
And old, my cousin Romney. Pardon me,–
I'm very happy that you like my book (VIII, 337-46).

Aurora points out the natural contradiction in such an epiphanic occurrence.  Although surrounded by brightness, Romney remained in the dark.  He contributed the inability to see to geographical location:  "This night is softer than an English day" (VIII, 355).  Romney believes that Italy is more conducive to true vision than England, an idea with which Aurora may agree, considering her writings improved upon her return.  Furthermore, Romney praises the night during which the revelation has come:

"But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,–
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason's self
Enlarges rapture" (IX, 814-8).

Romney connects the night with love and declares his love for Aurora.  He wants the symbolically-named heroine to be his light, calling her "dearest light of souls/Which rul'st for evermore both day and night" (831-2).  The ironic part of this eye opening experience is that Romney has been blinded by a falling beam that struck him when his home was set afire.  Though he cannot distinguish light from dark, he wishes to have Aurora as the most valuable light in his life.  In the earlier meeting, they could not see eye-to-eye on the role of women and poets, and now, though they have come to an agreement on that issue, they literally cannot see eye-to-eye due to Romney's blindness.  Considering such, Romney wants Aurora to be his physical as well as philosophical guide in life.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Romney's Reformation

As Cold Water is to a Thirty Soul, So is Good News From a Far Country (1864) by George Smith
Romney reappears in Book VIII and visits Aurora in Italy.  He, like Carrington, has read Aurora's most recent book and loved it, to the point that it has become a part of him.  He compliments the work, saying "it draws me up" (285).  He particularly appreciates the truth that Aurora presents on the twofold world, made up of the natural and spiritual.  Romney uses Aurora's book to improve his work,which he says has failed.  Romney now recognizes that one must deal with the spiritual as well as the natural in order to bring about change. 

Romney's work has failed because he arrogantly assumed that he could solve all the world's problems and did not acknowledge God's role in his plans.  Romney drew men to himself and tried to be everything to them.  His thinking was that he alone was all that was needed to better society.  God remained in the  background, Romney seeing himself and not God as omnipotent.

To think,–I have a pattern on my nail,
And I will carve the world new after it,
And solve so, these hard social questions,–nay,
Impossible social questions,–since their roots
Strike deep in Evil's own existence here,
Which God permits because the question's hard
To abolish evil nor attaint free-will.
Ay, hard to God, but not to Romney Leigh!

Romney saw himself as capable of providing an answer, despite his lack of faith in God's ability to do so.

Nevertheless, Aurora's book helped Romney see that despite all his natural efforts, he neglected the spiritual side of those he tried to help.  He not only tried to be their God by also he ignores the needs of their souls.  As Aurora points out:

'Tis impossible
To get at men excepting through their souls,
However open their carnivorous jaws;
And poets get directlier at the soul,
Than any of your economists:–for which,
You must not overlook the poet's work
When scheming for the world's necessities.
The soul's the way. Not even Christ himself
Can save man else than as He hold man's soul (537-45).

Romney thought he could help man most by providing a natural cure, Aurora helps him see that the spiritual cure is foremost.  One must follow the example of Christ in one's work for men.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Aurora's Truth

On the Conway, North Wales (1897) by William Mellor
In Book VII Carrington writes to Aurora and praises her most recent book.  Aurora herself is pleased with the book, acknowledging that the work contains an element of truth of which she is proud and which represents a transformation in her thinking.  She recognizes that in a perfect cosmos the world is twofold, having natural and spiritual components.  Man, likewise twofold in nature, must tap into both components in order to develop true vision.  Aurora says that man

"fixes still
The type with mortal vision, to pierce through,
With eyes immortal, to the antetype
Some call the ideal,–better called the real" (780-3).

When man uses both the natural and spiritual in his observation of the world, he will begin to see deeper.  This "immortal vision" is especially important to the artist, whose art is incomplete without twofold vision.  With such vision an artist can feel at one with nature:

Ay, Carrington
Is glad of such a creed! an artist must,
Who paints a tree, a leaf, a common stone
With just his hand, and finds it suddenly
A-piece with and conterminous to his soul (794-8).

A twofold artist can look at inanimate objects ("cup column or candlestick," 805) and see a twofold nature:  "Nothing in the world comes single to him," (804).  Furthermore, a twofold artist can recognize the significance of everything in nature.

'There's nothing great
Nor small,' has said a poet of our day,
(Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve
And not be thrown out by the matin's bell)
And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing's small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim:
And,–glancing on my own thin, veined wrist,–
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct (809-21).

Everything, great and small, has significance and deserve acknowledgement.  Artists can open the eyes of the public with their works and help other see what they, by their twofold nature, have seen.  Ultimately, the goal of art is to change the world by opening eyes.

Thus is Art
Self-magnified in magnifying a truth
Which, fully recognized, would change the world
And shift its morals. If a man could feel,
Not one day, in the artist's ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working-day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyphic of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man,–
Which now he counts so vile (854-65).

An artist's greatest achievement is the betterment of mankind.  Aurora believes artists should lead the way and help mankind open its spiritual eyes to see nature's secrets.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Living Dead

Mother and Child (1905) by Mary Cassatt
When Marian tells her story to Aurora, she describes an episode in which she is seduced and impregnated by a stranger.  The harrowing experience crushes Marian to the point of an emotional death, with her declaring repeatedly, "I am dead."  Nevertheless, her baby joy and gives her life.  Marian views her blessing of motherhood as evidence that God still looks on her favorable.

For Aurora, the experience was an deathly encounter.  She describes herself feeling as if she had been beaten down and left in a ditch, "half dead, whole mangled" (Book VI, 678).  Though still alive in the flesh, her spirit had been killed:  "I was not ever as you say, seduced/But simply murdered" (770-1).  Once saved from a hopeless situation by Romney, Marian was preparing to be elevated as his wife until Lady Waldemar encouraged Marian to break off the match.  Marian traveled to France, once again in a depressed state after her money is taken by Waldemar's former maid, only to be depressed further when she is raped.  She describes it as a "griping death within the drowning death" (1117),, a horrifying experience in which she feels seized choked and left for dead.  Marian does not fight death, feeling she has nothing to live for.  Aurora herself sees death upon her, "a dead face, known once alive" (239).  Her experience is visible to others.

The experience causes Marian's attitude to grow to a callousness in her soul.  She becomes an unfeeling person, stating:  "For though you ran a pin into my soul,/I think it would not hurt nor trouble me" (830-1).  Her human sensibilities have numbed, and she cannot be pricked to life.  Her soul, her emotional side, no longer responds to any form of stimulation.  Browning further illustrates her detachment by having her speak in third person.  Referring to Romney she says:

He's sad, I think you said,–he's sick perhaps?
It's nought to Marian if he's sad or sick.
Another would have crawled beside your foot
And prayed your words out. Why, a beast, a dog,
A starved cat, if he had fed it once with milk,
Would show less hardness. But I'm dead, you see,
And that explains it (843-9).

Marian feels no connection to her past, even to the man to whom she was once engaged.  She places herself below beasts emotionally.

Nevertheless, her child gives Marian a reason to live.  Though she feels dead, her life has been given to her son, a vivacious child:

The yearling creature, warm and moist with life
To the bottom of his dimples,–to the ends
Of the lovely tumbled curls about his face;
For since he had been covered over-much
To keep him from the light glare, both his cheeks
Were hot and scarlet as the first live rose
The shepherd's heart blood ebbed away into,
The faster for his love (567-74).

The baby is full of life and provokes Marian's motherly instinct to action.

And if, to save the child from death as well,
The mother in me has survived the rest,
Why, that's God's miracle you must not tax,–
I'm not less dead for that: I'm nothing more
But just a mother. Only for the child,
I'm warm, and cold, and hungry, and afraid,
And smell the flowers a little, and see the sun,
And speak still, and am silent,–just for him! (820-7).

Marian lives only for the child and sees the opportunity as one from God.  Marian cannot give up with this added responsibility, one she readily accepts as God-given.  Marian recognizes that "God knows me, trusts me with the child" (741).  Marian's faith in the ultimate life-giving force convinces her that she can persevere and accept the blessing she has received.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Poet and Philanthropist

The Library of Benjamin Godfrey Windus at Tottenham (1835) by John Scarlett Davis
In the beginning of Book VI Aurora begins to reflect favorably on the work that Romney performs.  As she points out the weaknesses of her art, which are the strengths of Romney's trade, Aurora concedes that Romney's work is honorable and worthy of her.  Though she does not advocate Romney's extreme actions, she grows closer to the philosophy of Romney.  She agrees with his earlier assessment that poets as lovers of beauty, avoid and ignore the ugly things in life, which she calls "common, ugly, human dust" (163).  Art is the portrayal of not just the beautiful but also life, which ultimately includes the beautiful as well as the ugly.  In order to reach her full potential as an artist, Aurora recognizes that she can no longer block from her vision the disagreeable, instead committing "to look into the swarthiest face things" (148).  Nature will not offer "her larger sense of beauty and desire" if Aurora ignores the ugly.  Aurora then concludes that

the poet and philanthropist
(Even I and Romney) may stand side by side,
Because we both stand face to face with men
Contemplating the people in the rough,–
Yet each so follow a vocation,–his
And mine (199-204).

She not only adopts some of Romney's views but also gives her first favorable view of a match with Romney [she slips up in Book VII and call Romney "the man I love" before correcting herself with "the friend I love (Book VII, 173-4)].  Browning constructs a pathway in which Romney and Aurora could work together, possibly as husband and wife) without either having to forsake his vocation.  Aurora sees that the poet and philanthropist have similar goals.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Love in Art

An Offer of Marriage (1883) by Marcus Stone
In Book V, Aurora continues to struggle to reach her potential in her art.

   And I am sad:
I cannot thoroughly love a work of mine,
Since none seems worthy of my thought and hope
More highly mated (410-3).

Her lack of love for her work is a direct result of the lack of love she receives in her daily life.  Aurora is a loner, living with no one and rarely going out in public.  She has no love in her life, whether of a platonic or romantic nature.  Both of her parents are dead and only Romney has expressed a romantic interest in her, though only half-heartedly.  Her main interaction with others is through correspondence relating to her work.  She has come to realize that fame for her writings is no substitute for a true sense of love from a close companion.  Aurora concludes that her art suffers due to the lack of love in her life.

Aurora illustrates that the absence of love has a negative effect on her ability to produce great works.  She uses the example of Pygmalion to show that love can help one persevere through the difficult moments in the completion of one's work.

   I am sad:
I wonder if Pygmalion had these doubts,
And, feeling the hard marble first relent,
Grow supple to the straining of his arms,
And tingle through its cold to his burning lip,
Supposed his senses mocked, and that the toil
Of stretching past the known and seen, to reach
The archetypal Beauty out of sight,
Had made his heart beat fast enough for two,
And with his own life dazed and blinded him!
Not so; Pygmalion loved,–and whoso loves
Believes the impossible (399-410).

Pygmalion had to deal with discouraging situations but had love to help him see the culmination of a masterpiece.  Love strengthens the faith and resolve of the artist.  Aurora, however, has no remedy to help her overcome any impasse she faces.  She uses the examples of Graham and Mark Gage (505-39) to demonstrate how vital a loving support system to the artist.  Graham has a loving wife who, though she exhibits no artistic talent herself, praises every aspect of her husband's character.  Mark Gage has loving parents, in particular a mother who encourages him in his art.  Aurora makes a case that without love one's best work cannot be displayed, which is why she judges her own works harshly despite praise from readers.  Being motherless, she calls Italy her mother and hopes to attain her highest abilities by returning to this motherland:

And now I come, my Italy,
My own hills! are you 'ware of me, my hills,
How I burn toward you? do you feel to-night
The urgency and yearning of my soul,
As sleeping mothers feel the sucking babe
And smile? (1266-71).

Aurora hopes Italy can nuture and perfect her gift.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Living Art

Girl with Rose Basket by George Bullied (1858-1933)
     Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon a burning lava of a song,
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
'Behold,–behold the paps we all have sucked!
That bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating. This is living art,
Which thus presents, and thus records true life' (213-22).

Aurora sees poets as the prophets of their generation (699-700).  As such, a poet's work should represent their age and not one of the past, as a poet cannot live off second hand information.  They must be the primary source of reference, depending on their own observations.

Furthermore, poets have a responsibility to posterity, though specifically to the next age.  As mentioned in the passage above, the present is a "double-breasted Age" and the job of poets is to mother and nurture the following generation.  This goal results in the production of "living art," the gift of life given to the successive era.  Living art presents true life, but it also gives life while awakening and encouraging the poetic gift in others.


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