Saturday, October 13, 2012

love? + a woman without honor

My mother's favorite book is Anna Karenina. Alas, when it comes to the Russian classics, I prefer The Brothers Karamazov. This having been noted, a beautiful adaptation of Anna Karenina is coming to the silver screen and it is starring Kiera Knightley.

Kiera makes a beautiful Anna. But oddly, I was struck by Jude Law's Karenin. "You are depraved," he states, with utter finality. "A woman without honor. And this is what you want. Do you know what you want?" Somehow, the searing passion with which he imbues his words made it feel as though he spoke to me.

When I was younger, of course I loved the doomed Anna and her tragic love story. But now that I am older, I find myself fascinated by Karenin. What, after all, does Karenin want? He wants a woman who at least behaves with propriety. And indeed, in his own way, he does love her. There's a lovely passage where Karenin realizes this.
She looked at him so simply, so brightly, that anyone who did not know her as her husband knew her could not have noticed anything unnatural, either in the sound or the sense of her words. But to him, knowing her, knowing that whenever he went to bed five minutes later than usual, she noticed it, and asked him the reason; to him, knowing that every joy, every pleasure and pain that she felt she communicated to him at once; to him, now to see that she did not care to notice his state of mind, that she did not care to say a word about herself, meant a great deal. He saw that the inmost recesses of her soul, that had always hitherto lain open before him, were closed against him. More than that, he saw from her tone that she was not even perturbed at that, but as it were said straight out to him: "Yes, it's shut up, and so it must be, and will be in future." Now he experienced a feeling such as a man might have, returning home and finding his own house locked up. "But perhaps the key may yet be found," thought Alexey Alexandrovitch.
When one first reads this passage, it appears that Karenin is only upset because that which was open to him is now shut. How dare she take what is mine- that is one interpretation. But the second, simpler, gentler explanation is simply that he feels the pang of loss. She was beautiful, she lay her ideas, heart and soul before me- and now she is hidden from me. She has turned from me, and now I know what I have lost- I wish to find the key to her, to open her again.

The tagline on the Anna Karenina film posters currently reads "You Can't Ask Why About Love." Now, I am aware this is merely a tagline, there to sell tickets, but I was thinking about it and realized that I completely disagree with it. Not only can one ask why about love; one must ask why about love. What if I love the one who harms me? What if my love destroys a marriage? What if my love breaks apart a family? Is all that worth it, simply because I love?

American television says yes. American television says that one need not think about the ethics, morals or other concerns associated with a person, only with one's feelings for that person. So it's okay to love people of the same gender, okay to love murderers (see all the vampire storylines on TV, especially the one featuring Elena/ Damon/ Stefan), okay to love someone else while you are married (see adultery made exciting in the Addison/Mark relationship), okay to be stringing two people along and so on. All of this is okay because of that magic word: Love.

The assumption is that one has no control whatsoever. First, I cannot control my feelings, and second, I cannot control my actions. I can only act on my passions. Of course, Judaism denies this idea wholeheartedly. Regardless of one's feelings, one's actions are always within one's control. It's not only about me, about what makes me happiest. It is also about God. It is also about other people. It is about being noble in love, honorable in love, not only in loving.

Before Anna kills herself, her thoughts are spiraling madly within her. First, she realizes that Vronsky has grown bored with her, that indeed, his only love for her existed when she could serve as a conquest for him and flatter his vanity. Then she realizes that since their love has grown cold, he has begun to hate her. He will only act kindly to her out of a sense of duty- and she cannot bear that. Her love, at the end, is entirely selfish and entirely self-centered. Indeed, when thinking about her son, she says, "I thought, too, that I loved him, and used to be touched by my own tenderness. But I have lived without him, I gave him up for another love, and did not regret the exchange till that love was satisfied."

Indeed, when she conceives of her death, it is still about her and her power over others. "I will punish him and escape from everyone and from myself," she declares. Even her death must be about her impact- it must punish Vronsky and allow her an escape.

So is any of this love? Love as I have learned to conceive of it is a joyous, glorious act, one that empowers the lovers. The two grow together in healthy fashion, like a plant that flowers and gives forth seed. Love is open; it is nurturing; it need not be hidden. Love is not stealthy, a thief in the night, but rather a beacon, shining out from the lighthouse. What Anna experiences is pleasurable, is deep, and wildly excites her emotions, but it is passion, it is desire, it is lust- it is not love. Love occurs when the brain is complicit; Anna's actions and motives take place in her heart alone.

I think it is hard to love truly today. Our literature, magazines and films do not support this kind of love. Love if I were to learn about it from what is portrayed on TV, has everything to do with sex and wildly sparking feelings. Love and stability do not go together except in very rare occurrences, like the marriage of Coach Eric Taylor and Tami Taylor in "Friday  Night Lights." And so the words of Erich Fromm resonate once more in my mind:
In our society, emotions in general are discouraged. While there can be no doubt that any creative thinking—as well as any other creative activity—is inseparably linked with emotion, it has become an ideal to think and to live without emotions. To be “emotional” has become synonymous with being unsound or unbalanced. By the acceptance of this standard the individual has become greatly weakened; his thinking is impoverished and flattened. On the other hand, since emotions cannot be completely killed, they must have their essence totally apart from the intellectual side of the personality; the result is the cheap and insincere sentimentality with which movies and popular songs feed millions of emotion- starved customers. 
~Escape from Freedom, page 270
Sentimentality we have in rich, however, has been maligned. She has been slandered and driven out, dressed in rags and replaced with soma-pumped mimicry. With such love, of course one cannot ask would be to discover the deceit, and we must support the cheat at all costs.


Anonymous said...

"And death, as the sole means of reviving love for herself in his heart, of punishing him, and of gaining the victory in that contest which an evil spirit in her heart was waging against him, presented itself clearly and vividly to her..."
~Anna Karenina/L.Tolstoy

Well done, my dear.


Anonymous said...

What does living with emotions mean to you in light of Fromm's words?

ATF said...

Great post!

Especially pertinent given this past week's parsha (see R' Ari Kahn's first essay in Echoes of Eden).

Cheryl said...

Hi, I'm new to your blog and am really enjoying it. I am interested in your point of view, and especially interested in learning how Jewish spirituality informs your views.
I have just started blogging and am interested in learning more about the Jewish faith. My blog explores personal spirituality (in addition to general posts), but is based in Catholicism, my birth religion.
I'll be sure to follow you- please stop by I'd love to hear what you have to say!

the gelt said...

amen v'amen. while i disagree with the claim that people of the same gender cannot engage in healthy, spiritual, joyous love - i do agree that american society focuses on infatuation, and calls it love. yasher koach.