Philosophy Through Literature: Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata”

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In 1887, Count Leo Tolstoy, in a concert at his country estate, heard Beethoven’s wild and sensual “Kreutzer Sonata”. Tolstoy biographer, Henri Troyat, writes: “Tolstoy listened with tears in his eyes; then, during the presto, unable to control himself, he rose and went to the window where, gazing at the starry sky, he stifled a sob. “

Tolstoy heard “The Kreutzer Sonata” again later, in Moscow, in the company of an actor and a painter and suggested to them that each create a work of art inspired by the sonata. Only Tolstoy did.

Tolstoy’s novella “The Kreutzer Sonata” is a powerful, distressing story. Its publication, at the beginning of the 1890s, was a significant intellectual event around the world. It set off an explosive debate in Europe, America, and Asia on matters that were then called the “sexual question” and the “woman problem.” Its provocative rejoinders to these debates stirred widespread condemnation from all sides, as well as fervent admiration. Moreover, almost everywhere (including the United States), The Kreutzer Sonata was censored or forbidden as “indecent literature.”

Studying a work of literature is somewhat of a departure from the usual analysis of arguments and ideas philosophy engages in. The world does not only give itself to us through argument. The complexities of the human condition are often shown to us through music, literature and visual arts. Through varied means of artistic expression they open themselves to both aesthetic and intellectual analysis.

Kreutzer Sonata is difficult. Not because Tolstoy is a difficult writer, he is one of the giants of world literature – reading him is a joy for anyone with “the palate” for literature. It is the story’s content with its enduring potential to puzzle, fascinate, disturb, anger and ultimately to show to us, through the unflinching honesty of a great artist, the complexities of relationships, sex, marriage in their cultural and religious contexts.

I recommend the Pevear&Volokhonsky translation –http://www.amazon.com/Death-Ilyich-Stories-Vintage-Classics/dp/0307388867/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1372614050&sr=1-1&keywords=death+of+ivan+ilyich+and+other+stories

Free e-texts can also be found on line. Here is one recommendation:

http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/tolstoy/kreutzer.pdf

For those who wish to try and experience the story in all its dimensions, including its inspiration, I strongly recommend listening to Beethoven’s sonata: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9YowLzeC0c before reading the novella.

Much has been written about Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” over the years. Many readings of it are possible, but two of them stand out as great examples of the modern take on it. Contemporary feminist writer, Andrea Dworkin, writes about it in “Intercourse” (1987) in the chapter titled “Repulsion” (graphic language warning).  It can be found here: http://www.feminish.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Intercourse-Andrea-Dworkin-pdf.pdf

While some may not fully agree with Dworkin’s reading of Tolstoy, her analysis is powerful , relevant and interesting.

Another literary critique of Tolstoy’s novella can be found in J.M. Coetzee’s “Doubling the Point” in the chapter titled “Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky (1985)”. It can be found here:http://mfs.uchicago.edu/public/institutes/2012/Disgrace/prereadings/Confession_And_Double_Thoughts.pdf (pages 193-205)

Epicureanism

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From Michael Palmer’s (“Looking at Philosophy”)

The philosophy of Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.) is known (not surprisingly) as Epicureanism. If today the term hints of gluttony, debauchery, and bacchanalian orgies, that is not Epicurus’s fault but the fault of some of his Roman interpreters. Epicurus himself led a life of sobriety and simplicity: eating bread, cheese, and olives; drinking a bit of wine; napping in his hammock; and enjoying conversation with his friends while strolling through his garden. He died with dignity and courage after a painful, protracted disease.

…Epicurus believed that the goal of life was happiness, [and] happiness he equated simply with pleasure. No act should be undertaken except for the pleasure in which it results, and no act should be rejected except for the pain that it produces. This belief provoked Epicurus to analyze the different kinds of pleasure. There are two kinds of desire, hence, two kinds of pleasure as a result of gratifying those desires: natural desire (which has two sub-classes) and vain desire:

I. Natural desire

A. Necessary (e.g., desire for food and sleep)

B. Unnecessary (e.g., desire for sex)

II. Vain desire (e.g., desire for decorative clothing or exotic food)

Natural necessary desires must be satisfied and are usually easy to satisfy. They result in a good deal of pleasure and in very few painful consequences. Vain desires do not need to be satisfied and are not easy to satisfy. Because there are no natural limits to them, they tend to become obsessive and lead to very painful consequences.

The desire for sex is natural but usually can be overcome; and when it can be, it should be, because satisfaction of the sexual drive gives intense pleasure, and all intense emotional states are dangerous. Also, the desire for sex puts people in relationships that are usually ultimately more painful than pleasant and that are often extremely painful.

One of the natural and necessary desires to which Epicurus pays a great deal of attention is the desire for repose. This term is to be understood both physically and psychically. The truly good person (i.e., the one who experiences the most pleasure) is the one who, having overcome all unnecessary desires, gratifies necessary desires in the most moderate way possible, leaves plenty of time for physical an mental repose, and is free from worry.

Notice that Epicurus’s definition of pleasure is negative; that is, pleasure is the absence of pain. It is this negative definition that prevents Epicurus from falling into a crass sensualism. The trouble with this definition is that, taken to its logical extremity, the absence of life is better than any life at all (a conclusion Freud also came to in his text Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he claimed that behind the “pleasure principle” is Thanatos, the death instinct).

This deduction is a bit ironic because Epicurus himself claimed that his philosophy dispelled the fear of death. Democritus’s atomism led Epicurus to believe that death was merely the absence of sensation and consciousness; therefore, there could be no sensation of consciousness of death to fear. “So long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.”

Some of Epicurus’s Roman followers interpreted “pleasure” quite differently, defining it as a positive titillation. It is because of these extremists that today Epicureanism is often associated with sensualistic hedonism. Sickly Epicurus, swinging in his hammock, would have disapproved. (Though not harshly. Polemics cause agitation, which is painful.)

Epicurus’s theory never constituted a major philosophical movement, but he had disciples in both Greece and Rome for a number of centuries. His most famous follower was the Roman Lucretius, who, in the first century B.C.E., wrote a long poem, On the Nature of Things, expounding the philosophy of his master. It is through Lucretius’s poem that many readers have been introduced to the thoughts of Epicurus.

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Enjoy this modern take on Epicurus:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=…