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)

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Philosophy in Fiction

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“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story written by Ursula Le Guin. The story won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1974. It is a haunting philosophical parable with themes of happiness and sacrifice, which asks the reader to fully engage with difficult questions of ethics and morality.

The story’s last sentence would mark an excellent starting point for any philosophical discussion of ethics:

“But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

The full text of the story is available here:

http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dunnweb/rprnts.omelas.pdf