Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Case for Oblonsky

In this post, I will indiscriminately reveal plot points from Anna Karenina, so, consider yourself warned.

When I first read Anna Karenina, I identified strongly with Levin.  And in fact, as I am re-reading it, I am finding its depiction of Levin very comforting.  A man like Levin can find a lifelong partner.  Or at least, he could if he was a wealthy landowner in 19th-century Russia.  To be a Levin is not to be a perpetual loser in life, at least according to Tolstoy.  This is something that some men, men who have been sexually humiliated, need to hear.  Or at least want to hear.

This time around, I have also found new respect for Vronsky, who does not have Levin's intelligence but does have a powerful love for one woman he wants to build a life with.  In a lot of ways things are more difficult for Vronsky, but he does his best.  His heart is big (though, luckily, small enough to dodge a bullet).  To quote Elif Batuman's The Possessed:

My mother's theory was that the double plot in Anna Karenina represents the two kinds of men in the world: those who really like women, and those who don't.  Vronsky, a man who really liked women, overwhelmed Anna and was overwhelmed by her—but some part of him was never committed to her in the way that Levin, a man who essentially did not like women, was committed to Kitty.
"That kind of makes sense," I admitted.
"Is Tolstoy saying that it's better for women to be with men like Levin?  Kitty made the right choice, and Anna made the wrong choice, right?"
"I don't know," I said.  I really didn't know.

I am not entirely on board with this reading, because I think Vronsky really could commit to Anna. It is Oblonsky who seems to like women without being able to commit to them.

So what about Oblonsky? I find his way of life to be disgusting. His romantic relationships mean nothing to him, or rather, they mean everything to him but the women are interchangeable. He deceives and betrays his wife. He is superficially friendly, but he easily forgets his loyalties and simply adheres to whoever is nearby.

So what is the case for Oblonsky? The case is this: not everyone can be a Levin, and not all women want to be with a Levin (or a Vronsky). People get joy out of different things. Some women, given the choice between being appreciated for their physical beauty or their other attributes, will choose physical beauty. They want men who like women. They want to be loved for their womanness, the shape of their bodies, the sounds of their lovemaking. They want to drive men crazy. Nothing else turns them on nearly as much.

They need men who will love them in exactly the way they want to be loved. They need men who will be overwhelmed by their beauty, who will do anything to sleep with them but won't pester them with inconvenient feelings of attachment, devotion, commitment.A lot of LBJ's mistresses probably never had as much fun with any other man.

It is a terrible mistake to take a woman like that and pair her off with a Levin or a (late-stage) Vronsky. Some women need an Oblonsky, and some men need that kind of woman. To return to my earlier point, sexual humiliation is almost inevitable when you pair up a Levin with an Oblonsky-needing woman. (Of course, sexual humiliation can also result when a man is simply inferior to other men on most/all dimensions, so let's not flatter ourselves.) Note that there is another way to go: Karenin could simply look the other way while his wife gets her sexual fulfillment elsewhere (at one point Karenin actually considers this). I imagine our society may go in that direction, since a lot of women presumably want both economic security and sexual fulfillment. So there are gains from trade/specialization to be had. One man provides the stable household, the other man provides the sexual excitement. But I don't think we are quite there yet.

A society that adheres to the Levin model and proscribes Oblonsky's behavior is a society that will make itself miserable unless it maintains a large sphere of privacy and sanctions hypocrisy. And this is basically the society that Oblonsky lived in, and that we mostly live in today. The difference is that we no longer take quite so harsh a view of promiscuous, non-committed sex. But still, in the ordinary course we expect most people to pair off and form stable, monogamous relationships. And this is stifling to some people, and so they need to be able to hide their promiscuity and adultery from the rest of us. This is why Posner is perhaps wrong to view privacy mainly as a shield for wrongdoers. Privacy may be an accommodation between our public morals and our private need for sexual fulfillment.

And let's face it, for most of us sex is one of the most important parts of life, presumably for evolutionary reasons. It is the most powerful, pleasurable, vivid thing that most of us will ever do. It is tyrannical to deprive people of the full expression of this part of life. This is one reason that increasing tolerance for gay people is a huge step forward for civilization.

And so that is my defense of Oblonsky. In a society that frowned on his sexuality, he (somewhat) discreetly built a good life for himself, and made a lot of women happy along the way. Better to be open about it, but that was not an option for him. If we openly tolerated Oblonsky's behavior, there would be a lot fewer miserable Levins and unsatisfied women in the world.


Blogger Sarang said...

I read the book too long ago (must have been 16 or 18?) to have anything useful to say about this, but I remember that I found Levin a remarkably unpleasant/unsympathetic character at the time. But perhaps this was because of his tedious opinions on morality more than anything else. Oblonsky was feckless in the manner of a Chekhov character and therefore likable. I vaguely suspect that this would stay true upon rereading.

4:36 PM  
Blogger James said...

This sheds new light on your recent insistence that I am very much a Levin. But I think you might be more sympathetic to him if you read the book now, he is earnest and awkward but not, I think, fundamentally unlikable.

4:52 PM  
Blogger James said...

But I would say that, wouldn't I? There's something plaintive about this claim.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Is the Levin thing a joke I'm missing or did I actually accuse you of being Levin-like? (All such accusations are naturally polemical.)

5:11 PM  
Blogger James said...

No, when you were in NYC (and very drunk) we discussed which character I am. I tried for Vronsky and got shot down, and then I tried for Karenin. You insisted I am Levin. At the time I took it as a compliment. I'm still not really offended, I admire Levin a lot.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Yes that is the sort of thing I would say when plastered. I assume it was largely belligerence, but of course Vronsky does seem wrong and Karenin is too old. (It might also have been the only name I could really remember. I was briefly obsessed w/ the Q. of why the man had been given an apparently v. Jewish name.)

5:45 PM  
Blogger James said...

I believe in early manuscripts he was called Lenin!

Karenin is old, but he is also boring and pedantic, and women find him disgusting.

I think I agree (somewhat) with the point that I anticipate you will make, which is that you shouldn't conceive of morality narrowly so as to exclude charm, wit, etc. So to describe Levin as an especially moral person is not quite right. He exhibits a boring, plodding kind of morality.

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