Pur Autre Vie

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

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Tolstoy Then and Now

From Anna Karenina (a discussion on women's rights):

'You said "rights",' said Sergei Ivanovich, who had been waiting for Pestsov to stop talking, 'meaning the rights to take on the jobs of jurors, the rights of board directors, the rights of civil servants, members of parliament . . .'
'But if a woman can, as a rare exception, occupy those positions, it seems to me that you have used the term "rights" incorrectly.  It would be more correct to say "obligations."  Everyone will agree that in doing the job of a juror, a councillor, a telegraph clerk, we feel that we are fulfilling an obligation.  And therefore it would be more correct to say that women are seeking obligations, and quite legitimately.  And one can only sympathize with this desire of theirs to help in men's common task.'
'Perfectly true,' Alexei Alexandrovich agreed.  'The question, I suppose, consists only in whether they are capable of such obligations.'
'They'll most likely be very capable,' Stepan Arkadyich put in, 'once education spreads among them.  We can see that . . .'
'Remember the proverb?' said the old prince, who had long been listening to the conversation, his mocking little eyes twinkling.  'I can say it in front of my daughters:  long [on] hair, short [on brains] . . .'
'Exactly the same was thought of the negroes before the emancipation!' Pestsov said angrily.
'I merely find it strange that women should seek new obligations,' said Sergei Ivanovich, 'while unfortunately, as we see, men usually avoid them.'
'Obligations are coupled with rights.  Power, money, honours—that's what women are seeking,' said Pestsov.
So, a few notes.  This was written in the 1870s and yet the discussion seems almost modern.  I have no idea what Tolstoy actually thought about the question (he goes on to have the old prince suggest that if women are allowed to work, men should be allowed to nurse babies—a joke that Monty Python replicated in Life of Brian).  But it's hard to imagine that Tolstoy didn't put him there as a stand-in for his own views.  (Levin initially disagrees with Pestsov but changes his mind under the influence of Kitty.)

But of course, there is Pestsov's troubling use of "negroes" instead of a more respectful term like "African-Americans."  By putting such virulent language in the mouth of Pestsov, Tolstoy may have been pointing to the patronizing racism that underlies liberalism.  "Sure, we may associate ourselves with the struggle for black people's rights," liberals say, "but we will still call them ugly names."  And in this, Tolstoy presciently anticipated American liberals like LBJ.


Blogger Elisa said...

Long hair, short brains! Someone quoted that adage to me when I blogged about men liking long hair a ways back. Incidentally, I just cut like 6 inches off my hair, so I guess I'll be smart and unattractive for a while.

Howards Ends also has some great discussions of women's rights that feel very contemporary.

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