Monday, April 28, 2008

Tolstoy IV: The Hunt

I’ve written previously about Tolstoy’s attentiveness and sympathy with regard not just to his characters but to animals as well. There’s a remarkable passage in the second half of the book where he actually works his way directly into the mind of an animal. Levin has been out hunting snipe with two visitors, and in his self-consciousness has had a terrible day. He misses his first shots and that sets the pattern:

It always happened with Levin that when his first shots were unsuccessful, he would become angry, vexed, and shoot badly all day. That was happening now. There were a great many snipe. Snipe kept flying up from under the dog, from under the hunters’ feet, and Levin might have recovered; but the more shots he fired, the more he disgraced himself in front of Veslovsky, who merrily banged away, in and out of range, hit nothing, and was not the least embarrassed by it. Levin rushed, could not control himself, became more and more feverish and finally reached the point of shooting almost without hope of hitting anything. Even [his dog] Laska seemed to understand it. She began searching more lazily and glanced back at the hunters as if in perplexity or reproach. (583)

At the end of the day’s hunting, Levin returns with his friends, one of whom, his brother-in-law Oblonsky, has bagged 14 birds to Levin’s 5, which fills Levin with frustration and regret; there has been a friendly rivalry between them that has been threatening to turn nasty. The next morning gets up early and goes out to the marsh on his own, with Laska. There follows an extended passage in which Tolstoy begins by describing the details of the hunt objectively in the third person, but then works his way ever-so-deliberately down into and inside of the consciousness of Laska herself:

Not feeling her legs under her, moving at a tense gallop so that she could stop at each leap if necessary, Laska ran to the right, away from the morning breeze blowing from the east, and then turned upwind. Breathing in the air with flared nostrils, she sensed at once that there were not only tracks but that they themselves were there, but precisely where she was unable to tell. She had already begun a circle to find the place when her master’s voice suddenly distracted her. ‘Here, Laska!” he said, pointing in a different direction. She paused briefly, as if to ask if it would not be better to finish what she had begun. But he repeated the order in an angry voice, pointing to a water-flooded hummocky spot where there could not be anything. She obeyed him, pretending to search in order to give him pleasure, ran all over the hummocks and then back to the former place, and immediately sensed them again. Now, when he was not hindering her, she knew what to do, and, not looking where she put her feet, stumbling in vexation over high hummocks and getting into the water, but managing with her strong, supple legs, she began the circle that would make everything clear to her. Their smell struck her more and more strongly, more and more distinctly, and suddenly it became perfectly clear to her that one of them was there, behind that hummock, five steps away from her. On her short legs she could see nothing ahead of her, but she knew from the smell that it was sitting no more than five steps away. Her tense tail was extended and only its very tip twitched. Her mouth was slightly open, her ears pricked up a little. One ear had got folded back as she ran, and she was breathing heavily but cautiously, and still more cautiously she turned more with her eyes than her head to look at her master. He, with his usual face but with his ever terrible eyes, was coming, stumbling over the hummocks, and extremely slowly as it seemed to her. (593)

Soon, the interaction between them has devolved into a sort of comic dialogue:

‘Flush it, flush it,’ cried Levin, nudging Laska from behind.

‘But I can’t flush anything,’ thought Laska. ‘Where will I flush it from? I can sense them from here, but if I move forward, I won’t be able to tell where they are or what they are.’ Yet here he was nudging her with his knee and saying in an excited whisper, ‘Flush it, Lasochka, flush it!’

‘Well, if that’s what he wants, I’ll do it, but I can’t answer for myself any more,” she thought and tore forward at full speed between the hummocks. She no longer smelled anything, but only saw and heard, without understanding anything.

Ten steps from the former place, with a thick creech and the swelling noise of wings peculiar to its kind, a single great snipe flew up. And following a shot it plopped down heavily, its white breast against the wet bog. (594)

The episode ends with the Levin, his confidence and equanimity newly restored, walking homeward in a world transformed in his consciousness:

By the time Levin reloaded his gun and started off again, the sun, though still invisible behind the clouds, was already up. The crescent moon, having lost all its brilliance, showed white like a cloud in the sky; there was no longer a single star to be seen. The marshy patches, silvery with dew earlier, now became golden. The rustiness turned to amber. The blue of the grass changed to yellowish green. Little marsh birds pottered by the brook, in bushes glistening with dew and casting long shadows. A hawk woke up and sat on a haystack, turning its head from side to side, looking with displeasure at the marsh. Jackdaws flew into the fields, and a barefoot boy was already driving the horses towards an old man, who had got up from under his caftan and was scratching himself. Smoke from the shooting, like milk, spread white over the green grass. (594-5)

Again, what I find myself admiring in this episode, and in this last passage in particular, is the craft: the extraordinary precision with which Tolstoy renders the physical sequence of events of the hunt, even what’s going on in the mind of the dog. Then at the end he makes the description of the landscape the perfect mirror of Levin’s endorphin-drenched consciousness (“The marshy patches, silvery with dew earlier, now became golden. The rustiness turned to amber.”) culminating with an image harmonizing even the shotgun smoke with the morning landscape: “Smoke from the shooting, like milk, spread white over the green grass.”

Great stuff.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


As a sort of companion piece to the Doug Fine video I posted yesterday, here's the lead paragraph to Wendell Berry's characteristically eloquent essay "Faustian Economics," featured in the May 2008 Harper's:

The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily foreseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay, so far, have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such "biofuels" as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that "science will find an answer." The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves.

The buzzword in the world press over the last several weeks has been the "silent tsunami." In the May 2 issue of The Week magazine there is an article on the global food crisis that points out that the prices of corn, wheat, and rice are at record levels, and that one of the contributing factors is the the increasing demand for biofuels: "The U.S. produces 40 percent of the global corn crop, but about one in five ears is now used to make ethanol. Record oil prices have also boosted food costs, since so much food is now shipped long distances, via trucks, ships, and airplanes." That, combined with exponential growth in demand for food and consumer goods in China in India, is leading us into a world in which "food will become an increasingly precious commodity, with food riots, massive starvation, and even wars spreading across the globe."

As a resident of Hawaii, I'm more than a little concerned about where we are going with all of this. Something like 90% of our food from elsewhere. More than 90% of our electrical energy is generated from fossil fuels. The largest part of our economy is based on tourism. And the only way to get to or from these islands is by boat or by plane. And yet there is next to no serious dialogue in the state — in the papers or in the legislature or anywhere else that I can see — about limiting growth, or about adjusting expectations or even about doing something as simple as making bike travel — surely a no-brainer on an island the size of Oahu — safer and easier. None of our leadership, least of all our governor, seems to be taking an interest. And meanwhile, back on the mainland, our would-be presidential candidates are being asked about why they aren't wearing American flag pins. Hello? Hello?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Farewell, My Subaru

Wes Fryer has a post today that features the following YouTube video about Doug Fine and his attempt to live off the grid. Pretty informative and entertaining. Jason, you're gonna like this.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Tolstoy III: Invisible Larks

Spring was a long time unfolding. During the last weeks of Lent the weather was clear and frosty. In the daytime it thawed in the sun, but at night it went down to seven below; there was such a crust that carts could go over it where there was no road. There was still snow at Easter. Then suddenly, on Easter Monday, a warm wind began to blow, dark clouds gathered, and for three days and three nights warm, heavy rain poured down. On Thursday the wind dropped, and a thick grey mist gathered, as if concealing the mysteries of the changes taking place in nature. Under the mists the water flowed, ice blocks cracked and moved off, the muddy, foaming streams ran quicker, and on the eve of Krasnaya Gorka the mist scattered, the dark clouds broke up into fleecy white ones, the sky cleared, and real spring unfolded. In the morning the bright sun rose and quickly ate up the thin ice covering the water, and the warm air was all atremble, filled with the vapors of the reviving earth. The old grass and the sprouting needles of new grass greened, the buds on the guelder-rose, the buds and the sticky, spirituous birches swelled, and on the willow, all sprinkled with golden catkins, the flitting, newly-hatched bee buzzed. Invisible larks poured trills over the velvety green fields and the ice-covered stubble, the peewit wept over the hollows and marshes still filled with brown water; high up the cranes and geese flew with their spring honking. Cattle, patchy, moulted in all but a few places, lowed in the meadows, bow-legged lambs played around their bleating, shedding mothers, fleet-footed children ran over the drying paths covered with the prints of bare feet, the merry voices of women with their linen chattered by the pond, and from the yards came the knock of the peasants’ axes, repairing ploughs and harrows. The real spring had come. (153)

This passage occurs fairly early in Anna Karenina. Levin, a bachelor who feels himself to be something of a country bumpkin when in the presence of the Russian nobility in Moscow, has recently returned to his country estate after being rejected by the woman he had hoped to make his bride. He is trying to hold himself together, trying to be philosophical about the fact that his dreams have been smashed. More or less by way of distracting himself from his sorrow, he turns his attention to the management of his estate and to the writing of a book on farming.

The placement of this passage at this moment in the story allows the seasonal description, which works perfectly well at the literal level—giving us a very rich, imagistic rendition of time and place, the external world in which Levin operates—to suggest obliquely something of the turmoil going on within Levin as well. The change of the season suggests that that which has been frozen within him, his ability to find joy in his surroundings, is at last thawing, as he turns his attention outward.

What I note here from a technical point of view is first of all the careful attention that Tolstoy pays as a writer to the physical world around him, and his patience in the construction of each sentence individually. Look at the sequences within the last three sentences especially, after spring has arrived in earnest. First he describes the grass, the buds, the birches, the bees. Then the birds: larks, peewits, cranes, geese. Then the living creatures: the cattle, the lambs, the children, the women, the men. The description is precise without being obsessive, and carefully sequenced without feeling forced. And, characteristically, Tolstoy is able to construct the passage in such a way as to get double duty out of the description, as I've hypothesized. And yet the passage reads smoothly, and Tolstoy’s artfulness is anything but ostentatious.

Side Note: Translator Richard Pevear, in his introduction to the book, argues that “Levin is [Tolstoy’s] most complete self-portrait. He has the same position as his creator, the same “wild” nature, the same ideas and opinions, the same passion for hunting, the same almost physical love of the Russian peasant… Levin’s estate reproduces Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana, and his [eventual] marriage to Kitty duplicates Tolstoy’s marriage to Sophia Andreevna in the minutest details.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tolstoy II: Horsiness

Here's a thought experiment. Or if you prefer, a writing exercise. You might do this as sort of guided meditation, or actually sit down and try to write your way through it.

Picture an animal, one you have seen often enough and know well enough to be able to call it to mind. Think your way through how you would go about describing it. What would you say to someone, what would you write down, to bring this animal to life in the mind of someone else? If you wish, take a few minutes now to do a freewrite. Or have a mental conversation with yourself about this animal.

Finished? Very good. Now read this. It's a passage from Anna Karenina where Vronsky, about to be take part in a horserace, goes to the stable to check on his mount:

He opened the door, and Vronsky went into the stall, faintly lit by one little window. In the stall stood a dark bay horse, shifting her feet on the fresh straw. Looking around the half-lit stall, Vronsky again took in at a glance all the qualities of his beloved horse. Frou-frou was of average height and not irrrproachable. She was narrow-boned all over; though her breast-bone protruded sharply, her chest was narrow. Her rump drooped slightly, and her front legs, and more especially her hind legs, were noticably bowed inwards. The muscles of her hind and front legs were not particularly big; on the other hand, the horse was of unusually wide girth, which was especially striking now, with her trained shape and lean belly. Her leg bones below the knee seemed no thicker than a finger, but were unusually wide seen from the side. Except for her ribs, she looked was all squeezed from the sides and drawn out in depth. But she possessed in the highest degree a quality that made one forget all shortcomings; this quality was blood, that blood which tells, as the English say. Her muscles, standing out sharply under the web of veins stretched through the thin, mobile and satin-smooth skin, seemed strong as bones. Her lean head, with prominent, shining, merry eyes, widened at the nose into flared nostrils with bloodshot inner membranes. In her whole figure and especially in her head there was a distinctly energetic and at the same time tender expression. She was one of those animals who, it seems, do not talk only because the mechanism of their mouths does not permit it. (181-2)

Now that you've read this passage, go back and make note of the places where Tolstoy does something as a writer that surprises you or interests you, something that you yourself did not think or would not have thought to have done in this way. Chances are that you'll find quite a few instances, and that all of the ones you find will be instructive.

One move I notice, for example, is when Tolstoy actually pushes down past a description of the major bodily parts to a description of the horse's lower legs: "Her leg bones below the knee seemed no thicker than a finger, but were unusually wide seen from the side." Embedded in that description is an implied shift in observational perspective: looking not just at the lower legs—which would be perhaps a more specific focus than most of us might have attempted—but looking at the legs first from the front, and then from the side. This is a writer who is paying very close attention, to the extent that he seems to be conducting a sort of almost three-dimensional physical examination. He not only notes the Frou-frou's flared nostrils, he goes so far as to look up the animal's nose and remark on its "bloodshot inner membranes."

Then there's the elegant and rather surprising move that concludes the paragraph. It's a variation on a stock descriptive device, the move we often find in narrative that begins "he was the sort of person who..." Here it comes out as "She was one of those animals who, it seems, do not talk only because the mechanism of their mouths does not permit it." This sentence is an amplification by categorical example of the move, begun in the previous sentence, away from physical description and toward what might be called spirit or intellectual character: this is a horse smart enough to speak if only she had the physical ability to do so.

I could go on in this vein for some time. In almost every sentence, there is an artfulness on display that arises from the quality of the attention that Tolstoy is paying to this horse, this wholly imaginary horse that he is in essence calling into existence by virtue of the words he is writing on the page. I say Tolstoy, rather than Vronsky, because in fact all of what Tolstoy is at such pains to present to us is absorbed instantaneously, holistically, by Vronsky "at a glance." He already knows this horse, her strong and her weak points. Vronsky is deeply into a psychic relationship with this horse, and the depth of his knowledge implies that he loves her and cares for her. And all of the close attention, leading to a sort of sympathetic attachment, that Tolstoy encourages us to pay to this very particular, very beautful horse, is by way of setting up our reaction when, less than twenty pages later, Vronsky, in the race, overreaches himself and drives the horse to her death. At which point we begin to come to some conclusions about the sort of person Vronsky is.

The point being that nothing here is wasted. This careful, measured, almost obsessive description is not an indulgence in art for art's sake. It is integral to everything we are learning about Vronsky, and it is relevant to everything else that happens in the book.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Tolstoy I: Aspiration and Inspiration

Since there is so much that is remarkable in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and since I do not have the luxury of a few years to put together anything like a comprehensive account of either the book itself or its impact on me as a reader, I've decided to attempt something more modest and within the range of what I might able to be accomplish, which is to say, to write a few posts which might consider, one or two at a time, a few passages that have jumped out at me for one reason or another. The passage below, for example, occurs a little more than midway through the book, at a point when Vronsky, formerly in the military and now living more or less in exile with Anna in Italy, has decided to try his hand as a painter. Here is Tolstoy's very precise description of Vronsky's strengths and weaknesses as an artist:

He had an ability to understand art and imitate it faithfully, tastefully, and thought he had precisely what was needed for an artist. After some hesitation about what kind of painting he would choose—religious, historical, genre, or realistic—he started to paint. He understood all kinds and could be inspired by one or another; but he did not imagine that one could be utterly ignorant of all the kinds of painting and be inspired directly by what was in one's soul, unconcerned whether what one painted belonged to any particular kind. Since he did not know that, and was inspired not directly by life but indirectly by life already embodied in art, he became inspired very quickly and easily, and arrived as quickly and easily at making what he painted look very much like the kind of art he wanted to imitate.

I often find myself, when I'm reading Tolstoy, in a mental zone that is somewhere between absorption and delight. A lot of what he writes is pleasing in multiple ways simultaneously. This passage, for example, is a gentle, good-humored (Tolstoy is unfailingly good-humored) satirical portrait, focusing in on one very specific aspect of Vronsky's character: his shallowness. His problem is not just that he's derivative; his problem is that can "not imagine that one could be... inspired directly by what was in one's soul." He's not only derivative, but it's also never occurred to him that he might in fact be so. In short, he doesn't know what he doesn't know.

Then there's pleasure to be taken in the architecture of the sentences themselves. The last sentence is set up as a kind of one-two punch, and the (second) punch line succeeded in making me laugh out loud the first time I read it, and again each time I read it. It's very artfully done: rhythmical and fluid and emphatic and, well, funny.

What gives the passage still more resonance, of course, is that Vronsky's dilemma is the dilemma all of who aspire to even the merest aesthetic accomplishment: anyone who has tried to draw, or paint, or play music, or write, or, God help us, to teach others to do any of these things, will recognize in themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, exactly the limitation that Tolstoy is revealing in Vronsky. As anyone who has tried seriously can testify, it can be just viciously hard to write in a way which is recognizably "inspired directly by what is in one's soul." But that's the Holy Grail for artists, writers, and visionaries of every stripe. Hemingway, for one, made it an article of faith to start by trying to write "one true sentence." It's something I wrestle with as a writer, and something I ask my students to wrestle with as writers. It's hard facing a blank page with an empty mind. How do you find your own true voice? How do you escape the anxiety of influence? How do you find your way to be able to write that which only you could have written? It has to start with what you see, and what you see has, as Tolstoy suggests, a lot to do with how you go about looking, what kinds of constraints you have on your ability to see freshly and clearly.

Today I was meeting with a junior school supervisor who was showing us samples of work done by third graders, and one of the things the teachers are trying to figure out in grade three is how to assess "creativity." If we want grade three students to be knowledge creators and not just knowledge repeaters or knowledge replicators, we have to help them learn first how to see directly, lest they ultimately become, like Vronsky, and like so many of the high school students who show up in my classroom, second-hand thinkers who tend, at least initially, to be quite satisfied with replicating what others have done before them. What makes Tolstoy a genius as a writer is that he is writing what only he could have written in a way that only he could have written it. That's what most of the rest of us can only aspire to.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Question of Balance

I’ve been away from Throughlines so long now that I feel like a stranger in my own house. I’ve been struggling to keep my balance in the midst of a multitude of competing demands on my time: doing upwards of 25 candidate interviews for what has turned out to be three positions in my department, handling the flow of (nearly 200) submissions for the spring issue of our literary magazine and supervising the staff meetings, keeping up with my classes and having the quarter grades come due, taking nominations from department members for the English awards that are presented each spring, doing scheduling (spreading 30 teachers into 20+ English courses, each with multiple sections each semester, then filling out the multiple overlapping redundant forms that make it possible for all those courses to be successfully scheduled), taking three days to fly to San Francisco to meet with a hardware vendor and a software vendor and visit a tech-enhanced Silicon Valley high school, attending the usual schedule of eight or ten formal meetings a week, keeping up with email and posts pouring into Google Reader, preparing schedule and materials for a half-day tech retreat for the soph English teachers and a two-day off-campus retreat for 20 teachers K-12, meeting with individual students who come to see me in conference (easily the best part of my day), trying to get some sort of exercise each day and read a bit here and there.

At one point in my life I entertained the quaint notion that the longer I stayed in teaching the easier it would become, that with experience I’d become more fluid and efficient. As if.

I’m not complaining. I like the work I do, and I find it challenging and interesting and satisfying. But I definitely feel more squeezed for time right now than I ever have before. The new stuff that keeps coming at me is mostly stuff I’ve signed up for because I wanted to, because I was interested. I’m trying to support and want to contribute to ongoing on-campus dialogues about such things as sustainability and service learning and blended learning and tech-enhanced education and social entrepreneurship and authentic assessment and support for students with learning differences. These are all worthy discussions. I've got stacks of readings I have yet to get to with regard to all of them. All I need is time.

I’ve also got lots of ideas for things that I might like to write about for Throughlines. The list above would barely serve as an outline. But getting into any one of them would require time to write and rewrite and annotate. Or, for example, I’ve been reading Anna Karenina, and I’d love to write my way through some of my thoughts about that book, but I feel like I really should finish it before I start trying to sort it out, and I’ve gotten stalled out because of all the stuff in the list above. I could be reading it right now, but, well, I’m writing this instead, on the theory that if I post something tonight maybe I’ll be able to follow up tomorrow and get a little string going. And even if I were to say right now, okay, let’s talk about Tolstoy, where would I even begin? There are about a thousand points of entry.

So, not for the first time, I’m trying to find some balance in my life, trying to figure out a way to be able to do what I want to do with my time, which would include some regular schedule of reading and writing, and what I need to do. Technology has given me many more choices of what to read and what to write, but it has made it harder for me to separate them out. It’s the horizontality issue again, the postmodernist dilemma: breadth (doing 100 things very shallowly) vs depth (doing two or three things with focus and intensity). (It is probably not an accident that I was writing a very similar post at pretty much the same time last year.)

It’s eight o’clock at night in Honolulu. I had planned to go to the gym tonight. If I’m gonna make it, I’ve gotta go. When I get back, Anna Karenina will be waiting for me. Assuming I can stay awake long enough when I get back to make some progress. Wish me luck.