Leo Tolstoy, the Kreuzer Sonata

The Kreuzer Sonata is about two things: one, a man past his prime who allows himself to be cucked by a musician, kills his wife, and blames it all on Beethoven; and two, a past due morality in sexual affairs written by a man who struggled to reconcile mortality with religion and right passion.

The Kreuzer Sonata · Leo Tolstoy · 1889
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 71 pages, paperback

How he came to murder his wife: the perspective of the novella is one year after the fact. Pozdnyshev is a fornicator turned loyal husband who got his comeuppance in a disloyal wife, and now, while on the train, he finds in a fellow passenger a man willing to listen to him as he reasons out his moral penury.

The Kreuzer Sonata is a dark and tricky one. It sounds, on surface, masochistic and demeaning and like everything feminism and human decency have tried to fight against over the past century and more. Pozdnyshev sounds like a street ogler trying to justify violence or rape because his nether regions perked up a bit at the sight of a woman in a certain cut of dress.

Ah, but The Kreuzer Sonata is also a pleading one.

By 1889, the year he published The Kreuzer Sonata, the Leo Tolstoy who gave us Anna Karenina and War and Peace was struggling with an inner spiritual revolution. The Death of Ivan Ilyich, written three years previously, previewed this different sort of man, one who, at 61, was caught up in his own mortality.

Tolstoy had made adultery a natural, even laudable, affair in Anna Karenina. Of course, it wasn’t the adultery per se but the truth behind it – sincerity in love, truth of feeling, passion, living in accordance with true sentiment and all that – that brings us back to Anna Karenina again and again. This need for truth still consumed the aging Tolstoy, but what of morality? In his previous, less metaphysical works, morality was defined more so by societal norms, free passion and liberal thinking and had less to do with God or atonement for one’s sins; had less to do with having lived a right life.

The Pozdnyshev of his Kreuzer Sonata is addled by religion and sin in the street bum way, riding the rails, latching onto any passenger who will lend an ear to hear his ill-reasoned expiation. The Kreuzer Sonata reads like a justification and a plea for understanding. Pozdnyshev frames his crime in this way, linking it back to an animal sin, carnal love, that he argues is the only kind of love man knows – or that he at least is willing to try to understand.

The cessation of sex would be the goal achieved: immortality. Pozdnyshev reasoned that for man to win against his temptations would mean an everlasting life and that the absence of a future generation (i.e. the continuance of the human race) would hardly matter because the first generation lived – and will continue to live – in grace for all of time. He argues that sex hinders mankind in his true objectives, that nothing meaningful can come from this “swinishness.”

Women, “They’ve been humiliated, deprived of equal rights with men. And so in revenge they act upon our sensuality, they catch us in their nets.”

That severe front to the novella then: Pozdnyshev reduces spiritual love to a spiteful game and courtship to a banal, consumerist affair.

All the luxury of life is required and maintained by women. Count up all the factories. A huge number of them make useless adornments, carriages, furniture, trinkets for women.

He blames his crime on man’s bestial side, clawing at anything to absolve him of his sins. He avers the thing would never have come to murder had human society not exalted the lustier aspects of man, had not encouraged its young fops to conquer, had not built for its women all kinds of contrivances for attraction, had not made it the duty of each sex to play its part in the tableau.

Pozdnyshev argues that carnal love is the safety valve, that otherwise violence would take over and incited passions with no outlet would be a carousel of endless needs resulting in needless ends.

Wrapped up in the details of his own experience – his wife’s disloyalty with a musician – music becomes Pozdnyshev’s thing of scorn, a thing that, without purpose, becomes instrument in a woman’s siren song.

…music only provokes, it doesn’t conclude. Well, they play a military march, soldiers march to it, the music achieves its end; they play a dance tune, I dance, the music achieves its end; they sing a mass, I take communion, the music achieves its end; while here there’s only provocation, but what’s to follow from that provocation isn’t there […] Play it and do what the music attunes you to. Otherwise the calling up of an energy, a feeling, that accords neither with the place, nor with the time, that is not manifest in anything, can only have a pernicious effect.

Rage. Violence.

Or sex. Anything to pour out that pent up feeling.

Sex everywhere dangling like Tantalus’ grapes just out of reach. Woman’s revenge. Equal rights not delivered; sensuality wielded as a weapon. Come hither looks with a last second snub in the name of chastity. A little finger waving ah, ah, ah. But the coy smile remains: foreplay with no consummation.

We might rage at his Pozdnyshev today (indeed, even on its publication there was an outcry; the USPS refused to carry it or any magazine that published parts of it), but we’d be wise to read it: the mental dissonance Pozdnyshev feels is emotively written. Try as we might to line it all up in our heads, we’re sure still to have our own guilty thoughts that just don’t jive with our honest-to-goodness worldviews or with the ways we try to live our lives. Not to say that violence is for each of us a day-to-day reality closely felt, but that purity (immortality?) is a chimaera. The Kreuzer Sonata makes us feel it.

— Now up: Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Kreuzer Sonata · Leo Tolstoy · 1889
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 71 pages, paperback

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