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Konstantin Levin, White Negro

November 4, 2011

Julie W. de Sherbinin’s “The Dismantling of Hierarchy and the Defense of Social Class in Anna Karenina” is an elegant argument about how the “dismantling of hierarchy,” where characters “beholden to hierarchical forms of thinking (especially Vronsky and Anna) suffer” (647), is at cross-purposes with the “defense of social class,” that biggest of hierarchies, by the otherwise sympathetic Levin.

Vertical imagery (stairs, falling) and the morphemes вз-/воз- and низ- (for the present purpose “up” and “down”) are pulled out of the novel to show how hierarchies, from the authorial point of view, should be dismantled (648-54). I was persuaded but occasionally frustrated by how the linguistic analysis was handled. I’d rather have de Sherbinin’s case-by-case consideration of вз- words than a raw frequency count, but still would have liked more context – are these words used by Tolstoi more than authors with contrary views about hierarchy? When they occur in other works, do they say anything about the narrator’s/author’s/characters’ views of hierarchies? Does it matter how transparent the “up” meaning was to contemporary readers, or is every вз- equally suggestive of hierarchy? (Native speakers, correct me if I’m wrong, but I would guess that the “up” is more obvious in взойти or возвышенный than in воспитание or вспомнить. I wouldn’t argue that the etymological meaning is insignificant when it isn’t obvious, rather that the obvious cases carry more weight.) In any case, this whole first half of the argument mainly serves to show that Levin’s pro-hierarchy stance on class jars in the context of the anti-hierarchical condemnation from above of Karenina, Vronskii, and “high society.”

Things get interesting in the discussion of Levin (654-62). Levin and Kitty Shcherbatskaia are the good couple, not the bad, adulterous, hierarchy-bound A.K. and Vronskii. And Levin does things that seem radically egalitarian, like working alongside peasants in the field. But Levin won’t shake hands with the merchant Riabinin, for which he is chided by Stiva Oblonskii (656). (This isn’t the only work by Tolstoi where it’s the shiftiest or stingiest nobles who advocate  symbolic respect and politeness toward non-nobles.) And Levin doesn’t believe in educating peasants (657). He thinks it’s contemptible that merchants are out to make money, but aristocrats’ income from the land is a natural part of their stewardship (658).

Even mowing with the peasants isn’t real egalitarianism; de Sherbinin argues that it’s one more piece of aristocratic privilege that Levin can temporarily enter the peasant world, learn important truths, and, when he wants to, go back to comfort, education, and economic freedom. Levin the former slaveholder is analogous to white Americans who take “everything but the burden” from black culture:

Levin obtains both financial and spiritual-moral gain from his interaction with the peasantry. And like “White Negroes,” Levin does not consistently perform peasantry—indeed, the act of temporarily dipping into a subordinate culture, such as Levin does in the mowing scene, is part of the dynamic of privileged status. Yet the linchpin of the novel comes in what Levin learns from his lowly brethren; he enjoys enormous spiritual yields from meager contact with a valorized version of the peasant soul. Nowhere in sight are the (nearly contemporaneous) grimy, downtrodden, poverty-stricken, and drunken subjects of Chekhov’s story “Peasants” (1897)—just as the economic and social plagues of African-American communities find no mention in white borrowings of “black soul.” By behaving in the spirit of noblesse oblige, Levin profits from those whose (constructed) spirituality he borrows without assuming the burden. (660)

De Sherbinin cites several books on class and race, including Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture, ed. Greg Tate; Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul by Dale Peterson; and Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, ed. David R. Roediger. Also a story by Langston Hughes from The Ways of  White Folks.

Disclaimer: I met de Sherbinin once, but don’t know her well.

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