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“Inoculating love, like smallpox”

November 11, 2011

Lev Tolstoi, trans. Jacob Emery (in “The Infectious Imagination of Leo Tolstoy”):

Art is that human activity which consists in one person consciously transmitting to others, by certain exterior signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and experiencing them. (627)

And again:

Not only is infectiousness a certain sign of art, but the degree of the infectiousness is the only measure of the value of art. (627)

An American list of vaccinating instruments (1859)

Both quotes are from What Is Art? (Что такое искусство?, 1897), where Tolstoi makes two divisions: between art that is or isn’t powerful enough to infect people and between art that infects people with good or bad feelings (634). Almost nothing makes both cuts, with Shakespeare failing, along with War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but what Emery talks about is how the infection metaphor plays out through Tolstoi’s fiction and nonfiction.

It’s not just infection in the sense of one person catching something from another – it’s also the chance for inoculation and immunity. The metaphor is used in contradictory ways in different works, but again and again we see the “same rhetorical paradigm” (633). Not just “again and again,” but also “on every conceivable level.” Here’s a partial list of Emery’s examples:

  • The biographical Tolstoi is infected with gonorrhea in 1847, which “provides the impulse for Tolstoy to undertake his life-long regime of writing and self-examination” (628).
  • In a salon conversation in Anna Karenina, one character argues in favor of “marriages founded on reason” between people who have passed through, and become immune to, adultery-causing passions, saying “it’s like scarlet fever: one has to get over it.” Vronskii answers that “someone should invent a way of inoculating love, like smallpox” (629-30).
  • Vronskii has managed to inoculate Kitty Shcherbatskaia against love by leading her on and then dumping her for Anna Karenina; Kitty reacts with a period of illness and recovery, but then has the immunity needed to be an ideal wife (630).
  • Kitty has also had scarlet fever, and her immunity to the literal disease allows her to nurse her sister’s children (630-31).
  • One plot line of Anna Karenina creates the other: “it is precisely as a communicated ‘infection’ that the Anna-Vronsky plot enables the Kitty-Levin plot to take place” (632). The “vector,” Vronskii, is the same for Kitty’s useful inoculation and Anna’s fatal infection.
  • In Resurrection, a character thinks of Nekhliudov’s “youthful indiscretion” as a kind of “vaccination” that will save him from greater follies later (632).
  • In Family Happiness (Семейное счастье, 1859), “the reckless narrator experiences a prophylactic version of adultery when an Italian nobleman attempts to seduce her,” and she decides to “salvage her marriage” (632-33).
  • In an open letter “To the Clergy,” Tolstoi writes “The Christianity you preach is the inoculation of a false Christianity like the inoculation of smallpox or diphtheria, rendering the one inoculated with it forever incapable of receiving true Christianity” (636n37).

Tolstoi sees illness as something sent to teach us a lesson, whether it’s his own gonorrhea or Ivan Il’ich’s suffering or the diseases of an entire society (628, 640-41). A very Tolstoyan corollary to this is that it’s wrong to cure illnesses if this amounts to treating symptoms rather than ultimate causes. The poor get sick because an unfair class structure makes them live in unhealthy conditions; this endangers the rich, who can be infected; doctors come along with scientific cures for poor people’s diseases; and Tolstoi condemns the cures, as “public health programs suppress needful reminders of social inequality” (642).  The diseases of the poor are a clear message that the unfair world has to be remade to remove the cause of their sickness. A cure that instead allows everyone to muddle through while leaving the original inequality in place is harmful.

I’m pretty sure that an earlier article by Emery, on the quite different topic of Batiushkov, the Northern vogue, and the poetics of empire (when applied northward instead of east/south), was the first one I wrote about on this blog, back when it was all about poetry.

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