Anna Karenina By Leo Tolstoy

Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina – Contents

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Part 3

Chapter 3

“Do you know I’ve been thinking about you,” said Sergei Ivanovich. “It’s beyond everything what’s being done in the district, according to what this doctor tells me. He’s a very intelligent fellow. And as I’ve told you before, I tell you again: it’s not right for you not to go to the meetings, and to keep out of the Zemstvo affairs entirely. If decent people won’t go into it, of course it’s bound to go all wrong. We pay the money, and it all goes in salaries, and there are no schools, nor district dressers, nor midwives, nor pharmacies- nothing.”

“Well, I did try, you know,” Levin said gently and unwillingly. “I can’t! And so there’s no help for it.”

“But why can’t you? I must own I can’t make it out. Indifference, incapacity- I won’t admit; surely it’s not simply laziness?”

“None of those things. I’ve tried, and I see I can do nothing,” said Levin.

He had hardly grasped what his brother was saying. Looking toward the plowland across the river, he made out something black, but he could not distinguish whether it was a horse or the bailiff on horseback.

“Why is it you can do nothing? You made an attempt and didn’t succeed, as you think, and you give in. How can you have so little ambition?”

“Ambition!” said Levin, stung to the quick by his brother’s words; “I don’t understand. If they’d told me at college that other people understood the integral calculus, and I didn’t, then ambition would have come in. But in this case one wants first to be convinced that one has certain abilities for this sort of business, and especially that all this business is of great importance.”

“What! Do you mean to say it’s not of importance?” said Sergei Ivanovich, stung to the quick in his turn by his brother’s considering of no importance anything that interested him, and still more at his obviously paying little attention to what he was saying.

“I don’t think it important; it does not take hold of me- I can’t help it,” answered Levin, making out that what he saw was the bailiff, and that the bailiff seemed to be letting the peasants go off the plowed land. They were turning the plow over. “Can they have finished plowing?” he wondered.

“Come, really though,” said the elder brother, with a frown on his handsome, clever face, “there’s a limit to everything. It’s very well to be original and genuine, and to dislike everything hypocritical- I know all about that; but really, what you’re saying either has no meaning, or it has a very wrong meaning. How can you think it a matter of no importance whether ‘the people,’ whom you love as you assert…”

“I never did assert it,” thought Konstantin Levin.

“…die without help? The ignorant peasant women starve the children, and the people stagnate in darkness, and are helpless in the hands of every village clerk, while you have at your disposal a means of helping them, and don’t help them because to your mind it’s of no importance!”

And Sergei Ivanovich put before him the dilemma: Either you are so undeveloped that you can’t see all that you can do, or you won’t sacrifice your ease, your vanity, or whatever it is, to do it.

Konstantin Levin felt that there was no course open to him but to submit, or to confess to a lack of zeal for the public good. And this mortified him and hurt his feelings.

“It’s both,” he said resolutely; “I don’t see that it is possible…”

“What! Is it impossible, if the money were properly laid out, to provide medical aid?”

“Impossible, as it seems to me…. For the four thousand square verstas of our district, what with our undersnow waters, and the storms, and the work in the fields, I don’t see how it is possible to provide medical aid all over. And besides, I don’t believe in medicine.”

“Oh, well, that’s unfair…. I can quote to you thousands of instances…. But the schools, at least?”

“Why have schools?”

“What do you mean? Can there be two opinions of the advantage of education? If it’s a good thing for you, it’s a good thing for everyone.”

Konstantin Levin felt himself morally pinned against a wall, and so he became heated, and unconsciously blurted out the chief cause of his indifference to public business.

“Perhaps it may all be very good; but why should I worry myself about establishing dispensaries which I shall never make use of, and schools to which I shall never send my children, to which even the peasants don’t want to send their children, and to which I’ve no very firm faith that they ought to send them?” said he.

Sergei Ivanovich was for a minute surprised at this unexpected view of the subject; but he promptly made a new plan of attack.

He was silent for a little, drew out a hook, threw it in again, and turned to his brother smiling.

“Come, now…. In the first place, the dispensary is needed. We ourselves sent for the district doctor for Agathya Mikhailovna.”

“Oh, well, but I fancy her wrist will never be straight again.”

“That remains to be proved…. Next, the peasant who can read and write is as a workman of more use and value to you.”

“No; you can ask anyone you like,” Konstantin Levin answered with decision, “the man that can read and write is much inferior as a workman. And mending the highroads is an impossibility; and as soon as they put up bridges they’re stolen.”

“Still, that’s not the point,” said Sergei Ivanovich, frowning. He disliked contradiction, and still more, arguments that were continually skipping from one thing to another, introducing new and disconnected points, so that there was no knowing to which to reply. “Let me say. Do you admit that education is a benefit for the people?”

“Yes, I admit it,” said Levin without thinking, and he was conscious immediately that he had said what he did not think. He felt that if he admitted that, it would be proved that he had been talking meaningless rubbish. How it would be proved he could not tell, but he knew that this would inevitably be logically proved to him, and he awaited the proofs.

The argument turned out to be far simpler than Konstantin Levin had expected.

“If you admit that it is a benefit,” said Sergei Ivanovich, “then, as an honest man, you cannot help caring about it and sympathizing with the movement, and so wishing to work for it.”

“But I still do not admit this movement to be good,” said Konstantin Levin, reddening.

“What! But you just said now…”

“That’s to say, I don’t admit it’s being either good or possible.”

“That you can’t tell without making the trial.”

“Well, supposing that is so,” said Levin, though he did not suppose so at all, “supposing that is so, still I don’t see, all the same, why I should worry myself about it.”

“How so?”

“No; since we are talking, explain it to me from the philosophical point of view,” said Levin.

“I can’t see where philosophy comes in,” said Sergei Ivanovich, in a tone, Levin fancied, as though he did not admit his brother’s right to talk about philosophy. And that irritated Levin.

“I’ll tell you, then,” he said with heat, “I imagine the mainspring of all our actions is, after all, self-interest. Now in the Zemstvo institutions I, as a nobleman, see nothing that could conduce to my prosperity. The roads are not better and could not be better; my horses carry me well enough over bad ones. Doctors and dispensaries are of no use to me. A justice of the peace is of no use to me- I never appeal to him, and never shall appeal to him. The schools are of no good to me, but positively harmful, as I told you. For me the Zemstvo institutions simply mean the liability of paying eighteen kopecks for every dessiatina, of driving into the town, sleeping with bedbugs, and listening to all sorts of idiocy and blather, and self-interest offers me no inducement.”

“Excuse me,” Sergei Ivanovich interposed with a smile, “self-interest did not induce us to work for the emancipation of the serfs, yet we did work for it.”

“No!” Konstantin Levin broke in with still greater heat; “the emancipation of the serfs was a different matter. There self-interest did come in. One longed to throw off that yoke that crushed us- all the decent people among us. But to be a member of the Zemstvo and discuss how many street cleaners are needed, and how sewers shall be constructed in the town in which I don’t live- to serve on a jury and try a peasant who has stolen a flitch of bacon, and listen for six hours at a stretch to all sorts of jabber from the counsel for the defense and the prosecution, and the president cross-examining my old simpleton Alioshka: ‘Do you admit, prisoner at the bar, the fact of the removal of the bacon’- ‘Eh?’”

Konstantin Levin had warmed to his subject, and began mimicking the president and the half-witted Alioshka: it seemed to him that it was all to the point.

But Sergei Ivanovich shrugged his shoulders.

“Well, what do you mean to say, then?”

“I simply mean to say that those rights that touch me… my interest, I shall always defend to the best of my ability; that when raids were made on us students, and the police read our letters, I was ready to defend those rights to the utmost, to defend my rights to education and freedom. I can understand compulsory military service, which affects my children, my brothers, and myself- I am ready to deliberate on what concerns me; but deliberating on how to spend forty thousand roubles of Zemstvo’s money, or judging the half-witted Alioshka- that I don’t understand, and I can’t do it.”

Konstantin Levin spoke as though the floodgates of his speech had burst open. Sergei Ivanovich smiled.

“But tomorrow it’ll be your turn to be tried; would it have suited your tastes better to be tried in the old criminal court?”

“I’m not going to be tried. I shan’t murder anybody, and I’ve no need of it. Well, I tell you what,” he went on, flying off again to a subject quite beside the point, “our district self-government and all the rest of it- it’s just like the birch saplings we stick in the ground, as we would do it on Trinity Day, to look like a copse which has grown up of itself in Europe, and I can’t gush over these birch saplings and believe in them.”

Sergei Ivanovich merely shrugged his shoulders, as though to express his wonder how the birch saplings had come into their argument at that point, though he did really understand at once what his brother meant.

“Excuse me, but you know one really can’t argue in that way,” he observed.

But Konstantin Levin wanted to justify himself for the failing, of which he was conscious, of a lack of zeal for the public welfare, and he went on.

“I imagine,” Konstantin said, “that no sort of activity is likely to be lasting if it is not founded on self-interest- that’s a universal principle, a philosophical principle,” he said, repeating the word “philosophical” with determination, as though wishing to show that he had as much right as anyone else to talk of philosophy.

Sergei Ivanovich smiled. “He too has a philosophy of his own at the service of his natural tendencies,” he thought.

“Come, you’d better let philosophy alone,” he said. “The chief problem of the philosophy of all ages consists precisely in finding that indispensable connection which exists between individual and social interests. But that’s not to the point; what is to the point is a correction I must make in your comparison. The birches are not simply stuck in, but some are sown and some are planted, and one must deal carefully with them. It’s only those peoples that have an intuitive sense of what’s of importance and significance in their institutions, and know how to value them, who have a future before them- it’s only those peoples that one can truly call historical.”

And Sergei Ivanovich carried the subject into the regions of philosophical history where Konstantin Levin could not follow him, and showed him all the incorrectness of his outlook.

“As for your dislike of it- excuse my saying so- that’s simply our Russian sloth and old serfowners’ ways, and I’m convinced that in you it’s a temporary error and will pass.”

Konstantin was silent. He felt himself vanquished on all sides, but he felt at the same time that what he wanted to say was unintelligible to his brother. Only he could not make up his mind whether it was unintelligible because he was not capable of expressing his meaning clearly, or because his brother would not or could not understand him. But he did not pursue the speculation, and, without replying, he fell to musing on a quite different and personal matter.

Sergei Ivanovich wound up the last line, unhitched the horse, and they drove off.

< < < Chapters 2
Chapters 4 > > >

Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina – Contents

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