Dear reader, I feel your pain. I hear your stupefied sputterings, your astonished mutterings, and most of all, your overwrought, tertullianesque declamations: “Tolstoy and Sinatra! What has Tolstoy to do with Sinatra?!” And what connection does any of this bear to women in the workplace, a central theme of “Shattering the Ceiling”?
“Here” – you exclaim – “stands Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, the Russian aristocrat, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, a literary luminary, bestriding the globe like a colossus. And there,” you sniff condescendingly, “stands the crooner from Hoboken, New Jersey, old ‘Mr. Blue Eyes,’ ‘The Chairman of the Board,’ Frank Sinatra. What can possibly link the brooding, volcanic Russian writer to the sugar-voiced, mob-connected Garden State songster?”
Love and marriage, that’s what! And, improbable as it seems, women as equal partners to men in the workforce.
As I noted in my last post, controversies about gender roles span the ages and resurrect themselves in varying incarnations from one century to the next. This recurring cycle deserves a label, and ‘temporal intersectionality’ captures its essence better than anything. Nowhere is temporal intersectionality more manifest than in several works created by Tolstoy and Sinatra, the protagonists of this piece. In his novella, The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) and its 1892 explanatory Postface, Tolstoy offers a despairingly corrosive “Nyet!” to the possibility of genuine love and marriage. Animal appetite is what it’s all about and no mountain of romantic platitudes is high enough to mask the sordid reality underlying the relationship between men and women. And if marriage is a sham, what is Tolstoy telling us about men and women at work? (See the upcoming part 2 to this post.)
Sinatra, by contrast, presents a vigorous counterpoint to Tolstoy’s melancholic perspective. With the upbeat Love and Marriage (1955), one of his biggest hit songs, Sinatra meets Tolstoy head-on. In the Sinatran paradigm, love and marriage are not only possible, but they go together like a horse and carriage: you can’t have one without the other. Trying to separate them is an illusion that only can breed confusion.
The preconceptions undergirding Tolstoy’s and Sinatra’s works clash sharply. While Tolstoy’s harsh views preclude the active participation of women in the workplace, Sinatra’s presages an openness to a partnership between the genders both at home and at work and reflects a more progressive viewpoint than that of the superficially sophisticated Tolstoy. Ideas do have consequences.
The Kreutzer Sonata, a brief overview
Published in 1889, The Kreutzer Sonata is a riveting/ repulsive diatribe by “Pozdnyshev,” a fictional Russian aristocrat, who unburdens himself to an anonymous narrator during a long railroad trip. Pozdnyshev serves as a poorly disguised ventriloquist’s dummy, mouthing Tolstoy’s singularly distinctive opinions on carnality and marriage. The novella takes the form of a confessional by Pozdnyshev, who has married a much younger woman. The marriage is misery from the start, and in the end, envy, the green-eyed monster that felled the mighty Othello, infects Pozdnyshev as well. Crazed by his wife’s emotional adultery with a musician who visits the family estate, Pozdnyshev stabs her to death, a scene Tolstoy describes with painstaking granularity.
The Kreutzer Sonata and its Postface electrified Russia and Europe. Tolstoy sprinkled both with philippics against sex and marriage. “Carnal love… is a condition of animality that is degrading to human beings” (Tolstoy, Leo. “Postface.” The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories. Trans. David McDuff. New York: Penguin Classics, 1985. pg. 269. Print.) “The achievement of union in marriage or outside it, with the object of one’s love, no matter how poeticized, is not a goal worthy of human beings, any more than is the… procuring [of] large quantities of delectable food for oneself” (271).
Tolstoy’s solution: celibacy and abstinence as the ideal; abolish marriage and sexual relations. No halfway measures for Leo Nikoleyvich. The ineluctable conclusion flowing from Tolstoy’s premise is that men and women are combustible material and must be kept apart to avoid igniting the sexual cauldron bubbling just below the surface.
The Kreutzer Sonata unleashed a torrent of derision and hostility throughout the Russian Empire, Europe, the United States, and from Tolstoy’s own family. The book was initially banned in Russia because of its anti-connubial animus. Emile Zola, the renowned French journalist, opined that The Kreutzer Sonata is, “a nightmare, born of a diseased imagination. Since reading it I have not the slightest doubt that its author is cracked” (“Ruminations on Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata.” Variations. 296).
Much of the invective against The Kreutzer Sonata was predicated on Tolstoy’s personal history. When he wrote The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy was 60 years old. Before his marriage, Leo had engaged in various “debaucheries” with prostitutes, peasant maidens, and married women. He recorded his conquests in a diary which he showed to his fiancé, Sofiya, shortly before they wed. During his long marriage, he sired 13 children. As his son, Andrey, noted, “We might wonder whether Tolstoy, writing late in life, having enjoyed his women… is proposing something even remotely viable [with his call to celibacy]” (Tolstoy, Andrey. “Afterword.” Variations. 354.)
Still, The Kreutzer Sonata was not without its admirers. Nikolai Strakhov wrote in a letter to Tolstoy, “You have not written anything stronger than this work, nor anything darker” (“Ruminations on Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata.” Variations. 295). Perhaps the most endearing testimonial to the unblunted force of Tolstoy’s screed was the reaction of an idealistic Romanian reader. The young man took The Kreutzer Sonata to heart and balkanized himself; he lopped off his generative organ – and thereby brought Tolstoy’s vision of purity to a dialectical consummation (Variations 327).
Closing to Part I
Harsh and unbending, uncompromising and wildly fanatical in pursuit of an unachievable ideal, all these describe Tolstoy’s attitudes to love and marriage and the possibility of men and women interacting in a productive way without the specter of “impure” (sic) carnality overpowering everything. In Part II of this posting, we’ll examine Sinatra’s Love and Marriage and show how a seeming fluff of a popular single intersects with and conquers the work product of Leo Tolstoy, one of history’s towering writers and preeminent thinkers.
Sinatra’s song fits much more comfortably into today’s feminist zeitgeist and envisions the world where men and women are equal collaborators. It is particularly apropos this week when two of the winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Medicine are a husband and wife team working in unison to advance cutting edge medical science.