The Literary Microscope

My book group Read With Me is currently reading Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. I was recently struck by a particular passage — because of its own merits, and because it recalled another passage I love from a lecture by Vladimir Nabokov on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Both passages helped me to more deeply understand the real and momentous value of great literature.

I reread Anna Karenina last summer. It is the only novel I have physically thrown across the room in a fit of disgust — and yet I wanted to read it again, and I want to read it with my group.

Despite my outburst, I love Tolstoy, because though I might sometimes find his abstract ideas abhorrent, I always find his concrete observations enlightening. Tolstoy sees with a penetrating vision, and he has a powerful and virtuosic ability to make his vision clear and real to me. I underline my favorite lines in books, particularly those that offer some new insight or illuminating formulation. Reading Anna Karenina, I quickly gave up the practice. I would have been marking every line.

I will offer the following as just a single example of this ability, but one powerful enough to make the point.

Tolstoy is describing a character’s anxious, timid anticipation of an encounter at the skating-ground with the woman he desperately, madly loves. I will have Tolstoy express this feeling as only he can. Read it slowly, and savor it:

“He knew she was there by the rapture and the terror that seized on his heart. She was standing talking to a lady at the opposite end of the ground. There was apparently nothing striking either in her dress or her attitude. But for Levin she was as easy to find in that crowd as a rose among nettles. Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light on all around her…He walked down, for a long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun, but seeing her, as one does the sun, without looking.”

I cannot read that last line without tears.

After finishing the novel, I read Nabokov’s lecture. In it, he made an observation that I found profoundly illuminating of Tolstoy’s distinct talents — but more than that, of the history of literature, and further, of the value of literature to the individual human soul.

Reminded of Nabokov’s observation by the passage in Hugo, I was easily able to find it again, because I had not only underlined it, but surrounded it with brackets and asterisks, like little marginal fireworks signifying its vital and noteworthy importance.

So, here is Nabokov’s brilliant insight. After sharing a remarkable scene in Anna Karenina that captures the beauty, drama, mystery, and terror surrounding the birth of a child, he makes this stunningly important point: “Mark incidentally that the whole history of literary fiction as an evolutionary process may be said to be a gradual probing of deeper and deeper layers of life. It is quite impossible to imagine either Homer in the ninth century B.C. or Cervantes in the seventeenth century of our era — it is quite impossible to imagine them describing in such wonderful detail childbirth. The question is not whether certain events or emotions are not suitable ethically or esthetically. The point I want to make is that the artist, like the scientist, in the process of evolution of art and science, is always casting around, understanding a little more than his predecessor, penetrating further with a keener and more brilliant eye — and this is the artistic result.”

I cannot overstate how important I think this idea is for understanding the role of literature in a person’s education, in the cultivation of their soul, in the development of their ability to examine their lives and to discover meaning therein.

If great scientists across history have discovered and shown us with ever more precision, subtlety, and fundamentality how the physical world works, great artists have done the same in the realm of the spirit. One might think that while the motion of the heavenly bodies and the principles of atomic theory are sophisticated and complex, what it means to feel the apprehensive pangs of a feverish love or the wonder and fear of childbirth is straightforward. Not so. Those feelings too must be conceptualized for us to truly notice them, understand them, recall them, relish them, find meaning in them. Literature lights our way.

Hugo had his own way of making this point in Notre-Dame de Paris.

After discussing the ignorant insensitivity of the people of Paris to the suffering of a woman who has devoted her life to prayer in penitence in a barren tower cell, people who instead see nothing more than the “the poor recluse,” he says this:

“People saw things in this way then, — without metaphysics, without exaggeration, without magnifying-glass, with the naked eye. The microscope had not been invented yet, either for material or for spiritual things.”

Civilization has benefitted from a long evolution in art; thanks to authors such as Tolstoy and Hugo, the literary microscope has been invented. We need only use it to peer inside the human soul, to see things we could never have seen with the naked eye, and to apply our newfound understanding to the flourishing of our own spirits.