Warning: Long read, don’t moan at me, contains Foucault.
In a sense, I am a moralist, insofar as I believe that one of the tasks, one of the meanings of human existence—the source of human freedom—is never to accept anything as definitive, untouchable, obvious, or immobile. No aspect of reality should be allowed to become a definitive and inhuman law for us. We have to rise up against all forms of power—but not just power in the narrow sense of the word, referring to the power of a government or of one social group over another: these are only a few particular instances of power. Power is anything that tends to render immobile and untouchable those things that are offered to us as real, as true, as good
― Michel Foucault
The Beautiful Lie, ABC TV’s Sunday night serial for the past few weeks, is a reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, set in the present day and with the Russian aristocracy transmogrified into Australian sporting elites, wealthy inner-city suburban parents, spendthrift and drunken relatives, and of course, landowners.
It’s an imperfect but nonetheless impressive production: a complex story of infidelity, betrayal, heartlessness and social shunning of yes, you guessed it, Anna the adulteress.
Tolstoy, like all the very best writers, is in the Foucauldian sense a moralist, and doesn’t accept anything as untouchable, definitive or immobile, or beyond his authorial remit. Anna Karenina is a forensic examination of the hegemonic myths of the reality, truth and goodness of family, and of love outside the social confines that are reified as normal, love which is inevitably perceived as transgressive and in the case of Anna, infinitely punishable, primarily by exclusion from her tribe.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, is how Tolstoy opens his narrative, giving some indication of the trajectory of his lengthy imaginings.
Anna’s brother, Kingsley in the ABC production, is also an adulterer yet the consequences of his crimes of the heart are as nothing, compared to those visited upon Anna after she falls recklessly in love with Skeet, who is engaged to Kitty, the younger sister of Kingsley’s wife, Dolly.
Anna initially resists Skeet’s advances, but then leaves her controlling husband and young son to live with him, and bear their daughter. She is heartbroken by the loss of her son, who, with his father’s encouragement, refuses to see her. She becomes increasingly concerned that Skeet is philandering, yet every time she confronts him he denies this. In the last episode we and Anna see that he is indeed betraying her, in his mother’s house and with his mother’s knowledge.
The reimagining remains faithful to Tolstoy’s story and what is striking is the realisation that over time, cultures, and continents societal attitudes to marriage and adultery remain, in the middle class at least, largely unchanged and unexamined. The contemporary characters in this unfolding drama unthinkingly assume married love and lifelong coupling as of inherently moral value, against which Anna’s actions are cast as bankrupt, threatening their concept of themselves and the perceived inherent goodness of their life choices.
Anna’s tribe is, to use Foucault’s analysis, rendered powerless and immobile, their values untouchable as they unquestioningly accept the orthodoxy’s definition of what is real, true and good. Anna is torn between her own conditioning, and the disruptive nature of her desires, a power struggle that together with the unendurable ostracism of her tribe, is ultimately unresolvable for her.
In Foucauldian terms, Anna undergoes what he identifies as a “limit experience,” an unanticipated opportunity to challenge the power of the imposed boundaries of her life. The limit experience is the experience of extremes, which can release powerful creative forces and produce intense joy. The limit experience is the opportunity to liberate oneself, by transgressing limits so set in stone as to appear “natural.” The limit experience can take an infinite number of forms and in Anna’s case, it takes the form of sexual desire and the overpowering impulses of passionate love that crash through her values like a wrecking ball, causing all the chaos one would expect in a violent boundary rupture.
This is precisely what I love and have always loved about Anna. Unlike anyone else in her tribe, she has the yearning and the courage to blow her deadly safe life to bits. Inspired by desire, she refuses to accept the restrictive governance of peer constraints, and this impulse is as much of a shock to her as it is to anyone else. Nevertheless, shocked and awed, she remains true to the tumultuous experiencing of disruption, understanding that her life before Skeet was unfulfilled, and that there is no possibility of her resuming it.
What goes horribly wrong for her is that the man she chooses as her partner in the limit experience is not anywhere near her match, but more of that later.
The viewer isn’t called upon to question the authenticity of the protagonists’ behaviours and their consequences: they are as emotionally and psychologically representative of the present day as they were in Tolstoy’s. The woman who transgresses dies, either figuratively or literally, while the male transgressors lose very little, and are only temporarily shunned, if at all. There was no need to costume this drama: its themes and the manner in which their morality is upheld, transcend the passage of time.
Though Anna deeply loves Skeet, he doesn’t appear to have the character or capacity to meet her on the same level, something I think she understands quite early in their relationship but can’t bring herself to acknowledge. This is where her loneliness and sense of isolation begin: the man for whom she’s given up everything doesn’t know her, cannot meet her, and never will. Her isolation is exacerbated by the rejection of everyone around her, all of whom feel she’s stolen Kitty’s fiancée, abandoned a perfectly good husband and fretting child, and pretty much deserves whatever she gets.
When Anna turns up uninvited at Kitty’s wedding to landowner Peter, she’s wearing a scarlet dress. Everyone else is, at Kitty’s request, clothed in white. Everyone other than Anna is represented as pure and belonging, even the men who’ve betrayed their wives, including her brother. It is Anna who bears the brunt of the tribe’s fear and disapproval. It is Anna who is cast out, in order that the tribe might bond, their animosity towards her and fear that she will embarrass herself and them, becoming the bonding agent. She is the scarlet woman, the bright red blood that stains the virginal white. She is, quite literally, the rupture. They get rid of her as quickly as they can.
At first blush, it seems that Tolstoy is warning against illicit passion, his intention being to demonstrate that no good can come of it, and it will end, inevitably, in tears. The love may be real but the circumstances forbid its expression and to attempt to thwart those circumstances will cause only terrible grief and destruction. No more than in Tolstoy’s time do we currently appreciate the necessity of destruction as a pre-requisite for creation: the courage to disrupt, to permit limit experiences is framed in our times, as in Tolstoy’s, as madness and badness, and deserving of infinite punishment, never as much as when that courage is displayed by a woman, and expressed in a woman’s sexual and passionate desires.
But for mine, the core problem is that the lovers are mismatched: Skeet/Vronsky has nothing that comes close to the emotional depths Anna is capable of, and this is the heart of the tragedy. Anna’s desire for the limit experience is her desire for proof of life, however, her choice of lover is tragically misjudged. She has indeed lost everything, and for what?
When Anna kneels down on the train tracks, her expression as she awaits the oncoming locomotive is almost beatific. It is a weakness in the production, for mine, that Anna is portrayed as mentally unstable and under the influence of drugs as she begins her descent into suicide and the drug-fuelled instability is, it is implied, the cause of her almost orgasmic anticipation of death.
This representation feeds into the narrative that one must necessarily be of unsound mind if one wishes to die, implying that the only sane impulse we are permitted is the fight to stay alive. But should we ever accept any notion as definitive, untouchable, obvious, or immobile, including the notion of how and when we should die?
That the desire to die indicates a pathological unsoundness of mind is as much of an apparently immutable “truth” as is the glorification of life-long coupling as a high moral ideal. It makes perfect sense to me that for Anna release comes in death, suicide, as Foucault would have it, being the ultimate limit experience. It is the ultimate act of agency, the ultimate rejection of external power-over, the breaking of the last possible boundary that holds us in place in this existence we call life.
Anna’s expression, as the train’s lights loom, is one almost of bliss: the end of her suffering is in sight and it is a thing entirely in her control. Everything else is lost to her, against her will and her wishes, but her life’s end is the one thing over which no one else has domination. They have abandoned and ostracised her: but Anna will ultimately be the one who abandons them in the most permanent of ways, and one from which there is no possibility of return and reconciliation.
In death Anna reclaims her autonomy, and for her, this is the only means available. The tribe will never fully re-admit her. She is not of them. She is the scapegoat against whom they measure their commendable morality. She has torn great rents in the fabric in which is wrapped the sanctity of family, and has failed to redeem herself by repairing it with another, lasting coupling.
Anna remains, for everyone who encounters her, a tormented symbol of the clash of incompatible powers: the deadening powers of the institutions that govern our social arrangements, versus the life-giving powers of desire. Civilisation and its discontents. The sacrifice of desire that is deemed necessary to ensure ongoing orthodox social order. How telling that the symbol of this enduring battle should be a woman, and how telling that the resolution for the upholders of the definitive and inhuman laws is that the woman must die.
I don’t understand him, complained a baffled Noam Chomsky after an encounter with Michel Foucault. It’s as if he belongs to another species.
Her peers did not understand Anna, either, wishing that she could be of a species other than theirs, and she has been misunderstood for generations since. Heck, I doubt her creator even understood her, but that he loved her there is little doubt. His exquisite and agonising observations of her every momentary mood convey his passion and obsession. As that other author of the cautionary tale of an infamous adulteress who takes her own life, Gustave Flaubert, remarked of his creation: Madame Bovary c’est moi, so Anna is Tolstoy. The two women are very different, and for mine, Emma Bovary has none of the courage and fascination of Anna, yet the architectonics of both novels chart the traditional course of inevitable female ruination as a consequence of acting on illicit desire.
Were I to reimagine Anna Karenina, I would have her as a warrior. I would have her confront her tribe, and the useless Skeet, with her courage and her insight and her contempt for their comfortable acceptance of the comfortable orthodoxy. I would have her say no, the lie is not mine, it is yours, and there is little beautiful about it. I would have her choose life, and if necessary, dwell alone with her children until such time as she met a lover who would know her, and meet her, and be worthy of her.
Such an ending was likely impossible for Tolstoy to imagine, or at any rate, write, and his objective was not to create a warrior woman, but rather the victim of a cult of love, who would be held responsible for her own victimhood. Had Tolstoy known Foucault, he might well have written a different story, a story that challenged received notions as to the ways things are, always have been and always must be.
Yet in some sense, this is exactly what Tolstoy has achieved, by accident rather than design, and for this, I for one am grateful.