Macchars don’t wear sweaters

The Fetters of Convention (pardon the somewhat annoying prose style)

Posted on: August 17, 2010

Vengeance is mine, I shall repay” are Leo Tolstoy’s terrible lines for Anna Karenina, who dared go against the natural order, and paid with her life. But vengeance is not God’s, or of the natural order, but it is of the invisible force of convention. Her anguish and gradual dissipation are not caused by her going against some in-alterable laws of nature, but her deeply embedded sense of right and wrong defined by the convention of her time.

It is great a metaphor for the hold convention has on our psyche. It runs deeper than one may imagine. One may consciously understand the bias and absurdities in conventional ways, will oneself to break from tradition, to live only in accordance with ones reason and principles, and assert oneself as a free agent bound by none. Relinquish their tradition and seek to live like a bohemian, relinquish their religion and be godless, relinquish their mores and manners and be eccentric. Break from society and live in the Jungles; break from what is defined as a “normal course of life” and refuse to marry, or venture further, live the life of an alcoholic, an ascetic, a drug addict. Play at the fringes. But stray too far, and dissipation and self doubt creep in. Our very sense of the sane is threatened. A lonely darkness looms large, the warm glow of comfortable beliefs behind us. Can we resist the invisible string that keeps pulling us back?

In this life so fraught with ambiguities, what hope does our small truth have against their mammoth truth, with the force of the mob and history behind it?

But men have forever ventured out, cautiously, or boldly, like Nietzsche, and paid with their mind. But men go the full circle all the time too, convention proving victorious.

Maybe convention was right all along, the wisdom of mankind, the milk of a million lives lived. Or is it folly and prejudice, reinventing itself over and over?

I admire the person who can break from convention and claim to have lived a happy life.


6 Responses to "The Fetters of Convention (pardon the somewhat annoying prose style)"

I have a friend who’s bought four different translations of Anna Karenina in the hope that, in his words, “someone’s got it right!”

I havent read it myself but now this really really makes me want to!

And come on, I didnt find it that annoying! Altho’ it does remind me of the tone of several of my high school level essays, especially the last line.

On a serious note, again I’ll say that you’re really perceptive. I love these lines,

“Maybe convention was right all along, the wisdom of mankind, the milk of a million lives lived. Or is it folly and prejudice, reinventing itself over and over?”

This post made me think.

I am a wannabe rebel. The idea of rebellion attracts me. Yet, in my twenty five years, I cannot claim a single revolutionary act.

Even the small rebellions that I have done so far, I could do because people before me have done them. I was simply walking in their footsteps. ‘Convention’ isn’t only the belief that the majority holds. ‘Rebellion’ too becomes a convention pretty soon. I quit my job for writing. That seems a break from convention but is actually an embracing of another convention- the convention of artistic life. I just did what artists/writers do, or I thought do. Tomorrow, I may decide not to marry. But will I be breaking convention? I will only be deciding to step out of one convention (that of marrying) into another (that of celibacy.)

Going by the above argument, it is only the person who is the first to say or do something totally new who can truly be considered to have broken away from convention. He is the one who is doing the difficult thing. Those who break away after him will have him to look up to and follow as an example and when they do so, a new convention will be born. If such a pioneer can also feel unambiguously happy about his choice, he is exceptional indeed and must have great self-confidence.

P.S.: I realize that I have essentially said the same thing that you did, differing only in my idea of ‘convention.’

Assuming free-will, choice becomes all important, difficult as it is. Breaking conventions, even for the heck, becomes another convention, rebelling for the sake of rebellion.

What is hard to deny is death and our deep instinctual fear. These are not conventions. Nichiren says: “The most terrible things in the world are the pain of fire, flashing of swords and the shadow of death. Even horses and cattle fear death, how much more a man in his prime.”

One has to selectively depend on the accumulated experience of the race of which one is a member–one can’t keep re-inventing wheels.

This is a nice clip from the 1935 version of Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo.

but hardly a match for the half dozen pages describing Anna’s last day or two, specially the final paragraph.

She tried to fling herself below the wheels of the first carriage as it reached her; but the red bag which she tried to drop out of her hand delayed her, and she was too late; she missed the moment. She had to wait for the next carriage. A feeling such as she had known when about to take the first plunge in bathing came upon her, and she crossed herself. That familiar gesture brought back into her soul a whole series of girlish and childish memories, and suddenly the darkness that had covered everything for her was torn apart, and life rose up before her for an instant with all its bright past joys. But she did not take her eyes from the wheels of the second carriage. And exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels came opposite her, she dropped the red bag, and drawing her head back into her shoulders, fell on her hands under the carriage, and lightly, as though she would rise again at once, dropped on to her knees. And at the same instant she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. “Where am I? What am I doing? What for?” she tried to get up, to drop backwards; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and rolled her on her back. “Lord, forgive me all!” she said, feeling it impossible to struggle. A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her. And the light by which she had read the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil, flared up more brightly than ever before, lighted up for her all that had been in darkness, flickered, began to grow dim, and was quenched forever.

“The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) used the term “the life of history” to describe this smelting furnace of ceaseless spiritual struggle, and offered the following vivid description:

I do not believe in the absolute determinism of history. On the contrary, I believe that all life, and consequently the life of history, is made up of simple moments, each of them relatively undetermined in respect of the previous one, so that in it
reality hesitates, walks up and down, and is uncertain whether to decide for one or other of various possibilities. It is this metaphysical hesitancy which gives to everything living its unmistakable character of tremulous vibration.

have you read Anna Karenina? I was so haunted by Madame Bovary that i should read Anna Karenina soon but for the time being i am completely besotted with greek literature as of now!!

how did i miss this one?

nice post. develop this thought more. i think it’s got more than just placing your bet on the wisdom of the masses versus your own. many of us, rightly, get to the place where we realise that a wisdom well-furnished with its own experiences and that of the history of men may rise well above the conventional tone set by – more than anything – fear; the imperatives of survival and procreation. it is the leap from there where our conventions come in.
i have known many who have come to the first stage but only a handful who have taken their conventions to total practice.
in fact, i now realise, a friend who took to crime in school were more driven by that need to break from the stifling conventions of his family, primarily.

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