Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, February 1, 2017

I have not finished reading Volume II on schedule. In fact, I am still on page 108, but I press on hoping to actually read and write about the whole 24 volume set of Tolstoy I have. In the spirit of Geoff Dyer writing about D.H. Lawrence in Out of Sheer Rage, which I have also not read but have read about.

However, I did read a chapter from Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief last night in my holy hour, three to four a.m. in the perpetual adoration chapel. If my prose is none too good today, besides my usual faults, it’s because I’m tired.

So I read Chapter Six, entitled, “On Earth, As In Heaven: Man Must Forsake The Life Of The Flesh.” I continue to find that Tolstoy’s version is not as readable and exciting as the original. It is worth reading for a Tolstoy fan, and it was definitely worth reading for the battle-traumatized Wittgenstein at the Galician bookstore, but if someone asked me whether he should first read one of the gospels or Tolstoy’s version, I would tell him the first.

Here is a story I recently read from St. Mark in the old “Confraternity Revision of the New Testament,” which comes from the Latin Vulgate. This is St. Mark 4:35-40:

“And he said to them on that day, when evening had come, ‘Let us cross over to the other side.’ And sending away the crowd, they took him just as he was, in the boat; and there were other boats with him. And there arose a great squall, and the waves were beating into the boat, so that the boat was now filling. And he himself was in the stern of the boat, on the cushion, asleep. And they woke him and said to him, “Master, does it not concern thee that we are perishing?’ Then rising up, he rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace, be still!’ And the wind fell and there came a great calm. And he said to them, ‘Why are you fearful? Are you still without faith?’ And they feared exceedingly and said to one another, ‘Who, then, is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?'”

Here is Tolstoy’s version of the same story:

“And it happened once that Jesus was, with his followers, sailing a boat. He said: ‘Let us pass over to the other side.’ A storm arose upon the lake, and the boat began to fill, so that it nearly sank. And Jesus lay in the stern, and slept. They woke him, and said, ‘Teacher, is it really all the same to you that we are perishing?’ And, when the storm had fallen, he said: ‘Why are you so timid? You do not believe in the life of the spirit.'”

It seems to me Tolstoy is taking the mystery out of this scene, probably because he does not believe in miracles (although he does allow in earlier passages that Jesus healed some people; about the loaves and the fishes, he does not commit) but when he does so, it loses all its drama and importance. The way he presents it here, Jesus is just showing the disciples that if they really believed in the life of the spirit, they would not be afraid if their flesh was about to drown. And that’s it. That’s what Tolstoy’s gospel boils down to, you follow the spirit, not the flesh; it’s a Manichean-type heresy. What is ironical is that he is such a beautiful describer of that flesh; that’s what he excels at!

But the disciples, most of them, were fishermen; they knew a squall and the signs of it coming and going, they had been through them before, they would be able to tell the difference between a man telling a squall to stop and it stopping, from the natural dissipation of a squall. They had seen a lot of squalls, I would assume. I just find the Vulgate version much more fun to read, more compelling, more true in a way. I can see these fishermen following and fearing a man who can command storms to stop, but I can’t see them following a man who just says, follow the spirit, not the flesh. Tolstoy can’t let go of Jesus because he knows he’s unique, but he can’t accept him totally because of his skepticism. About miracles and about the Church.

Jesus loses his vividness in Tolstoy’s telling, that’s all I can think to say about it. At least so far.

The other thing I think of is Henri de Lubac’s saying that heresy is always the attempt to avoid a mystery.

My first memory of reading Tolstoy was when I was about eight or so and going to a library and checking out a book and reading the first part but never finishing it. I think it might have been “The Cossacks,” because I remember a scene of men marching together toward the Ural mountains and singing together. But there might be a short story like that too. Then, at some point I tried to read War and Peace, the big Penguin version I have but made it about halfway through. The thing with Tolstoy, and maybe partly why I’m having trouble reading this series, is that once you start, it’s hard to stop, and right now I don’t have long periods of time in which to read.

Anyway, then I remember getting all the way through Anna Karenina and loving it, especially the parts about Levin, because I’m a guy, I guess. A friend steered me toward “Father Sergius,” another great story and a great Russian movie I saw at Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline long ago. And then I read “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” because Joyce said it was the best short story ever. And I read “Master and Man,” the ending of which I thought was contrived but the vividness of which has stayed with me as if that journey in the snow was something that happened to me, that feeling which Hemingway said was the mark of great literature.


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