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Tolstoy Journal, February 18, 2017, “The incessant worm of perfectibility.”

Here are some more quotes from the Simmons biography.

pp. 26-27 “Up to the age of nine Lyovochka’s formal education was neither systematic nor thorough. His own inclination, however, and the example of his elders over this period, unquestionably encouraged that informal but valuable kind of instruction obtained from reading good books. There is no actual record of such efforts, except his own story of being asked, when he was about eight, to read Pushkin to his father. He selected from the volume his favorite pieces that he had learned by heart, such as ‘To the Sea’ and ‘Napoleon’:–

The wondrous fate has been fulfilled,

The great man is no more.

“‘He was evidently struck by the pathos with which I spoke those verses,’ Tolstoy writes, ‘and having listened to me, exchanged significant looks with Yazykov [Tolstoy’s godfather], who was present. I understood that he saw something good in that reading of mine and I was very happy about it.’ Not merely the effectiveness of his son’s reading, but the choice of poems must have struck the father as unusual. For the poems mentioned, among Pushkin’s best shorter pieces, are extremely advanced for an eight-year-old boy, and their selection at least suggests a degree of artistic taste and understanding even at this age.”

p. 35, “Firmly rooted in him, even as a child, was the conviction that physical violence terribly humiliates one’s human dignity and pride.”

p. 36, “The genius likes to fancy himself as unsuited to conventional education. Tolstoy was a poor student only when he elected to be, which was most of the time during his boyhood and youth. His assimilative powers were prodigious, but one aspect of his knotty originality was his refusal to assimilate unless his intellectual curiosity were aroused. Conventional educational methods failed to stimulate him as a boy, and this fact had a direct bearing on his remarkable experiments in education later.”

“Knotty originality” is the perfect description of Tolstoy’s genius.

p. 41, “He grew introspective, and much of the time he lived in a heroic world of his own creation.

“Often, as he gazed out of the window during the study hour, ambitious fancies crowded his imagination. Most of them involved an abrupt change that would separate him from his family.”

Trollope writes in his autobiography that he built the same elaborate kind of fantasy world.

p. 53, “‘We called him the “bear,” the “philosopher: Lyovochka, awkward and always embarrassed.'”

Of course, we recall that this is how Pierre is called in War and Peace.

p. 54, “When he was writing Resurrection, his wife sharply criticized him for the chapter in which he described the seduction of Katyusha. ‘As an old man,’ she scolded, ‘aren’t you ashamed to write such nastiness?’ Tolstoy made no reply, but when his wife had left the room, he turned to M. A. Schmidt and said, almost in tears: ‘See how she attacks me, but when my brothers took me for the first time to a brothel and I accomplished this act, I then stood by the woman’s bed and wept.'”

p. 56, “But she [Tolstoy’s ideal imaginary woman] appeared only in his imagination, usually when the mysterious light of the moon exalted him with a sense of beauty and a feeling of incomplete happiness. Then she stood before him, always sad and lovely, with her long plait of hair, full bosom, and beautiful bare arms, waiting for his embrace. As the moon rose higher and the shadows grew darker, something seemed to say to him that she was not the whole of happiness. The vision faded, leaving him with the ecstatic feeling that true happiness was nearer to Him, the source of all beauty and bliss. And tears of unsatisfied but agitating joy rose in his eyes.”

p. 59, “Tolstoy was only one of many great men who questioned in their youth the values of a traditional university education. Not merely chronic contradictoriness, of which he had his full share, accounts for his criticism of Kazan University, or his negative attitude, mentioned in a previous chapter, towards any learning that failed to stir his intellectual curiosity. To these must now be added his growing tendency to question all manner of accepted institutions and conventions. The man-made ordering of civilization was not something to accept on faith. There must be for him a constant reference to cause and effect, an endless asking of the why, how, and wherefore of constituted society. No compromise would do. He must be convinced.”

p 62, “The author who stirred Tolstoy most at this time and had a permanent influence on his thought was Rousseau, whose complete works he read. He worshiped him, he said, and in place of the cross which good Orthodox believers wear round their necks, he wore a medallion portrait of Rousseau. So similar was Rousseau’s thoughts to his own that it seemed as though he had been the author of many of Tolstoy’s pages. Tolstoy frankly admitted the the Confession had a ‘very great’ influence on him and the Nouvelle Heloise and Emile an ‘enormous’ influence. He could be severely critical of Rousseau, however, and the fundamental difference between them he himself pointed out later: Rousseau repudiated all civilization, whereas he simply repudiated pseudo-Christianity.”

p. 67, “The incessant worm of perfectibility gnawed continually at his conscience.”

p 69, “All his life the disparity between experience and theorizing confounded him.”

p. 73, “At the very time that Tolstoy was concerned solely with making a place for himself in the city’s high society, the Tsar’s police rounded up group of radicals known as the Petrashevski Circle. Among them was the young Dostoyevsky, who had already won some literary fame. Dostoyevsky was on his way to a Siberian prison as a convicted revolutionist before Tolstoy grew weary of his loose Petersburg life.”

p. 78, “The most significant aspect of this unhappy Moscow visit was the birth of the creative artist. Tolstoy began to observe closely the life around him and to experience an irresistible urge to describe it on paper.”


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