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Tolstoy Journal, February 22, 2017

I have reached, in my Tolstoyan journey, Part X of War and Peace. Above is the next travel book I have on my shelf, Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, which I have read, but in which I underlined no passages. So I will read it again, with a pencil, and transcribe the passages in here. I remember it being a very good book, the main idea being that Tolstoy “was by nature a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog,” that is, he naturally was interested in the “infinite variety of things,” but wanted to have “a central, all-embracing system.” Can’t wait to read it again.

Another aspect of Tolstoy’s genius that has stood out to me in my recent reading was how incredibly powerful his portrayal of Natasha’s passion for Kuragin was. It begins at the opera and Eros seems a force that overwhelms her. (With encouragement from Pierre’s jaded wife, Ellen, a truly reprehensible woman, and with encouragement, Tolstoy notes, from the very nature of the operatic atmosphere.) It reminded me very much of C.S. Lewis’s description of Eros in The Four Loves. Speaking of sexual intercourse, he writes, “Conversely, this act, done under the influence of a soaring and iridescent Eros which reduces the role of the senses to a minor consideration, may yet be plain adultery, may involve breaking a wife’s heart, deceiving a husband, betraying a friend, polluting hospitality and deserting your children. It has not pleased God that the distinction between a sin and a duty should turn on fine feelings. This act, like any other, is justified (or not) by far more prosaic and definable criteria; by the keeping or breaking of promises, by justice or injustice, by charity or selfishness, by obedience or disobedience.” Also, and this reminds one especially of Natasha and Kuragin, “The pair [in the thralls of Eros] can say to one another in an almost sacrificial spirit, ‘It is for love’s sake that I have neglected my parents–left my children–cheated my partner–failed my friend at his greatest need’ . . . . And all the time the grim joke is that this Eros whose voice seems to speak from the eternal realm is not himself necessarily even permanent.”

But with Part X we move back into the realm of war. The first chapter begins with another rumination on war and how everyone thought they were doing the right things for the right reasons. In hindsight, Tolstoy says, the French write that people tried to warn Napoleon about invading Russia too late in the season and that he was concerned about extending his lines too far; and the Russians drew the French into their vast countryside precisely to defeat him. But in reality, at the time, the French, especially Napoleon, were delighted with their invasion, thought they couldn’t be beat, and the Russians were panicked and tried to stop Napoleon as soon as they could by uniting their army, a thing they never would have done had they been trying to draw him further in.

Here are some more passages from Volume One of the Simmons biography:

p. 103, “‘What a charm has David Copperfield,’ he wrote in his diary. Dickens became his favorite English author. He generously admitted to his ‘tremendous influence’ and called him the most Christian of all English novelists. Dickens’s affection for ordinary people and his constant concern for the betterment of his readers won Tolstoy’s admiration. . . . In a letter in 1904, he paid the following tribute in English: ‘I think that Charles Dickens is the greatest novel writer of the 19th century, and that his works, impressed with the true Christian spirit, have done and will continue to do a great deal of good to mankind.'”

p. 104, “Thoughts about reading and literature in the diary are few in comparison with those about God and immortality, about good and evil. The effort to make clear to himself the object and meaning of his life integrates all the separate periods of Tolstoy’s spiritual and intellectual development. His effort, now, filled with the same doubt and uncertainty as before, resulted in thoughts that were unusual for a youth barely twenty-four. Many of them anticipated his mature religious conception of life.”

p. 105, “By the end of his second year in the Caucasus, he had arrived at a perfectly honest and conventional creed which he wrote down in his diary: ‘I believe in the one, incomprehensible, and good God, in the immortality of the soul, and in the eternal reward for our deeds; I do not understand the mysteries of the trinity and the birth of the Son of God, but I honor and do not reject the faith of my fathers.

“The fundamental rule of behavior that lay at the base of his whole future religious philosophy Tolstoy recognized clearly at this time: ‘To live in the present, i.e. to act in the best possible fashion in the present, this is wisdom.'”

p. 126,”‘This is the idea–the founding of a new religion corresponding to the development of mankind: the religion of Christ, but purged of all dogma and mysteriousness, a practical religion, not promising future bliss but realizing bliss on earth. I understand that to bring this idea to fulfillment the conscientious labor of generations towards this end will be necessary. One generation will bequeath the idea to the next, and some day fanaticism or reason will achieve it. Consciously to contribute to the union of man and religion is the basic idea which I hope will improve me.’ The Ant Brotherhood’s green stick on which was written the mysterious message of childhood days seems to have taken root.”

p. 132, “Under the uncompromising, dazzling light of truth, Tolstoy revealed the folly, hypocrisy, and utter futility of all this slaughter [in Sevastopol in May]. The questions the diplomats had not settled, he remarked, still remained unsettled by powder and blood. All was vanity, vanity on the very brink of the grave. Officers were eager to climb on the shoulders of fallen comrades in order to reach the promotions their deaths had made possible. Every one of them was a little Napoleon, a petty monster ready to kill men to get an extra medal or one-third additional pay.”

 

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