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Tolstoy Journal, February 24, 2017:”the eternal questions of life and death.”

Well, it was getting late last night, I was tired, and I didn’t think I was going to get any Tolstoy read. I had gone to Portland Public Library with my son and checked out Nathan Haskell Dole’s biography of Tolstoy and then at a used bookstore, Yes Books, had bought Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer because I had always wanted to read it and thought it might be an inspiration for me in writing this book.

I had also confirmed with Josh Bodwell that I will do a Pecha Kecha in Biddeford in April or May about this journal. This scares the hell out of me, frankly, because I hate speaking in public and my voice shakes and I become extremely self-conscious. But Tolstoy and God are worth it.

So I was tired but galumphed up and went into the living room and pulled Volume IV off the shelf and before I knew it I was on page 260. Which is right on schedule now if I read 20 pages a day. It is a real pleasure to keep cutting the pages with my letter opener although sometimes the cut at the top of where the pages join tears a little, I’m not sure why, perhaps the crease is not tight enough or perhaps I go too fast. It is also a real pleasure to go into the living room and look at the books and go over which ones I will read during which month: next month, V and VI will get me through War and Peace, then April, the first two volumes of Anna Karenina, etc. This is what helped me in bookstores find books for people because I am an inveterate comber of bookshelves, although in my basement I have problems sometimes finding my own books!

Tolstoy: the pages I have been reading lead up to the battle of Borodino. From what the narrator says, it appears the Russians will lose, but France take a pretty good hit that they don’t recover from. Again, Tolstoy writes that both Napoleon and Kutuzof, who has finally been brought back to lead the army, are not really in control of what happens. And both are driven by unseen forces.

I very much like the scene wherein Prince Andrei talks with Kutuzof. The latter tells Prince Andrei that his advisors all want him to do something, always now, but Kutuzof says, “There are no more powerful fighters than these two,–Time and Patience; they do everything. . . . I will tell you what is to be done, and I shall do it. . . . When in doubt, don’t.”

As Prince Andrei leaves, there comes this passage describing his thoughts: “‘There is nothing personal about him. He won’t give way to his imaginations; he won’t do anything rash,’ said Prince Andrei to himself, ‘but he will listen to all suggestions; he will remember everything; he will have everything in its place; he will hinder nothing that is useful, and permit nothing that is harmful; he will remember that there is something more powerful and more tremendous than his will,–the inevitable course of events,–and he will have the brains to see them; he will have the ability to realize their significance, and, in view of this significance, he will be sensible enough to see what a small part he himself, and his own will, have to play in them. But chief of all,’ thought Prince Andrei, ‘what makes me have confidence in him is that he is Russian . . . because his voice trembled when he exclaimed, “What have they brought us to!” and because he sobbed when he declared that he would make them eat horse-flesh.'”

Another passage that stood out for me is when Pierre is offering his service before the battle of Borodino and he has seen the common men preparing for war and now he sees the officers, advisers, and hangers-on preparing for war:

“Pierre was joined by other acquaintances, who came up after Kaisarof, and he had not time to answer all the inquiries about Moscow with which they inundated him; and he had not time to listen to the stories which they told him. Excitement and anxiety were written in all faces. But it seemed to Pierre that the cause of these emotions, in some cases at least, was to be attributed rather to the possibility of personal success; and he found it impossible to help comparing them with that other expression of emotion which he had seen on other faces, and which was eloquent of somethings besides merely personal matters, but of the eternal questions of life and death.”

I just noticed the use of that word “personal” again. Prince Andrei noticed that there was “nothing personal about” Kutuzof. That is, I think, he was concerned for more than his own welfare; he was concerned about and aware of something greater than himself. This is a division that Tolstoy draws in his analysis of characters, his overriding concern: do they care about something more than themselves? Do they see there are other entities in the world besides themselves? Do they wonder about God and death? Do they ever see that vast sky that Prince Andrei saw?

This reminds me of two things. How my brother, Kent, who served in the air force in the first Gulf War told me that the loudmouths who bragged how they were going to kick butt were the first ones to jump under the table when the warning sirens sounded, and how these same braggarts shirked work but then sucked up to the officers and claimed credit for work they had not done. These are the ones Tolstoy judges, though even then he is wise enough to show, as in the case of Dolokhof, the psychology behind it. He does not condone or excuse the behavior because of the psychology but it does temper his judgements.

The other thing this reminds me of is the prayer to the Muses at the beginning of The Odyssey. Inspired by Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, I have for the last few years begun my writing stints with this prayer from the T.E. Lawrence translation. One line says, “Vain hope for them, the fools, their own witlessness cast them aside, to sacrifice for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun wherefore the Sun-god blotted out the day of their return.” These are Odysseus’s comrades who show no reverence for life; they are the ones Tolstoy judges; they are Esaus who give up their inheritance for a “mess of pottage.”

This is what Steven Pressfield says about them: “I admire particularly the warning against the second crime, to destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun.” That’s the felony that calls down soul-destruction: the employment of the sacred for profane means. Prostitution. Selling out.” I think that is why Jesus drove the traders from the temple.




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