Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, February 25, 2017, “the quintessence of individualism.”

The travel book featured today, Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreyev, by Maxim Gorky, is the one from which the quote about Tolstoy and God being two bears in a cage comes from. I don’t want to quote from it until I re-read it, but can’t help sharing the opening paragraph:

“The thought which beyond others most often and conspicuously gnaws at him is the thought of God. At moments it seems, indeed, not to be a thought of God. He speaks of it less than he would like, but thinks of it always. It can scarcely be said to be a sign of old age, a presentiment of death–no, I think that it comes from his exquisite human pride, and–a bit–from a sense of humiliation: for, being Leo Tolstoy, it it humiliating to have to submit one’s will to a streptococcus. If he were a scientist, he would certainly evolve the most ingenious hypotheses, make great discoveries.”

Gorky seems to me to be trying to give a materialistic explanation of why Tolstoy is obsessed with God. But I remember loving this book when I first read it, and Van Doren begins his introduction by saying it is a masterpiece.

I read no Tolstoy yesterday so today I am going to type in passages from Simmons and if I run out of those, I will type in the ones from Wilson–I am reading their books concurrently.

Simmons (Volume One), p. 141, “However, their ‘convictions’–a fashion word among intellectuals in Russia then–irritated him, as did the ‘convictions’ of the Petersburg Westerners. He thought that both sets were tilting at windmills.”

p. 143, “Tolstoy’s point was that these men were being hypocritical when they flaunted their convictions. Convictions were invented by the intelligentsia so that they would have something to talk about. As for himself, Tolstoy would have asserted that he lived by instinct. The ‘rules’ that he composed to guide his existence were suggested not by conviction, but by moral instinct. And moral instinct he could trust, but only his own. Here was the quintessence of individualism.”

p. 147, “This was true. Tolstoy had no moral or spiritual center as yet; he was in the process of finding one. But this was a search he must conduct himself. He was not being reactionary in turning his back on the Contemporary’s progressive, for he really shared some of their advanced views. Now, however, as later, his individualism would not permit him to subordinate his views. All must come from within himself. It was both an aesthetic and an intellectual pride. The thinker, like the artist, insisted upon originality.”

p. 157, “On one of their walks together they stopped before an old broken-down horse and Tolstoy, stroking it, began to tell what he imagined the horse was thinking and feeling. So realistically did he project himself into the animal’s consciousness that he astonished and delighted Turgenev [who?] declared that Tolstoy must at one time have been a horse.”

Okay, that is as far as I got in the Simmon’s biography before, having bought A.N. Wilson’s biography, I couldn’t help starting to read it. But let me say first that one of the things about Tolstoy that delights me is how he sometimes wrote stories, I’m not sure how many, from the point of view of animals. I think he would have agreed with C.S. Lewis about the evils of vivisection.


p 1, “‘What interest. . . . could the young German princess [Catherine the Great] take in that magnum ignotum, that people, inarticulate, poor, semi-barbarous, which concealed itself in villages, behind the snow, behind bad roads, and only appeared in the streets of St. Petersburg like a foreign outcast, with its persecuted beard, and prohibited dress–tolerated only through contempt?’ The question was Alexander Herzen’s, the first truly great Russian radical, perhaps the greatest, to fall foul of the bureaucracy which Peter had created, which Catherine had sustained, and extended, and which was to grow like a self-perpetuating monster throughout the nineteenth-century.”

p. 4, “The appearance of the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century is something only paralleled in the history of literature by the emergence of English poets during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Nothing prepares us for it. Suddenly, there they are–Lermontov, Gogol, Belinsky, Griboyedov. Above all, there, for the tragically brief period of 1799-1837, is Alexander Pushkin, perhaps the most varied and intelligent poet in the world, a genius of world class, after whom Russia–not just Russian literature–would never be the same again.”

p. 6, “Even though the solutions which he preached to the problems of the nineteenth century were ones which only a small proportion espoused–pacifism, vegetarianism, reading the Gospels and knitting your own clothes–he stood for something much bigger and more important than just himself or his ideas. So long as he was there, huge numbers of Russians felt that it was not quite impossible to believe in the prospect of individual liberty, the survival of individual dignity in the face of a cruel, faceless, bureaucratic tyranny.”

p. 7, “But the chief reason why the Government had left him alone is to be found in the reverence which the Russians feel for literary genius. With the reverence, there goes, on behalf of governments, suspicion and fear. The word has power in Russia, which is why its greatest exponents have nearly always ended up behind bars or dying in exile.”

p. 8, “He [Ilya Repa] spoke of Tolstoy’s towering moral presence, and hypnotic spiritual aura. ‘Often a day or two after a conversation with him when your own mind begins to function independently, you find that you cannot agree with his views, that some of his thoughts, which seemed at the time incontrovertible, now appear improbable. . . . ‘ For all that, what remained for Repin was the sense of Tolstoy as a giant.”

p 12, “(The name [Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s childhood home] means ‘Bright Glade.’)

But Nathan Haskell Dole in his biography says it means, “Plainfield.” I like “Bright Glade” better.

p. 15, “Tolstoy died seven years before the revolution of the proletariat; he was born three years after the revolution of the nobility. It is almost as if he was cocooned between the two revolutions, that of December 1825 and that of October 1917.”


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