Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, March 14, 2017: “Of the insurgent flesh.”

Today’s travel book is The Death of Ivan Iiyich translated by Lynn Solotaroff and with an introduction by Roland Blythe. I have read this at least twice and look forward to reading it again. It is hard to read because it faces death so squarely, unflinchingly. And I love the portrait of Tolstoy on the cover though I can find no record on or in the book of who painted it.

And I have to say, although I wish for more readers, I am enjoying the hell out of doing this blog; it feels almost like a compulsion now. If I miss a day, I feel it in my fingers. So this is a good thing.

I will, per usual, write about the Tolstoy I read last night then transcribe some passages from a travel book, today from Roland Blythe’s introduction.

I reached page 206 of Volume V last night, or Chapter VIII of Part Twelve of War and Peace. These pages describe how Nikolai Rostof was assigned to go out to a village on the other side of Moscow to buy more horses for the army. And so he misses the Battle of Borodino and is reunited with the Princess Marya. Two passages stood out to me.

The first was one of Tolstoy’s preachy tangents, which I so often love even when I disagree with him: “In historical events more strictly than elsewhere holds the prohibition against tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Only unconscious activity brings forth fruit, and a man who plays a part in any historical event never realizes its significance. If he tries to realize it, he is astounded by its inutility.

“The significance of the event which was at that time taking place in Russia was proportionately incomprehensible according to the part which any man took in it. In Petersburg and the provinces remote from Moscow, ladies and men in militia uniforms mourned over Russia and the capital, and talked about self-sacrifice and other such things; but in the army which was retreating from Moscow, almost nothing was said or thought about Moscow; and as they looked at the conflagration no one dreamed of wreaking vengeance on the French, but they thought of the next quarter’s pay, about the next halting-place, about Matrioshka the sutling-wench, and the like.”

I had to look up the word “sutler.” According to the OED, “A person who followed an army and sold provisions etc. to the soldiers.”

I think Tolstoy is right here: that when you are in the midst of the tumult you can only do the best you can. You don’t think of higher principles and if you do you don’t get anything done. This doesn’t mean the higher principles don’t exist, only that one can’t grasp them until after the action.

The second passage I found moving was how both Nikolai and Princess Marya worry about how they will speak with one another once they meet, but then when they do, all is natural, unhindered, and this is a sign it is meant to be, or true, or whatever you want to call it: “Just as the complicated artistic work on the sides of a painted or carved lamp-shade comes out with sudden and unexpected details of beauty when a light is lighted in it, though before it had seemed coarse, dark, and meaningless, so was the Princess Marya’s face unexpectedly transformed. For the first time all that pure, spiritual, inward travail which she had gone through for so many years was laid open to the light. All that inward travail, which had left her so dissatisfied with herself,–her suffering, her yearnings after the right, her submission, love, self-sacrifice,–all this now shone forth in her luminous eyes, in her gentle smile, in every feature of her tender face. . . .

“Nikolai, exactly the same as the princess, had changed color and become confused when her name was mentioned in his presence, and even when he thought about her; but in her presence he felt perfectly unhampered, and by no means confined himself to the set speeches which he had made ready in advance, but spoke whatever came into his head.”

Something I have not so far discussed is how once in a while Tolstoy launches into a long metaphor or simile that strongly reminds me of the ones you find in Virgil and Dante. I’d like to know if he did this in conscious imitation of epics or if they just flowed out naturally in the course of the writing.

Here are some passages from Blythe’s introduction to The Death of Ivan Ilyich:

“One critic of this little novel whose vast theme makes it a masterpiece of literary compression said that instead of descending into the dark places of the soul in this story, Tolstoy ‘descends with agonizing leisure and precision into the dark places of the body. It is a poem–one of the most harrowing ever conceived–of the insurgent flesh, of the manner in which carnality, with its pains and corruptions, penetrates and dissolves the tenuous discipline of reason.’

“In a chilling, plain language that has been shorn of most of the descriptive richness of his customary prose style, Tolstoy tells with bleak honesty what it is like to die when the mind is body-bound. . . . But what of a man whose existence had no focus? What happened to him when the little pain that wouldn’t go away arrived?”

“The German physician and literary critic A. L. Vischer has investigated the parallel relationship that exists between a man’s total personality and his relationship to death. ‘Simple, uncomplicated souls,’ he writes, ‘who do not attach such great importance to their own life, are able to accept their illness, because they accept their fate: life and heart have done their work, time for them to go. By contrast, successful and self-assured people are usually at a complete loss when faced with the reality of physical collapse.'”

“Tolstoy, for whom everything that ever happened to him was grist to his literary mill, had to examine this denial of death.”




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