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Tolstoy Journal, March 22, 2017: “Great is good; not great is bad.”

Above is Volume II of Leo Tolstoy by Ernest J. Simmons, one of my Tolstoy “travel books.” I have not finished reading Volume I yet, but am trying to show previews of highlights to come, including quotes from the travel books.

Last night I read up to page 66 of Volume VI of the Works, or in the midst of Chapter XIX of Part XIV of War and Peace. Besides the usual ruminations on history, these pages take us back to Pierre because he is one of the prisoners freed by Denisof and Dolokhof’s raid on the French transport.

What I found interesting here is how realistic Tolstoy is about people. How they change, think they will never change, but go on changing. For instance, when Prince Andrei saw the blue sky above after being wounded, I thought he would become a more spiritual man; well, he did for a while, but way led on to way, and he was back in the world after a few years, and then even back into the army that he had said he despised.

And now Pierre, having become a changed man after his privations, undergoes even more privations and things are not so simple anymore. Platon’s fever comes back and Pierre wants nothing to do with him. This shocked me, but then I realized how realistic Tolstoy is being. Even though Pierre loves the old peasant, he is revolted by his illness. We can never overcome our physical reactions, or seldom.

“Karatayef [Platon], on the third day out from Moscow, had a relapse of the same fever from which he had suffered in the Moscow hospital, and as he grew worse Pierre avoided him. He knew not why it was, but from the time that Karatayef began to fail, Pierre found himself obliged to exercise great self-control to be near him. And when he approached him, and heard the low groans which he kept up all the time when they were in camp, and smelt the odor which now more powerfully than ever exhaled from Karatayef, Pierre avoided him as far as possible, and kept him out of his mind.”

I could not believe Pierre would treat Platon like this but Tolstoy is merciless about the realities of human life. Later, because he is holding things up, two Frenchmen execute Karatayef and this is Pierre’s reaction:

“From the place where Karatayef had been left behind, the report of a musket-shot was heard. Pierre distinctly heard this report, but at the instant he heard it he recollected that he had not finished his calculation how many stages there were to Smolensk, a calculation in which he had been interrupted by the arrival of the marshal. And he proceeded with his counting. . . . The dog stayed behind, and was howling around the place where Karatayef was left.

“‘What a fool! what is she barking about?’ Pierre exclaimed inwardly.”

Tolstoy knows how much a person can stand and when, to survive, he will ignore reality.

And he makes a good point in his ruminations when he writes about historians justifying Napoleon’s desertion of his comrades because he was “great.”

“For, when it is no longer possible to stretch out the attenuated threads of historical arguments, when actions flagrantly contradict what humanity calls good and even right, the historians bring up the saving idea of greatness. Greatness seems to exclude the possibility of applying the standards of good and evil. In the great, nothing is bad. He who is great is not charged with the atrocity of which he may have been guilty. . . .

Great is good; not great is bad.

“Greatness is, according to them, the quality of certain peculiar beings, whom they call heroes.

“And Napoleon, fleeing to his own fireside, wrapped in his warm furs, and leaving behind his perishing companions, and those men whom, according to his idea, he had led into Russia, feels that he is great, and his soul is tranquil. . . .

“It has never entered the mind of any man that by taking greatness as the absolute standard of good and evil, he only proclaims his own emptiness and immeasurable littleness.

“For us who have the standard of right and wrong set by Christ, there is nothing incommensurate. And there is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and justice.”

This reminds me a bit of when C.S. Lewis says that all the dictators and tyrants have always been amazingly the same, but the saints are all wonderfully different, unique. It seems to me, reading about current politics, that most politicians have sold their souls for power or influence or in the desire to be great. On the other hand, I have a relative who says we should be thankful for the politicians; “Somebody’s got to do it,” he says. “Better them than me.”

Here are some more quotes from Blythe:

“Tolstoy too died with difficulty. His disciples, the ‘Tolstoyens,’ heard his last words: ‘The truth . . .I care a great deal . . . How they . . .'”

“When children were born and parents died in the actual marriage bed, where first and last cries were heard in the very same room, where the first things looked at were often the last things seen, where the corpse lay where the lover’s body moved, when the entire intimacy of life from start to finish was confined to the family house and not to maternity wings, terminal wards and funeral parlors, death itself possessed dimensions and connotations that are now either forgotten or stifle. Everyone until recently knew the actual smell of death. . . . When death came, it was the family who dealt with it, not the specialists. Death’s mysteries and its chores became inseparable.”

“The traditions governing death in nineteenth century fiction are broken page by page [in The Death of Ivan Ilyich]. This is how it really happens, Tolstoy is saying, this is what the outrage of the ego is like.”

“A nonidentifying process has moved across their [Ilyich’s family] usual view of him like a filter, and already, with the breath still in him, he is outside their comprehension.”

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