Today’s travel book into the land of Tolstoy is one of my favorites. I can’t remember what used bookstore I bought it in but it’s a keeper: Talks with Tolstoy by A.B. Goldenweizer, translated by S.S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf, introduction by Henry Le Roy Finch.
I had fallen behind so yesterday I had to read 44 or so pages. I am up to page 131 in Volume VI or Chapter XVI in Part XV of War and Peace.
There are a lot of things I could say about certain passages. First off, in his praise of Kutuzof, I sometimes wonder if Tolstoy is contradicting his determinist view of history. He says individuals are at the mercy of forces out of their control and that the figures we think of as the strongest, such as Napoleon, are really the weakest. But Kutuzof he praises to the skies. I think the difference is that he praises him for realizing that he, General Kutuzof, has no power, that he knows time and patience are the great instruments of history, and that the more we meddle with events, the more we mess them up. It is a very Taoist view of leadership. One could write a whole essay on how Kutuzof is the ideal leader according to the Tao Teh Ching.
These pages I read speak of what Pierre has learned, how he is released, and how he becomes ill before he can go home. But before this, I just remembered, there is a long section which seems purposeless, which describes the the Russian soldiers singing around their fires, and how two Frenchmen stagger in to their company and how the Russians take care of them. These pages do not keep the plot going nor do they add to it; in that, they are like the historical philosophical detours Tolstoy takes. I have a picture of my head of him writing and saying, Oh yes, I must include what it is like to be in the army sitting around the fire. And that is enough reason to include it.
“They gave him [Morel, the French prisoner] another bowl of the gruel, and then Morel, laughing, took still a third. Jovial smiles broadened the faces of all the young soldiers as they look at Morel. The old veterans, counting it unseemly to descend to such trivialities, lay on the other side of the fire, but occasionally raised themselves on their elbows and stared at Morel with a smile.
“‘They’re men like us,’ said one of them, as he wrapped himself up in his cloak. ‘Even wormwood has roots to grow by.’
“‘Oo! Lord! Lord! What a terrible lot of stars! It’s going to be a cold night.’
“And all grew silent again.”
And this description of Kutuzof; what struck me about it was how it prophesies Tolstoy as an old man:
“This was all that he had ever been heard to say. And all that he said,–for example, that it was necessary to wait for provisions, that the men were unprovided with boots,–all this was so simple, and all that they [the other generals] proposed was so complicated and deep, that it was a self-evident truth for them that he was stupid and old, and they were the commanders of genius, who were only lacking in power.”
I wonder if Tolstoy already saw himself in this role or admired it in Kutuzof and later replicated it. Was it a role he had to play? Was it just his egotism?
Here is a wonderful line about Pierre’s illness: “The doctors treated him, bled him, and made him swallow drugs; nevertheless he recovered.”
There follows a description of how Pierre, after all his suffering, has learned to listen to people, to appreciate them because he is no longer searching so hard for God. The following is a long but beautiful and necessary passage. (I wanted to go on and on about Tolstoy or Dostoevsky by George Steiner which I started reading today but that will have to wait; what a great work of criticism!)
“He [Pierre] had not been able hitherto to see the Great, the Incomprehensible, the Infinite, in anything. He had only felt that It ought to be somewhere, and he had searched for it.
“In all that was near and comprehensible, he had seen only what was limited, the narrow, finite, meaningless. He had provided himself with a mental telescope, and looked out into the distance, yonder, where this narrow finite object, concealed in the murky distance, seemed to him great and infinite, simply because it was not clearly seen.
“In this way European life, politics, Masonry, philosophy, philanthropy, had presented themselves to him.
“But at the very moments when he had accounted himself most weak his mind had leapt forth into that same distance, and then he had seen how small and narrow, how finite and meaningless, it all was.
“Now, however, he had learned to see the Great, the Eternal, and the Infinite in everything, and therefore, naturally, in order to see it, in order to enjoy the contemplation of it, he had thrown away his telescope, through which he had, till then, been looking over men’s heads, and he now joyfully contemplated the ever changing, incomprehensible, and eternal life all around him. And the more closely he looked, the more serene and happy he became.
“The terrible question which hitherto had overturned all his mental edifices–the question Why–no longer existed for him. Now to that question Why, his mind had always ready the simple answer: Because God is, that God without whose will not a hair falls from the head of a human being.”
What’s great about Steiner’s book is that he says literary criticism has to do with love, with admiration. It is not a science, and you must say things in it you cannot prove. I will have a lot of quotes from his book and hope this journal will be written in the same spirit of love as his book.
Here’s a taste of Steiner’s book: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order. Through some primary instinct of communion we seek to convey to others the quality and force of our experience. We would persuade them to lay themselves open to it. In this attempt at persuasion originate the truest insights criticism can afford.”