Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, March 26, 2017: Are you a fox or hedgehog?

The above is an entry in my copy of The Steal Like An Artist Journal: A Notebook For Creative Kleptomaniacs by  Austin Kleon. On this one he asks you to plot your current project on a graph of the creative process. There are six sections and I am doing this project in twelve months so I assigned two months to each section and thought I would see if this is how it goes. In other words, will I enter the Dark Night of the Soul, creatively speaking, at the beginning of July and be at rock bottom at the end of August? Will I just be bored in May and June? The lucky thing is, if I am going down to the dark night in July and August, at least I have Ivan Ilyich, Master and Man, and The Kreutzer Sonata to keep my company.

I have surprised myself by liking the work of Austin Kleon. My wife bought a copy of Steal Like An Artist and at first I thought it was kind of hokey or too wacky for me but I enjoyed it enough to buy Show Your Work, which partially inspired this blog. Then I went all out and bought the journal/notebook. And again I have enjoyed it and it has inspired me to get back to movies and music.

Anyway, back to Tolstoy. I read my stint today, starting the Epilogue of War and Peace and am on page 176 or Chapter VII. There have been more speculation/proclamations about history and Pierre and Natasha have married, and Nikolai and Princess are about to. Realizing that I was about to finish War and Peace in a few days, I put aside Tolstoy or Dostoevsky and picked up The Hedgehog and the Fox, which examines Tolstoy’s theory of history through the hypothesis that he is naturally a fox who wants to know everything but believes in being a hedgehog who believes only one thing.

That is, Tolstoy does not believe in free will but that everything is determined; yet we have to live with the illusion we have free will and that is better than believing we know what the thing is that determines all the rest. The problem is these two theses contradict one another; or at least there is a tension there that is never resolved.

First some quotes from Tolstoy then some from Berlin: “If it is admitted that human life can be directed by reason, then the possibility of life is annihilated.” Tolstoy destroys reason with reason. He is, at times, sawing off the branch he is sitting on, which is the error of modern philosophy. Much of it suffers from what has been called “self-referential inconsistency.” Deconstructionists set up theories that deconstruct everything but themselves and their theories. Tolstoy does this but then retreats into God. At least so far that is what I see him doing.

Berlin: “For there exists a great chasm between those, one one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel–a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance–and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle. . . . The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.”

This got me to thinking what I am: hedgehog or fox? As far as I can make out, when I was younger I was a hedgehog: I became an evangelical Christian, then an Anglican, then a Roman Catholic. But, once in awhile, I would try to be a fox. But as I have aged, I have noticed more fox-like tendencies in me. That is, I used to love the work of Faulkner, but now I prefer Hemingway; I used to love Dostoyevsky, but now prefer Tolstoy. I’ve even thought about reading Montaigne! And I have mentioned my deep interest in and exploration of Buddhism, especially of the Zen variety.

Of course, Isaac Babel said he had two masters: Gogol and Maupassant. There you go, a hedgehog and a fox. You need both. I love what Babel said about Maupassant, that he loved his work but something about it bothered him until he realized what it was: “Maupassant, he has no heart!”

I think I am a hedgehog at heart, but one needs to be, is, a fox at times. And vice versa for foxes.

Here is more Berlin: “The hypothesis I wish to offer is that Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog; that his gifts and achievement are one thing, and his beliefs, and consequently his interpretation of his own achievement, another; and that consequently his ideals have led him, and those whom his genius for persuasion has taken in, into a systematic misinterpretation of what he and others were doing or should be doing.”

“This essay is an attempt to deal with his historical doctrines, and to consider both his motives for holding the views he holds and some of their probable sources. In short, it is an attempt to take Tolstoy’s attitude to history as seriously as he himself meant his readers to take it, although for a somewhat different reason–for the light it casts on a single man of genius rather than on the fate of all mankind.”

“Contemporary historians and military specialists, at least one of whom had himself fought in 1812, indignantly complained of inaccuracies of fact [in War and Peace]; and since then damning evidence has been adduced of falsification of historical detail by the author of War and Peace, done apparently with deliberate intent, in full knowledge of the available original sources and in the known absence of any counter-evidence–falsification perpetrated, it seems, in the interests not so much of an artistic as of an ‘ideological’ purpose.”

My thousand words is up but I have to say I have noticed this same dishonesty in The Gospel in Brief. Tolstoy writes there that he is using the original Greek but there was at least one place where it appeared to me he was inserting his rather stringent views on alcohol and sex, original Greek be damned. Not that I know more than a smattering myself, but I have read the New Testament regularly for forty years or so and unless all the translations I have read are wrong then Tolstoy was cheating a bit. It appears he did so in War and Peace also, according to Berlin’s sources.




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