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Tolstoy Journal: March 27, 2017: The Object of Marriage and the Meaning of History

Above is a photo of my Modern Library (not hardcover but some sort of soft-cardboard stuff) copy of Anna Karenina, which I have read once. And will read again but from my Works of Lyof Tolstoi, translated by Nathan Haskell Dole. I still prefer the Constance Garnett translations above all the others I have read. I have no Russian but all I can say is I enjoy them more, and sometimes I wonder if the alleged accuracy of contemporary translations does not make up for translations made around the time the work was originally written. I have to say also that I tend to like the translations of English men and women more than those of other nationalities, I’m not sure why.

I’ve now read up to page 198 of War and Peace, or Chapter XI of the Epilogue. These pages were all about the marriages and family lives of Nikolai/Marya and Pierre/Natasha. What struck me from these pages are some paragraphs that would be very unpopular to contemporary readers, at least for most feminists and “progressives.” I don’t totally agree with Tolstoy here, but I think there is a core truth here that he nails:

“The discussions and criticisms on the rights of women, on the relations of marriage, on the liberty and the rights of husband and wife, although at that period they had not begun to be called questions, were nevertheless just the same as they are at the present time; but not only did these questions not interest Natasha, but she really failed to understand them.

“These questions, even then just the same as at the present time, existed only for those who looked for nothing but that sensual gratification in marriage which husband and wife afford each other; that is, merely the beginning of marriage, and not its whole significance–the family.

“These arguments and the present-day questions are analogous to the question how can one get the most possible enjoyment from dinner? and at that time did not exist any more than they do now for men whose object in eating dinner is nourishment, and in marriage is raising a family.

“If the object in eating dinner is the nourishment of the body, then the person who should eat two dinners at a sitting would perchance attain great enjoyment, but would not attain his object, since his stomach would not digest the two dinners.

“If the object of marriage is a family, then the person who should wish many wives (or husbands) would perhaps get much enjoyment, but would not in any case be likely to have a family.

“The whole question, provided the object of a dinner is nourishment, and the object of marriage is a family, is settled simply by not eating more than the stomach can digest, and by a person not having more husbands or wives than are necessary for a family; that is, one.”

This reminds me of the dialogue in Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet when he discovers that the alien he is talking with only has sex enough with his mate to have children then stops. Why would you have sex, the alien wonders, once you have had your children? Well, in an unfallen world that may be the way it is but in ours . . . . But it is a serious question.

Here are some more quotes from Berlin and any thoughts that occur to me:

“And yet there is surely a paradox here. Tolstoy’s interest in history and the problem of historical truth was passionate, almost obsessive, both before and during the writing of War and Peace. No one who reads his journals and letters, or indeed War and Peace itself, can doubt that the author himself, at any rate, regarded this problem as the heart of the entire matter–the central issue round which the novel is built. ‘Charlatanism’, ‘superficiality’, ‘intellectual feebleness’–surely Tolstoy is the last writer to whom these epithets seem applicable [which his critics have used in discussing his theory of history]: bias, perversity, arrogance, perhaps; self-deception, lack of restraint, possibly; moral or spiritual inadequacy–of this he was better aware than his enemies; but failure of intellect, lack of critical power, a tendency to emptiness, liability to ride off on some patently absurd, superficial doctrine to the detriment of realistic description or analysis of life, infatuation with some fashionable theory which Botkin or Fet can easily see through, although Tolstoy, alas, cannot–these charges seem grotesquely unplausible. No man in his senses, during this century at any rate, would ever dream of denying Tolstoy’s intellectual power, his appalling capacity to penetrate any conventional disguise . . . . surely there is something here which deserves attention.”

Berlin is saying that most of the critics have refused to take Tolstoy’s theory of history seriously, but they should, because Tolstoy was obviously a genius and we better take everything he says seriously. He goes on to say that for Tolstoy, history became the answer to the question of the meaning of life, because religion, philosophy, etc. were prone to abstractions, meaningless statements.

“History, only history, only the sum of the concrete events in time and space–the sum of the actual experience of actual men and women in their relation to one another and to an actual three-dimensional, empirically experienced, physical environment–this alone contained the truth, the material out of which genuine answers–answers needing for their apprehension no special senses or faculties which normal human beings did not possess–might be constructed. . . . History alone–the sum of empirically discoverable data–held the key to the mystery of why what happened happened as it did and not otherwise; and only history, consequently, could throw light on the fundamental ethical problems which obsessed him as they did every Russian thinker in the nineteenth century. What is to be done? How should one live? Why are we here? What must we do and do? The study of historical connections and the demand for empirical answers to these proklyatye voprosy, became fused into one in Tolstoy’s mind, as his early diaries and letters show very vividly.”


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