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Tolstoy Journal, March 30, 2017: “the circle of Eternity, that ultimate limit”

Today is the day that my father died at age 59 in 1999. I’m not sure what that has to do with this blog but it certainly has to do with Tolstoy who tried to face death more squarely than anyone. I remember when I got off the phone with Dad when he had told me he was terminally ill, that I told my wife I had to go for a walk. Outside I looked at the gray sky, the barren trees. And I thought, This is the way it always is. I meant more than I could say but at minimum what I meant was death is always present. Any day could bring our death. Nevertheless we are surprised. God rest your soul, Dad.

The above photo is of the copy of Resurrection that I have read once. It was translated by Louise Maude. My memory of the story disagrees with what I quoted D.H. Lawrence saying about it in an earlier blog but we will see. I remember it being an especially devastating critique of courts and the legal system.

Today, I have read up to page 266 of Volume VI of the Works and Novels of Lyof Tolstoi, or up to Chapter VIII of Part the Second of the Epilogue of War and Peace. Tomorrow I will finish reading War and Peace. For the first time.

The pages I read show Tolstoy in full-throttle polemic mode. I skipped ahead and it looks like there are no more personal scenes. Now he is wrestling with the beast, with his hedgehog of history. It seems to me what he is doing here is confusing the science of history and philosophy or theology. I have always thought that science tells us how things work, philosophy (through reason) and theology (through faith/revelation) tell us why. Tolstoy seems to want to make science into theology. He wants to know eternity through reason, an impossible task. Berlin basically says this but avoids using the words eternity, divinity, and God as much as he can.

Just as a tangent that popped into my mind, I was thinking of how some scenes in Tolstoy are almost unbearable to read, some part of the battle scenes, the hospital scene in which Nikolai sees the Cossack crying for water, et. al. Then I thought of such scenes in For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway; you can see how he is imitating or has learned from Tolstoy in the story that Pilar tells of how the Republicans force the Fascists in their village off the cliff, and the part at the end when Jordan is strapping the explosives to the bridge, how time slows down and crystallizes the action.

Tolstoy: “In the moral relation Power is the cause of the event; in the physical relation it is those who submit to the Power. But since moral activity is meaningless without physical activity, therefore the cause of an event is found neither in the one nor in the other, but in a combination of the two.

“Or, in other words, the concept of a cause is inapplicable to the phenomenon which we are regarding.

“In last analysis we reach the circle of Eternity, that ultimate limit to which in every domain of thought the human intellect must come, unless it is playing with its subject.”

Here are some more Berlin quotes:

“Patiently and mildly he [a historian named Kareev who criticized Tolstoy’s view of history] pointed out that, fascinating as the contrast between the reality of personal life and the life of the social anthill may be, Tolstoy’s conclusions did not follow.”

“Tolstoy was right to say that the impersonal ‘forces’ and ‘purposes’ of the older historians were myths, and dangerously misleading myths, but unless we were allowed to ask what made this or that group of individuals–who, in the end, of course, alone were real–behave thus and thus, without needing first to provide separate psychological analyses of each member of the group and then to ‘integrate’ them all, we could not think about history or society at all. Yet we did do this, and profitably, and to deny that we could discover a good deal by social observation, historical inference and similar means was, for Kareev, tantamount to denying that we had criteria for distinguishing between historical truth and falsehood which were less or more reliable–and that was surely mere prejudice, fanatical obscurantism. . . . Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him; the ‘important people’ are less important than they themselves or the more foolish historians may suppose, but neither are they shadows; individuals, besides their intimate inner lives, which alone seem real to Tolstoy, have social purposes, and some among them have strong wills too, and these sometimes transform the lives of communities.”

“His genius lay in the perception of specific properties, the almost inexpressible individual quality in virtue of which the given object is uniquely different from all others. Nevertheless he longed for a universal explanatory principle; that is, the perception of resemblances or common origins, or single purpose, or unity in the apparent variety of the mutually exclusive bits and pieces which composed the furniture of the world.”

“The unresolved conflict between Tolstoy’s belief that the attributes of personal life alone were real and his doctrine that analysis of them is insufficient to explain the course of history (that is, the behaviour of societies) is paralleled, at a profounder and more personal level, by the conflict between, on the one hand, his own gifts both as a writer and as a man, and, on the other, his ideals–that which he sometimes believed himself to be, and at all times profoundly believed in, and wished to be.”

In a sense, then, Tolstoy wanted to be Dostoyevsky but he didn’t have it in him. He couldn’t make himself believe all that stuff and nonsense about miracles, mystery, and authority, but he longed for something, God or the Tao, nevertheless. Today, thinking about him and reading the Tao Teh Ching, I thought Tolstoy longed for the Tao (or God); his mistake was in thinking he could think his way into it.


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