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Tolstoy Journal, April 19, 2017: “the serious ‘political’ left in Russia hated the peasants.”

Today’s travel book is Eugene Onegin by Pushkin. Who is widely considered the Shakespeare of Russian literature. I believe someone wrote, the Homer and the Shakespeare of Russian literature. This is the work Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson sparred over in the book The Feud. I am getting close to the last of my travel books so I’m not sure what my featured images will be; I think I will have to figure out how to cull images from creative commons.

I will be going on a trip with my family and be gone for four days, but will take Volume VIII with me. So I don’t think I will be blogging much while gone but hope to get some new travel books in Philly!

This morning I read up to page 111 of Volume VIII of the Works, or Chapter XXIV of Part Third of Anna Karenina.

What struck me today is something I have seen before in this novel but not commented upon yet, which is how Tolstoy will have two people talking together and tell you how one is misunderstanding the other. He somehow manages to do this naturally, without the reader feeling he is being lectured to. As I’ve written before, he both tells and shows and both work.

Here is an example. Anna has just told Vronsky about telling her husband the whole truth:

“He listened, involuntarily leaning toward her, as if he wished to lighten for her the difficulty of this confidence; but as soon as she finished speaking, he suddenly drew himself up, and his face assumed a haughty and stern expression.

“‘Yes! yes! that was better, a thousand times better, I understand how hard it must have been,’ he said.

“But she did not heed his words, she read his thoughts by the expression of his face. She could not know that the expression of his face arose from the first thought that came into his mind–the thought that a duel could not now be avoided. Never had a thought of a duel entered her head, and therefore she interpreted the momentary expression of sternness in a quite different way.”

This leads her to be disappointed in Vronsky although from his perspective he is in love with her as much as before.

Here are some more underlined passages in Wilson’s Tolstoy, with, I hope, amazingly astute comments attached:

“There is a tendency to think of Tolstoy’s desire to live like a peasant as a feature of his middle and later years, a manifestation of his religious, post-literary self. But it was always there and, in the years immediately following his return from abroad, this Rousseauesque identification with the peasants was very strong. It was an important symptom of the isolation which was so necessary to him, as an artist. He could not function inside any mainstream. He had to be an outsider. With two of his brothers now dead, he was able to taste, that happy summer, some of the reassuring delights of the Ant Brotherhood. But, whether or not he was fully conscious of the fact, part of its sweetness was that it angered, not merely his neighbors, but the Government itself. It placed him out on a limb, contra mundum, beyond the pale. Always, in Tolstoy’s life, there was this dual compulsion. On the one hand, there was the need for a little band of the faithful, who looked up to him as the Master. He found it in the Yasnaya Polyana school. When he came to marry, he tried to find it in his progeny. And he was to find it in the motley band of ‘dark ones’ who, in later years, followed his teachings and example.”

I think this idea of not being in a party is true of many great writers. If a writer hews to a party line, I doubt his or her ability to be a great writer. The other thing this passage reminds me of is my reading of Emile by Rousseau. So far, I am surprised by how much I’m enjoying it. The point of view is as if from on high and haughty but I agree with much of it. And I am surprised by how conservative Rousseau is. I had always thought of him as a liberal believing in the goodness of man, the noble savage, etc. He is a curious mix. And I’ve seen in Book I of Emile two aspects of Tolstoy’s thought that echo Rousseau’s though I don’t know for sure if he picked them up from him or just agreed with them. One aspect is his thought that women are primarily meant to be mothers and wives because of how important the family is; the second is how critical of doctors Rousseau is. Tolstoy believed in both of these ideas.

More Wilson:

“As a matter of fact, Chernyshevsky’s attack on Tolstoy is a good early-warning signal of how much the serious ‘political’ left in Russia hated the peasants. They did not like the idea of anybody achieving independence, and this is what intelligent and independent-minded country people have always wanted. Tolstoy, for all his posturings, was actually on the side of the peasants whom he knew, and who loved him. He wanted them to be free.”

This in my experience is true. I used to go to a used bookstore in Portland and would occasionally argue with the owner about politics. I loved her but she could be very snooty. She would call people who shopped at Wal-Mart, “the great unwashed.” Well, now, that’s the attitude of a lot of liberals, though most often unsaid; they say they want to help the poor but they hate the poor they know. I’m not saying all liberals are this way–and I have become much more liberal over the years–but this is one of the faults of the left. In fact, out of roommates I have know, the conservatives were more generous and less dogmatic than the liberals. Why this is, I’m not sure.

And here is a link to an article I enjoyed which explores this topic of the hateful snobbery of the left. I voted for Hillary, just so you know, but I think this writer hits the nail on the head about why some people voted for Trump: How Late Night Comedy Fueled the Rise of Trump




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