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Tolstoy Journal, April 25, 2017: The Real Motorcycle

The above is, I think, my last travel book, so who know what the featured image will be tomorrow? I love the cover of this book and it opens under the dedication with a quote from Leo Tolstoy: “The vocation of every man and woman is to serve other people.” It also includes the story James Joyce said was the greatest, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” I wonder if our president has read it; I very much doubt it.

So this morning I read up to page 202 of Volume VIII of the Works or Chapter XI of Part Fourth of Anna Karenina. These pages described the interview of Karenin with a lawyer because he has decided to punish Anna by divorcing her and taking her son away from her. Then Karenin goes to Moscow where he unexpectedly meets up with Oblonsky who convinces him to come to supper, even after Karenin tells him of the divorce. Oblonsky is just an incredible character; Anna’s brother, who is so effervescent that everyone loves him.

What stood out to me in this reading was how Tolstoy provides details, the divine details as Nabokov said. (Speaking of whom, here is a link to an interesting essay about him I read this morning: A Moral Tale).

Here are some details:

“But he [the lawyer Karenin consults] was hardly seated when a moth-miller flew on the table, and the little man, with unexpected liveliness, caught it on the wing; then he quickly resumed his former attitude.”

“The little man, that he might not offend his client by the delight which his face ill concealed, fixed his eyes on Aleksei Aleksandrovitch’s feet. He saw a moth flying in front of his nose and he put out his hand, but he restrained himself, out of respect to Aleksei Aleksandrovitch’s situation.”

“‘I hear that you have just killed a bear,’ said Kitty, vainly trying to put her fork into a recalcitrant mushroom which kept flying about on the plate, and as she threw back the lace in her sleeve there was a glimpse of a white arm.”

I also noticed that Tolstoy calls Oblonsky kind-hearted; his sins come from an exuberant love of life. Contrast this with Karenin who has made himself almost into a machine. They are both administrators but how different are their personalities. And I also think of that theme of doubleness as when Anna sees herself caught in a vision of doubleness. The novel is full of doubles: characters of similar ages and backgrounds but different: Oblonsky/ Karenin; Vronsky/ Levin; Anna/ Kitty. Well, those are the ones that keep revolving in my mind. And as the love of Vronsky and Anna deteriorates, the love of Levin and Kitty grows and develops.

Here are some quotes from Wilson’s Tolstoy:

“It will always be tempting when he [Tolstoy] starts to condemn the things of this world to set up a contrast between the moralist and that ‘crude biological assertion of life which is not beyond but simply outside any moral categories.’ But it is a dichotomy which we draw to make sense of what cannot, properly be made sense of: that is, Tolstoy’s capacity to tap, or to appear to tap, the very forces of nature itself. And this he does both in the later doctrinal writings, as well as in the earlier stories. It is not so much a contrast between Tolstoy’s ideas and his life-acceptance, as it is a sense of hierarchy. Olenin being bitten by mosquitoes suddenly feels himself to be part of the living organism of nature: not a Russian nobleman or the relation of this or that grandee, but just a creature, like the deer and the mosquito. In the Tolstoyan scale of values, this is a life-enhancing thought. ‘It’s all one what I might be–an animal such as any other over whom the grass will grow and nothing more, or a frame in which has been set a part of the one deity–all the same, it is necessary to live in the best way.’ We would spoil Tolstoy if we tried to suggest that his life and work were not riven with inconsistencies, but this humility before life itself, this sense of existence having a divine significance, is one of the recurrent possessions of his genius. ‘Suddenly, it was as if the sun had shone into his soul.'”

Here again–Wilson is talking about Tolstoy’s The Cossacks–Tolstoy strikes a Zen Buddhist note, the idea of life being one. Which reminds me of something I read today–Robert Pirsig–that Robert Pirsig had died. He was the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of my favorite books. I had recently discovered he was living in Maine, about forty minutes away from my house, had looked up his address and thought of writing him a letter. Anyway, this is his big theme, that there is no separation between the physical and the spiritual. Tolstoy read the Buddhist scriptures but I don’t think he had read them at this time; I think he just saw life this way.

And this is, or has been, for a while, the way I have been seeing life more and more. I am still Catholic and going to mass but I see more and more the aspect of faith Paul spoke of, that God is he in whom we move and live and have our being. I cannot relinquish my faith in Jesus; it just seems to me that it happened, all that stuff in the Apostle’s Creed. But Buddhism works for me as a medicine, as a way to think about existence in a healing way. If I didn’t have that faith in Jesus, I would be a Buddhist, and that would be fine. But I can’t, like Dostoyevsky, let go of Jesus. Sometimes I think, Jesus is my savior, Buddha is my meditation instructor. I, at any rate, need both of them. Just as, on the level of art, I need both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.


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