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Tolstoy Journal: April 26, 2017: “so ghastly a mockery”

The above I include because it refers to Tolstoy more than once, especially to his work, which I will read and discuss later this year, My Confession. I’ve read The Varieties of Religious Experience once, during graduate school when I should’ve been reading other things. But it was fascinating! James discusses Tolstoy in his chapter, “The Sick Soul,” which is appropriate because Tolstoy was brilliant at diagnosis but not so much (but maybe better than he is given credit for?) at prescriptions for healing.

Here are two passages in that chapter that apply to Tolstoy’s crisis of faith after writing Anna Karenina (which by the way I have read up to page 226 of Volume VIII in, or Chapter XVII of Part Fourth):

“The only thing that need interest us now is the phenomenon of his [Tolstoy’s] absolute disenchantment with ordinary life, and the fact that the whole range of habitual values may, to a man as powerful and full of faculty as he was, come to appear so ghastly a mockery.”

“Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! help! No prophet can claim to bring a final message unless he says things that will have a sound of reality in the ears of victims such as these. But the deliverance must come in as strong a form as the complaint, if it is to take effect; and that seems a reason why the coarser religions, revivalistic, orgiastic, with blood and miracles and supernatural operations, may possibly never be displaced. Some constitutions need them too much.”

And here is a passage that refers back to yesterday’s blog about Christianity and Buddhism: “The completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed. Buddhism, of course, and Christianity are the best known to us of these. They are essentially religions of deliverance: the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life.”

The pages in AK that I read this morning dealt with Kitty and Levin talking at the Oblonsky’s dinner party, their reconciliation, and Levin’s renewed proposal. At the same time, Dolly, Oblonsky’s wife, tries to get Karenin to not divorce Anna, but he refuses. (There is another doubleness here, between Dolly and Karenin, as those wronged by adultery of spouses, and another double between Oblonsky and Anna, brother and sister, both adulterers.)

Here was the passage that struck me most deeply. It describes Levin walking the streets of Petersburg, biding his time before he can go to Kitty’s house and get her parents’ blessing for their marriage.

“What he saw that day he never saw again. He was particularly struck by the children on their way to school; the dark blue pigeons flying from the roof to the sidewalk; the saikas or little cakes powdered with flour that an invisible hand was arranging in a window. These cakes, these pigeons, and two little lads were celestial objects. All this happened at once; one of the little lads ran toward a pigeon, and looked at Levin, smiling; the pigeon flapped its wings, and flew off glittering in the sunlight through a cloud of fine snow; and the smell of hot bread came through the window where the saikas were displayed. All these things, taken as a whole, produced so lively an impression on Levin that he laughed aloud until the tears came.”

Here are some more passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy:

“This book is primarily the story of a novelist, but not of a novelist whose works are self-contained. Rather, it is the history of a great genius whose art grew out of his three uneasy and irresolvable relationships: his relationship with God, his relationship with women and his relationship with Russia. In all cases, the relationships were stormy, full of contradictions. They were love-hate relationships, and the hate was sometimes rather hard to distinguish from the love.”

“The superficial resemblance of his characters to figures in ‘real life’ might be very noticeable to those characters themselves, but it is not this resemblance which gives them their life, their vigour. The imagined life comes from another source–from the artist himself. That is why the game of matching the figures in a novel to their ‘real life’ equivalents is at best only half satisfactory and, in the end, positively misleading.”

“Tolstoy was plagued all his life by a thorough-going scepticism which amounted to an incapacitating disease. By scepticism here we are not talking just about a Voltairean view of God or the universe, but a capacity to question the point of doing or feeling anything. It begins with Schopenhauerian pessimism. It can lead in the end to a sort of Hindu detachment. In Tolstoy’s personal writings, it is summed up by the untranslatable little shrug of a phrase, chto zh?–so what, what then? is implied by it. He is always asking it, often with devastating effect.”

Here is Wilson about Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment being published at the same time, and more:

“Biographers and literary historians have made surprisingly little of the fact that Dostoyevsky’s and Tolstoy’s masterpieces were both published at the same time, in the same periodical and by the same editor. Surprisingly little, too, has been made of the fact that there are distinct echoes each of the other in both the great books. How could they ignore each other? Each must have felt as he was writing his novel that he was bringing to birth a masterpiece such as Russian literature had never seen. In a sense, each was right. But there, in the selfsame publication, there was something of at least comparable greatness. They could not but be astonished and chagrined. The fact that they were silent about it has allowed their biographers to ignore the singular importance of this literary dog which does not bark in the night.”

This would be as if Faulkner and Hemingway had been publishing The Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises in serial form in an American magazine.

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