Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, May 2, 2017: “One has to be so terribly religious to be an artist.”

As I wrote yesterday, I finished reading Tolstoy Or Dostoevsky and enjoyed it very much. Today’s blog will, I think, be devoted to it. I did read my pages of AK last night so am up to page 24 of Volume IX of the Works or Chapter XXVII of Part Fifth of Anna Karenina: these pages describe Karenin’s life after Anna’s departure and the entrance of the Countess Lidia into his life. As Steiner points out in his book, Tolstoy is merciless in his realism; just when you like a character or think he or she is on the right track and all will be well, he pulls you up short by showing how the character has not really changed, or not as much as you thought he or she had. You think Karenin has become a devout Christian but already his pride and haughtiness are twisting his religion, with the Countess Lidia’s help, into something strange and repulsive. Just as when, in War and Peace, you think Prince Andrei is going to be a new person after being wounded at Austerlitz, and he is for a while, but then he goes back to his old social-climbing self. Merciless. But true.

But I am going to skip the usual passages from Anna K and instead quote passages from Steiner’s excellent book and say what I think of them. I view these passages as notes for the book I hope to turn this blog into. I am thinking of printing these pages up, cutting what seems lifeless or boring, shifting quoted passages around where appropriate, and adding afterthoughts in italics to each day’s entry. That way, by year’s end, concurrently with having read the Works, I will have the book done.

Steiner (p. 5): “The answer [to the question of historical relevance] is that ancient recognitions and habits of understanding run deeper than the rigours of time. Tradition and the long ground-swell of unity are no less real than that sense of disorder and vertigo which the new dark ages have loosed upon us. Call epic that form of poetic apprehension in which a moment of history or a body of religious myth is centrally engaged; say of tragedy that it is a vision of life which derives its principles of meaning from the infirmity of man’s estate, from what Henry James called the ‘imagination of disaster.’ Neither definition will do in respect of exhaustiveness or inclusion. But they will suffice to remind us that there are great traditions, lines of spiritual descent, which relate Homer to Yeats and Aeschylus to Chekhov. To these criticsm must return with passionate awe and a sense of life renewed.”

Amen.

Steiner (p. 7): “Man is, as Malraux affirms in The Voices of Silence, trapped between the finiteness of the human condition and the infinity of the stars. Only through his monuments of reason and artistic creation can he lay claim to transcendent dignity. But in doing so he both imitates and rivals the shaping powers of the Deity. Thus there is at the heart of the creative process a religious paradox. No man is more wholly wrought in God’s image or more inevitably His challenger than the poet. ‘I always feel,’ said D.H. Lawrence, ‘as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me–and it’s rather an awful feeling. One has to be so terribly religious, to be an artist.’ Not, perhaps, to be a true critic.”

Amen, amen.

Steiner (p. 8): “Let me, therefore, affirm my unrepentant conviction that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky stand foremost among novelists.”

Verily, verily.

Steiner (PP. 10-11): “But why ‘Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?’ Because I propose to consider their achievements and define the nature of their respective genius through the contrast. The Russian philosopher Berdiaev wrote: ‘It would be possible to determine two patterns, two types among men’s souls, the one inclined toward the spirit of Tolstoy, the other toward that of Dostoevsky.’ Experience bears him out. A reader may regard them as the two principle masters of fiction–that is to say, he may find in their novels the most inclusive and searching portrayal of life. But press him closely and he will choose between them. If he tells you which he prefers and why, you will, I think, have penetrated into his own nature. The choice between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky foreshadows what existentialists would call un engagement; it commits the imagination to one or the other of two radically opposed interpretations of man’s fate, of the historical future, and of the mystery of God. To quote Berdiaev again: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky exemplify ‘an insoluble controversy, in which two sets of assumptions, two fundamental conceptions of existence, confront each other.’ This confrontation touches on some of the prevailing dualities in western thought as they reach back to the Platonic dialogues. But it is also tragically germane to the ideological warfare of our time. Soviet presses pour out literally millions of copies of the novels of Tolstoy; they have only recently and reluctantly issued The Possessed.”

I’m not sure about this. I see what he’s saying. I was a Dostoevsky fan when I was young, and I was a very traditional Catholic convert. Now, many years later, I tend to like the works of Tolstoy more and have been exploring Buddhism for five or so years. Now, if you put a gun to my head and said, “War and Peace, or The Brothers Karamozov, choose or be shot,” I’m pretty sure I would reply, “The Brothers Karamozov.” So in that ultimate sense, I still choose Dostoevsky. But I wonder why not both . . . and, instead of either . . . or? The other thing with the way Steiner formulates his question here is that if you choose Tolstoy you are choosing the Soviet Union, the idea that one can build a Utopia on earth, which we all know leads to the Gulag and/ or the Krematoria. You could ask, “Communism or Fascism”? How about neither? Or “Pagan or Christian”? Well, it depends; I am a Christian, but I have always been very moved by Ishmael’s claim in Moby Dick that it’s better to sleep with a sober Pagan than a drunk Christian.

 

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