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Tolstoy Journal, May 4, 2017: “the desecration of our state.”

I am up to page 98 of Volume IX of the Works or Chapter X of Part Sixth of Anna Karenina. I also read from page 64 to 83 of Emile, one of Tolstoy’s favorite books. I’ve decided to try to read 20 pages a day (when possible) from one of my “travel books” to go with whatever I have to read of Tolstoy himself, but the latter comes first if a choice has to be made.

The pages I read in AK were about Levin at home with the pregnant Kitty and then Oblonsky coming with Kitty’s third cousin, a stout fun-loving fellow named Vasenka. There is also a scene wherein Levin’s half-brother wants to propose to one of Kitty’s best friends, Vavara, on a mushroom expedition. The way in which Tolstoy describes it makes you want the proposal to go well and you think it’s going to, but–the realist strikes again–the proposal does not go well, in fact, never happens. Tolstoy keeps taking the wind out the sails but yet does not depress the reader.

These pages also brilliantly describe jealousy. Levin, as soon as Vasenka shows up, feels put-out and then, as the evening progresses, ferociously jealous. This is described masterfully and reminds me of some of the scenes in Raging Bull when Robert De Niro’s character is caught in the claustrophobic world of jealousy. I was going to quote a passage about jealousy but I realize now I want to quote a description of how Levin feels when Oblonsky shows up, not with his father-in-law, as they expected, but with the cousin dandy instead.

“Levin, who a few moments before had been in the happiest frame of mind, now looked at them all with indignant eyes, and everything disgusted him.

“‘Whom did he kiss yesterday with those same lips?’ he queried, as he saw how affectionate Stepan Arkadyevitch was to his wife. He looked at Dolly, and even she was displeasing to him. ‘Of course she cannot believe in his love for her. How, then, can she seem so glad? Repulsive!’ said Levin to himself.

“He looked at the princess [Kitty’s mother], who had seemed to him so charming a moment before, and her manner of receiving this Veslovsky and his ribbons [he wears a Scottish hat], as if she were at home there, displeased him.

“Even Sergyei Ivanovitch [Levin’s half-brother], who had come out on the porch with the rest, seemed to him disagreeable by reason of the hypocritical friendliness with which he met Stepan Arkadyevitch; for Levin knew that his brother neither liked nor respected Oblonsky.

“And Varenka disgusted him, because she, with her sainte nitouche look, nevertheless met this stranger as if she thought only what sort of a husband would he make for her.

“And most displeasing of all was Kitty, as she fell into conformity with the tone of gayety with which that gentleman regarded his visit, as if it were a festival for himself and all the rest; especially disagreeable was the peculiar smile with which she responded to his smile.”

This passage really hit me because I have struggled with the same judgemental moods, times when it just sweeps me up and makes it hard to be sociable. I wish that meant I was as great a writer as Tolstoy!

Here are some passages from Steiner.

Steiner, pp. 229: “The narrator of the Letters from the Underworld expresses through his acts and language a final ‘No.’ When Tolstoy remarked to Gorky that Dostoevsky ‘ought to have made himself acquainted with the teachings of Confucius or the Buddhists; that would have calmed him down,’ the underground man must have howled derisively from his lair. The univers concentrationnaire–the world of the death camps–confirms beyond denial Dostoevsky’s insights into the savagery of men, into their inclination, both as individuals and as hordes, to stamp out within themselves the embers of humanity. The subterranean narrator defines his species as ‘A creature which walks on two legs and is devoid of gratitude.’ Tolstoy also realized that there was no abundance of gratitude, but instead of ‘creature’ he would always have written ‘man.’

“That we should, at times, think him old-fashioned marks the desecration of our state.”

I think here Steiner is right, but he leaves out one important aspect of Tolstoy’s work, the part in War and Peace wherein Pierre talks about the force in humankind that makes them do what they know is wrong to do; as when the French soldiers execute the Russians who allegedly set Moscow aflame. It seems to me that those passages get pretty damn close to the concentration camp anguish. However, I agree that Dostoevsky dove deeper than Tolstoy. Pierre sees the phenomenon but he doesn’t explore it.

And this diving deeper has kept me Christian, I think. I have often been tempted to go Buddhist the whole hog, so to speak, but then I think of the imp of the perverse, the Shoah, the many millions killed under Stalin and Mao, and I think, it’s not only because of ignorance that these things happen.

Steiner, p. 273: “War and Peace and Anna Karenina are ‘of the earth, earthy.’ This is their power and their limitation. Tolstoy’s groundedness in material fact, the intransigence of his demand for clear perceptions and empirical assurance, constitute both the strength and the weakness of his mythology and of his aesthetics. In Tolstoyan morality there is something chill and flat; the claims of the ideal are presented with impatient finality. This, perhaps, is why Bernard Shaw took Tolstoy for his prophet. In both men there were a muscular vehemence and a contempt for bewilderment which suggest a defect of charity and of imagination. Orwell remarked on Tolstoy’s leaning towards ‘spiritual bullying.'”

This is true, but then the limitation of Dostoevsky’s works is that they are spiritual and not earthy enough. I remember when first reading him how it struck me that he hardly ever described nature or the sky, anything but people. Steiner notes how his novels are like plays and the paragraphs that aren’t dialogue are glorified stage directions.


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