Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, May 5, 2017: “Christianity without Christ.”

Okay, this morning I read pp. 98-123 of Volume IX of the Works, and pp. 84-91 of Emile by Rousseau. I am up to Chapter XV of Part Sixth of Anna Karenina.

These pages, the Tolstoy ones, describe a hunting trip, and another bout of jealousy on Levin’s part. What struck me in these pages were the descriptions of nature in a couple of places. Just the sheer beauty of them. Not the style so much, just the exactness of detail. Another thought was of how Tolstoy will sometimes enter the mind of Levin’s dog, Laska, and I remembered how Hemingway did this in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” when he entered into the point of view of the hunted lion. And I know Hemingway was a big Tolstoy fan.

Here is a passage of the nature description that Tolstoy excels at:

“Laska ran merrily ahead along the foot-path. Levin followed her with swift, light steps, constantly watching the sky. He had an idea that he would reach the swamp before the sun would be up. But the sun did not loiter. The moon, which had been shining brightly when he first came out, was now growing pallid like a lump of quicksilver. The morning star, which before was most conspicuous, now almost defied detection; certain spots before almost indistinguishable on the distant field, now were becoming plainly visible; these were heaps of rye. The dew, though it could not be seen in the absence of the sunlight, was so dense on the fragrant tall hemp from which the seed had already been gathered, that it wet Levin’s legs and blouse above his belt. In the transparent stillness of the morning the slightest sounds were audible. A bee, humming like a bullet, whizzed by Levin’s ear. He looked around and discovered a second and yet a third. They were coming from the hives and were flying over the hemp-field and disappearing in the direction of the swamp. The foot-path led directly into the marsh, which could be detected by the mists rising over it, here denser, there thinner, so that clumps of grass and cytisus bushes looked like little islands emerging from them.”

Here are a couple of samples of Tolstoy giving the dog, Laska, a share in the story:

“She [Laska] heard him, and, pretending to obey him, so as to satisfy him, ran hastily over the spot indicated, and then returned to the place which had attracted her before, and instantly perceived them again. Now that he no longer bothered her she knew exactly what to do, and without looking where she was going, stumbling over tussocks to her great indignation and falling into the water, but quickly extricating herself with her strong agile legs, she began to circle round, so as to get her exact bearings. . . .

“‘At him, at him!’ cried Levin, pushing Laska from behind.

“‘But I can’t move,’ thought Laska. ‘Where shall I go? From here I smell’em, but if I stir I shan’t find anything, or know what they are or where they are.’

“But Levin again pushed the dog with his knee, and in an excited whisper he cried again, ‘At him, Lasotchka, at him!’

“‘Well, if he wants me to do it, I will, but I won’t answer for the consequences now,’ she said to herself, and she darted forward with all her might between the tussocks! She no longer went by scent, but only her eyes and ears, and did not know what she was doing.”

I just realized I am a third of the way through this endeavor. (“Endeavor” sounded better than “project”.) I’m into Act II now, so to speak. According to Austin Kleon, I will be in the belly of the beast at the end of August. Well, I just have to keep walking (reading). And taking notes.

A few more passages from Steiner’s Tolstoy: An Essay in the Old Criticism.

Steiner, pp. 326-327: “But the quarrel [between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky] ran deeper than politics. With his uncanny insight into the anatomy of the intellect, Dostoevsky had recognized in Tolstoy a disciple of Rousseau. Beyond Tolstoy’s professions of love for mankind, Dostoevsky prophetically discerned the alliance between a doctrine of social perfectibility, a theology built on reason or the primacy of individual feeling, and a desire to eliminate from men’s lives the sense of paradox and tragedy. Long before Tolstoy’s other contemporaries, perhaps before Tolstoy himself, Dostoevsky obscurely made out where Tolstoyan thought would lead–to a Christianity without Christ. In Tolstoyan humanitarianism he devined [sic] a central, Rousseauist egotism: ‘”Love for humanity,”‘ he observed in A Raw Youth, “is to be understood as love for that humanity which you have yourself created in the soul.”‘ Persuaded of the Orthodox creed and enthralled by the mysteries and tragedies of faith, Dostoevsky sensed in Tolstoy an arch-opponent.”

Not much to say about his. I think he’s right. This is where Tolstoy’s religion falls down. You can’t base a religion on reason. Henri de Lubac pointed out that heresies always flow from the desire to explain a mystery, to do away with a mystery. Tolstoy didn’t believe in mysteries. He sought to explain everything.

Here is the last passage I will use from Steiner, pp. 347-348: “Thus, even beyond their deaths, the two novelists stand in contrariety. Tolstoy, the foremost heir to the traditions of the epic; Dostoevsky, one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare; Tolstoy, the mind intoxicated with reason and fact; Dostoevsky, the contemner of rationalism, the great lover of paradox; Tolstoy, the poet of the land, of the rural setting and the pastoral mood; Dostoevsky, the arch-citizen, the master-builder of the modern metropolis in the province of language; Tolstoy, thirsting for truth, destroying himself and those about him in excessive pursuit of it; Dostoevsky, rather against the truth than against Christ, suspicious of total understanding and on the side of mystery; Tolstoy, ‘keeping at all times,’ in Coleridge’s phrase, ‘in the high road of life’; Dostoevsky, advancing into the labyrinth of the unnatural, into the cellarage and morass of the soul; Tolstoy, like a colossus bestriding the palpable earth, evoking the realness, the tangibility, the sensible entirety of concrete experience; Dostoevsky, always on the edge of the hallucinatory, of the spectral, always vulnerable to daemonic intrusions into what might prove, in the end, to have been merely a tissue of dreams; Tolstoy, the embodiment of health and Olympian vitality; Dostoevsky, the sum of energies charged with illness and possession; Tolstoy, who saw the destinies of men historically and in the stream of time; Dostoevsky, who saw them contemporaneously and in the vibrant stasis of the dramatic moment; Tolstoy, borne to his grave in the first civil burial ever held in Russia; Dostoevsky, laid to rest in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky monastery in St. Petersburg amid the solemn rites of the Orthodox Church; Dostoevsky, pre-eminently the man of God; Tolstoy, one of His secret challengers.”

I can’t argue with any of that. It’s all true. But I think I, at least, need both the epic and the tragic, the earth and the spirit, reason and faith, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But if I had to have one book by one of them, it would be The Brothers Karamazov.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s