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Tolstoy Journal, May 11, 2017: “the loopholes through which appeared something higher.”

I have read up to page 273 of Volume IX of the Works of Tolstoy. That is, up to Chapter XVII of Part Seventh of Anna Karenina. These pages describe Kitty’s anger at Levin for going to see Anna, Anna’s argument with Vronsky, and then Kitty’s labor and the birth of her and Levin’s son.

The passages that stood out to me are the ones that describe Kitty’s labor, from Levin’s point of view. But there is something I noticed today that I will have to write about more at length at some point, which is Tolstoy’s view of women. The chapters in which he tells the story from the points of view of women–Anna, Kitty, and Dolly–seem to me as realistic as those from the points of view of men. And I think he really does sympathize with Anna. And then his description of Kitty during and right after childbirth seems to me to reverence women, and I find it hard to believe some of the things he says later about women. Perhaps it is the old virgin/whore dichotomy he suffers from, or makes women suffer from. At his best he seems to me to have real insight into women and to appreciate them; at his worst, he sees them at their worst. More on this later.

Here is the passage that I liked the most tonight:

“He knew and felt conscious only that what was occurring was like that which had occurred the year before at the hotel of the government city, by the death-bed of his brother Nikolai. That was grief, this was happiness. But that grief and this happiness were in the same way outside of the ordinary conditions of life; were in this peculiar life, as it were, the loopholes through which appeared something higher. And in exactly the same way, while the hard, painful event was accomplishing before him, in exactly the same way incomprehensible, his soul, at the contemplation of this loftiness, raised itself to a height which he had never before dreamed possible, and whither his reason could not follow.”

I’ve never read a better description of that aura that birth and death both share. That here one must remain silent before the mystery.

And here is Tolstoy’s resolute merciless honesty in describing Levin’s feelings at the sight of his firstborn:

“The feelings which this little being awakened in him were entirely different from what he had expected! There was neither pride nor joy in the feeling but rather a new and painful fear. It was the consciousness that he had become vulnerable in a new way. And this consciousness at first was so acute, his fear lest this poor, defenseless creature might suffer was so poignant, that it drowned the strange feeling of thoughtless joy, and even pride, that rose in his heart when the infant sneezed.”

I’ve also read up to page 60 in Talks With Tolstoy. Here are some passages from it:

p. 15: “‘The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I have tried to set forth in all his beauty, and who has always been, is, and always will be most beautiful is–the truth’

“For Tolstoy there remained no higher court of appeal in art than the truth.”

p. 16: “There is not so great a gap between art as the impersonal portrayal of what exists and love as the impersonal acceptance of what exists. . . . The moral universality reached here [in Prince Andrei’s thoughts about love as he was dying] in Christian terms is twin to the artistic universality implicit in the objective impartiality of art as Tolstoy conceived it.

“As a literary artist Tolstoy practiced what might be called whole-seeing, or seeing with the fullness of response of a child.”

pp 18-19: “Tolstoy’s message here is more Stoic and Buddhistic than it is specifically Christian. In linking what is personal with physical separateness and what is impersonal with the rational and the spiritual, he creates a rationalistic version of Christianity at the expense of its personalistic character. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is not particularity, finiteness or separateness which separates us from God, but only the illusory divinity of the ego. Tolstoy’s rationalism leads him to an abstract universalism which surrenders the paradoxical character of Christianity–that paradoxical relation of the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, which inspires the Christian. But, whatever else he was prepared to sacrifice, Tolstoy was not prepared to sacrifice his intellect.”

That is one of the best descriptions of Tolstoy’s religious views that I have ever read. And here is another:

“Somewhere near this point is the center of the vast theological dialogue between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky which continues today and will continue far into the future with ever greater intensity and increasingly momentous consequences. On the one side is the great prophet of the normal, remembering the happiness of childhood and dreaming of ‘the religion of Christ, purged of dogmas and mysticism . . . giving bliss on earth,’ and on the other the equally great prophet of the abnormal, haunted all his life by the unjustified suffering of children and sure that, in the words of the ‘underground man,’ ‘man will never give up true suffering, that is to day destruction and chaos.'”

p. 22: “For Dostoevsky evil may be done in full knowledge that it is evil (and he echoes St. Augustine’s horrified cry: ‘I was in love with the evil just because it was evil!’), and the most elevated nobility and utter depravity may exist side by side in the same soul. Further (and this is what he learned in the ‘house of the dead’ in Siberia), evil is a spiritual force (perhaps of even superhuman dimensions) and not merely an inadvertence or a surrender to physical impulses. What, from Dostoevksy’s point of view, Tolstoy fail to see is that evil has a reality of its own, may even represent a triumph over the physical, and may even be, in its own way, completely ‘rational.’ Perhaps Tolstoy had never seen such cases; but Dostoevsky had seen them–in Siberia.”

The strange thing is, House of the Dead was Tolstoy’s favorite Dostoevsky book. And this whole discussion gets back to the main distinction, or one of them between Buddhism and Christianity: Buddhism says sin is the result of ignorance; Christianity says it’s the result of the will turning away from God, wanting to be God. 

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