Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, May 19, 2017: “Materialism is the most mystical of all doctrines.”

The Gospel in Tolstoy is my latest Tolstoy travel book acquisition, a beautifully done book with some of my favorite passages from Tolstoy’s work. And I love the Fritz Eichenberg engravings.

I read up to page 50 of Volume X of the Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi last night, or Chapter XV of Childhood. These pages have some of the most beautiful descriptions of nature and people that Tolstoy ever wrote. I also read to p. 161 of Talks With Tolstoy.

A couple of things: one is that I’ve been meaning to mention how there is a passage in Anna Karenina in which Tolstoy has Levin’s brother, Nikolai, deliver a stinging criticism of Levin that you can apply to Tolstoy himself, especially in his later years. Levin and his brother are arguing about the plight of the peasants and landowners and Nikolai says that the problem with Levin’s ideas is that more than anything, Levin wants to be original, to say the right thing which nobody else has said before. Wow, I thought, that describes Tolstoy perfectly, especially with regard to his views on religion. In one way, his view is not original, in that there have always been pacifistic realms of Christianity, but in another, his attempt to combine Enlightenment rationalism (Rousseau) with Christianity, is original, I think. Tolstoy wants to be Moses, basically.

The other thing I’ve been thinking regarding this blog is that it is a compilation of my research notes for a book I will write next year; maybe someday when my ship has come in, these pages themselves will be published, but right now I’m thinking of them as notes of my journey, and next year I will write my travel book about my journey, share what I have learned. Nuff said as they used to say in the Marvel comic books I used to buy for 15 cents.

Here is a passage from Chapter VII, “The Hunt”: “The conversation of the people, the noise of the horses and carts, the merry whistle of the quail, the hum of insects which circled in motionless swarms in the air, the scent of the wormwood, the straw, and the sweat of the horses, the thousands of varying hues and shadows which the glowing sun poured over the bright yellow stubble-field, the blue of the distant forest and the pale lilac of the clouds, the white spider’s webs which floated through the air or lay upon the stubble,–all this I saw, heard, and felt.”

I also loved Chapter XII which describes how the children spy on the going-to-bed of the holy fool, Grischa, who their mother lets stay in their house when he is in the area. They spy on him because they want to see the chains he wears under his clothes. They don’t see the chains but they hear them: “He rose with a groan, and, repeating the same words over and over, he fell to the ground again, and again rose, notwithstanding the weight of the chains, which emitted a harsh, sharp sound as they struck the floor.” The narrator says he had expected to feel “merriment and laughter,” but instead he feels “a trembling and sinking at my heart,” which later turns into a form of awe. He remembers that night when he has forgotten many other things. However–and here is Tolstoy’s realism again–he also manages, as they run away from their hiding place, to kiss the arm of Katenka, the girl he has a crush on.

Here are some passages from Talks With Tolstoy.

p. 38: “‘ . . . however great a gift for music you may have, and however much time and power you may spend on it, do remember that, above all, the most important of all is to be a man. It is always necessary to remember that art is not everything. . . . In your relations with people it is necessary to try to give them as much as possible and to take from them as little as possible. Forgive me for saying this, but I did not want to say good-bye to you without having told you what I think.’ . . . ‘The ego is the temporary thing that limits our immortal essence. Belief in personal immortality always seems to me a misunderstanding.

“‘Materialism is the most mystical of all doctrines: it makes a belief in some mythical matter, which creates everything out of itself, the foundation of everything. It is sillier than a belief in the Trinity!'”

p. 39: “L. N. reads aloud most wonderfully; very simply and at the same time with remarkable expression. Wonderful also is his capacity of telling in a few words the contents of a story. There is nothing superfluous, and a clear, definite picture is given.”

This reminds me that I once saw something about a recording of Tolstoy. I want to look it up and see if I can put the link here. Here is one from the Open Culture website: Thomas Edison’s Recordings of Leo Tolstoy There are video and audio recordings here.

p. 40: “‘A really remarkable and powerful mind can look for a method of expressing his idea, and if the idea is strong he will find new methods of expressing it. But modern artist invent a technical method and then are on the look-out for an idea, which they arbitrarily squeeze into their method.

“‘The great mistake is that people have introduced into art the vague conception of “beauty,” which obscures and confuses everything. . . . Art consists in this–when some one sees or feels something, and expresses it in such a form that he who listens, reads, or sees his work feels, sees, and hears the same thing in the same way as the artist. Therefore art can be of the highest quality, or indifferent, or, finally, simply hateful, but still it is art. The most immoral picture if it achieves its end is art, although it serves low ends.'”

p. 41: “He was repeating the contents of his article on art which he is writing, and which he goes on working over and rewriting. . . .

“‘When art became the inheritance of a small circle of rich people, and left its main course, it entered the cul-de-sac in which we see it now.

“‘Art is the expression of feeling, and the higher it is the greater the public which it can draw to itself. Therefore the highest art must reflect those states of mind which are religious in the best sense of the word, as they are the most universal and typical of all human beings.'”


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