I am up to page 325 of Volume X of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or Chapter XXXIII of Youth. And up to page 116 of A Sentimental Journey.
What struck me in the last few days of reading Youth was that Tolstoy’s writing was improving as he went along but sometimes the telling was out of balance with the showing. He can tell (lecture) better than anyone and still keep your attention but in Youth the telling gets to be too much at times. And yet that was how he would always be too. As I’ve written before, the narrator is pretty much Tolstoy, the same obsession with appearances, the same striving to be brutally honest and show how independent he is. He is certainly honest in his self-portrayal; he makes me squirm as I read with his adolescent bluster and blindness.
There are a lot of passages I could quote but I am going to quote just one, the last paragraph I read, which is reminiscent of Plato’s Symposium. (I was going to say Tolstoy is a Platonist by nature but then I remembered how scientific he is at times, so then I thought maybe we could reformulate the hedgehog and fox labels to, Tolstoy was an Aristotelian who wanted to be a Platonist.) Just before this passage I am going to quote, the narrator has been trying to figure out who he is in love with and then trying to imagine her, the woman of his dreams, as he stares at the moon:
“But the moon rose higher and higher, brighter and brighter, in the sky; the gorgeous gleam of the pond, swelling like a sound, became clearer and clearer; the shadows grew blacker and blacker, the light more and more transparent; and as I looked upon and listened to it all, something told me that she with her bare arms and fiery embrace was far, very far from being the whole of happiness, that love for her was far, very far from being all of bliss; and the more I gazed upon the high, full moon, the more and more lofty, the purer and purer, the nearer and nearer to Him, to the source of all beauty and bliss, did true beauty and bliss seem to me; and tears of an unsatisfied but agitated joy rushed to my eyes.
“And still I was alone, and still it seemed to me that this mysteriously magnificent nature, the bright sphere of the moon which draws one to her, and hangs in a lofty but uncertain spot in the pale blue heavens, and yet seems to stand everywhere as though filling with itself all immeasurable space, and I, an insignificant worm, already stained with all poor, petty earthly passions, but endowed also with a boundlessly compelling power of imagination and love,–it seemed to me at such moments as though nature and the moon and I were all one and the same.”
Now this is the kind of passage, Steiner says in Tolstoy Or Dostoevsky, that Tolstoy wedges in there that doesn’t really belong, wherein Tolstoy is saying what he wished were true. But in this case, at least, it works for me. I believe the narrator when he says he was longing for God. But the God he longs for seems to me to be a zen-like or Tao-like God, which I have noted before in this blog. Perhaps more a life-force than a personal God, although Tolstoy could never let go of Christ.
And so I was not totally surprised to come upon Tolstoy in my reading of The Wisdom of Laotse by Lin Yutang:
“Taoism, as a philosophy, therefore, may be summed up as follows: It is a philosophy of the essential unity of the universe (monism), of reversion, polarization (yin and yang), and eternal cycles, of the leveling of all differences, the relativity of all standards, and the return of all to the Primeval One, the divine intelligence, the source of all things. From this naturally arises the absence of desire for strife and contention and fighting for advantage. Thus the teachings of humility and meekness of the Christian Sermon on the Mount find a rational basis and a peaceable temper is bred in man. In his emphasis on non-resistance to evil, Laotse became the precursor to a long line of thinkers and moralists culminating in Tolstoy as the greatest modern disciple of Christian humility and forbearance.”
So I smiled when I read that, it seemed a kind of serendipitous connection to come across.
Here are some more passages from Talks With Tolstoy:
“At another point Sophie Andreevna [Tolstoy’s wife], showed me the field where Tolstoi and Turgenev once stood when shooting, and she was with them.
“Sophie Andreevna said:
“‘It was the last time Turgenev stayed at Yasnaya, not long before his death. I asked him: ‘Ivan Sergeevich, why don’t you write now?’ He answered: ‘In order to write I had always to be a little in love. Now I am old, I can’t fall in love any more, and that is why I have stopped writing.'”
Tolstoy: “All my life long I have had these surroundings [his manor and family and peasants], and, however much I struggle, I can do nothing.”
p. 86: “‘How terrible it is that it is always concealed from the patient that he is dying! We are none of us accustomed to look death in the face!’ . . . ‘It is for this reason that I consider the activity of doctors harmful: people are crowded in towns; they are infected with syphilis and consumption; they are kept in terrible conditions, and then millions are spent on the establishment of hospitals and clinics. But why not spend that energy, not in curing people, but in improving the conditions of their lives?'”
Tolstoy appears ahead of his time in that statement as in so many others.
pp. 86-87: “‘All modern sciences do the very opposite of what they set out to do. Theology hides moral truths, jurisprudence obscures in every possible way the conception of justice, the natural sciences teach materialism, and history distorts the true life of the people.'”