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Tolstoy Journal, June 2, 2017: “The banality of Liberalism.”

Yesterday I read up to page 18 of Volume XI of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or Chapter IV of The Cossacks. I also read up to page 210 of the first volume of the Simmons biography of Tolstoy. The illustration above is the frontispiece of Volume XI: it is entitled, “The Cossacks,” and is by F. C. Yohn. Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry for him: Frederick Coffay Yohn.

Here are some highlights from the introduction which I assume was written by the translator, Nathan Haskell Dole.

“Turgenief called ‘The Cossacks’ the best novel in Russian, and declared that it gave ‘an incomparable picture of men and things in the Caucasus.'”

“It is Count Tolstoi himself who lies down in the lair of the old stag, and, while enduring like a martyr the stings of the myriads of gnats which light on him, comes to the conclusion that his hitherto unsatisfied craving for happiness can be realized only by living for others. It is the same man who later renounces all personal property, and becomes a Christian socialist.”

And here is a paragraph that could have been written only before World War I:

“As in all Russian books, there is no attempt to preach or draw deductions. The grim reality is presented, and the reader may make what application he pleases. But out of ‘Dead Souls’ and ‘A Sportsman’s Recollections’ comes the education that leads to the emancipation of the serfs, and out of the ‘Sevastopol Sketches,’ and the awful pictures of war which Tolstoi’s pupil Garshin paints,–one may add, out of the realistic paintings of Vereshchagin,–will rise a spirit which shall make the nations refuse to fight, and war, like slavery, shall end.”

This novella begins with a young nobleman at a farewell party. All we know about him is that he is leaving to be a yunker, a non-commissioned officer, in the Russian army fighting the rebels in the Caucasus mountains. For a while as he rides towards the Caucasus, the hero, Olyenin, fantasizes about how it will be there, but then he sees the mountains.

“At first the mountains only surprised Olyenin, then they delighted him; but afterwards, as he gazed at this ever increasing, constantly changing, chain of snowcapped mountains, not piled upon other, dark mountains, but rising straight out of the steppe, little by little he began to get into the spirit of their beauty, and he felt the mountains.

“From that moment all that he had seen, all that he had thought, all that he had felt, assumed for him the new, sternly majestic character of the mountains. All his recollections of Moscow, his shame and his repentance, all his former illusions about the Caucasus,–all disappeared and never returned again.”

Note: I am cutting pages in this book so I know it has never been read. So far, the only cut pages in this series has been those of the three volumes of Anna Karenina.

Here are some more passages from Talks With Tolstoy:

p. 109: “Afterwards Tolstoi said:

“‘Ruskin says how much more valuable human lives are than any improvements and mechanical progress.’

“Then Tolstoi added:

“‘It is difficult to argue with Ruskin: he by himself has more understanding than the whole House of Commons.'”

pp. 111-112: “Tolstoi, Nikitin, and I talked of Dostoevsky.

“Tolstoi said:

“‘Certain characters of his are, if you like, decadent, but how significant it all is!’

“Tolstoi mentioned Kirilov in The Possessed, and said:

“‘Dostoevsky was seeking for a belief, and, when he described profoundly sceptical characters, he described his own disbelief.’

“Of Dostoevsky’s attitude to ‘Liberalism’ Tolstoi observed:

“‘Dostoevsky, who suffered in person from the Government, was revolted by the banality of Liberalism.'”

p. 118: “‘I do not know how it is with you who are comparatively young, but with me there are times in my long life which are clearly preserved in my memory, and other times which have completely disappeared, they no longer exist. The moments which remain are most frequently the moments when the spirit in me awoke. It often happens at a time when one has done something wrong, and suddenly one wakes up, realizes that it is bad, and feels the spirit in one with special force. Spiritual life is a recollection. A recollection is not the past, it is always the present. It is our spirit, which shows itself more or less clearly, that contains the progress of man’s temporary existence. There can be no progress for the spirit, for it is not in time. What the life in times is for, we do not know; it is only a transitory phenomenon. Speaking metaphorically, I see this manifestation of the spirit in us as the breathing of God.'”

p. 123: “Tolstoi is going to expound in an artistic form Buddha’s teaching, ‘Ta Twam Asi,’ the meaning of which is that in every man and his actions one can always recognize oneself.”

pp. 128-129: “Tolstoi drew my attention to the fact that the road was beautifully lit up by the rays of the sun coming through the branches of the trees. He recalled that Turgenev in Virgin Soil has described how Sipyagin met Mariana and Nezhdanov lit up by such rays. He asked me if I remembered the passage. I did not remember it and said:

“‘How do you remember it, Tolstoi?’

“Tolstoi laughed and said:

“‘But you remember in your music, and so we writers remember things in our art.'”

pp. 132-133: “About writing Tolstoi said:

“‘If you ask some one: “Can you play the violin?” and he says: “I don’t know, I have not tried, perhaps I can,” you laugh at him. Whereas about writing, people always say: “I don’t know, I have not tried,” as though one had only to try and one would become a writer.'”

p. 139: “‘ . . . if people only said more often: “Do you remember?” People should make it a rule that if one person says or does something wrong in the heat of a quarrel, or when one is angry, the other should say: “Do you remember?”‘”

Which, when I first read it, reminded me of A Moveable Feast in which the young Hemingway and Hadley are always asking each other, “Do you remember?”


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