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Tolstoy Journal, June 13, 2017: “Vanity! vanity! and vanity everywhere, even on the brink of the grave.”

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosemary Bartlett is a “travel book” I got at my local library. It has good blurbs from A. N. Wilson and Jay Parini. I have read up to page 241 in Volume XI of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or Chapter VII of “Sevastopol in May.” “Sevastopol in December,” though graphic in its account of the horror of war, was basically a patriotic piece. “Sevastopol in May” is less idealistic. The first was an sort of overview, a piece of journalism–what is it like there? The second tells a story of officers and enlisted men and includes passages such as the following:

“Vanity! vanity! and vanity everywhere, even on the brink of the grave, and among men ready to die for the highest convictions, vanity! It must be that it is a characteristic trait, and a peculiar malady of our century. Why was nothing ever heard among the men of former days, of this passion, any more than of the small-pox or the cholera? Why, in our age, are there but three sorts of people: those who accept the principle of vanity as a fact whose existence is inevitable, and, therefore, just; those who accept it as an unfortunate but invincible condition; and those who, unconsciously, act with slavish subservience under its influence? Why did Homer and Shakespeare talk of love, of glory, of suffering, while the literature of our age is nothing but an endless narrative of snobs and vanity?”

This is the Sevastopol that began to get Tolstoy in trouble with the censors, I believe. It speaks of officers sending men to certain death so they themselves could be promoted.

Passages from Talks With Tolstoy:

pp. 194-195: “Tolstoi said:

“‘In the first place, as to our state after death, it is impossible to say that it will be. Immortality neither will be, nor was, but is. It is outside the forms of time and space. People who keep on asking what is going to happen after death should be told: the very same thing there was before birth. We do not know, neither can we or must we know what existence outside of the body, fusion with God, is like, and, when people begin telling me about it–even if some one from the other world were to come to tell me about it–I would not believe and I should say that I do not need it. That which we need, we always are aware of and know without doubting. One ought to live so that one’s life should help on the happiness of other people.'”

p. 197: “‘Why in a community? One ought not to separate oneself from other people. If there is anything good in a man, let that light be spread about him wherever he lives. What numbers of people settled in communities, yet nothing came of it! All their energies went at first into external arrangements of life, and when at length they settle down, there began to be quarrels and gossip, and it all fell to pieces. . . . One should never attempt to arrange life beforehand.'”

p. 198: “‘Only it has to be remembered that the ideal of the material life cannot be fully realized, any more than the ideal of the spiritual life. The whole point is in the constant effort to approach the ideal.'”

p. 202: “Tolstoi spoke about the old German mystic, Angelus Silesius. Tolstoi asked some one to fetch his book (a large old volume) and read aloud several aphorisms, translating them as he read. When he came to the passage: ‘If God did not love Himself in us, we could neither love ourselves, nor God,’ Tolstoi exclaimed:

“‘Ah, how well that’s said!'”

I have an anthology of Silesius edited and with drawings by Frederick Franck. Well, I thought I did but can’t find it. Has it ever occurred to you, dear reader, that whenever you go to look for a book in your personal library, that the more you want to find it, the least likely you are to find it? Happens to me all the time.

p. 205: “Tolstoi said:

“‘It is amazing! So far back as 1824 Goethe wrote that sincerity was become almost impossible in art, because of the multitude of newspapers, journals, and reviews. The artist reads them, involuntarily pays attention to them, and cannot be perfectly sincere. What would he say if he lived now!'”

And what would Tolstoy say if he lived now!

I am done with my passages from Talks With Tolstoy. Going back now to Wilson’s Tolstoy. Again, this blog is a travel notebook. I am traveling through the works of Tolstoy, and these are my notes. Tolstoy’s works are the land through which I travel; books about Tolstoy are my “travel books.” Next year I will cease this Tolstoy blog and write a book based on it. I just ordered A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts. By Tolstoy.

Okay, back to Wilson’s, Tolstoy.

p. 240: “What is most striking of all is that Dostoyevsky, in spite of all his moral protestations, fundamentally accepts the Napoleonic idea–he accepts, that is to say, the cant that there are ‘men of destiny’ who change history. Tolstoy, as he laboured at his book, was to distance himself further and further from that point of view and, indeed, to rewrite history in order to establish his point of view. His idealisation of Kutuzov, who appears to sit back and let things happen, who allows the French into Moscow, who allows it to burn, knowing that the great Russian winter and the spirit of the Russian people will eventually be too much for the Napoleonic armies, is only a small part of Tolstoy’s prolix attempt to distance himself from any point of view which might have come the reader’s way when perusing Crime and Punishment.”

Not sure I totally agree with this but it is comforting to remember Tolstoy’s teaching about “great men” when you have a president who thinks he is one, to remember Napoleon’s helplessness.


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