Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, June 14, 2017: “It is difficult even to imagine. . . . a writer bearing in his soul such a terrible dream as Count Tolstoy bears in his.”

I am behind on my regular Tolstoy reading, but during my early morning holy hour I did read “Nekhlyudov Seeks Redemption,” from The Gospel of Tolstoy. Which is an excerpt from Resurrection.  Nekhlyudov, an aristocrat, has seduced Maslova, a servant girl, but abandons her to her fate. Later he serves as juror to her trial and then decides to help her and marry her, to redeem himself with respect to her. When he tells her this she scoffs at him. She would rather hang herself than marry him, she says. She wishes she had died long ago. After she leaves the visitor’s area there is this passage:

“‘So this is what it means, this,’ thought Nekhlyudov as he left the prison, only now fully understanding his crime. If he had not tried to expiate his guilt he would never have found out how great his crime was. Nor was this all; she, too, would never have felt the whole horror of what had been done to her. He only now saw what he had done to the soul of this woman; only now she saw and understood what had been done to her. Up to this time Nekhlyudov had played with a sensation of self-admiration, had admired his own remorse; now he was simply filled with horror. To cast her off–that, he felt, he could never do now, and yet he could not imagine what would come of their relations to one another.”

Nekhlyudov also decides that all official positions are bad in themselves because they cause good people to treat others as things. So police, jail guards, judges, these are all evil occupations to have. He decides this because prisoners die on the overcrowded hot trains they take to Siberia. At first it sounds reasonable and he has a point. But then why didn’t, from the Christian point of view, why didn’t Jesus tell us all that? All he said was for soldiers to treat people fairly and for tax collectors to not steal. He didn’t tell soldiers to lay down their arms or tax collectors to quit. He told them to be just and fair. Tolstoy, it seems to me, throws the baby out with the bathwater. All government banished. But how can you let killers go free, arsonists, rapists, thieves? When we punish them we aren’t saying we are totally innocent. Tolstoy says we can’t judge others, but in the meantime you have to do something. And yet what Tolstoy says still appeals to me. I’ll keep thinking about it.

Here are more passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy that I underlined. Travel notes.

p. 244: “The book [War and Peace] is unforgettable and endlessly rereadable not because of the accuracy or thoroughness of its historical research, but because each character in turn is imagined with all the intensity of Tolstoy’s being. He is each character in turn, acting them with all the vigour of his family at charades.”

pp. 261-262: “There was a good example of this truth [middle-aged disappointment with life and morbid fascination with death] in the life of one of Tolstoy’s neighbours, back in the January of 1872. One of his neighbours, a landowner called Bibikov, cast off his mistress, Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, and took up instead with the German governess of his children. The railroad had recently been extended into the Tula province, and in her despondency, Ann had rushed down to a piece of the track and thrown herself under a train. The corpse was taken to an engine shed which was an easy ride from Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy, who had never know the woman, cantered over for a squint at her mutilated remains. His early biographers relate how upsetting he found the experience without further remarking that few men would have exposed themselves to witnessing anything so horrible. The callousness is comparable to the ghoulish spirit which led him (nobody forced him) to witness the guillotining in Paris. Dickens, who loved going to mortuaries just to gaze at the waxy, grotesque inmates, would have fully understood. Tolstoy’s dread of death has a love-hate quality.”

p. 268: “Nevertheless, Mikhaylovsky did see (and he saw it clearly, and remarkably early, in 1875) that Anna Karenina (at that stage unfinished) reveals, to an excruciating degree, the divisions and conflicts within Tolstoy himself. ‘I shall only say that in this novel the traces of the drama going on in the author’s soul are expressed incomparably more clearly than in any of his other works,’ Mikhaylovsky wrote; and again, ‘It is difficult even to imagine. . . . a writer bearing in his soul such a terrible dream as Count Tolstoy bears in his.'”

p. 268-269: “Tolstoy was never so happy as when he was writing War and Peace. Had he been able to continue to write about the past, his happiness would have continued for much longer. But what he did not realise (indeed his imagination only functioned when he did not realise it) was that he needed to write about his own past. Then the magic worked. Paradoxically it was only by an egoistical concentration on himself that he could perform the illusion and make readers love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations. In War and Peace he had been rearranging and rewriting his country’s history as well as his own. In Anna Karenina, he strayed into ‘contemporary themes’. What happened was that he started to use up the experience almost before he had had it. His art had always depended–sometimes to a conscious, sometimes to an unconscious degree–on drawing from life, with all the comforting possibilities of distortion, of laundering experience, which that offered. By the time he came to describe the marriage of Kitty and Levin, however, he was using not the past but the present, and something like a short circuit occurred in his brain.”

p. 271: “Two things to bear in mind with this death, when we imagine ourselves back into that engine shed of 1872, are the extreme novelty of the railroad (whereas we take it for granted) and the absolute normality of suicide (which for us is shocking). Dostoyevsky, in a famous issue of his The Diary of a Writer, dwells on the horrific fact that there are people who commit suicide for no apparent reason. He also makes the sweepingly theological point that ‘neither man nor nation can exist without a sublime idea. And on earth there is but one sublime idea–namely the idea of the immortality of man’s soul–since all other ‘sublime’ ideas of life, which give life to men, are merely derived from this one idea.’

“Tolstoy, whose nihilism went deeper than Dostoyevsky’s, and whose egotism was more self-protective, could never really see this, even though in his novels–and above all in Anna Karenina–life itself is so potently and lovingly drawn.”


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