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Tolstoy Journal, June 19, 2017: “The fact that we are alive is for Tolstoy the most interesting thing about us.”

The featured image is of the “travel book” I bought because Tolstoy called Rousseau, his master. I have finished Volume XI of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi and am on page 21 of Volume XII, or up to Chapter VIII of “The Invaders,” which is more commonly translated as “The Raid.” When I am done with this volume, I will be halfway through this journey!

In other news, I have read 134 pages of Shirer’s Love and Hatred: The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy. Which is pretty good. Mostly a weaving together all the relevant quotes from diaries and biographies and letters. So far he is definitely on the side of Sonya, and I can’t say I blame him. Tolstoy did not walk the talk with his family very well; he sometimes tried, but at others he appears to have condemned them for not thinking the way he did.

I can’t help thinking that he needed to stay within the Orthodox Church, to work within it for truth. I think his cousin–whose name I forget, but with whom he was in love and might have married but she was eleven years older than him–was right to tell him he was prideful and needed to submit to some sort of religious authority. On the other hand, conscience is supreme and I was thinking that Tolstoy is a gadfly on Christianity, of any stripe, just as Kierkegaard was, is. We need thinkers like them to keep us honest.

Here is a beautiful passage from “The Raid.” The narrator is riding in a patrol into the mountains during the night.

“Such silence reigned in the whole detachment, that there could be plainly distinguished all the harmonious voices of the night, full of mysterious charm. The distant melancholy howls of jackals, sometimes like the wails of despair, sometimes like laughter; the monotonous ringing song of the cricket, the frog, the quail; a gradually approaching murmur, the cause of which I could not make clear to my own mind [it turns out to be the sound of a river];and all those nocturnal, almost inaudible motions of Nature, which it is so impossible either to comprehend or define,–united into one complete, beautiful harmony which we call ‘the silence of the night.’

“This silence was broken, or rather was unified, by the dull thud of hoofs, and the rustling of the tall grass through which the division was slowly moving.

“Occasionally, however, was heard in the ranks the ring of a heavy cannon, the sound of clashing bayonets, stifled conversation, and the snorting of a horse.

“Nature breathed peacefully in beauty and power.

“Is it possible that people find no room to live together in this beautiful world, under this boundless starry heaven? Is it possible that, amid this bewitching Nature, the soul of man can harbor the sentiments of hatred and revenge, or the passion for inflicting destruction on his kind? All ugly feelings in the heart of man ought, it would seem, to vanish away in this intercourse with Nature–with this immediate expression of beauty and goodness!”

That last paragraph is the kind you can’t write in fiction any longer, or at least are discouraged from trying to write. Tolstoy gets criticized for didacticism but sometimes I think it’s more that we are uncomfortable with hearing the truth, the thoughts and longings that well up in us. Surely it is realistic to write of a man going to war to have such thoughts!

Here are some more passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy:

p. 282: “He was in effect scouring himself for material, pouring his own feelings into the guilty Stiva, the striving Levin, the hopeless Anna. . . . But the greatness of the book is not in its shape but its scenes, ‘blessed moments’, where the mower is so full of life that his movement have an existence of their own.

“The great message of Anna Karenina, proclaimed more in the bits where the author is not proclaiming, just mowing, is this belief in life.”

pp. 284-285: “This reverence for what is, in Tolstoy, is nothing like a Wordsworthian Romantic’s feeling for nature. It is much simpler than that. It is being able to look at the sky as if it were a solid vault, and not to question. Tolstoy in this book is full of himself, of people, of places, or things, or grass, of sky–all just being themselves. The fact that we are alive is for Tolstoy the most interesting thing about us. And the most awe-inspiring thing is that this being–this awareness of rain on sweaty shoulders, or the agony of sexual guilt, or the excitement of love, or the warmth of a mother suckling her baby–can be snuffed out instantly, and made nothing. It is the passionate impulse to recapture life from this nothingness which impels his art.”

This passage reminds me of the scene in The Seventh Seal when the knight tells the woman who has just shared strawberries and milk with him that holding this bowl of milk is enough for him. To have had that moment.

p. 299: “When Turgenev had visited him in summer 1878, he was still in the grip of nearly suicidal melancholia:

“‘A rope round the neck, a knife to jab into the heart, or the trains on the railroads; and the number of those in our circle who act in this way becomes greater and greater . . . .’

“he mused. But although with one part of himself, death was attractive–appallingly so– the deepest part of his artistic and spiritual hunger was for life. This had always been so in his books. It became so in his life. And it was this consciousness of life itself in all its vividness, as led by simple people, which led Tolstoy to a rediscovery of belief in God. ‘I lived only at those times when I believed in God. . . . I need only to be aware of God to live; I need only forget him or disbelieve him and I died. . . .’ ‘Live seeking God,’ an inner voice told him, ‘and then you will not live without God.'”



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