I am forty pages behind on my reading today, as usual on Wednesday, but, as usual again, I read some pages of The Gospel in Tolstoy during my holy hour. I read “The Healing of Prince Andrei,” from War and Peace, “The Repentant Sinner,” “A Grain as Big as Big as a Hen’s Egg,” and the first four sections of “Ivan the Fool.” I had read about Prince Andrei before and what struck me was that this translation was better than the Dole one, although I am going purely by memory here. There were more details and things I didn’t remember from my first reading. I’m not sure about this but will compare later the two sections.
Also, the intellectual nature of Prince Andrei’s conversion struck me, or at least the way he formulates it. When he is being treated at the Battle of Borodino and sees Anatole, the man who tried to steal his fiancee, have his leg amputated and loves him, it doesn’t strike me as false but the formulation of it strikes just the hint of a false note, as I once felt while reading “Master and Man.” I don’t know, sometimes these passages strike me as true and good, other times they strike me as tacked-on, as Steiner says they are.
Here is the relevant passage:
“In the miserable, sobbing, enfeebled man whose leg had just been amputated, he recognized Anatole Kuragin. Men were supporting him in their arms and offering him a glass of water, but his trembling, swollen lips could not grasp its rim. Anatole was sobbing painfully. ‘Yes, it is he! Yes, that man is somehow closely and painfully connected with me,’ thought Prince Andrei, not yet clearly grasping what he saw before him. ‘What is the connection of that man with my childhood and life?’ he asked himself without finding an answer. And suddenly a new unexpected memory from that realm of pure and loving childhood presented itself to him. He remembered Natasha as he had seen her for the first time at the ball in 1810, with her slender neck and arms and with a frightened happy face ready for rapture, and love and tenderness for her, stronger and more vivid than ever, awoke in his soul. He now remembered the connection that existed between himself and this man who was dimly gazing at him through tears that filled his swollen eyes. He remembered everything, and ecstatic pity and love for that man overflowed his happy heart.
“Prince Andrei could no longer restrain himself and wept tender loving tears for his fellow men, for himself, and for his own and their errors.
“‘Compassion, love of our brothers, for those who love us and for those who hate us, love of our enemies; yes, that love which God preached on earth and which Princess Marya taught me and I did not understand–that is what made me sorry to part with life, that is what remained for me had I lived. But now it is too late. I know it!'”
Strange, but last night that seemed fine, but now in the morning it seems a bit much. But that sense of intellectualism in Tolstoy’s conversion that Wilson wrote of in the passage from his biography of Tolstoy pertains here. Wilson wrote that Tolstoy never seems to have encountered the living Jesus in his life. That is, he had a conversion, but it was an intellectual conversion. I think this is true. I think he was always attracted to Jesus, couldn’t shake him, and that is why he remained, in his idiosyncratic way, true to him. But he sort of drained the life out of Jesus in his The Gospel in Brief. The Jesus there is much weaker and lifeless, or rather, blurry, than the Jesus in the Gospels. Tolstoy was trying to turn Jesus into a sort of Buddha figure, another noble man teaching the perennial philosophy, the one religion of all humankind. But when you do that you don’t have Jesus anymore, you have your own creation. Tolstoy tried to tone Jesus down.
But part of this was because, as Wilson writes, of his Voltairean skepticism. He could not accept miracles and the supernatural, at least a supernatural that we could know anything about and that any church could proclaim truth about. So maybe he did the best he could with who he was, stayed true to his conscience, and again, I value him–besides his mastery of literature–as a much-needed gadfly on the Christian church.
Here is the highlighted passage from today’s Calendar of Wisdom: “The misery of the unintellectual life brings us to the need for an intellectual life.”
And here are some more quotes from Wilson’s Tolstoy:
p. 306: “The last part of Anna Karenina, rejected by Katkov and published separately by Tolstoy as a pamphlet, excited the most violent reaction in Dostoyevsky, who devoted pages of his The Diary of a Writer to answering Levin’s latent pacifism.”
p. 307: “‘Is this how Levin brings to a close his epopee [by ignoring the massacres in Bulgaria because they don’t affect him and saying Russia shouldn’t go to war]? Is it he whom the author seeks to set forth as an example of a truthful, honest man? Men, such as the author of Anna Karenina, are teachers of society, our teachers, while we are merely their pupils. What then do they teach us?’
“This is a direct challenge to Tolstoy from the other great genius of the age. And Dostoyevsky scored a very palpable hit when he noticed that Tolstoy thought the Eastern question was unimportant because it did not affect him personally. That is precisely what was happening at this point in Tolstoy’s life.
“They never met, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. They would have had every opportunity of doing so at Father Amvrosy’s cell in Optina Monastery. They were both friends of Strakhov. Had they wished to meet, there would have been every possibility of arranging such a thing. Instead, like two great monsters, they sniff and pace the ground and never come into contact. Dostoyevsky (who was not in Tolstoy’s later sense of the term in the least ‘aware’) exposes his obsessions with Tolstoy, as with all the great questions of the day–the future of Russia, the destiny of the Christian religion, the perfidy of the Turks, leftists, etc. –in the pages of The Diary of a Writer, a journalistic diary, designed for public consumption. Tolstoy at this period is much more inward looking. . . . For both of them, nothing less is at stake than the spiritual future of the human race, the very essence of what we are.”