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Tolstoy Journal, June 28, 2017: “Making it strange.”

The featured image is of Understanding Tolstoy by Andrew D. Kaufman, a book that looks to be right down my alley, about literature and life, not theory.

I fell behind on my reading because of summer busyness but have caught up today. Am on page 218 of Volume XII of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. I just finished reading “Polikushka,” and going to start “Kholstomer: The History of a Horse,” which more often goes by the title of “Strider.” Very much looking forward to reading the latter and was very moved by “Polikushka” which I had not read before. It was very harrowing and surprised me by its power. It’s a story about a servant with a reputation for stealing who, after repenting earnestly, is entrusted by his mistress with retrieving money. It’s also about the poverty of the serfs and how they could be drafted into military service with not much rhyme or reason. It’s a very gloomy story and I wonder if it foreshadows Tolstoy’s play, “The Power of Darkness.” In that play, I’ve read, the world of the peasants is portrayed with no glorifying of their simplicity and goodness. There’s not much of that in this story either.

The following is a description of where Polikushka and his family live:

“The corners had been arranged by the late proprietor as follows: In the middle of the izba, or hut, which was about twenty-five feet square, and built of stone, stood the great Russian stove; around it ran a collidor, as the servants called it; and in the corner quarters were partitioned off by boards. Of course there was not much room, especially in Polikei’s corner, which was next the door. The nuptial couch, with quilted counterpane and cotton pillows; a cradle with a baby in it; a three-legged table which served for cooking, washing, piling up all the household utensils, and as a work-table for Polikei, who was a horse-doctor; tubs, clothes, hens, a calf, and the seven members of the household,–occupied the corner; and there would not have been room to move, had it not been that the common stove offered its share of room (though even this was covered with things and human beings), and that it was possible to get out on the door-steps. Even this was not always possible, if you stop to think; in October it is cold, and there was only one warm sheepskin garment for the whole family. And so the young children were obliged to get warm by running about, and the older ones by working and taking turns in climbing up on the big stove, where the temperature was as high was forty degrees Reaumur. It would seem as if it must have been terrible to live under such conditions, but they did not find it so; they managed to get along.”

This passage reminds me of when my wife and I went to Lithuania to visit her relatives. I was thinking of that because I had read Tolstoy’s “Ivan the Fool,” and how it shows the essential happiness of the working poor. One couple we visited, my wife’s uncle and his wife, were simple peasant farmers. When we drove down the dirt drive to their house they were walking across a field with a duck they had been given for helping someone on their farm. They had a big wood stove in their house which they used for cooking and for heat. Antanas had been exiled to Siberia for eight years, had worked in the mines, the worst place, survived and come back to Lithuania. He had some horrible stories to tell but the thing that struck me was that they seemed happy. I mean they had some sadnesses, they had a hard life, but overall they seemed happy. We gave them chewing gum at some point or had unwrapped a gift and were looking around for a trash can. They didn’t have one, they said. They didn’t throw things away because they didn’t buy packaged goods. (This was back in 1995; it has, I’ve heard, changed much since then.) They had an outhouse, they had a big barn with a lot of animals, goats, pigs, chickens. They had a beautiful Baltic pony.

It also reminds me of when my father and I went on mission trips with a Baptist church group to Chihuahua, Mexico. The people there lived in mud huts with dirt floors and chickens running around. You could eat the food but the water would make you sick so we brought a lot of Cokes with us. These people, too, seemed happy. At peace.

So where is the truth? Are those who are dirt poor both happier and more evil or vicious? At different times? Perhaps people of all classes can be equally evil but overall the poor seem happier. I used to work at a bookstore in a very affluent neighborhood and the majority of people who shopped there did not seem too happy.

Here is a passage from Wilson’s Tolstoy:

p. 314: “It may be that part of the unconscious, motivating force for the conversion of Tolstoy was a panic-stricken longing not to be Dostoyevsky. For having steered so firmly in the direction of a seven-pood merchant’s wife, and having put up candles to God, Tolstoy became convinced, and devoted the next five years of his writing life to proving that, while the peasant worshipper had somehow or other got hold of the secret of life, his or her faith was actually based on lies and misconceptions. But one must emphasise that any part Dostoyevsky played in all this must have been marginal, and unconscious. The figure who was about to be passed through the digesting machine of Tolstoy’s imagination was none other than Christ Himself, and the theological outpourings which now came from Tolstoy’s pen reflect his famed genius for ‘making it strange’.”

Wilson here points out what is, in my opinion, one of the major flaws of Tolstoy’s latter thinking. He wanted to live like a peasant, with a peasant’s work and faith, but he could not accept the faith. What peasant would believe in a religion as “rational” as Tolstoy’s?

 

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