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Tolstoy Journal, June 29, 2017: “something four-square and strong.”

The featured image is of a Tolstoy “travel book” I got today in the mail. I have thus far read 26 pages and underlined many passages; it might turn out to be one of those books I stay up half the night reading. I bought it because the author, R. V. Sampson, inspired A. N. Wilson to write his biography of Tolstoy. So far as I can ascertain, Sampson is a Tolstoyan, a Christian anarchist and pacifist. We’ll see. I never thought I could sympathize with that position but so far Sampson is very convincing.

I have read up to page 243 of Volume XII of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or Chapter VII of “Kholstomer,” aka “Strider.” It is a beautiful story of a horse told from the point of view of a horse and reminds somewhat of the section in Gulliver’s Travels when Gulliver lives with the civilized horses. Tolstoy’s horses are not civilized as Swift’s were, but they are dignified and intelligent.

“One would think that he was not to blame. But in equine ethics he was, and only those were right who were strong, young, and happy; those who had all life before them; those whose every muscle was tense with superfluous energy, and who curled their tails up into the air.

“Maybe the piebald [Kholstomer] gelding himself understood this, and in tranquil moments was agreed that he was to blame because he had lived out all his life, that he must pay for his life; but he was after all only a horse, and he could not restrain himself often from feeling hurt, melancholy, and discontented, when he looked on all these young horses who tormented him for the very thing to which they would be subjected when they came to the end of their lives.”

This passage is talking about how the younger horses have been teasing Strider, mocking him, not leaving him alone, but then an old mare comes up and remembers his love for her long ago and the younger horses fall back and Strider tells them his life story. What is it that is so beautiful about stories with talking animals? I know they tend to be children stories, but I’m thinking of Charlotte’s Web, Animal Farm, The Wind in the Willows. There is humor because of the incongruity of animals talking, or at least of us understanding what they say, but also an expression of our longing to be closer to them.

(Just now, while surfing the internet about Kholstomer and R. V. Sampson–I can find nothing biographical about him–I came across a negative review of the book I’m reading, criticizing it for not considering economic factors.)

Here are some passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy:

pp 314-315: “It is worth making the point, perhaps, that Tolstoy, though with one part of himself a rationalist, would, with another, have sympathised with Dostoyevsky’s self-professed irrationalism. And the point has been well made, by Lev Shestov, that to believe in the Gospel ethics as Tolstoy did was more fantastical than to accept, with Dostoyevsky, the Gospel miracles. Many orthodox critics have understandably found Tolstoy lacking in any transcendental sense whatsoever. But if this were true, his position would probably be easier to understand, less disturbing. There are many passages in the Critique which confirm Shestov’s view that Tolstoy was ‘willing to err with Christ against all reason.'”

p. 316: “Though Tolstoy was temperamentally incapable of reading Dostoyevsky’s novels, and claimed that he had been unable to finish The Brothers Karamazov, he cannot have been unaware of the book’s religious substance. All of it, in essence–the religious problem posed by the suffering of children, the mystic destiny of the Orthodox Church (‘a star has arisen in the East!’), even the imaginative obsession with Christ’s temptations in the wilderness, all the things which stay so vividly in our heads when we have read The Brothers Karamazov–had been pouring forth in disconnected outbursts in The Diary of a Writer throughout the late 1870s. When the Tolstoys were aware that Papa was in his study reading ‘periodicals’, he was surely meditating on the Dostoyevskian position. So, even if we accept Tolstoy’s claim that he had not read the whole of The Brothers Karamazov, it still makes sense to view his religious apologia What I Believe as a piece of writing which has Dostoyevsky all the time in view.”

p. 320: “Neither Tolstoy nor Dostoyevsky can be taken as representative Orthodox (believers or heretics), but for both men what counted was the moral and spiritual power of Christ in the lives of men and women. Where they diverged was in their response to the essentially European question of ‘authenticity’. Tolstoy, having ‘gone into it all’, found that it would not ‘do’. He therefore self-confidently jettisoned the Church, the sacraments, the theology of grace. . . . But what emerged was not something tragic or etiolated, but something four-square and strong.”

pp. 320-321: “Tolstoy had a voracious appetite for scholarly reading, for languages, for textual work. But as far as he was concerned, nearly all the questions which caused such anguish to the European theologians were not worth asking. He brushes it all aside. What is burningly, glaringly important, is the question of how we should live. Was the Sermon on the Mount true? Did not its truth expose all that was wrong in the heart of men, all that was wrong in contemporary society? Should we not be actually living as Jesus taught us to live, banishing anger from our hearts, refusing to take vengeance even on those who wrong us, banishing lust and avarice from our lives? Is not that the path to life? The rest, as far as Tolstoy is concerned, is simply an irrelevance.”

p. 325: “Neither common sense, nor the New Testament (and the two are not always coincident) suggest to us that civil government is in itself an evil. No one would deny that Christ came to found a kingdom not of this world. But it is from Proudhon and not from Christ that Tolstoy derives his belief that all governments are of necessity founded upon violence. And one is bound to ask–since Tolstoy never really supplies an answer–why Christianity should necessarily consider it sinful to supply a populace with food, roads and drains, none of which, in the history of mankind, have ever been available without the intervention of some centralised authority.”


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