The featured image is of a mass market I bought today at Yes Books. It’s a late 60s (1967) protest kind of book with essays by Tolstoy on pacifism and civil disobedience. Here is the back cover copy:
“‘The helpless positions of governments, which more and more increase their armaments: the multiplication of taxation and the discontent of nations: the extreme degree of efficiency with which deadly weapons are constructed: the activity of congress and societies of peace: and above all, the refusals of individuals to take military service . . . .’
“Across the decades a great humanitarian reaches the conscience of a perplexed and agonized America. Count Leo Tolstoy saw the factors quoted above as someday leading to world peace. Since these words were written, two world wars and countless smaller wars, with the threat of total nuclear extinction, have increased man’s knowledge of the futility of violence. Such men as Gandhi and Martin Luther King fervently expressed their debt to Tolstoy–his writings on civil disobedience and non-violence are increasingly recognized as one of his most important contributions to the humanity he loved and served so well.”
As with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, though, he did not always serve his family so well. I also read the review of a new book of Tolstoy and Sonya’s letters in Literary Review of Canada. The book is called Tolstoy and Tolstaya: A Portrait of a Life in Letters. I found the review via Prufrock. Anyway, the book shows the, shall we say, inconsistencies in Tolstoy’s application of his principles. Of course, he admitted it all.
I am up to page 43 of Volume XIV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or Chapter VI of The Death of Ivan Ilyitch. Sometimes Tolstoy’s work is hard to read because it is so unflinching. Humankind may not be able to face very much reality, but Tolstoy could. It was hard for me to read about how Ilyitch fell off the ladder, how he grew more and more ill but thought nothing of it, and all the rest, and then when he really realizes he could die . . . there’s just nothing like it I’ve read before (and this is the second time I’ve read it). I got finished with my pages and leaned back in my chair and took a deep breath, shook my head. This is the real thing. This is literature written with blood and sweat.
“The pain in his side kept troubling him, kept growing if anything worse, became incessant; the taste in his mouth became always more and more peculiar; it seemed to him that his breath was disagreeable, and that he was all the time losing his appetite and strength.
“It was impossible to deceive himself; something terrible, novel, and significant, more significant than anything which had ever happened before to Ivan Ilyitch, was taking place in him. And he alone was conscious of it; those who surrounded him did not comprehend it, or did not wish to comprehend it, and thought that everything in the world was going on as before.
“This more than aught else pained Ivan Ilyitch. His family,–especially his wife and daughter, who were in the very white-heat of social pleasures,–he saw, did not comprehend at all, were vexed with him because he was gloomy and exacting, as if he were to blame for it. Even though they tried to hide it, he saw that he was in their way, but that his wife had definitely made up her mind in regard to his trouble, and stuck to it, no matter what he might say or do.”
It only gets more intense. You feel, after reading, that you’ve been, as my mother would say, “put through the wringer.”
Here are some more quotes from A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy:
p. 358: “On the other hand, there were those who, with eyes in their heads, saw things were changing, and that this Holy Religion and this great autocracy were only held together by lies and violence and oppression. It is this tension in microcosm which we witness in the Tolstoy home, and it is this which makes it so terrible. Tolstoy was not just a solipsist interested in saving his own soul. He genuinely believed–however we mistaken we may now consider him–that he had found the solution to the Russian, to the human problem.”
p. 361: “What Then Must We Do? brings this quality to reportage of the urban scene; and, by implication, to the political sphere. It is one of Tolstoy’s most impressive and unforgettable books.”
pp. 362-363: “‘The hatred and contempt of the oppressed masses are increasing, and the physical and moral forces of the wealthy classes are weakening; the deception on which everything depends is wearing out, and the wealthy classes have nothing to console themselves with in this mortal danger.’
“‘To return to the old ways is not possible; only one thing is left for those who do not wish to change their way of life, and that is to hope that “things will last my time”–after that let happen what may. That is what the blind crowd of the rich are doing, but the danger is ever growing and the terrible catastrophe draws near.’
“This in 1886: they had just thirty years to learn the truth of what Tolstoy was saying.”
p. 364: “So Tolstoy advocates manual labour for all, simplicity of life, simple food, simple clothes, etc.”
p. 365: “By asserting his silly ‘property is theft’ creed as though it were an immutable law of the universe, Tolstoy spoils the whole case which he is making out, because in attacking the notion of property, he makes any realistic plan for human betterment impossible. Property never has been abolished, and never will be abolished. It is simply a question of who has it. And the fairest system ever devised is one by which all, rather than none, were property owners.”
p. 373: “Among all his other creative qualities, Tolstoy has (like George Bernard Shaw) and abiding capacity to irritate his reader. Doubtless it is a capacity which produced him him its own curious satisfaction. But much more than his capacity to irritate, he has a power to disturb, to unsettle, to upset.”