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Tolstoy Journal, July 24, 2017: “But how can one live for God?”

The feature image is of Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, a philosopher Tolstoy praised and whom I have never delved into beyond key passages. I am up to page 122 of Volume XIV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. From this volume, then, I’ve read The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, “Three Deaths,” “Neglect A Fire and it Spreads,” and “Where Love Is, There God Is Also.” I’ve read up to page 148 of Andrew D. Kaufman’s Understanding Tolstoy.” I had read all of those before except for “Three Deaths,” which was very good.

There is always, I find so far, something refreshing about reading Tolstoy. I bought a copy of God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens yesterday because I had never read it, partly because I was afraid to. So I stayed up till two reading it, and, as when I read John Gray or George Orwell, I find myself nodding my head a lot but afterwards saying to myself, “I don’t think so.” I mean Hitchens makes some good points but he gets a few things just plain wrong, such as that there are no first-class thinkers that are Christians anymore. He also appears to have done little research for the book and it is mostly ad hominem argumentation. But he does have a point about religion and egotism. Sometimes when reading Merton or Dorothy Day I start feeling uncomfortable because it suddenly feels very self-centered, that in devoting oneself to God, one is devoting oneself to self.

You could certainly say this about Tolstoy. I was a little afraid that after reading Hitchens I would become an atheist or at least a skeptic and jettison this Tolstoy project. But I haven’t because after reading Hitchens–who I admire as stylist–I turn to Tolstoy and the word that came to mind was refreshing, and then, goodness. Reading him I am constantly refreshed in my inward life.

Here is a passage from “Where Love Is, There God Is Also”:

“‘I have no desire to live any longer,’ he said; ‘I only wish I was dead. That is all I pray God for. I am a man without anything to hope for now.’

“And the little old man said to him:–

“‘You don’t talk right, Martuin: we must not judge God’s doings. The world moves, not by our skill, but by God’s will. God decreed for your son to die,–for you–to live. So it is for the best. And you are in despair, because you wish to live for your own happiness.’

“But what shall one live for?’ asked Martuin.

“‘We must live for God, Martuin. He gives you life, and for His sake you must live. When you begin to live for Him, you will not grieve over anything, and all will seem easy to you.’

“Martuin kept silent for a moment, and then said, “But how can one live for God?’

“And the little old man said:–

“‘Christ has taught us how to live for God. You know how to read? Buy a Testament, and read it; there you will learn how to live for God. Everything is explained there.’

“And these words kindled a fire in Avdyeitch’s heart. And he went that very same day, bought a New Testament in large print, and began to read.'”

I find this passage very moving and so simple. It reminds me somewhat of the saintly simplicity I heard in Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche when I heard him speak. And though I’m not a huge fan of Mother Teresa, when I heard her once on a documentary, I was struck to tears by the same simplicity.

Here are some more passages from A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy:

p. 385: “But it is a gross simplification to think that Pozdnyshev [the narrator of The Kreutzer Sonata] is Tolstoy. On the contrary, he is the greatest indictment of the Tolstoyan view of men and women that was ever imagined.”

p. 386: “The old pattern was at work of Tolstoy using fiction to purge and to sanitise existence. In early stories his imagination had washed experience, leaving him, for example, as an innocent and not a fornicator in The Cossacks. Here, the imagination was doing more disturbing work. It was unearthing, beneath all the doctrines of love and chastity, the violence and the hatred which were inseparable from sexual passion in Tolstoy’s life.”

p. 387: “To repeat: this is a murder story. It is not, as so many critics seem to imagine, an evangel placed upon the lips of the most inappropriate [of?] preachers. It is the sort of story of unbridled and terrifying passion of which Dostoyevsky made himself the master. And while it has all Tolstoy’s directness, and largeness, and clearness, there are suggestions at various points that he was actually writing with Dostoyevsky in his eye.”

pp. 387-388: “For Dostoyevsky’s characters, evil is like a drug on which they can get high, drunk; for Tolstoy’s characters, it sharpens their hideous awareness of things. It is as though Pozdnyshev is saying to Raskolnikov, ‘you may have lost your awareness of self when you did your murders, but I was overwhelmingly aware of self when I did mine.’ He is just as self-aware as all the early and middle-period heroes and heroines. Only what–even for Anna–was a source, much of the time, of joy–the knowledge that ‘I am I’–has become for Pozdnyshev (pozdny means ‘late’ in Russian and he is born out of time in his unhappy author’s imagination) a source of perpetual, scorching torment. He is a soul in hell.”

p. 397: “Father Sergius reveals, however, not only Tolstoy’s absence of humbug–but the strange awareness which his artistic self (so long forced to play second fiddle to his prophetic soul) had of his real nature. And, as in nearly every story of his later period, we think of Dostoyevsky. What could be more Dostoyevskian than the thought that a monk who has fallen into sin comes closer to God than a pillar of rectitude?”


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