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Tolstoy Journal, July 27, 2017: “Grub first, then ethics.”

Today’s featured image is of a book I bought at Yes Books in Portland (Maine, of course). Yesterday I read up to page 168 of Volume XIV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. That is, I finished the story, “Two Old Men,” and read three of the “Texts for Woodcuts”: “The Devil’s Persistent, But God is Resistant,” “Little Girls Wiser Than Their Elders,” and “Two Brothers and Gold.” I also read Chapter Nine on Levin in Andrew D. Kaufman’s Understanding Tolstoy, “Levin: To Err and To Dream,” and the first 38 pages of Tolstoy: The Inner Drama by Hugh I’Anson Fausset. This latter I checked out from the Glickman Library at USM, University of Southern Maine, and it includes a passage from “R.L.S” which I presume is from Robert Louis Stevenson:

“Poor soul, here for so little, cast among so many hardships, filled with desires so incommensurate and so inconsistent, savagely surrounded, savagely descended, irremediably condemned to prey upon his fellow lives: who should have blamed him had he been of a piece with his destiny and a being merely barbarous? And we look and behold him instead filled with imperfect virtues . . . sitting down, amidst his momentary life, to debate of Right and Wrong and the attributes of the Deity.”

“Two Old Men” was a beautiful story, one of the didactic ones, but as I’ve written I have no problem with these. In this one, two old men go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but the more easy-going one is detained when he enters a house for a drink of water and finds a family starving to death. He has told his companion to go on without him, he will catch up. He ends up staying with the family and spending all his pilgrimage money to feed the family and get them back on their feet. Meanwhile his companion continues his pilgrimage and when he reaches the holy sites begins to see the easy-going man way up front during the mass. He sees him three times but whenever he goes to look for him he can’t find him.

He comes back home and finds out what had happened with the easy-going one and is amazed but the latter won’t talk about what happened. The moral is obvious–charity and giving to the poor is better than going on a pilgrimage–but what is also interesting is the psychological element in this story that is not always present in the didactic tales. In this one the easy-going guy drinks a bit of alcohol, is generous with his neighbors, and does not micromanage his family. When he leaves on pilgrimage, he only gives his family a few guidelines and instructions, very general ones. He lets go and trusts God. The second guy leaves detailed instructions, is very reluctant to go, is afraid that if he leaves his no-good son will screw up the farm. Which is what happens. So this story is also about trusting in God and how to love others, a lesson in not micromanaging your family.

The more easy-going fellow is also a beekeeper and it occurs to me that when I write my book next year, based on this blog, to have a section about Tolstoy and beekeeping. My wife is a beekeeper and so I know a little about it and Tolstoy was one too and so far all the references to it in his books have been positive. There is this story, and the end of AK and there was another reference in a story I can’t recall; now I do, “The Russian Proprietor, ” I believe.

All right, time for some more passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy.

p. 412: “An English or an American rationalist or Christian Modernist may find much with which he would agree in Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You; but it has very little to say to the slain of the trenches, or the victims of the Russian Civil War, or the countless millions who died as a result of Hitler and Stalin’s death camps, purges, and battles. To those numberless and nameless ones, perhaps, who had suffered from the oppression of unbridled evil, triumphant, irrational demonic power, Dostoyevksy’s The Devils makes more sense.”

It seems a bit hard to me to judge Tolstoy’s work by events that had not yet happened, but I take his point. I have always thought that myself, but as I’ve delved into Tolstoy, I’ve begun to wonder if Dostoyevsky’s work is a mirror image of that which he deplores.

p. 413: “One tiny detail brings this out with ludicrous poignancy. When the Archduke Nikolay Konstantinovich, the emperor’s cousin, wrote to Alexander III asking what was to be done about the famine-stricken steppes, Pobedonostsev [a religious adviser to the Tsar] appended a note to the letter, before passing it on to his royal master, regretting that in his concern for the starving, the Archduke had omitted to comment on the urgent problem of church restoration in the famine areas. There is an emblematic fittingness that Pobedonostsev should have laboured so hard, and spent so much money, on the preservation of so many beautiful abbeys, cathedrals and churches which within decades were to become museums of atheism.”

Or, as Brecht said, “Grub first, then ethics.”

p. 421: “A modern western reader who picks up, say, The Kingdom of God is Within You might be forgiven for thinking that its ideas are crazy. But its assaults are not upon the Orthodox Church of today, neutered in some quarters and made a vassal of an atheist state, purged and chastened in other areas by persecution. Rather, Tolstoy was attacking the cruel and powerful instrument of a spiritual despotism. When the word ‘government’ is synonymous with barbarism, it is understandable why Tolstoy thought it morally imperative to be an anarchist. Solzhenitsyn, eighty years later, was to say that merely to live in the Soviet Union was to be corrupted.”

I am one who thinks the same of contact with and support of Trump.


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