Blog Post

Tolstoy Journal, August 1, 2017: Education, Serendipity, and “Things cannot go on in this crazy, barbarous way.”

The featured image is of the frontispiece of Volume XV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. It is called “The Long Exile” and is by T. V. Chominski. This month the volumes are longer than usual and I need to read on average 27 pages a day to get both read. Volume XV has a few short stories, a lot of short sketches done for primers and Tolstoy’s writings on his school at Yasnaya Polyana. Volume XVI is a doozy: “Master and Man,” The Kreutzer Sonata, and two plays, “The Power of Darkness,” and “The Fruit of Enlightenment.”

Here is what the translator, Nathan Haskell Dole, has to say about Tolstoy and education:

“His theory of freedom in the school reminds one of that set forth by the American educator, A. Bronson Alcott, and to a certain extent employed by him under very different conditions. It has in it the incontrovertible truth that children study best that which interests them, and that they may be led more successfully than driven into the paths of learning.

“His arguments against examinations as tests of knowledge coincide with the experience of most teachers. They have their place, but altogether too much stress is laid on them in our schools and colleges, and as they are generally conducted they do more harm than good. They lead to cumulative cramming, and they are almost invariably unfair.”

I was thinking this morning of how glad I am at certain serendipitous things that have happened with regard to my Tolstoyan journey, beyond the initial blessing of getting the books in the first place from my wife’s best friend. The ones freshest in mind are finding the Gustafson book on Tolstoy in Rochester’s Small World Books, finding The Portable Tolstoy and the Ann Dunnigan translation of War and Peace at the library book sale, discovering the work of Andrew D. Kaufman who is interested in not just literary criticism but literature’s power to inspire and heal, and most recently, I saw that University of Ottawa was coming out with a book of Leo and Sofia Tolstoy’s letters; I queried a publication and got a positive reply so now I have a review copy of this book on the way.

These things may seem small but to me they are part of the phenomenon Thomas Mann talked about; he said when you begin a project the universe conspires to give you what you need; he called it, I think, the magic circle. Part of me says this is just a case of when you buy a certain car you start seeing that car all over the place, but either way, it is a blessing to experience. I am very glad to feel encouraged in this journey and glad that I decided that one year will be devoted to reading the Tolstoy books and one year writing about them with this blog being my notes. I had wanted to do it all in a year but came to see that was not realistic. Now I feel room, creatively speaking, to breathe.

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

p. 430: “He wrote, with great perspicacity, in his diary: ‘A man is considered disgraced if he lets himself be beaten or if he is accused of theft, brawling or not paying card debts, etc., but not if he signs a death sentence, takes part in an execution, reads other people’s letters, separates fathers and husbands and wives from their families, confiscates people’s resources or puts them in prison. But surely that is worse.'”

p. 448: “Those who entertain the simple view that Tolstoy ‘just’ wanted to ‘get back to nature’ or ‘just’ wanted to lead ‘a simple life’ should look again at the universal cohesion of Resurrection. By the time we read the last sections, it seems to have achieved its effect almost without effort.”

p. 449: “What no reader of the novel [Resurrection]will ever forget is the vividness of those convicts and the conversations they have among themselves. In the first half of the book, we know that spring will come, that the ice will break, that Nekhlyudov will seduce Maslova. It is all natural and inevitable. In the second half of the book, we know with the same certainty that something will happen to Russia. Things cannot go on in this crazy, barbarous way. And it is one of the mysterious features of the book, finished seventeen years before Lenin’s train pulled into the Finland Station, that we have no doubt at all the the oppressors are less strong than their prisoners. It is not just hindsight which makes us say this. The ‘resurrection’ which is in store for them is as certain as the return of spring to the earth. The question merely remains, when we have finished the novel, of how the ice will break on the river, and how change will come to Russia.”

p. 452: “‘He is a Tolstoyan,’ he once said contemptuously of a visitor to the house, ‘that is a man with convictions utterly opposed to mine.'”

p. 453: “‘What the Gospels tell us is that in this new way of live and of communion, which is born of the heart and which is called the Kingdom of God, there are no nations, but only persons.’

Resurrection explores and celebrates this idea with profound intelligence. Its author is under no illusions, as the Tolstoy of the pamphlets sometimes is. He knows that the tyranny of the bureaucrats, bishops, judges, procurators and generals will one day give place to the tyranny of the revolutionaries and that this will probably be infinitely worse. But the novel asserts that you don’t destroy the evil of the system by replacing it with another system. Only persons can undermine systems. And the more twentieth-century leaders have ruthlessly attempted to behave as though persons were statistics, the more prophetic Resurrection has become. Hence its vast popularity in the Soviet Union in the days of Lenin and Stalin. Once the Politburo and the Cheka and the Gulag and the whole odious machinery of Soviet Communism had been established, there was no means of undermining it by political or military means. And yet individuals did not just survive. It was by being individuals that, in a million tiny areas, they did in effect defeat the system, as we learn from the testimony of Solzhenitsyn, Nadezhda Mandelstam and others. In books like The Gulag Archipelago or Hope against Hope we discover that human individuality, like the grass between the paving stones at the beginning of Tolstoy’s novel, is ultimately indestructible.”




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