The featured image is of a book, War Is A Lie, I bought in Houston at one of those great Half-Price Bookstores. I was thinking of Tolstoy when I bought it. Not sure I will agree that World War II was unnecessary, but I am a lot more open to the pacifist position than I used to be. Also an article in the Guardian made me want to be a vegetarian, something I else I’ve thought about changing since reading Tolstoy. (Tolstoy will do that to you, make you want to change your life.) Here is the Guardian story: Dead Zone. I have for the last two weeks been trying to be a vegetarian. I fell off the wagon while on vacation but am back on now. Trying to not be too assholish about it, just not wanting to be a part of killing millions of animals, not to mention the damage to the environment.
I am up to page 50 in Volume XV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi. That is, I’ve read “The Long Exile; or, God Sees the Truth, But Bides His Time,” also often translated as “God Sees the Truth but Waits.” Also read “What Men Live By,” a beautiful story I wrote about in another blog, can’t remember which one. Also I read 13 pages of Kaufman’s book, Understanding Tolstoy.
“God Sees the Truth and Waits,” is a story that is hard to swallow. I don’t know how I would deal with what happens to the main character. It’s about a man wrongly accused of murder, thrown into Siberia, then he comes across the real murderer and has to decide whether to have his revenge or forgive the man. Tolstoy makes you feel the conflict; he does not make being a Christian easy. No cheap grace for him.
This is when Aksenof, the wrongly condemned man, discovers the man who framed him is in jail with him:
“As soon as Aksenof heard these words he felt convinced that this was the very man who had killed the tradesman. He stood up and walked away. All that night he was unable to sleep. Deep melancholy came upon him, and he began to call back the past in his imagination.
“He imagined his wife as she had been when for the last time she had accompanied him to the Fair. She seemed to stand before him exactly as if she were alive, and he saw her face and her eyes, and he seemed to hear her words and her laugh.
“Then his imagination brought up his children before him; one a boy in a little fur coat, and the other at his mother’s breast.”
He remembers his past life and anger fills him with a desire for vengeance so much that he can’t sleep and the prayers he says all night don’t help. He then has a chance to have the murderer flogged for digging a tunnel, but when asked about it he does not give the murderer away. He thinks about it but finally says, “God does not bid me tell.”
Afterwards the murderer comes to him and begs forgiveness after a full confession. Aksenof weeps along with him.
“When Aksenof heard Makar Semyonof sobbing, he himself burst into tears, and said:–
“‘God will forgive you; maybe I am a hundred times worse than you are!’
“And suddenly he felt a wonderful peace in his soul. And he ceased to mourn for his home, and had no desire to leave the prison, but only thought of his last hour.”
I wonder if this story inspired The Shawshank Redemption? It is hard for me to accept Aksenof’s life, all that time in prison. But one thing I realized is Tolstoy shows how much good he did while in prison, how he became trusted by all and helped all. That was his vocation, in a sense: “The authorities like Aksenof for his submissiveness, and his prison associates respected him and called him ‘Grandfather’ and the ‘man of God.’ Whenever they had petitions to be presented, Aksenof was always chosen to carry them to the authorities.; and when quarrels arose among the prisoners, they always came to Aksenof as umpire.” It is still a case of Not my will but Thine be done.
Here are some more passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy:
p. 454: “The stuff of the story, its actual matter, is altogether un-Pushkinian. These prisoners, exiles, whores, revolutionaries and social destitutes are not the characters we should expect to find in the pages of the early Tolstoy either. They seem to belong to another novelistic world. Twenty years previously, Tolstoy had told Strakhov that he did not know ‘a better book in all modern literature–Pushkin included’ than Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead. Dostoyevsky, by paradox, never wrote more straightforwardly, more Tolstoyanly, than in this prototype of all Russian prison stories. Resurrection is both a homage to Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of Siberia and a proud artistic assertion that Tolstoy can write with the same vigour about prison villages, convoys and punishment blocks as he had, in his prime, written about ballrooms and battlefields.”
This reminds me of an interview with James Salter I read in which he talked about interviewing Graham Greene and how Greene helped him get his novel, Light Years, published. (Which reminds me that Tolstoy is mentioned in that powerful book.) Later when Salter read Greene’s review it mentioned how Greene liked this one part especially well. When Salter read that part, he realized it was a description of a seedy setting, it was a type of writing that was like Greene’s own. And so Tolstoy liked when Dostoyevsky wrote like him. It’s natural.
Okay here is a Wilson passage that expresses well my main problem with Tolstoy’s ideas about not resisting evil (Sampson would say, Jesus’s ideas as well):
p. 457: “The novel fails to recognise the fact which so obsessed Dostoyevsky, that if good men do not hold on to power, bad men will take it from them. Power is not a neutral thing which will simply evaporate if, as Nekhlyudov, with such incredible folly, desires, you disband the armies and let all the criminals out of gaol. Anyone with sense knows what would happen if murderers were allowed to roam free, or if small countries had no defence against large countries. St. Augustine remarked that it was a characteristic of heretics that ‘they are unable to see what is perfectly obvious to everyone else.'”
I will write about this more but it’s interesting what Wilson says here about the “obvious” facts. Tolstoy says the same about power and armies and war and vegetarianism. The truths about them are obvious but no one wants to do the hard work of living by the truth. We know killing millions of animals is wrong but everyone wants a good steak now and then. And one more thing: I don’t think Tolstoy thought power was a neutral thing; he thought power itself was evil and that if good men have power it corrupts them into bad men. The whole point, according to R. V. Sampson’s view, is that you have to choose between the will to power or love.