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Tolstoy Journal, August 8, 2017: “soul-secrets hidden from us”

The featured image is a photography of Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia, taken from the new book, Tolstoy and Tolstaya: A Portrait of a Life in Letters, which you can read a new review of here. I have to page 189 of Volume XV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, and am in the section entitled “Yasnaya Polyana School.” I am on page LVI of the introduction to Tolstoy and Tolstaya.

And I am surprised at how much I am enjoying this section, wherein Tolstoy describes his school and the philosophy behind it. I remember when I was starting this journey, I looked ahead and thought this section might bore me but it is surprisingly moving. He set up a school for the children of his peasants and they could come or not come, they could sit anywhere they wanted; by our standards there was not much discipline. But Tolstoy found that the kids really wanted to learn and that they would keep each other in line. It seems to chaotic to me but it made me wonder about our rows of desks and lines in front of the water fountain (at least in my day). The children are allowed to come and go as they please but that is only possible in a communal situation.

Here is a paragraph I really enjoyed:

“They bring nothing with them–no books and no copy-books. They are not required to study their lessons at home. Not only do they bring nothing in their hands, but nothing in their heads either. The scholar is not obliged to remember to-day anything he may have learned the evening before. The thought about his approaching lesson does not disturb him. He brings only himself, his receptive nature, and the conviction that school to-day will be just as jolly as it was the day before.”

A problem arose in paradise, however, when some school supplies were stolen, not once, but twice, and the punishment was for the culprits to wear placards saying THIEF. Tolstoy was not sure this was good, but went along with it for it was the childrens’ idea. The second time it happened, Tolstoy confronted the boy who had done it:

“But as I looked into the culprit’s face, which was more pale, wretched, passionate, and hard than ever, I seemed to see the face of a convict, and it suddenly appeared to me so wrong and odious, that I took off the stupid placard; I told him to go wherever he pleased, and I suddenly felt the conviction–felt it, not through my intellect, but in my whole being–that I had no right to punish this unhappy lad, and that it was not in my power to make of him what I and the dvornik’s son might like to make of him. I felt a conviction that there are soul-secrets hidden from us on which life, but not regulations and punishments, may act.”

I want to say that I sympathize with Tolstoy here but feel like you should still punish the person. That Tolstoy is too black and white, all or nothing, about institutions and punishments, that he threw out the baby with the bathwater. But I also remember the story from the desert fathers when one of them was asked to testify against a robber and so he brought in a bag of sand filled with holes through which the sand leaked. And he said how can I judge this robber when my sins are like the sand leaking out of this bag?

Here are some more Wilson quotes:

p. 461: “It was a common joke that there were two Tsars at that time in Russia: Nicholas II and Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. His novel had touched a nerve and it was providing the most glaring demonstration of the political power of art. But that power was not just political. While the crowds hurrahed and the bishops had time to wonder whether they had done the right things in giving the book so much free publicity, Tolstoy felt–most unusual for him–an intense feeling of inner satisfaction, of artistic achievement. After Anna Karenina, there had been a nervous and imaginative collapse which made him revile his own genius, and hate the ‘magazine story about an officer falling in love with a married woman’. With Resurrection he suffered no such spiritual reaction. Gorky describes him reading passage of the book aloud to a group of friends. When he had finished, he paused and looked up with a smile. He said, ‘The old man wrote it well.'”

I thought he said that about Hadji Murat and will have to double-check this when I re-read the Gorky book. I do think Wilson is a bit careless with his details at time, and don’t know why he wouldn’t correct mistakes in later editions.

p. 466: “One day, as he sat looking at the sea, with two younger literary visitors, he turned to one, Anton Chekhov, and asked, ‘Did you fuck a lot of whores in your youth?’ Chekhov was embarrassed and mumbled. Tolstoy, momentarily aglow with the excitements of his earlier sins, said clearly, ‘I was an indefatigable fucker.’ The other man, Maxim Gorky, who did not expect such ‘peasant’ vocabulary from an aristocrat, was disconcerted by the exchanged and noted it down in his Reminiscences of Tolstoy.”

That’s the Gorky book I want to re-read. I think Wilson is dramatizing a bit here, but we’ll see.

p. 467: “Chekhov took all this criticism in good part. The photographs of Tolstoy in the Crimea with his family and with ‘literary’ visitors gives us a sad glimpse of the manner in which his last days might have been spent. He always got on best with young or younger men, and life was much happier when he was surrounded by people who revered him for his literary genius rather than for his views.”

I think I will finish up with the Wilson quotes in two more days, then will turn to Kaufman’s book.



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