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Tolstoy Journal, August 10, 2017: “He has indeed searched for God, but with no humility, and found only himself”

The feature image is of Tolstoy and his brothers, Sergius, Nikolai, and Dmitri. The latter is the brother who was very religious but then went a bit crazy and lived a life as dissipated as it had previously been religious and who died from tuberculosis in Leo’s arms.

I am up to page 243 in Volume XV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi, or at Chapter XXX of “Yasnaya Polyana School.” I have read the introduction and first seven pages of the letters from Tolstoy and Tolstaya: A Portrait of a Life in Letters, from which the featured image also comes.

There were a couple of passages from the introduction of Tolstoy and Tolstaya: A Portrait of a Life in Letters by Andrew Donskov that struck me. One was from a letter of his great aunt Aleksandra Andreevna: “He [Leo] has indeed searched for God, but with no humility, and found only himself, i.e., some kind of new and distorted code he has thought up himself and which he cherishes and takes pride in, precisely because he worked it out himself. . . . I could find in him [during a visit] not a hint of spiritual or mental peace, or more patience, intrinsically and mathematically associated with genuine love or truth. . . . In the tempest of Levochka’s words, in his wild indignation and condemnation of anything that does not fit into his system, I could find nothing comparable to the meekness of Christ, in Whose name he writes and preaches. . . . When Dostoevsky spoke of Christ, you could feel that genuine sense of brotherhood which unites us all in one Saviour. I can never forget the expression on his face, nor his words, and I began to understand the tremendous influence that he had on everyone without exception, even on those who were unable to fully understand him. He didn’t take anything away from anyone, but the spirit of his truth animated everyone.–This is what I dream about for our Levochka when he stops sitting in his Tower of Babel.”

I’m not sure I totally agree with her here, but she has a strong case, it seems to me. I have read about him being joyful in his religion and in his Calendar of Wisdom he appears to me, says he is, and when you read him you think, this is right and true. But, on the other hand, there is that scene in AK wherein his brother Nikolai argues with Levin and says your problem is you want to be original in everything. Perhaps the problem was originality is wonderful in art but not always in religion. Tolstoy says he is not original, that all his religious ideas are old, but Wilson says that he claims to know the real truth about Christ’s teaching that no one else has understood before. I’ll see when I come to the religious writing. But I am also reminded of Zen teachers, especially Shunryu Suzuki who said if your Zen is making you a worse person, grumpy and irritable, etc. then it is not real Zen. And I am reminded of Goldenweiser writing that there was not much joy in Tolstoy’s family.

Here is another passage from the introduction which struck me: it is from a letter by Strakhov who was a good friend of Tolstoy’s and well disposed to him and his work:

“As it turned out, his Gospel in brief goes beyond all bounds in its departure from the text–it is not even a translation but some kind of paraphrase, just like the content summaries at the beginning of each chapter. . . . The whole thing gives the appearance of distortion and deception. These utterly gratuitous departures, by their sheer numbers, take away from those places where there is no departure from the actual text but only from the generally accepted translations, which are indeed precise and significant.”

I would agree with this assessment. Tolstoy tries to wrest the meaning of the New Testament from a focus on Jesus the God-Man to the teaching of Jesus. In a way he tries to Buddha-ize (terrible word, I know) Christianity. But you really can’t do that very well unless you ignore or change the New Testament. Strakhov goes on to say Tolstoy is a combination of Quaker and Unitarian, which is also true. I am a Catholic convert (1984) who used to be a very traditional conservative but now am more of a Thomas Merton/ Dorothy Day (traditional in beliefs but radical in practice) fan. Day was very influenced by Tolstoy’s anarchism and pacifism, so I might end up in her camp, but despite the above, I feel very attracted to Tolstoy’s view of things. I am striving to be a vegetarian and am reading his Calendar and trying to live it out. But I still go to mass and do a holy hour every week. I’m not sure where I’ll end up but reading Tolstoy is a fascinating trip.

Here are some more passages from Wilson’s Tolstoy:

p. 497: “Nevertheless, her [Sofia’s] diary remains an extremely moving document, whereas Tolstoy’s, oddly, is not. She remained capable of seeing why it was that anyone should be interested in Tolstoy in the first place. He had forgotten that long ago. She could see that he was a great literary genius. ‘I have done nothing but copy out Hadji Murat,’ she wrote a year before he died, ‘It’s so good! I simply couldn’t tear myself away from it.'”

p. 500: “The latter years of Tolstoy are so scandalously horrible, and show up all the chief actors in the drama so poorly, that it is hard not to be gripped by it. And since they were all keeping record, and since nearly all the survivors wrote histories or memoirs, it is hard for biographers to resist the temptation to tell the whole story in minute detail. It is a good example of how too much ‘material’ can actually distort the truth. Two of the greatest Tolstoy biographies of the twentieth century both devote infinitely more space to Tolstoy’s dotage than to the days of his prime. Simmons gave nearly two hundred pages, and Troyat well over a hundred, to descriptions of Tolstoy’s pathetic last days, leaving us with the impression that the most interesting thing about Tolstoy was not his literary genius but his acrimonious relations and hangers-on.”

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