“All of my being is now in pining”: More Tolstoy

 I STILL haven’t finished “War and Peace”!! I have about 155 pages left to read and a long 4-hour layover in Bogota tomorrow, so hopefully I can triumphantly mark it as “read” on Goodreads by the end of the day.

War and Peace is a REALLY good (dare I say great?) book, so I don’t know why the last 300 pages have been such a slog for me. Maybe it’s a syndrome of “too much of a good thing”, as it’s the only book I’ve been reading for the past month (no, Judy Blume and Lois Duncan don’t count). As a way to “reward” myself in between chapters, I’ve been picking up Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, a relic from my sister’s freshman year at Wesleyan (the title even refers to War & Peace! How perfect is that?). I remember e-mailing passages from this book about the brutality of drunk Russian men and the woe-is-me folk songs that their abused wives would sing to an ex-friend of mine who was really into Russian culture. Now after reading it in more depth, I’m pleased to say that it really is a most enjoyable, highly recommendable book. The map in the front page was also extraordinarily helpful, as it helped me make more sense of Tolstoy’s historically-based passages (“The French are heading back to Mozhaisk via Smolensk? OMG!”).

I still have a hundred-ish pages to go, but I don’t think I’m being presumptuous by stating that one of the major themes (if not THE major theme) of War and Peace is the Search For Truth. This Search is embodied by the main characters, the dashing Prince Andrei Volkonsky (apparently based on Tolstoy’s grandfather, whom he greatly admired and sought to emulate) and the dour, chubby Pierre (whose life is similar to Tolstoy’s to the point of eeriness). Pierre, in all his clumsiness and WTF-are-you-thinking moments (kind of like a female, Russian, 19th-century Sophie from The Wonder Spot), was definitely the one I related to the most. Pierre is very much a a character who is constantly on a quest throughout the book, in search of something to give his life meaning and purpose:

Whatever he started thinking about, he came back to the same questions, which he could not resolve and could not stop asking himself. It was as if the main screw in his head, which held his whole life together, had become stripped. The screw would not go in, would not come out, but turned in the same groove without catching hold, and it was impossible to stop turning it. (347)

What is bad? What is good? What should one love, what hate? Why live, and what am I? What is life, what is death? What power rules over everything?… And there was no answer to any of these questions except one, which was not logical and was not at all an answer to these questions. This answer was: ‘You will die—and everything will end. You will die and learn everything—or stop asking.’ But to die was also frightening. (348)

(Here’s another great passage involving Pierre that my sister e-mailed me waaaay back in senior year of college, when she first read it.)

Now I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far it seems that one solution to this problem of meaning that Tolstoy proposes is Love and Compassion, which would definitely get the Pema Chodron stamp of approval. There’s a very moving scene in which one of the main characters (not Pierre!) is on his deathbed, and he forgives his very worst enemy, a person who has committed a horrible betrayal against him, and becomes capable of feeling love and compassion for him. After this realization of the importance Love as “life”, (984) the character experiences “an awakening from life” (985)and begins to drift into death. It’s almost as if by approaching this truth–of loving completely and totally, without reservations–the character can no longer be expected to remain in this world, and instead has to pass on to the next one. In this way Love is presented as the key to meaning, as the way of making sense of one’s life, but it’s as though it’s a meaning you cannot adopt without completely renouncing all earthly things, including the world itself.

(Renunciation is also an interesting theme in Tolstoy, if you consider “Tolstoyism” and his radical anarchist Christian socialism that he adopted later in life and yes, his Into the Wild fanboydom. But that’s a theme for another day.)

It’s interesting to me that Tolstoy uses the deathbed as the ideal moment (indeed, the only moment) in which Truth and Meaning can be revealed to the protagonist.  (Not just in War & Peace, but in Ivan Ilych, the only other work of his that I’ve read, way back in 10th-grade Spanish class.) These kind of death scenes are a far cry from the more “modern” kinds of death that take place in Onetti, or the inexplicable, horrifying ones caused by modern warfare in World War I, II or even the Civil War. It’s especially interesting if you keep in mind that according to Natasha’s Dance, apparently Tolstoy himself was both terrified and fascinated by death, in the best Woody Allen sense:

Tolstoy desperately tried to rationalize death as a part of life. ‘People who fear death, fear it because it appears to them as emptiness and blackness,’ he wrote in ‘One Life’ (1887), ‘but they see emptiness and blackness because they do not see life.’ Then, under Schopenhauer’s influence perhaps, he came to regard death as the dissolution of one’s personality in some abstract essence of the universe. But none of it was convincing to those who knew him well. As Chekhov put it in a letter…, Tolstoy was terrified of his own death, but did not want to admit it.” (345)

 Contrasting Chekhov’s attitude towards death with Tolstoy is also an interesting exercise, as apparently Chekhov had a much more relaxed, down-to-earth attitude. With the moment of his tuberculosis-induced deathbed rapidly encroaching, Chekhov dealt with it by checking into a hotel with his wife and drinking a glass of champagne before expiring. Talk about “a good death,” the proper way to approach your momento moris! We should all be so lucky (the soldiers getting blown to bits in Iraq and Afghanistan are definitely not afforded such a luxury). According to Natasha’s Dance, Chekhov’s understanding of death was closer to the peasant’s understanding: “Chekhov understood that people die in a very ordinary way—for the most part they die thinking about life. He saw that death is simply part of the natural process.” (348) Tolstoy himself  “long believed that the peasants died in a different way from the educated classes, a way that showed they knew the meaning of their lives. The peasants died accepting death.” (353) This reminds me of the people I met and worked with during my oh so brief foray into microfinance, who would definitely be considered peasants on the social-economic scale of things in 19th-century Russia. I’m reminded in the sense that they were accepting of their fates and always spoke of a higher power that guided them (I always wanted to tell them to give themselves more credit!). Death is a firmly established, indisputable ritual, and that’s why there’s no fear or uncertainty: they know how to die. Death is a moment when you need to get your affairs in order, so you don’t leave things in a big mess for your family to deal with after you go. It’s a very simple, practical attitude, as though you’re just walking through an open door to go on a trip somewhere.

Chekhov's calm, appropriately doctorly, all-accepting countenance inspires reassurance

I have to go to bed soon (7AM flight…woooo!) so I’ll keep this brief, but let me just say that if I had to write a college paper about Tolstoy (Ha Ha Ha!) or War and Peace, I’d probably want to write about his attitude towards the peasants. There’s several interesting scenes in War & Peace that could be used for this purpose. The best one is when Pierre meets a peasant who seems to be the embodiment of the simple living and acceptance of meaning that he’s been desperately searching for throughout these 900+ pages:

Karataev had no attachments, friendships or love, as Pierre understood them, but he loved and lived affectionately with everything that life brought him in contact with, particularly man—not any particular man, but those with whom he happened to be… To Pierre he always remained… an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth.” (lost page number, sorry!)

Karataev appears to Pierre as the embodiment of simplicity and truth because he seems to be very certain of his place in his life, of his membership to a particular community. So in addition to LOVE being one of the key solutions to the Search for Truth, Tolstoy also seems to be saying that COMMUNITY is equally important. As Natasha’s Dance puts it:

“Tolstoy thought of God in terms of love and unity. He wanted to belong, to feel himself a part of a community. This was the ideal he sought in marriage and in his communion with the peasantry… All Tolstoy’s characters are searching for a form of Christian love, a sense of relatedness to other human beings that alone can give a meaning and a purpose to their lives.” (341)

(I would just substitute the word “truth” for “God” here… aren’t they basically the same thing? IDK)

 I guess I’d like to end this entry with a question about the Eternal, Ever-Present Search for Meaning (LOL) inspired by Chekhov:

Modern culture is but the beginning of a work for a great future, a work which will go on, perhaps, for ten thousand years, in order that mankind may, even in the remote future, come to know the truth of a real God—that is, not by guessing, not by seeking in Dostoevsky, but by perceiving clearly, as one perceives that twice two is four. (Chekhov)

Are we getting closer to that moment, in which we’ll be able to find the Truth by “perceiving clearly,” as clearly as we perceive 2+2 = 4? Is living the simple life, toiling in the soil like a farmer key to this (Tolstoy seemed to think so, with his live-like-a-peasant-and-renounce-everything-Into-the-Wild-style at the end of his life) Or are we still stuck in the guessing and searching stage? Take a wild guess…

(The title for this entry comes from the PJ Harvey song “The Devil,” apparently based on the Tolstoy novella by the same name, which I haven’t read but will have to as Natasha’s Dance refers to it constantly. Polly seems to be quite the Tolstoy fan; the lyrics to “Before Departure” also appear to be based on a kind of Ivan Ilych deathbed realization.)

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Filed under books, colombia, death, poverty, truth

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