Tuesday, December 27, 2011

TOLSTOY'S RESURRECTION


Whoa, hi people. Here we are, or here I am anyway, having reached December 27th. I feel like all of Advent I sort of laid my head on Christ's breast, like St. John the Evangelist, whose feast it is today, at the Last Supper....

Anyway, I had a grand Christmas, the high point of which was morning Mass, where I sobbed like a child, followed by a day of cooking and some hard-core eating with my beloved friends. Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, there were baskets of tri-tip, ham, salmon and sweets left over, which I have actually distributed rather than hoarding, as is my wont. Ten pounds of ham would daunt even me, though I did reserve the bone which will make a splendid split pea soup...

Tomorrow I'm heading out to Palm Springs to house-sit for my friend Christine till January 9th and find myself weirdly, tipsily excited. I'm also working on the manuscript of Stripped, my "cancer book," which requires deep concentration. So having just re-read Tolstoy's last novel, Resurrectionand having remembered that it helped me make the decision, almost twenty years ago now, to quit my job as a lawyer, I think to offer a few excerpts.

I was in civil litigation, not criminal law, but what struck me then, and strikes me with even more force now, is that the constraints of any system based on justice rather than mercy--as all worldly systems perhaps must be (you philosophers will have worked this out)--hold true across the board...

From Chapter XLIV: Book One
It is usually imagined that a thief, a murderer, a spy, a prostitute, acknowledging his or her profession as evil, is ashamed of it. But the contrary is true. People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. In order to keep up their view of life, these people instinctively keep to the circle of those people who share their views of life and their own place in it. This surprises us, where the persons concerned are thieves, bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murderers boasting of their cruelty. This surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere in which these people live, is limited, and we are outside it. But can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth, i.e., robbery; the commanders in the army pride themselves on victories, i.e., murder; and those in high places vaunt their power, i.e., violence? We do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, only because the circle formed by them is more extensive, and we ourselves are moving inside of it.

From Chapter XIX: Book Two
The man on whom depended the easing of the fate of the Petersburg prisoners was an old General of repute--a baron of German descent, who, as it was said of him, had outlived his wits. He had received a profusion of orders, but only wore one of them, the Order of the White Cross. He had received this order, which he greatly valued, while serving in the Caucasus, because a number of Russian peasants, with their hair cropped, and dressed in uniform and armed with guns and bayonets, had killed at his command more than a thousand men who were defending their liberty, their homes, and their families. Later on he served in Poland, and there also made Russian peasants commit many different crimes, and got more orders and decorations for his uniform. Then he served somewhere else, and now that he was a weak, old man he had this position, which insured him a good house, an income and respect. He strictly observed all the regulations which were prescribed "from above," and was very zealous in the fulfilment of these regulations, to which he ascribed a special importance, considering that everything else in the world might be changed except the regulations prescribed "from above." His duty was to keep political prisoners, men and women, in solitary confinement in such a way that half of them perished in 10 years' time, some going out of their minds, some dying of consumption, some committing suicide by starving themselves to death, cutting their veins with bits of glass, hanging, or burning themselves to death.

The old General was not ignorant of this; it all happened within his knowledge; but these cases no more touched his conscience than accidents brought on by thunderstorms, floods, etc. These cases occurred as a consequence of the fulfilment of regulations prescribed "from above" by His Imperial Majesty. These regulations had to be carried out without fail, and therefore it was absolutely useless to think of the consequences of their fulfilment. The old General did not even allow himself to think of such things, counting it his patriotic duty as a soldier not to think of them for fear of getting weak in the carrying out of these, according to his opinion, very important obligations. Once a week the old General made the round of the cells, one of the duties of his position, and asked the prisoners if they had any requests to make. The prisoners had all sorts of requests. He listened to them quietly, in impenetrable silence, and never fulfilled any of their requests, because they were all in disaccord with the regulations.


From Chapter XXX: Book Two
He asked a very simple question: "Why, and with what right, do some people lock up, torment, exile, flog, and kill others, while they are themselves just like those whom they torment, flog, and kill?" And in answer he got deliberations as to whether human beings had free will or not. Whether signs of criminality could be detected by measuring the skulls or not. What part heredity played in crime. Whether immorality could be inherited. What madness is, what degeneration is, and what temperament is. How climate, food, ignorance, imitativeness, hypnotism, or passion act. What society is. What are its duties, etc., etc.

These disquisitions reminded him of the answer he once got from a little boy whom he met coming home from school. Nekhludoff asked him if he had learned his spelling.

"I have," answered the boy.

"Well, then, tell me, how do you spell 'leg'?

"A dog's leg, or what kind of leg?" the boy answered, with a sly look.

Answers in the form of new questions, like the boy's, was all Nekhludoff got in reply to his one primary question. He found much that was clever, learned much that was interesting, but what he did not find was an answer to the principal question: By what right some people punish others?

Not only did he not find any answer, but all the arguments were brought forward in order to explain and vindicate punishment, the necessity of which was taken as an axiom. Nekhludoff read much, but only in snatches, and putting down his failure to this superficial way of reading, hoped to find the answer later on. He would not allow himself to believe in the truth of the answer which began, more and more often, to present itself to him.


From Chapter XL: Part Two
"Perhaps it is necessary to pave the banks with stones, but it is sad to look at the ground, which might be yielding corn, grass, bushes, or trees in the same way as the ground visible up there is doing--deprived of vegetation, and so it is with men," thought Nekhludoff. "Perhaps these governors, inspectors, policemen, are needed, but it is terrible to see men deprived of the chief human attribute, that of love and sympathy for one another. The thing is," he continued, "that these people consider lawful what is not lawful, and do not consider the eternal, immutable law, written in the hearts of men by God, as law. That is why I feel so depressed when I am with these people. I am simply afraid of them, and really they are terrible, more terrible than robbers. A robber might, after all, feel pity, but they can feel no pity, they are inured against pity as these stones are against vegetation. That is what makes them terrible. It is said that the Pougatcheffs, the Razins [leaders of rebellions in Russia: Stonka Razin in the 17th and Pougatcheff in the 18th century] are terrible. These are a thousand times more terrible," he continued, in his thoughts.

"If a psychological problem were set to find means of making men of our time--Christian, humane, simple, kind people--perform the most horrible crimes without feeling guilty, only one solution could be devised: to go on doing what is being done. It is only necessary that these people should he governors, inspectors, policemen; that they should be fully convinced that there is a kind of business, called government service, which allows men to treat other men as things, without human brotherly relations with them, and also that these people should be so linked together by this government service that the responsibility for the results of their actions should not fall on any one of them separately. Without these conditions, the terrible acts I witnessed to-day would be impossible in our times. It all lies in the fact that men think there are circumstances in which one may deal with human beings without love; and there are no such circumstances. One may deal with things without love. One may cut down trees, make bricks, hammer iron without love; but you cannot deal with men without it, just as one cannot deal with bees without being careful. If you deal carelessly with bees you will injure them, and will yourself be injured. And so with men. It cannot be otherwise, because natural love is the fundamental law of human life. It is true that a man cannot force another to love him, as he can force him to work for him; but it does not follow that a man may deal with men without love, especially to demand anything from them. If you feel no love, sit still," Nekhludoff thought; "occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men. You can only eat without injuring yourself when you feel inclined to eat, so you can only deal with men usefully when you love. Only let yourself deal with a man without love, as I did yesterday with my brother-in-law, and there are no limits to the suffering you will bring on yourself, as all my life proves. Yes, yes, it is so," thought Nekhludoff; "it is good; yes, it is good," he repeated, enjoying the freshness after the torturing heat, and conscious of having attained to the fullest clearness on a question that had long occupied him.

LEO TOLSTOY,
1828-1910

8 comments:

  1. it is terrible to see men deprived of the chief human attribute, that of love and sympathy for one another

    Indeed. Let us pray to become more and more human each and every day!

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  2. Heather-
    I recently listened to the audio book, (read by Simon Vance) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I've only started going through classic literature the past 3-4 yrs. I get so much out the classics and always seem to come away with a burning desire to be more genuine. They cause me to reevaluate many of my choices and desires. The bottom line always seems to be I can live a whole lot more simply and give a whole lit more.
    The parts you quoted were some of the ones that just made me stop and ponder. They seemed to pierce the deepest parts of who I am and what it means to be a Human Being. Very Profound.
    Thanks for sharing. Jim

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  3. The part of Resurrection I remember best is the introduction to Matvey Nikitch, who "had a habit . . . of using various curious means to decide the answers to questions which he put to himself. Just now he was counting the number of steps from the door of his study to his chair: if they would divide by three the new treatment would cure his catarrh. If not, the treatment would be a failure."

    I recognize this magical thinking in myself. It's not a huge failing, but it annoys me, even as I continue to engage in it. Leave it to Tolstoy to have identified it . . .

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  4. Punishment can be such a knot when you begin to really ponder it in the huge of 3 a.m. Like, is it punishing to cut off friendship with someone whom you have accidentally caught in subterfuge when you thought you shared a simple honesty between you? I don't think so, but it feels punishing.
    I think that one way to clarify the kind of punishment Tolstoy writes about turns upon power imbalances. The big shot gets to punish the weakling with impunity...but not really, as it kills his soul to do so...he only thought he was getting off scot free.
    So, back to my first scenario...I am sort of punishing my ex-friend but getting away with it because he wasn't being honest with me so he doesn't deserve my trust. Still, I have this nagging idea that it is killing some of my soul to be turning my back.
    From the Cross, Jesus gave His Mother to John (behold your mother) and, by extension, to us and to those men who had just murdered Him. So Jesus was asking Mary to love his executioners with a mother's love.
    Yikes.

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  5. Oh Bird, this to me is the hardest stuff! A few years ago someone told me, "You can love someone and not trust him" and I almost keeled over. I thought I was duty-bound to "trust" if I loved. Whereas love seems to have to do with acceptance...we accept the other person exactly as he or she is and then we interact, if we choose, in a way that's respectful of ourselves as well...we're NEVER doormats but we also don't take up an adversarial position such that one person has to win and the other person has to lose. Personally I think it's okay to say "I'm hurt by what you did and I love you but I need a little space right now." I've never actually said that, calmly and coherently, myself--but there's always 2012!...

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  6. Heather,
    I downloaded an anthology of his work the other night for a big 2.99 to read on my e-reader. On seeing this post I decided to begin with "Resurrection."

    An aside: Back in my Protestant days I knew a number of my pastor peers who saw Tolstoy as something of a prize, you know, they guy who made his *A Confession* in which he eschewed the Church (Orthodox but tied to Rome) and focused on Jesus (though his *The Gospel In Brief* went further stripping out all His miracles which was certainly something my pastor peers would not be down with). I tended to avoid whatever everyone else was into so I didn't both reading the man.

    Oddly, now that I'm Catholic I am more open than ever to reading all manner of voices and yeah, so, I'm reading Tolstoy.

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  7. O-my-gosh; you can love someone without trusting them? Hah! This flips a few potted plants in my mind. But it does stand up under scrutiny. I have noticed that love has more to do with the giver's capacity than it has to do with the receiver's lovability. I once heard a guy say that "those who can love you do; those who can't can't; so don't run around trying to make someone love you." Anyway, I like what you said, Heather, about accepting who they are and then interacting (or not) in a way to include self respect and that win lose isn't necessary...am going to percolate my situation through those grounds.

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  8. Hi Bird, oh you have to put all thoughts of the receiver's lovability aside. Because they are NOT being very lovable. I like to think of it (from the giving side) as having a policy of love-so you treat people with kindness and respect even if, say, they're passed out drunk on the floor. You probably don't make a lot of plans with that person, or count on him or her, or have super high expectations, but you can still accept and love them while also of course loving yourself...

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