Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Tolstoy did in lieu of Suicide

Those growing old and wondering if they have led meaningful lives might be interested in the following from The London Review of Books: . This is a review by James Meek of four books commemorating Tolstoy who died in 1910. Meeks at one point writes, "In A Confession, he runs through a version of his past: he pursued fame, money and pleasure, killed men in war, married, had children, and at the moment when he was at the height of his powers and had everything a man could seem to want, he lost interest in life and had to take measures to avoid the temptation of suicide.

Would you have a very different view of your life if you had written War and Peace and Anna Karenina? Not Tolstoy. He described those two as "negligible work."

"He began an intellectual quest for meaning" and found it in the "Christian faith of the narod, the common folk". . . In World War One, Wittgenstein was to read Tolstoy's paraphrase of the New Testament and become converted.

Converted to what? Christianity, to be sure, but nothing organized or widely accepted. Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Orthodox Church. He became a pacifist and followed "the American writer Henry George in believing in common ownership of land). The Church and Government's hostility toward him increased his stature in revolutionary times."

Meeks writes that "Tolstoy's worldwide fame at his death is off the scale by which such things are normally measured. It was as if Picasso, after painting Guernica, had mutated into Gandhi, without losing any of his artistic reputation."

"Alexander Blok seemed to be anticipating Tolstoy's death as the end of an era of ideas, an era when, for better or worse, an idea could fall on a small town on the steppe or prairie, like a cinder from an explosion far away, and engulf it in an inferno of enthusiasm. 'While Tolstoy is alive, and going along the furrows behind a plough, behind his white horse, the morning is still fresh and dewy, unthreatening, the vampires sleep, and --thank God,' Blok wrote when Tolstoy was 80. 'Here comes Tolstoy -- indeed, it is the sun coming up. But if the sun sets, Tolstoy dies, the last genius leaves -- what then?'"

What then? Tolstoy would tell Blok and Meeks that he was attempting to live a simple Christian life, and if they wanted to see the sun coming up as it did when he pushed his plough, they could (and should) do the same sort of thing. It seems that Wittgenstein went far along those lines. He was ambivalent about his beliefs, or perhaps it would be better to say he didn't live up to his convictions, but neither did Tolstoy.

Did Hermann Hesse (who was born in 1877) have Tolstoy in mind when he wrote Siddhartha? How could he not? Here is the perfect cure to suicidal thoughts deriving from feelings that one's writings (like Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina) are "negligible work." One can take all that one has, give it to the poor, and follow Him. Not that Tolstoy did precisely that. He remained a very wealthy person, but in a sense he gave up all that he had been, and all that he had valued, and followed the path his spiritual search led him onto. A metaphorical "giving away all that you have" is probably the best approximation of what Jesus would mean in these modern times. A literal giving it all away might send you pushing a shopping cart filled with junk and living under an overpass; which is not what someone following Jesus would have been doing in His day. But a figurative giving away of all that you previously thought important but now think conflicts with what you ought to be doing is more like it -- and more like what Tolstoy did -- and Siddhartha -- and far preferable to suicide -- should any of you be quite that despondent.

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