Tuesday, June 14, 2016

`A Man Cannot Make Himself Simple at All'

I’m sorry, but as I read Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy again after almost half a century I’m tempted to formulate a Theory of Human Behavior. Here goes: Anyone advocating doctrinal simplicity as a way of life probably has no gift for it, and is doomed to a life of vexation. And a corollary: He’ll likely make life a living hell for those around him. Tolstoy was forever carrying on about chastity, pacifism and vows of poverty, as only a well-heeled aristocrat can. At precisely the moment he started preaching asceticism and universal love, he stopped being a great novelist and story writer. Chekhov, who honored him as a writer, had Tolstoy’s number: “Prudence and justice tell me there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam, than in chastity and vegetarianism.” One thinks of Thoreau (“simplify, simplify”) and his contempt for his fellows. Stevie Smith had her say about the hypocrisy of simplicity advocates in the 1964 essay “Simply Living” (Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, 1982);

“You must have some money if you are going to live simply. It need not be much, but you must have some. Because living simply means saying No to a great many things. How can you say No to travelling up and down to work and being competitive if you do not have money? If you have a little money and are a poet, there is no greater pleasure than living simply. It is also grand. In my present circumstances I am grand. I can say No when I want to and Yes when I want to. It is important to say Yes sometimes or you will turn into an Oblomov. He stayed in bed all day and was robbed by his servants. There was little enjoyment there.”

There seems to be nothing simple about simplicity and what it does to people. In his 1902 essay “Tolstoy’s Cult of Simplicity,” G.K. Chesterton calls the Russian a “venomous reformer,” and states an obvious paradoxical truth: “We feel that a man cannot make himself simple merely by warring on complexity; we feel, indeed, in our saner moments, that a man cannot make himself simple at all. A self-conscious simplicity may well be far more intrinsically ornate than luxury itself. Indeed, a great deal of the pomp and sumptuousness of the world’s history was simple in the truest sense.”

[Today is a sad one for readers. On this date, June 14, we lost Leopardi in 1837, Chesterton in 1936 and Borges in 1986.]

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