Saturday, May 18, 2019

'How Much Better Are the Lives of Other People'

“Haven’t written my diary for more than two weeks. Health still as bad: continual heartburn and pains in my stomach and liver. But I’m not living too badly.”

Even genius turns tedious when keeping a diary, the most therapeutic of literary forms, one that is always of more importance to the writer than to prospective readers. A diary invites gush and suspends critical acumen. Where else can we write whiningly, self-piteously, and not be reprimanded? Twice in my life I have kept a diary. First, as a teenager, I tried to keep it literary, turning the notebook into an adolescent hybrid of diary and commonplace book. Wisely, before leaving for the university, I burned it in the trash can behind our house. Again, about thirty years ago, during a difficult spell when I wallowed in self-pity and guilt, I spewed onto the pages all my wretched, oddly satisfying self-contempt. That too I burned, and maybe that’s the point of a diary. It’s an evanescent form, designed for self-combustion. The rare exceptions are Saint Simon and Pepys, who document their time and place while ostensibly writing about themselves.

The passage at the top was written by Tolstoy on May 19, 1905, at Yasnaya Polyana. I remember concluding at age sixteen, while reading Henri Troyat’s great biography of the novelist, that Tolstoy, while undeniably a genius, could also be a remarkably self-centered bully and twit. Yet he could surprise you. Here is his next sentence: “The thought of the need for the awareness of light in the sight of God has ceased to have a strong effect as something new, but it has laid down a path, I hope, and part of it (the thought) has entered into my conscious activity.” In an attached note he writes: “consciousness brings time, i.e. illusion, to a stop.”

Weigh the accuracy and sincerity of the following passage, dated Oct. 9, 1900. Is this a dispassionate moral inventory, a delicious wallow in personal awfulness, or some human and very Tostoyan combination of the two:

“During these days the important thing has been that – I don’t recall on what occasion, after inwardly reproaching my sons I think – I began to recall all the nasty things I’ve done. I vividly recalled all, or at least most of them, and was horrified. How much better are the lives of other people and of my sons than my own life. I shouldn’t be proud of the past, or even of the present, but should be humble, be ashamed, hide myself – ask forgiveness of people. I wrote ‘of God,’ and then crossed it out. I’m less to blame before God, than before people.”

This, from the author of War and Peace.

[The quoted passages are from the second volume of Tolstoy’s Diaries (Athlone Press, 1985), translated by R.F. Christian.]

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