Sunday, May 19, 2019

'It’s Quite Harmless and Amuses Me in a Childish Way'

As I was saying, Tolstoy can be infuriatingly inconsistent, grandiose and petty. In other words, human. In this he reminds us of Dr. Johnson. Both indulged in fits of self-rebuke, though one senses Johnson enjoyed it less than Tolstoy, whose flagellations sometimes have a theatrical flavor. Both are like us, irreducibly human, with the added quality of genius. Their weaknesses fuel their strengths, which perhaps reveals something about the nature of genius. It’s not a discrete capacity, something granted from the outside, but rooted in the rest of an individual’s makeup. Here is Tolstoy in his diary in 1901:

“Another difference between people is that some are aware of others first and then themselves, while others are aware of themselves first – I was going to say, and then others – but for the most part such people are limited to an awareness of themselves alone. This is a terrible difference.”

Tolstoy seems unaware that this may stand as an acute observation about himself. But it’s only a half-truth to say Tolstoy was self-centered. He was able to inhabit the lives of others and animate Prince Andrei, Levin and Ivan Ilyich, who can sometimes possess more reality than our neighbors. How many men have fallen in love with Natasha Rostov? Here is the practical-minded Tolstoy writing in 1895 on idleness, Dr. Johnson’s bête noire:
“Doing nothing is more important than people think – than I used to think myself. In moments of depression don’t force yourself to do something. It only makes it worse: you will spoil what you did before, and interfere with what you might do afterwards.”

Compare this with Johnson in The Idler #3: “There are said to be pleasures in madness known only to madmen. There are certainly miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive. These miseries I have often felt and often bewailed.”

In 1909, the year before his death, Tolstoy’s grandiosity is muted and his appreciation of humility heightened: “First of all it must be understood that there can be no heroic feats, no heroism, nothing ‘great.’ There is only doing one’s duty and not doing it. It’s just as if a stable-man cleaning out the stables or a ploughman or a reaper were to talk about a heroic feat he had performed, what heroism he had shown, what a great deed he had done yesterday in cleaning out the stables or ploughing up a field or mowing a meadow.”

I’m reminded of men who brag about how much “quality time” they spend with their children, and the sacrifices they make for the kids. Big deal. It’s your job. Congratulations are not in order. Existing alongside these Tolstoys is the occasional cynic, the refreshingly jaundiced observer, as in this passage from 1900: “I am seriously convinced that the world – countries and estates and houses – is governed by people who are quite mad. Those who are not mad refrain from taking part, or cannot do so.”

And there is yet another, fun-loving Tolstoy. Just as Johnson enjoyed rolling down hills, Tolstoy reveled in speaking on the telephone, playing tennis and riding a bicycle. This is from 1895:

“During this time I began learning to ride a bicycle in the riding-school. It’s very strange why I should be drawn to doing this. Yevgeny Ivanovich [Popov] tried to dissuade me, and was distressed at my riding, but I’m not ashamed. On the contrary, I feel that it’s a natural folly, that it’s all the same to me what people think, and that it’s quite harmless and amuses me in a childish way.”

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

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