Wednesday, March 25, 2020

'His Wild Ambitions, His Absurd Rules of Life'

My middle son is a second-year midshipman at the United States Naval Academy majoring in computer engineering and minoring in Russian. His Russian instructor has posted in the class chat room an entry she calls “SOCIAL DISTANCING goals from the diary of young Lev Tolstoy, spring 1847.” The future novelist was then eighteen years old:

“What will be the aim of my life in the country during the next two years? 1) To study the entire course of legal sciences needed for the final examination at the university. 2) To study practical medicine and some medical theory. 3) To study languages: French, Russian, German, English, Italian and Latin. 4) To study agriculture, both theoretical and practical. 5) To study history, geography and statistics. 6) To study mathematics--the gymnasium course. 7) To write my dissertation. 8) To attain the highest degree of perfection in music and painting. 9) To write rules. 10) To acquire a certain understanding of the natural sciences. 11) To write a composition from all the subjects that I will be studying.”

In 1844, Tolstoy had enrolled at Kazan University to study law and oriental languages. He is a less than dedicated student. That same year his brothers take him to a brothel where he losses his virginity. Tolstoy’s priorities are rearranged. Three years later he drops out of the university without earning a degree, begins keeping a journal and inherits his family’s 4,000-acre estate, Yasnaya Polyana. He moves to Moscow and takes up gambling and whoring. As the passage above suggests, he is enormously ambitious, at least on paper, like many young men. He was soon at work on his first book, Childhood, a fictionalized account of his younger years. Michael’s Russian instructor posted a second entry from Tolstoy’s diary, this from March 1850:

“I don't carry out what I prescribe for myself; what I do, I do poorly; I don’t cultivate my memory. For this I will write several rules here, which, as it seems to me, will help me greatly if I follow them: 1) What you have definitely decided to do--do no matter what. 2) What you do, do well. 3) Never look up in a book what you forgot, but try to remember it yourself. 4) Constantly force your mind to act with all its possible strength. 5) Always read and think aloud. 6) Don't be ashamed to tell people who are disturbing you that they are disturbing you: first, let them sense it, but if they don’t understand (that they are disturbing you) then excuse yourself and tell them so. In compliance with the second rule I definitely want to finish my commentary on the Instruction of Catherine.”

The other side of grandiose ambition is grandiose self-loathing and recrimination. Tolstoy recalls Dr. Johnson in the scale of his plans and the revulsion that inevitably follows when they fall apart, but at least Johnson kept his diaries to himself. As Henri Troyat recounts in Tolstoy (trans. Nancy Amphoux, 1967), the novelist shared the contents of his diary with his fiancée, Sophia Behrs, on the eve of their wedding in 1862:

“His wild ambitions, his absurd rules of life, his intellectual acrobatics, his somersaults, his toothache, his rages, his diarrheas, his erotic dreams, his false engagement to Valerya, his real affairs with the peasant women, she would know it all. In his wedding basket he would deposit this bundle of dirty linen; if she did not turn up her nose at the smell, then she could understand anything.  He reveled in debasing himself, in the true Russian manner, in the eyes of the person whose respect was most essential to him.”

1 comment:

Faze said...

5) Always read and think aloud.

Nabokov admired Tolstoy, but mocked "the sort of person who moves his lips when he reads".