Category Archives: Leo Tolstoy

Thoughts: Childhood, Boyhood, Youth

Childhood, Boyhood, YouthChildhood, Boyhood, Youth by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When reading Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, one quickly appreciates that though they read Tolstoy, they do not read TOLSTOY – the master wordsmith who penned War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Yet, continuing on with this realization, one finds a new angle from which to appreciate Tolstoy. Though I doubt he imagined himself destined as a literary godfather to resound down through the ages, his honest tone throughout this autobiographical fiction might convince his contemporary readers of his potential to become so.

Even though he has yet to become Tolstoy, one finds his characteristic style of contemplation and clarity at the helm. However, as a work – especially one claiming to be fiction rather than autobiographical – his decisions of perspective trouble me. While discussing his childhood, I found myself wondering if I was meeting a child prodigy able to analyze his circumstances with such wisdom. When venturing through his boyhood, I couldn’t help but wonder if such a lad could really express himself with such attention to detail. And through his youth, how could such a pompous, arrogant and confused young man discuss his own attitude as if talking about his own grandson?

After accepting this work in its irreparable state – flaws and brilliance in all – one finds the Tolstoy they love. The man who ponders and explains humanity as if from a vantage point on Mount Olympus, wielding an acute focus on truth and a firm rebuke of egotistical distractions. Despite the book ending without any kind of resolution, one looks forward to the career of a writer with such raw talent.

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Posted by on February 3, 2018 in Leo Tolstoy


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Thoughts: War and Peace

War and PeaceWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

War and Peace – this title could suggest a contrast within the story, two different states, where we discover people who learn about themselves through experience. Instead, I think Tolstoy joins these two bitterly divided opposites to describe one consistent condition of humanity. Rather than thinking of conflict versus harmony, I see a common experience of yearning between the masses and the individual.

While we glare into the glow of Pierre, Prince Andrei and others during their transient epiphanies, and see the French and Russian armies pillage and murder in the name of conquest and national glory, we realize, only through the philosophical explanations provided by Tolstoy, how the errors in popular historical analysis, our adopted science for understanding history which credit men such as Napoleon and Aleksandr for causing the war, match the fruitless employment of reason in the pursuit of happiness and meaning.

The book itself re-imagines the novel. As a fusion of storyline and philosophical treatise, we understand the book as a mirror to life itself with all of our deepest concerns and miseries – our most cherished serenity and elation. Tolstoy, who refuted critics who categorized his work as a novel, transforms himself from an imaginative creator into an artistic conduit. His philosophical diatribes serve to defend the reality of his fiction, the reasonable nature of his portrayals. He morphs fiction into one of the truest representations of ourselves. He does not employ many literary devices, though his realist’s perspective adds to the credence of his ideas. I like to think that he found life’s essence, developed this insight, and then saw it in such contradictory states as war and peace. This insight unifies all life, good or evil. But this insight also exposes the mistakes we make.

Pierre eventually understands the folly of pursuing life’s meaning with intellect, in the same way as Tolstoy argues for the folly in popular practices of historical analysis. Pierre develops an awareness of God’s presence all around him. I loved Tolstoy’s metaphor of the telescope aimed toward distant, blurry objects which we assume have mysterious and profound meaning simply because we don’t see them clearly. We spend our lives calibrating the telescope only to realize that the answers that we seek sit clearly within our natural reach. When Pierre understands this, he no longer seeks to clarify those distant objects. Like Prince Andrei, he fails to see the point. Though Prince Andrei follows a different path, I imagine he and Pierre as relay runners, with one handing the baton to the next runner after making a spiritual breakthrough. And consider Natasha, who, throughout the story, exemplifies the living form of happiness, a state which attracts both Pierre and Prince Andrei because it symbolizes what they desire to experience themselves. Before their respective spiritual awakenings, they yearn to share in her experience, to wake themselves within the happiness she had found. Yet Natasha never chases anything. She simply lives and loves life.

During the civilian storyline, we might say that the characters eventually embrace consciousness rather than their former tools of reason. In terms of the war, and Tolstoy’s arguments against historians, we might say that historians adopt reason over consciousness and freedom over necessity. While Tolstoy maintains that millions of microcosmic circumstances of human experience inevitably initiates and perpetuates the war, and all historical events, historians like to reasonably describe Napoleon and others as free military geniuses or blockheads who just decide, free from any cause, to lead a million men into murderous battle against one another. If necessity (in the sense that an incomprehensible trail of cause and effect leads to the inevitable and unavoidable culmination of an event) prescribes the war, then, in the same sense, simple consciousness of being ought to lead to the discovery of meaning and truth in life. Reason and freedom (in the sense that we exist outside the power of cause and effect) try to arrest power from life and falsely praise mankind as the progenitor of their own state of existence. Man’s faculties for reason cannot truly uncover the cause or effects behind human events, nor can it uncover the cause and effect of happiness. But in knowing the power, or lack thereof, which orchestrates history and in realizing the pomposity of free will directing its course, and opening ourselves to a spiritual consciousness of life which cultivates divine love within us, we discover happiness within this life.

Later, Tolstoy would illustrate the philosophical differences between reason and consciousness, freedom and necessity. Pierre abandons the former for the latter and in so doing experiences a sublime happiness in life. Imagine if someone did figure out the meaning of life and the key to living happily through intellectual means. They would then need to attentively analyze and choose each of their moves, decide whether that move conforms to their mental construct of happiness, and never experience the simple life infused with a natural love and spiritual light. Man must regurgitate the apple. What happiness awaits someone who must perform conscientious perfection? Pierre no longer proactively seeks to perfect his fellow man because of some self-righteous penance. He lives his answers. He does not need to think about them or pursue them from afar. Reason holds the answers at bay, keeps them across the table like a conversationalist, while experience and awareness allows them to fuse with our being. Then we see what we’ve always had.

Of course, one might accuse Tolstoy of perpetrating one of the great literary ironies by composing an extensive work of intellectual art which encourages simple consciousness of life. But we imagine our lives as a journey forward, toward something unknown, when perhaps Tolstoy indicates that the journey actually brings us back from a distance to ourselves, to a home we know very little about.

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Posted by on June 21, 2013 in Leo Tolstoy


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Thoughts: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan IlyichThe Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At my grandfather’s wake, my father walked me to his casket and blanketed my grandfather’s crossed hands with his own. He looked down to me with soaked eye-sockets and a serene grin and said, “They’re so cold.” During the remainder of the wake, I watched my grandmother, aunts and uncles greet guests and cordially accept condolences in a neatly organized line while the children played, diverting themselves from an interminable boredom from which they wouldn’t dare ask to be relieved.

At the funeral the next day, I cried only when my uncle did; after losing control of his incomprehensible composure.

If War and Peace is too long, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is too short. Tolstoy’s ability to compact Man’s greatest insecurity, without losing its full potency, deifies him among literati. He substitutes grand styling for natural insights and masters reason and logic instead of exclusively binding himself to them. Rather than delving directly into Ivan Ilyich’s soul and insisting on a proposition based on his findings, Tolstoy demerits Ivan’s reasoning capacity in hopes, perhaps, of clearing the litter of distractions cluttering the essence of a person’s bout with his final and omnipresent nemesis.

Death, in essence, exists outside of Man’s reasoning capacity. All experiences and knowledge stem from what exists whereas Death is to NOT exist. Can a person fathom his non-existence? Logically, it remains an impossibility as man would need to exist in order to do so. As a result, people like Ivan, ambitious aristocrats encased in their sense of youthful invincibility, ignore death and hide their rebuke for those dying and dead behind social responsibilities of cliche gestures and fraudulent sympathies. All the while they rejoice in the fact that they have eluded Death’s icy grip thanks to those who have taken their place.

I can relate. Can you? I participate in the modern western machine racing to destroy death, prolong life and distract people from its certainty. I don’t want to be around it and I don’t want it to interrupt my schedule or lifestyle.

Yet when Ivan Ilyich, among the most devout in ignoring Death, falls ill, he eventually acknowledges his imminent demise. His first astounding transformation takes place in which he resembles Tolstoy’s sentiments about Death. Like a curse afforded by genius, Death plagued Tolstoy’s thoughts. But unlike Ivan, its imminence appeared to Tolstoy without the help of an illness. Death lingered everywhere and Tolstoy saw its inevitability in everything. And for the reader, a sort of nihilistic mentality erupts from his struggle. One cannot help but sympathize with it knowing that all Ivan’s ambitions and aristocratic moves amount to nothing in the face of imminent Death.

However, to distinguish Tolstoy’s struggle with Death from this nihilistic biproduct, one must discern between mortality and death. Mortality describes the nature, limitations and essence of our existence. But mortality describes nothing about the essence of death except for the fact that it happens. Therefore, Tolstoy, plagued not necessarily by mortality but by Death, explores the essence of Death but does not promote methods, nihilistic or otherwise, of living with mortality.

After hope lingers amidst doctor visits and treatment regiments, its absence defines Ivan’s later despair at the presence of imminent death. Naturally, Ivan questions why he must suffer and die. When calming himself enough to listen either to his own thoughts or to God, he considers if his suffering and death results from having led a poor life. Since his young adult days, his life slipped into moral degeneracy as he filled it with aristocratic indulgences. But he rebukes this idea because he desires contentment in his innocence and unjust punishment – even if the above proposition is “incorrect”.

The unmentioned flaw in this stage rests in the premise that death is a result, a caused effect, and if one could simply manipulate prior circumstances the outcome would change. Of course, death is a fact; a certain and unavoidable end immune from choices and manipulated circumstances. Therefore, whether Ivan morally declined through life or not, he shared in the common progression of men toward death. Even though he naturally, but erroneously, accuses death of causing his moral anguish, Ivan can appease that anguish by rectifying his circumstances – but only for the sake of living a better life, not avoiding death.

Ivan’s final realization culminates in love. Ivan could not elude death but he could have eased, if not dissipated, his moral suffering had he lived for love of others rather than himself. The ego of a dying man may rage at death if the life belongs to him. If the life belongs to others, then his ego finds contentment.

But Tolstoy begs more.

When describing Ivan’s passing, he argues for Death’s absence! Only a light presents itself. Perhaps the essence of Death is no more than an idea; a word indicating the end of one thing when in reality a new beginning happens. The familiar personified literary phantom fades. Perhaps Death, as we fear it, does not physically exist at all. Our lives cease to continue but do we? And if we learn to live as something more than the finite physical life we lead can Death shake us? Can the end of our physical lives scare us?

Ultimately, Tolstoy did not write a manual describing the best methods of living and dying. He craftily articulates his choice to struggle with a conundrum that most people ignore. Until they too, like Ivan Ilyich, my grandfather, me and you, must face it.

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Leo Tolstoy


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Thoughts: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, this book bloomed from exceptionally good to incomparably illuminating. Tolstoy first impressed me with his style; not for its lyrical or poetic qualities, but for its clarity, its thorough and deep intuition into characters and thought processes. These elements extend the narrative, not an uneconomical or excessive wordiness. In fact, I thought Tolstoy chose his words carefully without pomp or haughtiness. He treats the story like a natural scientist; comparing and contrasting characteristics, circumstances, occupations, choices, reactions, philosophies, etc. And for a personally attractive touch, the story contains several criticisms of nobility, urban aristocracy, government, organized religion and social love customs.

The story resolves with Levin’s extraordinary epiphany. Most stories traverse the protagonist’s character change but, ironically, Levin’s realization, which I won’t recount here (Part VIII, Chapters 12 and 13), does not inspire an outward change but gives him peace from doubts and self-deprecation. Yet the book is titled Anna Karenina and she changes irrevocably. Though she exchanges one misery for another.

Tolstoy explores the question of happiness; how to recognize it and how to attain it. Considering that marriage and love propel the characters’ vehicles toward illusionary happy endings, I found it intriguing how they fantasized about and reacted to the institution. When characters contemplated their happiness at someone else’s side, those partners were considered pieces to a puzzle. However, male characters, in particular, rarely thought of themselves as pieces to the other person’s happiness. If they devoted themselves in the pursuit of someone else’s happiness, as fervently as they naturally pursue their own, and found someone devoted in kind, inevitably, both would enjoy the illusive happiness so highly valued. Similarly, if Levin’s agricultural model were implemented, in which self-interests of the landowner and peasant are aligned, theoretically, profits would accumulate at a greater rate than if peasants were forced to work without self-interest, as they worked under serfdom. In marriage, the groom and bride, interested in their own individual happiness and not the other’s, only need to align their interests, the spouse interested in the happiness of their betrothed as well as their own.

Specifically, Anna’s thoughts, entirely devoted to her own idea of love, have little space for the desires of others. Though her choices to pursue true love and free her natural character appear justified and enviable, her obsessive preoccupation with maintaining that love without the assistance of social custom cause her to imagine a world in which all people hate each other and exist simply to survive. Her shame entirely penetrates her disposition and effecs her perspective on nearly everything; cynicism, pessimism and loathing of the world and those who find happiness in it. All this suffering is conjured by her shattered psyche; a mirror to the way she sees herself.

…the struggle for existence and hatred are the only things that hold people together.

Whereas Levin realizes that living for good, for the soul, regardless of ones theories and philosophies about life

And not only the pride of intellect, but the stupidity of intellect. And, above all, the dishonesty, yes, the dishonesty of intellect. Yes, indeed, the dishonesty and trickery of intellect

give meaning and happiness to a troublesome existence.

Though Levin seems a literary manifestation of Tolstoy himself, he asserts very little as to absolute truth. One might see a condemnation of aristocratic marriage but would think twice after Anna’s demise. One might consider Levin’s theories about agricultural economy, his condemnation of earning large salaries without labor, a key to the common good but his spiritual realization preoccupies him from executing his plans. One might commend Karenin’s Christian magnanimity only to see it transform into a self-glorifying superstition. One might consider Oblonsky’s amoral self-gratification deplorable but feel unfulfilled at the absence of consequences. Despite these ambiguities, Tolstoy thrills his readers with insights, enviable to writers like Fitzgerald, and philosophies garbed in plain speech; thusly representing the inconsistency of real world social living centered around self-indulgent plans to satisfy a desire for unendurable happiness.

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Leo Tolstoy


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