Brain Pickings

Young Tolstoy’s Diaries: Time, Moral Development, and the Search of Self

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“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?”

Some of humanity’s greatest writers championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but hardly any literary titan has explored the medium’s spiritual and existential value more intimately than Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 10, 1910). The same intense inward gaze that produced Tolstoy’s record of spiritual awakening became, by the end of his life, an effort to assemble a manual on the meaning of existence. But the most psychologically formative and creatively intriguing journaling is that of Tolstoy’s youth.

Tolstoy wrote his first diary entry at the age of eighteen, in March of 1847, while relegated to a hospital bed during treatment for a venereal disease. He was already on the cusp of being expelled from university for poor academic performance, so the forced sabbatical at the hospital led him to begin a journey of self-exploration — in the dual sense of both examining himself and contemplating the notion of the self — which would stretch and coil across his entire life.

That journey is what Russian literature scholar and historian Irina Paperno explores in “Who, What Am I?”: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self (public library) — a remarkably insightful account of the beloved author’s “paradoxical efforts to create a narrative representation of both the self and the selfless being,” and an inquiry into the broader, more universal concerns with what actually constitutes a self, that elusive and often self-defeating appendage of existence.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoy, 1873

What makes these diaries especially intriguing is their parallel existence in the past and the future — Tolstoy combined narrative reflections on the micro scale of autobiography with moral resolutions on the macro scale of character. But what emerges, above all, is the sense that Tolstoy was a man of intense intellect, continually crucified by the compulsive shoulds in which that very intellect was trapped. Caught up in his obsessive project of intentional moral organization, he saw the self as a forceful function of supposed to rather than a peaceful bearing witness to being, an embracing of is.

Tolstoy liked to trace the origin of his fascination with this question to his old nanny, who used to lie in solitude, listening to the clock and hearing in its ticking a question: “Who are you — what are you? Who are you — what are you?” In the clock’s question, Paperno argues, Tolstoy found his eternal quest:

This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?

And so for the young Tolstoy lying at the hospital, the diary was as much “an instrument of self-perfection” with which to steer his wayward life as it was “an experimental project aimed at exploring the nature of self” through concepts like morality, memory, consciousness, and time.

Tolstoy’s early journals, in fact, were at once a moral checklist and narrative cartography of time. Paperno points to one particularly intriguing notebook from his mid-twenties, titled Journal for Weaknesses, which fell partway between Benjamin Franklin’s agenda of virtues and Isaac Newton’s litany of self-professed sins. Like Franklin, Tolstoy marked his moral development along the temporal progression of the calendar but, like Newton, he focused on his follies rather than his feats — he divided the page of his calendar-notebook into columns for potential weaknesses like laziness, indecision, and vanity, marking with small crosses the days on which the respective vice manifested.

Alongside this notebook, Paperno notes, Tolstoy kept another, titled Journal of Daily Occupations — a time-log in which each page was divided into two vertical columns, one for the future and one for the past. The first listed Tolstoy’s agenda for the next day, and the second marked the fruition of those plans the following day. Each day’s entry thus began by using the previous day’s as a reference point, producing what was essentially an evaluation — and always an unfavorable one — of how the actuality of is measured up against the aspiration of should be.

Indeed, the fact that there was no column for the present at all further intensifies the sense that Tolstoy was driven by the tyranny of should, always leaning forward into a better imagined future and yet always plagued by hindsight’s sense of having fallen short.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 1852 book 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

Paperno quotes one illustrative entry from March 24, 1851, in which Tolstoy scrupulously interjects into the narrative of his day the moral weaknesses that led to having fallen short on the previous day’s resolutions:

Arose somewhat late and read, but did not have time to write. Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cowardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cowardice). Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness). — At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness). At the Volkonskys’ was unnatural and distracted, and stayed until one in the morning (distractedness, desire to show off, and weakness of character).

He then proceeds to outline his agenda for the next day, March 25:

From 10 to 11 yesterday’s diary and to read. From 11 to 12 — gymnastics. From 12 to 1 — English. Beklemishev and Beyer from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4 — on horseback. From 4 to 6 — dinner. From 6 to 8 — to read. From 8 to 10 — to write. — To translate something from a foreign language into Russian to develop memory and style. — To write today with all the impressions and thoughts it gives rise to.

But when the 25th arrives, Tolstoy produces once again a litany of his shortcomings as he contemplates his failed shoulds:

Awoke late out of sloth. Wrote my diary and did gymnastics, hurrying. Did not study English out of sloth. With Begichev and with Islavin was vain. At Beklemishev’s was cowardly and lack of fierté. On Tver Boulevard wanted to show off. I did not walk on foot to the Kalymazhnyi Dvor (sissiness). Rode with a desire to show off. For the same reason rode to Ozerov’s. — Did not return to Kalymazhnyi, thoughtlessness. At the Gorchakovs’ dissembled and did not call things by their names, fooling myself. Went to L’vov’s out of insufficient energy and the habit of doing nothing. Sat around at home out of absentmindedness and read Werther inattentively, hurrying.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Tolstoy's 1852 book 'Nikolenka's Childhood.' Click image for more.

And yet the harsh self-flagellation Tolstoy exercised in these youthful journals, Paperno suggests, became a foundational experiment in the elasticity of time and the struggle for moral development — the elements that eventually came to define the very fiction for which Tolstoy is so enduringly beloved. She writes:

He was involved in a struggle with the constraints that language and narrative impose on one’s ability to know and represent the “I.” Ultimately, Tolstoy refused to accept that the self — his self — was limited to what could be told. Inherent in the structure of any verbal narrative is a view of life that accords a predominant role to linear temporal order, which implies finitude. Tolstoy’s lifelong attempt to describe his life (or self) was a project with philosophical, moral, and religious implications.

[…]

His lifelong search for the true self turned into an impossible mission: to define the non-self of the true being that lay outside language and time. Tolstoy was tormented with the paradoxical desire to write himself into a state of silence.

[…]

His personal struggles with a sense of self left their mark: For many of his readers, in Russia and beyond, Tolstoy has been an example by which they seek to orient their own lives.

“Who, What Am I?”: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self is a magnificent and layered read in its entirety. Complement it with Tolstoy’s search for meaning, his reading list for every stage of life, and his letters to Gandhi on the truth of the human spirit. For more pause-giving perspectives on the question of the self, see Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity, Joshua Knobe on how we know who we are, Meghan Daum on how we become the people we are, and Alan Watts on the self illusion.

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The Absurdity of Infinity: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Explains Whether the Universe Is Infinite or Finite in Letters to Her Mother

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“The simpler the insight, the more profound the conclusion.”

In 1998, while on the cusp of becoming one of the most significant theoretical cosmologists of our time, mathematician-turned-astrophysicist Janna Levin left her post at Berkeley and moved across the Atlantic for a prestigious position at Cambridge University. During the year and a half there, she had the time and space to contemplate the question that would eventually become the epicenter of her career — whether the universe is infinite or finite. What began as a series of letters to her mother, Sandy, eventually became an unusual diary of Levin’s “social exile as a roaming scientist,” and was finally published as How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space (public library) — a most unusual and absorbing account of the paradoxes of finitude.

“I’m writing to you because I know you’re curious but afraid to ask,” Levin offers in the opening letter — a “you” that instantly becomes as much her mother as the person Virginia Woolf memorably termed “the common reader.” From there, she springboards into remarkably intelligent yet inviting explorations of some of the biggest questions that the universe poses — questions most of us contemplate, sometimes consciously but mostly not, just by virtue of being sentient participants in the chaos and enchantment of existence.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, long before the concept of vacuum existed, found in Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

In an entry from September 3, 1998, Levin fleshes out her ideas on infinity and writes with exquisite Saganesque sensitivity to the poetics of science:

For a long time I believed the universe was infinite. Which is to say, I just never questioned this assumption that the universe was infinite. But if I had given the question more attention, maybe I would have realized sooner. The universe is the three-dimensional space we live in and the time we watch pass on our clocks. It is our north and south, our east and west, our up and down. Our past and future. As far as the eye can see there appears to be no bound to our three spatial dimensions and we have no expectation for an end to time. The universe is inhabited by giant clusters of galaxies, each galaxy a conglomerate of a billion or a trillion stars. The Milky Way, our galaxy, has an unfathomably dense core of millions of stars with beautiful arms, a skeleton of stars, spiraling out from this core. The earth lives out in the sparsely populated arms orbiting the sun, an ordinary star, with our planetary companions. Our humble solar system. Here we are. A small planet, an ordinary star, a huge cosmos. But we’re alive and we’re sentient. Pooling our efforts and passing our secrets from generation to generation, we’ve lifted ourselves off this blue and green water-soaked rock to throw our vision far beyond the limitations of our eyes.

The universe is full of galaxies and their stars. Probably, hopefully, there is other life out there and background light and maybe some ripples in space. There are bright objects and dark objects. Things we can see and things we can’t. Things we know about and things we don’t. All of it. This glut of ingredients could carry on in every direction forever. Never ending. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of them, there’s another galaxy and beyond that one another infinite number of galaxies.

Illustration from Thomas Wright’s visionary 1750 treatise 'An Original Theory,' found in Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

But having painted this bewitching backdrop for our intuitive beliefs, Levin sublimates the poet to the scientist, pointing out that however alluring these intuitions may feel, they are nonetheless ungrounded in empirical fact:

No infinity has ever been observed in nature. Nor is infinity tolerated in a scientific theory — except we keep assuming the universe itself is infinite.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Einstein hadn’t taught us better. And here the ideas collide so I’ll just pour them out unfiltered. Space is not just an abstract notion but a mutable, evolving field. It can begin and end, be born and die. Space is curved, it is a geometry, and our experience of gravity, the pull of the earth and our orbit around the sun, is just a free fall along the curves in space. From this huge insight people realized the universe must be expanding. The space between the galaxies is actually stretching even if the galaxies themselves were otherwise to stay put. The universe is growing, aging. And if it’s expanding today, it must have been smaller once, in the sense that everything was once closer together, so close that everything was on top of each other, essentially in the same place, and before that it must not have been at all. The universe had a beginning. There was once nothing and now there is something. What sways me even more, if an ultimate theory of everything is found, a theory beyond Einstein’s, then gravity and matter and energy are all ultimately different expressions of the same thing. We’re all intrinsically of the same substance. The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.

A decade and a half later, Alan Lightman would come to write with a similar scientific poeticism about why we long for permanence in a universe defined by constant change. But however poetic the premise, Levin brings a mathematician’s precision to her “reasons for believing the universe is finite, unpopular as they are in some scientific crowds.” In another entry twelve days later, she writes:

Infinity is a demented concept…

Infinity is a limit and is not a proper number. No matter how big a number you think of, I can add 1 to it and make it that much bigger. The number of numbers is infinite. I could never recite the infinite numbers, since I only have a finite lifetime. But I can imagine it as a hypothetical possibility, as the inevitable limit of a never-ending sequence. The limit goes the other way, too, since I can consider the infinitely small, the infinitesimal. No matter how small you try to divide the number 1, I can divide it smaller still. While I could again imagine doing this forever, I can never do this in practice. But I can understand infinity abstractly and so accept it for what it is.

Pointing out that all titans of science — including Galileo, Aristotle, and Cantor — were besotted with the notion of infinity at some point, “each visiting the idea for a time and then abandoning the pursuit,” Levin notes that we can neither accept nor dismiss infinity on the basis of popular opinion alone. In early October, she writes:

Where in the hierarchy of infinity would an infinite universe lie? An infinite universe can host an infinite amount of stuff and an infinite number of events. An infinite number of planets. An infinite number of people on those planets. Surely there must be another planet so very nearly like the earth as to be indistinguishable, in fact an infinite number of them, each with a variety of inhabitants, an infinite number of which must be infinitely close to this set of inhabitants. Another you, another me. Or there’d be another you out there with a slightly different life and a different set of siblings, parents, offspring. This is hard to believe. Is it arrogance or logic that makes me believe this is wrong? There’s just one me, one you. The universe cannot be infinite.

[…]

I welcome the infinite in mathematics, where … it is not absurd nor demented. But I’d be pretty shaken to find the infinite in nature. I don’t feel robbed living my days in the physical with its tender admission of the finite. I still get to live with the infinite possibilities of mathematics, if only in my head.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Understanding the infinite — both as a mathematical possibility and an impossibility of the physical universe — might be more a matter of coming to terms with infinite simplicity than with infinite complexity. In an entry from early February of 1999, Levin echoes Margaret Mead’s famous proclamation about clarity and writes:

I try to find a simple expression for my ideas. I figure if there is none, the ideas must be wrong. When I first started to work on topology I wondered about complex properties of spaces and didn’t take my own suggestions seriously until I realized the simple way to ask the question: is the universe infinite? Einstein’s simplest insights were profound. The simpler the insight, the more profound the conclusion.

In the remainder of How the Universe Got Its Spots, which is unbearably beautiful in both intellectual elegance and stylistic splendor, Levin goes on to explore questions of quantum relativity and freewill, death and black holes, spacetime and Wonderland, and more. Complement it with Levin on science, free will, and the human spirit, then revisit Alan Lightman on how dark energy explains why we exist and treat yourself to this poetic primer on the universe written in the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

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How Lewis Carroll’s Rules of Letter-Writing Can Make Email More Civil and Digital Communication Kinder

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“If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe.”

I have a friend who writes me wonderful letters. He sends them via email, but they are very much letters — the kind of slow, contemplative correspondence that Virginia Woolf termed “the humane art.” For what more humane an act is there than correspondence itself — the art of mutual response — especially amid a culture of knee-jerk reactions that is the hallmark of most communication today? Letters, by their very nature, make us pause to reflect on what the other person is saying and on what we’d like to say to them in response. Only when we step out of the reactive ego, out of the anxious immediacy that text-messaging and email have instilled in us, and contemplate what is being communicated — only then do we stand a chance of being civil to one another, and maybe even kind.

These values are what mathematician Charles Dodgson (January 27, 1832–January 14, 1898), better known as Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll, set out to celebrate in his short 1890 pamphlet Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing (public library; free download). Carroll is less concerned with the epistolary etiquette of letter-writing — the subject of another how-to book from that era — than he is with the higher-order ethics of correspondence as a form of civility. Although some of the nine rules are decidedly dated — such as his “rules for making, and keeping, a Letter-Register” of “Letters Received and Sent” — most offer wisdom of surprisingly civilizing value when applied to email and other contemporary textual communication.

Self-portrait by Lewis Carroll from 'The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook.' Click image for more.

Even the seemingly dated — those ideas that appear, on the surface, to apply strictly and solely to old-fashion letter-writing — contain ample wisdom to be gleaned for any modern medium. Take, for instance, Carroll’s opening exhortation:

If the Letter is to be in answer to another, begin by getting out that other letter and reading it through, in order to refresh your memory, as to what it is you have to answer… A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly.

Of all the emails you regret firing off in a reactive fury, how many could have been abated by a deliberate pause for rereading your correspondent’s points and contemplating your own reply a little less hastily? Carroll, in fact, addresses this directly in his fourth rule:

When you have written a letter that you feel may possibly irritate your friend, however necessary you may have felt it to so express yourself, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself. This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead, and thus making a much more palatable dish of it!

His fifth rule furthers this agenda of abating reactivity by suggesting a sort of one-upmanship of civility in contentious exchanges:

If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe: and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards “making up” the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly. If, in picking a quarrel, each party declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if, in making friends, each was ready to go five-eighths of the way — why, there would be more reconciliations than quarrels!

He later recommends a similar approach to the sentiment of the signature:

If doubtful whether to end with “yours faithfully,” or “yours truly,” or “yours most truly,” &c. (there are at least a dozen varieties, before you reach “yours affectionately”), refer to your correspondent’s last letter, and make your winding-up at least as friendly as his; in fact, even if a shade more friendly, it will do no harm!

Page from 'How to Write Letters,' 1876. Click image for more.

The sixth dictum — which philosopher Daniel Dennett would come to echo more than a century later in his four rules for arguing intelligently — builds on the fifth. Lewis writes:

Don’t try to have the last word! How many a controversy would be nipped in the bud, if each was anxious to let the other have the last word! Never mind how telling a rejoinder you leave unuttered: never mind your friend’s supposing that you are silent from lack of anything to say: let the thing drop, as soon as it is possible without discourtesy: remember “speech is silvern, but silence is golden”!

Carroll makes a related case against our stubborn self-righteousness — to which he brings a delightful touch of his mathematician’s wit — in the third rule:

Don’t repeat yourself. When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal. Did you ever know a Circulating Decimal come to an end?

The world's first use of emoticons in print, 1881, from '100 Diagrams That Changed the World.' Click image for more.

His seventh rule is of particular interest in the context of today’s ambivalence about using emoticons in email. Even those unfazed by self-consciousness about the silliness of emoticons, to say nothing of emoji, remain exasperated by the general difficulty in conveying subtle emotional nuances in written communication — especially sarcasm and snark, the latter being Carroll’s own invention. Writing nine years after the first usage of an emoticon in print, Carroll counsels:

If it should ever occur to you to write, jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences. I have known it to lead to the breaking-off of a friendship.

The remaining rules are, indeed, rather dated in the context of digital communication, but even among them there is the occasional pearl of timeless lucidity. In the ninth, for instance — which deals with the issue of having more to say in a letter than the paper on hand has room to accommodate — Carroll offers this eternally pragmatic aside:

A Postscript is a very useful invention: but it is not meant… to contain the real gist of the letter: it serves rather to throw into the shade any little matter we do not wish to make a fuss about.

Ever the tactful diplomat, Carroll offers a counterpoint to such misuses of the postscript by pointing out one particularly appropriate use — the delicate assuaging of a friend’s anxieties by demoting them to the very bottom of the letter and thus the lowest order of concern. He offers as an example a friend who has promised to do something for you and is now writing, mortified, to apologize for having forgotten to do it; the conscientious correspondent, Carroll points out, would avoid making the oversight the main subject of his or her reply — for this “would be cruel, and needlessly crushing” — and instead writes a letter about entirely different matters, graciously adding: “P.S. Don’t distress yourself any more about having omitted that little matter…”

And now for a curious sidebar story: Although Carroll was a genuine lover of the letter form, the booklet was in part an exercise in “branded content”: The previous year, Carroll had patented a quirky little invention he called The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case — an offbeat solution to the delightfully quaint problem of having your written communication constantly stymied by running out of stamps — for which the pamphlet was essentially promotional material. Carroll had done nothing more than create a playful and somewhat better-designed alternative to the regular stamp case, but such subtleties are often the differentiation point of genius. The book even included a mock-testimonial:

Since I have possessed a “Wonderland Stamp Case”, Life has been bright and peaceful, and I have used no other. I believe the Queen’s laundress uses no other.

The case contained twelve separate pockets of stamps, each designated for a different stamp-value.

The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case, interior

(Image courtesy of The British Postal Museum & Archive)

Carroll took especial pride in what he called the two “Pictorial Surprises” gracing the cover: The outer slipcase depicts Alice holding the Duchess’s crying baby — not an illustration that appears anywhere in his Alice books — but inside it is the actual stamp case, on which the baby transmogrifies into a pig. In the book, Carroll winks at this playful trick:

If that doesn’t surprise you, why, I suppose you wouldn’t be surprised if your own Mother-in-law suddenly turned into a Gyroscope!

The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case, exterior

(Image courtesy of The British Postal Museum & Archive)

Complement Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing with Carroll’s four rules for digesting information, his tips on dining etiquette, his entertaining letter of apology for standing a friend up, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, then revisit Virginia Woolf on what killed letter-writing and why we ought to keep it alive.

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