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Posts Tagged ‘Leo Tolstoy’

28 JANUARY, 2015

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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30 DECEMBER, 2014

Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves? Leo Tolstoy on Why We Drink

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“The seeing, spiritual being, whose manifestation we commonly call conscience, always points with one end towards right and with the other towards wrong, and we do not notice it while we follow the course it shows.”

“The people of the United States spend exactly as much money on booze alone as on the space program,” Isaac Asimov quipped in a witty and wise 1969 response to a reader who had berated him on the expense of space exploration. At no other time of the year are our cultural priorities more glaring than during our holiday merriment, which entails very little cosmos and very many Cosmos. Long before Asimov, another sage of the human spirit set out to unravel the mystery of why such substances appeal to us so: In 1890, a decade after his timelessly enlightening spiritual memoir and midway through his Calendar of Wisdom magnum opus, Leo Tolstoy penned an insightful essay titled “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” as a preface to a book on “drunkenness” by a Russian physician named P. S. Alexeyev. Eventually included in the altogether excellent posthumous volume Recollections and Essays (public library; free ebook), Tolstoy’s inquiry peers into the deeper psychological layers and philosophical aspects of substance abuse and addiction.

Decades before the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and nearly a century before alcohol abuse was recognized as a disease by the World Health Organization, Tolstoy writes:

What is the explanation of the fact that people use things that stupefy them: vodka, wine, beer, hashish, opium, tobacco, and other things less common: ether, morphia, fly-agaric, etc.? Why did the practice begin? Why has it spread so rapidly, and why is it still spreading among all sorts of people, savage and civilized? How is it that where there is no vodka, wine or beer, we find opium, hashish, fly-agaric, and the like, and that tobacco is used everywhere?

Why do people wish to stupefy themselves?

Ask anyone why he began drinking wine and why he now drinks it. He will reply, “Oh, I like it, and everybody drinks,” and he may add, “it cheers me up.” Some those who have never once taken the trouble to consider whether they do well or ill to drink wine may add that wine is good for the health and adds to one’s strength; that is to say, will make a statement long since proved baseless.

Ask a smoker why he began to use tobacco and why he now smokes, and he also will reply: “To while away the time; everybody smokes.”

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

And yet Tolstoy peers beyond this blend of apathy and pluralistic ignorance, into the true root of substance abuse:

“To while away time, to cheer oneself up; everybody does it.” But it might be excusable to twiddle one’s thumbs, to whistle, to hum tunes, to play a fife or to do something of that sort ‘to while away the time,” “to cheer oneself up,” or “because everybody does it”” that is to say, it might be excusable to do something which does not involve wasting Nature’s wealth, or spending what has cost great labour to produce, or doing what brings evident harm to oneself and to others… There must be some other reason.

He offers a compassionate explanation of that other cause, that deep dissonance that rips the psyche asunder by pulling it simultaneously toward fulfillment and self-destruction — a nonjudgmental insight gleaned as much by “observing other people” as by observing his own experience during a period when he “used to drink wine and smoke tobacco”:

When observing his own life, a man may often notice in himself two different beings: the one is blind and physical, the other sees and is spiritual. The blind animal being eats, drinks, rests, sleeps, propagates, and moves, like a wound-up machine. The seeing, spiritual being that is bound up with the animal does nothing of itself, but only appraises the activity of the animal being; coinciding with it when approving its activity, and diverging from it when disapproving.

This observing being may be compared to the needle of a compass, pointing with one end to the north and with the other to the south, but screened along its whole length by something not noticeable so long as it and the needle both point the same way; but which becomes obvious as soon as they point different ways.

In the same manner the seeing, spiritual being, whose manifestation we commonly call conscience, always points with one end towards right and with the other towards wrong, and we do not notice it while we follow the course it shows: the course from wrong to right. But one need only do something contrary to the indication of conscience to become aware of this spiritual being, which then shows how the animal activity has diverged from the direction indicated by conscience. And as a navigator conscious that he is on the wrong track cannot continue to work the oars, engine, or sails, till he has adjusted his course to the indications of the compass, or has obliterated his consciousness of this divergence each man who has felt the duality of his animal activity and his conscience can continue his activity only by adjusting that activity to the demands of conscience, or by hiding from himself the indications conscience gives him of the wrongness of his animal life.

Illustration for Herman Melville's 'Pierre' by Maurice Sendak. Click image for more.

Tolstoy extends this duality beyond alcohol and into the broader human dilemma:

All human life, we may say, consists solely of these two activities: (1) bringing one’s activities into harmony with conscience, or (2) hiding from oneself the indications of conscience in order to be able to continue to live as before.

Some do the first, others the second. To attain the first there is but one means: moral enlightenment — the increase of light in oneself and attention to what it shows. To attain the second — to hide from oneself the indications of conscience — there are two means: one external and the other internal. The external means consists in occupations that divert one’s attention from the indications given by conscience; the internal method consists in darkening conscience itself.

As a man has two ways of avoiding seeing an object that is before him: either by diverting his sight to other more striking objects, or by obstructing the sight of his own eyes just so a man can hide from himself the indications of conscience in two ways: either by the external method of diverting his attention to various occupations, cares, amusements, or games; or by the internal method of obstructing the organ of attention itself. For people of dull, limited moral feeling, the external diversions are often quite sufficient to enable them not to perceive the indications conscience gives of the wrongness of their lives. But for morally sensitive people those means are often insufficient.

The external means do not quite divert attention from the consciousness of discord between one’s life and the demands of conscience. This consciousness hampers one’s life: and in order to be able to go on living as before people have recourse to the reliable, internal method, which is that of darkening conscience itself by poisoning the brain with stupefying substances.

One is not living as conscience demands, yet lacks the strength to reshape one’s life in accord with its demands. The diversions which might distract attention from the consciousness of this discord are insufficient, or have become stale, and so in order to be able to live on, disregarding the indications conscience gives of the wrongness of their life people (by poisoning it temporarily) stop the activity of the organ through which conscience manifests itself, as a man by covering his eyes hides from himself what he does not wish to see.

Illustration for Herman Melville's 'Pierre' by Maurice Sendak. Click image for more.

He returns to substance abuse as a symptom of this deeper pathology:

The cause of the world-wide consumption of hashish, opium, wine, and tobacco, lies not in the taste, nor in any pleasure, recreation, or mirth they afford, but simply in man’s need to hide from himself the demands of conscience.

More than that, Tolstoy considers the role of “stupefaction” in compartmentalizing good and evil in our conscience, acquitting the acts of the latter from the demands of the former:

When a man is sober he is ashamed of what seems all right when he is drunk. In these words we have the essential underlying cause prompting men to resort to stupefiers. People resort to them either to escape feeling ashamed after having done something contrary to their consciences, or to bring themselves beforehand into a state in which they can commit actions contrary to conscience, but to which their animal nature prompts them.

A man when sober is ashamed to go after a prostitute, ashamed to steal, ashamed to kill. A drunken man is ashamed of none of these things, and therefore if a man wishes to do something his conscience condemns he stupefies himself.

One particular remark strikes with its chilling prescience in light of the date rape epidemic exposed in recent years, where it is not uncommon for the perpetrator to deliberately drug the victim:

Not only do people stupefy themselves to stifle their own consciences, but, knowing how wine acts, they intentionally stupefy others when they wish to make them commit actions contrary to conscience that is, they arrange to stupefy people in order to deprive them of conscience.

Illustration for Herman Melville's 'Pierre' by Maurice Sendak. Click image for more.

But such crescendos of immorality, Tolstoy takes care to note, are the most dramatic but not the most common cause for alarm in our relationship with alcohol — he is equally concerned about the small, daily, incremental stifling of the conscience by ordinary people:

Everyone knows and admits that the use of stupefying substances is a consequence of the pangs of conscience, and that in certain immoral ways of life stupefying substances are employed to stifle conscience. Everyone knows and admits also that the use of stupefiers does stifle conscience: that a drunken man is capable of deeds of which when sober he would not think for a moment. Everyone agrees to this, but strange to say when the use of stupefiers does not result in such deeds as thefts, murders, violations, and so forth when stupefiers are taken not after some terrible crimes, but by men following professions which we do not consider
criminal, and when the substances are consumed not in large quantities at once but continually in moderate doses then (for some reason) it is assumed that stupefying substances have no tendency to stifle conscience.

We assume, Tolstoy argues, that if no crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol, there is no harm done to the conscience — ours or that of others. But this obscures the more subtle, everyday ways in which we flee from ourselves — from our highest selves — by getting drunk:

But one need only think of the matter seriously and impartially not trying to excuse oneself to understand, first, that if the use of stupefiers in large occasional doses stifles man’s conscience, their regular use must have a like effect (always first intensifying and then dulling the activity of the brain) whether they are taken in large or small doses. Secondly, that all stupefiers have the quality of stifling conscience, and have this always both when under their influence murders, robberies, and violations are committed, and when under their influence words are spoken which would not have been spoken, or things are thought and felt which but for them would not have been thought and felt; and, thirdly, that if the use of stupefiers is needed to pacify and stifle the consciences of thieves, robbers, and prostitutes, it is also wanted by people engaged in occupations condemned by their own consciences, even though these occupations may be considered proper and honorable by other people.

In a word, it is impossible to avoid understanding that the use of stupefiers, in large or small amounts, occasionally or regularly, in the higher or lower circles of society, is evoked by one and the same cause, the need to stifle the voice of conscience in order not to be aware of the discord existing between one’s way of life and the demands of one’s conscience.

Tolstoy goes on to examine how “stupefiers” appeal to us differently during different stages of life, why we seek them most urgently when confronting challenging moral questions, and what we can do to foster in ourselves the spiritual conditions that would render such escape and control strategies unnecessary.

Complement Recollections and Essays, which is a spectacular read in its entirety and is available as a free ebook, with Tolstoy on “emotional infectiousness,” how to find meaning in a meaningless world, his letters to Gandhi on why we hurt each other, and his reading list of essential books for every stage of life.

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20 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: Comic Artists Reimagine Beloved Childhood Classics, from Tolstoy’s Fairy Tales to Harry Potter

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“One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.”

“Tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully,” artist Andrea Dezsö told me in our conversation about her striking black-and-white illustrations for the little-known original edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Some of history’s most skillful wielding of tales has refused to bend to the false divide between “children’s” and “adult” storytelling — there are the Grimms themselves, of course, but also Tolkien, who vehemently believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children”; Maurice Sendak, who in his final interview scoffed that he has never written for children; Neil Gaiman, who opposes the idea of protecting children from the dark; Madeleine L’Engle, who believed that the best children’s books ask questions that “disturb someone’s universe”; and most of all C.S. Lewis, who elegantly eviscerated the notion that literature should treat children as a special species.

On the heels of the year’s best children’s books comes a magnificent embodiment of that ethos in The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: The World’s Greatest Kids’ Lit as Comics and Visuals (public library | IndieBound) — the latest installment in an ongoing series of comic adaptations of beloved works of literature.

In this volume, fifty contemporary graphic artists reimagine such classics as The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Aesop’s fables, Russian fairy tales, Harry Potter, and even The Diary of Anne Frank.

Series editor Russ Kick writes in the introduction:

Part of the appeal is my belief that “children’s literature” can be great literature, period. Works meant primarily for children or teens are usually ghettoized, considered unworthy of serious treatment and study. But the best of it achieves a greatness through heightened use of language, through examination of universal themes and human dilemmas, and through nuance and layers of meaning. One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.

[…]

Children’s literature is wild. It’s often bizarre, grotesque, dark, and violent. It seems odd that many of these works are considered children’s literature… Danger everywhere! Wolves, dogs, tigers, condors, thieves, wicked stepmothers, witches, giants, pirates, disease, Nazis… There’s something about seeing a children’s work fully illustrated sequentially to make the terror and weirdness that much more visceral, that undeniable.

[…]

We ended up with over forty adaptations and over sixty stand-alone illustrations that treat children’s literature with the respect, daring, and verve it deserves. In a strange twist, we created a book that many people may think isn’t suitable for children… They might be right. The book has obvious appeal for teens and adults, and maybe they’re the only audience for a work that shows so many bizarre, upsetting, and nightmarish images. Or perhaps we should keep in mind something Sendak said in one of his final interviews: “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

Here are a few of my favorites, beginning with British illustrator and Penguin book-cover designer Lesley Barnes’s breathtaking illustrations for the Russian fairy tale “Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf,” which my grandmother used to read to me when I was little and which graces the book’s cover:

American comic artist Lucy Knisley, who read Harry Potter when she was fourteen, reimagines the famed J.K. Rowling series:

Artist Dasha Tolstikova — the illustrator behind the heartwarming bibliophile tale The Jacket — takes on At the Back of the North Wind by Victorian preacher and unsung fantasy pioneer George MacDonald, who influenced such storytelling icons as J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and more:

Children’s book author and illustrator Karen Katz does a lyrical adaptation of Tolstoy’s little-known tales for young readers:

Comic artist and illustrator Isabel Greenberg presents an appropriately gory take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox:

Chicago-based artist and writer Caroline Picard adapts the tales from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in an unusual visual sequence, where each story moves forward from left to right along a single arrow-line across multiple pages:

Illustrator Matthew Houston applies his singular style of visual psychedelia to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine:

Swedish cartoonist Emelie Östergren presents a wonderfully twisted take on Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstockings:

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature contains many more treasures at the intersection of literature and graphic art. Complement it with the previous volumes of the series, then treat yourself to the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books.

Images courtesy of Russ Kick

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