Sunday, May 11, 2014

Two Sides of Tolstoy's Writing

   Last class, one thing we briefly discussed was that Tolstoy's short stories and first two novels were remarkably distinct from one another. While Tolstoy does explore some similar themes and ideas in both, the structures and styles are still rather different. His short stories play around much more with their narration and have more of a moral than his novels. He even uses different methods for describing his characters in short stories compared to his novels.
  What I find myself wondering is, how intentional was this difference? Obviously an author's short stories and novels will not have the same feel, but they do tend to share several similarities. Was Tolstoy's way of writing his short stories and novels a conscious choice, a result of his novels being so much more expansive than his short stories that the difference was organic, or a mix of the two? It is also possible that this difference is amplified because he had such a long career as a writer and throughout the course of it radically changed as a person, which inevitably impacted his writing. This huge change also came after he wrote his two most famous novels. He did write the novel Resurrection after his transformation, but he wrote far more short stories during this period. Which factor(s) were the most significant part of the distinction between Tolstoy's short stories and his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina? 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Religion in Tolstoy's Later Works

At the conclusion of Anna Karenina, we see Tolstoy, through Levin, advocating faith in God as the solution to existential quandaries about the meaning and value of life. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, not religion but a kind of revelatory deathbed vision gives Ivan a sense of peace after reflecting on the meaninglessness of his life. Similarly, in Master and Man, the focus is on compassion in general rather than in a religious sense (although perhaps Tolstoy would say that compassion is always religious, in a way). In The Kreutzer Sonata, on the other hand, Tolstoy evinces a very strong, almost didactic, level of religiosity, drawing the message of the story from the Christian gospels. In Hadji Murad, moreover, we see both positive and negative portrayals of Islam as a religion.

I'm curious as to how Tolstoy relates his ideas of compassion and living for others to religion, and as to the interplay between the two. I've also read that Tolstoy was very influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer later in his life, in particular by The World as Will and Representation; I'm wondering whether Tolstoy also read Schopenhauer's On the Basis of Morality, in which Schopenhauer attempts to ground morality in compassion. Also, how can we reconcile Tolstoy's apparent esteem for compassion and self-sacrifice with the rather harsh views expressed in The Kreutzer Sonata? While these views certainly seem to conflict with one another, it also seems that Tolstoy was too introspective and relentlessly self-critical to be able to stand being such an apparent hypocrite. Moreover, what is the role of religion in Hadji Murad? Is Hadji Murad being placed before us as a sort of ideal to strive for in terms of religiosity? Is Shamil an example of religious hypocrisy, or something else?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Peasants and Piety

A common theme throughout the material we have read has been the affinity between nature and God, and specifically how peasants and members of the lower class are closer to God because they labor outside and are more connected with the earth and the objective world. On the other hand, the aristocracy tend to be divorced from nature and thus have a problematic or nonexistent faith in a higher power.

However, after reading "Master and Man" and beginning "Hadji Murad," I am wondering if Tolstoy moved away from this perspective of the peasants as images of piety and goodness in his old age. The strife in Peter Avdeev's family and Nikita's alcoholism provide more realistic portraits of peasant life rather than the gross idealizations of lower-class existence as embraced by Levin. The ending of "Master and Man" suggests that Nikita might have been better off had he perished in the snowstorm with Vasili. Moreover, the emphasis of the story is on Vasili's dying epiphany, which is catalyzed by his physical closeness to Nikita in his dying moments. In this sense, the peasant serves as a tool for his master's enlightenment, but this enlightenment eludes Nikita himself completely.

The frivolity of Peter Avdeev's death further reinforces the idea that the peasants are being exploited for the ease of the upper class; in the grand scheme, his death means nothing and the death itself is not very inspiring or memorable. His family attaches meaning to his death in that they have lost a valuable worker, rather than a spiritual loss. Additionally, the misconduct of Peter's brother and his wife show us laziness, ingratitude, and betrayal amongst the peasants in a way we have not seen before in Tolstoy's works. Do you think that Tolstoy became skeptical about faith/God in general towards the end of his life, or is he just moving towards a more realistic/less idealized perspective on the peasantry?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Tolstoy: Genius or Madman?

This post was inspired by Hanna's Wednesday post.

The novellas we've read by Tolstoy, as well as his works Anna Karenina and War and Peace, have been rather dark. Although I feel that society at large tends to attribute this to the fact that he's Russian, I want to explore how we feel about Tolstoy. His works are no doubt masterpieces, but are they the musings of a genius or of a madman?

If we consider Pierre and Levin as reflections of Tolstoy, what then are we learning about Tolstoy? In Pierre, which was earlier, we see a lot of epiphanies that are ultimately disappointing and a great sense of purposelessness. Tolstoy seems to have been searching for meaning in life with disappointing results. Then comes Levin. Through Levin we can assume that Tolstoy has created some more structure in his life and some things are more sorted out for him. Yet, Levin has a very serious breakdown near the end of Anna Karenina. I'm curious as to whether there are any indications that Tolstoy himself attempted suicide. I think we can confidently state that Tolstoy was at least thinking about death throughout Anna Karenina and afterwards as well. By the end of Anna Karenina, it seems Tolstoy was saved through religion but what does the Kreutzer Sonata tell is about Tolstoy's new-found religion? Tolstoy seems more concerned with the behavior of women than of men. How can the man who wrote a dialogue in which the double standards between men and women were clearly covered? Can Tolstoy truly feel that murder of an adulterous woman is justified? How are Tolstoy's personal problems affecting this?

It seems to me that Tolstoy has a lot of issues that may have driven him crazy. I find that Tolstoy had a very negative outlook on life. I doubt not that he feared nearing his death and realizing that his life had been pointless. It's clear that Tolstoy finds meaning in family happiness but is unable to understand how it can succeed. Is this at the source of his misery? Basically, what I am asking is what can we know about the man given his writings? After these short stories, I'm beginning to think I would not want Tolstoy as my neighbor. He seems more suited to the Bates Motel.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Kreutzer Sonata: Raving Lunatic or Justified Murderer?

I was not overly shocked by the revolutionary aspects of The Kreutzer Sonata - namely its explicit denunciation of marriage and violent ending. I mean revolutionary in the sense that in the late 19th century, Tolstoy's writings would have shocked and outraged Russian society. Ironically, I'm a pessimist about marriage just as the man in The Kreutzer Sonata was. However, I will never condone abuse or violence, which were the most troubling aspects of this novella. Why did the man have to be a murderer? Was divorce really so bad an option? I believe that even in today's society, which is much more free-wheeling than aristocratic Russia in the 19th century, marriages are entered into brashly and unhappiness is far too common. However, - and I may be the devil's advocate here - rather than advocating better selection or striving for "chastity" in marriage, the ease of divorce should lower the possibility of abuse or even murder. I had not previously thought of The Kreutzer Sonata as championing ease of divorce, but this role fits the novella well.
Perhaps ease of divorce is not the issue, but rather the stigma attached to it, which is still seen today (though perhaps not in Russia). This blog post is focusing on whether the murderer could have chosen another path. I believe he was a little loony in the head and more abusive than most men. He seemed to have murdered his wife without sufficient proof and based on a few wrongly-interpreted looks. The fact that the wife did not confess on her deathbed was proof to me of the murderer's impetuousness. Do you believe the murderer had due cause? Was the wife innocent or guilty? Did he have another way out?  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A matter of life and death

I read the last pages of The Death of Ivan Ilych with a skeptical feeling taking over, more and more intensely every line I read. After almost a semester of attempting to understand Tolstoy better, I feel that I can read into what he was getting at in his writing fairly easily. In the story of Ivan Ilych, the same themes that are present into his previous works appear: doctors are useless, society life goes hand in hand with falsity, and death is a chance for revival ( maybe? - I am questioning this still).

However, I just could not buy into this wonderful death of Ivan Ilych. I understand that Tolstoy tried to emphasize that the spiritual trumps the physical and unless one understands that, they are not able to die. Accepting death comes with an understanding that one is headed towards a better world, an acceptance of light and what comes next. Andrew went through this process when he died and now we see similar thought-processes in Ivan Ilych. It seems to me though, that Tolstoy is using a cliche statement about what death is supposed to mean and be like. It sort of feels like a cop-out. The ending of this story does not do justice to the Christian ideals ( which I believe are close to Tolstoy's ideas) where you need to lead a good, meaningful life to be able to walk into the light and it offers a simplistic, idealized view of death. While the pain and real sufferings of Ivan are painted in a grotesque light, his final revelation does not make any sense to me. I refuse to believe that death could be as plain as Tolstoy describes it.

One of my favorite Romanian novels ( Adam and Eve by Liviu Rebreanu) is made up of multiple stories that make up a larger story. It is based on the idea that one keeps reliving one's life until they meet and are able to be with their soulmate. It walks the reader through the ancient ages all the way to modern (WW2) Romania, where the protagonists meet, have a romantic encounter although they are engaged to other people and when death arrives for the man in the couple, this is a different kind of death, that leads him to a different universe. While this story is very romantic, the variety of deaths that we see in this books have nothing to do with final revelations and perfect endings achieved upon first attempt. It presumes that the soul learns through a variety of lives and is able to move towards the final light once it has an existence that satisfies the need for love - not after a life lived in falsity, with no meaning until 3 days before death.

I might be a little over Tolstoy's tendency to turn everything into a revelation, to connect everything to a higher meaning in near-death moments. What do you think? Are you satisfied with Ivan's death or is it too Tolstoyan?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Art in Tolstoy's World

           Art may not get many pages in Anna Karenina but it still has a presence. What caught my eye was how the only two times art has been described and discussed in detail have been in the aristocracy or in another country. The interesting part is how there does not seem to be much art inspired by Russian culture and history. We have one Russian painter featured but he does not get aid or support from the Russian government. Obviously, the novel has art being produced in Russia. However, the art featured gains its influence and inspiration from European ideals with no real hint of uniquely Russian culture included. 
           We've already discussed in class how it was trendy for the Russian aristocracy to emulate European ideals, but is that all there is to the lack of Russian art in Anna Karenina? I think that the way art is treated suggests that the reason for this lack is not just from seeking European culture and customs but also from the socioeconomic situation of 1870's Russia. Tolstoy treats the peasant as being the heart of Russia but there's no way peasants could afford to take the time and effort to create art. Another part of it could be that the aristocracy is portrayed as being more interested in how art should be defined and analyzed rather than in its creation. In both sections of the novel that focus on art, there is someone trying to imitate or define art. Vronsky would rather imitate other painters and follow classic styles than attempt to be original and develop a new idea. At the concert, Levin is unable to appreciate the show he just saw due to his confusion and instead argues with Pestsov that art forms should not be mixed. Any thoughts on this?