Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tolstoy the animist

{Photos by rocketlass.}

When I'm trying to describe Tolstoy's seemingly inexhaustible, uncontrollable, overflowing, enthusiastic empathy (which, frankly, I find myself doing strangely often, an indicator, I suppose of both my personality and the circles in which I tend to run), I tend to tell people about the moment in Anna Karenina when, in the middle of a hunt, he unexpectedly delves into the consciousness of a dog. When Levin orders the dog, Laska, to flush a quail, she thinks,
"But I can't flush anything. . . . Where will I flush it from? I can sense them from here, but if I move forward, I won't be able to tell where they are or what they are." Yet here he was nudging her with his knee and saying in an excited whisper, "Flush it, Lasochka, flush it!"

"Well, if that's what he wants, I'll do it, but I can't answer for myself any more," she thought and tore forward at full speed between the hummocks. She no longer smelled anything, but only saw and heard, without understanding anything
But this time around with War and Peace, I noticed a passage that may trump that one. It comes at a point when, between the wars, Prince Andrei is spending most of his time managing his estates. One day, as he is riding in a carriage through one of them, he sees a tree:
At the side of the road stood an oak Probably ten times older than the birches of the woods, it was ten times as thick and twice as tall as any birch. It was an enormous oak, twice the span of a man's arms in girth, with some limbs broken off long ago, and broken bark covered with old scars. With its huge, gnarled, ungainly, unsymmetrically spread arms and fingers, it stood, old, angry, scornful, and ugly, amidst the smiling birches. It alone did not want to submit to the charm of spring and did not want to see either the springtime or the sun.

"Spring, and love, and happiness!" the oak seemed to say. "And how is it you're not bored with the same stupid, senseless deception! Always the same, and always a deception! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness. Look, there sit those smothered, dead fir trees, always the same; look at me spreading my broken, flayed fingers wherever they grow--from my back, from my sides. As they've grown, so I stand, and I don't believe in your hopes and deceptions."
A tree! A centuries-year-old tree! And Tolstoy makes its haughty voice reasonably convincing!

Andrei, at least, is convinced:
"Yes, it's right, a thousand times right, this oak," thought Prince Andrei. "Let others, the young ones, succumb afresh to this deception, but we know life--our life is over!"
Oh, but Andrei, it could always be worse: you could, after all, be deeply mired in yet another Chicago January, where even the false promises of spring would seem like a gift from the gods!


  1. Another author who displays extremes of empathy is Elsa Morante. In her remarkable History: A Novel, there seems no interior reality she can't enter. It's one of the great novels of the 20th century.

  2. Zola employs taut perspectives from a pair of draft horses in the coals mines to express the innate damage that Capital's machinery is wrecking upon the earth and its inhabitants. I was rather impressed with its effect, especially given that it is only summoned three times in the course of Germinal. I had forgotten the episodes in War and Peace. Thanks.

    Echoing Ms. Davidson, I may be due for a summer reread of Anna Karenina.

    1. Tolstoy was maybe referring to Andrei's melancholy concerning, generally, a landholder's diminishing hold of his estates and of his "sea change" from experienceing the horrors of war.

    2. Tolstoy may have been expressing Andrei's melancholy in having experienced a "sea change" from war, feeling old and incapable of youthful enthusiasm and with now a more tenuous hold on his estates.

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  3. I thank you for your comments on animism in relation to Tolstoi's writing. I have posted this blog at the section of my website on animism. I hope you don't mind.-Ron Price, Tasmania