Tag Archives: tolstoy

Meaning What Exactly?

word

I am re reading this from 5 years ago, and it resonates still, and as it didn’t get much of an airing then, I am recycling it for another go!  I came to it after reading an interesting article that made comparisons between some of the things written by Shakespeare with some of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It fascinates me that today we are still turning to the wisdom of some human beings long gone, who lived very different lives , with very similar experience of being human.

I woke up this morning late, again, after another disturbed night.  I woke up perturbed by a question I know is unanswerable, that thinkers far more erudite than I have asked themselves since time began and woefully have failed to satisfy themselves.  What for?  Why do we live the life we do?  A few weeks ago my eldest shared with me one of his thoughts that bothered him, about how he understood we were on a continuum of development with the animal world in terms of consciousness, but how he was grappling with the idea that that continuum of consciousness could be shared with robots in the future. He wanted to know what separated us not from the animal world, as had bothered our predecessors, but what made us special and distinct from the new explosion of robot intelligence that is at its genesis. Naturally I don’t have any answers at my fingertips, but his speculation mirrors my own curiosity about our place in the universe.  I had read enough about Leo Tolstoy to recognise his deep angst over a related query – what are we?  Tolstoy is well known and revered for his literary novels, and the breadth of human experience he brings to them.  He was dismissive of my hero Shakespeare , which upset me a little. Tolstoy was well educated, lived a comfortable life, had worldly success in his lifetime, married successfully, had children he loved , in short he had everything most people could aspire to.  Then he had a crisis.  Possibly we would call it a breakdown now, in a world that patholigises everything. In his  ‘Confessions’  he relates his life story and how he continued to seek meaning from his existence, and how he could not find it. This is from a celebrated thinker who had people hanging onto his words,

“I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left.” Chapter iii…..

………..“My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfill my desires I should not have know what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death – complete annihilation.”  Chapter iv

In an attempt to master his demons, he investigates the contemporary  worlds of science, philosophy, eastern wisdom and his fellow ‘men of letters’, but is unable to find any answers meaningful to him.  In an attempt to survive he has to abandon his rational scepticism and disgust for the superstitions that enveloped the orthodox Russian Christianity and find some sort of peace in the convictions of the ordinary citizens who practised their faith .  He recognises that he still has doubt, but accepts the living truth of ordinary men and women toiling throughout their lives and carrying with them the hope that faith offers.

“That there is truth in the teaching is to me indubitable, but it is also certain that there is falsehood in it, and I must find what is true and what is false, and must disentangle the one from the other. I am setting to work upon this task. What of falsehood I have found in the teaching and what I have found of truth, and to what conclusions I came, will form the following parts of this work, which if it be worth it and if anyone wants it, will probably some day be printed somewhere.”

 

Tolstoy was an old man when he died, and he chose to die away from his home after deciding that it was his duty to live among the citizens and away from his comforts of home and family.  When he chose to find meaning within the boundaries of Russian Christianity , it led to a schism with his old way of life, he renounced his claim on his ancestral estate and broke off his relationships with the family. His main supporter during these final years was Vladimir Chertkov, a wealthy army officer whom the family called ‘The Devil’. Chertkov was with Tolstoy  on his final journey, and as Tolstoy was dying of pneumonia he ‘’ remembered Tolstoy’s conception of human life, namely, that man is a manifestation of the spirit of God temporarily imprisoned within the confines of his individual existence and seeking to break out and merge with the souls of others and with God. And I felt with especial force that life, understood in this way, was a blessing, that was absolutely inviolate. In short, death was no more.’  

Tolstoy is a fascinating man, containing paradoxes that emphasize his humanity.  He never shrugged off the deep anxiety that he was not worthy enough, and this drive to improve his understanding of himself and the world propelled him to become great in the eyes of many of his fellow Russians and beyond that, befriending and influencing Mahatma Gandhi, impressed by Tolstoys stance on non-violent resistance.

That Tolstoy renounced his rational side to reclaim his understanding of the meaning in life, and to embrace the idea of a God, a universal spirit manifested in man raises the possibility in myself that I am ignoring perhaps the central concern. Perhaps I am looking in the wrong place for meaning, and like Tolstoy need to explore the avenues of mysticism to find meaning.  The rational part of me shouts so loud, but I know too there is a voice somewhere deep inside that recognises mystery and the unknowable.

‘The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic: and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism: they are a mere drop in the bucket.In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticisn has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic. It is significant that, with all that has been said about the excitability of poets, only one English poet ever went mad, and he went mad from a logical system of theology. He was Cowper, and his poetry retarded his insanity for many years. So poetry, in which Tolstoy is deficient, has always been a tonic and sanative thing. The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism-the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.’

 G. K Chesterton

What really provoked me into researching Tolstoy was this mornings unease on waking.  I was thinking about how ordinary men live, in contrast to some extraordinary men. Is it easier to live with extraordinary talent or wealth or status ? Or more likely to derive a meaningful life from living an ordinary experience? It appears that wealth and status are no more likely to fulfil than being a baker, or a taxman, or a thief even. Alexander the Great had conquered half the Hellenistic world when he was in his twenties. Still died in a brawl with a mate. It’s all strange. I am going to leave you with this thought from an interview with Irvin D Yalom, the psychotherapist and novelist. Don’t know why, but it makes sense to me.

I find the idea of dying, of not existing for the next 5 billion years and beyond, chilling. It takes my breath away. Can you offer any comfort?

Well, did the last 5 billion years bother you? I mean, it seems to me that what happens after we die is not really the problem. It is a kind of peace. The challenge for us is how we live

between now and then, whether we have the courage to stop denying it and use our anxieties to live more authentic, meaning-filled and purposeful lives.  – Irvine Yalom

That sounds simple, but it isn’t. I really isn’t.  The paradox we live with every day of our lives is that we probably know how we can improve our own lives, but choose to perform duties and responsibilities in ways that are in conflict with that desire. We really don’t have infinite time to work out how we want to live our own lives. We have to make those choices today. Just saying.

People usually think that progress consists in the increase of knowledge, in the improvement of life, but that isn’t so

 Progress consists only in the greater clarification of answers to the basic questions of life. The truth is always accessible to a man. It can’t be otherwise, because a man’s soul is a divine spark, the truth itself. It’s only a matter of removing from this divine spark (the truth) everything that obscures it. Progress consists, not in the increase of truth, but in freeing it from its wrappings. The truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn’t gold.

  • Tolstoy’s Diaries (1985) edited and translated by R. F. Christian. London: Athlone Press, Vol 2, p. 512.

References

http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/  Biography.

http://www.linguadex.com/tolstoy/       The last days of Tolstoy

http://www.yalom.com/

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Confession     The full work online.

Lacking simplicity, some goodness and mostly truth, who’s the father?

tolstoy quute, illustrated by anne corr

Tolstoy was on my mind this morning, waking from a troubled dream of being bitten by fleas, leaving a home, my dead father ignoring my pleas for him to remove a mosquito sting from my finger (fatal) and making choices about what to abandon.

I draw nothing from the dream except the recurrent disquiet about a father who died over a decade year ago having a greater presence in my life than the father who lived and chose to have very little to do with his offspring once we had left the parental home.

The biggest legacy my father left me was the doubt he placed in my heart that I am capable of loving.

In response to his approach to parenting, I have held it forever in my head that the only real success is to love and be loved.

Where does Tolstoy come in?  He has replaced the parental authority with the narrative of a faithful, dependable mentor.  His attempt to understand how to live a meaningful life is not my answer, but it resonates with me that others have the same painful search for meaning in their lives.  He is more than a collection of quotable phrases; he brings us back to our own wrangling with the complexities and paradoxes of being human.

I recognise this may seem tough on my own father, maybe. I don’t know. I am both grateful to him for his fathering when I was a young girl, and angry with him for his refusal to have any intimate connection after I had grown into a fully fledged adult.

My father whisked hair
from teary eyes,
soothed my nights,
stuck as I was
in fright of darkness,
and unknown.
Never the mother,
then remote,
submerged and distant.

His was a lighter touch.
Lighter, and more temporary,
lasting the length of  moments
preceding infant slumber.
It didn’t last the journey,
away from childish
delightedness.
His sorrow grew,
years adding inevitably
to his progeny. It was
our innocence he loved,
and not our selves, cloaked in
mysterious adolescent armour
of insouciance, sex and rock
‘n roll.  His loss, our youth, his
own undiscovered clamour
for rebellion, and lost cause.

I know more the man, and as
I grew, so did the distance. It
was not his death that parted
us, but time and choice.
I spin in orbits outside his own,
but missing the shadow of
his sun.

Anne Corr

Peace to man, through the telescope of the artist.

 

nicolas of verdun“Real art, like the wife of an affectionate husband, needs no ornaments. But counterfeit art, like a prostitute, must always be decked out..
The cause of the production of real art is the artist’s inner need to express a feeling that has accumulated, just as for a mother the cause of a sexual conception is love. The cause of counterfeit art, is of prostitution , is gain.
The conseqence of true art is the introduction of a new feeling into the intercourse of life, as the consequence of a wife’s love is the birth of
a new man into her life.
The consequences of counterfeit art are the perversion of man, pleasure which never satisfies, and the weakening of man’s spiritual
strength.”

Tolstoy didn’t just write great novels.  He was a prolific thinker, and a writer of those thoughts.  If he was alive now he would be a blogger, I have no doubt.  One of the subjects that taxed him a lot was ‘What is Art ?’. He wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last, but after having started to write down his ideas, over a period of fifteen years he collected them into a book. Because we are blessed with the immediacy of the internet, you can read this volume courtesy of the wonderful project Gutenberg, the link is here; http://archive.org/stream/whatisart00tolsuoft#page/n5/mode/2up

Tolstoy had alot going on in his head, but what I took from his book was how art gets taken up by people more interested in gain than in the truth that an artist may be expressing.  One of the messages of the book is that art that is true can be recognised as such by the uneducated and the unread as much as by the sophisticated onlooker, because it fulfils one of the criteria of being authentic.  This sincerity by the artist is recognised by the onlooker, and it is this quality that enables the  onlooker to be moved by the artistic object.  This really resonates with me, since I feel very uneducated about culture, but my emotional brain is excited and moved by words, music , paintings and sculpture and I can’t always articulate how or what it provokes in me.  Tolstoy extends his argument to suggest that Art has a necessary function to progress humanity by helping people to connect with compassion. For me it is true that art communicates the human experience.  If we take that to a conclusion, it can be understood to be a force for the inevitable progression of humankind, since all inhumanity stems from man’s ability to distance himself from a common purpose , from a community.  We do not tend to hate our own kind.  History tells us that in order to commit violence, empathy is withdrawn, and the enemy has to be seen as different from ourselves.  Wherever true art is applied, then we are seeing our own experiences and feelings reflected back onto ourselves, or our dreams , or our fears.

Raise a cheer then, for art and for all those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see.  I have included a detail of a 12th century panel of Noah’s Ark by Nicolas of  Verdun, simply because I found it beautiful. I hope you do too. Of course the dove is carrying the olive branch of peace.

 

Meaning What Exactly?

word

I am re reading this from 5 years ago, and it resonates still, and as it didn’t get much of an airing then, I am recycling it for another go!  I came to it after reading an interesting article that made comparisons between some of the things written by Shakespeare with some of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It fascinates me that today we are still turning to the wisdom of some human beings long gone, who lived very different lives , with very similar experience of being human.

I woke up this morning late, again, after another disturbed night.  I woke up perturbed by a question I know is unanswerable, that thinkers far more erudite than I have asked themselves since time began and woefully have failed to satisfy themselves.  What for?  Why do we live the life we do?  A few weeks ago my eldest shared with me one of his thoughts that bothered him, about how he understood we were on a continuum of development with the animal world in terms of consciousness, but how he was grappling with the idea that that continuum of consciousness could be shared with robots in the future. He wanted to know what separated us not from the animal world, as had bothered our predecessors, but what made us special and distinct from the new explosion of robot intelligence that is at its genesis. Naturally I don’t have any answers at my fingertips, but his speculation mirrors my own curiosity about our place in the universe.  I had read enough about Leo Tolstoy to recognise his deep angst over a related query – what are we?  Tolstoy is well known and revered for his literary novels, and the breadth of human experience he brings to them.  He was dismissive of my hero Shakespeare , which upset me a little. Tolstoy was well educated, lived a comfortable life, had worldly success in his lifetime, married successfully, had children he loved , in short he had everything most people could aspire to.  Then he had a crisis.  Possibly we would call it a breakdown now, in a world that patholigises everything. In his  ‘Confessions’  he relates his life story and how he continued to seek meaning from his existence, and how he could not find it. This is from a celebrated thinker who had people hanging onto his words,

“I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left.” Chapter iii…..

………..“My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfill my desires I should not have know what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death – complete annihilation.”  Chapter iv

In an attempt to master his demons, he investigates the contemporary  worlds of science, philosophy, eastern wisdom and his fellow ‘men of letters’, but is unable to find any answers meaningful to him.  In an attempt to survive he has to abandon his rational scepticism and disgust for the superstitions that enveloped the orthodox Russian Christianity and find some sort of peace in the convictions of the ordinary citizens who practised their faith .  He recognises that he still has doubt, but accepts the living truth of ordinary men and women toiling throughout their lives and carrying with them the hope that faith offers.

“That there is truth in the teaching is to me indubitable, but it is also certain that there is falsehood in it, and I must find what is true and what is false, and must disentangle the one from the other. I am setting to work upon this task. What of falsehood I have found in the teaching and what I have found of truth, and to what conclusions I came, will form the following parts of this work, which if it be worth it and if anyone wants it, will probably some day be printed somewhere.”

 

Tolstoy was an old man when he died, and he chose to die away from his home after deciding that it was his duty to live among the citizens and away from his comforts of home and family.  When he chose to find meaning within the boundaries of Russian Christianity , it led to a schism with his old way of life, he renounced his claim on his ancestral estate and broke off his relationships with the family. His main supporter during these final years was Vladimir Chertkov, a wealthy army officer whom the family called ‘The Devil’. Chertkov was with Tolstoy  on his final journey, and as Tolstoy was dying of pneumonia he ‘’ remembered Tolstoy’s conception of human life, namely, that man is a manifestation of the spirit of God temporarily imprisoned within the confines of his individual existence and seeking to break out and merge with the souls of others and with God. And I felt with especial force that life, understood in this way, was a blessing, that was absolutely inviolate. In short, death was no more.’  

Tolstoy is a fascinating man, containing paradoxes that emphasize his humanity.  He never shrugged off the deep anxiety that he was not worthy enough, and this drive to improve his understanding of himself and the world propelled him to become great in the eyes of many of his fellow Russians and beyond that, befriending and influencing Mahatma Gandhi, impressed by Tolstoys stance on non-violent resistance.

That Tolstoy renounced his rational side to reclaim his understanding of the meaning in life, and to embrace the idea of a God, a universal spirit manifested in man raises the possibility in myself that I am ignoring perhaps the central concern. Perhaps I am looking in the wrong place for meaning, and like Tolstoy need to explore the avenues of mysticism to find meaning.  The rational part of me shouts so loud, but I know too there is a voice somewhere deep inside that recognises mystery and the unknowable.

‘The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic: and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism: they are a mere drop in the bucket.In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticisn has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic. It is significant that, with all that has been said about the excitability of poets, only one English poet ever went mad, and he went mad from a logical system of theology. He was Cowper, and his poetry retarded his insanity for many years. So poetry, in which Tolstoy is deficient, has always been a tonic and sanative thing. The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism-the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.’

 G. K Chesterton

What really provoked me into researching Tolstoy was this mornings unease on waking.  I was thinking about how ordinary men live, in contrast to some extraordinary men. Is it easier to live with extraordinary talent or wealth or status ? Or more likely to derive a meaningful life from living an ordinary experience? It appears that wealth and status are no more likely to fulfil than being a baker, or a taxman, or a thief even. Alexander the Great had conquered half the Hellenistic world when he was in his twenties. Still died in a brawl with a mate. It’s all strange. I am going to leave you with this thought from an interview with Irvin D Yalom, the psychotherapist and novelist. Don’t know why, but it makes sense to me.

I find the idea of dying, of not existing for the next 5 billion years and beyond, chilling. It takes my breath away. Can you offer any comfort?

Well, did the last 5 billion years bother you? I mean, it seems to me that what happens after we die is not really the problem. It is a kind of peace. The challenge for us is how we live
between now and then, whether we have the courage to stop denying it and use our anxieties to live more authentic, meaning-filled and purposeful lives.  – Irvine Yalom

That sounds simple, but it isn’t. I really isn’t.  The paradox we live with every day of our lives is that we probably know how we can improve our own lives, but choose to perform duties and responsibilities in ways that are in conflict with that desire. We really don’t have infinite time to work out how we want to live our own lives. We have to make those choices today. Just saying.

People usually think that progress consists in the increase of knowledge, in the improvement of life, but that isn’t so

 Progress consists only in the greater clarification of answers to the basic questions of life. The truth is always accessible to a man. It can’t be otherwise, because a man’s soul is a divine spark, the truth itself. It’s only a matter of removing from this divine spark (the truth) everything that obscures it. Progress consists, not in the increase of truth, but in freeing it from its wrappings. The truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn’t gold.

  • Tolstoy’s Diaries (1985) edited and translated by R. F. Christian. London: Athlone Press, Vol 2, p. 512.

References

http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/  Biography.

http://www.linguadex.com/tolstoy/       The last days of Tolstoy

http://www.yalom.com/

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Confession     The full work online.