On Tolstoy....on the day of his birth
Tolstoy was born on this day….he’s among that rare breed of writers you first encounter – typically through “War and Peace” or “Anna Karenina” – because of his fame. If you’re into reading literature, you feel you have to read him. After all, his name has that massive reputation that attracts you. For many, his stories acquire a special appeal. The love, valour, chivalry, betrayal, cruelty, and delving into the depths of human feelings, pull us in. And so, we feel for Pierre, we admire Andrei Bolkonsky, we identify with Anna, we love Natasha. But over time, perhaps with a second reading of one of his great novels, usually many years or even decades after the first reading, we see and feel much deeper than the stories. We see and feel the conditions that Tolstoy was really talking about. The conditions of love as experienced by different characters in different situations, and the joys and pains that these conditions gave rise to. Seeing and feeling these conditions make us identify with Tolstoy’s writings much more than the plots of his novels do. Because in these conditions of love, joy, sorrow, grief, regret, bewilderment, ambition, courage, rise, and fall, we see the essence of the human experience, presented slowly, at length, and with intelligence, compassion, and wisdom that make such presentations transcend the circumstances of 19th century Czarist Russia, and make them relevant to us, readers in different times, places, and coming from vastly different backgrounds. We see elements of our lives shown to us, not really through the events Tolstoy recounts, but rather through his understanding of the feelings that underpin our lives……After one has absorbed Tolstoy’s stories, took a journey with him into his universe of the human experience, one can discover his later writings, those essays written in the last few years of his long life, in which he reflects on the depths of our conditions as beings with consciousness, with deep thinking, with elevated feelings. In these essays, Tolstoy completes the circle of his universe. He offers us not just thinking, clear, direct, and not wrapped in the plots of stories, but he also gives us his feelings, his anxieties, his struggles. He takes us through the questions that he could not answer, but found a form of wisdom in tackling. Reading these essays after absorbing his great novels feels like listening to the final observations of a wise and humble teacher.