This morning’s Tolstoyan moment

This morning, while reading War and Peace when I should have been getting on with other things, I got increasingly absorbed and excited about the message of two particular chapters – those of chapters 12 and 13, volume IV, part IV. These tell of Pierre Bezukhov’s new life in Moscow following the expulsion of the French and his revelation about the key to a good and happy life. While reading, I marvelled that these wonderful two chapters had not struck me more forcefully in my previous readings of the novel, so I resolved to commit them fully to memory. To do that, I turned to the back of the book, where there is a one or two line summary of every chapter. I would mark the chapters that had moved me so much so I could remember where they were and return to them regularly. And what did I find when I went to do that? That I had long ago already marked those very chapters!

Readers of Tolstoy will recognise this human foible. A resolution to live a better or more rewarding or more active or more-whatever life gives way, sometimes even in the very next moment of life, to a complete forgetfulness about one’s previous resolution. I believe in Anna Karenina, if memory serves (doubtful, I admit!), somewhere near the end of the book, a similar determination by Levin to live a more patient and less angry and more Christian life is spoilt in the very second following the one in which he makes the resolution by an impatient and angry remark directed at his wife or servant. Why should this be so?

Is it because what Thich Nhat Hanh calls our “habit energies” and unmindful behaviour and forgetfulness are so much stronger than our good intentions. It’s why Hanh says that Tolstoy’s stories (he’s talking in particular about this one) are perfect but for their lack of advice about the skilful means whereby we might turn our good intentions into a life lived well. This is the meaning and purpose of meditation.–Stuart


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