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Thursday, November 22, 2007

tolstoy again


(Killing of King Umberto, from the Sparticus site)

Both anatomy and belles-lettres are of equally noble descent; they have identical goals and an identical enemy—the devil… - Anton Chekhov

On Sunday, June 29th, 1900, King Umberto of Italy in Monza, a little town near Milan where he had a residence, attended mass, then – in the afternoon – distributed prizes at a local sporting event. He awarded the gold medal, got into his carriage, and was then shot four times by Gaetano Bresci, who had come from America precisely to do that. Umberto died almost immediately . Bresci belonged to a small anarchist grou in Patterson, New Jersey, who had sworn to avenge the Milan massacre of 1898, when one hundred striking workers were killed in the streets by the police.

Tolstoy wrote an article about King “Humbert’s” murder, Thou shalt not kill (which is up in the same form on various web sites, with the same typos. I'm a little irritated that the typos haven't been corrected at, for instance, the anarchist site that has a whole section devoted to Tolstoy. So I'm not linking). The article doesn’t mention Bresci. It does mention killing – state killing. It was the type of article that would certainly have gotten him as roundly denounced today – for his moral relativism and moral equivalences and his objective support for terrorism, the quacking of a thousand ducks – as it got him denounced by the establishment back in 1900. It’s bold premise is that we should not be shocked that we sow what we reap. The connection between our previous acts and our present circumstances – the tie of social karma – is always gripped tightly by Tolstoy. Thou Shalt Not Kill begins like this:

“When Kings are executed after trial, as in the case of Charles L, Louis XVI., and Maximilian of Mexico; or when they are killed in Court conspiracies, like. Peter Ill., Paul, and various Sultans, Shahs, and Khans-little is said about it; but when they are killed without a trial and without a Court conspiracy- as in the case of Henry IV. of France, Alexander ll., the Empress of Austria, the late Shah of Persia, and, recently, Humbert- such murders excite the greatest surprise and indignation among Kings and Emperors and their adherents, just as if they themselves never took part in murders, nor profited by them, nor instigated them. But, in fact, the mildest of the murdered Kings (Alexander 11. or Humbert, for instance), not to speak of executions in their own countries, were instigators of, and accomplices and partakers in, the murder of tens of thousands of men who perished on the field of battle ; while more cruel Kings and Emperors have been guilty of hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of murders.”

Tolstoy pursues his theme without any preliminaries. Shaw once wrote that Tolstoy, seeing that pre-war European society was, as it were, sitting in a room into which poisonous gas was seeping, applied the remedies you’d apply in cases of gas poisoning – seizing the victim by the scruff of the neck and marching him around and around over his vociferous protests. Here’s the way Tolstoy seizes the victim:

“The teaching of Christ repeals the law, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth'; but those who have always clung to that law, and still cling to it, and who apply it to a terrible degree-not only claiming an eye for an eye,' but without provocation decreeing the slaughter of thousands, as they do when they declare war- have no right to be indignant at the application of that same law to themselves in so small and insignificant a degree that hardly one King or Emperor is killed for each hundred thousand, or perhaps even for each million, who are killed by the order and with the consent of Kings and Emperors.”

Tolstoy’s point is that chosing to apply a barbaric law thrusts you into a barbaric world. You have dug your own grave. If a Civilization rests on top of thousands or millions of such graves, what is it worth? And Tolstoy is not one who is going to dicker with the thin membrane, spun of a thousand casuistries, that separates war from murder. His description of the army and of Mission Accomplishing heads of states is still effective:
“The crowd are so hypnotized that they see what is going on before their eyes, but do not understand its meaning. They see what constant care Kings, Emperors, and Presidents devote to their disciplined armies; they see the reviews, parades, and manaeuvres the rulers hold, about which they boast to one another; and the people crowd to see their own brothers, brightly dressed up in fools' clothes, turned into machines to the sound of drum and trumpet, all, at the shout of one man, making one and the same movement at one and the same moment-but they do not understand what it all means. Yet the meaning of this drilling is very clear and simple: it is nothing but a preparation for killing.
It is stupefying men in order to make them fit instruments for murder. And those who do this, who chiefly direct this and are proud of it, are the Kings, Emperors and Presidents. And it is just these men- who are specially occupied in organizing murder and who have made murder their profession, who wear military uniforms and carry murderous weapons (swords) at their sides-that are horrified and indignant when one of themselves is murdered.”
In his polemical work, Tolstoy often uses words depicting some form of altered consciousness – hypnotized, stupefied, drunk. The formalist critic, Victor Skhlovsky, in a famous essay in 1919, Art as Technique, used Tolstoy as an example of an artist who can make an object, act or gesture strange by rearranging the way we see it. The essay begins, beautifully, with some generalizations about automatism that apply not just to Tolstoy’s moral vocabulary, but to the connection between Tolstoy’s art and the sense of shock that runs through his polemical essays – that ties them, in ways that Tolstoy might not have admitted, to his most aesthetic works:

If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic; if one remembers the sensations of holding a pen or of speaking in a foreign language for the first time and compares that with his feeling at performing the action for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us. Such habituation explains the principles by which, in ordinary speech, we leave phrases unfinished and words half expressed. In this process, ideally realized in algebra, things are replaced by symbols. Complete words are not expressed in rapid speech; their initial sounds are barely perceived. Alexander Pogodin offers the example of a boy considering the sentence "The Swiss mountains are beautiful" in the form of a series of letters: T, S, m, a, b. [1]

This characteristic of thought not only suggests the method of algebra, but even prompts the choice of symbols (letters, especially initial letters). By this "algebraic" method of thought we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack. We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette. The object, perceived thus in the manner of prose perception, fades and does not leave even a first impression; ultimately even the essence of what it was is forgotten. Such perception explains why we fail to hear the prose word in its entirety (see Leo Jakubinsky's article[2]) and, hence, why (along with other slips of the tongue) we fail to pronounce it. The process of "algebrization," the over-automatization of an object, permits the greatest economy of perceptive effort. Either objects are assigned only one proper feature - a number, for example - or else they function as though by formula and do not even appear in cognition.”


‘We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack.” Surely Skhlovsky must have been thinking of the death of Ivan Ivanovich, who feels a sack closing about himself as he dies. The sack connects automatism to death – and it is a desperate struggle to get out of the sack, to get out of this life of sacks, that I see in Tolstoy – a struggle that constitutes the whole of his moral eminence.

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