Wednesday, November 12, 2003

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James quotes many personal narratives. One is by Tolstoy, recounting how he emerged from a time of crisis, and what James calls "divided self," with a new spiritual unity and a new faith. James remarks on this, with astonishing naivete: "and Tolstoy thereupon embraced the life of the peasants, and has felt right and happy, or at least relatively so, ever since."

If you know anything of Tolstoy's biography (which James, to be fair, was in no position to do) this remark will make you hoot with laughter. Tolstoy never felt right and happy for more than an hour or two at a time, not in his whole life.

I don't want to poke fun at James, or at Tolstoy. But there's a lesson to be learned here. The urge to give narratives of spiritual struggle a satisfying ending is almost irresistible, and the urge to believe in these narrated endings is maybe even stronger. Few men were less given to self-deception and credulity than either James or Tolstoy, but between them here they're perpetrating a hoax comparable to the Piltdown man. This unified, spiritually content Tolstoy is a complete forgery. And knowing that this one case of spiritual unification, about which I happen to have further information, is largely spurious, I have to look at the others with a certain skepticism.

But -- turn again -- it's important to be measured about this skepticism. The insights Tolstoy reached in his struggle were real ones, important ones. The conviction that life was meaningful and worthwhile, or that at least it could be, was something that Tolstoy established for himself in this time, and so far as I know it never deserted him. The insight he came to -- to boil it down maybe to absurd simplicity -- was that the meaning of life can't be determined by thinking about it. It's created by the life that one lives. A life of brooding about the meaning of life may very well be a meaningless life, but that says nothing about the meaning of other lives we might live.

Not happily ever after, no. But once that corner was turned nothing would ever be quite the same for him. And even if the point of turning is obscure -- as most of them, really, are -- and long foreshadowed, and slow and halting in the execution -- the turns are nonetheless real.

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