December 3rd 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: HIGHER EDUCATION: Top university accused of elitism

EDITORIAL: Trade talks: smoke and mirrors

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Workplace changes set to change societal fabric

SCHOOLS: Vouchers for schools - giving parents choice

PRIMARY PRODUCTION: Advantages of single-desk for Australian wheat

SUGAR DEREGULATION: Beattie to abolish single selling-desk

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Working women and pensions / One hand washes another: European-style / Those were the days, my friend / The burning Bush

ABORTION PILL: Part of the disease, not part of the cure

OPINION: The difficult dilemma of Australia's Muslims

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Why North Korea got one more chance

CULTURE AND SOCIETY: Great Russian writers on the riddle of humanity

CINEMA: Three Australian films fall flat: The Proposition, Jewboy and Little Fish

BOOKS: The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge, by Nic Dunlop

BOOKS: Victoria Cross: Australia's Finest and the Battles They Fought, by Anthony Staunton

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Great Russian writers on the riddle of humanity

by Professor Gary Saul Morson

News Weekly, December 3, 2005
Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov are giants of world literature, but in their day they were often greatly at odds with the Russian intelligentsia over how to reform society. Tolstoy in particular warned against rationalism and radical political theories which overlook the complexity of human nature.

The following article is an edited extract from ABC Radio National's Encounter program, "Small Answers to Big Questions" (November 6, 2005), in which Sarah Kanowski interviewed an expert on Russian literature, Professor Gary Saul Morson, on the extraordinary legacy of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov.

Kanowski: Nineteenth-century Russian novelists, poets and playwrights, along with political and social theorists, all came to play a decisive role in 20th-century Russia.

It might be thought that in 19th-century Russia these social theorists and fiction writers were all part of the one intelligentsia, but not so, according to Gary Saul Morson, professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University, Chicago.

Morson: There was an anthology of essays on the intelligentsia published in 1909, where the editor remarked that the surest gauge of the greatness of a Russian writer is the extent of his hatred for the intelligentsia, and if we have in mind Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, that's largely true.

The word "intelligentsia" is one we get from Russian, and in 19th-century Russia it means not the intellectuals or thinkers, but people who shared a certain set of beliefs: rationalism, materialism, atheism, revolutionism, maybe utopianism, and generally speaking, the great writers saw themselves as the antagonists of the intelligentsia because they didn't believe those things.

You could see these two trends personified as Lenin representing the intelligentsia on the one side - he is the full embodiment of its values, as was Stalin - and Tolstoy of course is the greatest of the writers who were highly sceptical of the intelligentsia.

You could imagine Russian culture as the antagonistic dialogue of those two.

Kanowski: Tolstoy was known in his time as the "naysayer". What exactly was it he was saying "no" to?

Morson: He was saying no to a set of ideas that are still very much with us, and have characterised Western thought since the 17th century.

That is, he utterly rejected the possibility of what we would now call a social science, in the hard sense, the dream that struck so many that as Newton had reduced the complexities of astronomy to a few very simple laws, so it should in theory be possible to do the same with society, psychology, history, everything social.

Bentham, Marx, Locke, countless others, contemporary economics as it's practised, are all attempts to do that, inspired by that dream which one intellectual historian has called "moral Newtonianism" and Tolstoy utterly rejected the possibility of doing that. He thought it was complete nonsense.

In War and Peace, he figures such a dream as a science of battle - various generals believe in it, and they always lose. And the wise characters come to learn that it is experience, good judgment, wisdom, alertness - all those things you can't reduce to scientific laws - that make the difference in a battle. And he thought the same was true of all social life.

There is radical contingency and it's not reducible to any set of laws. A contingent event by definition is one that can either be, or not be, and so it can't be predicted.

Now others would have said that either there aren't any such events, or if there are, they just cancel each other and factor out.

But Tolstoy thought they didn't have to, they could have an concatenating effect on each other, the sort of idea we've rediscovered in Chaos Theory which we call the Butterfly Effect, the small changes can make a big difference.

Let's say a quarter of a millimetre in the path of a bullet can determine whether a particular person is killed, and that person may have a moral influence on the ones around him and so may decide whether a regiment takes flight or advances.

The same is true throughout life, that is, contingent events don't necessary factor out, they concatenate and ramify and very rapidly the world becomes unpredictable.

And it's an idea that people are more and more coming to see, people like the physicist Freeman Dyson, and the palaeontologist Stephen J. Gould, and the philosopher Stephen E. Toulmin. They all come back to Tolstoy, but it runs counter to almost everything we've been taught for quite some time.

Kanowski: One of the things we still believe is that life can be made better by importing technology and social systems from one culture to another. In Anna Karenina the aristocratic landowner, Levin, a character modelled on Tolstoy himself, attempts to improve agricultural production by introducing English methods to his estate, but this proves a disaster.

Morson: Levin realises that something is really wrong here, and he worries for a good part of the book, to figure out what it is. And he eventually decides that the different culture of the Russian peasant gives him different work habits, and so machines and methods really have to take into account the culture of a particular people.

The book then generalises that to introduce social reform in general, it can't be imposed as a model from the top down, it has to grow out of particular habits and needs of particular people. You can't just import it or copy it.

The Soviets of course were imposing a model from the top down, and when peasants resisted, they just, you know, shot them.

Then we had the phenomenon when the Soviet Union collapsed, of all these Western economists thinking it would be very easy just to export a market economy to Russia, just copy our model. But it simply did not take.

Yet, regarding the very habits of thought, there had been no checking accounts in the Soviet Union, no idea of a contract, it just was too big a gap to bridge, and the culture was too different.

But it seemed so simple just as those agricultural reforms had seemed so simple to the Russian landowners of the 19th century that Tolstoy represents.

Kanowski: This would seem to have particular pertinence today in our current efforts to shape the world in the way we'd like. I'm thinking of our involvement in the war in Iraq.

Morson: Yes, if you took a Tolstoyan perspective, you would see why the two President Bushes really differed as to whether we should get involved when we have a chance to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The elder thought, as Tolstoy did, that it isn't going to be so easy to export democracy of the Western sort to a culture that isn't used to it, where their habits of thinking are very different, whereas our current president is more of a universalist. Clearly Tolstoy's warning would have been that this is going to be very difficult, if not impossible.

Kanowski: This tragic romanticism of Russian art and philosophy, embodied here in Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin, is, however, precisely what Tolstoy was arguing against. Here Gary Saul Morson is discussing the transformation of the character Pierre in War and Peace.

Morson: Regarding Pierre's journey, Tolstoy wants it to be emblematic of the journey we should take. Pierre starts life with the belief that there must be some grand system of explanation that will account for life and justify it, and provide the sure interpretation of it. He embraces a system, then finds it doesn't work and falls into total despair, then finds another one.

He keeps jolting from system to system, until at the end he realises that meaning has always been right in front of his eyes in the ordinary contingent events around him.

It doesn't need a system, it's not subject to a system, and to see it, he has to, as Tolstoy expresses it, throw away the telescope with which he had been peering over the heads of people, and look and appreciate the ever-changing world of particular people around him. That's the sort of wisdom Tolstoy is recommending to us.

Pierre, instead of looking for God as a remote, mystical being or the rational planner that the deists had believed in, began to see that what was true was what his nurse had told him in childhood, simply that God is here, and everywhere, by which he means that meaning is to be found in the most ordinary events of daily life.

Kanowski: This valuing of the everyday above grand passions and extravagant gestures is even more significant in Anna Karenina. For Morson its real love-story is not Anna and Vronsky's passionate affair but the intimate domesticity of Levin's marriage to Kitty, and it is Kitty's simple sister, Dolly, he says, and not the tragic suicide, Anna, who is the true heroine of Tolstoy's novel.

Morson: If by the hero of a novel one means the character, not who commands the most interest, but who best represents the author's values, Dolly is the heroine.

She doesn't do anything particularly dramatic. She is simply a good mother, but that is the most important work you can do. She lives right, moment by moment, day to day. She understands people well and knows how to help them.

That is what life is really all about. But it doesn't make a very good story, because nothing in particular happens, and if you imagine a happy married couple, how would you tell their story? "They had another nice day, they didn't argue again, things went well one more time."

It would not make much of a novel or a movie. So if you want to illustrate the point that a life is lived well or badly at ordinary moments, in the prosaic not in the melodramatic, that presents a problem in writing a novel. The way Tolstoy solved it was to put the badly lived life, Anna's life, in the foreground, and keep the most important events, the moments when Dolly has great joy in some action of her children - he describes these moments as "like golden sand" - in the background.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who so many consider the 20th century's greatest philosopher, was an avid reader of Tolstoy, idealised him. At the close of his Tractatus, he's paraphrased almost word for word Levin's meditations in Anna Karenina.

One of the ideas he has is that the essence of life takes place in particular forms of life and to understand an idea, a practice, a belief, is to understand the forms of life in which it takes place. The most important events we don't see, precisely because they're right before our eyes, he says, but those are the ones that really matter.

It's clearly an idea he's getting from Tolstoy and clearly is the idea that's shaping Tolstoy's portrait of Dolly.

Kanowski: I wonder if you could mention that in relation to the famous first line of Anna Karenina.

Famous line

Morson: Yes, that line is one of the most famous of world literature and it's often quoted, but nobody seems to know what it means. The line of course is: "All happy families resemble each other, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".

I think it means there's something that Tolstoy found in a French proverb, he was interested at the time, which goes: "Happy people have no history". A life that is filled with dramatic incidents is necessarily an unhappy life.

Kanowski: The grandson of a freed serf, Anton Chekhov's class background couldn't have been more different from Tolstoy's, but they share strong philosophical similarities.

Morson: I think what happened was, after 1880 when Tolstoy had this great moral crisis, he himself started to think he had found the right set of doctrines for how to live, and all this was quite alien to the spirit of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as he well knew.

You could see Chekhov as the person who remained loyal to the early Tolstoy, even when Tolstoy himself did not. So that in his stories and plays anyone who seeks high drama is represented as histrionic and therefore ridiculous.

His dramas have almost no action. The famous description of The Three Sisters is that the only thing that happens in that play is that three sisters do not go to Moscow. It derives from his sense that it is the small events that matter.


He thought that intellectuals who neglected the daily bourgeois virtues of life - you know, cleanliness, paying one's debts, kindness to one's own neighbour - out of some grand ideal were at best, wrong, and at worst, reprehensible.

There's a famous letter he wrote to his brother, denouncing him for not accepting the bourgeois values.

He writes to his brother: "You are always complaining that you're misunderstood, that the times doesn't appreciate greatness. But that's all nonsense. What you want to do is clean your room, stop spitting on the floor, eat a proper meal in the proper way, get your finances in order, and that's what really matters."

Quoted in that 1909 anthology, Chekhov is reflecting on the dangers of, well, people like Lenin, if they ever gained control.

He remarks that, if they ever do, "these toads and crocodiles will rule worse than the Inquisition in Spain" - a statement that of course actually turned out to be an understatement.

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