“Just pondering, huh?” Sitting on the deck, looking out at the little woods in which we live, I was. Meg smiled, and assured me that it was okay, and I went on thinking about Tolstoy’s great story, “Resurrection.”
Yes, one more hour of my life I am reading a Penguin Classic, and it is Tolstoy again today.
I have spent hours and days and weeks reading these Penguin paperbacks. Some are classic stories from thousands of years ago, one of my favorites being Augustine’s Confessions. But then I spent some years thinking about The Quest of the Holy Grail, written by an unknown author about a thousand years ago; yes, before Monty Python or Indiana Jones retold the story for modern ears (and bastardized it). But I have also loved days upon days of Dickens, sure that he saw something about the human condition that allows all of us to know ourselves more truly, seeing the glory and the ruin of everyone’s heart more plainly. And more of Tolstoy and more of Dostoevsky, each time a story that becomes a story that I live with for a long time.
This is my second reading of Resurrection, the story of a prince of Russia in the 19th-century who comes to see himself more honestly than he had ever imagined necessary or possible. Given my own questions, the ones that run through my life perennially, it does intrigue me that the novel is fixed on what I have come to believe is the most important and most difficult of all questions: what we will do with what we know? Or more personally, what will I, Prince Nekhlyudov, do with what I know?
Over the course of the story, he comes to see himself responsible for the destruction of someone else’s life. And as Tolstoy tells the tale, the prince chooses to face the implications, rather than walk away. To see himself as implicated, rather than not—which I think is the most difficult decision that any of us make.
Against every instinct that rises up to protect us from the consequences of our actions, he enters into the complexity of what has happened. I won’t ruin the story for anyone, but it is a fascinating window into every heart. Later on, after seeing unintended consequences like dominoes fall upon each other, causing even more wound, Nekhlyudov laments, “All this happened because all these people—governors, inspectors, police-officers and policeman –consider that there are circumstances in this world when man owes no humanity to man.”
Jesus once put it this way, “If you have eyes, then see.” His interest was not so ophthalmological, as it was anthropological. Who are we? What do we care about, and why? For a good life, knowing must become doing. Human flourishing requires that knowledge has to become responsibility. But not for mere duty’s sake, though that is not nothing; eventually, duty has to become desire. We have to see ourselves as implicated in the way the world turns out, for love’s sake.
(The place of my pondering, and one window into the little woods where we live.)