Thursday, April 24, 2014

LEO TOLSTOY, MAX WEBER, LOVE, AND WAR (Introduction to a Podcast)

Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature) has just released a podcast of my conversation with Robert Harrison about Tolstoy and Max Weber. These two names - one, perhaps the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, the other, the father of modern sociology - rarely appear in one sentence. They should.

During the winter quarter, I taught a seminar at Stanford called "Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Social Thought of Its Time." We look at Tolstoy great, perhaps, the greatest novel as a kind of an upside-down Noah's Ark transporting us from the optimistic shores of nineteenth century onto the shores of the twentieth - the age shrouded in grand illusions but serving up wars, revolutions, the gulags, the holocausts, as well as the prospect of total annihilation of humanity... Yes, I sigh, stay tuned...

Like all great works, Tolstoy's was in dialogue with his contemporary master thinkers, and I structured the course in such a way that after immersing ourselves in the novel for three weeks, after following all the love and the heart break, the ball rooms and the salons, the barn yard and the races, the meadows and the railroad tracks, after figuring out how Tolstoy could produce a hybrid of Jane Austen and Gustav Flaubert, after grasping the effect that the Crimean War and the Great Reforms had on Russia, we could start re-reading the novel yet again.

Week after week, we paused over a section to catch the echoes of Plato (on love), Freud (on dreams and the unconscious), Marx (political economy), John Stuart Mill (women's emancipation), Nietzsche (ethics, truth, and power), Emile Durkheim (community and religion) and, as a culmination, the response of a thinker who was one of the keenest readers of Tolstoy and one who put together systematically all of the above aspects of the modern condition - Max Weber.

Weber knew Russian (he learned it to follow the events of the Russian 1905 revolution). He even thought that if a new world religion were to arise in the modern world (a small chance), it would most likely happen in Russia. In part, this was due to Russia's unfinished, hybrid modernization, combining extremes of traditionalism and modernity, stemming from  Russia's separation from the rationalism of Western Christianity transformed by Protestantism and Counter-Reformation that Russia had not experienced. No doubt, his reading of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had a lot to do with this conclusion as well.

But I believe that it must have been the sociological sophistication of Tolstoy's genius, that drew him ever deeper into Tolstoy's art. Weber was captivated by Tolstoy, and he spoke about this to his students after the end of the Great War in a public address that we know as "Scholarship as a Vocation" (parts of it were "recycled" from the seminal 1916 essay “Religious Rejection of the World and Their Directions,” aka Reflections on Stages and Directions of Religious Rejection of the World). In "Scholarship as a Vocation," the address the father of sociology was offering the younger generation, he concedes that social science cannot find an adequate answer to Tolstoy's killer question "what is a good life," even though, it is "the most important question for sociology." However, what social science can do instead, is to "help sort it all out." For the final two weeks of the seminar, we let Max Weber guide us, as we attempted to sort out Tolstoy's conundrum.

What, then, is a good life? Tolstoy thought he had figured it out. As we know, in the course of writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy underwent a conversion, and the novel, written over four years, served him during this time as a kind of a diary. Especially the last part of Anna Karenina, Book Eight, resonates with what Tolstoy understood as his new understanding of life following his "conversion" - a turn to what came to be known as Tolstoyanism, or in Russian, tolstovstvo. Filled with new insight and donning the mantle of a prophet, the author of Anna Karenina felt inspired to re-write, not just the ending of his novel, but the New Testament! His new Gospel (and he referred to it as "my Gospel") affirmed without compromise a distilled, rationalized Christian ethic of love (love thy neighbor as you would yourself, turn the other cheek); what it denounced was the modern civilization, in particular, the modern state and society that he saw as vehicles for spreading desire, carnality, and violence, be it under the guise of the cult of romance, the veneration of the arts, emancipation or women, general progress, nationalism, communism, capitalism, or other modern ideology.

This is why the main emphasis in Anna Karenina falls on a vehicle - the locomotive. Generally, it serves as a key symbol, the metaphor and the allegory for, progress. Tolstoy inverted it, making it a symbol and an allegory for the perdition awaiting human beings on the path of modernity.  The novel's love story, by comparison, the tragic romance of Anna and Vronsky, as the reader must realize, is nothing but a honey trap meant to deliver the lovers to modern hell. As inevitably as carnal love fades away and disappears altogether in the novel, its other side - aggression, violence and war - comes to the fore. Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents" comes to mind. But Weber's thought, too, resonates with Tolstoy's, and so at a deeper level. "The more sublimated it is," Weber wrote about the erotic passion of the modern sophisticated sort, "the more brutal" it is. And before you stop to catch your breath, Weber goes on to define erotic love as "the most intimate coercion of the soul of the less brutal partner."

According to Marian Weber's biography of her late husband, Weber was planning a book on Tolstoy, and I believe that his famous 1916 long essay ("Zwischenbetrachungen" or "Reflections") may have been, apart from other things, a sketching out of his own dialogue with the prophet and last author of Anna Karenina. His several men references to Tolstoy's work, the essay's structure, and its very title  - Reflections on Stages and Directions of Religious Rejection of the World - compel us to read Tolstoy and Weber together.

My friend and Stanford colleague Professor Robert Harrison, who has been running Stanford's radio show, has been asking me to do a show on Tolstoy for a few years now. Over the last few years, we've had coffees and lunches and talked about the subject. Finally, the stars aligned perfectly: I had just finished the course, Robert had an opening in his schedule. We pounced. You can now hear this conversation as a podcast on the the Entitled Opinions site: GrishaFreidin on Leo Tolstoy

My deep gratitude to Robert Harrison. I am proud and honored to be among his interlocutors.

24 April 2014

PS. He and I also did a show on Isaac Babel that you can listen to here:
Professor Gregory Freidin on Isaac Babel