Today I was happy to receive a package containing several books that I purchased with the money my friends and colleagues at Perry Central gave me for my teacher retirement, which has just recently been made official. Among those is a volume of literary criticism: Equipment for Living: The Literary Reviews of Kenneth Burke. It is a thick and attractive volume, edited by Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber and published in West Lafayette, Indiana by the Parlor Press (www.parlorpress.com). Nathaniel Rivers is known to me as the son of my professor of rhetoric Thomas M. Rivers, who is acknowledged in the prologue for his feedback regarding the book’s introduction.
I have mentioned Kenneth Burke previously in this blog. As a lead-in to the theme of today’s entry I will quote just a couple of sentences from Rivers’s and Weber’s introduction to these collected literary reviews: “One of the many nuances of the ‘equipment for living’ metaphor is that it applies as equally to the creation of literature as to its criticism. We seek strategies for life in literature, whether we are writing it or reading it.”
This, I recognize, has been true of my efforts since young adulthood when I began to keep the journal that since then has grown into more than thirty mostly hand-written volumes, and which I am in the early stages of transcribing / editing / annotating into electronic format. I guess you could say that I am doing this in hopes that those volumes might themselves become equipment for living for the children and grandchildren who inherit them. But in the meantime they are becoming that – again; through the new encounter – for me.
Much of what I have written has been about the writing process itself and my thoughts about whatever I happened to be reading. The first volume contains my re-copied high-school creative-writing-course journal, with accompanying dialogue with my teacher Margaret Meadors. The volume I have just now been transcribing – the writer / reader from age 22 to 24 – contains a great deal about what I was writing at the time and about how I was using it to make sense of recently lived experience. But there is also a pretty fair record of what I was reading, though I am often frustrated by the little to nothing that I wrote about a good deal of it. But when the impact was really strong, the writing showed it.
In May and June of 1981 I read War and Peace. In the portion of an entry that I am going to share, dated June 27, I wrote about it in the real-life context of whatever disappointment (it hardly matters which) I was facing at the time. What follows is the substance of how I turned Tolstoy into equipment for living:
“I quote Karatayev, the wise and kindly peasant who teaches our hero Pierre: ‘Well, dear man, we thought it was a misfortune, but it turned out to be a blessing! If it had not been for my sin, my brother would have had to go. And he, my younger brother, has five little ones, while I, don’t you see, left only a wife behind … Father, he says: “All my children are the same to me, no matter which finger gets nipped it still hurts. If they hadn’t shaved Platon (Karatayev) for a soldier, then Mikhailo would have had to go” … That’s how it is, my dear friend. Fate has its reasons. But we are always judging: “That’s not right, this is wrong …” Our happiness, my friend, is like water in a dragnet: pull – it expands, take it out – it’s empty. That’s how it is.’ (War and Peace, Anna Dunnigan’s translation, pp. 1159-60)
“Later as Tolstoy narrates: ‘… Pierre was very close to experiencing the utmost privation that a man can endure, but thanks to his good health and strong constitution, of which he had hardly been aware till then, and still more to the fact that these privations came upon him so gradually that it was impossible to say when they began, he bore his position not only lightly but joyfully. And just at this time he attained the serenity and content for which he had long striven in vain. In the course of his life, he had sought in various ways for that peace of mind, that inner harmony, which so impressed him in the soldiers at the battle of Borodino. He had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of society, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, and in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by reasoning – and all these quests and endeavors had failed him. And now, without thinking about it, he had found that peace and inner harmony only through what he perceived in Karatayev. Those terrible moments that he had lived through at the executions had, as it were, washed forever from imagination and memory the disquieting thoughts and feelings that had formerly seemed of paramount importance. It did not now occur to him to think about Russia, or the war, or politics, or Napoleon. It was clear to him that all this did not concern him, that he was not called upon to judge these matters and therefore could not do so. “Russia and summer – like oil and water,” he thought, repeating Karatayev’s words, which were singularly comforting …” (pp. 1207-08)
“And further: ‘That feeing of readiness for anything, of moral alertness, was reinforced in Pierre by the high opinion his fellow prisoners formed of him soon after his arrival at the shed. With his knowledge of languages, the respect shown him by the French, the simplicity and alacrity with which he gave away anything that was asked of him (he received the allowance of three rubles a week made to officers), his gentleness to his companions and his great physical strength, which he demonstrated to the soldiers by pressing nails into the walls of the shed, to say nothing of his capacity incomprehensible to them – for sitting still and thinking without doing anything, he appeared to the soldiers a somewhat mysterious and superior being. The very qualities that had been a source of embarrassment if not actually disadvantageous to him in the world in which he lived – his strength, his disdain for the comforts of life, his absentmindedness and simplicity – among these people gave him almost the status of a hero. And Pierre felt that their regard imposed responsibilities on him.’ (pp. 1209-10)
“Note the lessons that are taught here. We are too quick to judge what is good or bad for us and thus our happiness is shallow, for we do not find strength in trials. Pierre searched everywhere but finally found peace and happiness in the most unlikely circumstances. And note at the end that the very same qualities that society shuns and mocks are the same qualities that really make him a man, that bring him true honor and respect, the respect of other men that imposes on him the responsibility of being a positive influence and example for others.
“As Prince Andrei learns in his experience with death, Christ-like love is a healing balm that puts all our trials in proper perspective. With that love, with that peace that Pierre has begun to taste, our problems and preoccupations are trivial, even laughable. Our worldly concerns vanish into nothingness as the doors of eternity open up to us and we are transformed into different beings, much happier and more satisfied, incomprehensible to those who are enslaved by society and worldly forces but free from accountability to them. This is true beauty. This is what I believe.”
It is a different man who reads this passage 32 years later. I am not as naively religious as I was then, for one thing, and am more skeptical of Tolstoy the moralist, whose peasant virtues would cause him to flee society completely and disavow his greatest works – including the present one. But today as I sit down to read the great Pevear / Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina I realize how deeply I still value what Pierre and Karatayev and Tolstoy himself once taught me about how to face adversity with dignity. It has even come in handy during the course of my latest travails. Though admittedly I have never completely mastered it.