Tolstoy’s Cossacks

When I think of Tolstoy, I think of War and Peace. There’s a lot to it, of course; for some reason my take has become colored by the notion of Tolstoy, born in 1828, writing in the 1850s and ’60s, attempting to understand the colossal struggle of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations against Napoleon. I was a little awestruck when it occurred to me that, if only chronologically, I stood in a similar position relative to World War II. What I tend to forget is that Tolstoy lived a very long life of his own. He served his own time in military, and there is a lot of writing dealing with his very different experiences in the Caucasus and elsewhere. I just read The Cossacks, and I’m looking forward to reading more.


Tolstoy lived long enough to be photographed in color, in 1908, by the incredible Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863-1944).  You have to check out this photographer.

The Cossacks begins in Moscow, where the young nobleman Dmitry Andreich Olenin takes leave of a couple of friends and sets out in the wee hours of the morning for the Caucasus, having obtained a post as a cadet officer. This initial scene has so little to do with the main part of the story that you might forget it entirely. Olenin, who has gambled, been introduced at court, and toyed with women’s affections while never falling in love, reflects constantly on the triviality of his life up until this point. Heightening the effect of dislocation, before Olenin reaches his destination, the scene changes abruptly to the frontier outpost where we are introduced to the other protagonist, the young Cossack brave Lukashka.

“Cossack” is a challenging term in Russian literature, at least for the dilettante. It falls somewhere between an ethnicity and a job description. For many purposes one probably just needs to imagine a taciturn cavalryman of lower class than the usual aristocratic protagonist. What I gather is that Russian authorities permitted frontier settlements under special law, essentially exchanging land for military service. The Cossacks in the novel speak Russian; this seems to be the general rule, if one allows that the demarcation between Russian and other East Slavic languages like Ukrainian is fluid, and that a Cossack could be expected to pick up a local lingua franca like Tatar. Tatar is a Turkic language, and thus quite unrelated, not only to Russian, but to the Indo-European languages generally. For a final twist, consider that the word Cossack, in Russian, is nearly the same as Kazakh, as in Kazakhstan. It appears to be the same root, but the Kazakh language is Turkic. As usual, the linguistic classification seems to give a secure handhold in a difficult case, while also casting doubt on the notion of ethnicity generally.*

At any rate, the Cossacks were instrumental in a long drawn out conflict known to Wikipedia as the Caucasian War. Between this war and the Cossacks, one could speculate endlessly on comparisons between the Russian Empire, the American, and what we think of as quintessentially imperial Britain or Spain. That Russia seems so bad to us now must have something to do with our unacknowledged similarities. From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 until the latter part of the century, the Russians pushed into the mountainous land between the Black Sea and the Caspian. (The Cossacks takes place in 1852).  The territory of the U.S.S.R. extended well southwards of the highest range of the Caucasus, when it included the Republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Today the border of the Russian Federation appears to follow that highest range along a nearly straight line from sea to sea; among the southernmost federal subjects are North Ossetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Russia has been at war in the Caucasus since Tolstoy was a kid.


The Caucasus (from Wikimedia Commons)

The Cossacks were famed for horsemanship, but Lukashka, in the beginning, hasn’t got a horse. He serves in an outpost on the banks of the Terek river, between the steppe and the mountainous heart of Chechnya. He’s never very far from the village where his mother, sisters, and sweetheart live. It’s depicted as a bucolic, sleepy place, and Lukashka’s fellow soldiers are mostly interested in drinking and hunting. Shortly before Olenin is billeted in the village, Lukashka wins glory by shooting a Chechen who swam across the river at night. Olenin, who seems to have little real military work to do, is shocked by the Cossacks’ bluff indifference to the killing. Overall, though, it fits with Olenin’s idea of the Cossacks as an uncomplicated people living a life as pure and natural as the stags he hunts with the garrulous old Cossack Eroshka and even the mosquitoes that plague them.


Another of Prokudin-Gorsky’s portraits, from Dagestan (between 1905 and 1915?)

So Olenin experiences a spiritual conversion. He rhapsodizes about the landscape and the people, rails against Moscow society, and tries to keep himself apart from the other officers. He is generous towards Lukashka and Eroshka, who drop in at all hours to sponge his liquor, food, and weapons. This might come off as ironic, but Tolstoy has a very gentle touch. What’s more, one of the people Olenin idealizes is Maryanka, his landlady’s daughter and Lukashka’s betrothed. The love triangle is so obvious that I don’t know how I could stand it. But again, Tolstoy handles it skillfully. I guess the reason is that it’s hard to tell what Olenin really likes more: his new philosophy or the lusty Maryanka.

* I was reading the Maude translation that is free for Kindle. Somewhat unusually, I encountered three words that sorely tried my immediate lexicographical resources, including the OED and a small Russian dictionary. Presumably the Maudes left these untranslated because they are not standard Russian: abrek, chikhir, and kunak. Searching online can be tricky too. An abrek is a mountain man or rustler, the connotation depending on whose side you are on. Chikhir was obviously a drink, often served by the bucket, probably from grapes, but it’s still not clear to me whether it might be distilled and whether it is interchangeable with vodka. Finally, kunak refers to a friendship with serious obligations, perhaps guest friendship, as for example, “This abrek invited me to his house for chikhir and said I could take anything I wanted, so I took this great sword; we’re kunaks.”

Sailing Alone Around the World

Joshua Slocum was the first person to sail around the world alone. It took him three years, ending in 1898. Though the record seems strangely late to me, the book is a classic belonging to another time.

Slocum was born in Nova Scotia in 1844, ran away to sea as a boy, and though he became an American citizen, never settled down. Master of several ships, he raised a family with his first wife largely at sea. He held prestigious commands, but was beset by legal and financial setbacks; his first wife died, and he was nearly destitute by the time he undertook the voyage round the world, leaving a second wife behind him.

Spray was a 36 foot sloop, meaning a single masted rig with roughly triangular fore and aft sails. Spray was no fancy yacht, but the hulk of an oyster boat Slocum rebuilt so completely that it might have been another ship entirely. Crucially, he hit on a design that was able to keep a straight course with the wheel lashed in place. The feat does not seem to admit of easy explanation outside of its having a long keel and being “well balanced”, whatever that means. Anyhow, Slocum didn’t have to steer twenty four hours a day. The longest stretch of the voyage was 72 days, from Juan Fernandez off of Chile, to Samoa. In another stretch, from Christmas Island to the Cocos, he sailed twenty three days and claims to have steered for only three hours in that time. He spent his free time reading.



Slocum’s navigational methods were of a piece with his journey: at once crazily negligent and highly accomplished. He purchased his chronometer at a discount because it had a broken face; at some point it also lost its minute hand. He had a special mechanical log to measure distances travelled, but one day he reeled it in to find it had been chewed to pieces, probably by a shark. In practice, he navigated by dead reckoning. Once, to confirm his calculations, and also for the pure mathematical pleasure of it, he took his longitude by the long obsolete lunar distance method. I should have suspected that all the Longitude lone genius greatest problem business was a little hyperbolic. On the other hand, perhaps Slocum blundered through the Pacific and simply acted like he hit every mark.

One gets the sense that in these remote islands the sway of foreign missionaries and governments was still quite limited. I don’t really have a sense of the history at all. I believe Hawaii, in comparison, was basically conquered by American agribusiness around the same time. Some of Slocum’s accounts are Edenic, though with more than a touch of anarchic menace. The Cocos, he relates, were settled by two parties, a Scottish family accompanied by several sailors, and a lone adventurer with some sort of harem. The two groups did not get along, the sailors wooed the women away, and finally prevailed. Slocum remarks on how crowded with children this island was.

The first nonstop solo circumnavigation was not completed until 1969, during a race marked by bizarre and tragic turns. Slocum made many stops and devotes much of his book to them. In Tierra del Fuego he collected a cargo of shipwrecked tallow which he was able to sell on Juan Fernandez (of Robinson Crusoe fame) after teaching the inhabitants to make doughnuts. He was paid in “ancient and curious” coins from a wrecked galleon. In Samoa he met Robert Louis Stevenson’s widow. He took long enough that by the time he reached Australia and South Africa, his fame had preceded him and he was able to earn his way with public lectures.

The problem with this book is that he makes it seem too easy. A severe bout of food poisoning in the midst of a storm is an occasion for a long running joke about hallucinatory visits from the navigator of the Santa Maria. He talks to fish and and mentions breaking down in tears at the sight of land. Mostly, though, he doesn’t talk about why he wants to sail around the world or what it feels like. Perhaps it was obvious. Sailing Alone Around the World was a financial success. Slocum kept sailing. He and the Spray disappeared at sea in 1909.

Spring Follows Summer

I’m still around, I haven’t given up books, and I feel a little guilty about not sharing my thoughts recently. I thought I’d pick up again with something light.

I’ve been reading Don Quixote for almost a year now. It’s occurred to me that there are classics everyone gets even if it’s hard to say what they are about. The baggiest Dickens is melodrama with some good characters, some bad, and some ridiculous. Middlemarch is similar. Don Quixote, however, is about a crazy man playing at chivalry, but I don’t understand it. It’s funny when the ingenious gentleman attacks a bad poet, or when Sancho is tied up like a turtle between a pair of shields and trampled. Yet I hear others are appalled by the violence. Is it comedy or tragedy?

At the beginning of Chapter 53 of the second part, Sancho’s governorship is drawing to its close, and we read that “To imagine that things in this life are always to remain as they are is an idle dream… everything moves in a circle: spring follows summer, summer the harvest, harvest autumn, autumn winter, and winter spring…” This is explicitly credited to the fictional narrator Cid Hamete Benengeli in the midst of a flight of mock eastern philosophizing. It’s funny enough for the double take alone. Despite this it has, according to Samuel Putnam, provoked real debate between those who would let it stand and those, including the Spanish Academy, who would emend the text.

I would love to know of similar cases where a passage in the work of a great humorist has given rise to a such a grammatical controversy boiling down to “did he mean it or not?”  I think that even if it is a mistake, it should probably stand.  And what of the end of Sancho’s rule?  His farcical battle is followed by a resignation worthy of Cincinnatus.  Will I ever understand Don Quixote?

Literal Immortality?

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

I’d been feeling like my reading lately had been a bit lightweight.  (Larry McMurtry and Kim Stanley Robinson probably won’t make it up on here.)  My solution?  The Life of Johnson.  Borges contends that although Johnson’s literary work was outstanding in itself (he wrote a dictionary all by himself), it was the devoted work of his younger, less talented friend Boswell that assured their immortality.  Boswell wrote that his plan for the Life included “not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought…”  In effect, he wrote down everything he ever heard Johnson say.  “Had his other friends been as diligent and ardent as I was, he might have been almost entirely preserved.”  Later he speaks of biographies in which Johnson himself “has embalmed so many eminent persons”.  Keep up your Twitter and Facebook, your diary and your correspondence; you never know.

The Most Interesting Word in the World

Not just according to my old tutor, Eva Brann, but according to the thing itself, the most interesting word in Western philosophy is logos.  I’ve just read Brann’s book The Logos of Heraclitus: The First Philosopher of the West on its Most Interesting Term.  The Ancient Greek “pre Socratic” philosopher Heraclitus may be best known for saying that you can’t set foot in the same river twice.  Among other things, Brann makes the case that to remember him for this doctrine that “everything flows” is to misunderstand him.

I feel I should make the probably unhelpful confession that I am not quite on board with metaphysics.  That is, I feel a restlessness come over me when I am faced with a statement like “all is one”, or an argument in favor of accepting paradox.  Great, you might say, why should I hear your thoughts on this book when you admit you’re prejudiced against it?  Well, this isn’t a deliberate position of mine, but a vague state of mind that troubled me as I read.  I think it’s to Brann’s credit that no sooner had I begun to fret over this than I was drawn in by some striking arguments.

What if, for example, the usual translation of hen panta, all is one, misses the mark somewhat?  Brann’s contention, well within the realm of grammatical possibility, is that Heraclitus intended something more like “one: everything”, the colon being the same notation used to denote mathematical ratios, or in Greek, logoi.  I find it much more plausible that Heraclitus is drawing our attention to the relationship, whatever it may be, between one and many, than that he is simply identifying them.  Brann draws our attention to two examples of relations, ratios, or logoi: that which obtains between numbers, and that which makes a poetic metaphor.  They seem to be of two different sorts, but where is the boundary?  Is it always easy to say where that boundary lies in science, or rhetoric, or law?  Is one sort more fundamental to our thinking?

There’s a lot to the book I haven’t said much about.  Does Heraclitus somehow think the world is made of fire?  Why is War king of all?  I could easily stand to read it again, and follow up with the rest of the pre Socratics, Plato, Euclid, maybe even Aristotle.  It’s worth thinking about.

One last thought: Is logos really an English word?  Should it be?  And how?

The Dueling Censors

A fun part of reading Livy is puzzling out the working of the Roman state.  What’s a pro praetor?   A plebeian aedile?  Sure, I could read Wikipedia or even a book, but that would mean less time reading the war with Hannibal.  Besides, how do historians figure out all that stuff?

One of the highest Roman offices was the censorship.  At first, the two censors were charged with carrying out the census, but it appears that under Rome’s democratic but not egalitarian system the power entailed in counting the citizens and enrolling them in the proper electoral list brought the office closer to what we now understand by “censorship”.  The censors were involved in a strange episode towards the end of the Second Punic War, but I have to go back a little way to describe it.

Right in the thick of the war, the consul Marcellus suggested that he and his fellow consul Crispinus take a few horsemen and ride out to reconnoiter some hills near camp.  They were caught in an ambush; Marcellus was killed and Crispinus mortally wounded.  It was an ignominious end for the general who had taken the rich Sicilian city of Syracuse and inadvertently killed one of the great mathematicians of all time.  Rome found itself in need of military talent.

As Livy tells it, they turned to Gaius Claudius Nero first, and then, seeking to balance his wildness, sought out the disgraced ex consul Marcus Livius.  After conviction on unspecified charges he had exiled himself in the country and only returned a short time before, when he was still so angry he wouldn’t change his shirt until he was made to.  Nero was affronted and Livius felt it.  Somehow Livy gives him an underdog appeal; I admit I was cheering for him when the senate went out of its way to reconcile them, and later when Nero with a rapid march up much of the length of Italy combined forces with him to inflict a fatal defeat on Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal.

So the two won a famous victory and later were elected to the censorship.  Apparently they had a falling out again, and this is where, for the first time in Livy, I found myself almost laughing out loud on the subway.  While revising the list of knights, Nero, who as censor must have had power over such technicalities, forced Livius to get rid of his horse.  Livius did the same to him.  Then Nero demoted Livius to the lowest class of citizen (aerarii), whereupon Livius

declared the entire Roman people, thirty-four tribes of them, as aerarii because they had unjustly condemned him, and then, despite the condemnation, made him first consul and then censor

Then Livy opines:

As a squabble between the censors… this was a most improper proceeding, but as a sharp criticism of popular frivolity, it was in the true tradition of the censors’ office and worthy of the high seriousness of those days.

I don’t really know what to make of this.  I’m afraid of taking it too seriously.  Livy doesn’t seem to make many jokes and this would be a good one.  If it isn’t, I guess it goes to show just how seriously he took the impossible task of the censors.  It’s tragic.  It always seems like public morals are declining and the electorate deserves a rebuke, but who can deliver it?