National Lampoon’s Vacation Is The Best Retelling Of The Grapes of Wrath Ever

So upon further reflection upon the book The Grapes of Wrath, I realized that I liked it better when it was retold as National Lampoon’s Vacation.

What? You’re a skeptic? Listen, they’re the same exact story just in different eras and with a slightly different focus.

Joseph Campbell’s monomyth cannot account for all the similarities.

Consider:

  Grapes of Wrath National Lampoon’s Vacation
Broken down vehicle Jalopy Wagon Queen Family Truckster
Deaths on the trip Granma, Gramps Aunt Edna
Transit of dead body Mother lies with dead body overnight to escape from Arizona Aunt Edna taken to relative’s house
Encouraging strangers invite reflection Casy, the former preacher Christie Brinkley, the woman in the red Ferrari.
Danger in the Desert Inhospitable conditions Car crash
Theft Family eats peaches when picking Clark cashes a check by taking money from the motel register
Destination disappointment California closed to Okies Walley World closed
Violence at destination Tom Joad kills again Walley World guard held under gun, made to ride rides
Sequels “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Vegas Vacation, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

You see? The same story!

Trust me, I have an English degree which uniquely qualifies me to find such obvious parallels and to write about them at great length.

Book Report: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

Book coverI told my beautiful wife that I had previously read this book in high school because I am a compulsive liar. I actually read it, now that I think about it, probably in my modern American literature class at the university instead. I remembered the basics of the plot, but that’s about it. Otherwise, I surely would not have read it again.

Make no mistake: I like Steinbeck well enough (see my reports for Travels with Charley, The Long Valley, Tortilla Flat, and Of Mice and Men). But this book, Steinbeck’s magnus opus, is nothing but Depression era full-on socialist/communist agitprop and not a very good story.

As you might know, the plot revolves around the Joad family. Small farmers in Oklahoma, a number of bad years and overdue bank loans force the family off of their land when their home is foreclosed upon (and “accidentally” damaged by the tractor driven by an operative of the new land owner, who turns it into a portion of a larger farm. They buy an old, beaten down truck and begin a journey to California based on a handbill that they have seen promising work picking crops there. They go on the road, have some adventures incidents, and eventually reach California to find that the handbills have drawn hundreds of thousands of people in similar circumstances, and there’s not enough work to go around. So the Joads live in a Hooverville, get driven out, live in a government commune for a while, but leave to look for work up north. They find some work picking peaches, but Tom kills another man and has to go into hiding, so they go to a cotton picking operation some miles away while Tom hangs out, and when his younger sister blabs, Tom goes on the lam. Then a flood forces the remaining Joads out, and life goes on. Well, some other stuff happens, but that’s the nub of it.

Thematically, it’s all about Capitalism Bad, Substinence Farming Good, and Government Socialist Communes Good, Too.

The narrative story of the Joads is broken up by short chapters decrying some bit of capitalism or another. We get bits about the banks, bits about car salesmen, and how capitalism is destroying the country and keeping the little man down. The characters themselves are not very deep; instead, they’re ciphers of good, simple farmers buffetted by the bad winds of change. The main hero, for Pete’s sake, is a hothead who is just getting out of jail for second degree murder, and he commits a second one by the book’s end. The younger brother is ruled by his hormones. The father and uncle are unimaginative. The mother, who holds it all together by being strong, is simple. I get the sense that Steinbeck doesn’t like his characters so much as pity them (an insight I can apply to his other works, too), and that makes for characters readers cannot relate to.

The Joads are isolated, too; although they’re said to be Godly folks (especially the grandmother, who spurts out “Praise Gawd” like she’s got a Christian flavor of Tourette’s Syndrome), there’s no church, larger family, or support system when they fall on hard times. It’s a lot like when Barbara Eihenreich pretended to be poor for a book (Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America). The poor cannot get along without government help because extended family, charity, and churches don’t exist.

So I didn’t like the book, and I wonder if it’s on so many syllabi simply because of its anti-capitalist content. It’s not even Steinbeck’s best (The Winter of Our Discontent is far better).

Reading this compassionate reflection of migrant peoples deserving their small plot of land for substinence farming, I’ve got to wonder what Steinbeck would make of current migrations, such as Mexican residents coming through those same areas of California today (and with the same economic goal/impact and resistance from existing residents of the area) and Middle Eastern refugees coming to Europe. Would Steinbeck be as sympathetic to these migrations and so disunderstanding of existing residents who might resist the new people arriving? Steinbeck shows no sympathy to Californians already in California when the Joads and other displaced people arrive.

The book also romanticises a family’s tie to a small patch of land, like five acres with a small cash crop, some dooryard crops for eating, a couple of chickens, and a couple of pigs. If only everyone could have that instead of large tracts owned by large-scale food producers using tractors! However, the economies of scale in large farms and livestock operations provide the food needed by large populations, especially urban populations, of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A lot of people don’t get that, and insist that hobby farms can provide everyone with what they need. This book certainly wants us to think that, but sustenance farming was mostly sustenance farming, and a couple of bad years could wipe a family out. As they did in the beginning of the book, but Steinbeck does not see a lesson in that.

That’s not to say I didn’t take something from the book: Since I’ve read it, my diction has declined a bit as I’ve started imitating Steinbeck’s representation of sloppy Okie speech, and I’ve started eating beans as whole meals. It did help me along with one of my current goals for 2017, though: I’m hoping to finish reading all the comic books I own, and as I crept along through this book at two chapters a night, I filled the rest of the reading time with comic books. I’m almost ready to start the box of comics I bought at a garage sale nine years ago. So I’m on track for that goal.

At any rate, I’m happy to be done with this book.

I Only Scored 3 of 8 On This Quiz

This old advert from the back of a comic book looks like a quiz to me.

The question is “How many of these old systems do you own today?”

On the plus side, I own more than one of each. So if there’s some weighting to this quiz, I’ll still pass.

As to how many of the systems do I have Q*bert on, that’s at least one and probably two or three. Maybe even for, since I have a Colecovision cartridge or two even though I have never owned a Colecovision.

I’d say “I’ve got to collect them all,” but I’ve watched for old systems at garage sales and estate sales when I get to them, but you don’t tend to find many in the wild any more. And I’m not likely to buy them from stores or online sites since that’s not the fun of collecting. The fun of collecting is in the hunting and finding (but, no, honey, I’m not going to practice catch and release with any of my acquisitive hobbies).

Footnoting My Humor, Again Again

I recently quipped, “It was my turn to prepare dinner, and I overcooked the cannibal sandwiches.”

Of course, this is a bit of obscure humor. One must be a northern person of a certain age to get it.

Cannibal sandwiches are open-faced sandwiches of raw ground beef served on rye and topped with raw onion. Or, if you cannot afford onion, onion and/or garlic powder or salt. My sainted mother was not an ethnic Pole or German, but she served us this treat on occasion. I think it’s because she didn’t like to cook.

It’s been decades, of course, since I’ve had a cannibal sandwich since everything is more dangerous these days, or at least the risk of everything is hammered so loudly that its outsized peal keeps us from so many things.

As to cannibal sandwiches, the media continues to extol its risk even into the 21st century.

But it won’t be running these stories for much longer, as people who enjoyed the dish in spite of its risk die out. Not from the deadly food, but from old age, which kills a lot of the risk-ignorant and all the risk-averse.

Oh, and by “overcooking the cannibal sandwiches,” I meant “made hamburgers.” But that was before I took a little slice of humor and tried to blow it up into a Greater Meaning as one is wont to do one one’s eponymous Web log.

Captain Olympic’s Sidekick, Brian J.

Back in the olden days, and by “olden days,” I mean the 1970s and 1980s, comic books were rife with offers for enterprising youths who could order away for catalogs that held various items (seeds, greeting cards, and so on). You could then go and hit up your family or neighbors for sales, and you could get a cut of the sales price in cash or you could get stuff.

My brother and I, we went with Olympic, which was greeting cards:

Not depicted: Captain Olympic, the superhero they would later feature in their ads.

We started with the program a year or so after this particular ad from 1980. We were still living in the projects in Milwaukee, and the prizes were a wonderland of things we couldn’t get except at Christmas or our birthday, maybe. With a little hard work and the sufferance of our neighbors and relatives, we could earn them.

Every so often, they’d send us a new catalog, and we’d hit up people for a box or two of greeting cards. We never sold bunches of them, so we never got to the premium level of prizes like electronics, but we’d have ten or twenty boxes sold, and we’d pore over that catalog, weighing our options for hours and choosing carefully. Over the course of time, we got:

  • A Kodak Winner 110 camera (which you can see in the advertisement above). That little camera documented a lot of my life from the early and middle 1980s (although on Facebook I have a large number of images posted, the only mention I have of it on this here blog is the time I won a photography award in middle school using a snapshot from it.
     
  • The microscope set from the picture above. At the time, I was a well-rounded little smarty pants, and it wasn’t clear whether my smarty pantsness would lead me to science or to the arts. We used it for years, my brother and I, looking at the little slides they sent with it and looking at leaves and stuff. Remembering those days, I got a microscope for my boys for Christmas the year before last, and I don’t think they used it as intended before destroying it. But it does make an effective artillery piece for action figure battles, or so I’ve been told.
     
  • A small notepad/organizer thing that I took to my grandparents’ house alone one night, when my grandfather and I talked geneology. I don’t know if it was for a school project, but it was a rare thing for me to spend some one-on-one time with him, and I felt like such an adult at about ten. I took copious notes in that little notebook, and I lost it not soon thereafter. I seem to have a tendency to lose meaningful notebooks. That’s another story, perhaps a Personal Relics entry to come.
     
  • Our first copy of the basic Dungeons and Dragons set. We got this when we lived in the trailer park, and we spent many afternoons and weekends playing, my brother, the two Jims, and I. I’ve played with many gaming groups in the years between then and early marriage, but it all got started with that set.
     
  • A Polaroid instant camera that I got about the same time (“A Picture Holds 1000 Memories” talks about a picture I took with it). I don’t know why I thought I needed a second camera. Perhaps impatience with developing the film. The film was more expensive, though, so it got used on more consequential things, like pictures of our Pekingese doing smart things.

Some pack rat I am; of the items we got from Olympic, I’ve only got the D&D set left. But lots of pictures from the cameras, so they were definitely worth it.

Of course, kids don’t have these sorts of opportunities now. I know in my own life, when I hit middle school or high school, suddenly all my selling went from Olympic greeting cards to school fund raisers of various stripes. Did schools just start with the using children as fundraising tools at that time, or did I just age into it and/or move to a place where it was more common? I don’t know; however, I do know that kids today never hit me up for their own good, but instead from a very early age try to sell me things for their various programs and school functions. I suppose there’s a free enterprise versus ward/tool of the State essay in it were I so inclined. But not today.

UPDATE The top of this ad from 1984 shows Captain Olympic:

You see? I was not making it up!

The Source of America’s Obesity Epidemic–Revealed

Apparently, kids in the olden days were worried about being too skinny given this historical evidence found in the back of every single Marvel comic circa 1980:

The image is that of a young lady, but it’s probably not directed at the ladies, you know (although there is such a thing as too thin for a woman, and if you look at fashion and health magazines, you’ll see it). Instead, it’s directed towards people like me circa 1980.

Rest assured, me in 1980, you’ll gain those inches and pounds once you reach middle age.

I haven’t picked up a recent comic, but if they had any advertising in them these days, I would expect them to have the opposite sort of come-ons. As much because the kids are a little heavier these days, but the average comic book reader these days has probably also reached that place where the pounds and inches come easily. We’re not too far off from television advertisements where the announcer says “See our ad in The Incontrovertible X-Men!

I’ve Never Even Been To Arlington

Police Tase Suspect in Pikachu Onesie During Brawl Outside A-Town Bar & Grill:

A wild fight outside Ballston’s A-Town Bar & Grill last night resulted in two suspects being tased by police, including one man who was brawling while wearing a Pikachu onesie.

The incident happened around 9 p.m. on the 1000 block of N. Randolph Street. According to police, it started when the man in the Pikachu costume, Steven Goodwine, Jr., tried to pick a fight with the bouncers at A-Town after being kicked out of the bar’s weekly “Sunday Funday” festivities.

Although I have never been to Arlington, I have dressed in a Pikachu Onesie. Once.

Halloween, 2017, he added in explanation, and then he shifted his weight nervously, realizing he had said too much already.

Nogglestead, Lacking

As the early spring reboots into a last touch of winter here in southwest Missouri, the threat of snow again looms at Nogglestead. Well, “threat” and “looms” overstates it a bit. When the meteorologists say “snow,” they mean “flurries.” Still, in a bucolic country setting, snow flying in the air over the barns and fields looks absolutely lovely.

I’ve been a fan of the vista ever since I was a young boy in college, when I went to my grandmother’s house in the Wisconsin countryside for Christmas, and I remember after the meal, sitting on her downstairs sofa, which faced her patio doors. Outside, the patio and her rural back yard, which sloped away from the house and into some woods. I sat there in the darkness for a bit and watched the snow fall while the rest of the festivities continued upstairs. I wanted a view just like that.

I mean, when it snows, it’s beautiful at Nogglestead.

However, there’s not really a good place to sit to watch it except at a desk or table.

Our den is below grade, so looking out there allows you to see the raised flower bed directly outside and the bottom of the deck. Our living room is narrow and on the interior of the house, so it only has a small window and a door flanking a fireplace. Our dining room has a pretty good view of the back yard as does our master bedroom, which looks out sliding glass doors into the back yard as well, but it requires sitting on the bed or the floor. Out front, you can see the lower view above sitting at a desk in the parlor (if you look around the record player) or the new guest room (which still lacks most amenities, but has an old desk and an uncomfortable chair you could sit on to watch the snow fall. I dream about a three season room addition to the back of the house, but a three season room specifically omits in the name the season where the snow falls. Nothing here compares to that remembered view from my grandmother’s.

I hearken back to other places I’ve lived, and none really offered that view. The trailer park offered views of other nearby trailers; akin to that, the house in Old Trees looked to the houses on either side of it. In Casinport, I got the closest, where I could look out the window in my office and see our wood-shrouded back yard.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever have a view like that: Interior walls these days tend to be taken up by book cases or large entertainment systems, so the sofas and comfortable seating tend to be with their backs to the windows.

Of course, it’s really a silly thing to consider should I look for another home in southwest Missouri. We don’t tend to have many snowy days and nights here. Counting today, which features some light snow that is not really sticking, this winter has featured something like three, and the snowfalls have not lasted long even on those days. So arranging my home or choosing a home to provide this tableau would be a waste of time.

But when the snow flies in large flakes, as it is today, I just wish.

The Wisdom of Shunryu Suzuki (I)

From Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, “Oh, this pace is terrible!” But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress. It is like studying a foreign language; you cannot do it all of a sudden, but by repeating it over and over until you master it.

Also known as the Groundhog Day theory of self-improvement.

Book Report: The Bookmakers by Zev Chafets (1995)

Book coverI remembered the author’s name from his New York Daily News column from early in my IT/office-based career, where I spent time during the day reading a pile of newspapers’ Web sites during the work day. So when I encountered this book at some book sale or another, I picked it up.

In it, an author, Mack Green, encounters a mugger one night. As he has been a bit on the skids recently, without a decently selling book for a couple of years, Green dares the mugger to shoot him, and when the mugger does not, takes the gun away and sends the young man running. The experience energizes him, and he decides to write a novel based on an author’s last year before committing suicide. He tells his agent, a former priest whom Mack plucked from the fold and made into a famous literary agent because he represented Mack, and he decides he’ll work with his normal publishing house and favorite editor, a fellow named Wolfowitz whom Mack plucked from an accounting position at the publishing house and made into a powerful editor because he was Mack’s editor and because he has an eye on the financial side of publishing. But the agent pays off his bookie with his share of the book’s proceeds, and the bookie then enlists a relative in Hollywood in picking up the movie rights. And the editor has had it in for Mack after a nearly forgotten (by Mack) dalliance with the editor’s wife. Many of these people think the book would be a better success if Mack killed himself at the end–or was killed and made to look like a suicide. To write the book, Mack returns to his hometown in Michigan and hooks up with a hoodlum friend from high school and his first love.

I enjoyed the book; it reminded me of Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen a bit, with its odd collision of amusing characters. It’s light hearted, but not quite as zany as you get from those other guys, but a fun book to read. Strangely enough, it made me want to write a bit of fiction myself again, probably one with jump cut chapters that bounce among the characters since that’s the rage these days. Of course, I guess I did that a bit myself, but not between protagonists and antagonists.

A solid book, and I’ll look for more Chavets in the future.

An Ode To Brian J.’s Repair and Painting Skills

A board came loose from beneath my shed, and it’s been waving in the breeze for a couple of months (probably in multiples of twelve). I had a couple of minutes to look at it this afternoon.

I headed out with my drill and a couple of screws to tie it back down. A shard of it had broken free with the screw intact. So I tried to remove the screw from the shard so I could put it all back together, but I stripped the screw head. Fine, I’ll just align the board properly with the shard with the screw in it and screw the rest of the board back into place.

The board no longer fit into the slot alloted to it. I tried to tap it in with a hammer, but after examining the board below it, I saw that it had warped up so that the whole length of the board was not going to fit. Judging by the twist at the end of the loose board, I don’t wonder if the slow warping of the bottom board wasn’t what caused the board to spring loose in the first place.

Now, I suppose the proper way to fix it would be to replace both of the boards. However, that’s not the way we do it in my family.

With long enough screws, anything is possible. So I screwed the board back into place with a little overlap at the bottom.

So, now, a musical interlude describing how to best inspect my repairs and paint jobs:

Watch for an update in this space in a couple of weeks, wherein Brian discovers that an animal of some sort had been using this loose board as a gateway to a den and has died under his shed and has begun to smell really, really bad.

Book Report: Three Novels by Damon Knight (~1957b)

Book coverIt’s funny that I read this book right after A Confession and Other Religious Writings by Leo Tolstoy. One might think that Damon Knight wrote it after reading the work, as it touches on some of Tolstoy’s themes.

This volume contains three novellas:

  • “Rule Golden”, whererin a journalist goes to a secret government installation (in Chillicothe, Missouri) where they’ve got an alien. The alien uses the journalist to help him break out of captivity and to spread a bit of a contagion that causes people to feel pain for the pain they cause. This causes society to break down as people move back to small farms. This tracks quite with “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence”.
  • “Natural State”, which tells the story of an actor from one of the last remaining Cities travelling to the countryside to try to sell manufactured products to the dirt people, only to discover that they have all their needs met via genetically engineered animals. It explores the dystopian urban future, with the perpetual crises and breakdowns there versus the fresh air.
  • “The Dying Man” tells about an immortal, stratified class between Students and Players. The Students must constantly refashion the world to amuse the Players, as no one dies and life’s meaning is only endless pursuit of transitory pleasure. A Player falls in with a Student who becomes ill and starts aging in a world where no one does. As he grows, he learns the meaning of life and ends up a small farmer before he dies.

The three stories are only 190 pages total, each shorter than the preceding. Interesting, of course, in the way that science fiction and especially golden age science fiction is, but a little hippie-dippy in theme.

Will my science fiction kick last? Who knows.

Fun fact: I bought this book almost 10 years ago. Proof that I get around to reading the books I buy at book sales. Eventually.

Footnoting My Humor, Again

A guy I know said this on Twitter:

I responded:

Archy wouldn’t use a capital letter or an apostrophe. Nice try at making us think a cockroach had hacked your computer, though.

I was, of course, referring to Archy, a piece of schtick by The Evening Sun (NY) columnist Dan Marquis. The gist was that a cockroach would jump on the keys of Marquis’ keyboard overnight, generating different poems and bon mots and whatnots, and he would sign it -archy. Because he was hopping on the keys, he couldn’t use capital letters or punctuation that used shift keys (depending upon your model and typewriter, the apostrophe was probably a shift piece of punctuation, not like your modern keyboards).

But I’m not sure anyone else in the world would get that. That trivia is so old it does not appear in trivia nights and games any more.

Being this is the Internet, I have put this post into a form many Internet readers will understand.

The Wisdom of Leo Tolstoy (II)

Also from “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence” in A Confession and Other Religious Writings:

Today the States of the Christian world have not only reached but have surpassed the limit which the States of the ancient world attained before their downfall. This can bee seen particularly clearly because in our times every step forward in technical progress not only fails to advance the common weal but, on the contrary, shows with increasing clarity that all this progress can only increase people’s misery and can in no way diminish it. Yet other new contrivances might be invented for transporting people from one place to another, submarine, subterranean, aerial and spatial, as well as new methods of disseminating speech and thought; but, since the people travelling from one place to another are neither willing nor able to commit anything but evil, the thoughts and words being spread will incite men to nothing but evil.

Old men have been yelling at that cloud forever and have been predicting the downfall of the state forever (although, in Tolstoy’s case, it would actually come about a decade later). But you can read this and completely equate it with things you might read on the Internet today about the United States.

I agree with the last bit, though: Human nature being what it is, people will do evil if they want.

Symptoms of My Sinophilia

As I might have mentioned (not so recently) that I’ve been studying Chinese history. I bought my beautiful wife a new radio receiver for Valentine’s Day, which allows her to play music from her iPhone. This allows me to monopolize the CD player in the truck, so I’ve returned to the Teaching Company/Great Courses history of China series of lectures.

On Facebook, I said:

I’ve been listening to an audio course on Chinese history, so something in every conversation I have for the next two weeks will remind me of something in the Han or Tong dynasties.

Social Media Headhunter replied:

I heard this, and the first thing I thought of was “Flowers for Charlie.”

He included a link to an excerpt from the television program It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia which I cannot embed, but you can see here.

It was not a flattering portrayal of my efforts to better and to more obnoxionate myself.

Which meant it was open season for me to leave a comment on his every Facebook post that contains an allusion to Chinese history.

For example, he asked:

Anyone feel like answering this?
Interview Question: You’re placed in a group of 5 random co-workers and assigned a project. At the end of the project, how would you describe your likely contribution?

To which, I replied:

Allow me to answer with an anecdote from Chinese history.

Liu Bang was a minor law enforcement official in the Qin dynasty. One day, when he was tasked with taking some prisoners (random people) from point A to point B, some of them escaped overnight. Knowing the severe punishment he would face should he return with only part of his complement of prisoners, he told them he would set them free if they would follow him. They agreed, and he became a leader in the rebellion against the Qin dynasty. It was touch and go for a number of years as he battled against experienced military leaders before eventually besting them and establishing the Han dynasty. He’s one of the few Chinese emperors to come from the peasant class.

So, basically, I’d take the random people stuck with me and do the work myself. Because random people can’t do it as well as I can.

Will I carry the joke too far? To quote the noted Confucian scholar Ferris Bueller, “A., you can never go too far.”

Of course, a little knowing is a dangerous thing. Now, it’s entirely possible that I will in conversation use Bai Ling when I mean Liu Bang.

I apologize in advance. And please note that Bai Ling is not, in fact, the source of my recent Sinophilia. Thank you, that is all.

If anyone needs me, I will be having a conversation with my beautiful wife, explaining that she is more beautiful than Bai Ling. And probably a better prisoner escort than Liu Bang.

Jeez, that Social Media Headhunter guy gets me into some uncomfortable predicaments.

The Wisdom of Leo Tolstoy (I)

From “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence” (included in A Confession and Other Religious Writings):

Understand then, especially you young ones, that to dedicate your lives, or even to occupy yourselves with forcible reconstruction of other people’s lives, according to your wishes, is not a just a primitive superstition, but a vile, criminal affair, destructive to the soul. Realize that the desires of an enlightened soul for the welfare of others is in no way satisfied by vainly organizing their lives through violence, but that it is only achieved through one’s own inner work–the only thing where man has complete freedom and control. Only this task, increasing the love within oneself, can enhance the satisfaction of this desire. You must understand that no activity aimed at the organization of other people’s lives through coercion can enhance people’s welfare, but it is always a more or less consciously hypocritical deceit used to cover up man’s basest desires: vanity, pride, and self-interest, under the guise of personal dedication to mankind.

Understand this, especially you young ones, the generation of the future, and cease, as the majority of us are doing at the moment, to search for illusory happiness in creating people’s welfare by participating in the administration of the State, or judiciary, or by instructing others and, in order to do so, by entering institutions (namely schools and universities) where you are involved in vanity, self-importance and pride, and thus perverted. Cease participating in the various organizations whose aim is supposedly to further the welfare of the masses, and seek only that one thing that is always necessary and within the reach of us all, and which gives the greatest well-being to ourselves, and is the most likely thing to enhance the welfare of our neighbours. Seek this one thing within yourselves: an increase of love through eradicating all the mistakes, sins and passions which hinder its manifestation and you will further the well-being of people in the most effective way.

If only those young ones studied Tolstoy.

Book Report: A Confession and Other Religious Writings by Leo Tolstoy (1987)

Book coverAfter reading a number of theological books over the last year (including Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Reinhold Niebuhr, Existentialism and Thomism, and a couple of unfinished works by Tillich and others), this book is a breath of fresh air: It is not obscure at all, but that’s not for lack of depth.

For starters, the lead piece, “A Confession”, is biographical in nature, and one even in this 21st century can relate. Tolstoy, a literary lion, comes to question his relationship to the eternal, especially that presented by the Russian Orthodox church. He runs through the stages of exploration, inquiry, grappling with reason, and ultimately finds peace with the simple, unlearned Christianity of the peasants. His essay “What Is Religion And Of What Does It Consist?” explores what religion is and what it means and draws some parallels between different religions to show what’s common to them and what man is looking for from them. In “Religion and Morality”, he talks about whether morality can be separate from religion. In the final bit, “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence”, he discusses true Christian love as the basis for society compared to all other force-based systems that have dominated the world to this point.

The writings are engaging and easily comprehensible, although at times a little repetitive, and they apply as much today as they did when they were written a hundred years ago. The last piece seems extraordinarily timely: Written between Russian revolutions, it points out that some of the angry people seeking to overthrow the tsar will only impose their own vision with the same force that they fought against. At times, he sounds a little sympathetic to socialists and communists, but he won’t know what they end up doing. Also, the whole of the Christian nation thing, turning the other cheek on a national scale, might be true to the heart of the gospel, but as national policy, it’s a good way to get your nation and religion overrun by those who follow thunder gods. Instead, Tolstoy thinks without the state, men will fall to small groups in harmony. An anarchist, or a small commune-ist. I disagreed with his prescriptions and predictions, as his belief in Christians born-again with the gospel would trump the fallen state of human nature.

A side note: It’s pretty clear in “A Confession” where Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich. He almost alludes to it by name. Maybe he does. At any rate, it made me feel smart to connect the two having read both.

Worth a purview for the title piece alone; the others are just gravy.