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[No Comment]

Tolstoy – The Human River



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One of the most popular superstitions consists in the belief that every man is endowed with definite qualities—that some men are kind, some wicked; some wise, some foolish; some energetic, some apathetic, and so forth. But people are not that way. We may say of a man that he is more likely to be kind than wicked; more likely wise than foolish; more likely energetic than apathetic, or the other way around. But it would not be right to say of one man that he is always kind or always wise, and of another that he is always wicked or foolish. And yet we continue so to categorize our fellow man. This is false.

Human beings are like rivers—the water in all of them, and at every point, is the same, and each of them is narrow at one point and swift at others, wide at some points, calm at others, clear at some points, cold at others, muddy at some points, warm at others. And so it is with humankind. Each of us bears within him the potential for all human qualities, sometimes manifesting one quality, sometimes another, and often enough he does not seem himself at all, manifesting no change.

–Count Lev Nikolaievich Tolstoy, ???????????, pt. i, ch lix (1899)

Resurrection comes at some distance in time from Tolstoy’s better known novels and short stories–War and Peace, Anna Karenina, or The Kreutzer Sonata. It is clearly the product of a different mind: not the wry, detached observer of the pettiness and stupidities of society, but rather a mind with a critical and well-honed vision. Resurrection is at its heart an engagement with justice, both with the criminal-justice system and with justice as a concept with essential social, political, and religious aspects. Its author has grown weary of a political debate that pits conservative upholders of autocratic rule against liberal reformers convinced they can shape a just system by issuing laws and regulations. He looks with somewhat more bemusement, even admiration, at those who take a revolutionary perspective—who are convinced of the fundamental injustice of the Russian system and who are committed not to reforming it but to sweeping it away. But in the end, Tolstoy does not really share the revolutionary vocation either—at least not the vocation of the Social Revolutionaries, Anarchists, and Communists of his own age. His vision restates the problem. The way a society treats those who are held entirely in its power—prisoners—tells us a great deal about the character of that society. Is the fundamental humanity of these prisoners recognized? Are their essential human needs attended to? Is serious attention paid to their guilt or innocence? Or are they simply made into scapegoats for the social and political problems of the day?

Tolstoy renders a compelling portrait of the criminal-justice system of his day. A woman clearly innocent of the crime of which she is accused (being an accomplice in a theft and homicide) is run through the criminal justice system. The prosecutor managing the case quickly realizes her innocence. Still, his major concern is securing convictions and bettering his record. There is, after all, a death, and someone must atone for it. The prosecutor knows exactly how to wield the system—how to empanel a jury that will convict, how to maneuver the case before a judge who will smooth his path, how to forestall defense counsel from raising legitimate doubt about the accused’s guilt in the minds of jurors. The judge, likewise, soon reveals that he also realizes that the accused is innocent. But his concern is primarily for his own career and the prospect of judicial advancement. The public needs a conviction for the crime, and this woman may be innocent, but it’s unlikely that the public would understand the subtle arrangement of facts that lead to that conclusion. It’s much easier for the judge simply to allow the case to glide through to a conviction. A jury will, after all, decide the question of guilt or innocence. Tolstoy’s presentation of the appeals process gives us a similar tug of war for the conscience of judges—they all recognize that the accused is innocent, but a majority of them nevertheless find their way free to upholding the conviction and sentence, driven, in the case of the decisive vote, by astonishingly petty considerations of social caste. And though Tolstoy describes his own times–the final decades of Tsarist rule over the Russian Empire–it strikes me that his prosecutors, his judges, his jurors, his prison guards, could just as easily populate a federal court in America today. They present much the same foibles, weaknesses, vanities and political machinations.

Tolstoy also gives us a credible first-hand description of jail and prison conditions. Disease is widespread, cruelty practiced on the prisoners as a matter of routine. He documents the death of a number of the prisoners in the process of transportation to Siberia, providing an account that was literally taken from the newspapers as he composed the work.

Tolstoy’s criticism is withering, but alongside it he offers a powerful and very radical alternative vision—remarkable for its very simplicity. “The whole trouble lies in the fact that people think that there are conditions excluding the necessity of love in their intercourse with man, but such conditions do not exist. Things may be treated without love; one may chop wood, make bricks, forge iron without love; but one can no more deal with people without love than one can handle bees without care.” (pt. ii, ch. xxv) Can a justice system live up to its name while ignoring this principle? But the criticism hits its mark. Underneath the key failings at each step that he portrays in Resurrection lies the same phenomenon: the willingness of participants in the criminal justice system to view the accused as a means to one of their personal goals. In the absence of love, or at least respect for the fundamental humanity of the subject, the prospect that the system will produce something approaching justice disintegrates. The failing of this justice system lies not only in its victimization of the accused, but also in that it is unworthy of its other participants–the judges, jurors, prosecutors and defense counsel who populate the court rooms, as well the guards and administrators who run the prisons, living themselves in conditions but a halfstep removed from their charges. Resurrection remains one of the most deeply felt and most persuasive critiques of modern liberal notions of criminal justice.

Listen to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9 in A Major, op. 47 (“Kreutzer”)(1803) in a performance by Moiseiwitsch and Heifetz:

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