Today, June 23, the rain pours down almost incessantly. The sun is taking a break from its outdoor activity inspiring role. It seems a good day for lightening up on the rhetoric and sharing a little of what inspires/warms my heart.
What warms my heart on this cold/windy/rainy day is a Leo Tolstoy story What Men Live By that I recently revisited from that assortment of already read, but might want to revisit books I call a bookcase. It was Wednesday, my respite, reading, ukuleleing, resting day off at the “beachhouse”—a small waterfront cabin that a most generous friend allows me to use for my weekly day of regeneration.
I over tuned the “a” string on the uku to breaking. I was too stiff for yoga, too rested for an afternoon doze, and it was too cold for a solitary walk along the oceanfront. So I turned to my only remaining entertainment-a long cherished, clearly fading copy of Leo Tolstoy’s The Raid and Other Stories which contains the short story What Men Live By.
Now I can already hear the stampede for the door—What Men Live By—yikes couldn’t they rename it what people live by or something. But this was written in 1850! It is bound to use anachronisms that do not fit with modern lexicon. The story, however, couldn’t be more relevant if it were written 2020.
What moved me most about this Tolstoy story is difficult to say: I think it is not just the gracefulness of the story but the very idea of a great writer like Tolstoy writing what is essentially a parable about the all powerful place of love in the lives of humanity.
When I finished reading Tolstoy’s short story, I felt this warmth/ this sun of human benevolence rising in my chest. I felt warm and good about humanity –that perhaps there is more to human character than the Yahoo spirit that Jonathan Swift wrote about so bitterly. Perhaps Trump and his buddies are wrong. Perhaps there is also goodness and generosity and kindness in the human heart. I felt rested and assured in a way I haven’t felt for a very long time.
I remembered the Netflix shows I have recently seen. Yikes, what a contrast! Generally, if you’ve seen one Netflix you’ve seen the essence of all of them. Few deviate from their Hobbesian foundations of human life as a “war of all against all” where individuals must constantly seek to destroy each other in their incessant pursuit of wealth and power.
Except for the most superficial possibilities of love, human life is–in the Hobbesian/Netflixian lexicon–“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” What tinges of true justice and abiding love there is on this entertainment for Yahoos occurs only as a barely considered afterthought. What passes for human good makes it onto Netflix(or any of the other streaming services) as primarily sexual exploitation or the arsenals of police/ political power.
It occurred to me as I lay on the warm cabin bed relishing my experience of Tolstoy’s story of human goodness that if we are to survive our current greed and guile delimited societies we need to turn off corporate streaming and turn on our reading of stories that seek to recognize and bring out the best in who we are individually and collectively. If we are to become better people (collectively and individually) we need to start filling our heads with Tolstoyian like characters who find a source of value that lies outside the market driven greed that passes as human value on our ubiquitous “streaming” services these days.
WHAT MEN LIVE BY –a synopsis
Simon was a poor shoemaker who did not have house or land of his own. He used to stay in a peasant’s house and earned his living by work to feed his wife and children. He and his wife had to share the same sheepskin coat during winter as the money he earned was spent only on food.
Even that coat was worn out and he needed another one before winter. He had some money saved by his wife for purpose and some of his customers still owed him for repairs done. But when he went to collect, it was of no avail as all the customers turned him down on some plea or the other.
Then he decided to buy the sheepskin for the coat on credit, but the dealer would not sell to him on credit. That day, he only managed to get a small amount of money for his labour and took home another pair of felt boots for repair.
Without knowing what to do with the little money, he went for a couple of drinks to warm himself.
As he was returning home, he saw a man sitting naked and motionless against a shrine. After a second thought, Simon felt pity on him. He gave the stranger his coat and his felt boots to wear and he took him home.
Meanwhile, Simon’s wife, Matrena had already fed her children, ate herself and was waiting for her husband to return home with only a little amount of food left.
When she saw her husband was drunk and also brought a stranger along with him, she became very annoyed. But immediately after that, she too felt pity for the stranger. She offered both whatever little food she had.
At this, the stranger just gave a little smile, but did not say anything to all the queries that he was asked.
The next morning, Simon told the stranger, who then identified himself as Michael, that he had to work for food. And surprisingly enough, Michael learned the trade of shoe-making very fast. Within one year, his fame spread far and wide and Simon’s family became quite well -off.
Then one day, a gentleman who was sufficiently well off came with a piece of leather from which he wanted to make a long pair of boots that would last for one year. At that moment, Michael smiled for the second time, during his stay with Simon.
After the gentleman was gone, Michael got down to work and instead of making boots, he prepared a pair of soft slippers which astonished Simon a lot. But some time later the gentleman’s servant came and told them that his master was already dead and the boots would be of no use and his mistress asked for a pair of soft slippers instead.
Six years passed by when one day a lady came to Simon’s place with two young girls, one of them crippled in one leg. Michael was pretty excited on seeing them and he smiled for the third time.
The woman explained that those were not her daughters but she reared them very fondly after their mother had died.
After the woman went away with the girls, Michael rose to speak about himself saying that now God has forgiven him. He was actually an angel of God, who was sent to get the soul of the mother of those girls. As he became emotional, and did not obey God’s instruction God punished him, to live like human beings on earth and learn- what dwells in man? What is given to man? And what men live by?
Michael who is in fact a good angel learned these three answers by the three incidents that caused him to smile:
First he learned from Simon’s wife that love dwells in man.
On the second occasion, he smiled and made the slippers because he knew the gentleman was not going to live to wear the boots as he could see the angel of death standing behind him. He got the second reply that it is not given to man to know his own needs.
Finally, on the third occasion, he realized that all men live not by the thoughts they spend in their own welfare, but because love exists in their hearts.
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