The Abiding Truths of Russian Literature: A Conversation with Gary Saul Morson

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

It says something that the largest single class at Northwestern University is made up of several hundred students taking a class in Russian Literature. Gary Saul Morson, the professor in that class, is indeed an expert in Russian literature, and he is a distinguished literary critic. Professor Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University, where his Introduction to Russian Literature course is the most popular of electives at the University. His books and writings cover a wide range of issues, but his most important works have been considerations of the great realist novels of Russian literature. His most important recent book is entitled Anna Karenina in Our Time: Seeing More Wisely, published by Yale University Press. Professor Morson, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Albert Mohler: Professor Morson, you have made the argument that the knowledge of Russian literature is really incredibly important for even modern Americans in 2018. Why is that so, and why is it particularly so related to Russian literature?

Gary Morson: Well, there are a number of reasons for this. Partly, they grow out of the facts of Russian history. Russian history tends to the extremes, and in the 20th century, that produced an entirely new form of society, to which we gave the name Totalitarian. That was the product of the thought and actions of a particular group of intellectuals. The Russians coined the term intelligentsia for that group, and they didn’t mean what we would think of as intellectuals. They meant politically committed radical socialist-atheist intellectuals. Those people took over in 1917, but their opponents had been the great Russian writers — Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov — who kept warning that their way of thinking would lead to no good and formulated alternatives. You can see Russian history, from about 1860 on, as the argument between these two groups. Since the intelligentsia tended to the extreme, the opponents tended to come up with all sorts of interesting ideas, from which we could benefit, I think if we’re going to avoid the outcome that was present in the Soviet Union and some other societies since.

Albert Mohler: I want to follow a bit later on those grand historical events that did help to frame this issue, but you fill a classroom in Northwestern University with hundreds of students a year for a class in Russian literature, and I know enough about your teaching-

Gary Morson: It amazes me to this day.

Albert Mohler: Yes, well, I know enough about your teaching and your writing to know it is because those students, at very young ages, come to understand through you that this great Russian literature speaks not only to the great events of historical background but to the meaning of their lives.

Gary Morson: Yes, the Russians writers were not shy about addressing what they called the accursed questions; the ultimate questions. You don’t get too many English or French writers thinking they can address questions about the very meaning of life or the basis of morality directly, but the Russians take these questions by the throat. Their characters wonder about them and go through different alternatives to them. These are the same questions that students realize are going to shape their own lives at this point. Some of these questions concern things that they are thinking about every moment, like the nature of love, for instance, which is let’s say the theme of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, and some of his other works. They understand the importance of that right away. I think the reason they take these classes, one reason is, they get to talk about things that really touch their lives, that you don’t have to persuade them are important.

Albert Mohler: I want us to look at one of your most recent works, indeed, on Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. I want to turn to that monograph in a moment, but to be honest, one of my favorite of your writings is the introduction to Anna Karenina in the Marian Schwartz edition, the translation.

Gary Morson: Yeah, Marian did a wonderful translation there, too, by the way.

Albert Mohler: Yes, indeed. I assume if you were introducing it that you liked it.

Gary Morson: Yeah, it was a very good translation.

Albert Mohler: You’re also fairly well-known as a critic of poor translations, and that’s important too, but I wanted to ask you about this particular essay, because you begin, as later in your monograph, with that line you say is often quoted, but rarely understood, the first sentence of Anna Karenina: “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In just the next several lines, you pretty skillfully unpack some of the great mysteries of life and of literature, from that one line. Can you unpack that a bit for us now?

Gary Morson: Well, people often quote that line without thinking, what exactly did the author mean by it? If you look at his other writings and other proverbs he likes to quote, it’s pretty clear that what he … He has in mind things like a French proverb that goes, “Happy people have no history.” The idea is that the more drama in your life — the more intensity, high drama, catastrophe — the worse life is going to be. The reason all happy families resemble each other is that, well, they don’t have a story. The reason all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way is that they each have a story, and the story is different. We have a tendency to think that the more narratable our lives are, the more they would make a good movie or film or play, the better they are, but Tolstoy’s point is that the worse … That’s the worst they are. There’s an old curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” That’s a curse because what makes them interesting is things you don’t want to live through. We tend not to see that, and we tend to think, oh, if only we can make our lives as intense, as dramatic as possible, they’ll be better. Actually, the very opposite is the case. We wind up going down all sorts of wrong paths. We miss what is really important. What’s really important are the ordinary things of life, which we tend to overlook because, well, they’re not dramatic. Our eyes and our minds are set to look in the wrong place, the place that is most dramatic and noticeable as if what is most noticeable is what is most important. What’s actually most important is the hundred million small events that never get into the story, and which shape the whole tenor of our lives. That’s his basic point there.

Albert Mohler: I want to ask, along these lines, if in his entire body of work, and in particular in both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, is Tolstoy deliberately subversive of that idea of life in the extremes? In other words, how self-conscious is he?

Gary Morson: Oh, extremely self-conscious. You know, he reveled in his identity as someone who will take on all the truisms of everybody else. In his time, he was called a… that is someone who says nyet, or no, to what predominant opinion is in a given moment. He just reveled in the fact that he was contradicting the intellectual consensus of his time. We still have a lot of those same beliefs. The idea that comes out of Romanticism, the idea that the most intense lives, the most dramatic political events, these are the most important and the best, and he wants them to say, “No, they’re not.” He’s very conscious that everybody around him assumes the opposite. In fact, people pretty much still do. That’s why the book is so shocking, even to students today.

Albert Mohler: Well, I was going to come at this later, but since you mention it, I wanted to track on this theme right now. You make very clear that Tolstoy understands love to be multifaceted and the ideal of romantic love to be, itself, extremely dangerous and an acid that burns away the rightful kinds of loves that really are God’s gift to humanity.

Gary Morson: Yeah, but today we sometimes use the term romantic to mean simply sexual as opposed to friendly, but that’s not the sense in which he’s criticizing romantic love. It’s a particular type of love, which… the sort of love that you see in popular romances or going back to Romeo and Juliet and the Shakespeare Renaissance plays, the love that we think of as consuming your whole being, as lifting you up out of the ordinary, as the goal of a life somehow destined for you. That’s the love that we speak of as passion. You think of the word passion. It’s related to passive. It happens to you, so you’re not morally responsible for it. That’s why we speak of “falling in love,” not, “jumping in love.” Somehow, you have no choice, and therefore, as this ideology goes, there is no moral standard you have to live up to. You’re beyond good and evil because it’s not your choice at all. It just happens to you by destiny. It’s what you pursue at all costs to yourself and to anyone around you. That’s the idea. That’s the idea that, for example, Anna Karenina believes in and leads her astray, and which is so much a part of popular culture that I know my students just assume it’s the case. Then Tolstoy says well, that’s one kind of love, but there are other kinds. That kind, for instance, is incompatible with ordinary everyday family love. I like to have them imagine, let’s say … Imagine Romeo and Juliet actually get married. Imagine that Mr. Montague and Mr. Capulet say well, oh, let’s stop fighting. Let’s let the kids get married, and they do. It’s a few years later, and here we see … Imagine them now. They’re at the breakfast table. Romeo is there, unshaven, with his face in the sports pages. Juliet is in bad temper, making breakfast, and they’re both thinking, where has love gone? They don’t decide to have the wrong idea about love because it’s incompatible with daily life. They think they chose the wrong partner, and so they go off and find somebody else. That’s pretty much the reason why so much of the European novel is about adultery. Adultery is transgressive. It’s exciting. It’s everything that ordinary marriage and family life are not. You really have to choose between those two, and Anna Karenina gives you examples of both. The other main plot, the plot of Levin and Kitty, shows you a development of a different kind of love, a family love, which is really different in its content. It’s just as sexual as the other, but it’s very different in its ideals. In romantic love, the idea is a mystery, so it thrives on obstacles; whereas in family love, the more intimate you are, the less mystery that you have, the better, the better you know the person. These are completely different ideas of love. Sometimes one can be transformed into the other. Romantic love can turn into family love, but if it doesn’t, the family is not going to be possible.

Albert Mohler: In your book on Anna Karenina in Our Time, you actually end with 163 Tolstoyan conclusions. You’ve basically summarized this, but in 51 you write, “Romantic love with its cult of mystery is ultimately incompatible with marriage and family. If a family is to survive, romantic love must change into prosaic love. Otherwise, it leads to a sense that life is empty, to a feeling of having been betrayed, and to adultery.” Now, you really explained the last part already, but I want to go back to that phrase “prosaic love.” Define that for us. I thought immediately, that’s a very helpful category, but what is it?

Gary Morson: Well, I think that Leo Tolstoy and some of the other Russian writers, Chekhov above all, are really interested in the ordinary parts of life, well, the prosaic parts. An appreciation for the ordinary and the every day is what they’re trying to teach. That’s the wisdom they’re looking for. Prosaic love would be a love that develops and thrives in an everyday environment, that doesn’t look for extreme situations or maximal intensity, doesn’t feel like an addiction, doesn’t feel like it’s amoral. It’s the sort of thing that makes you care about somebody and want to get to know them better on a daily basis. It doesn’t make a great story. I mean, what are you going to say if you try to do a novel about it. Well, they didn’t quarrel again today. There was no crisis again this week. It doesn’t make a great story, but it makes a good life.

Albert Mohler: Well, is that one argument for why so many of these great Russian novels are so long? Just to take Anna Karenina, it’s so many stories all intertwined, and you really don’t get the point you are making about this prosaic love and even about moral development until you start to see many of these prosaic stories unfold. That takes hundreds of pages.

Gary Morson: Yes, it’s a real literary problem Tolstoy is facing. If what makes a story interesting is the dramatic events, which is just what life should not be like, how do you show what life should be like? If you just describe an ordinary couple without conflict, you’re not going to have much of a novel. That’s the poetic problem that, or I like to say, “the prosaic problem,” that he faces. He does it in a variety of ways. One way is to show you the wrong way to live, which provides the plot. That’s basically the Anna story, but some of the other stories, the one of Dolly and the one of Levin and Kitty, are much less dramatic, but, you learn to appreciate what you can find in a world without high drama. You learn to see as Dolly sees small joys like, “They’re like golden sand,” the author says, that you could easily miss if you’re not paying attention to them. But the things that you could easily miss, that you take for granted because they’re so ordinary are the things that make life good or bad? He has to put those … They’re right in front of your eyes, but you don’t pay much attention to them, because they’re not dramatic. Tolstoy’s whole point is to teach you to pay attention to things that you don’t naturally pay attention to. We’re naturally drawn to dramatic, noticeable events. They are, after all… Nobody publishes a newspaper that has nothing exciting about it. There’s an old journalistic saw, “dog bites man is not a story, man bites dog is a story,” because it’s so unusual. We pay attention to things like that, that are unusual, and yet the most important things in life are camouflaged by their very ordinariness. They’re right in front of our eyes, but we don’t see them. The whole book is trying to get you to look at the other things. There are all sorts of ways Tolstoy does that in the book to get you to see through the camouflage of familiarity.

Albert Mohler: Is this what Tolstoy means when he talks about the fallacy of the treetops, the fact that we want to look, or in so many works of literature, look and just act as if life is all at the treetops without missing the entire world of the rest of the tree?

Gary Morson: That’s an analogy he draws in an essay he wrote about War and Peace. The analogy goes: someone who was looking at a distant hill where only treetops were visible might conclude that in that region there’s nothing but trees.  But if he went there, he could see that he wouldn’t even notice the trees, because there could be a whole city there, and you’d barely notice the trees there. At a distance, that’s all you see. It’s the most noticeable thing, and so you draw the false conclusion from it. That’s an analogy in War and Peace to how people write history. They write about the most dramatic, narratable events, of what Napoleon did this, and how Czar Alexander did that, but really what’s mostly going on for most people is their everyday ordinary lives, even in wartime, and in fact, what they’re doing there shapes the outcome of the war in ways that don’t make a good story but are enormously effective. So he switches the perspective.

Albert Mohler: I first read Anna Karenina decades ago. That means I was, in some sense, a different person when I read it, and then when I read it more recently, and then read your work on Anna Karenina, and I will tell you, the greatest change, I think, in my understanding of the story is due both to you, most importantly, and your work on the text. But also my life in my sixth decade, versus my second or third. For instance-

Gary Morson: Yeah, that makes a big difference, doesn’t it?

Albert Mohler: It certainly does. I had not noticed sufficiently how Tolstoy uses words to describe incredible moral insights that I think, as a younger man, I read through as a mere narrative, without understanding what was going on. For instance, where Levin recognizes Kitty’s intellectual superiority, which isn’t theoretical but practical, and on the question of death. She simply knows how to help a man who’s dying, and he, with all of his theoretical concentration, has not a clue.

Gary Morson: Yeah, it’s an idea that… It actually goes through Western tradition, all the way back to the ancients, that there are two types of knowledge. Aristotle refers to one as theoretical and the other as practical wisdom. Mathematics is a good example of theoretical knowledge, but ethics, or in Aristotle’s example, clinical medicine … These are examples of practical wisdom. In everyday life, theoretical wisdom doesn’t get you very far. That’s the great mistake of intellectuals. They’re very good at theory, and therefore they think that society or individuals can be understood entirely by theory, and you can make the right decisions by theory, but in fact, what you need is “practical wisdom,” which may make use of theory, but can’t be reduced to it. What Levin comes to realize is that his wife, who is not an intellectual, in any normal sense of the world, understands things that he can’t understand, because he’s only been approaching them in philosophical, theoretical terms. But she is used to approaching problems in practical terms. What can I do specifically to help you? What details, not what grand theoretical generality, but what details are going on that make a difference here? That’s what she’s used to looking at, which he isn’t. Tolstoy is trying to teach, as well, we really need theoretical wisdom for things that are fundamentally theoretical, but not to assume that everything is like that, as intellectuals tend to do. They tend to do that because after all, that’s what makes them intellectuals. If their sense of superiority comes from the fact that they do theory better than anybody else, they’ve never been famous for being particularly practical, so they’re not likely to see the importance of that.

Albert Mohler: Well, before leaving that comment, I want to go to … It’s actually on page 13 of Anna Karenina: In Our Time. I have to say, you have an amazing way of rendering a massive moral verdict, which is without a period, but rather with a question mark. In one paragraph, you write this. “At the beginning of the 21st century, some thinkers have found our dominant paradigms wanting. We have, after all, just lived through the bloodiest century in human history. Perhaps, you ask, we got something wrong?” Oh my goodness, that cannot be a paragraph written by accident.

Gary Morson: Well, no, I mean, it still amazes me that intellectuals don’t reflect on the kind of mistakes that they have made. You would think that if they were open at all to disconfirmation by experience, the horrors of the 20th century would have made them think, but it’s so easy to think that it’s something else. It’s certainly not us and our theories that have made a difference. That’s again why the Russian experience is so important because it’s so clear there that it is … The problems came when the intellectuals took over. Now, people like Lenin and Stalin and Trotsky and the others, who were typical members of the Russian intelligentsia and put their theories into practice that you got this special horror, and yet intellectuals go right on thinking, oh, if only people followed our theories, then it would be better. We could cure all evil overnight, and the Russian experience tells you nothing causes more evil than the attempt to eliminate evil altogether.

Albert Mohler: I can remember, as a teenager, hearing a statement attributed to Mao when the revolution was criticized, that “you can’t break an omelet without breaking eggs.” A statement that’s been attributed to many Marxist leaders, and I think it actually can be traced at least back to the French Revolution, but you turned that question in one of your essays I read years ago, when you said that a lot of people debate who said it and the origins, this excuse for revolution at the hands of the intellectuals, but then you brilliantly asked the question, “if indeed you can’t break an omelet without breaking eggs, after the 20th century, where’s the omelet?” That’s an astounding question.

Gary Morson: I first heard that comment by a Russian… , who was on the staff of the University of Pennsylvania when I was there, who had one spin on the top Soviet economic planning before he emigrated. He would quote that line: “Well, they say you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The way he put it was, “I see the broken eggs. Where’s the omelet?” He had learned a great deal from trying to make communism work, that it couldn’t.

Albert Mohler: One of the interesting realizations of a literary life is that when you read a book at one point in life, and you come back to a great work later in life, it is not only as if there are two books, but, in one sense, two readers. The question is, how has the second reader grown from the position of the first reader? What does the second reader see that that first reader did not see? A conversation with a reader and a writer, a critic like Gary Saul Morson, helps us to make certain that we see more than we would otherwise see because we’re looking for more than we would otherwise look. I want to go back to a point you mentioned earlier, and this takes us even deeper into Anna Karenina. There are two specific issues I want to ask you about. I think your reading of Anna, you’ve convinced me.

Gary Morson: Oh, I’m so glad, because I haven’t convinced most people.

Albert Mohler: Well, you’ve convinced me, and you make the fundamental judgment that people tend to misread this. You mentioned even Oprah Winfrey, and her interpretation of Anna Karenina, which is that Anna is a modern romantic heroine; a tragic modern romantic heroine. You point out that to Tolstoy, she was not that at all.

Gary Morson: Yeah, she was the … You get inside her consciousness. You understand how it works, and you can realize that you might be no better, so it’s hard to condemn her, and yet she’s wrong. You sense that. It’s not only Oprah Winfrey, who tends to make Anna the heroine. What really interests me is that very smart readers and critics, some of the ones I most admire, have just assumed that that’s what the novel was about—Anna as the great heroine. It’s as if they were so blinded by the romantic myth themselves, they couldn’t even begin to entertain the possibility that that could be what the novel was criticizing. That just shows how dominant the romantic myth is in our time, perhaps even more than Tolstoy’s. It’s some of the smartest, most interesting, sensitive critics who just assume, they don’t even argue for it, they just assume that that’s what the work has to be about, and that’s very telling.

Albert Mohler: It is, indeed, telling. Yet, when you look at the actual novel, Anna’s devotion to this artificial romantic love that takes her into a lengthy and agonizing adultery that leads her into a life of ever greater dishonesty, and her own sense of this passionate fatalism, and then her suicide, eventuates to a suicide in the end … I mean, it’s hard for me how any sane modern reader can see that as a celebration of Anna as a model of romantic love. But we are surrounded by people who are determined to read the story that way because that’s what they want the story of their own lives to be.

Gary Morson: Yeah, the fact that she comes to a tragic end, that’s part of the romantic myth itself. Think of how Romeo and Juliet ends. It ends with their death. Typically, the idea is that this social world that we live in is so hostile to the higher things; so immersed in its bourgeois ordinariness and vulgarity that, of course, the romantic hero and heroine will come to a bad end. But it’s all the more glorious for that. I mean, it’s the secular equivalent of what it would be to be a religious martyr is how I’d put that. In fact, it may well be that this romantic myth gains more and more hold upon people, to the extent that belief in God or religion fades. This becomes a substitute.

Albert Mohler: Well, it becomes a matter of rereading, for me, Anna Karenina. I’ve come to my own conclusion that it might be Dolly who, in many ways, is the polar opposite of Anna. For instance, you write about Dolly, “Her everyday goodness, her ceaseless efforts for her children, and her fundamental decency attract little attention, but they are, from Tolstoy’s perspective, the most meaningful possible activities. Here, as in so many other works, Tolstoy teaches us that we do not notice the really good people among us.”

Gary Morson: Yes, it’s really quite something. Later in his life, when he was trying to become a saintly figure himself and realizing he wasn’t succeeding, he wrote a story, called Father Sergius, about a man who keeps trying to achieve saintliness and keeps failing. But eventually he comes across an ordinary woman, who just takes care of her family, takes care of her son-in-law who can’t work, tries to prevent quarrels from going on, and he realizes that she is the saint, not he, and that nobody will ever notice it. He comes to a very strange conclusion that there are indeed saints, but they’re not the people recognized as saints, because those people are trying to do something dramatic. It’s the ordinary good people, the Dolly figures of the world, who really make all the difference. It’s a Tolstoyan paradox there, that you don’t notice what is most worthy of notice. I mean, we don’t even count the work of good mothers in the gross domestic product, right?

Albert Mohler: Right.

Gary Morson: If you hire somebody to take care of your children, that goes into the gross domestic product, but if you do it yourself, then it doesn’t. It’s as if we value things that you pay for, but not things that you do just because they’re the right thing to do. That sends a message. I mean, no one understands it from an economic perspective, but it does send a message.

Albert Mohler: As a teenager at the height of the cold war, a lot of my intellectual development, and that included my eventual development as a theologian, was grounded in that great contest of ideas between the West and especially the Soviet Bloc. The man who captivated my mind more than any other was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Some of his work was beyond me when I began to read it as a teenager, but I understood what you mentioned earlier in our conversation, which is he’s actually dealing with the biggest questions of life. You can … I have a lot of admiration, in his own context, for someone like George Orwell, but you compare a 1984 with the works of Solzhenitsyn, and they’re just dealing with life and meaning and truth at a fundamentally different level.

Gary Morson: Yeah, Orwell’s book is really a great and very profound book, but Solzhenitsyn’s moral conclusions come out of, not imagined, but the real experience of being in the Gulag, of the testimony of people who were there, and events that he actually lived through. So it tends to grab you by the throat. I’ve just been going through all his works recently myself and seeing also the things I didn’t see there. One of the themes he keeps addressing, and he also did in his speech at Harvard, which shocked everybody there, is the idea that we so often take for granted that life is about individual happiness; about achieving the most for yourself. He wants to say that’s a shallow view of life. Whether it’s in a Soviet or a Western perspective. That view doesn’t survive when tested by extreme conditions. People who get arrested in the Soviet Union, they’re whole world collapses if that’s their worldview. It’s only if they think that… and those are the people who will do nasty things to others, just to survive. But it’s the ones who know that life is about something higher, who really believe in absolute good and evil, have some faith, those are the only people who can withstand that pressure without their worldview collapsing or leading them to do terrible things. That you have to know by experience.

Albert Mohler: In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn speaks to this directly. You summarize this when you write in an essay, “At some point, Solzhenitsyn explains, every prisoner faces a choice. If he adheres to the view that there is only this world and that only the result counts, he will steal food from his starving fellow prisoners, become an informant, and do anything, no matter how repulsive, to survive at any price. Solzhenitsyn said this is the great fork of camp life. From this point, the roads go to the right and to the left. If you go to the right, you lose your life, and if you go to the left, you lose your conscience.” That’s the very crucible of real experience you’re talking about.

Gary Morson: Yes, that’s right, I mean, and it becomes the test. I believe a lot of these memoirs of people who have been in the camps, including those of people who remained communists and atheists, but suffered a great deal and wrote their memoirs, and even they noticed that the only people who you could count on not to do something awful in their own self-interest, were the religious believers. And it didn’t seem to matter what religion it was, either, but they could be counted upon. Even some of the atheists remark upon this. We would ask ourselves, could we endure what they endured, and we realized we couldn’t.

Albert Mohler: You point to one of those memoirs from an interrogation in the Soviet Union (memoir’s from 1967), and she was being really pressured, the memoirist here, to denounce someone else who had already denounced her. She had said to the interrogator, “That’s between him and his conscience.” The interrogator then said, “What are you, a gospel Christian or something?” It’s because in their Marxist, Leninist, materialist worldview if you believed in anything like conscience above the State, you must be “a gospel Christian or something.”

Gary Morson: Yeah, I mean, part of what the way they interpreted materialism was that there can be no standard of good and evil outside immediate results in this world, which under communism meant the good of the Party, and so to appeal to just “right and wrong” or “conscience,” that just shows that you weren’t a real materialist. You weren’t a real atheist. You believed in something like, well, gospel Christianity or some equivalent, and so the interrogator is amazed that she would say something like that because she was a member of the Communist Party at that time, and how could she suddenly appeal to conscience? We all know that conscience is, as they like to say, priest talk. It has no real existence for a communist. That’s what’s so wonderful about that passage. She realizes at that point that, well gee, maybe she does believe in conscience.

Albert Mohler: Well, evidently she does, even as she might be trying to convince herself of the same in that context. This comes in your essay, Among the Disbelievers, why atheism was central to the great evil of the 20th century, but you’ve written about similar themes elsewhere. I want to ask you the question directly. Can atheism sustain, over any longterm or even over a lifetime, any understanding of what is really good, true, and beautiful?

Gary Morson: I don’t know. I guess it probably would depend on the conditions. If it were never seriously challenged by any deep life experience, which can happen in the United States. I have good, moral, decent friends at the University who are atheists, and I keep wondering, well, yes, you all are good moral people, but if you were placed in an extreme situation, thank God you’re not, would you see it differently? Would you survive the test? They manage to, so far. Some of them do anyway. It’s a really difficult question. I think they don’t really see the implications of their own beliefs, because they’re taking as normal conditions what are only conditions we happen to be living in now, and are not guaranteed.

Albert Mohler: Well, and it leads to the intellectually honest assessment that there’s a distinction between the question, can an atheist be a moral person? Even I would argue, as a theist, that requiring at least intellectual borrowing from theism as to know what a good person is that the atheist presumably could be. But the atheism, as a belief system, even in this essay that you wrote for Commentary, it just becomes implausible that it can somehow be a worldview for a society that can remain sane and not homicidal.

Gary Morson: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t go quite that far in the essay. I did it a little more modestly. I set the essay up to criticize the argument, that the new atheists make, that religion is … Since so many people have killed in the name of religion, we’d be better off as atheists. The point of my argument is that that argument fails because, in our time, atheists have done far worse than religions have ever done. The usual new atheist argument is, but not because they were atheists. That shows simply an ignorance of Soviet condition. They thought it was precisely because they were atheists. The way I phrase that article is not exactly a defensive religious belief. It’s a criticism of “one criticism” of religious belief if you see what I’m … I’m a little more cautious than that. I didn’t put the argument further than I could.

Albert Mohler: Yeah, I understand that, yeah. No, I understand that. That’s why I tried to say it’s my reading of your article that makes me come to…

Gary Morson: It’s a plausible reading. It’s a plausible reading, but it reads a little bit into…

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Gary Morson: It makes me think things that I’m only wondering about. I’m wondering about the advantage.

Albert Mohler:  That’s intellectually honest, and I appreciate that. I’ve been, like you, wondering about these things for a very long time. It just tends sometimes to wear me down in amazement that people can defend the 20th century, in terms of these totalitarian regimes, as if they were the aberrations of the very ideologies that they represented. That becomes more implausible, and yet higher risk, I think, as we consider even the contemporary moment, and the climate on college and university campuses.

Gary Morson: Yeah, I just … I am dumbfounded. I always have been, actually, about the idea that, well, yes, Socialism and Marxist regimes have failed 18 times, but don’t worry, the 19th time we’ll get it right. Can one really seriously believe that? Yet people do. It’s not entirely clear to me why, because again, one would think that if experience had any purchase then that would be dead. But it can die for a while, I guess, like after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then get reborn. It’s very hard to see why.

Albert Mohler: I want to take us back into Anna Karenina for just a moment here.

Gary Morson: Sure.

Albert Mohler: The issues that you raise about what Tolstoy sees and wants us to see, you actually get to the fact that Tolstoy helps us to see that we don’t remember very well. Our self-knowledge is partial, and our memory is partial. One of the ways he helps us to see this is that Anna is shown in the novel to, is it fair to say, deliberately misremember her past?

Gary Morson: Yeah, it’s really, really interesting. The concept of self-deception, which Tolstoy is interested in, it’s … I’ve read a number of books about that time by philosophers trying to understand the concept of self-deception. They didn’t get very far, because, well, if you … You can’t just tell somebody you don’t believe it. You’ll be aware that you’re lying, and the whole point of self-deception is that you’re not aware that you’re lying, and yet you’re lying. How is that possible? Tolstoy shows you how it is possible, by showing you how Anna does it. Novelists have actually been pretty good at this. You go right back to, let’s say, Jane Austen. That’s what Pride and Prejudice is about. We mislead ourselves from pride and prejudice. The way we do it is step, by little, step. We can only do it over a long period of time. We gradually accustom ourselves to see people in a worse and worse and worse light, so that every small step is not particularly noticeable. So self-deception can happen. We can arrange not to know what we know, but only by practicing it a lot, and in tiny, small steps over time. That picture of self-deception, you see, which you have to have a novelistic sense of the psyche and of life to see, makes sense in a way that I’ve never seen a philosopher make sense of.

Albert Mohler: Just a couple of other points here, because there’s so much I would want to talk about … You take us into a story written by Tolstoy about a painter who corrected a student’s sketch. The student said, “Why, you only changed it a tiny bit, but it’s quite a different thing.” The artist replied, “Art begins where that tiny bit begins.” Then Tolstoy explains this. I want to read it, and ask you to speak of it. “That saying is strikingly true, not only of art, but of all life. One may say that true life begins where the tiny bit begins, where what seems to us minute, and infinitesimally small changes occur, true life is not lived where great external changes take place, where people move about, clash, fight, and slay one another. It is lived only where these tiny, tiny, infinitesimally small changes occur.” That set my mind at work for a very long time.

Gary Morson: Yeah, mine too. When I teach a Tolstoy novel, I always begin with that passage, and that quotation, because it’s not only his philosophy of what life is, that it’s the small events you barely notice, the tiny alterations that make a life, but it’s also what he, himself, is really good at. He’s so good. He’s such a great realist, to the point where critics typically say, “it’s as if life were writing directly.” If nature could write directly without a person between it would write like Tolstoy. The reason he can do that is that, whereas another writer would see a change in consciousness, let’s say taking two steps in the course of a second, he could see it taking 10 to 12 steps in the course of a second. He sees the tiniest alterations of consciousness, and he can trace it for you. Then it’s much more believable. It’s not an assertion. You’ve seen it happen, and it seems much more realistic to you, and much more persuasive, that yes, that’s the way things really, really are. To do that, he had to see these tiny alterations. He had to accustom himself to do it. For him, that would be what real art consists of, not be a matter of mastering some abstract technique or theory. It would be about very, very close observation, introspection, and of others. I think that is really what makes him unique and the most “realist of the realists.”

Albert Mohler: That insight, of course, not only of art but of all life.

Gary Morson: Life, yeah.

Albert Mohler: That’s pretty amazing. Well, you can understand why, as a Christian theologian and reader, I have to ask you about the thunderclap judgment that you make, which has also set me to thinking for a very long time. You write, and I quote, “There are only two passages in world literature that make Christian love, love not just for one’s neighbors but for one’s enemies, psychologically plausible. One occurs in War and Peace, where Prince Andrei loves his enemy, Anatole Kuragin, and the other in Anna Karenina, when Karenin, who has hated Anna and wished her dead, is moved to genuine Christian love and forgiveness.” You then conclude, “Even Dostoevsky was never able to do more than assert the existence of such love. How, you ask, does Tolstoy make it truly believable?” That’s an amazing statement. You begin by saying that these are the only two passages in world literature that, in your judgment, make Christian love, meaning even love of enemy, plausible.

Gary Morson: Well, I meant psychologically plausible. You see how it happens. You don’t have to take it on faith. You actually see it. You see, that’s what I meant by that.

Albert Mohler: Right, but that’s quite a statement. Even reducing this, although I don’t even think it’s really a reduction to psychologically plausible, which is what a novelist is trying to do, you’re really suggesting that no one other than Tolstoy gets it right. I’m not arguing here with you. I’m just amazed. But I’m also a bit perplexed as to how to answer your judgment. Those two particular illustrations you give, from War and Peace and Anna Karenina, are indeed pictures of what a Christian would have to call a conversion.

Gary Morson: Yeah, no question about it. I mean, part of what they share is that the person who undergoes that conversion has not been looking for it. He shows how it happens. You can’t just decide, well, I’m going to experience Christian love, and then do it. It can’t happen that way. Yet it can happen. One of the ways he makes it plausible is by tracing the tiny, tiny alterations of consciousness. I know, in the Anna Karenina case, he must see 50 or 100 or more little steps. Each one is plausible, and then, since you grabbed each little step, you have to grab the outcome, which is simply the last little step. You’d have to be able to see consciousness in such amazing detail of tiny alterations and movement to do that, that I think only Tolstoy has seen consciousness that closely. In fact, Dostoevsky would have loved to have done that. He was quite devout and wanted to show … but he could show people who’d reached the state of Christian love, but he couldn’t show getting there. He kept trying, and he kept feeling it wasn’t plausible. Readers would find it just asserted by him, and he wanted to make them feel it. Then, you can imagine his own feeling when he saw Tolstoy do it with some jealousy. Nevertheless, he wound up seeing, as you know, the greatest writer in the history of the world, part for that very reason.

Albert Mohler: In your conclusion, the 163 Tolstoyan conclusions … We obviously can’t go through them all, but in 154, you write, “No other art form or discipline describes moral situations as well as individual people with the richness and complexity of the great realist novels.” Now, my guess is that’s why your classroom at Northwestern fills up with hundreds of students a year. You must demonstrate that statement to be true by the time students sit in your classroom.

Gary Morson: Yeah, I really try. The way most students have been taught literature beforehand, this comes as a revelation to them, because the typical way they’re taught in high school or some other college classes is either mechanical, let’s find another symbol, and they learn how to find symbols, which doesn’t really teach them anything; or let’s judge the person, based on our contemporary, political, social beliefs and see how well they measure up to us. Which means, of course, you can’t learn anything, because you assume that what you already believe is true. Either way, literature becomes kind of pointless to read it. You might as well just read a summary of it, but what I try to get them to see is, no, there really is profound wisdom here, and you can only get the wisdom by experience. You’ve got to go through those tiny alterations of your own consciousness. I think I persuade some of them of that fact.

Albert Mohler: Well, I think you have demonstrated that. As I read your works, your essays, your books. As I enjoy this conversation, I just have to tell you, it makes me think that part of me wants to go back as an undergraduate to Northwestern University just to enroll in your courses and to hear you teach, and I say that with respect.

Gary Morson: That’s so kind of you to say, but you’re always welcome to come.

Albert Mohler: Well, that is very, very kind. I want to thank you for this conversation today, Professor. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Gary Morson: Oh, thank you.

Albert Mohler: Well, that conversation with Professor Morson I think helps us to understand why that classroom, that massive classroom, at Northwestern University is so regularly packed with undergraduate students, looking not only to know more about Russian literature but more urgently to know more about life, including their own lives. To know more about love, and to distinguish real love from its alternatives. To understand, just as Professor Morson makes very clear, that we learn from great writers, like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  What it means to see what would otherwise be missed. To look for the prosaic in life rather than trying to live a life that is at the extremes. When you look at life this way, and you look at literature with these eyes, you’ll begin to see, especially in the great works of the Russian novelists, an understanding of life that is so lacking, not only amongst other writers, but amongst so many modern people wherever they may be found, whatever their vocation or station in life. The reality is that Professor Morson becomes very convincing in arguing for why these great realist novelists in Russia help us to understand so much of life that seems to be missing amongst others. A part of this, as he explains, is the history of Russia itself. A part of it also has to be, and this also becomes very clear in Professor Morson’s writings, that these great Russian novelists, regardless of their own individual, spiritual, and theological understanding, were writing out of a massive deposit of Christian intuition; of Christian understanding of life; of Christian understanding of history. They had a theistic worldview that is behind and underneath everything that they write. Of course, when it comes to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, you’re writing about more than a kind of theology in the abstract. When it comes to Tolstoy, in particular, you are looking at hundreds and hundreds of pages written by, as Professor Morson clearly believes, the greatest writer of recent times. You’re looking at someone who is grappling with these questions and unfolding stories, and he draws us in. He makes us want to see not only what he sees, but what we might otherwise not see.

I found one of the most satisfying portions of this conversation to be where Professor Morson, more or less, turns modern popular interpretations of a story like Anna Karenina upside down.  Where he points out that so many in the modern world not only want to read Anna—the tragic adulteress—as a romantic heroine. It’s that they not only read the story that way, but that they want to read the story that way. The reason why they want to read the story that way is telling. When we come to understand what that tells us, not only about the modern world, and not only about those who tend to think that way and read the story that way. It helps us to understand the myriad temptations, to see life, as Tolstoy warned, as if only from the treetops.

At several points in today’s conversation, I pointed to those 163 Tolstoyan conclusions at the end of Professor Morson’s book on Anna Karenina. Every one of the 163 is worthy of attention. But in these conclusions, number 124, he writes, “If one is interested in the truth, one seeks, not avoids, authentic ideas that contradict one’s own.” That has to be, also, not only a part of Professor Morson’s intellectual honesty, his way of reading life and literature. It has to explain something of why there is such power in his teaching that draws so many young people into that classroom. He brings these conclusions to an end with a final two. In 162 he writes: “We must cast away the telescope and learn to see the world of tiny alterations right before our eyes.” He argues that this is exactly what novels like Anna Karenina and War and Peace help us to do. He makes it very clear that, if we fail to do that, we’re actually missing life where it is lived out, at the most important level, in the most important way. His final conclusion is this: “To understand life more deeply, we must learn to see more wisely.” It is hard to imagine better words to end a conversation like this than those. To understand life more deeply, we must learn to see more wisely. Again, many thanks to my guest, Professor Gary Saul Morson, for thinking with me today.

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Thinking in Public, you’ll find over 100 more of these conversations at under the tab, Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.