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Abstinence ONLY

September 17, 2011

A piebald gelding (пегий мерин)

People are saddled with base, animal instincts, which they must transcend, achieving human rationality, compassion, generosity of spirit. This kind of animal/human, or body/soul, dualism seems pretty widespread in the worldviews of individual modern people. It’s not surprising to find a version of it in Lev Tolstoi, but as Ronald D. LeBlanc points out, it’s clever of him to make the point by contrasting a horse character who overcomes his animal nature to a human character who fails to (559). Such is the story of Kholstomer and, secondarily, of his owner Prince Serpukhovskoi, in a work translated elsewhere as Strider, The Yardstick, and The Bachelor, but left by LeBlanc as the horse’s name transliterated: Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse (Холстомер: История лошади, 1861-85; here’s an 1887 English translation by Nathan Haskell Dole with the title “Kholstomír: The History of a Horse”).

LeBlanc reads the story in the context of Tolstoi’s belief in the 1880s that sex was wrong even for married couples and that all sexual desire should be resisted and overcome. It seems to me that this position is only slightly less compromising than a famous passage from Paul’s letters (“I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn,” 1 Corinthians 7:8-9), but it’s contemporary thought about celibacy that interests Tolstoi:

The reinforcement Tolstoi found for his anticarnal beliefs in the “glove morality” movement in Scandinavia, the Russian Skoptsy, the American Shakers, Alice Stockham’s “tokological” doctrines, and Henry Parkhurst’s “Dianic” program seems to have convinced him that extreme measures were indeed called for in the difficult struggle against sexual lust. For Tolstoi, the lure of man’s appetite for sensual objects of desire seemed so strong, and the pleasure people derived from them so powerfully addictive, that even the most determined efforts to control the sex drive through mere moderation seem destined to fail. (555, links added)

Among the more extreme methods of lust-control is castration, and the horse Kholstomer is a gelding. Being castrated liberates him to serve others, while his uncastrated master Serpukhovskoi does no one any good alive or dead, and by the logic of the story would have been better off if he had been castrated, as Aleksandr Etkind says (559-61). The horse’s involuntary castration helped him achieve true goodness, and LeBlanc even suggests that “the equine hero’s castration at an early age can be understood as a wish fulfillment fantasy on the part of a writer […] who struggled mightily throughout his life with the powerful lure of carnal desire” (568). Nevertheless, voluntary castration, as practiced by the Skoptsy, was cheating in Tolstoi’s view, as it “removes the moral challenge of overcoming sexual desire by an exertion of will” (557).

Kholstomer is a piebald gelding, пегий мерин. It turns out that the Skoptsy used an idiom for castration based not on “gelding” but on “piebald”: “Etkind notes that the expression used most frequently for ritual castration among the Skoptsy was ‘to sit on a piebald horse [sest’ na pegogo konia]’” (557).

For more, including a comparison of Tolstoi’s mother, Kholstomer’s mother, and a mother wolf who feeds meat from Kholstomer’s dead body to her children, see Ronald D. LeBlanc, “No More Horsing Around: Sex, Love, and Motherhood in Tolstoi’s Kholstomer,” Slavic Review 70.3 (2011): 545-68 (abstract; pdf for ASEEES members). His thoughts on Kholstomer can be found in abbreviated form in his 2009 book Slavic Sins of the Flesh.

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