Life of Tolstoy/Chapter II



He studied at Kazan.[1] He was not a notable student. It used to be said of the three brothers[2]: "Sergius wants to, and can; Dmitri wants to, and can't; Leo can't, and doesn't want to."

He passed through the period which he terms "the desert of adolescence"; a desert of sterile sands, blown upon by gales of the burning winds of folly. The pages of Boyhood, and in especial those of Youth,[3] are rich in intimate confessions relating to these years.

He was a solitary. His brain was in a condition of perpetual fever. For a year he was completely at sea; he roamed from one system of philosophy to another. As a Stoic, he indulged in self-inflicted physical tortures. As an Epicurean he debauched himself. Then came a faith in metempsychosis. Finally he fell into a condition of nihilism not far removed from insanity; he used to feel that if only he could turn round with sufficient rapidity he would find himself face to face with nothingness . . . He analysed himself continually:

"I no longer thought of a thing; I thought of what I thought of it."[4]

This perpetual self-analysis, this mechanism of reason turning in the void, remained to him as a dangerous habit, which was "often," in his own words, "to be detrimental to me in life"; but by which his art has profited inexpressibly.[5]

As another result of self-analysis, he had lost all his religious convictions; or such was his belief. At sixteen years of age ceased to pray; he went to church no longer;[6] but his faith was not extinguished; it was only smouldering.

"Nevertheless, I did believe—in something. But in what? I could not say. I still believed in God; or rather I did not deny Him. But in what God? I did not know. Nor did I deny Christ and his teaching; but I could not have said precisely what."[7]

From time to time he was obsessed by dreams of goodness. He wished to sell his carriage and give the money to the poor: to give them the tenth part of his fortune; to live without the help of servants, "for they were men like himself." During an illness[8] he wrote certain "Rules of Life." He naively assigned himself the duty of "studying everything, of mastering all subjects: law, medicine, languages, agriculture, history, geography, and mathematics; to attain the highest degree of perfection in music and painting," and so forth. He had "the conviction that the destiny of man was a process of incessant self-perfection."

Insensibly, under the stress of a boy's passions, of a violent sensuality and a stupendous pride of self,[9] this faith in perfection went astray, losing its disinterested quality, becoming material and practical. If he still wished to perfect his will, his body, and his mind, it was in order to conquer the world and to enforce its love.[10] He wished to please.

To please: it was not an easy ambition. He was then of a simian ugliness: the face was long, heavy, brutish; the hair was cropped close, growing low upon the forehead; the eyes were small, with a hard, forbidding glance, deeply sunken in shadowy orbits; the nose was large, the lips were thick and protruding, and the ears were enormous.[11] Unable to alter this ugliness, which even as a child had subjected him to fits of despair,[12] he pretended to a realisation of the ideal man of the world, l’homme comme il faut.[13] This ideal led him to do as did other "men of the world": to gamble, run foolishly into debt, and to live a completely dissipated existence.[14]

One quality always came to his salvation: his absolute sincerity.

"Do you know why I like you better than the others?" says Nekhludov to his friend." You have a precious and surprising quality: candour."

"Yes, I am always saying things which I am ashamed to own even to myself."[15]

In his wildest moments he judges himself with a pitiless insight.

"I am living an utterly bestial life," he writes in his Journal. "I am as low as one can fall." Then, with his mania for analysis, he notes minutely the causes of his errors:

"1. Indecision or lack of energy. 2. Self-deception. 3. Insolence. 4. False modesty. 5. Ill-temper. 6. Licentiousness. 7. Spirit of imitation. 8. Versatility. 9. Lack of reflection."

While still a student he was applying this independence of judgment to the criticism of social conventions and intellectual superstitions. He scoffed at the official science of the University; denied the least importance to historical studies, and was put under arrest for his audacity of thought. At this period he discovered Rousseau, reading his Confessions and Émile. The discovery affected him like a mental thunderbolt.

"I made him an object of religious worship. I wore a medallion portrait of him hung round my neck, as though it were a holy image."[16]

His first essays in philosophy took the form of commentaries on Rousseau (1846-47).

In the end, however, disgusted with the University and with "smartness," he returned to Yasnaya Polyana, to bury himself in the country (1847-51); where he once more came into touch with the people. He professed to come to their assistance, as their benefactor and their teacher. His experiences of this period have been related in one of his earliest books, A Russian Proprietor (A Landlord's Morning) (1852); a remarkable novel, whose hero, Prince Nekhludov[17] is Tolstoy in disguise.

Nekhludov is twenty years old. He has left the University to devote himself to his peasants. He has been labouring for a year to do them good. In the course of a visit to the village we see him striving against jeering indifference, rooted distrust, routine, apathy, vice, and ingratitude. All his efforts are in vain. He returns indoors discouraged, and muses on his dreams of a year ago; his generous enthusiasm, his "idea that love and goodness were one with happiness and truth: the only happiness and the only truth possible in this world." He feels himself defeated. He is weary and ashamed.

"Seated before the piano, his hand unconsciously moved upon the keys. A chord sounded; then a second, then a third. . . . He began to play. The chords were not always perfect in rhythm; they were often obvious to the point of banality; they did not reveal any talent for music; but they gave him a melancholy, indefinable sense of pleasure. At each change of key he awaited, with a flutter of the heart, for what was about to follow; his imagination vaguely supplementing the deficiencies of the actual sound. He heard a choir, an orchestra . . . and his keenest pleasure arose from the enforced activity of his imagination, which brought before him, without logical connection, but with astonishing clearness, the most varied scenes and images of the past and the future. . . ."

Once more he sees the moujiks—vicious, distrustful, lying, idle, obstinate, contrary, with whom he has lately been speaking; but this time he sees them with all their good qualities and without their vices; he sees into their hearts with the intuition of love; he sees therein their patience, their resignation to the fate which is crushing them; their forgiveness of wrongs, their family affection, and the causes of their pious, mechanical attachment to the past. He recalls their days of honest labour, healthy and fatiguing. . . .

"'It is beautiful' he murmurs . . . 'Why am I not one of these?'"[18]

The entire Tolstoy is already contained in the hero of this first novel[19] his piercing vision and his persistent illusions. He observes men and women with an impeccable realism; but no sooner does he close his eyes than his dreams resume their sway; his dreams and his love of mankind.

  1. From 1842 to 1847. [Science was as yet unorganised; and its teachers, even in Western Europe, had not the courage of the facts they taught. Men still sought for an anchor in the philosophic systems of the ancients. The theory of evolution, put forward at the beginning of the century, had fallen into obscurity. Science was dry, dogmatic, uncoordinated, insignificant. Hence, perhaps, the contempt for science which distinguised Tolstoy throughout his life, and which made the later Tolstoy possible.—Trans.]
  2. Nikolas, five years older than Leo, had completed his studies in 1844.
  3. The English translation is entitled Childhood, Boyhood, Youth.
  4. Youth, xix.
  5. Notably in his first volumes—in the Tales of Sebastopol.
  6. This was the time when he used to read Voltaire, and find pleasure in so doing.
  7. Confessions, vol. i.
  8. In March and April, 1847.
  9. "All that man does he does out of amour-propre," says Nekhludov, in Boyhood.
    In 1853 Tolstoy writes, in his Journal: "My great failing: pride. A vast self-love, without justification. . . . I am so ambitious that if I had to choose between glory and virtue (which I love) I am sure I should choose the former."
  10. "I wanted to be known by all, loved by all. I wanted every one, at the mere sound of my name, to be struck with admiration and gratitude."
  11. According to a portrait dated 1848, in which year he attained his twentieth year.
  12. "I thought there would be no happiness on earth for any one who had so large a nose, so thick lips, and such small eyes."
  13. "I divided humanity into three classes: the 'correct,' or 'smart,' who alone were worthy of esteem; those who were not 'correct,' who deserved only contempt and hatred; and the people, the plebs, who simply did not exist." (Youth, xxxi.)
  14. Especially during a period spent in St. Petersburg, 1847-48.
  15. Boyhood.
  16. Conversations with M. Paul Boyer (Le Temps), August 28, 1901.
  17. Nekhludov figures also in Boyhood and Youth (1854), in A Brush with the Enemy (1856); the Diary of a Sportsman (1856); Lucerne (1857); and Resurrection (1899). We must remember that different characters appear under this one name. Tolstoy has not always given Nekhludov the same physical aspect; and the latter commits suicide at the end of the Diary of a Sportsman. These different Nekhludovs are various aspects of Tolstoy, endowed with his worst and his best characteristics.
  18. A Russian Proprietor.
  19. Contemporary with Childhood.