Life of Tolstoy/Chapter VI



When, once issued from this hell, where for a year he had touched the extreme of the passions, vanities, and sorrows of humanity, Tolstoy found himself, in November, 1855, amidst the men of letters of St. Petersburg, they inspired him with a feeling of disdain and disillusion. They seemed to him entirely mean, ill-natured, and untruthful. These men, who appeared in the distance to wear the halo of art—even Tourgenev, whom he had admired, and to whom he had but lately dedicated The Woodcutters—even he, seen close at hand, had bitterly disappointed him. A portrait of 1856 represents him in the midst of them: Tourgenev, Gontcharov, Ostrovsky, Grigorovitch, Droujinine. He strikes one, in the free-and-easy atmosphere of the others, by reason of his hard, ascetic air, his bony head, his lined cheeks, his rigidly folded arms. Standing upright, in uniform, behind these men of letters, he has the appearance, as Suarès has wittily said, "rather of mounting guard over these gentry than of making one of their company; as though he were ready to march them back to gaol."[1]

Yet they all gathered about their young colleague, who came to them with the twofold glory of the writer and the hero of Sebastopol. Tourgenev, who had "wept and shouted ' Hurrah V" while reading the pages of Sebastopol, held out a brotherly hand. But the two men could not understand one another. Although both saw the world with the same clear vision, they mingled with that vision the hues of their inimical minds; the one, ironic, resonant, amorous, disillusioned, a devotee of beauty; the other proud, violent tormented with moral ideas, pregnant with a hidden God.

What Tolstoy could never forgive in these literary men was that they believed themselves an elect, superior caste; the crown of humanity. Into his antipathy for them there entered a good deal of the pride of the great noble and the officer who condescendingly mingles with liberal and middle-class scribblers.[2] It was also a characteristic of his—he himself knew it—to "oppose instinctively all trains of reasoning, all conclusions, which were generally admitted."[3] A distrust of mankind, a latent contempt for human reason, made him always on the alert to discover deception in himself or others.

"He never believed in the sincerity of any one. All moral exhilaration seemed false to him; and he had a way of fixing, with that extraordinarily piercing gaze of his, the man whom he suspected was not telling the truth."[4] "How he used to listen! How he used to gaze at those who spoke to him, from the very depths of his grey eyes, deeply sunken in their orbits! With what irony his lips were pressed together!"[5]

"Tourgenev used to say that he had never experienced anything more painful than this piercing gaze, which, together with two or three words of envenomed observation, was capable of infuriating anybody."[6]

At their first meetings violent scenes occurred between Tolstoy and Tourgenev. When at a distance they cooled down and tried to do one another justice. But as time went on Tolstoy's dislike of his literary surroundings grew deeper. He could not forgive these artists for the combination of their depraved life and their moral pretensions.

"I acquired the conviction that nearly all were immoral men, unsound, without character, greatly inferior to those I had met in my Bohemian military life. And they were sure of themselves and self-content, as men might be who were absolutely sound. They disgusted me."[7]

He parted from them. But he did not at once lose their interested faith in art.[8] His pride was flattered thereby. It was a faith which was richly rewarded; it brought him "women, money, fame."

"Of this religion I was one of the pontiffs; an agreeable and highly profitable situation."

The better to consecrate himself to this religion, he sent in his resignation from the army (November, 1856).

But a man of his temper could not close his eyes for long. He believed, he was eager to believe, in progress. It seemed to him "that this word signified something" A journey abroad, which lasted from the end of January to the end of July of 1857, during which period he visited France, Switzerland, and Germany, resulted in the destruction of this faith. In Paris, on the 6th of April, 1857, the spectacle of a public execution "showed him the emptiness of the superstition of progress."

"When I saw the head part from the body and fall into the basket I understood in every recess of my being that no theory as to the reason of the present order of things could justify such an act. Even though all the men in the world, supported by this or that theory, were to find it necessary, I myself should know that it was wrong; for it is not what men say or do that decides what is good or bad, but my own heart."[9]

In the month of July the sight of a little perambulating singer at Lucerne, to whom the wealthy English visitors at the Schweizerhof were refusing alms, made him express in the Diary of Prince D. Nekhludov his contempt for all the illusions dear to Liberals, and for those "who trace imaginary lines upon the sea of good and evil."

"For them civilisation is good; barbarism is bad; liberty is good; slavery is bad. And this imaginary knowledge destroys the instinctive, primordial cravings, which are the best. Who will define them for me—liberty, despotism, civilisation, barbarism? Where does not good co-exist with evil? There is within us only one infallible guide: the universal Spirit which whispers to us to draw closer to one another."

On his return to Russia and Yasnaya he once more busied himself about the peasants. Not that he had any illusions left concerning them. He writes:

"The apologists of the people and its good sense speak to no purpose; the crowd is perhaps the union of worthy folk; but if so they unite only on their bestial and contemptible side, a side which expresses nothing but the weakness and cruelty of human nature."[10]

Thus he does not address himself to the crowd, but to the individual conscience of each man, each child of the people. For there light is to be found. He founded schools, without precisely knowing what he would teach. In order to learn, he undertook another journey abroad, which lasted from the 3rd of July, 1860 to the 23rd of April, 1861.[11]

He studied the various pedagogic systems of the time. Need we say that he rejected one and all? Two visits to Marseilles taught him that the true education of the people is effected outside the schools (which he considered absurd), by means of the journals, the museums, the libraries, the street, and everyday life, which he termed "the spontaneous school." The spontaneous school, in opposition to the obligatory school, which he considered silly and harmful; this was what he wished and attempted to institute upon his return to Yasnaya Polyana.[12] Liberty was his principle. He would not admit that an elect class, "the privileged Liberal circle," should impose its knowledge and its errors upon "the people, to whom it is a stranger." It had no right to do so. This method of forced education had never succeeded in producing, at the University, "the men of whom humanity has need; but men of whom a depraved society has need; officials, official professors, official literary men, or men torn aimlessly from their old surroundings, whose youth has been spoiled and wasted, and who can find no plan in life: irritable, puny Liberals."[13] Go to the people to learn what they want! If they do not value "the art of reading and writing which the intellectuals force upon them," they have their reasons for that; they have other spiritual needs, more pressing and more legitimate. Try to understand those needs, and help them to satisfy them!

These theories, those of a revolutionary Conservative, as Tolstoy always was, he attempted to put into practice at Yasnaya, where he was rather the fellow-disciple than the master of his pupils.[14] At the same time, he endeavoured to introduce a new human spirit into agricultural exploitation. Appointed in 1861 territorial arbitrator for the district of Krapiona, he was the people's champion against the abuses of power on the part of the landowners and the State.

We must not suppose that this social activity satisfied him, or entirely filled his life. He continued to be the prey of contending passions. Although he had suffered from the world, he always loved it and felt the need of it. Pleasure resumed him at intervals, or else the love of action. He would risk his life in hunting the bear. He played for heavy stakes. He would even fall under the influence of the literary circles of St. Petersburg, for which he felt such contempt. After these aberrations came crises of disgust. Such of his writings as belong to this period bear unfortunate traces of this artistic and moral uncertainty. The Two Hussars (1856) has a quality of pretentiousness and elegance, a snobbish worldly flavour, which shocks one as coming from Tolstoy. Albert, written at Dijon in 1857, is weak and eccentric, with no trace of the writer's habitual depth or precision. The Diary of a Sportsman (1856), a more striking though hasty piece of work, seems to betray the disillusionment which Tolstoy inspired in himself. Prince Nekhludov, his Doppelganger, his double, kills himself in a gaming-house.

"He had everything: wealth, a name, intellect, and high ambitions; he had committed no crime; but he had done still worse: he had killed his courage, his youth; he was lost, without even the excuse of a violent passion; merely from a lack of will."

The approach of death itself does not alter him:

"The same strange inconsequence, the same hesitation, the same frivolity of thought. . . ."

Death! . . . At this period it began to haunt his mind. Three Deaths (1858-59) already foreshadowed the gloomy analysis of The Death of Ivan Ilyitch; the solitude of the dying man, his hatred of the living, his desperate query "Why?" The triptych of the three deaths that of the wealthy woman, that of the old consumptive postilion, and that of the slaughtered dog—is not without majesty; the portraits are well drawn, the images are striking, although the whole work, which has been too highly praised, is somewhat loosely constructed, while the death of the dog lacks the poetic precision to be found in the writer's beautiful landscapes. Taking it as a whole, we hardly know how far it is intended as a work of art for the sake of art, or whether it has a moral intention.

Tolstoy himself did not know. On the 4th of February, 1858, when he read his essay of admittance before the Muscovite Society of Amateurs of Russian Literature, he chose for his subject the defence of art for art's sake.[15] It was the president of the Society, Khomiakov, who, after saluting in Tolstoy "the representative of purely artistic literature," took up the defence of social and moral art.[16]

A year later the death of his dearly-loved brother, Nikolas, who succumbed to phthisis[17] at Hyeres, on the 19th of September, 1860, completely overcame Tolstoy; shook him to the point of "crushing his faith in goodness, in everything," and made him deny even his art:

"Truth is horrible. . . . Doubless, so long as the desire to know and to speak the truth exists men will try to know and to speak it. This is the only remnant left me of my moral concepts. It is the only thing I shall do; but not in the form of art, your art. Art is a lie, and I can no longer love a beautiful lie."[18]

Less than six months later, however, he returned to the "beautiful lie" with Polikushka,[19] which of all his works is perhaps most devoid of moral intention, if we except the latent malediction upon money and its powers for evil; a work written purely for art's sake; a masterpiece, moreover, whose only flaws are a possibly excessive wealth of observation, an abundance of material which would have sufficed for a great novel, and the contrast, which is too severe, a little too cruel, between the humorous opening and the atrocious climax.[20]

  1. Suarès: Tolstoï, edition of the Union pour l'Action morale, 1899 (reprinted, in the Cahiers de la Quinzaine, under the title Tolstoï vivant).
  2. Tourgenev complained, in a conversation, of "this stupid nobleman's pride, his bragging Junkerdom."
  3. "A trait of my character, it may be good or ill, but it is one which was always peculiar to me, is that in spite of myself I always used to resist external epidemic influences. . . . I had a hatred of the general tendency." (Letter to P. Birukov.)
  4. Tourgenev.
  5. Grigorovitch.
  6. Eugène Gardine: Souvenirs sur Tourgeniev, 1883. See Vie et Œuvre de Tolstoï, by Birukov.
  7. Confessions.
  8. "There was no difference between us and an asylum full of lunatics. Even at the time I vaguely suspected as much; but as all madmen do, I regarded them as all mad excepting myself"—Confessions.
  9. Confessions.
  10. Diary of Prince D. Nekhludov.
  11. At Dresden, during his travels he made the acquaintance of Auerbach, who had been the first to inspire him with the idea of educating the people; at Kissingen he met Froebel, in London Herzen, and in Brussels Proudhon, who seems to have made a great impression upon him.
  12. Especially in 1861-62.
  13. Education and Culture. See Vie et Œuvre, by Birukov, vol. ii.
  14. Tolstoy explained these principles in the review Yasnaya Polyana, 1862.
  15. Lecture on The Superiority of the Artistic Element in Literature over all its Contemporary Tendencies.
  16. He cited against Tolstoy his own examples, including the old postilion in The Three Deaths.
  17. We may remark that another brother, Dmitri, had already died of the same disease in 1856. Tolstoy himself believed that he was attacked by it in 1856, in 1862, and in 1871. He was, as he writes (the 28th of October, 1852), "of a strong constitution, but feeble in health." He constantly suffered from chills, sore throats, toothache, inflamed eyes, and rheumatism. In the Caucasus, in 1852, he had "two days in the week at least to keep his room." Illness stopped him for several months in 1854, on the road from Silistria to Sebastopol. In 1856, at Yasnaya, he was seriously ill with an affection of the lungs. In 1862 the fear of phthisis induced him to undergo a Koumiss cure at Samara, where he lived with the Bachkirs, and after 1870 he returned thither almost yearly. His correspondence with Fet is full of preoccupations concerning his health. This physical condition enables one the better to understand his obsession by the thought of death. In later years he spoke of this illness as of his best friend: "When one is ill one seems to descend a very gentle slope, which at a certain point is barred by a curtain, a light curtain of some filmy stuff; on the hither side is life, beyond is death. How far superior is the state of illness, in moral value, to that of health! Do not speak to me of those people who have never been ill! They are terrible, the women especially so! A woman who has never known illness is an absolute wild beast!" (Conversations with M. Paul Boyer, Le Temps, 27th of August, 1901.)
  18. Letter to Fet, October 17, 1860 (Further Letters: in the French version, Correspondence inédite, pp. 27-30).
  19. Written in Brussels, 1861.
  20. Another novel written at this period is a simple narrative of a journey—The Snowstorm—which evokes personal memories, and is full of the beauty of poetic and quasi-musical impressions. Tolstoy used almost the same background later, in his Master and Servant (1895).