Life of Tolstoy/Chapter XII



This moral revolution of Tolstoy’s met with little sympathy from his immediate world; his family and his relatives were appalled by it.

For a long time Countess Tolstoy had been anxiously watching the progress of a symptom against which she had fought in vain. As early as 1874 she had seen with indignation the amount of time and energy which her husband spent in connection with the schools.

“This spelling-book, this arithmetic, this grammar—I feel a contempt for them, and I cannot assume a semblance of interest in them.”

Matters were very different when pedagogy was succeeded by religion. So hostile was the Countess’s reception of the first confidences of the convert that Tolstoy felt obliged to apologise when he spoke of God in his letters:

“Do not be vexed, as you so often are when I mention God; I cannot help it, for He is the very basis of my thought.”[1]

The Countess was touched, no doubt; she tried to conceal her impatience; but she did not understand; and she watched her husband anxiously.

“His eyes are strange and fixed. He scarcely speaks. He does not seem to belong to this world.”

She feared he was ill.

“Leo is always working, by what he tells me. Alas! he is writing religious discussions of some kind. He reads and he ponders until he gives himself the headache, and all this to prove that the Church is not in agreement with the teaching of the Gospel. He will hardly find a dozen people in Russia whom the matter could possibly interest. But there is nothing to be done. I have only one hope: that he will be done with it all the sooner, and that it will pass off like an illness.”

The illness did not pass away. The situation between husband and wife became more and more painful. They loved one another; each had a profound esteem for the other; but it was impossible for them to understand one another. They strove to make mutual concessions, which became—as is usually the case—a form of mutual torment. Tolstoy forced himself to follow his family to Moscow. He wrote in his Journal:

“The most painful month of my life. Getting settled in Moscow. All are settling down. But when, then, will they begin to live? All this, not in order to live, but because other folk do the same. Unhappy people!”[2]

During these days the Countess wrote:

“Moscow. We shall have been here a month tomorrow. The first two weeks I cried every day, for Leo was not only sad, but absolutely broken. He did not sleep, he did not eat, at times even he wept; I thought I should go mad.”[3]

For a time they had to live their lives apart. They begged one another’s pardon for causing mutual suffering. We see how they always loved each other. He writes to her:

“You say, ‘I love you, and you do not need my love.’ It is the only thing I do need… Your love causes me more gladness than anything in the world.”

But as soon as they are together again the same discord occurs. The Countess cannot share this religious mania which is now impelling Tolstoy to study Hebrew with a rabbi.

“Nothing else interests him any longer. He is wasting his energies in foolishness. I cannot conceal my impatience.”[4]

She writes to him:

“It can only sadden me that such intellectual energies should spend themselves in chopping wood, heating the samovar, and cobbling boots.”

She adds, with affectionate, half-ironical humour of a mother who watches a child playing a foolish game:

“Finally, I have pacified myself with the Russian proverb: ‘Let the child play as he will, so long as he doesn’t cry.’”[5]

Before the letter was posted she had a mental vision of her husband reading these lines, his kind, frank eyes saddened by their ironical tone; and she re-opened the letter, in an impulse of affection:

“Quite suddenly I saw you so clearly, and I felt such a rush of tenderness for you! There is something in you so wise, so naive, so persevering, and it is all lit up by the radiance of goodness, and that look of yours which goes straight to the soul… It is something that belongs to you alone.”

In this manner these two creatures who loved also tormented one another and were straightway stricken with wretchedness because of the pain they had the power to inflict but not the power to avoid. A situation with no escape, which lasted for nearly thirty years; which was to be terminated only by the flight across the steppes, in a moment of aberration, of the ancient Lear, with death already upon him.

Critics have not sufficiently remarked the moving appeal to women which terminates What shall we do? Tolstoy had no sympathy for modern feminism.[6] But of the type whom he calls “the mother-woman,” the woman who knows the real meaning of life, he speaks in terms of pious admiration; he pronounces a magnificent eulogy of her pains and her joys, of pregnancy and maternity, of the terrible sufferings, the years without rest, the invisible, exhausting travail for which no reward is expected, and of that beatitude which floods the soul at the happy issue from labour, when the body has accomplished the Law. He draws the portrait of the valiant wife who is a help, not an obstacle, to her husband. She knows that “the vocation of man is the obscure, lonely sacrifice, unrewarded, for the life of others.”

“Such a woman will not only not encourage her husband in factitious and meriticious work whose only end is to profit by and enjoy the labour of others; but she will regard such activity with horror and disgust, as a possible seduction for her children. She will demand of her companion a true labour, which will call for energy and does not fear danger… She knows that the children, the generations to come, are given to men as their holiest vision, and that she exists to further, with all her being, this sacred task. She will develop in her children and in her husband the strength of sacrifice… It is such women who rule men and serve as their guiding star… O mother-women! In your hands is the salvation of the world!”[7]

This appeal of a voice of supplication, which still has hope—will it not be heard?

A few years later the last glimmer of hope was dead.

“Perhaps you will not believe me; but you cannot imagine how isolated I am, nor in what a degree my veritable I is despised and disregarded by all those about me.”[8]

If those who loved him best so misunderstood the grandeur of the moral transformation which Tolstoy was undergoing, one could not look for more penetration or greater respect in others. Tourgenev with whom he had sought to effect a reconciliation, rather in a spirit of Christian humility than because his feelings towards him had suffered any change,[9] said ironically of Tolstoy: “I pity him greatly; but after all, as the French say, every one kills his own fleas in his own way.”[10]

A few years later, when on the point of death, he wrote to Tolstoy the well-known letter in which he prayed “his friend, the great writer of the Russian world,” to “return to literature.”[11]

All the artists of Europe shared the anxiety and the prayer of the dying Tourgenev. Melchior de Vogud, at the end of his study of Tolstoy, written in 1886, made a portrait of the writer in peasant costume, handling a drill, the pretext for an eloquent apostrophe:

“Craftsman, maker of masterpieces, this is not your tool! . . . Our tool is the pen; our field, the human soul, which we must shelter and nourish. Let us remind you of the words of a Russian peasant, of the the first printer of Moscow, when he was sent back to the plough: 'It is not my business to sow grains of corn, but to sow the seed of the spirit broadcast in the world.'"

As though Tolstoy had ever renounced his vocation as a sower of the seed of the mind! In the Introduction to What I Believe he wrote:

"I believe that my life, my reason, my light, is given me exclusively for the purpose of enlightening my fellows. I believe that my knowledge of the truth is a talent which is lent me for this object; that this talent is a fire which is a fire only when it is being consumed. I believe that the only meaning of my life is that I should live it only by the light within me, and should hold that light on high before men that they might see it."[12]

But this light, this fire "which was a fire only when it was being consumed," was a cause of anxiety to the majority of Tolstoy's fellow-artists. The more intelligent could not but suspect that there was a great risk that their art would be the first prey of the conflagration. They professed to believe that the whole art of literature was menaced; that the Russian, like Prospero, was burying for ever his magic ring with its power of creative illusion.

Nothing was further from the truth; and I hope to show that so far from ruining his art Tolstoy was awakening forces which had lain fallow, and that his religious faith, instead of killing his artistic genius, regenerated it completely.

  1. The summer of 1878.
  2. October 8, 1881. Vie et Œuvre.
  3. October 14. Vie et Œuvre.
  4. 1882.
  5. October 23, 1884. Vie et Œuvre.
  6. “The so-called right of women is merely the desire to participate in the imaginary labours of the wealthy classes, with a view to enjoying the fruit of the labour of others and to live a life that satisfies the sensual appetites. No genuine labourer’s wife demands the right to share her husband’s work in the mines or in the fields.”
  7. These are the last lines of What shall we do? They are dated the 14th of February, 1886.
  8. A letter to a friend, published under the title Profession of Faith, in the volume entitled Cruel Pleasures, 1895.
  9. The reconciliation took place in the spring of 1878. Tolstoy wrote to Tourgenev asking his pardon. Tourgenev went to Yasnaya Polyana in August, 1878. Tolstoy returned his visit in July, 1881. Every one was struck with the change in his manner, his gentleness and his modesty. He was “as though regenerated.”
  10. Letter to Polonski (quoted by Birukov).
  11. Letter to Bougival June 28, 1883.
  12. We find that M. de Vogüé, in the reproach which he addressed to Tolstoy, unconsciously used the phrases of Tolstoy himself. "Rightly or wrongly," he said, "for our chastisement perhaps, we have received from heaven that splendid and essential evil: thought. . . . To throw down this cross is an impious revolt." (Le Roman russè, 1886.) Now Tolstoy wrote to his aunt, the Countess A. A. Tolstoy, in 1883: "Each of us must bear his cross. . . . Mine is the travail of the idea; evil, full of pride and seductiveness." (Letters.)