Life of Tolstoy/Chapter XIII



It is a singular fact that in speaking of Tolstoy’s ideas concerning science and art, the most important of the books in which these ideas are expressed—namely, What shall we do? (1884-86)—is commonly ignored. There, for the first time, Tolstoy fights the battle between art and science; and none of the following conflicts was to surpass the violence of their first encounter. It is a matter for surprise that no one, during the assaults which have been recently delivered in France upon the vanity of science and the intellectuals, has thought of referring to these pages. They constitute the most terrible attack ever penned against “the eunuchs of science” and “the corsairs of art”; against those intellectual castes which, having destroyed the old ruling castes of the Church, the State, and the Army, have installed themselves in their place, and, without being able or willing to perform any service of use to humanity, lay claim to a blind admiration and service, proclaiming as dogmas an impudent faith in science for the sake of science and in art for the sake of art—the lying mask which they seek to make their justification and the apology for their monstrous egoism and their emptiness.

"Never make me say," continues Tolstoy, "that I deny art or science. Not only do I not deny them; it is in their name that I seek to drive the thieves from the temple."

"Science and art are as necessary as bread and water; even more necessary. . . . The true science is that of the true welfare of all human beings. The true art is the expression of the knowledge of the true welfare of all men."

And he praises those who, "since men have existed, have with the harp or the cymbal, by images or by words, expressed their struggle against duplicity, their sufferings in that struggle, their hope in the triumph of good, their despair at the triumph of evil, and the enthusiasm of their prophetic vision of the future."

He then draws the character of the perfect artist, in a page burning with mystical and melancholy earnestness:

"The activity of science and art is only fruitful when it arrogates no right to itself and considers only its duties. It is only because that activity is such as it is, because its essence is sacrifice, that humanity honours it. The men who are called to serve others by spiritual work always suffer in the accomplishment of that task; for the spiritual world is brought to birth only in suffering and torture. Sacrifice and suffering; such is the fate of the thinker and the artist, for his fate is the good of men. Men are unhappy; they suffer; they die; there is no time for him to stroll about, to amuse himself. The thinker or the artist never strays upon Olympian heights, as we are accustomed to think; he is always in a state of conflict, always in a state of emotion. He must decide and must say what will further the welfare of men, what will deliver them from suffering; and he has not decided it, he has not said it; and to-morrow it will perhaps be too late, and he will die. . . . The man who is trained in an establishment in which artists and scientists are formed (to tell the truth, such places make destroyers of art and of science); the man who receives diplomas and a pension—he will not be an artist or a thinker; but he who would be happy not to think, not to express what is implanted in his mind, yet cannot refrain from thought and self-expression: for he is carried along by two invisible forces: his inner need and his love of men. There are no artists who are fat, lovers of life, and satisfied with themselves."[1]

This splendid page, which throws a tragic light upon the genius of Tolstoy, was written under the immediate stress of the suffering caused him by the poverty of Moscow, and under the conviction that science and art were the accomplices of the entire modern system of social inequality and hypocritical brutality. This conviction he was never to lose. But the impression of his first encounter with the misery of the world slowly faded, and became less poignant; the wound healed,[2] and in none of his subsequent books do we recover the tremor of pain and of vengeful anger which vibrates in this; nowhere do we find this sublime profession of the faith of the artist who creates with his life-blood, this exaltation of the sacrifice and suffering "which are the lot of the thinker"; this disdain for Olympian art. Those of his later works which deal with the criticism of art will be found to treat the question from a standpoint at once more literary and less mystical; the problem of art is detached from the background of that human wretchedness of which Tolstoy could not think without losing his self-control, as on the night of his visit to the night-shelter, when upon returning home he sobbed and cried aloud in desperation.

I do not mean to suggest that these didactic works are ever frigid. It is impossible for Tolstoy to be frigid. Until the end of his life he is the man who writes to Fet:

"If he does not love his personages, even the least of them, then he must insult them in such a way as to make the heavens fall, or must mock at them until he spits his sides."[3]

He does not forget to do so, in his writings on art. The negative portion of this statement—brimming over with insults and sarcasms—is so vigorously expressed that it is the only part which has struck the artist. This method has so violently wounded the superstitions and susceptibilities of the brotherhood that they inevitably see, in the enemy of their own art, the enemy of all art whatsoever. But Tolstoy's criticism is never devoid of the re constructive element. He never destroys for the sake of destruction, but only to rebuild. In his modesty he does not even profess to build anything new; he merely defends Art, which was and ever shall be, from the false artists who exploit it and dishonour it.

"True science and true art have always existed and will always exist; it is impossible and useless to attack them," he wrote to me in 1887, in a letter which anticipated by more than ten years his famous criticism of art (What is Art?).[4] "All the evil of the day comes from the fact that so-called civilised people, together with the scientists and artists, form a privileged caste, like so many priests; and this caste has all the faults of all castes. It degrades and lowers the principle in virtue of which it was organised. What we in our world call the sciences and the arts is merely a gigantic humbug, a gross superstition into which we commonly fall as soon as we free ourselves from the old superstition of the Church. To keep safely to the road we ought to follow we must begin at the beginning we must raise the cowl which keeps us warm but obscures our sight. The temptation is great. We are born or we clamber upon the rungs of the ladder; and we find among the privileged the priests of civilisation, of Kultur, as the Germans have it. Like the Brahmin or Catholic priests, we must have a great deal of sincerity and a great love of the truth before we cast doubts upon the principles which assure us of our advantageous position. But a serious man who ponders the riddle of life cannot hesitate. To begin to see clearly he must free himself from his superstitions, however profitable they may be to him. This is a condition sine quâ non. . . . To have no superstition. To force oneself into the attitude of a child or a Descartes."

This superstition of modern art, in which the interested castes believe, "this gigantic humbug," is denounced in Tolstoy's What is Art? With a somewhat ungentle zest he holds it up to ridicule, and exposes its hypocrisy, its poverty, and its fundamental corruption. He makes a clean sweep of everything. He brings to this work of demolition the joy of a child breaking his toys. The whole of this critical portion is often full of humour, but sometimes of injustice: it is warfare. Tolstoy used all weapons that came to his hand, and struck at hazard, without noticing whom he struck. Often enough it happened—as in all battles—that he wounded those whom it should have been his duty to defend: Ibsen or Beethoven. This was the result of his enthusiasm, which left him no time to reflect before acting; of his passion, which often blinded him to the weakness of his reasons, and—let us say it—it was also the result of his incomplete artistic culture.

Setting aside his literary studies, what could he well know of contemporary art? When was he able to study painting, and what could he have heard of European music, this country gentleman who had passed three-fourths of his life in his Muscovite village, and who had not visited Europe since 1860; and what did he see when he was upon his travels, except the schools, which were all that interested him? He speaks of paintings from hearsay, citing pell-mell among the decadents such painters as Puvis de Chavannes, Manet, Monet, Böcklin, Stuck, and Klinger; confidently admiring Jules Breton and Lhermitte on account of their excellent sentiments; despising Michelangelo, and among the painters of the soul never once naming Rembrandt. In music he felt his way better,[5] but knew hardly anything of it; he could not get beyond the impressions of his childhood, swore by those who were already classics about 1840, and had not become familiar with any later composers (excepting Tchaikowsky, whose music made him weep); he throws Brahms and Richard Strauss into the bottom of the same bag, teaches Beethoven his business,[6] and, in order to judge Wagner, he thought it was sufficient to attend a single representation of Siegfried, at which he arrived after the rise of the curtain, while he left in the middle of the second act.[7] In the matter of literature he is, it goes without saying, rather better informed. But by what curious aberration did he evade the criticism of the Russian writers whom he knew so well, while he laid down the law to foreign poets, whose temperament was as far as possible removed from his own, and whose leaves he merely turned with contemptuous negligence![8]

His intrepid assurance increased with age. It finally impelled him to write a book for the purpose of proving that Shakespeare "was not an artist."

"He may have been—no matter what: but he was not an artist."[9]

His certitude is admirable. Tolstoy does not doubt. He does not discuss. The truth is his. He will tell you:

"The Ninth Symphony is a work which causes social disunion."


"With the exception of the celebrated air for the violin by Bach, the Nocturne in E flat by Chopin, and a dozen pieces, not even entire, chosen from among the works of Hadyn, Mozart, Weber, Beethoven, and Chopin, . . . all the rest may be rejected and treated with contempt, as examples of an art which causes social disunion."


"I am going to prove that Shakespeare cannot be ranked even as a writer of the fourth order. And as a character-painter he is nowhere."

That the rest of humanity is of a different opinion is no reason for hesitating: on the contrary.

"My opinion," he proudly says, "is entirely different from the established opinion concerning Shakespeare throughout Europe."

Obsessed by his hatred of lies, he scents untruth everywhere; and the more widely an idea is received, the more prickly he becomes in his treatment of it; he refuses it, suspecting in it, as he says with reference to the fame of Shakespeare, "one of those epidemic influences to which men have always been subject. Such were the Crusades in the Middle Ages, the belief in witchcraft, the search for the philosopher's stone, and the passion for tulips. Men see the folly of these influences only when they have won free from them. With the development of the press these epidemics have become particularly notable." And he gives as an example the most recent of these contagious diseases, the Dreyfus Affair, of which he, the enemy of all injustice, the defender of all the oppressed, speaks with disdainful indifference;[10] a striking example of the excesses into which he is drawn by his suspicion of untruth and that instinctive hatred of "moral epidemics" of which he admits himself the victim, and which he is unable to master. It is the reverse side of a virtue, this inconceivable blindness of the seer, the reader of souls, the evoker of passionate forces, which leads him to refer to King Lear as "an inept piece of work," and to the proud Cordelia as a "characterless creature."[11]

Observe that he sees very clearly certain of Shakespeare's actual defects—faults that we have not the sincerity to admit: the artificial quality of the poetic diction, which is uniformly attributed to all his characters; and the rhetoric of passion, of heroism, and even of simplicity. I can perfectly well understand that a Tolstoy, who was the least literary of writers, should have been lacking in sympathy for the art of one who was the most genial of men of letters. But why waste time in speaking of that which he cannot understand? What is the worth of judgments upon a world which is closed to the judge?

Nothing, if we seek in these judgments the passport to these unfamiliar worlds. Inestimably great, if we seek in them the key to Tolstoy's art. We do not ask of a creative genius the impartiality of the critic. When a Wagner or a Tolstoy speaks of Beethoven or of Shakespeare, he is speaking in reality not of Beethoven or of Shakespeare, but of himself; he is revealing his own ideals. They do not even try to put us off the scent. Tolstoy, in criticising Shakespeare, does not attempt to make himself "objective." More: he reproaches Shakespeare for his objective art. The painter of War and Peace, the master of impersonal art, cannot sufficiently deride those German critics who, following the lead of Goethe, "invent Shakespeare," and are responsible for "the theory that art ought to be objective, that is to say, ought to represent human beings without any reference to moral values—which is the negation of the religious object of art."

It is thus from the pinnacle of a creed that Tolstoy pronounces his artistic judgments. We must not look for any personal after-thoughts in his criticisms. We shall find no trace of such a thing; he is as pitiless to his own works as to those of others.[12] What, then, does he really intend? What is the artistic significance of the religious ideal which he proposes?

This ideal is magnificent. The term "religious art" is apt to mislead one as to the breadth of the conception. Far from narrowing the province of art, Tolstoy enlarges it. Art, he says, is everywhere.

"Art creeps into our whole life; what we term art, namely, theatres, concerts, books, exhibitions, is only an infinitesimal portion of art. Our life is full of artistic manifestations of every kind, from the games of children to the offices of religion. Art and speech are the two organs of human progress. One affords the communion of hearts, the other the communion of thoughts. If either of the two is perverted, then society is sick. The art of to-day is perverted."

Since the Renascence it has no longer been possible to speak of the art of the Christian nations. Class has separated itself from class. The rich, the privileged, have attempted to claim the monopoly of art; and they have made their pleasure the criterion of beauty. Art has become impoverished as it has grown remoter from the poor.

"The category of the emotions experienced by those who do not work in order to live is far more limited than the emotions of those who labour. The sentiments of our modern society may be reduced to three: pride, sensuality, and weariness of life. These three sentiments and their ramifications constitute almost entirely the subject of the art of the wealthy."

It infects the world, perverts the people, propagates sexual depravity, and has become the worst obstacle to the realisation of human happiness. It is also devoid of real beauty, unnatural and insincere; an affected, fabricated, cerebral art.

In the face of this He of the æsthetics, this pastime of the rich, let us raise the banner of the living, human art: the art which unites the men of all classes and all nations. The past offers us glorious examples of such art.

"The majority of mankind has always understood and loved that which we consider the highest art: the epic of Genesis, the parables of the Gospel, the legends, tales, and songs of the people."

The greatest art is that which expresses the religious conscience of the period. By this Tolstoy does not mean the teaching of the Church. "Every society has a religious conception of life; it is the ideal of the greatest happiness towards which that society tends." All are to a certain extent aware of this tendency; a few pioneers express it clearly.

"A religious conscience always exists. It is the bed in which the river flows."

The religious consciousness of our epoch is the aspiration toward happiness as realised by the fraternity of mankind. There is no true art but that which strives for this union. The highest art is that which accomplishes it directly by the power of love; but there is another art which participates in the same task, by attacking, with the weapons of scorn and indignation, all that opposes this fraternity. Such are the novels of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, and the paintings of Millet. But even though it fail to attain these heights, all art which represents daily life with sympathy and truth brings men nearer together. Such is Don Quixote: such are the plays of Molière. It is true that such art as the latter is continually sinning by its too minute realism and by the poverty of its subjects "when compared with ancient models, such as the sublime history of Joseph." The excessive minuteness of detail is detrimental to such works, which for that reason cannot become universal.

"Modern works of art are spoiled by a realism which might more justly be called the provincialism of art."

Thus Tolstoy unhesitatingly condemns the principle of his own genius. What does it signify to him that he should sacrifice himself to the future—and that nothing of his work should remain?

"The art of the future will not be a development of the art of the present: it will be founded upon other bases. It will no longer be the property of a caste. Art is not a trade or profession: it is the expression of real feelings. Now the artist can only experience real feelings when he refrains from isolating himself; when he lives the life natural to man. For this reason the man who is sheltered from life is in the worst possible conditions for creative work."

In the future "artists will all be endowed." Artistic activity will be made accessible to all "by the introduction into the elementary schools of instruction in music and painting, which will be taught to the child simultaneously with the first principles of grammar." For the rest, art will no longer call for a complicated technique, as at present; it will move in the direction of simplicity, clearness, and conciseness, which are the marks of sane and classic art, and of Homeric art.[13] How pleasant it will be to translate universal sentiments into the pure lives of this art of the future! To write a tale or a song, to design a picture for millions of beings, is a matter of much greater importance—and of much greater difficulty—than writing a novel or a symphony. It is an immense and almost virgin province. Thanks to such works men will learn to appreciate the happiness of brotherly union.

"Art must suppress violence, and only art can do so. Its mission is to bring about the Kingdom of God, that is to say. of Love."[14]

Which of us would not endorse these generous words? And who can fail to see that Tolstoy's conception is fundamentally fruitful and vital, in spite of its Utopianism and a touch of puerility? It is true that our art as a whole is only the expression of a caste, which is itself subdivided not only by the fact of nationality, but in each country also into narrow and hostile clans. There is not a single artist in Europe who realises in his own personality the union of parties and of races. The most universal mind of our time was that of Tolstoy himself. In him men of all nations and all classes have attained fraternity; and those who have tasted the virile joy of this capacious love can no longer be satisfied by the shreds and fragments of the vast human soul which are offered by the art of the European cliques.

  1. What shall we do? p. 378-9.
  2. In time he even came to justify suffering—not only personal suffering, but the sufferings of others. "For the assuagement of the sufferings of others is the essence of the rational life. How then should the object of labour be an object of suffering for the labourer? It is as though the labourer were to say that an untilled field is a grief to him." (Life, chap, xxxiv.-xxxv.)
  3. February 23, 1860. Further Letters, pp. 19-20. It was for this reason that the "melancholy and dyspeptic" art of Tourgenev displeased him.
  4. This letter (October 4, 1887) has been printed in the Cahiers de la Quinzaine, 1902, and in the Further Letters (Correspondance inédite), 1907. What is Art? appeared in 1897-98; but Tolstoy had been pondering the matter for more than fourteen years.
  5. I shall return to this matter when speaking of the Kreutzen Sonata.
  6. His intolerance became aggravated after 1886. In What shall we do? he did not as yet dare to lay hands on Beethoven or on Shakespeare. Moreover, he reproached contemporary artists for daring to invoke their names. "The activity of a Galileo, a Shakespeare, a Beethoven has nothing in common with that of a Tyndall, a Victor Hugo, or a Wagner; just as the Holy Father would deny all relationship with the Orthodox popes" (What shall we do?)
  7. For that matter, he wished to leave before the end of the first act. "For me the question was settled. I had no more doubt. There was nothing to be expected of an author capable of imagining scenes like these. One could affirm beforehand that he could never write anything that was not evil."
  8. In order to make a selection from the French poets of the new schools he conceived the admirable idea of "copying, in each volume, the verses printed on page 28!"
  9. Shakespeare, 1903. The book was written on the occasion of an article by Ernest Crosby upon Shakespeare and the Working Classes.
  10. "Here was one of those incidents which often occur, without attracting the attention of any one, and without interesting—I do not say the world—but even the French military world." And further on: "It was not until some years had passed that men awoke from their hypnosis, and understood that they could not possibly know whether Dreyfus were guilty or not, and that each of them had other interests more important and more immediate than the Affaire Dreyfus." (Shakespeare.)
  11. "King Lear is a very poor drama, very carelessly constructed, which can inspire nothing but weariness and disgust."—Othello, for which Tolstoy evinces a certain sympathy, doubtless because the work is in harmony with his ideas of that time concerning marriage and jealousy, "while the least wretched of Shakespeare's plays, is only a tissue of emphatic words." Hamlet has no character at all: "he is the author's phonograph, who repeats all his ideas in a string." As for The Tempest, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida, &c., Tolstoy only mentions them on account of their "ineptitude."

    The only character of Shakespeare's whom he finds natural is Falstaff, "precisely because here the tongue of Shakespeare, full of frigid pleasantries and inept puns, is in harmony with the false, vain, debauched character of this repulsive drunkard."

    Tolstoy had not always been of this opinion. He read Shakespeare with pleasure between 1860 and 1870, especially at the time when he contemplated writing a historical play about the figure of Peter the Great. In his notes for 1869 we find that he even takes Hamlet as his model and his guide. Having mentioned his completed works, and comparing War and Peace to the Homeric ideal, he adds:

    "Hamlet and my future works; the poetry of the romance-writer in the depicting of character."

  12. He classes his own "works of imagination" in the category of "harmful art." (What is Art?) From this condemnation he does not except his own plays, "devoid of that religious conception which must form the basis of the drama of the future."
  13. As early as 1873 Tolstoy had written: "Think what you will, but in such a fashion that every word may be understood by every one. One cannot write anything bad in a perfectly clear and simple language. What is iSmmoral will appear so false if clearly expressed that it will assuredly be deleted. If a writer seriously wishes to speak to the people, he has only to force himself to be comprehensible. When not a word arrests the reader's attention the work is good. If he cannot relate what he has read the work is worthless."
  14. This ideal of brotherhood and union among men is by no means, to Tolstoy's mind, the limit of human activity; his insatiable mind conceives an unknown ideal, above and beyond that of love:
    "Science will perhaps one day offer as the basis of art a much higher ideal, and art will realise it."