Life of Tolstoy/Chapter XIV



The finest theory finds its value only in the works by which it is exemplified. With Tolstoy theory and creation are always hand in hand, like faith and action. While he was elaborating his critique of art he was producing types of the new art of which he spoke: of two forms of art, one higher and one less exalted, but both “religious” in the most human sense. In one he sought the union of men through love; in the other he waged war upon the world, the enemy of love. It was during this period that he wrote those masterpieces: The Death of Ivan Ilyitch (1884-86), the Popular Tales and Stories (1881-1886), The Power of Darkness (1886), the Kreutzer Sonata (1889), and Master and Servant (1895).[1] At the height and end of this artistic period, like a cathedral with two spires, the one symbolising eternal love and the other the hatred of the world, stands Resurrection (1899).

All these works are distinguished from their predecessors by new artistic qualities. Tolstoy's ideas had suffered a change, not alone in respect of the object of art, but also in respect of its form. In reading What is Art? or Shakespeare we are struck by the principles of art which Tolstoy has enounced in these two books; for these principles are for the most part in contradiction to the greatest of his previous works. "Clearness, simplicity, conciseness," we read in What is Art? Material effects are despised; minute realism is condemned; and in Shakespeare the classic ideal of perfection and proportion is upheld. "Without the feeling of balance no artists could exist." And although in his new work the unregenerate man, with his genius for analysis and his native savagery, is not entirely effaced, some aspects of the latter quality being even emphasised, his art is profoundly modified in some respects: the design is clearer, more vigorously accented; the minds of his characters are epitomised, fore-shortened; the interior drama is intensified, gathered upon itself like a beast of prey about to spring; the emotion has a quality of universality; and is freed of all transitory details of local realism; and finally the diction is rich in illustrations, racy, and smacking of the soil.

His love of the people had long led him to appreciate the beauty of the popular idiom. As a child he had been soothed by the tales of mendicant story-tellers. As a grown man and a famous writer, he experienced an artistic delight in chatting with his peasants.

"These men," he said in later years to M. Paul Boyer,[2] "are masters. Of old, when I used to talk with them, or with the wanderers who, wallet on shoulder, pass through our countryside, I used carefully to note such of their expressions as I heard for the first time; expressions often forgotten by our modern literary dialect, but always good old Russian currency, ringing sound. . . . Yes, the genius of the language lives in these men."

He must have been the more sensitive to such elements of the language in that his mind was not encumbered with literature.[3] Through living far from any city, in the midst of peasants, he came to think a little in the manner of the people. He had the slow dialectic, the common sense which reasons slowly and painfully, step by step, with sudden disconcerting leaps, the mania for repeating any idea when he was once convinced, of repeating it unwearingly and indefinitely, and in the same words.[4]

But these were faults rather than qualities. It was many years before he became aware of the latent genius of the popular tongue; the raciness of its images, its poetic crudity, its wealth of legendary wisdom. Even at the time of writing War and Peace he was already subject to its influence. In March, 1872, he wrote to Strakov:

"I have altered the method of my diction and my writing. The language of the people has sounds to express all that the poet can say, and it is very dear to me. It is the best poetic regulator. If you try to say anything superfluous, too emphatic, or false, the language will not suffer it. Whereas our literary tongue has no skeleton, you may pull it about in every direction, and the result is always something resembling literature."

To the people he owed not only models of style; he owed them many of his inpirations. In 1877 a teller of bylines came to Yasnaya Polyana, and Tolstoy took notes of several of his stories. Of the number was the legend By what do Men live? and The Three Old Men, which became, as we know, two of the finest of the Popular Tales and Legends which Tolstoy published a few years later.[5]

This is a work unique in modern art. It is higher than art: for who, in reading it, thinks of literature? The spirit of the Gospel and the pure love of the brotherhood of man are combined with the smiling geniality of the wisdom of the people. It is full of simplicity, limpidity, and ineffable goodness of heart; and that supernatural radiance which from time to time—so naturally and inevitably—bathes the whole picture; surrounding the old Elias[6] like a halo, or hovering in the cabin of the cobbler Michael; he who, through his skylight on the ground-level, sees the feet of people passing, and whom the Lord visits in the guise of the poor whom the good cobbler has succoured.[7] Sometimes in these tales the parables of the Gospel are mingled with a vague perfume of Oriental legends, of those Thousand and One Nights which Tolstoy had loved since childhood.[8] Sometimes, again, the fantastic light takes on a sinister aspect, lending the tale a terrifying majesty. Such is Pakhom the Peasant,[9] the tale of the man who kills himself in acquiring a great surface of and—all the land which he can encircle by walking for a whole day—and who dies on completing his journey.

"On the hill the starschina, sitting on the ground, watched him as he ran; and he cackled, holding his stomach with both hands. And Pakhom fell.

"'Ah! Well done, my merry fellow! You have won a mighty lot of land!'

"The starschina rose, and threw a mattock to Pakhom's servant.

"'There he is: bury him.'

"The servant was alone. He dug a ditch for Pakhom, just as long as from his feet to his head: two yards, and he buried him."

Nearly all these tales conceal, beneath their poetic envelope, the same evangelical moral of renunciation and pardon.

"Do not avenge thyself upon whosoever shall offend thee.[10]

"Do not resist whosoever shall do the evil.[11]

"Vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord.".[12]

And everywhere, and as the conclusion of all, is love.

Tolstoy, who wished to found an art for all men, achieved universality at the first stroke. Throughout the world his work has met with a success which can never fail, for it is purged of all the perishable elements of art, and nothing is left but the eternal.

The Power of Darkness does not rise to this august simplicity of heart: it does not pretend to do so. It is the reverse side of the picture. On the one hand is the dream of divine love; on the other, the ghastly reality. We may judge, in reading this play, whether Tolstoy's faith and his love of the people ever caused him to idealise the people or betray the truth.

Tolstoy, so awkward in most of his dramatic essays,[13] has here attained to mastery. The characters and the action, are handled with ease; the coxcomb Nikita, the sensual, headstrong passion of Anissia, the cynical good-humour of the old woman, Matrena, who gloats maternally over the adultery of her son, and the sanctity of the old stammering Hakim—God inhabiting a ridiculous body. Then comes the fall of Nikita, weak and without real evil, but fettered by his sin; falling to the depths of crime in spite of his efforts to check himself on the dreadful declivity; but his mother and his wife drag him downward. . . .

"The peasants aren't worth much. . . . But the babas! The women! They are wild animals . . . they are afraid of nothing! . . . Sisters, there are millions of you, all Russians, and you are all as blind as moles. You know nothing, you know nothing! . . . The moujik at least may manage to learn something—in the drink-shop, or who knows where?—in prison, or in the barracks; but the baba—what can she know? She has seen nothing, heard nothing. As she has grown up, so she will die. . . . They are like little blind puppies who go running here and there and ramming their heads against all sorts of filth. . . . They only know their silly songs: 'Ho—o—o! Ho—o—o!' What does it mean? Ho—o—o? They don't know!"[14]

Then comes the terrible scene of the murder of the new-born child. Nikita does not want to kill it. Anissia, who has murdered her husband for him, and whose nerves have ever since been tortured by her crime, becomes ferocious, maddened, and threatens to give him up. She cries:

"At least I shan't be alone any longer! He'll be a murderer too! Let him know what it's like!"

Nikita crushes the child between two boards. In the midst of his crime he flies, terrified; he threatens to kill Anissia and his mother; he sobs, he prays:—

"Little mother, I can't go on!" He thinks he hears the mangled baby crying.

"Where shall I go to be safe?"

It is Shakespearean. Less violent, but still more poignant, is the dialogue of the little girl and the old servant-woman, who, alone in the house, at night, hear and guess at the crime which is being enacted off the stage.

The end is voluntary expiation. Nikita, accompanied by his father, the old Hakim, enters bare-footed, in the midst of a wedding. He kneels, asks pardon of all, and accuses himself of every crime. Old Hakim encourages him, looks upon him with a smile of ecstatic suffering.

"God! Oh, look at him, God!"

The drama gains quite a special artistic flavour by the use of the peasant dialect.

"I ransacked my notebooks in order to write The Power of Darkness," Tolstoy told M. Paul Boyer.

The unexpected images, flowing from the lyrical yet humorous soul of the Russian people, have a swing and a vigour about them beside which images of the more literary quality seem tame and colourless. Tolstoy revelled in them; we feel, in reading the play, that the artist while writing it amused himself by noting these expressions, these turns of thought; the comic side of them by no means escapes him,[15] even while the apostle is mourning amidst the dark places of the human soul.

While he was studying the people, and sending into their darkness a ray of light from his station above them, he was also devoting two tragic romances to the still darker night of the middle classes and the wealthy. At this period the dramatic form was predominant over his ideas of art. The Death of Ivan Ilyitch and The Kreutzer Sonata are both true dramas of the inner soul, of the soul turned upon itself and concentrated upon itself, and in The Kreutzer Sonata it is the hero of the drama himself who unfolds it by narration.

The Death of Ivan Ilyitch (1884-86) has impressed the French public as few Russian works have done. At the beginning of this study I mentioned that I had witnessed the sensation caused by this book among the middle-class readers in the French provinces, a class apparently indifferent to literature and art. I think the explanation lies in the fact that the book represents, with a painful realism, a type of the average, mediocre man; a conscientious functionary, without religion, without ideals, almost without thought; the man who is absorbed in his duties, in his mechanical life, until the hour of his death, when he sees with terror that he has not lived. Ivan Ilyitch is the representative type of the European bourgeoisie of 1880 which reads Zola, goes to hear Bernhardt, and, without holding any faith, is not even irreligious; for it does not take the trouble either to believe or to disbelieve; it simply never thinks of such matters.

In the violence of its attacks, alternately bitter and almost comic, upon the world in general, and marriage in particular, the Death of Ivan Ilyitch was the first of a new series of works; it was the fore-runner of the still more morose and unworldly Kreutzer Sonata and Resurrection. There is a lamentable yet laughable emptiness in this life (as there is in thousands and thousands of lives), with its grotesque ambitions, its wretched gratification of vanity, "always better than spending the evening opposite one's wife"; with its weariness and hatred of the official career; its privileges, and the embitterment which they cause; and its one real pleasure: whist. This ridiculous—life is lost for a cause yet more ridiculous a fall from a ladder, one day when Ivan wished to hang a curtain over the drawing-room window. The lie of life. The lie of sickness. The lie of the well-to-do doctor, who thinks only of himself. The lie of the family, whom illness disgusts. The lie of the wife, who professes devotion, and calculates how she will live when her husband is dead. The universal lie, against which is set only the truth of a compassionate servant, who does not try to conceal his condition from the dying man, and helps him out of brotherly kindness. Ivan Ilyitch, "full of an infinite pity for himself," weeps over his loneliness and the egoism of men; he suffers horribly, until the day on which he perceives that his past life has been a lie, and that he can repair that lie. Immediately all becomes clear—an hour before his death. He no longer thinks of himself; he thinks of his family; he pities them; he must die and rid them of himself.

"Where are you, Pain? Here. . . . Well, you have only to persist.—And Death, where is Death? He did not find it. In place of Death he saw only a ray of light. 'It is over,' said some one.—He heard these words and repeated them to himself. 'Death no longer exists,' he told himself."

In The Kreutzer Sonata there is not even this "ray of light." It is a ferocious piece of work; Tolstoy lashes out at society like a wounded beast avenging itself for what it has suffered. We must not forget that the story is the confession of a human brute, who has taken life, and who is poisoned by the virus of jealousy. Tolstoy hides himself behind his leading character. We certainly find his own ideas, though heightened in tone, in these furious invectives against hypocrisy in general; the hypocrisy of the education of women, of love, of marriage—marriage, that "domestic prostitution"; the hypocrisy of the world, of science, of physicians those "sowers of crime." But the hero of the book impels the writer into an extraordinary brutality of expression, a violent rush of carnal images—all the excesses of a luxurious body—and, by reaction into all the fury of asceticism, the fear and hatred of the passions; maledictions hurled in the face of life by a monk of the Middle Ages, consumed with sensuality. Having written the book Tolstoy himself was alarmed:

"I never foresaw at all," he said in the Epilogue to the Kreutzer Sonata"[16] that in writing this book a rigorous logic would bring me where I have arrived. My own conclusions terrified me at first, and I was tempted to reject them; but it was impossible for me to refuse to hear the voice of my reason and my conscience."

He found himself repeating, in calmer tones, the savage outcry of the murderer Posdnicheff against love and marriage.

"He who regards woman—above all his wife—with sensuality, already commits adultery with her."

"When the passions have disappeared, then humanity will no longer have a reason for being; it will have executed the Law; the union of mankind will be accomplished."

He will prove, on the authority of the Gospel according to Matthew, that "the Christian ideal is not marriage; that Christian marriage cannot exist; that marriage, from the Christian point of view, is an element not of progress but of downfall; that love, with all that precedes and follows it, is an obstacle to the true human ideal."[17]

But he had never formulated these ideas clearly, even to himself, until they fell from the lips of Posdnicheff. As often happens with great creative artists, the work carried the writer with it; the artist outstripped the thinker; a process by which art lost nothing. In the power of its effects, in passionate concentration, in the brutal vividness of its impressions, and in fullness and maturity of form, nothing Tolstoy has written equals the Kreutzer Sonata.

I have not explained the title. To be exact, it is erroneous; it gives a false idea of the book, in which music plays only an accessory part. Suppress the sonata, and all would be the same. Tolstoy made the mistake of confusing two matters, both of which he took deeply to heart: the depraving power of music, and the depraving power of love. The demon of music should have been dealt with in a separate volume; the space which Tolstoy has accorded it in the work in question is insufficient to prove the danger which he wishes to denounce. I must emphasise this matter somewhat; for I do not think the attitude of Tolstoy in respect of music has ever been fully understood.

He was far from disliking music. Only the things one loves are feared as Tolstoy feared the power of music. Remember what a place the memories of music hold in Childhood, and above all in Family Happiness, in which the whole cycle of love, from its springtide to its autumn, is unrolled to the phrases of the Sonata quasi una fantasia of Beethoven. Remember, too, the wonderful symphonies which Nekhludov[18] hears in fancy, and the little Petia, the night before his death.[19] Although Tolstoy had studied music very indifferently, it used to move him to tears, and at certain periods of his life he passionately abandoned himself to its influence. In 1858 he founded a Musical Society, which in later years became the Moscow Conservatoire.

"He was extremely fond of music," writes his brother-in-law, S. A. Bers. "He used to play the piano, and was fond of the classic masters. He would often sit down to the piano before beginning his work.[20] Probably he found inspiration in so doing. He always used to accompany my youngest sister, whose voice he loved. I have noticed that the sensations which the music evoked in him were accompanied by a slight pallor and an imperceptible grimace, which seemed expressive of fear."[21]

It was really fear that he felt; fear inspired by the stress of those unknown forces which shook him to the roots of his being. In the world of music he felt his moral will, his reason, and all the reality of life dissolve. Let us turn to the scene, in the first volume of War and Peace, in which Nikolas Rostoff, who has just lost heavily at cards, returns in a state of despair. He hears his sister Natasha singing. He forgets everything.

"He waited with a feverish impatience for the note which was about to follow, and for a moment the only thing in all the world was the melody in three-quarter-time: Oh! mio crudele affetto!

"'What an absurd existence ours is!' he thought. 'Unhappiness, money, hatred, honour—they are all nothing. . . . Here is the truth, the reality! . . . Natasha, my little dove! . . . Let us see if she is going to reach that B? . . . She has reached it, thank God!'

"And to emphasise the B he sung the third octave below it in accompaniment.

"'How splendid! I have sung it too,' he cried, and the vibration of that octave awoke in his soul all that was best and purest. Beside this superhuman sensation, what were his losses at play and his word of honour? . . . Follies! One could kill, steal, and yet be happy!"

Nikolas neither kills nor steals, and for him music is only a passing influence; but Natasha is on the point of losing her self-control. After an evening at the Opera, "in that strange world which is intoxicated and perverted by art, and a thousand leagues from the real world; a world in which good and evil, the extravagant and the reasonable, are mingled and confounded," she listened to a declaration from Anatol Kouraguin, who was madly in love with her, and she consented to elope with him.

The older Tolstoy grew, the more he feared music.[22] A man whose influence over him was considerable—Auerbach, whom in 1860 he had met in Dresden—had doubtless a hand in fortifying his prejudices. "He spoke of music as of a Pflichtloser Genuss (a profligate amusement). According to him, it was an incentive to depravity."[23]

Among so many musicians, some of whose music is at least amoral, why, asks M. Camille Bellaigue,[24] should Tolstoy have chosen Beethoven, the purest, the chastest of all?—Because he was the most powerful. Tolstoy had early loved his music, and he always loved it. His remotest memories of Childhood were connected with the Sonata Pathétique; and when Nekhludov in Resurrection heard the andante of the Symphony in C Minor, he could hardly restrain his tears: "he was filled with tenderness for himself and for those he loved." Yet we have seen with what animosity Tolstoy referred in his What is Art?[25] to the "unhealthy works of the deaf Beethoven"; and even in 1876 the fury with which "he delighted in demolishing Beethoven and in casting doubts upon his genius" had revolted Tchaikowsky and had diminished his admiration for Tolstoy. The Kreutzer Sonata enables us to plumb the depths of this passionate injustice. What does Tolstoy complain of in Beethoven? Of his power. He reminds us of Goethe; listening to the Symphony in C Minor, he is overwhelmed by it, and angrily turns upon the imperious master who subjects him against his will.[26]

"This music," says Tolstoy, "transports me immediately into the state of mind which was the composer's when he wrote it. . . . Music ought to be a State matter, as in China. We ought not to let Tom, Dick, and Harry wield so frightful a hypnotic power. . . . As for these things (the first Presto of the Sonata) one ought only to be allowed to play them under particular and important circumstances. . . ."

Yet we see, after this revolt, how he surrenders to the power of Beethoven, and how this power is by his own admission a pure and ennobling force. On hearing the piece in question, Posdnicheff falls into an indefinable state of mind, which he cannot analyse, but of which the consciousness fills him with delight. "There is no longer room for jealousy." The wife is not less transfigured. She has, while she plays, "a majestic severity of expression"; and "a faint smile, compassionate and happy, after she has finished." What is there perverse in all this? This: that the spirit is enslaved: that the unknown power of sound can do with him what it wills; destroy him, if it please.

This is true, but Tolstoy forgets one thing: the mediocrity and the lack of vitality in the majority of those who make or listen to music. Music cannot be dangerous to those who feel nothing. The spectacle of the Opera-house during a performance of Salomé is quite enough to assure us of the immunity of the public to the more perverse emotions evoked by the art of sounds. To be in danger one must be, like Tolstoy, abounding in life. The truth is that in spite of his injustice where Beethoven was concerned, Tolstoy felt his music more deeply than do the majority of those who now exalt him. He, at least, knew the frenzied passions, the savage violence, which mutter through the art of the "deaf old man" but of which the orchestras and the virtuosi of to-day are innocent. Beethoven would perhaps have preferred the hatred of Tolstoy to the enthusiasm of his admirers.

  1. To these years was attributed, in respect of the date of publication, and perhaps of completion, a work which was really written during the happy period of betrothal and the first years of marriage: the beautiful story of a horse, Kholstomier (1861-86). Tolstoy speaks of it in 1833 in a letter to Fet (Further Correspondence). The art of the commencement, with its fine landscapes, its penetrating psychological sympathy, its humour, and its youth, has much in common with the art of Tolstoy's maturity (Family Happiness, War and Peace). The macabre quality of the end, and the last pages comparing the body of the old horse with that of his master, are full of a realistic brutality characteristic of the years after 1880.
  2. Le Temps, August 29, 1901.
  3. "As for style," his friend Droujinin told him in 1856, "You are extremely illiterate; sometimes like an innovator and a great poet; sometimes like an officer writing to a comrade. All that you write with real pleasure is admirable. The moment you become indifferent your style becomes involved and is horrible." (Vie et Œuvre.)
  4. Vie et Œuvre.—During the summer of 1879 Tolstoy lived on terms of great intimacy with the peasants.
  5. In the notes of his readings, between 1860 and 1870, Tolstoy wrote: "The bylines—very greatly impressed."
  6. The Two Old Men (1885).
  7. Where Love is, there God is also (1885).
  8. By what do Men live? (1881); The Three Old Men (1884); The Godchild (1886).
  9. This tale bears the sub-title, Does a Man need much Soil? (1886).
  10. The Fire that flames does not go out (1885).
  11. The Wax Taper (1885); The Story of Ivan the Idiot.
  12. The Godson (1886).
  13. The love of the theatre came to him somewhat late in life. It was a discovery of his, and he made this discovery during the winter of 1869–70. According to his custom, he was at once afire with enthusiasm.

    "All this winter I have busied myself exclusively with the drama; and, as always happens to men who have never, up to the age of forty, thought about such or such a subject, when they suddenly turn their attention to this neglected subject, it seems to them that they perceive a number of new and wonderful things. . . . I have read Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, Gogol, and Molière. . . . I want to read Sophocles and Euripides. . . . I have kept my bed a long time, being unwell—and when I am unwell a host of comic or dramatic characters begin to struggle for life within me . . . and they do it with much success."—Letters to Fet, February 17–21, 1870 (Further Letters).

  14. A variant of Act iv.
  15. The creation of this heart-breaking drama must have been a strain. He writes to Teneromo: "I am well and happy. I have been working all this time at my play. It is finished." (January, 1887. Further Letters.)
  16. A French translation of this Epilogue (Postface), by M. Halpérine-Kaminsky was published in the volume Plaisirs vicieux, under the title Des relations entrc les sexes.
  17. "Let us take notice that Tolstoy was never guilty of the simplicity of believing that the ideal of celibacy and absolute chastity was capable of realisation by humanity as we know it. But according to him an ideal is incapable of realisation by its very definition: it is an appeal to the heroic energies of the soul.
    "The conception of the Christian ideal, which is the union of all living creatures in brotherly love, is irreconcilable with the conduct of life, which demands a continual effort towards an ideal which is inaccessible, but does not expect that it will ever be attained."
  18. At the end of A Russian Proprietor.
  19. War and Peace.—I do not mention Albert (1857), the story of a musician of genius; the book is weak in the extreme.
  20. The period spoken of is 1876–77.
  21. S. A. Bers, Memories of Tolstoy.
  22. But he never ceased to love it. One of the friends of his later years was a musician, Goldenreiser, who spent the summer of 1910 near Yasnaya. Almost every day he came to play to Tolstoy during the latter's last illness. (Journal des Débats, November 18, 1910.)
  23. Letter of April 21, 1861.
  24. Tolstoï et la musique (Le Gaulois, January 4, 1911).
  25. Not only to the later works of Beethoven. Even in the case of those earlier works which he consented to regard as "artistic," Tolstoy complained of "their artificial form."—In a letter to Tchaikowsky he contrasts with Mozart and Haydn "the artificial manner of Beethoven, Schubert, and Berlioz, which produces calculated effects."
  26. Instance the scene described by M. Paul Boyer: "Tolstoy sat down to play Chopin. At the end of the fourth Ballade, his eyes filled with tears. 'Ah, the animal!' he cried. And suddenly he rose and went out." (Le Temps, November 2, 1902.)