Life of Tolstoy/Chapter XVIII

Life of Tolstoy by Romain Rolland, translated by Bernard Miall
Chapter XVIII. Conclusion



The struggle was ended; the struggle that had lasted for eighty-two years, whose battlefield was this life of ours. A tragic and glorious mellay, in which all the forces of life took part; all the vices and all the virtues.—All the vices excepting one: untruth, which he pursued incessantly, tracking it into its last resort and refuge.

In the beginning intoxicated liberty, the conflict of passions in the stormy darkness, illuminated from time to time by dazzling flashes of light—crises of love and ecstasy and visions of the Eternal. Years of the Caucasus, of Sebastopol; years of tumultuous and restless youth. Then the great peace of the first years of marriage. The happiness of love, of art, of nature—War and Peace. The broad daylight of genius, which bathed the whole human horizon, and the spectacle of those struggles which for the soul of the artist were already things of the past. He dominated them, was master of them, and already they were not enough. Like Prince Andrei, his eyes were turned towards the vast skies which shone above the battlefield. It was this sky that attracted him:

“There are men with powerful wings whom pleasure leads to alight in the midst of the crowd, when their pinions are broken; such, for instance, am I. Then they beat their broken wings; they launch themselves desperately, but fall anew. The wings will mend. I shall fly high. May God help me!”[1]

These words were written in the midst of a terrible spiritual tempest, of which the Confessions are the memory and echo. More than once was Tolstoy thrown to earth, his opinions shattered. But he always persevered. He started afresh. We see him hovering in “the vast, profound heavens,” with his two great wings, of which one is reason and the other faith. But he does not find the peace he looked for. Heaven is not without us, but within us. Tolstoy fills it with the tempest of his passions. There he perceives the apostles of renunciation, and he brings to renunciation the same ardour that he brought to life. But it is always life that he strains to him, with the violence of a lover. He is “maddened with life.” He is “intoxicated with life.” He cannot live without this madness.[2] He is drunk at once with happiness and with unhappiness, with death and with immortality.[3] His renunciation of individual life is only a cry of exalted passion towards the eternal life. The peace which he finds, the peace of the soul which he invokes, is not the peace of death. It is rather the calm of those burning worlds which sail by the forces of gravity through the infinite spaces. With him anger is calm,[4] and the calm is blazing. Faith has given him new weapons with which to wage, even more implacably, unceasing war upon the lies of modern society. He no longer confines himself to a few types of romance; he attacks all the great idols: the hypocrisies of religion, the State, science, art, liberalism, socialism, popular education, benevolence, pacificism.[5] He strikes at all, delivers his desperate attacks upon all.

From time to time the world has sight of these great rebellious spirits, who, like John the Forerunner, hurl anathemas against a corrupted civilisation. The last of these was Rousseau. By his love of nature,[6] by his hatred of modern society, by his jealous independence, by his fervent adoration of the Gospel and for Christian morals, Rousseau is a precursor of Tolstoy, who says of him:

“Pages like this go to my heart; I feel that I should have written them.”[7]

But what a difference between the two minds, and how much more purely Christian is Tolstoy’s! What a lack of humility, what Pharisee-like arrogance, in this insolent cry from the Confessions of the Genevese:

“Eternal Being! Let a single man tell me, if he dare: I was better than that man!”

Or in this defiance of the world:

“I say it loudly and fearlessly: whosoever could believe me a dishonest man is himself a man to be suppressed.”

Tolstoy wept tears of blood over the “crimes” of his past life:

“I suffer the pangs of hell. I recall all my past baseness, and these memories do not leave me; they poison my life. Usually men regret that they cannot remember after death. What happiness if it should be so! What suffering it would mean if, in that other life, I were to recall all the evil I have done down here!”[8]

Tolstoy was not the man to write his confessions, as did Rousseau, because, as the latter said, “feeling that the good exceeded the evil it was in my interest to tell everything.”[9] Tolstoy, after having made the attempt, decided not to write his Memoirs; the pen fell from his hands; he did not wish to be an object of offence and scandal to those who would read it.

“People would say: There, then, is the man whom many set so high! And what a shameful fellow he was! Then with us mere mortals it is God who ordains us to be shameful.”[10]

Never did Rousseau know the Christian faith, the fine modesty, and the humility that produced the ineffable candour of the aged Tolstoy. Behind Rousseau we see the Rome of Calvin. In Tolstoy we see the pilgrims, the innocents, whose tears and naïve confessions had touched him as a child.

But beyond and above the struggle with the world, which was common to him and to Rousseau, another kind of warfare filled the last thirty years of Tolstoy’s life; a magnificent warfare between the highest powers of his mind: Truth and Love.

Truth—“that look which goes straight to the heart,” the penetrating light of “those grey eyes which pierce you through”—Truth was his earliest faith, and the empress of his art.

“The heroine of my writings, she whom I love with all the forces of my being, she who always was, is, and will be beautiful, is Truth.”[11]

The truth alone escaped shipwreck after the death of his brother.[12] The truth, the pivot of his life, the rock in the midst of an ocean.

But very soon the “horrible truth”[13] was no longer enough for him. Love had supplanted it. It was the living spring of his childhood; “the natural state of his soul”[14] When the moral crisis of 1880 came he never relinquished the truth; he made way for love.[15]

Love is “the basis of energy.”[16] Love is the “reason of life; the only reason, with beauty.”[17] Love is the essence of Tolstoy ripened by life, of the author of War and Peace and the Letter to the Holy Synod.[18]

This interpenetration of the truth by love makes the unique value of the masterpieces he wrote in the middle part of his life—nel mezzo del cammin—and distinguishes his realism from the realism of Flaubert. The latter places his faith in refraining from loving his characters. Great as he may be, he lacks the Fiat lux! The light of the sun is not enough: we must have the light of the heart. The realism of Tolstoy is incarnate in each of his creatures, and seeing them with their own eyes he finds in the vilest reasons for loving them and for making us feel the chain of brotherhood which unites us to all.[19] By love he penetrates to the roots of life.

But this union is a difficult one to maintain. There are hours in which the spectacle of life and its suffering are so bitter that they appear an affront to love, and in order to save it, and to save his faith, a man must withdraw to such a height above the world that faith is in danger of losing truth as well. What shall he do, moreover, who has received at the hands of fate the fatal, magnificent gift of seeing the truth—the gift of being unable to escape from seeing it? Who shall say what Tolstoy suffered from the continual discord of his latter years—the discord between his unpitying vision, which saw the horror of reality, and his impassioned heart, which continued to expect love and to affirm it?

We have all known these tragic conflicts. How often have we had to face the alternative—not to see, or to hate! And how often does an artist—an artist worthy of the name, a writer who knows the terrible, magnificent power of the written word—feel himself weighed down by anguish as he writes the truth![20] This truth, sane and virile, necessary in the midst of modern lies, this vital truth seems to him as the air we breathe… But then we perceive that this air is more than the lungs of many can bear. It is too strong for the many beings enfeebled by civilisation; too strong for those who are weak simply in the kindness of their hearts. Are we to take no account of this, and plunge them implacably into the truth that kills them? Is there not above all a truth which, as Tolstoy says, “is open to love”? Or is the artist to soothe mankind with consoling lies, as Peer Gynt, with his tales, soothes his old dying mother? Society is always face to face with this dilemma: the truth, or love. It resolves it in general by sacrificing both.

Tolstoy has never betrayed either of his two faiths. In the works of his maturity love is the torch of truth. In the works of his later years it is a light shining on high, a ray of mercy which falls upon life, but does not mingle with it. We have seen this in Resurrection, wherein faith dominates the reality, but remains external to it. The people, whom Tolstoy depicts as commonplace and mean when he regards the isolated figures that compose it, takes on a divine sanctity so soon as he considers it in the abstract.[21]

In his everyday life appears the same discord as in his art, but the contrast is even more cruel. It was in vain that he knew what love required of him; he acted otherwise; he lived not according to God but according to the world. And love itself: how was he to behave with regard to love? How distinguish between its many aspects, its contradictory orders? Was love of family to come first, or love of all humanity? To his last day he was perplexed by these alternatives.

What was the solution? He did not find it. Let us leave the self-sufficient, the coldly intellectual, to judge him with disdain. They, to be sure, have found the truth; they hold it with assurance. For them, Tolstoy was a sentimentalist, a weakling, who could only be of use as a warning. Certainly he is not an example that they can follow: they are not sufficiently alive. Tolstoy did not belong to the self-satisfied elect; he was of no Church; of no sect; he was no more a Scribe, to borrow his terms, than a Pharisee of this faith or that. He was the highest type of the free Christian, who strives all his life long towards an ideal that is always more remote.[22]

Tolstoy does not speak to the privileged, the enfranchised of the world of thought; he speaks to ordinary men—hominibus bonae voluntatis. He is our conscience. He says what we all think, we average people, and what we all fear to read in ourselves. He is not a master full of pride: one of those haughty geniuses who are throned above humanity upon their art and their intelligence. He is—as he loved to style himself in his letters, by that most beautiful of titles, the most pleasant of all—“our brother.”

  1. Journal, dated October 28, 1879. Here is the entire passage:

    “There are in this world heavy folk, without wings. They struggle down below. There are strong men among them: as Napoleon. He leaves terrible traces among humanity. He sows discord.—There are men who let their wings grow, slowly launch themselves, and hover: the monks. There are light fliers, who easily mount and fall: the worthy idealists. There are men with powerful wings… There are the celestial ones, who out of their love of men descend to earth and fold their wings, and teach others how to fly. Then, when they are no longer needed, they re-ascend: as did Christ.”

  2. “One can live only while one is drunken with life.” (Confessions, 1879). “I am mad with living… It is summer, the delicious summer. This year I have struggled for a long time; but the beauty of nature has conquered me. I rejoice in life.” (Letter to Fet, July, 1880.) These lines were written at the height of the religious crisis.
  3. In his Journal, dated May 1, 1863: “The thought of death.” … “I desire and love immortality.”
  4. “I was intoxicated with that boiling anger and indignation which I love to feel, which I excite even when I feel it naturally, because it acts upon me in such a way as to calm me, and gives me, at least for a few moments, an extraordinary elasticity, and the full fire and energy of all the physical and moral capacities.” (Diary of Prince D. Nekhludov, Lucerne, 1857.)
  5. His article on War, written on the occasion of the Universal Peace Congress in London in 1891, is a rude satire on the peacemakers who believe in international arbitration:

    “This is the story of the bird which is caught after a pinch of salt has been put on his tail. It is quite as easy to catch him without it. They laugh at us who speak of arbitration and disarmament by consent of the Powers. Mere verbiage, this! Naturally the Governments approve: worthy apostles! They know very well that their approval will never prevent their doing as they will.” (Cruel Pleasures.)

  6. Nature was always "the best friend" of Tolstoy, as he loved to say: “A friend is good; but he will die, or he will go abroad, and one cannot follow him; while Nature, to which one may be united by an act of purchase or by inheritance, is better. Nature to me is cold and exacting, repulses me and hinders me; yet Nature is a friend whom we keep until death, and into whom we shall enter when we die.” (Letter to Fet, May 19, 1861. Further Letters.) He shared in the life of nature; he was born again in the spring. “March and April are my best months for work.” Towards the end of autumn he became more torpid. “To me it is the most dead of all the seasons; I do not think; I do not write; I feel agreeably stupid.” (To Fet, October, 1869.) But the Nature that spoke so intimately to his heart was that of his own home, Yasnaya Polyana. Although he wrote some very charming notes upon the Lake of Geneva when travelling in Switzerland, and especially on the Clarens district, whither the memory of Rousseau attracted him, he felt himself a stranger amid the Swiss landscape; and the ties of his native land appeared more closely drawn and sweeter: “I love Nature when she surrounds me on every side, when on every hand the warm air envelopes me which extends through the infinite distance; when the very same lush grasses that I have crushed in throwing myself on the ground make the verdure of the infinite meadows; when the same leaves which, shaken by the wind, throw the shadow on my face, make the sombre blue of the distant forest; when the very air I breathe makes the light-blue background of the infinite sky; when not I alone am delighting in nature; when around me whirl and hum millions of insects and the birds are singing. The greatest delight in nature is when I feel myself making a part of all. Here (in Switzerland) the infinite distance is beautiful, but I have nothing in common with it.” (May, 1851.)
  7. Conversations with M. Paul Boyer (Le Temps, August 28, 1901).

    The similarity is really very striking at times, and might well deceive one. Take the profession of faith of the dying Julie:

    “I could not say that I believed what it was impossible for me to believe, and I have always believed what I said I believed. This was as much as rested with me.”

    Compare Tolstoy’s letter to the Holy Synod:

    “It may be that my beliefs are embarrassing or displeasing. It is not within my power to change them, just as it is not in my power to change my body. I cannot believe anything but what I believe, at this hour when I am preparing to return to that God from whom I came.”

    Or this passage from the Réponse à Christophe de Beaumont, which seems pure Tolstoy:

    “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. My Master has told me that he who loves his brother accomplishes the law.”

    Or again:

    “The whole of the Lord’s Prayer is expressed in these words: ‘Thy Will be done!’” (Troisième lettre de la Montague.) Compare with:

    “I am replacing all my prayers with the Pater Noster. All the requests I can make of God are expressed with greater moral elevation by these words: ‘Thy Will be done!’” (Tolstoy’s Journal, in the Caucasus, 1852–3.)

    The similarity of thought is no less striking in the province of art:

    “The first rule of the art of writing,” said Rousseau, “is to speak plainly and to express one’s thought exactly.”

    And Tolstoy:

    “Think what you will, but in such a manner that every word may be understood by all. One cannot write anything bad in perfectly plain language.”

    I have demonstrated elsewhere that the satirical descriptions of the Paris Opera in the Nouvelle Héloise have much in common with Tolstoy’s criticisms in What is Art?

  8. Journal, January 6, 1903.
  9. Quatrième Promenade.
  10. Letter to Birukov.
  11. Sebastopol in May, 1853.
  12. “The truth… the only thing that has been left me of my moral conceptions, the sole thing that I shall still fulfil” (October 17, 1860.)
  13. Ibid.
  14. “The love of men is the natural state of the soul, and we do not observe it.” (Journal, while he was a student at Kazan.)
  15. “The truth will make way for love.” (Confessions.)
  16. “‘You are always talking of energy? But the basis of energy is love,’ said Anna, ‘and love does not come at will.’” (Anna Karenin.)
  17. “Beauty and love, those two sole reasons for human existence.” (War and Peace.)
  18. “I believe in God, who for me is Love” (To the Holy Synod, 1901.)

    “‘Yes, love!… Not selfish love, but love as I knew it, for the first time in my life, when I saw my enemy dying at my side, and loved him… It is the very essence of the soul. To love his neighbour, to love his enemies, to love all and each, is to love God in all His manifestations!… To love a creature who is dear to us is human love: to love an enemy is almost divine love!’” (Prince Andrei in War and Peace.)

  19. “The passionate love of the artist for his subject is the soul of art. Without love no work of art is possible.” (Letter of September, 1889.)
  20. “I write books, which is why I know all the evil they do.” … (Letter to P. V. Veriguin, leader of the Doukhobors, 1898. Further Letters.)
  21. See the Russian Proprietor, or see in Confessions, the strongly idealised view of these men, simple, good, content with their lot, living serenely and having the sense of life: or, at the end of the second part of Resurrection, that vision “of a new humanity, a new world,” which appeared to Nekhludov when he met the workers returning from their toil.
  22. “A Christian should not think whether he is morally superior or inferior to others; but he is the better Christian as he travels more rapidly along the road to perfection, whatever may be his position upon it at any particular moment. Thus the stationary virtue of the Pharisee is less Christian than that of the thief, whose soul is moving rapidly towards the ideal, and who repents upon his cross.” (Cruel Pleasures.)