The 195th anniversary of the birth of Leo Tolstoy
Pavel Basinsky, twice Big Book Award winner
Leo Tolstoy did not invent a tolstovka sweatshirt, did not walk barefoot and did not pose for Ilya Repin with a plow… Along with such reader’s misconceptions, there are other hardly harmless myths about the great writer and thinker.
Pridefulness was the main of Tolstoy’s inner qualities; it manifested itself both in his philosophical activity and in everyday life.
– I don’t know what, in fact, is Tolstoy’s pridefulness. Is it that he was looking for his truth and did not stop along the way? Many people don’t like it. Many believe that one must stick to some obviously existing truth and serve it. But Tolstoy couldn’t do that. If this is his pridefulness, let’s call it pridefulness, but that’s what makes him interesting.
As for everyday life, he was an extremely delicate person, he loved his children, raised them, taught them Greek, mathematics, astronomy, took care of their physical culture. When they were very young, he took them with him to the Samara province, so that they could feel nature and learn to love it.
But you need to understand that Tolstoy, especially in the second half of his life, was so preoccupied with a mass of affairs, both creative and philosophical, correspondence and many other tasks, that he could not commit himself entirely to his family. Moreover, that would even be wrong. Therefore, there was a certain conflict here, and this is a conflict among a creative person and his family members, but pridefulness had nothing to do with it. In addition, Tolstoy did not solve the problem in the worst way.
Tolstoy is responsible for the fact that a revolution happened in Russia. Lenin’s article “Leo Tolstoy as a Mirror of the Russian Revolution” also contributed to strengthening this opinion.
– Yes, in this sense, Lenin, who organised the October Revolution, successfully rolled over on Tolstoy. I always say that everyone was responsible for the revolution: the intelligentsia, the Church which was not reformed and stayed in the position of the dominant ideology, the tsar and his inner circle, the nobility who ceased to serve the monarchy and dealt with some private problems of their own. For example, the nobles sold grain and left to lose this money in Baden-Baden.
So you need to understand this, everyone has completely missed Russia, including Tolstoy as a thinker of his time, as a person who was listened to. I absolutely disagree with his denial of the state, his denial of the army.
But don’t put all the blame on Tolstoy. Tolstoy, by the way, was against the revolution and did a lot to soften the morals of his time, to return people to morality, to Christianity.
Leo Tolstoy was an unbeliever, he completely denied faith and led people in this sense.
– Tolstoy was offended most of all when they said that he turned people away from faith. He argued that the main thing he was talking about was that there was no life outside of faith in God. Another thing is that Tolstoy denied the church form of faith. However, there are many people who believe, but they have problems with the Church. And they find the truth in Tolstoy’s research. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
In addition, many people (and this is a common phenomenon), starting to get carried away by Tolstoy, then come to the Church. This happened especially often in Soviet times. Even earlier, many Tolstoyans then turned towards the Church.
Tolstoy the writer and Tolstoy the thinker are two different figures. And Tolstoy in the last years of his life got exhausted as a great writer, having taken up mainly philosophical questions.
– I categorically deny that opinion. Already in War and Peace, and even in earlier works, Tolstoy appears as a philosopher. And many of his journalistic things are written with artistic persuasiveness. It is worth reading, for example, his response to the Synod, where he writes that “I can’t go back to what I just left with such suffering, just as a flying bird cannot enter the shell of the egg from which it came out.” This is an amazing artistic image.
As an artist, Tolstoy was always on top and never fell down. With all his seemingly denial of pure art, at the end of his life he wrote Hadji Murat. And during the period of his philosophising he wrote such works as Master and Man and Father Sergius, The Kreutzer Sonata and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and other things that became diamonds of Russian prose.
Even Resurrection – a definitely didactic novel, where the pointing finger somewhat impedes the free flow of the narrative – contains fragments written much stronger than War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Because after all, Tolstoy was continuously growing up as an artist.
Another thing is that he could not repeat himself, could not write one historical novel after another, one family novel after another, and was constantly looking for new ways. And as a person who is looking for new ways, he sometimes stumbles, makes mistakes.
Tolstoy is interesting in his search for new ways. He writes first a huge epic, then a family novel, then short children’s stories, folk stories, then absolutely wonderful short novels. Tolstoy’s creative heritage must be considered on progress and not as a competition between the early Tolstoy and the late Tolstoy.
Experimental science, then, is concerned only with positive knowledge and reveals the greatness of the human intellect whenever its investigations do not enter into ultimate causes. And, on the other hand, speculative science reveals the greatness of the human intellect only when it completely removes all questions concerning the sequence of causal phenomena and examines man only in relation to an ultimate cause. Metaphysics or speculative philosophy occupies the extreme end of the spectrum of speculative sciences. This science clearly raises the question of what I am and what the universe is, the question of why I live and why the universe exists. And since its very beginning it has always answered in the same way. Whether the philosopher calls the essence of life that is within me and all living creatures an idea, a substance, a spirit, or a will, he is still saying that this essence exists and that I am this essence; but why it is there he does not know, and if he is a precise thinker, he does not answer. I ask, “Why does this essence exist, and what comes of the fact that it is and will be?” And not only does philosophy fail to answer, but all it can do itself is ask the same question. And if it is a true philosophy, then the sum of its labour lies in putting this question clearly. And if it holds firmly to its task, then it can have only one answer to the question of what I am and what the universe is: all and nothing. And to the question of why the universe exists and why I exist it can only reply: I do not know.
Thus no matter how I twist and turn the speculative answers of philosophy, I can obtain nothing resembling an answer; not because, as in the case of the clear, experimental sciences, the answer does not relate to my question, but because even though the sum of the intellectual labour is here directed toward my question, there is no answer. And instead of an answer, all one can obtain is the very same question put in a complicated form.
Leo Tolstoy. Confession (as translated by David Patterson)
Tolstoy constantly taught everyone.
– This is also a rooted myth about Tolstoy as a kind of gloomy, self-confident preacher who taught everyone at the end of his life.
Tolstoy spent his whole life analysing his own behaviour in his diaries, he had to figure out life for himself rather than teach others. He expressed the thoughts that he came to, but he never imposed them on anyone.
Another thing is that around him there was a semblance of a sect of Tolstoyans who tried to somehow document the ideas of Leo Nikolayevich and make them absolute. But for Tolstoy they were never absolute. For him, the presence of God was absolute, but everything else – he sought, tried, he suffered, and so on.
Pharisaism of Tolstoy. Remember the fact that Sofya Andreevna, worrying about her husband, tried to add ground meat to a vegetarian dish for him, but he, propagandising love for his neighbours, shouted at her.
– From a certain moment, Tolstoy became a staunch vegetarian, he avoided meat and fish. He believed that a person should not eat “the mutilated corpses of animals.” Sofya Andreevna, taking care of him, indeed, sometimes poured meat broth into mushroom broth, he noticed this, but did not get angry. He sometimes laughed it off, but sometimes he said: “Sonechka, I am ready to eat meat broth every day, if only you would not lie to me.” And there was no hypocrisy.
He respected other people’s beliefs. There are vegetarians who immediately begin to convince others at the table that you can’t eat meat. At the Tolstoy’s table there were always people, including those who lived in the house, who ate meat. Sofya Andreevna herself ate meat, and that was okay, there were no really terrible quarrels because of this.
Tolstoy’s works can be read separately, without researching the personality of the writer.
– This is one of the troubles of reading Tolstoy’s works. In fact, they cannot be fully understood without understanding the personality of the writer. His work does not exist in isolation from his personality.
There are writers for whom it is enough to read only their texts. This is especially relevant to French literature, where the text should speak for itself. For example, it includes the works of Flaubert, Balzac, Zola.
Of course, Tolstoy’s texts speak for themselves, but it is impossible to understand their full depth without knowing Tolstoy’s worldview, his personal characteristics, his relationships with loved ones, with the state, with the Church. Tolstoy is a masterpiece as a person. And the life immediately surrounding him flowed into his works, as happens in War and Peace, in Anna Karenina.
On the other hand, creativity influenced his life in a certain way, including his family life. That is why I believe that knowledge of Tolstoy’s personality, even some hidden moments of his biography, is absolutely necessary. But a full-fledged biography of Tolstoy has not yet been written in our country.
You should not study Tolstoy’s novels at school: they are not understandable for high school students.
– I understand the problem of modern schoolchildren who cannot read long periods in War and Peace, especially historical digressions. And I am absolutely not against adapted, abridged versions of the novel. Why not? But it is important that the children still have an idea of what War and Peace is about, what Anna Karenina is about.
We have the wrong point of view that it is too early to study Tolstoy at school, it should be read at a much more mature age. What can children understand? But if children do not start reading Tolstoy’s novels at school, they will never read them as adults. Here we need to work ahead of the curve, giving children smarter things than their development even allows them to perceive. They will remember it later and decide to come back to that reading or not. But, if they are not offered that at school, they will never come back to that, I am absolutely sure of it.