Tolstoy and the Lesson of the Artist

In 1928, Robert Morss Lovett marked Tolstoy's centenary in the <em>New Republic</em> with this essay exploring the existential questions that haunted the author throughout his life.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com. It was first published in The New Republic on 5 September 1928

Tolstoy’s centenary has a significance beyond the honoring of an individual artist or prophet. It is a grateful recognition of the influence of Russia upon the world in the esthetic, social, spiritual spheres; of which influence Tolstoy was as much the type and forerunner as was Peter the Great in the political. It was in 1879 that Matthew Arnold introduced Tolstoy to the English-speaking public through his essay on “Anna Karenina.” Before that time there had been only a few unimportant translations into English of Gogol, Pushkin and Turgeniev. And it may be remarked that Russian music, Russian dancing, Russian theater were equally unknown in England. The beginning of an immense cultural influence was the translation of “Anna Karenina,” followed by “War and Peace.” Tolstoy opened the way to his contemporaries, Turgeniev and Dostoyevsky, and to his followers, Chekhov, Andreyev and Gorky.

It is interesting to note that in the years when official English criticism was attacking with all its might Zola and the French naturalists, and trying to save the British theater from Ibsen, the Russian realists were welcomed. This was doubtless due to the strong religious element in the Russians. Tolstoy's place as a novelist was scarcely recognized in England before his religious and social doctrine made him known as a cosmopolitan figure. The English public was witnessing the same phenomenon, the transformation of the artist into the reformer, in
 John Ruskin and William Morris. Perhaps also the political aspect of Tolstoy's teaching made somewhat for his sympathetic reception. In those years the bear that walked like a man was recognized as the secular foe of the British Empire. Chimerical as Tolstoy's pacifism and non-resistance
 seemed to Englishmen, they regarded such teaching as wholesome for Russia, the enemy, however much they deprecated it later for Russia the ally.

The greatness of Tolstoy as a novelist, so promptly accepted by the world, had its basis in the power of his senses. He was the most naïve of realists. His birth as an artist is recorded in a passage m "Childhood and Youth." When a child of three in his bath, he tells us, "I was for the first time conscious of and admired my young body,
 with the ribs that I could trace with my finger, and 
the smooth, dark tub, the withered hands of the 
nurse, and the warm, steaming, circling water, its
 splashing, and above all the smooth feeling of the 
wet ends of the tub when I passed my hands over 
them." This keenness of sensation supplied him with his material, the physical aspects of the world and of his fellow beings. No reader of his work will need to be reminded of the part which bodily habit, feature, gesture and mannerism play in identifying his characters. It is this intense physical actuality which holds our attention in the case of princess Bolkonskaya in the first pages of “War and Peace,” or in the wonderful entrance of Anna Karenina on the scene of her novel. Not only does he present his men and women with the powerful appeal which they made to his sense of their physical reality, but he divines their own sensations, the appeal of the world and of their fellow mortals to them. His knowledge of them is derived from their looks, tones and movements. As an artist his psychology is pure behaviorism.

But step by step with the growth of his knowledge of humanity and his skill in portraying it went an increasing demand to find the reason of it. Tolstoy was not content to remain, like Chekhov, a sheer realist. Realism in his art was only a step toward significance. His whole career was a search for the meaning of life, and all his work from "The Cossacks" to "Resurrection" is an account of his experience in this quest. It is all a long confession. His physical nature and endowment, which was the basis of his personality and his art, he knew also as a danger and a handicap, constantly tempting him to remain in the realm of sense and the enjoyment of the world which his body gave him. Nowhere do we find described so perfectly the sense of perfect physical well-being and happiness as in Tolstoy’s young men: Olenin in “The Cossacks,” Vronsky in “Anna Karenina,” Nekhlyudov in “Resurrection.” And yet just as Tolstoy loved the body and its life, he came to hate it as an enemy of the spirit; and the urge to penetrate beyond it, to find a reason and justification for life in what we call spiritual experience, never let him rest. This caused the dualism which marked Tolstoy's whole career, and which appears in the characters with whom he is himself easily identified, in Olenin in “The Cossacks,” in Pierre in “War and Peace,” in Levin in "Anna Karenina.” 


In his first work, “The Cossacks,” which grew out of his abandonment of the life of pleasure of the typical young Russian nobleman of the day, and his refuge in the Caucasus among simple and primitive people, the story is directly and naïvely told. Olenin feels all the urgency of the flesh, but at times he perceives by the logic of his own desires the ethical paradox that happiness cannot be achieved directly, but only through the happiness of others. The process by which Olenin reaches this conclusion is an illustration of what has been said of Tolstoy himself—“He understood with his whole body.” The secret of life, of which Olenin caught a glimpse, his creator never forgot. He took part in the Crimean War, which made him known in Russia as the author of the sketches in “Sevastopol”; and then betook himself to his estate at Yasnaya Polyana and devoted himself to his peasants, as related in “A Russian Proprietor.” There he wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” which made him known to all Europe. But the lure of military glory and the reputation of a great writer both failed to satisfy his spiritual hunger. No more than pleasure was fame a fulfillment of life. And with the completion of “Anna Karenina” he set out, at the age of fifty-two, on the last phase of his pilgrimage, which was to end thirty years later at Astopovo.

Tolstoy had as an artist an intense passion for his material, humanity.

Tolstoy had as an artist an intense passion for his material, humanity. It began with a love of himself, his body and its desires; it extended to the men and women about him who fixed his eager attention and absorbed his interest. But this was not enough. Since the end of life is the happiness of others, he needed to know humanity more widely and fully, to enter into their spirit more deeply. In1882 he made his incursion, humanitarian in every sense, into the slums of Moscow, which he has narrated in “What to Do?” And at once he came upon a baffling situation which must be stated in his own words:

I realized now, for the first time, that all these people, besides the mere effort to find food and shelter from the cold, must live through the rest of every day of their life as other people have to do, must get angry at times, and be dull, and try to appear light-hearted, and be sad or merry. And now, for the first time (however strange the confession may sound), I was fully aware that the task which I was undertaking could not simply consist in feeding and clothing a thousand people (just as one might feed a thousand head of sheep, and drive them into shelter), but must develop some more essential help. And when I considered that each one of these individuals was just another man as myself, possessing also a past history, with the same passions, temptations, and errors, the same thoughts, the same questions to be answered, then suddenly the work before me appeared stupendous, and I felt my own utter helplessness—but it had been begun, and I was resolved to continue it.

In other words, Tolstoy saw the need of applying to all humanity the artistic process of understanding which he had been applying to a few cases selected for his art. And as an immediate result of his social analysis it appeared to him that the great tragedy of human society was its division into classes, the separation of men and women into social strata which are more remote from one another than different nations and races. Tolstoy was not the first to realize this. Forty years before, Disraeli, with the prescience of genius, had given his novel “Sybil” a second title, "The Two Nations,” and through one of his characters had explained the term.

Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws. . . The Rich and the Poor.

The sense of the tragedy of a divided humanity came to Tolstoy, however, as artist and as moralist, with the force of a discovery, and he uttered it with an explicit arraignment of his own class:

Without prejudice I looked into our own mode of life, and became aware that it was not by chance that closer intercourse with the poor is difficult for us, but that we ourselves are intentionally ordering our lives in such a way as to make this intercourse impossible. And not only this; but, on looking at our lives, or at the lives of rich people, from without, I saw that all that is considered as the summum bonum of these lives consists in being separated as much as possible from the poor, or is in some way or other connected with this desired separation.

In fact, all the aim of our lives, beginning with food, dress, dwelling, cleanliness, and ending with our education, consists in placing a gulf between us and them. And in order to establish this distinction and separation we spend nine-tenths of our wealth in erecting impassable barriers.

Tolstoy has given to the question “What to Do?" three answers. The first is personal—a rule of life. “It was only when I repented—that is, left off considering myself to be a peculiar man, and began to consider myself to be like all other men—it was then that my way became clear to me.” The second is likewise personal, but it is clear that it contains a social principle, that of renunciation on the part of the possessing class to which Mr. Hobson looks with hope as a “revolution by consent.”

I saw that the cause of the sufferings and depravity of men lies in the fact that some men are in bondage to others; and therefore I came to the obvious conclusion that if I want to help men, I have first of all to leave off causing those very misfortunes which I want to remedy—in other words, I must not share in the enslaving of men. I was led to the enslaving of men by the circumstance that from my infancy I had been accustomed not to work, but to utilize the labor of others, and I have been living in a society which is not only accustomed to this slavery, but justifies it by all kinds of sophistry, clever and foolish. I came to the following simple conclusion, that, in order to avoid causing the sufferings and depravity of men, I ought to make other men work for me as little as possible, and to work myself as much as possible.

The third answer is esthetic, a fundamental remedy for the healing of the nations by the ministry of art. It is stated in his revolutionary monograph “What Is Art?” published in 1895. Already Tolstoy had turned with revulsion from the so-called fine arts, meant to give pleasure to the privileged few, especially from the art of fiction which he had himself practised to such great purpose. He found in the novel of his own day three leading motives—pride of place, sexual pleasure, boredom with life. What have these to do with the sorrow of mankind, wherewith the whole creation groaneth and travaileth? Such art springs from the great wound of humanity, which it widens and deepens.

…They [artists] cannot help knowing that fine art can arise only on the slavery of the masses of the people, and can continue only as long as that slavery lasts, and they cannot help knowing that only under conditions of intense labor for the workers, can specialists—writers, musicians, dancers and actors—arrive at that fine degree of perfection to which they do attain, or produce their refined works of art; and only under the same conditions can there be a fine public to esteem such productions. Free the slaves of capital, and it will be impossible to produce such refined art.

True art originates in the desire to share experience with others, and depends upon the solidarity of mankind.

Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications.

Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious Idea of beauty, or God; it is not, as the esthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.

The similarity of Tolstoy’s view with those which Ruskin and Morris were putting forward in England, that art is a function, not of the few, but of the people as a whole, and properly exists only through their desire and need, is obvious. It is clear also that Tolstoy anticipates more modern estheticians in his conception of the functional capacity of art. John Dewey recognizes the principle of esthetic enjoyment in communication. “Communication," he says in “Experience and Nature,” “is an immediate enhancement of life enjoyed for its own sake.” And again: “Shared experience is the greatest of human goods.” And he emphasizes the social end of art in declaring: “All art is a process of making the world a different place in which to live.” This acceptance of art as a means of ordering life is implicit in words of a philosopher of different outlook from Dewey’s. Dr. Santayana in “Skepticism and Animal Faith” speaks of “the natural world in which it is possible to live better by practising the arts.” Again he tells us: “What matters is that science should be integrated with art and that the arts should substitute the dominion of man over circumstances . . . for the dominion of chance.” This comes very close to Dewey's “Art is the sole alternative to luck.”

Finally Havelock Ellis in “The Dance of Life” attempts a reading of all human activity, of science and conduct, in terms of art, of which he chooses the dance as typical because it requires no material except the body and extends its range in widest cooperation. Moreover, his singling out of two special services which art renders to humanity would have received affirmation from Tolstoy: Art brings us into contact with realities by piercing the veil of convention which is the result of our simplification and classification for intellectual purposes; and it combats and counteracts the possessive instinct by giving us “the power of enjoying things without being reduced to the need of possessing them.”

What has been said has perhaps served my purpose of showing Tolstoy, not as a lonely and isolated figure—a voice crying in the wilderness, but as the child of his age, feeling more acutely than others, and suffering more intensely from the disharmonies in personal life, the divisions in society. He, like other critics of the nineteenth century, awoke to disillusionment with the properties of life as increased by progress in science and industry. He, like them, was a seeker after the intrinsic values of living—those things which commend themselves to our immediate feeling as worth while for their own sake—not merely in relation to exterior ends. Tolstoy's doctrine was primarily esthetic, not scientific or social. He saw in it a religious influence.

The task for art to accomplish is to make that feeling of brotherhood and love of one's neighbor, now attained only by the best members of society, the customary feeling and the instinct of all men. By evoking, under imaginary conditions, the feeling of brotherhood and love, religious art will train men to experience those same feelings under similar circumstances in actual life; it will lay in the souls of men the rails along which the actions of those whom art thus educates will naturally pass. And universal art, by uniting the most different people in one common feeling, by destroying separation, will educate people to union, will show them, not by reason, but by life itself, the joy of universal union reaching beyond the bounds set by life.

This is not the occasion on which to discuss the logic of Tolstoy's creed, or to bring it to the test of practicability, which, after all, can only be theoretic. Still less is it one on which to emphasize the wanderings, inconsistencies and shortcomings in Tolstoy's following of it. He was more conscious of them than anyone, and he has in his own confessions anticipated his gainsayers. It is the moment in which to accept him gratefully for what he was—in Romain Rolland's phrase, “our conscience”; and to remember with Gorky: “He is great and holy because he is a man . . . a man seeking God not for himself, but for men.”

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

Leo Tolstoy, 1828-1910. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit