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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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle