A Perspective on a Perspective on the Perspectives of Tolstoy

There lies a certain difficulty in writing the biography of any one person; one must create a cohesive narrative, from beginning to end, describing the life of this person, and perhaps even attempt to describe the thoughts of this person that may have led to any particular action. When there is so much information at one’s disposal, there’s almost a compulsion not only to connect all the dots in the lifetime, but also to try to attach cause and effect to all of them; and therein lies the problem. It’s almost ironic that in War and Peace Tolstoy wrote about the difficulties in recognizing between freedom and necessity, cause and effect, and this is one of the greatest difficulties his biographers face. However, the initial assumption of cohesion is one of the issues that Tolstoy points at, yet biographers and historians fail to take into account. The idea that he was one person before the religious ‘breakdown’ and then became another person assumes a cohesive whole person at both points in his life. But isn’t one of the greatest struggles of human life to think and act cohesively in the world; isn’t every human already split within himself?

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy may be one of the most fascinating people to write a biography on not only because of the immense disposal of autobiographical and biographical data, but because Tolstoy’s life story doesn’t have the subtle incohesion of most human lives. His schism is as almost as paramount as Raskolnikov’s in Crime and Punishment. In his biography of Tolstoy’s, Wilson notes that while the progression from “artist to sage or holy man […] was a fairly common phenomena among Russian writers”[1], the pattern of Tolstoy’s life followed this to such an exaggerated length that “it is very hard not to think of his life as falling into two distinct halves, divided by the publication of Anna Karenina[2]. And it’s interesting that Wilson admits that;

“it is right to point out, as nearly all writers on Tolstoy do, that there is a continuity between his former and his later self. Even as a young soldier, we are reminded, he was planning to start a new religion based on the ethics of Christ without the miracles”.[3]

However, all that is accomplished by drawing these general connections back to Tolstoy’s early life is merely one example of a flow chart of cause and effect. While it may certainly have been the case that a young Tolstoy wanted to rewrite religious without magic, this once more attempts to draw a perfect cohesive line between cause and effect in Tolstoy’s life. And while it certainly may be the case that the religious influences and thoughts early in Tolstoy’s life came back to the forefront of his thought later in life, it seems negligible to think that this man wasn’t constantly evolving and changing and that it is impossible to draw a coherent line between his thoughts and his actions.

This is the case with Tolstoy’s diaries as well; even with works such as A Confession. Despite seemingly truthful and autobiographical natures, one’s words are never mirror reflections of one’s thoughts. If anything, they are like fun-house mirrors. They distort and are inadequate, but they are nonetheless useful. However, this never seems to come under consideration, especially not for Wilson. He mentions that Tolstoy’s diaries are “a vehicle less of self-record than of self-projection”[4], but when is the act of self-recording not an act of self-projection? And if this is the case, why is this idea of self-projection not then projected onto anything else Wilson discusses? He seems to align all of Tolstoy’s words with the Tolstoy at the time, regardless of whether it’s his novels or his diary entries. After the schism, Wilson notes that “the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina was tragically written out”[5]. This seems like an incredibly foolish statement to make. If it were so easy to write a self out of oneself, humanity would have ceased struggling with itself years ago. In reading Talks with Tolstoy, it doesn’t seem as though the Tolstoy that wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina went anywhere, and while Wilson notes that he utilized Talks with Tolstoy, it seems as though he took the words for granted as ramblings of the second Tolstoy.

Wilson almost seems to disparage the second Tolstoy. When discussing the essay Tolstoy wrote about Shakespeare, Wilson remarks;

“The essay on Shakespeare diminishes Tolstoy, not least because it feels as if it is motivated by unconscious envy, but chiefly because it is so very foolish. Like an idiot blinking at the sun, he claims that there is nothing to see because he has shut his eyes.”[6]

In reading this, it seems as though Wilson is the one who is so very foolish. First of all, when Wilson states that the essay on Shakespeare diminishes Tolstoy, what is his standard? All throughout the biography Wilson writes about Tolstoy’s relationships and thoughts on several authors, but why is Tolstoy not allowed to appreciate Shakespeare? Why does this, out of all other factors, diminish him? Why should factors such as this, a critical essay, diminish him as a person or his previous works. His words are a reflection of his own reading of Shakespeare, and as a human he is allowed to read and interpret however he desires because that is the beauty of reading. Second of all, Wilson’s language seems to reveal his own biases and tendencies. He writes that “it feels as if it is motivated by unconscious envy”, and yet how it feels to read isn’t an absolute reflection of the writer, but a reflection of the reader’s construction of the author’s text. This is why in my reflection on Wilson’s representation of Tolstoy, I frequently refer back to words such as ‘seems as though’, because what I am constructing is merely an appearance from the text presented to me. And to call Tolstoy an idiot who “claims that there is nothing to see because he has shut his eyes” assumes on Wilson’s part something specific to be seen and immediately attributes the cause of not ‘seeing’ to Tolstoy’s stupidity. Why doesn’t Wilson examine the essay in light of Tolstoy’s perspective rather than assume his perspective is a failed and useless one?

It almost seems as though Wilson is attempting to write this biography of a ‘genius’, and whenever there appear inconsistencies with the genius, Wilson merely calls him an idiot rather than attempt to acknowledge the plurality of Tolstoy’s selves and the different perspectives they may shed on him. Tolstoy once said that “The mark of foolish people is: when you say anything to them they never answer your words, but keep repeating their own”[7], and this seems to reflect Wilson’s treatment of Tolstoy. It’s as though he has a thesis about the man that he repeatedly tries to hammer away into one whole cohesive portrait of an artist. The only disjunction he allows for is Tolstoy’s ‘break’ after the publication of Anna Karenina, but he merely jumps from one whole Tolstoy to another. Only when Wilson speaks of Resurrection is the later Tolstoy momentarily revered once more. “Resurrection explores and celebrates this idea with profound intelligence. Its author is under no illusions, as the Tolstoy of the pamphlets sometimes is”[8]. A statement such as this reveals more of Wilson’s own agenda and mentality than it does about Tolstoy. While it may appear that Wilson is acknowledging different Tolstoy’s within this one man, the notion that the Tolstoy who wrote the pamphlets was under an illusion suggests that there is a true Tolstoy who on occasion will rise to the surface, whereas this illusioned Tolstoy must simply be dismissed. Why give one greater precedence over the other? Why assume that one Tolstoy was more true than the other?

The only ‘true’ Tolstoy we have is what we reconstruct out of his words and actions now, after the fact. His thoughts and feelings that motivated his actions will forever be unknown to us; all we have is their appearance in words and actions. And not only is it ridiculous to assume that his thoughts and actions were ever paralleled, to assume a definitive line between his thoughts, words, and actions grants Tolstoy the status of a god. Just because Tolstoy sought clarity and simplicity in the world doesn’t mean that his biographer must strive for the same condensation of his life. And to deduce thoughts and feelings out of a supposed coherence with words and actions is just as foolish. If all we have are Tolstoy’s words and actions, which we may consider as an appearance of his inner thoughts and feelings, it’s more useful to take the words as words and work from there rather than attempt to create an assumed depth which won’t be very helpful in the end.

`            It seems that Wilson is attempting to make Tolstoy as two-dimensional as some of his characters, especially in parallel with his discussion of Resurrection. Earlier in the biography, Wilson notes that Tolstoy’s view towards sex was double-sided; he lusted after woman and enjoyed the sexual experience in the moment, but afterwards was possessed by repulsion and guilt. This in itself points at the incredibly dualistic nature of Tolstoy, but Wilson seems to barely write it off;

“Few artists have had a more exaggerated sense of sexual guilt; few have been more clumsy of their handling of it in private life, nor more creative in their literary use of it.

Some of the reasons for his tormented feelings about sex are probably buried in the Freudian irrecoverable part—perhaps even before the death of his unremembered mother”[9]

Tolstoy’s thoughts regarding sex when set against his actions show more about the inability for thought and action to coherently manifest themselves, but Wilson attributes it to a Freudian Oedipal complex, which is not only overly simplified, but the fact that Tolstoy’s mother died just after he turned two years old makes it just as impossible if not useless to know. And Wilson takes this notion of the decrepit nature of sex and Tolstoy’s guilt-ridden feelings towards it and repeatedly uses it to as an underlining cause. And this carries over into Wilson’s reading of Tolstoy’s novels. Even the character of Maslova gets reduced by Wilson to a sexual being;

“She exudes sex and, even in the foetid conditions of city prisons or in the transit camps, the men can’t keep away from her. Like the spring, which is still spring even in the town, Maslova’s sexuality keeps her in touch with a natural world with which it is possible for some of the men in the story, whether benign, liberal, intellectuals, lounge lizards, priests or petty officials, to lose touch altogether.”[10]

This is a bold statement to make, and it almost seems strange that a biographer would be analyzing a character to such an extent to make such a claim.  It merely appears to fit with Wilson’s thesis regarding Tolstoy’s views towards sex, where incoherence between thought, word, and action is once more disparaged.

While Wilson certainly manages to write an informative and comprehensive biography on Tolstoy, he fails to take into account the incongruity within man, as well as his own influence on the readings of Tolstoy’s works. It seems as though Wilson set out to explain Tolstoy’s life rather than describe it, and if Tolstoy’s life could have been explained, wouldn’t Tolstoy have let us know himself?


[1] Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson, 301
[2] Tolstoy, 301
[3] Tolstoy, 301
[4] Tolstoy, 45
[5] Tolstoy, 301
[6] Tolstoy, 480
[7] Talks with Tolstoy by A.B. Goldenveizer, 45
[8] Tolstoy, 453
[9] Tolstoy, 44
[10] Tolstoy, 448


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