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Tolstoy: A magnificent mind or a mad moralist?

History: Leo Tolstoy

Andrei Zorin

Reaktion Books, €11.99


Portrait of the author Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy on his 80th birthday

Portrait of the author Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy on his 80th birthday

Books 3

Books 3


Portrait of the author Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy on his 80th birthday

Trying to read Leo Tolstoy's oeuvre with sufficient nuance and clarity is made easier if one has some understanding of the historical epoch in which the Russian writer came of age.

As the Russophile Oxford academic Andrei Zorin notes in this concise biography, the 1860s was a golden age in Russia's history that became known as the era of the Great Reforms. The most obvious radical change was the abolition of serfdom in 1861. It subsequently brought about an increase in literacy, freedom of the press, and a relative relaxation of censorship. The Russian intelligentsia during this period was influenced by a whole host of radical ideas too. Namely: rational egoism; individual freedom; scientific materialism; utilitarianism; sceptical atheism; class consciousness, and utopian socialism.

These were mainly imported from western Europe - where many Russian intellectuals went to live and write in exile. This European influence created an enormous shift in Russian public discourse. Crucially, traditional values that had been loyal to the Russian state, Tsar, and church for centuries were suddenly up for debate. And intellectuals, poets and novelists began to ask questions like: where was the future of the Russian nation heading? And what exactly did the Russian soul consist of?

First published in serial form in The Russian Messenger in 1865, War and Peace is often described as a love letter to an emerging nation on the cusp of monumental change. The novel is set during the Napoleonic Wars. But it predominantly looks at the years leading up to the Decembrist revolt of 1825: a failed uprising led primarily by members of the Russian upper classes that provided a source of inspiration for succeeding generations of Russian revolutionaries and dissidents.

Tolstoy's epic historical novel doesn't just concern itself with war, nations, rebellion, history and politics, however. Zorin claims a great deal of the book's creative energies were also devoted to exploring "two existential problems that tormented [Tolstoy] throughout his life: the power of sexuality and the fear of death".

These obsessional interests were worked out through the novel's two leading protagonists: Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei. The philosophical dilemmas both men battle with throughout the text eventually result in a morally-loaded question raising its head: can libidinous lust and the ego's quest for mythical heroic glory be quelled to ensure higher ethical values always trump primal pleasure seeking? Tolstoy - a staunch moralist - believed they could. Accordingly, War and Peace concludes by resolving these existential problems. Pierre tames his erotic passions through the institution of marriage; while Prince Andrei chooses eternal universal life over the poisonous temptations of ego.

A small section of Tolstoy's follow-up book first appeared in the Russian Herald in January 1875. Anna Karenina is still considered by many critics to be one of the greatest novels ever written. But unlike War and Peace, a moral equilibrium does not balance out with a happy ending. It tells the story of an adulterous woman who turns her back on traditional family values so that she can explore the limitless possibilities of her fervent sexual desires. But this rejection of motherhood and moral responsibility eventually comes at a price. The drama that unfolds has all the hallmarks of an archetypal Greek tragedy: Anna succumbs to drug addiction, madness, and, eventually, suicide.

That tragedy ultimately correlates with what Aristotle called hamartia: when a mistaken chosen action leads to a situation when suffering can be the only outcome.

Tolstoy wasn't the first 19th-century novelist to explore a tale of love, adultery and suicide from the perspective of a sexually-frustrated, bored, bourgeois housewife. Gustave Flaubert's 1856 novel, Madame Bovary, resulted in the French author being threatened to be put on trial for immorality. But Zorin stresses a key difference between both texts: the French writer meticulously avoids moralistic conclusions.

"Tolstoy always believed that abstract reasoning had no value unless connected to actual moral issues," he explains. For the most part, the literary critic treads carefully around his subject matter though. Judgmental conclusions, insults, or unflattering identity labels are purposely avoided. Nuanced insinuations allow the reader to draw their own conclusions, however. Especially pertaining to Tolstoy's views on the opposite sex: at best they were deeply patriarchal, at worst, bordering on the misogynistic.

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Zorin believes Tolstoy's body of work - which clearly stands up today as timeless art - can be whittled down to three major themes: sin, guilt and repentance. Understanding this complex trinity of ideas requires putting on an amateur Freudian-psychiatrist hat. Once the therapeutic analysis is conducted an inevitable question then surfaces: why did Tolstoy associate sexual intimacy with feelings of guilt, shame and self loathing?

Zorin finds the answer by returning to a wellspring of trauma: Tolstoy's childhood.

Even as far back as his 1852 debut novel, Childhood, Tolstoy fixated on the idea that Eros had ruined the primordial innocence of humanity. Zorin thus concludes with certainty that Tolstoy's complicated relationship with sex can be traced back to the loss of his mother when he was just two years old. A diary entry from 1906, just four years before he died, speaks volumes. "My dearest mother [was] my highest conception of pure love," Tolstoy wrote.

Tolstoy spent much of his life attempting to fill that void: in his formative years in Russian brothels; then later in the institution of marriage, and in artistic success.

But metaphysical reality would prove unable to transcend suffering. And so in his latter years Tolstoy became a pious devoted Christian anarchist who built a large cult following.

The figure that emerges from these pages is a complex one. For left-wing progressives, Tolstoy was a reactionary; while conservatives saw him as a self-destructive nihilist.

A pious religious fanatic with a messianic complex might be somewhat closer to the truth. But even Christ himself would have found it impossible to live by the perfect moral order Tolstoy was always attempting to build: both in life and in art.

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