Friday, August 19, 2016

Tolstoy and Sanctimony

Donald Bartheleme wrote a most amusing story titled At the Tolstoy Museum. It begins with the sentence "At the Tolstoy Museum we sat and wept."  The museum is said to display thousands of pictures of Tolstoy.  In the story, museum staff carry with them buckets filled with handkerchiefs for the use of weeping visitors.  The story contains illustrations.  One displays a colossal figure of Tolstoy next to a tiny Napoleon.  Another shows Tolstoy "tiger hunting in Siberia" a la Hemingway.

The museum is said to have, I think, three levels, each being larger than the one below, so it appears to be falling on its visitors.  This is to impress upon them the weight of Tolstoy's vast moral authority.

It seems there are many Tolstoy museums, and I wonder if there really is one similar to the one in the story.   I rather hope there is such a place.

Tolstoy is considered by many to be the greatest writer in history, or to have written the greatest novel.  That's the gargantuan War and Peace, as one might guess.  That happens to be the only work of Tolstoy I've read from start to finish.  If it's the greatest novel ever written, I'm sad.  I don't think it's a novel, really; I think it's a kind of treatise in which the author uses characters, some historical and some not, to express a theory of history and opine somewhat ponderously, I think, on various human characteristics and philosophical issues.  Sometimes he doesn't even bother with characters.

The work is pervaded by a sense of rightness; or, perhaps more accurately, a sense of righteousness.  Tolstoy is throughout busy making moral points with varying degrees of subtlety, but it's difficult for someone convinced they know better--so much better--than others to be subtle in their expressions regarding what they know to be true.  So, Tolstoy is not particularly subtle in this novel, and I suspect he's not in his other works.  Nor would I expect him to be witty in them.  Holy men aren't known for their wit.

Tolstoy allowed himself to be drawn and photographed to an extraordinary extent.  This of course is indicative of the extent of his popularity, and the reverence in which he was held; a reverence in which he's still held, as spoofed by Bartheleme.  In many of them he's portrayed as farming, or praying, or generally looking wise and even holy.  He kept meticulous diaries recording his movements and thoughts.   He was a vegetarian, a pacifist, a sort of anarchist, and a Christian of the kind who know what Jesus really meant.  He was an exponent of non-violent protest and inspired Gandhi and others.  He became a kind of cult figure, and it seems was devoted to the nurturing of his cult.

George Orwell lambasted Tolstoy for his opinion of Shakespeare.  Tolstoy wrote that he couldn't understand the fame of Shakespeare or why Shakespeare was thought of so highly.   Tolstoy claimed he was repulsed by Shakespeare.  Shakespeare was not moral, he didn't address questions of real importance, he lacked the dignity required of a great artist.  As Orwell noted, Tolstoy was repulsed by Shakespeare because Shakespeare was a humanist, and Tolstoy's views were religious, for all his contempt for clergy.  Tolstoy, according to Orwell, wasn't a saint but tried very hard to become one.  I would go so far as to say he believed himself to be one, in any case.

Tolstoy was admirable in many ways, but was self-consciously good, and this I think is the problem with him and his work.  He knew himself to be good, and expected others to know that as well.  He made great efforts to show himself to be good, by his renunciation of his lands and title, for example (he was a Count).  He was a kind of exhibitionist when it came to his morality.

It's not clear to me that someone who considers himself to be uniquely moral, who is convinced that he knows what is right and what is wrong, is capable of being a great writer of fiction.  I think such a person would be too compelled to proclaim what is good and true, to lecture, to at best create morality tales and declamations in the guise of fiction.  The temptation to pontificate would be irresistible to such a person.  It would be particularly irresistible to a writer, as opposed to other artists such as a painter, composer or musician.  One might successfully create a painting or music which expressed what one thinks to be the truth without seeming to preach, but when we try to communicate by words, by prose at least, we can't avoid being obvious, even leaden, in our righteousness.  Perhaps a poet could be convinced of his/her holiness and still write great poetry, but Tolstoy was certainly not a poet.

I'm not repulsed by Tolstoy as he was repulsed by Shakespeare, but I think his sanctimony limited him in his art.  His work is overwhelming and hectoring.  He's more a moralist than a novelist.

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