University Essays: Lesson 12, Reading 5
by Colman McCarthy
One night in early 1851, in a Russian military camp on the outer rim of organized life and circled by gore-minded Moslem soldiers, a young man despaired of his future. A chronic card-player, drinker and womanizer, he put in his diary a thought shared by countless other militarized young men before and since: “How on earth have I ended up here ? I don’t know. Why? I even know less.” To ease his despair and keep busy his spitfire mind, 23 -year-old Leo Tolstoy kept detailed, intricate notes on what he saw, heard and felt among the people of the Caucasus. It was therapy-by-writing, the first words from a pen that was to produce some of the world’s most sweeping and most read novels.
In a few weeks, the centenary of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” will be celebrated; many of those for whom Tolstoy is important will re-read this book and take up again with the others. A New York radio station, the lively WBAI-FM, plans to read over the air the entire “War and Peace” non-stop, a pleasure expected to last four or five around-the-clock days. Even more topical, perhaps, is the influence of Tolstoy on those caught up in real war and peace; many conscientious objectors are telling draft boards that their moral refusal to kill other human beings in war is based on the writings of Tolstoy.
The most common pictures show a thin rock-faced old man, hair shooting from his head like a fire hazard, but with searing, deep set eyes that look out from a never-resting soul. That may have been Tolstoy the writer of genius, but the non-writer, the man of guilts and sins, was far different. The contradictions run through his life like crossties on a railroad of wildness. He fought for freedom of the oppressed outside the home, but inside he often ran his family like a gone-mad czar. He warned soldiers that “to marry a woman of society is to swallow the whole poison of civilization” but chose for his own wife an upper-class girl. For much of his life, Tolstoy pined after a socialism that would give ownership of the meadows and forests to everyone, while regularly making land deals that added to his already large holdings. He saw himself as sensitive and intelligent but he called Shakespeare’s plays “a boundless tedium.” Yet, as if fully aware of his own hypocrisy—thus taking the treachery out of it—Tolstoy could write: “Every man lies twenty times daily.”
The great and heavy labor of “War and Peace” took nearly seven years of writing. The bone structure of the story was Russia’s war with Napoleon in 1812, but the muscles and sinews of character portrayal are the story’s movement. “Napoleon, Alexander, Kutuzov and Talleyrand are not the heroes of my book,” said Tolstoy. “I shall write the story of people living in the most privileged circumstances, with no fear of poverty or constraint, free people, people who have none of the flaws that are necessary to make a mark on history.”
In the most recent and perhaps most exhaustive biography of Tolstoy, Henri Troyat wrote that the novelist “was deeply attached to the ideas in ‘War and Peace.” But it is not his ideas that have guaranteed the posterity of the book; it is the fact that, in spite of the historical, military and philosophical considerations that encumber it, the book is a hymn to man and nature whose like has not been seen in the literature of the world.”
As with many fiction writers, Tolstoy’s imaginative world was created from the real world. Heroine Natasha was partly a copy of sister-in-law Tanya, whom the novelist adored. Friends, aunts, uncles, cousins—all were illuminated in print by the sun of Tolstoy’s pen. For his two heroes, Andrey Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov, the writer drew on himself, as if proclaiming—with accuracy—that he had double the personality of most men. Andrey, a taut pragmatist conditioned to the world’s cruelty, went into the army, as did Tolstoy, to prove his courage. Pierre, a tender, affectionate man, soft-hearted and softer headed, believed, as did Tolstoy, “we must love, we must have faith…” Of the two, only Pierre found peace.
Many issues of mid-19th century Russia are surprisingly similar to those in America today: freedom of the press, government reform, women’s rights, reclaiming the poor, court reorganization. Russian critics of “War and Peace” hooted Tolstoy for being too remote from real problems like these. This was a standard charge, both about Tolstoy then and about many thinkers now—the get-with-it argument so cherished by liberals and sophomores foamed up about “relevance.” In reality, no one feels the times more acutely than he who seeks to get beneath the acts and habits of men and understand the eternal laws that motivate them: fear, love, pride, hope, greed, ignorance.
Enriched rather than drained by life as it passed by, Tolstoy was soon able to write a second epic novel, “Anna Karenina.” With little competition from American novelists today, with their zoom-lens delight in bedrooms, Tolstoy’s study of three couples is still perhaps the world’s greatest love story. Three kinds of marriages—perhaps the only three kinds—are detailed: the broken one between Anna and the clammy bureaucrat Karenin, the dried-up but surviving marriage of the Oblonskys and the innocent, happy marriage of Kitty and Levin. As in the earlier novel, the characters who best survive are not the proud and glittering, like Anna, but Kitty and Levin, the naive, shuffling-along pair whose simplicity of heart is stronger than all the world’s busy sorrow combined.
A brooding, seeking man with no rest from the world or himself, Tolstoy thrived in later life on manual labor—mowing hay fields, wood chopping, caring for cattle. The muzhiks, or peasants, with whom Tolstoy worked and constantly idealized seemed not only to have the answers to life—they didn’t really—but their company was naturally better for a writer. “Continual association with professors,” he wrote, “leads to prolixity, love of long words and confusion, but with muzhiks, to conciseness, beauty of language and clarity.”
After a brief conversion to organized religion, Tolstoy came to loathe both the doctrines of faith and the priests who preached them. His complaints against the church were correct and are not at all dated today—a rich, aloof institution, preaching piety but all the while blessing the state and its mischief.
The value of Tolstoy’s non-fiction is its message of nonviolence. He spoke out against British and American use of force in the Transvaal and the Philippines: “They are horrible, these wars that the English and Americans are waging in a world in which even schoolchildren condemn war.” Typically, he had no master plan to end war, only a simple personalistic formula—”The freeing of men from servitude, from ignorance, can not be obtained by revolution, syndicates, peace congresses, but simply by the conscience of each one of us forbidding to participate in violence and asking in amazement, why are you doing that?”
Tolstoy died in 1910, revered, famous and worn out, the storehouse of his mind long filled with the best thoughts and hopes. Few of die latter have come true-war still smothers peace and everything else. Yet those who unashamedly think that love is more essential for social change than politics and programs cling to Tolstoy as never before. A firm grip is best; as a major theme of Tolstoy’s said, being ahead of the times often means being against the times.
This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372.