Tolstoy, by A.N. Wilson


A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy is in some ways an excellent biography. It’s an exhaustive account of Tolstoy as a writer—of short fiction, novels, and nonfiction—and as a person. It traces the development of his pacifist, anarchist Christian philosophy, and has quite a bit of material about his marriage and domestic life (the latter facilitated by the fact that both Tolstoy and his wife kept detailed diaries for the bulk of the time they were married).

I appreciated much about the book, but I also found myself irritated by the author at times and wanting to argue with him.

Wilson is a British writer, and not at all the type of biographer to remain in the background. He not only gives you the facts, but let’s you know every step along the way what he thinks of them.

I don’t object to that in and of itself; if anything I would prefer an author be open and frank with his assessments of his subject matter rather than try to spin the material in a more subtle way. I like that he displays a little personality in trashing what he thinks deserves trashing, not unlike a Christopher Hitchens or a Richard Dawkins.

But substantively there are important ways that our views don’t line up, and stylistically there are times his attempts at dismissive wit fall flat. (I’m sure those are related of course, that his snide manner seems more mean-spirited and disrespectful to me when he’s pooh poohing someone or something I value.)

I’m not sure what his politics are, but it seems he equates the Soviet Union with Stalin, and left wing politics with the Soviet Union, and so treats it as self-evident that any turn world history took toward the left in the last century or two was a ghastly error enabled by fuzzy thinking idealists who were not as enlightened as he and his kind in knowing what monsters they were unleashing.

As to Tolstoy specifically, he exalts him as a writer, referring to War and Peace and Anna Karenina as the two greatest novels ever written. At times he qualifies that, but certainly he thinks they’re in the top handful if not the top two, and that other things Tolstoy wrote are at least close to that level.

As a person, though, Tolstoy is in his eyes more than a little ludicrous. He sees him not so much as evil, but as muddle-headed and lacking in self-awareness—much more fool than knave.

He has no use at all for Tolstoy’s Christian pacifist philosophy, treating it as so ridiculous as to not warrant rebuttal.

He recounts an incident where fellow writer Ivan Turgenev said he had bronchitis, and Tolstoy responded with “Bronchitis is a metal!” perhaps as a failed attempt at humor, perhaps straining for a metaphor with which to make some point or other, or perhaps just because he misspoke when attempting to say something else entirely, but in any case a self-evidently false and ridiculous sentence. Wilson brings this phrase up repeatedly for the rest of the book as his label for whenever Tolstoy claims something especially stupid or self-contradictory in his philosophy.

So the notion that “Property is theft” (a slogan from Proudhon, but Tolstoy says things at least partly in agreement with it) is one of Tolstoy’s “bronchitis is a metal” moments, as is the notion that Christ was not a Christian. The inference that if people should be nonviolent then no person should act violently in the service of a state (and thus states, conventionally understood, shouldn’t exist) is, again, gibberish as far as Wilson is concerned, the equivalent of shouting “Bronchitis is a metal.”

When he does make any kind of point against Tolstoy’s philosophy it’s in a perfunctory manner, as if to say with a sigh, “Not that this needs refuting amongst sensible folks like us, but here’s an obvious point that obliterates it.”

Just as one example, he claims that about the only case one could cite of anything remotely like Tolstoy’s philosophy working would be Gandhi’s nonviolent movement for Indian independence, but that that doesn’t count, since after all Gandhi was opposing the altogether reasonable British who had outgrown any tendency to oppress others, and of course nonviolence in any but the rarest of circumstances like those would be laughably futile.

He delights in pointing out all the ways Tolstoy’s life fell short of his ideals, not so much to damn him as a hypocrite as to make the points that Tolstoy’s instincts were better than his theories and thus that it’s to his credit when he violated his silly ideals, and that the fact that the very proponent of these ideals didn’t live by them shows that they’re false and can’t be applied in the real world.

It also gives him further opportunities to point out how lacking Tolstoy was in self-awareness, the way he would preach nonsense so condescendingly while doing the opposite.

If you know me well enough to know my philosophy of life, it’ll be no mystery why this doesn’t sit well with me.

I’m almost the reverse of Wilson. Tolstoy’s greatness to me lies precisely in his philosophy.

I say “almost the reverse” rather than “the reverse,” because while Wilson and I are diametrically opposed on Tolstoy’s philosophy, I’m not at the opposite extreme from him on Tolstoy’s writing.

Wilson states with great confidence (as he states just about all his assessments) that Tolstoy is at the top of the heap as a writer, as a novelist. I certainly don’t think Tolstoy is garbage as a writer, but I’m not prepared to put him quite on that level.

That’s in part because literary criticism is not my field. I’m frankly not qualified to rank the greatest novelists of all time. I make no bones about the fact that any opinions I state about such matters are really just a reflection of how much or how little a writer’s work touched me, entertained me, had some meaning to me, changed my life in some positive way. I admit it’s very subjective.

In those terms, I can say that Tolstoy’s writings (I’m talking now about the work of the younger Tolstoy, the stuff Wilson holds out as the best ever, not the more didactic and philosophical of his later writings) impressed me and won me over to a significant degree, but not to where I’d put him at or very close to number one. I suppose he’s in the top twenty of the major authors I’ve read, maybe even in the top ten, but there are plenty of novelists whose work I’ve enjoyed as much or more. Dostoyevsky, for one. I love Dostoyevsky’s fiction and definitely get caught up in his books more than I did in War and Peace or Anna Karenina.

I will say, though, that I love Resurrection. When asked on a college application form what book had had the greatest impact on me up to that point of my life (or something to that effect, I don’t remember exactly), I chose Resurrection. And to Wilson’s credit, even though the book was written during the period of Tolstoy’s life when he was most focused on the religious and moral principles that Wilson finds so silly and very much reflects those principles, and even though many critics are dismissive of it for this very reason, Wilson praises it was one of Tolstoy’s best books.

But anyway, as far as assessing the “greatness” of a writer, I’m somewhat skeptical that—once you pass a certain level of excellence at least—there’s much if any objective difference in the quality of the writing of different writers.

So on the one hand I want to be humble and say that I can only talk about my subjective reaction to what I read rather than give an objective assessment of its merits, unlike Wilson and people who have the training and experience to do this for a living. But on the other hand I’m not convinced that Wilson and his ilk are on that much more solid ground than I am in their literary opinions.

I won’t go all the way to a relativist position, or even very close to all the way, but there’s something about the way Wilson rattles off his opinions on literary merit (as well as his interpretations of works of fiction, his psychological explanations of how they relate to the author’s life, etc.) as if he’s just stating facts that makes me shake my head.

But anyway, certainly what’s a lot more important to me is Tolstoy’s philosophy. I concede that Wilson is far more qualified to evaluate Tolstoy’s literary work than I am (again, insofar as art, as art, is something that has objective value and disvalue at all), but nothing I read here impels me to make a similar concession as to his capacity to evaluate moral and political philosophies.

He’s just as cocksure in expressing his opinion that Tolstoy is a buffoon when it comes to philosophy and theology as he is in expressing his opinion that Tolstoy is a genius when it comes to writing novels, but he’s on my turf now, and I frankly don’t feel threatened.

Maybe “property is theft,” “Christ was not a Christian,” “if violence is wrong, then state violence is wrong,” and the other claims Wilson ridicules are false, but they are not self-contradictory or too absurd on their face to need refutation.

If you want to argue against them, have at it. But first you have to try to understand them and understand the reasons a person might claim them, and then you have to offer your own superior reasons to refute them.

Take “property is theft.” First off, what might a slogan like this mean (that’s not simplistically self-contradictory)?

In any society there are things that it is not legal to buy and sell, things that are not available for private ownership. Some are best described as unowned, and some as collectively owned by all the members of the society. Sometimes the collectively owned ones are controlled by the government and sometimes they are not.

In most societies you can’t own another human being (i.e., slavery). In most societies you can’t buy and sell sexual services (i.e., prostitution). National Parks in a country like the United States are not privately owned, but are administered by the government to keep them available for everyone. In some tribal societies, land was not privately owned. A famous episode of The Simpsons, where Mr. Burns builds a giant device to block the sun and proposes to charge the citizenry for each hour they want it open like the retractable roof on a dome stadium, reminds us that the private ownership of sunlight is not an idea we’re comfortable with.

And on and on. What should and shouldn’t be available for private ownership is an open question that societies must grapple with. Many libertarians of an Ayn Rand type no doubt would say that societies, including the United States, should decrease the size of the set of things not available for private ownership even smaller than it already is. Others believe just the opposite, that we should cease recognizing property rights in many things that currently are available for private ownership. Each side has their own economic and philosophical arguments for their position.

To say “property is theft,” to me, is just a colorful way of saying that the set of things that is not available for private ownership should be greatly expanded, that to allow the scale of private ownership most societies do today is unjust in that it results in a comparatively small class of people being able to parlay their property advantage into an enormous political advantage and oppress and exploit the majority.

That private property leads to untold evil seems to me obviously true. What exact limits there should be on it is another question (since various limits can lead to various other evils). The notion that it should be curtailed drastically—as perhaps in a tribal society or commune-type situation—may not be the best option, or may not be attainable in the short run since it would need a massive change in people’s values and expectations, but I don’t regard it as the equivalent of “Bronchitis is a metal.”

Even less do I concede that there’s anything absurd about saying Christ wasn’t a Christian.

What is so obscure or outlandish about such a claim, after all? It rests on the obvious truth that a term can change its meaning over time, an institution can change its nature over time, or something can be named after something without being true to it.

There’s no guarantee that just because a person or institution uses the term “Christian” as a self-description, that that person lives by what Jesus taught or stood for.

Look at all the totalitarian countries that have had a term like “Democratic” in their name. Is it really so ridiculous to claim that such countries aren’t in fact democracies?

I believe Marx toward the end of his life said that he did not regard himself as a Marxist, i.e., that what “Marxist” had come to mean no longer reflected his philosophy closely enough for him to embrace the label. Was he shouting “Bronchitis is a metal!” by saying that?

When I look at all the things that have gone by the name “Christian” over the years, not only do I not accept that the claim that “Christ was not a Christian” is self-contradictory or nonsensical, I think it’s largely true.

But rather than dig into some of the other specifics, my more general reaction is that Wilson’s moral worldview is importantly different from mine.

I’m a moral “radical” in a sense. I think the “normal” or “common sense” way that people learn it’s OK to interact has been a miserable failure. I don’t think leaving things the way they are, or tinkering with them only slightly, will lead to a promising future. Indeed, I put the probability quite high that more of the same will lead to some form of Armageddon, e.g., an all-out nuclear war, devastating climate change, whatever. I suspect that morally we need to look way, way outside the box to find a better way to live than what we’re used to.

I think every so often someone comes along and catches the imagination of a good portion of the world by giving them a glimpse of what that something might be. Gandhi is an obvious example from recent history. As the Mirabehn character says in the partly fictionalized Gandhi movie, “He offered the world a way out of madness.”

Assuming Jesus or Buddha were actual historical figures, perhaps they taught something similar.

This is what Tolstoy had the genius to see. This is what Tolstoy tapped into. This is why when Tolstoy died, as Wilson himself writes:

The huge crowd was full of reverence. They defied their priests by singing the ancient Russian funeral hymns. When the coffin passed them by, everyone except the police removed their hats and many fell to their knees. It is one of the most extraordinary demonstrations of public sympathy in the history of the world. No novelist has ever been given such a funeral, but it was not for his novels that they honoured him. It was for the deeds which now seem to us half mad and quixotic; it was for those volumes of his work which most readers now leave unread. Of the thousands of people who stood and watched as Tolstoy’s coffin was carried through the glade and buried in that favourite childhood spot, no more than a handful had so much as heard of War and Peace.

Why this outpouring of love for a man associated with things that “seem to us [“us” of course meaning Wilson] half mad and quixotic”? Was theirs a common reaction to lunatics who wander around babbling gibberish like “Bronchitis is a metal”?

People loved him because he asked for their best. He told them that as individuals and as a species, human beings can and should love one another and should refrain from violence in thought, word, and deed. He told them that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” did not cease to apply because you had money, or wore a certain kind of uniform, or were given certain orders by certain people. He told them there were no loopholes, no compromises, to the law of love. He told them that insofar as it supposedly wasn’t “realistic” to live by this law that this was a matter of social reality only, and that social reality is what we make it. He reminded them of the simplest and most beautiful values that they’d associated with Christ all their lives, in spite of institutional churches encrusting Christ’s teachings with a massive amount of superfluous supernaturalism and superstitions.

Wilson can’t see that. Tolstoy preached that the essence of Christ’s teachings boiled down to simple principles of love, from which pacifism and anarchism can be easily derived, and that all the rest about resurrections, a three-sided God, miracles, Heaven and Hell, holy icons, saints with supernatural powers, etc. can be jettisoned as either nonsensical or unknowable.

Wilson believes this is not only historically unlikely as a description of what Christ believed and taught, but that it’s precisely reversed as far as the importance of the Christian faith. Eliminate the mystery, the grandeur, the magic of God taking bodily form, performing miracles, dying for our sins, being resurrected, etc., he says, and all you’re left with is some ordinary mortal mouthing platitudes and principles that would be utterly silly if taken literally.

These teachings of love and nonviolence that Tolstoy preached and that he attributed—accurately or not—to Christ are indeed simple, and I suppose platitudinous. They’re simple and obvious in the way that “The Emperor has no clothes on!” is simple and obvious, or at least would be if our minds could escape from the social reality of “common sense” the way a child’s can.

The world Tolstoy pleaded for isn’t madness; the world as it is that he described is madness. “He offered the world a way out of madness,” as others had before, as Gandhi—partly inspired by him—did after, and as no doubt others will in the future. For as long as we have a future, that is, which may not be long if instead of following the way they’ve shown us, we remain on our present path, chortling like Wilson over how history has proven ideals like Tolstoy’s wrong.

Hey, I too think Tolstoy got plenty wrong. I’m not with him on most of his anti-sex stuff, and I think on gender issues he was mediocre even compared to his times, which is pretty awful.

And I know how far short he fell of living like he advocated, the way he still manifested anger and jealousy, the way he lived in greater comfort than the average Russian (on property owned by his wife, since he’d given up his own property rights).

But that doesn’t make Wilson’s general snottiness called for. At least it doesn’t provoke such feelings in me. It also doesn’t entail the conclusion Wilson seems to draw from it; I don’t see how Tolstoy’s failure to fully embody the principles he advocated establishes that those principles are wrong (much less “silly”).

While reading this book, my mind kept going back to a passage I remembered from Tolstoy, a passage that really hit home with me the first time I came across it, a passage that I felt addressed Wilson’s snide attitude. Ironically, late in the book Wilson quotes this very passage as a caution not to be too hard on Tolstoy.

Talk about lacking in self-awareness. What of Wilson’s hundreds of gleeful pages describing every flaw in Tolstoy and how it invalidated his philosophy? Anyway, here’s the passage:

“Well, but you, Lev Nikolayevich; you preach—but how about practice?” People always put it to me and always triumphantly shut my mouth with it. “You preach, but how do you live?” And I reply that I do not preach, though I passionately desire to do so. I could only preach by deeds; and my deeds are bad. What I say is not a sermon but only a refutation of the false understanding of the Christian teaching and an explanation of its real meaning….Blame me—I do that myself—but blame me and not the path I tread, and show to those who ask me where in my opinion the road lies! If I know the road home and go along it drunk, staggering from side to side—does that make the road along which I go the wrong one?

When I read Tolstoy’s words, when I read of him and of his flaws, my heart goes out to him. I see a man in terrible pain contemplating the gulf that exists between what he is and what he ought to be, between what mankind is and what it ought to be.

Good God, of course he doesn’t live up to his ideals. His ideals are perfectionist ideals. Loving your worst enemy? Speaking only the truth? Feeling only good will toward everyone you interact with? Abstaining from all addictive substances and activities? Relinquishing all the luxuries in life that detract from the living of a moral life? Never acting violently toward another human being, whatever the provocation?

Yeah, he didn’t do that. It would be hard enough to live that way in the most supportive possible environment, but the social reality we’ve created routinely incentivizes doing the opposite of these things. We’re bombarded with messages from birth, spoken and unspoken, that pull us away from this kind of life.

It’s not “realistic” to live this way, as Wilson (for some reason) delights in constantly reiterating.

But in no way does the difficulty, nay the impossibility, of Tolstoy or any other human being achieving moral perfection invalidate moral perfection.

You do the best you can, and you hope that those coming after you will do better. And maybe they will, if everyone who at least strives for the perfection of truth and nonviolence by his or her example alters the social reality some tiny bit to make the path that much easier for those who follow.

Tolstoy was a tortured, seriously flawed, genius, who tried his best to step away from the madness, and to call to others to do likewise. The masses who followed his coffin to its final resting place knew that they’d never achieve moral perfection any more than he had. But rather than sneer at him and his incessant and futile striving, they wept for him, recognizing—as Wilson does not—yet another messenger whose message of radical, transformative, outside-the-box, way-beyond-common-sense, uncompromising love we ignore at our peril.


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