Tolstoy As Artist

Leo Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, once said in an essay on aesthetics that the Bible was the greatest work of literary art ever written. He was wrong. The Bible is a truly remarkable piece of literature, but it is not art at all. It is the opposite of art: it is pure didacticism. It is designed to teach, whereas art is designed to delight. We engage didactic works with our intellect, we engage works of art with our imagination and our heart.  William Gass saw this clearly, and he should know as he is not only a philosopher who writes readable essays (which sets him apart), he is also an author of novels and short stories. He once insisted that when novels succeed as art they don’t tell, they show. Theirs is not discursive language, the language of the philosopher or the psychologist, it is metaphorical and poetic; the novelist seeks to present characters and events in their full presentational immediacy, as much as possible.  Gass provides a most apt example from Shakespeare:

“Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus walk upon the castle platform awaiting midnight and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Hamlet says, “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold,: and Horatio answers, “It is a nipping and an eager air.” Hamlet and Horatio do not think of it as cold, simply. The dog of air’s around them, shrewd and eager, running at heels. The behavior of this dog is wittingly precise in their minds. It nags — shrewishly, wifelike. The air is acidulous, too, like sour wine. Hamlet and Horatio, furthermore, are aware of the physical quality of their words. Horatio not only develops Hamlet’s implicit figure, he concludes the exchange with the word that began it, and with sonorous sounds. The nature of the weather is conveyed to us with marvelous exactitude and ease, in remarks made by the way, far from the center of action, so that we find ourselves with knowledge of it in just the offhand way we would if, bent on meeting a king’ ghost, we too went through the sharp wind. Yet Hamlet’s second clause is useless. “The air bites shrewdly” is the clause that tells us everything. It is cold. The wind is out. The wind is alive, malevolent with wise jaws. The two clauses have a very close relation. The first is metaphorical, the second literal. Both are about the weather, but the one is art, the other not.”

In the case of Tolstoy — especially in War and Peace — the novelist  cannot resist the temptation to philosophize and engage in polemics and even criticism (usually of historians who regard the telling of history as a science), which detract from the novel considered as a work of art. Indeed, the second part of the Epilogue is a lengthy and somewhat dry philosophical treatise on power, history, and free will. Interesting though it is in many ways, it has no literary merit whatever. Tolstoy’s novel is also disconcertingly jingoistic and given to inaccuracies and contradictions. He seems at times to simply be musing. This makes the novel far too long, though it remains, on the whole, a great literary work and even a fine work of art. How is this possible?

It is possible because despite its many flaws, Tolstoy is insightful and a masterful wordsmith; he is no Shakespeare, but he is able to lean convincingly on historical events (and bend them to his purpose); provide precise and moving descriptions of events, places and people; portray his main characters with great sensitivity and care, including penetrating insights into human motivation and feeling; and, for the most part, allow the novel to have its head. When the man takes control, as he does on many occasions, the artist takes a back seat and the novel fails as art. The novel taken as a whole is a fascinating struggle between Tolstoy the man and Tolstoy the artist. But there are enough moments when the artist is in full control to judge the novel as a remarkable work of art — if one can say that the novelist ever truly controls the novel. And those  moments are full of beauty and passion, fully able to engage the reader on a visceral level as well on the level of imagination and intellect. When the man, Tolstoy, writes there is much to think about; when the artist takes pen in hand, the reader is touched on a deep, human level.

So, on balance, despite the fact that Tolstoy needed a good editor who could have shortened the 1200 page novel to about 800 pages and helped the author work out some of the blemishes, no editor could have done what the novelist himself did and that was to write a novel that is also a masterful work of literary art — in spite of the fact that Tolstoy himself didn’t seem to know what art is.

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5 thoughts on “Tolstoy As Artist

  1. Hugh, your thoughts on jingoism are quite interesting. This term rears its ugly head more often than folks care to realize and it detracts from saner discussion on important issues. The observation that Tolstoy deployed its use is fascinating and not surprising.

    But, when we think about it, leaders, whether they are cruel or just, need to influence young men (and now women) to fight for reasons unknown to them. The leaders count on jingoism to persuade and coerce people to die for this cause. The war Tolstoy writes about needed as much jingoism as possible as it was such a disastrous affair. A word beginning with cluster comes to mind.

    Thanks for enlightening. BTG

  2. Indeed, one of my favorite Tolstoyans is “The Cossacks”, a semi autobiographical novel of his army service with these border guards. The writing is beautiful and revealing of the character of these noble, barbaric savages as they loyally serve the Tsar. His love for the Cossack maiden, Maryanka which cannot possibly be reciprocated, is touchingly described.

  3. hey! it’s z here coming up for air, and lucky for me to have this post patiently waiting my attention! i paused and read this part several times:”When the man takes control, as he does on many occasions, the artist takes a back seat and the novel fails as art.”– as that’s exactly what happens with me when i try to over think a painting, and ‘we’ struggle for hours or even for days. finally i stop approaching it with my mind and give the reins to the creative spirit, and it gallops (thunders?!) all the way to the end.’

    sorry i’ve been so quiet, and i’m about to become even more quiet… the little usb modem died this morning, so i’ll be offline unless i’m in town. in another week or so, i will try a new system.

    siempre,
    z

    • I was hoping this post would meet with your approval. And I always welcome your comments. You are like a fish that surfaces every now and again to get fresh air — when your computer decides to behave itself! Take care.

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