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The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy | The Nation

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The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy

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There is an emblematic moment in "Father Sergius." The title character, impelled by his prophetic dream, seeks out an old woman he had known as a girl. "It can't be!" she exclaims: "Styopa! Sergius! Father Sergius!" The names summarize his ascent, from boy to man to famous ascetic. "Yes, himself," he replies, "only not Sergius, not Father Sergius, but the great sinner Stepan Kasatsky." Salvation happens in Tolstoy's great novels, too, but it happens very differently. Both Levin in Anna Karenina and Pierre in War and Peace come eventually to understand the truth of conduct and the meaning of life, and understand them in Christian terms, but their journeys are still novelistic, still patterned on the idea of Bildung, personal development, that governed the nineteenth-century novel. The individual enters into adult experience, tries his hand at this and that--"he had long sought in various directions for that peace, that harmony with himself," we read of Pierre, "sought it in philanthropy, in Masonry, in the distractions of social life, in wine, in a heroic deed of self-sacrifice, in romantic love for Natasha"--and at last discovers his place in the world. Inner aligns with outer, soul with society, and the young man, as we say, makes a name for himself. (Or young woman: Elizabeth Bennet turns into Mrs. Darcy.)

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William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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But in the later Tolstoy, the confrontation runs between, not inner and outer, but inner and, as it were, innermost. "Father Sergius," the climax of the old woman's sequence, the name that does indeed manifest the man for all the world to see--his talent and courage, his pride and ambition--is precisely the problem. "Not Father Sergius, but the great sinner Stepan Kasatsky." That's really who he is--until finally, surrendering even that designation to a wanderer's anonymity, he becomes just no one at all. For the later Tolstoy, the layers a novelistic character accumulates--vocation, family, identity--are things to be discarded. Not, here, a thickening into wisdom but a lightening into humility. Not education, but revelation. Not development, but renunciation: the self stripped to its core.

The self stripped, finally, of itself. Renunciation, passed to the limit, becomes death--or at least indifference to life. "Master and Man," with the archetypal directness its title implies, gives us both alternatives. Two men are caught in a blizzard. The master, a smug and greedy merchant and thus a kind of spiritual relative, at a different level of class, to Ivan Ilyich, achieves salvation, at the very end, by giving his life for his servant. But the servant, the "man"--he is Nikita, the one who leads the horse--has known salvation all along, because he holds his life cheap. "What," the master says in the midst of the storm, "should I perish like this, for nothing?" But Nikita says to himself, "Well, no help for it, you'll have to get used to the new." He waits for God; he takes what comes.

Yet the story, a brilliantly subtle double portrait, still psychologizes Nikita's serenity. He trusts in the afterlife, and in any case, his existence here "was not a continuous feast, but, on the contrary, a ceaseless servitude." But in "Alyosha the Pot," Tolstoy creates a character whose peace passes our understanding. Alyosha is purity itself, a holy fool, a lifelong child--though his life is cut off at 21. He works, he obeys, he accepts. And at the end he says, "Why not? Can we just keep on living?" His story, five pages long, is a soap bubble, a folk tale, the last perfection of Tolstoy's late art, struck off, in his late 70s, in the space of a single day--as brief, as innocent, as complete in its simplicity as its subject.

Alyosha does have one adventure: he falls in love with the cook. But the master forbids it, so he gives it up. Tolstoy--and here we can scarcely believe him, let alone comply--would have us do likewise. No marriage, no sex--like the Shakers:

"All the same," I said, "...the human race would come to an end."...
 "Why should it go on, this human race?" he said.
 "Why? If it didn't we wouldn't exist."
 "And why should we exist?"

The exchange is from "The Kreutzer Sonata," a tale of adultery and murder and one of several stories here that revile sexuality--and as the title suggests, the music that provokes it--with a kind of helpless despair. (Its condemnation of marriage and frank treatment of sex made it the most notorious of Tolstoy's many controversial works. The czarist government effectively banned it; Theodore Roosevelt was moved to call its author, with brilliant if unintentional ambiguity, a "sexual moral pervert.") Another is "The Devil," drawn from Tolstoy's affair with one of his peasants and so akin in setting and characters that it seems like an outtake from the Levin--that is, the autobiographical--half of Anna Karenina. The title casts a net of reference from which nothing, finally, escapes. The devil is woman, the devil is man, the devil is desire itself.

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