(The following is a guest post by Roger Gathman, freelancer, Texan, dry humorist and author of the weblog Limited, Inc.)
Lately, I’ve been pondering Lev Shestov's essay (Update: cache here) about Tolstoy, "The Last Judgment", in trying to understand the changes – the movement from mildmannered literatus to crazed anti-American -- that I’ve undergone over the last five years.
Being a person who likes to have names for things (who even, clownishly, likes the names better than the things), I think my discontent is all about moral laziness. Or, to put it another way: it is all about the moral laziness that seems to have flowed from the liberal order that I’ve always preferred, my whole life long.
I should say right away that I don’t take laziness to be the opposite of busyness. Quite the contrary – the perpetual scheduling self stands in the same relationship to moral laziness as the prison bars stand to the prisoner: they don’t make the prisoner, but they don’t allow the prisoner an option to be anything else.
Shestov’s essay begins like this:
Aristotle says somewhere that every one has his own particular world in his dreams, while in his waking state he lives in a world common to all. This statement is the basis, not only of Aristotle's philosophy, but also of all positive scientific philosophy, before and after him. Common sense also looks upon this as an indisputable truth.
The remark about worlds sets up Shestov’s theme, which is that Tolstoy’s career can be looked at as a conversion from a man who is quite happy with the world he shares in common with others to the torn world in which such commonalities escape him. In other words, he moves from a man who has a brilliant sense for the ordo et connexio rerum, as Shestov puts it, to a man who doesn’t, and has to make it all up.
Interestingly, Shestov locates the first Tolstoy in terms of politics – or more broadly, what Engels called the “official legend” in a piece he wrote on Russian Foreign Policy (I translated this, so it looks a bit different than the link):
For the vulgar-patriotic public the fame of victories, the conquests following one after the other, the power and the brilliance of the Czarist Empire richly outweighs all the sins, all the despotisms, all the injustices and arbitrary acts; the vulgar glorying of chauvinism, is a rich compensation for all the footsteps. And really the more as they know less about the real causes and particulars of these successes in Russia, and as an official legend replaces them, just as they are invented for the good of the subjects and the demands of patriotism by benign governments everywhere (for instance, in France and Germany). When a Russian becomes a chauvinist, sooner or later they will fall on their knees before the Czar’s Empire…
In Tolstoy’s case, as with many of the writers of Russia’s Golden age, there were two major injustices: serfdom and the ethnic cleansing of the Caucasus region. The former is famous, the latter less so – few people even know that a slo-mo version of what the Serbs tried to do in Bosnia was carried out as the Russians fought against the “Chechen bandits” and the like, or that between 500 thousand a million souls were expelled to Turkey, with who knows how many deaths in that exodus, and with the dispersal of these people over the Middle East.
To illustrate the liberal Tolstoy, Shestov quotes his defense of War and Peace:
“He had been reproached with not having sufficiently depicted the character of the times in War and Peace.
To these reproaches, Tolstoy declares, ‘I should reply as follows: I know quite well what are the characteristics of the times, which are supposed to be wanting in my novel: the horrors of serfdom, the burial of women alive, the flogging by men of their grown sons, Saltychikha, etc., but I do not consider that this character, as we imagine it today, conforms to reality, and therefore I did not want to describe it. I have studied letters, memoirs, and hearsay, but have not found that these horrors were more frequent then than now or at any other period. People loved in those days, were jealous, sought truth, virtue, or were the slaves of their passions just as now; the intellectual and moral life was the same - often, indeed, more refined than today, especially in the upper classes. If we represent these times to ourselves as particularly cruel and brutal, it is only because the novels, stories, and legends of that period have only preserved what was exceptionally brutal or strikingly savage.’
And so everything was going along swimmingly. The great works, the discovery of piety, the opining, the official legend of which one must grant, with a little historic distance, that mistakes were made and excesses committed.
To further illustrate this world we have in common, Shestov quotes a letter that Tolstoy received from Dostoevsky’s biographer. I think this is one of the most fascinating anecdotes I have ever read, so, although it is long, I’m going to quote this. And then, if Matt wants me to do a follow-up to this post (which I hope he does), I will complete my thought. Too much, though, for one post. This is the letter from Shatov to Tolstoy:
“All the time that I was writing I had to struggle against a feeling of disgust which kept rising in me. I tried to stifle my evil thoughts. Help me to get rid of them! I cannot look upon Dostoevsky either as a good or a happy man. He was malicious, envious, and debauched. Throughout his whole life he was a prey to passions which would have rendered him miserable and ridiculous if he had not been so clever and so wicked. I remembered these feelings vividly while I was writing his biography. In Switzerland once he treated his servant so abominably in my presence that the man could stand it no longer and cried out, "But I am a man too!" I remember how these words struck me as reflecting the ideas of a free Swiss on the rights of man, and addressed to one who was for ever preaching to us about humanist feelings. Such scenes occurred frequently, he was unable to control his bad temper. Many times I answered his ravings with silence, when he burst out suddenly and often perversely, like an old woman; but once or twice I did break out and say very disagreeable things to him.
But he always got the better of ordinary people, and the worst of it was that he enjoyed it and never genuinely repented of his bad behaviour. He liked wickedness and gloried in it. Vistovatov (a professor of Dorpat University) told me how he had boasted to him of having seduced in her bath a little girl who had been brought to him by her governess. Among the characters of his books, the ones most like him are the hero of The Notes from Underground, Svidrigailov, and Stavrogin. Katov refused to publish one of the scenes with Stravrogin (the rape, etc.), but Dostoevsky read it aloud here to a large company of people. With all this, he was inclined to sickly sentimentality, and exalted humanitarian dreams, and it is these dreams, his literary gifts, and his tenderness of heart which endear him to us. In fact, all his novels are an attempt to exonerate their author; they show that the most hideous villainy can exist in a man side by side with the noblest feelings. This is a little commentary to my biography; I could describe that side of Dostoevsky's character; I remember many other incidents even more remarkable than those which I have quoted; my story would have been more genuine; but let the truth perish; let us go on exhibiting the beautiful side of life, just as we always do on every occasion.”
I do not know if in the whole of literature there are many documents more valuable than this. I am not even sure whether Strakhov himself really understood the meaning and significance of what he admitted to Tolstoy.
Yes, let the truth perish. I’m not unsympathetic with that idea, actually. I have no doubt that official legends have been woven by more than governments – in fact, what feeble left opposition I’ve ever been involved with in America spends almost all of its time weaving its own.
Still, there is something about that mistreated servant, saying “But I am a man too!” …
(to be continued, yes please –mc.)