Leo Tolstoy

Chesterton, G. K.; Perris, G. H.; Garnett, Edward

Hodder and Stoughton 1903

http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/modeng/modeng0.browse.html


TOLSTOY

IF any one wishes to form the fullest estimate of the real character and influence of the great man whose name is prefixed to these remarks, he will not find it in his novels, splendid as they are, or in his ethical views, clearly and finely as they are conceived and expanded. He will find it best expressed in the news that has recently come from Canada, that a sect of Russian Christian anarchists has turned all its animals loose, on the ground that it is immoral to possess them or control them. About such an incident as this there is a quality altogether independent of the rightness or wrongness, the sanity or insanity, of the view. It is first and foremost a reminder that the world is still young. There are still theories of life as insanely reasonable as those which were disputed under the clear blue skies of Athens. There are still examples of a faith as fierce and practical as that of the Mahometans, who swept across Africa and Europe, shouting a single word. To the languid contemporary politician and philosopher it seems doubtless like something out of a dream, that in this iron-bound, homogeneous, and clockwork age, a company of European men in boots and waistcoats should begin to insist on taking the horse out of the shafts of the omnibus, and lift the pig out of his pig-sty, and the dog out of his kennel, because of a moral scruple or theory. It is like a page from some fairy farce to imagine the Doukhabor solemnly escorting a hen to the door of the yard and bidding it a benevolent farewell as it sets out on its travels. All this, as I say, seems mere muddle-headed absurdity to the typical leader of human society in this decade, to a man like Mr. Balfour, or Mr. Wyndham. But there is nevertheless a further thing to be said, and that is that, if Mr. Balfour could be converted to a religion which taught him that he was morally bound to walk into the House of Commons on his hands, and he did walk on his hands, if Mr. Wyndham could accept a creed which taught that he ought to dye his hair blue, and he did dye his hair blue, they would both of them be, almost beyond description, better and happier men than they are. For there is only one happiness possible or conceivable under the sun, and that is enthusiasm--that strange and splendid word that has passed through so many vicissitudes, which meant, in the eighteenth century the condition of a lunatic, and in ancient Greece the presence of a god.

This great act of heroic consistency which has taken place in Canada is the best example of the work of Tolstoy. It is true (as I believe) that the Doukhabors have an origin quite independent of the great Russian moralist, but there can surely be little doubt that their emergence into importance and the growth and mental distinction of their sect, is due to his admirable summary and justification of their scheme of ethics. Tolstoy, besides being a magnificent novelist, is one of the very few men alive who have a real, solid, and serious view of life. He is a Catholic church, of which he is the only member, the somewhat arrogant Pope and the somewhat submissive layman. He is one of the two or three men in Europe, who have an attitude towards things so entirely their own, that we could supply their inevitable view on anything--a silk hat, a Home Rule Bill, an Indian poem, or a pound of tobacco. There are three men in existence who have such an attitude: Tolstoy, Mr. Bernard Shaw, and my friend Mr. Hilaire Belloc. They are all diametrically opposed to each other, but they all have this essential resemblance, that, given their basis of thought, their soil of conviction, their opinions on every earthly subject grow there naturally, like flowers in a field. There are certain views of certain things that they must take; they do not form opinions, the opinions form themselves. Take, for instance, in the case of Tolstoy, the mere list of miscellaneous objects which I wrote down at random above, a silk hat, a Home Rule Bill, an Indian poem, and a pound of tobacco. Tolstoy would say: "I believe in the utmost possible simplification of life; therefore, this silk hat is a black abortion." He would say: "I believe in the utmost possible simplification of life; therefore, this Home Rule Bill is a mere peddling compromise; it is no good to break up a centralised empire into nations, you must break the nation up into individuals." He would say: "I believe in the utmost possible simplification of life; therefore, I am interested in this Indian poem, for Eastern ethics, under all their apparent gorgeousness, are far simpler and more Tolstoyan than Western." He would say: "I believe in the utmost possible simplification of life; therefore, this pound of tobacco is a thing of evil; take it away." Everything in the world, from the Bible to a bootjack, can be, and is, reduced by Tolstoy to this great fundamental Tolstoyan principle, the simplification of life. When we deal with a body of opinion like this we are dealing with an incident in the history of Europe infinitely more important than the appearance of Napoleon Buonaparte.

This emergence of Tolstoy, with his awful and simple ethics, is important in more ways than one. Among other things it is a very interesting commentary on an attitude which has been taken up for the matter of half a century by all the avowed opponents of religion. The secularist and the sceptic have denounced Christianity first and foremost, because of its encouragement of fanaticism; because religious excitement led men to burn their neighbours and to dance naked down the street. How queer it all sounds now. Religion can be swept out of the matter altogether, and still there are philosophical and ethical theories which can produce fanaticism enough to fill the world. Fanaticism has nothing at all to do with religion. There are grave scientific theories which, if carried out logically, would result in the same fires in the market-place and the same nakedness in the street. There are modern esthetes who would expose themselves like the Adamites if they could do it in elegant attitudes. There are modern scientific moralists who would burn their opponents alive, and would be quite contented if they were burnt by some new chemical process. And if any one doubts this proposition--that fanaticism has nothing to do with religion, but has only to do with human nature--let him take this case of Tolstoy and the Doukhabors. A sect of men start with no theology at all, but with the simple doctrine that we ought to love our neighbour and use no force against him, and they end in thinking it wicked to carry a leather handbag, or to ride in a cart. A great modern writer who erases theology altogether, denies the validity of the Scriptures and the Churches alike, forms a purely ethical theory that love should be the instrument of reform, and ends by maintaining that we have no right to strike a man if he is torturing a child before our eyes. He goes on, he develops a theory of the mind and the emotions, which might be held by the most rigid atheist, and he ends by maintaining that the sexual relation out of which all humanity has come, is not only not moral, but is positively not natural. This is fanaticism as it has been and as it will always be. Destroy the last copy of he Bible, and persecution and insane orgies will be founded on Mr. Herbert Spencer's "Synthetic Philosophy." Some of the broadest thinkers of the Middle Ages believed in faggots, and some of the broadest thinkers in the nineteenth century believe in dynamite.

The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic: and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism: they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticisrn has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic. It is significant that, with all that has been said about the excitability of poets, only one English poet ever went mad, and he went mad from a logical system of theology. He was Cowper, and his poetry retarded his insanity for many years. So poetry, in which Tolstoy is deficient, has always been a tonic and sanative thing. The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism--the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.

G. K. CHESTERTON.

LEO TOLSTOY AS WRITER

HALF the ignorance or misunderstanding of this greatest living figure in literature comes of the attempt to judge him as we judge the specialised Western novelist--an utterly futile method of approach. He is a Russian, in the first place. Had he come to Paris with Turguenieff, he might have been similarly re-nationalised, might possibly have developed into a writer pure and simple; the world might so have gained a few great romances--it would have lost infinitely in other directions. Turguenieff wished it so. "My friend," he wrote to Tolstoy from his deathbed, "return to literature! Reflect that that gift comes to you whence everything comes to us. Ah! how happy I should be if I could think that my prayers could influence you.... My friend, great writer of our Russian land, hear my entreaty!" For once, the second greatest of modern Russians took a narrow view of character and destiny. Genius must work itself out on its own lines. Tolstoy remained a Russian from tip to toe--that is one of his supreme values for us; and he remained an indivisible personality. The artist and the moralist are inseparable in his works. "We are not to take 'Anna Karenina' as a work of art," said Matthew Arnold; "we are to take it as a piece of life." The distinction is not very satisfactorily stated, but the meaning is clear. So, too, W. D. Howells, in his introduction to an American edition of the "Sebastopol Sketches": "I do not know how it is with others to whom these books of Tolstoy's have come, but for my part I cannot think of them as literature in the artistic sense at all. Some people complain to me when I praise them that they are too long, too diffuse, too confused, that the characters' names are hard to pronounce, and that the life they portray is very sad and not amusing. In the presence of these criticisms I can only say that I find them nothing of the kind, but that each history of Tolstoy's is as clear, as orderly, as brief, as something I have lived through myself. I cannot think of any service which imaginative literature has done the race so great as that which Tolstoy has done in his conception of Karenina at that crucial moment when the cruelly outraged man sees that he cannot be good with dignity. This leaves all tricks of fancy, all effects of art, immeasurably behind." So much being said, however, we may be allowed to emphasise in this qualities and achievements of Tolstoy as artist, rather than the expositions of Christian Anarchism and the social philippics under which those achievements have been somewhat hidden in recent years.

Morbid introspectiveness and the spirit of revolt inevitably colour what is best in nineteenth-century Russia. Born at Yasnaya Polyana ("Clear Field"), Tula, in 1828, and early orphaned, Tolstoy's youth synchronised with the period of reaction that brought the Empire to the humiliating disasters of the Crimean War. No hope was left in the thin layer of society lying between the two mill-stones of the Court and the serfs; none in the little sphere of art where Byronic romanticism was ready to expire. The boy saw from the first the rottenness of the patriarchal aristocracy in which his lot seemed to be cast. Precocious, abnormally sensitive and observant, impatient of discipline and formal learning, awkward and bashful, always brooding, not a little conceited, he was a sceptic at fifteen, and left the University of Kazan in disgust at the stupid conventions of the time and place, without taking his degree. "Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth"--which appeared in three sections between 1852 and 1857--tells the story of this period, though the figure of Irtenieff is probably a projection rather than a portrait of himself, to whom he is always less fair, not to say merciful, than to others. This book is a most uncompromising exercise in self-analysis. It of great length, there is no plot, and few outer events are recorded.

The realism is generally morbid, but is varied by some passages of great descriptive power, such as the account of the storm, and occasionally with tender pathos, as in the story of the soldier's death, as well as by grimly vivid pages, such as the narrative of the mother's death. In this earliest work will be found the seeds both of Tolstoy's artistic genius and of his ethical gospel.

After five years of mildly benevolent efforts among his serfs at Yasnaya Polyana (the disappointments of which he related a few years later in "A Landlord's Morning," intended to have been part of a full novel called "A Russian Proprietor"), his elder brother Nicholas persuaded him to join the army, and in 1851 he was drafted to the Caucasus as an artillery officer. On this favourite stage of Russian romance, where for the first time he saw the towering mountains and the tropical sun, and met the rugged adventurous highlanders, Tolstoy felt his imagination stirred as Byron among the isles of Greece, and his early revulsion against city life confirmed as Wordsworth amid the Lakes, as Thoreau at Walden, by a direct call from Nature to his own heart. The largest result of this experience was "The Cossacks" (1852). Turguenieff described this fine prose epic of the contact of civilised and savage man as "the best novel written in our language." "The Raid" (or "The Invaders," as Mr. Dole's translation is entitled), same year, "The Wood-Cutting Expedition" (1855), "Meeting an Old Acquaintance" (1856), and "A Prisoner in the Caucasus" (1862) are also drawn from recollections of this sojourn, and show the same descriptive and romantic power. Upon the outbreak of the Crimean War the Count was called to Sebastopol, where he had command of a battery, and took part in the defence of the citadel. The immediate product of these dark months of bloodshed was the thrilling series of impressions reprinted from one of the leading Russian reviews as "Sebastopol Sketches" (1856). From that day onward Tolstoy knew and hateful truth about war and the thoughtless pseudo-patriotism which hurries nations into fratricidal slaughter. From that there was expunged from his mind all the cheap romanticism which depends upon the glorification of the savage nature. These wonderful pictures of the routine of the battlefield established his position in Russia as a writer, and later on created in Western countries an impression like that of the canvases of Verestchagin.

For a brief time Tolstoy became a figure in the old and new capitals of Russia by right of talent as well as birth. His very chequered friendship with Turguenieff, one of the oddest chapters in literary history, can only be mentioned here. In 1857 he travelled in Germany, France, and Italy. It was of these years that he declared in "My Confession" that he could not think of them without horror, disgust, and pain of heart. The catalogue of crime which he charged against himself in his salvationist crisis of twenty years later must not be taken literally; but that there was some ground for it we may guess from the scenic and incidental realism of the "Recollections of a Billiard Marker" (1856), and of many a later page. Several other powerful short novels date from about this time, including "Albert" and "Lucerne," both of which remind us of the Count's susceptibility to music; "Polikushka," a tale of peasant life; and "Family Happiness," the story of a marriage that failed, a most clear, consistent, forceful, and in parts beautiful piece of work, anticipating in essentials "The Kreutzer Sonata" that was to scandalise the world thirty years afterward.

After all, it was family happiness that saved Leo Tolstoy. For the third time the hand of death had snatched away one of the nearest to him--his brother Nicholas. Two years later, in 1862, he married Miss Behrs, daughter of the army surgeon in Tula--the most fortunate thing that has happened to him in his whole life, I should think. Family responsibilities, those novel and daring experiments in peasant education which are recorded in several volumes of the highest interest, the supervision of the estate, magisterial work, and last, but not least, the prolonged labours upon "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" fill up the next fifteen years. "War and Peace" (1864-9) is a huge panorama of the Napoleonic campaign of 1812, with preceding and succeeding episodes in Russian society. These four volumes display in their superlative degree Tolstoy's indifference to plot and his absorption in individual character; they are rather a series of scenes threaded upon the fortunes of several families than a set novel; but they contain passages of penetrating psychology and vivid description, as well as a certain amount of anarchist theorising. Of this work, by which its author became known in the West, Flaubert (how the name carries us backward!) wrote: "It is of the first order. What a painter and what a psychologist! The two first volumes are sublime, but the third drags frightfully. There are some quite Shakespearean things in it." The artist's hand was now strengthening for his highest attainment. In 1876 appeared "Anna Karenina," his greatest, and as he intended at the time (but Art is not so easily jilted), his last novel. The fine qualities of this book, which, though long, is dramatically unified and vitally coherent, have been so fully recognised that I need not attempt to describe them. Mr. George Meredith has described Anna as "the most perfectly depicted female character in all fiction," which, from the author of "Diana," is praise indeed. Parallel with the main subject of the illicit love of Anna and Vronsky there is a minor subject in the fortunes of Levin and Kitty, wherein the reader will discover many of Tolstoy's own experiences. Matthew Arnold complained that the book contained too many characters and a burdensome multiplicity of actions, but praised its author's extraordinarily fine perception and no less extraordinary truthfulness, and frankly revelled in Anna's "large, fresh, rich, generous, delightful nature." "When I had ended my work 'Anna Karenina,'" said Tolstoy in "My Confession" (1879-82), "my despair reached such a height that I could do nothing but think of the horrible condition in which I found myself.... I saw only one thing--Death. Everything else was a lie." Of that spiritual crisis nothing need be said here except that it only intensified, and did not really, as it seemed to do, vitally change, principles and instincts which had possessed Tolstoy from the beginning. His subsequent ethical and religious development may be traced in a long series of books and pamphlets, of which the most important are "The Gospels Translated, Compared, and Harmonised" (1880-2), "What I Believe" ["My Religion"], produced abroad in 1884, "What is to be Done?" (1884-5), "Life" (1887), "Work" (1888), "The Kingdom of God is Within You" (1893), "Non-Action" (1894), "Patriotism and Christianity" (1896)--crusade, in the foreign and the clandestine presses at least, against all Imperial authority and social maladjustments. Mr. Tchertkoff, Mr. Aylmer Maudej the "Brotherhood Publishing Co.," and the "Free Age Press" deserve praise for their efforts to popularise these and other works of the Count in thoroughly good translations. In "What is Art?" (1898), not content with the bare utilitarian argument that it is merely a means of social union, he launched a jehad against all modern ideas of Art which rely upon a conception of beauty and all ideas of beauty into which pleasure enters as a leading constituent. A short but luminous essay on "Guy de Maupassant and the Art of Fiction" is a scathing attack upon militarism in general and the Franco-Russian Alliance in particular--"The Christian Teaching" (1898), and "The Slavery of our Times" (1900). Various letters on the successive famines and on the religious persecutions in Russia deserve separate mention; they remind us that since the failure of the revolutionary movement miscalled "Nihilism" Tolstoy has gradually risen to the position of the one man who can continue with impunity a public more satisfactory contribution to the subject.

It is more to our purpose to note that in this volcanic and fecund if fundamentally simple personality the artist has dogged the steps of the evangelist to the last. "Master and Man" (1895) is one of the most exquisite short stories ever written. "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch" (1884) and "Resurrection" (1899) are in some ways the most powerful of all his works. The much condemned "Dominion of Darkness" (1886) and "Kreutzer Sonata" (1889) will be more fairly judged when the average Englishman has learned the supreme merit of that uncompromising truthfulness which gives nobility to every line the grand Russian ever wrote. To submit a work like "Resurrection" to the summary treatment which the ordinary novel receives and merits is absurd. It is a large picture of the fall and rise of man done by the swift and restless hand of a master who stands in a category apart, with an eye that sees externals and essentials with like accuracy and rapidity. Because the dramatic quality of these living pictures lies, not in their organisation into a conventionally limited plot, but first in the challenging idea upon which they are founded, then the inexorable development of individual characters, and ever and anon in the grip of particular episodes, the little critics scoff. The idea, the characters, the episodes are all too real and precious British self-complacency. The grandmotherly Athenoeum permits some person to describe this Promethean figure as "a precious vase that has been broken," and can now only be pieced together to make "the ornament of a museum,"--which reminds me that I heard a lecturer before a well-known literary society in London describe him lately as a "scavenger," and that a city bookseller assured me the other day that there was something almost amounting to a boycott against his fiction in the shops. The publisher who is preparing a complete edition of Tolstoy-- enormous work!--knows better, knows that Tolstoy is one of the world-spirits whose advance out of the obscurity of a benighted land into the largest contemporary circulation is but a foretaste of an influence that will soon be co-extensive with the commonwealth of thinking men and women.

His service to literature is precisely the same as his service to morals. Like Bunyan and Burns, Dickens and Whitman, he throws down in a world of decadent conventions the gauge of the democratic ideal. As he calls the politician and the social reformer back to the land and the common people, so he calls the artist back to the elemental forces ever at work beneath the surface-show of nature and humanity. With an extraordinary penetration into the hidden recesses of character, he joins a terrible truthfulness, and that absolute simplicity of manner which we generally associate with genius. He is a realist, not merely of the outer, but more especially of the inner life. There is no staginess, no sentimentality, in his work. He has no heroes in our Western sense, none, even, of those sensational types of personality which glorify the name of his Northern contemporary, Ibsen. His style is always natural, direct, irresistible as a physical process. He has rarely strayed beyond the channel of his own experience, and the reader who prefers breadth to depth of knowledge must seek elsewhere. He has little humour, but a grimly satiric note has sometimes crept into his writing, as Archdeacon Farrar will remember. Of artifice designed for vulgar entertainment he knows nothing; in the world of true art, which is the wine-press of the soul of man, he stands, a princely figure. Theories, prescriptions, and discussions are forgotten, and we think only with love and reverence of this modern patriarch, so lonely amid the daily enlarging congregation of the hearts he has awakened to a sense of the mystery, the terror, the joy, the splendour of human destinies.

G. H. PERRIS.

Tolstoy's Place in European Literature

The justness of the word great applied to a nation's writers is perhaps best tested by simply taking each writer in turn from out his Age, and seeing how far our conception of his Age remains unaffected. We may take away hundreds of clever writers, scores of distinguished creators, and the Age remains before our eyes, solidly unaffected by their absence; but touch one or two central figures, and lo! the whole framework of the Age gives in your hands, and you realise that the World's insight into, and understanding of that Age's life has been supplied us by the special interpretation offered by two or three great minds. In fact, every Age seems dwarfed, chaotic, full of confused tendencies and general contradiction till the few great men have arisen, and symbolised in themselves what their nation's growth or strife signifies. How many dumb ages are there in which no great writer has appeared, ages to whose inner life in consequence we have no key!

Tolstoy's significance as the great writer of modern Russia can scarcely be augmented in Russian eyes by his exceeding significance to Europe as symbolising the spiritual unrest of the modern world. Yet so inevitably must the main stream of each age's tendency and the main movement of the world's thought be discovered for us by the great writers, whenever they appear, that Russia can no more keep Tolstoy's significance to herself than could Germany keep Goethe's to herself. True it is that Tolstoy, as great novelist, has been absorbed in mirroring the peculiar world of half-feudal, modern Russia, a world strange to Western Europe, but the spirit of analysis with which the creator of Anna Karenina and War and Peace has confronted the modern world is more truly representative of our Age's outlook than is the spirit of any other of his great contemporaries. Between the days of Wilhelm Meister and of Resurrection what an extraordinary volume of the rushing tide of modern life has swept by! A century of that "liberation of modern Europe from the old routine" has passed since Goethe stood forth for "the awakening of the modern spirit." A century of emancipation, of Science, of unbelief, of incessant shock, change, and Progress all over the face of Europe, and even as Goethe a hundred years ago typified the triumph of the new intelligence of Europe over the shackles of its old institutions, routine, and dogma (as Matthew Arnold affirms), so Tolstoy today stands for the triumph of the European soul against civilisation's routine and dogma. The peculiar modernness of Tolstoy's attitude, however, as we shall presently show, is that he is inspired largely by the modern scientific spirit in his searching analysis of modern life. Apparently at war with Science and Progress, his extraordinary fascination for the mind of Europe lies in the fact that he of all great contemporary writers has come nearest to demonstrating, to realising what the life of the modern man is. He of all the analysts of the civilised man's thoughts, emotions, and actions has least idealized, least beautified, and least distorted the complex daily life of the European world. With a marked moral bias, driven onward in his search for truth by his passionate religious temperament, Tolstoy, in his pictures of life, has constructed a truer whole, a human world less bounded by the artist's individual limitations, more mysteriously living in its vast flux and flow than is the world of any writer of the century. War and Peace and Anna Karenina, those great worlds where the physical environment, mental outlook, emotional aspiration, and moral code of the whole community of Russia are reproduced by his art, as some mighty cunning phantasmagoria of changing life, are superior in the sense of containing a whole nation's life, to the world of Goethe, Byron, Scott, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Dickens, Thackeray, Maupassant, or any latter day creator we can name.

And not only so, but Tolstoy's analysis of life throws more light on the main currents of thought in our Age, raises deeper problems, and explores more untouched territories of the mind than does any corresponding analysis by his European contemporaries.

It is by Tolstoy's passionate seeking of the life of the soul that the great Russian writer towers above the men of our day, and it is because his hunger for spiritual truth has led him to probe contemporary life, to examine all modern formulas and appearances, to penetrate into the secret thought and emotion of men of all grades in our complex society, that his work is charged with the essence of nearly all that modernity thinks and feels, believes and suffers, hopes and fears as it evolves in more and more complex forms of our terribly complex civilisation. The soul of humanity is, however, always the appeal of men from the life that environs, moulds, and burdens them, to instincts that go beyond and transcend their present life. Tolstoy is the appeal of the modern world, the cry of the modern conscience against the blinded fate of its own progress. To the eye of science everything is possible in human life, the sacrifice of the innocent for the sake of the progress of the guilty, the crushing and deforming of the weak so that the strong may triumph over them, the evolution of new serf classes at the dictates of a ruling class. All this the nineteenth century has seen accomplished, and not seen alone in Russia. It is Tolstoy's distinction to have combined in his life-work more than any other great artist two main conflicting points of view. He has fused by his art the science that defines the way Humanity is forced forward blindly and irresponsibly from century to century by the mere pressure of events, he has fused with this science of our modern world the soul's protest against the earthly fate of man which leads the generations into taking the ceaseless roads of evil which every age unwinds.

Let us cite Tolstoy's treatment of War as an instance of how this great artist symbolises the Age for us and so marks the advance in self-consciousness of the modern mind, and as a nearer approximation to a realisation of what life is. We have only got to compare Tolstoy's "Sebastopol" (1856) with any other document on war by other European writers to perceive that Tolstoy alone among artists has realised war, his fellows have idealised it. To quote a passage from a former article let us say that: "Sebastopol" gives us war under all aspects--war as a squalid, honourable, daily affair of mud and glory, of vanity, disease, hard work, stupidity, patriotism, and inhuman agony. Tolstoy gets the complex effects of "Sebastopol" by keenly analysing the effect of the sights and sounds, dangers and pleasures, of war on the brains of a variety of typical men, and by placing a special valuation of his own on these men's actions, thoughts, and emotions, on their courage, altruism, and show of indifference in the face of death. He lifts up, in fact, the veil of appearances conventionally drawn by society over the actualities of the glorious trade of killing men, and he does this chiefly by analysing keenly the insensitiveness and indifference of the average mind, which says of the worst of war's realities, "I felt so and so, and did so and so: but as to what those other thousands may have felt in their agony, that I did not enter into at all." "Sebastopol," therefore, though an exceedingly short and exceedingly simple narrative, is a psychological document on modern war of extraordinary value, for it simply relegates to the lumber-room, as unlife-like and hopelessly limited, all those theatrical glorifications of war which men of letters, romantic poets, and grave historians alike have been busily piling up on humanity's shelves from generation to generation. And more: we feel that in "Sebastopol" we have at last the skeptical modern spirit, absorbed in actual life, demonstrating what war is, and expressing at length the confused sensations of countless men, who have heretofore, recognising this man Tolstoy as the most advanced product of our civilisation, and likening him to a great surgeon, who, not deceived by the world's presentation of its own life, penetrates into the essential joy and suffering, health and disease of multitudes of men; a surgeon who, face to face with the strangest of Nature's laws in the constitution of human society, puzzled by all the illusions, fatuities, and conventions of the human mind, resolutely sets himself to lay bare the roots of all its passions, appetites, and incentives in the struggle for life, so that at least human reason may advance farther along the path of self-knowledge in advancing towards a general sociological study of man.

Tolstoy's place in nineteenth-century literature is, therefore, in our view, no less fixed and certain than is Voltaire's place in the eighteenth century. Both of these writers focus for us in a marvelously complete manner the respective methods of analysing life by which the rationalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the science and humanitarianism of the nineteenth century have moulded for us the modern world. All the movements, all the problems, all the speculation, all the agitations of the world of today in contrast with the immense materialistic civilisation that science has hastily built up for us in three or four generations, all the spirit of modern life is condensed in the pages of Tolstoy's writings, because, as we have said, he typifies the soul of the modern man gazing, now undaunted, and now in alarm, at the formidable array of the newly-tabulated cause and effect of humanity's progress, at the appalling cheapness and waste of human life in Nature's hands. Tolstoy thus stands for the modern soul's alarm in contact with science. And just as science's work after its first destruction of the past ages' formalism, superstition, and dogma is directed more and more to the examination and amelioration of human life, so Tolstoy's work has been throughout inspired by a passionate love of humanity, and by his ceaseless struggle against conventional religion, dogmatic science, and society's mechanical influence on the minds of its members. To make man more conscious of his acts, to show society its real motives and what it is feeling, and not cry out in admiration at what it pretends to feel--this has been the great novelist's aim in his delineation of Russia's life. Ever seeking the one truth-- to arrive at men's thoughts and sensations under the daily pressure of life--never flinching from his exploration of the dark world of man's animalism and incessant self-deception, Tolstoy's realism in art is symbolical of our absorption in the world of fact, in the modern study of natural law, a study of ultimately without loss of spirituality, nay, resulting in immense gain to the spiritual life. The realism of the great Russian's novels is, therefore, more in line with the modern tendency and outlook than is the general tendency of other schools of Continental literature. And Tolstoy must be finally looked on, not merely as the conscience of the Russian world revolting against the too heavy burden which the Russian people have now to bear in Holy Russia's onward march towards the building-up of her great Asiatic Empire, but also as the soul of the modern world seeking to replace in its love of humanity the life of those old religions which science is destroying day by day. In this sense Tolstoy will stand in European literature as the conscience of the modern world.


[home] Up to G.K.Chesterton's Works on the Web.
Last modified: 17th June, 1999
Martin Ward, Software Technology Research Lab, De Montfort University, Leicester.
Email: martin@gkc.org.uk