THE TOLSTOY CELEBRATION.
ON Thursday Count Leo Tolstoy was eighty years old, and the civilised world paid its tributes to the most renowned of living writers. There are many authors, not Russians, whose art or personality inevitably means more to their countrymen than the art or personality of Tolstoy can mean ; but there is no writer in the world who has so high an average of influence in all the countries where literature is valued. And it is worth noticing that in winning this universal attention Tolstoy has not once tried to earn the suffrages of others by a specific study of their concerns. Nor is his work of the neutral-tinted sort, widely intelligible, yet nowhere boldly committing itself, which may be called cosmopolitan. He is a Russian of the Russians ; he is rooted in the Russian soil, which he has not left for nearly fifty years, as an oak is fixed which has grown from the acorn in one spot and has not lost its tap- root. Writing which is destined to capture all men need not be designed to do so; indeed, it must not be so designed ; it must express itself in the terms of experience or environ- ment, however narrow those may sometimes seem to be ; and, for the rest, is not human nature the same everywhere ? Life, as it is lived by the humblest, the most remote, the most unusual, or, on the other hand, the most ordinary people in existence is only a facet of one great experience, —human experience. Tolstoy has studied the men and women who have passed under his notice, without troubling to wander far afield like collectors, who always expect to find the best things in strange places, and he has done this resolutely, unremittingly, with a passion for human exploration. Sometimes he has thought of them mysti- cally, sometimes socially, sometimes philosophically, but always with the perfect sincerity of one who realises the immeasurable importance of a man or a woman, however un- gifted and however ineffectual, by mere virtue of being a man or a woman. He has never sought cleverness in others, and does not admire it ; he finds the peasant more interesting than the educated man, apparently because he holds the peasant's thoughts to be unbiassed and direct, not refracted by the distorting lenses which convention has placed over the eyes of the well-to-do. As too far East is West, however, so this theory of his became in due course a distortion of itself, and led, together with many other parodies of logic, to teachings and habits which are so unpractical and critically so destructive that they suggest that Tolstoy has forgotten that life is lived, after all,- by the men and women he has so long studied. In saying this we declare our belief that the later Tolstoy is only a too logical development of the earlier Tolstoy ; not, as is so often supposed, a distinct breaking away from, and contradiction of, him. The " conversion " of Tolstoy in the " seventies " may have been externally a defined and sudden revolution, but really it was only the inevitable result of the working of the tempestuous dual principle in Tolstoy's soul. That conflict had started within him when he was still a child. The philosophical Anarchist and the apostle of renunciation and mortification were implicit in the author of those immortal novels, "Anna Sarenina " and " War and. Peace."
In a. passage quoted in Mr. Aylmer Maude's "Life of Tolstoy," Tolstoy wrote of himself in childhood :— " It will hardly be believed what were the favourite and most common subjects of my reflections in my boyhood—so inoom- patible were they with my age and situation. But in my opinion incompatibility between a man's position and his moral activity is the surest sign of truth At one time the thought occurred to me that happiness does not depend on external causes, but on our relation to them ; and that a man accustomed to bear suffering cannot be unhappy. To waste= myself, therefore, to endurance, I would hold Tatishers dictionaries in my outstretched hand for five minutes a a time, though it caused me terrible pain; or I would go to the lumber room and flog myself on my bare back with a cord so severely that tears started to my eyes. At another time, suddenly remembering that death awaits me every hour and every minute, I decided (wondering why people had not understood this before) that man can only be happy by enjoying the present and not thinking of the future : and for three days under the influence of this thought. I abandoned my lessons, and did nothing but lie on my bed and enjoy myself, reading a novel and eating honey-gingerbreads, on which I spent
my last coins But no philosophic current swayed me se much as scepticism, which at one time brought me to the verge of insanity."
Surely it was certain that the extreme oscillations of that human balance would exhaust their violence one day, or, rather, that one form of violence would rout the other. It is the fanaticism of nobility which has triumphed. Every St. Simeon Stylites and every wearer of a hair-shirt is also a potential libertine. In Tolstoy's case it was the wrong impulse which mastered him in his University days and when he was an officer in the Army. Yet even then— when, for instance, he was with his battery in the defences of Sevastopol—a great emotion of pity and admiration for the dumb and patient heroism of the soldiers in the ranks consumed him. He never saw war again, but the emotion remaining with him only waited for its social applica- tion. The fifteen years in which he was writing "War and Peace" (that wonderful epic of the Napoleonic disaster in Russia) and "Anna Karenina, " were a period of personal obscurity. He had left his old world of sheer pleasure, and had not yet been saluted reverently by those with whom only intellect or earnest- ness counts. "Anna liarenina," as every one foresees now, will last for ever as a radiant example of the faculty of minute observation (which thousands of dull people and millions of bores possess in a high degree) being glorified by the creative gift,—by imagination. It is one of the oldest errors that a record of ordinary lives must make very ordinary reading. That leaves out of the reckoning the transforming and magical touch which ennobles the scene while it steals from it not a particle of its truth. If the art of distinguished writing were capable of exact analysis, or were in some way communicable, all men of letters would produce their "Anna Karenina." As it is, an "Anna Karenina " comes in one nation at rare intervals of perhaps hundreds of years. Tolstoy in his novels, as has been said of another writer, "never condescends to explain," but his narrative is nothing less than a spiritual diagnosis. The reader is engrossed in the character of each person, and finds himself asking throughout such hopelessly large yet chastening questions as :—" What is the meaning of such a life as his or hers ? What is its relation to God and man, and what will the end of it be ? " And yet Tolstoy never leads up to an " end " in the sense of a "culmination," nor does the reader feel the want of it. He breaks many of the rules which are precious and necessary to lesser novelists, because he has the power which transcends conventions. He has the vital principle which will bear translating into other languages without great loss. His is great art. It is a fine thing that every now and then a man should come forward to remind us that literary laws were made for the man of letters, not the man of letters for the laws.
It was a sorrow to most of the admirers of Tolstoy's fiction when he left that fruitful art to become less potent as the preacher, the expositor, and the pamphleteer. As we have said, there was no break in his character, but a development that was urged logically to the depths of impracticability. He is now the first revolutionary in the world, yet the Russian Government, in spite of his satirical challenges, do not dare to lay a hand upon him. One is glad to think that this may be partly because they are proud of him. In his theories of education he appears to have followed Rousseau, and few people can be sur- prised at the failure of the hospitable yet elusive doctrine that it is the function of the taught to make known to the teacher what they need to be taught. But all the world is a school, and the doctrine was extended. "The people are everything; the classes are nothing," Tolstoy seems to say again and again. There are moral, social, and emotional senses in which one would be sorry indeed to deny the truth of the maxim, but an absolute application of it is apt to mean only too truly the discouragement of the desire to mount, and to reconcile the mind to the fatal lethargy of levelling down rather than to levelling up. Tourguenief deplored the post-conversional era of Tolstoy's career so keenly that he wrote from his deathbed to press him to return to the art he had practised so brilliantly. But, except for a few well- known exceptions, Tolstoy's work has remained exegetical instead of illustrative. He preaches the purest logic, which generally means, to our thinking, a thoroughly inexpedient form of life. He stands in his own person for a physical simplicity and for a spiritual con- ception of brotherhood which is really the negation of all law. No man must order another, lest he break the spell of liberty. Even his teaching on art is what seems to him the logical conclusion to the establishment of a true brotherhood. "What is art ? " be asks himself, and answers the question by finding that it must be the acme of intelligibility, lest it should harbour any exclusiveness. This, again, is surely too much of a renunciation,—the renunciation of the incentive to progress. And his depreciation of music as something debased in motive— in particular the attribution of a kind of sensuality to such music as the Kreutzer Sonata—is a criticism which most admirers of Tolstoy must be content sorrowfully to note without inquiring into the incalculable mental or moral causes of his perversity. It has been disputed whether Tolstoy's abandonment of his material posses- sions is effectual, since he made a large part of them over to his family, and still enjoys indirectly from them what support he needs. But that is a matter of small importance, since, even if Tolstoy failed utterly to carry out his precepts, the worth of a cult can never be judged by its practitioners. A genius need not be as logical as his logic. But, indeed, the essential sincerity of Tcilstoy is proved not only by his great courage, but by the evidence of the heartfelt alliance with human nature which appears in his hooks. His soul goes out to peasants, and all the afflicted of the Czar's dominions, as it went out to the sufferers in the trenches of Sevastopol and to the simple Bashkir nomads, and just as, contrariwise, it does not go out to the priests of the Orthodox Church, whom he looks upon as dangerous usurpers of an intermediary power. That stands in the way of logical directness and simplicity. The final explanation of Tolstoy's grotesque perversities and contradictions may be only that he is a mystic, and. it would be foolish for us to attempt to explain mysticism. We shall not impertinently endeavour to dissect the character of a great man. His novels lay before us ordinary Russian life, which is only a .particular expression of all life, most acutely and sensitively seen, and fully and most beautifully described. Truth and art are linked there, and the world honours itself in honouring so great a writer.