Posts Tagged Tolstoy

Intellectuals 2 – Tolstoy

The only known colour photo of Tolstoy (from Wikipedia)

The only known colour photo of Tolstoy (from Wikipedia)

This post is about Paul Johnson’s book “Intellectuals” and follows an earlier post on the first few chapters of that book.

In the chapter on Tolstoy, we read that the “great man” was, like all the others  in this book so far, undoubtedly a great writer, but also an egotistical monster, a liar, an ungrateful scoundrel. Why am I not surprised?!?

Johnson’s analysis is convincing. His main point is that Tolstoy was a great writer, possibly one of the best ever, yet he did not realize it! More precisely, he knew he could write well, but he did not realize that writing was what he did best. He suffered from the egotistic delusion that he was destined to be a great leader, a great teacher, or founder of a new religion. Johnson quotes from Tolstoy’s wife’s diaries in which she wrote that while Tolstoy was writing, there was relative calm in the house; it was when he was not writing that the storms came.

Tolstoy found his metier almost by accident, while serving as an apprentice officer in the army… Yet this drive to write was intermittent, and therein lay Tolstoy’s tragedy… From the enormous trouble Tolstoy took with his work at its best it is clear he was conscious of his high calling as an artist… Unfortunately, writing alone did not satisfy him. He had a will to power… We think of Tolstoy as a professional novelist, and of course in a sense this is true… But most of his life he was not writing fiction at all… The rest of his long life he was doing and being a multitude of other things, which in his view had higher moral priority.

Aristocrats under the old order found it difficult to shake off the notion that writing was for inferiors. Byron never regarded poetry as his most important work, which was to assist the subject peoples of Europe to achieve their independence. He felt himself called to lead, as befitted his class. So did Tolstoy. Indeed  he felt called to do more than lead: to prophesy, at times to play the Messiah. What, then, was he doing spending his time writing?… So from time to time, and increasingly as he grew older, he would renounce art and exert moral leadership. Now here was a disastrous case of self-deception. (My emphasis.)

Self-deception, or lack of self-awareness or self-knowledge is a common characteristic of the intellectuals Johnson describes. Shelley, for instance, had a powerful imagination and knew it, yet he seemed curiously unable or unwilling to  use it to understand the point of view of other people, even people close to him.

It is remarkable that Tolstoy, who thought about himself as much as any man who ever lived – including even Rousseau – who wrote about himself copiously and much of whose fiction revolves around himself in one way or another, should have been so conspicuously lacking in self-knowledge. As a writer he was superlatively qualified; and while he was writing he was least dangerous to those around him and to society generally. But he did not wish to be a writer, at any  rate of profane matter. Instead he wanted to lead, for which he had no capacity at all, other than will; to prophesy, to found a religion, and to transform the world, tasks for which he was morally and intellectually disqualified. So great novels remained unwritten, and he led, or rather dragged, himself and his family into a confused wilderness.

It is hard to read this book and not ask oneself: how well do I really know myself? Am I misjudging my qualities or abilities?

Searching the Internet for background info on Tolstoy, I came across this interesting essay by George Orwell on an essay or pamphlet by Tolstoy on the subject of Shakespeare, specifically on King Lear. Orwell delves into Tolstoy’s motives for writing this essay and draws interesting parallels between Tolstoy and Lear.

George Orwell – Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool – Essay

Tags: , ,

Intellectuals? Bah, humbug!


In his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson takes a close look at some key figures of modern times whose thoughts and writings have had a huge effect on people’s thinking for a long time, right down to today. Johnson examines the personal lives of these famous men (Lillian Hellman is the only female intellectual in this book), and asks, did they live up to their own dicta and ideals?

I’m up to chapter 4, Henrik Ibsen, and the answer so far is a resounding, “NO!” They all seem to have outscrooged Scrooge in meanness, bitterness and contempt for their fellow man. Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , , ,