The Two Tolstoys

Putnam’s Monthly, March 1907

Vol. I No. 6, pp. 728-730

By Benjamin De Casseres

THE world will remember two Count Tolstoys. One was a great artist; he died many years ago. The other is a befuddled prophet; he still lives. The artist stuck his pen into the quivering heart of mankind, and wrote. The passion-spent renunciant of the same name sticks his tongue into his cheek, and pronounces the other Tolstoy a fraud.

In a penitential mood the later Tolstoy wrote a book called “What is Art?” wherein he laid down the amazing doctrine that unless a work of art appealed to a peasant it was not art. Beethoven and Wagner and Shelley were decried as sensualists. They had loved beauty and appealed to sex; therefore their art was evil. Tolstoy put his own works on his “Index”—and his palsied soul took to creating Christian parables for bloodless people.

He tossed the bayleaf into the mud and sprinkled ashes on his head. He forsook the verdant slopes of Olympus and went to sit on a dung-hill. Then he sent for a photographer. Not that Tolstoy is not sincere. He is, in fact, the sincerest man in the world to-day; the sincerity of the propagandist who has become so enslaved by a single idea that only one lobe of the brain works; the dangerous sincerity of a man without that healthy world-perspective which we call a sense of humor.

Putting aside his absurd theories of art, his pseudo-philosophic system, his enforced renunciation, Tolstoy still remains a wonderful man. He is as significant as Life itself. Nature hewed him out of her depths. She made him the aspiration for every virtue. He is Goethe’s Faust come to life—had he only Goethe’s serene wisdom! In that wonderful book “My Confession” Tolstoy has given us the record of a soul’s torture in hell. He has been gambler, drunkard, murdered, and lecher. These things in themselves and by themselves are nothing. Many have committed all the sins and smiled. But put in one half of a man’s brain the consciousness of having committed all transgressions, and into the other half a flaming idealism, a gnawing night and day for release, and we have as a result the most august thing in the world: a human soul battling for its life. Tolstoy has been lashed, like Orestes, by the giant whips of the Furies, and look closely in his hair and you will see serpents twined there.

Count Lyof N. Tolstoy

Count Lyof N. Tolstoy

A life lived to the full, such as his, a life that has taken up and made its own all those magnificent, glittering sins, a life that has drained the bitter cup of Destiny to its filthy lees, that has not only seen all the evil under the sun, but which has been that evil—what else can it give the world but great art?

Into his novels and plays he has distilled himself. All great art aspires to philosophy, consciously or unconsciously—that is, all great art tends to explain life; all great art is a searchlight flung suddenly upon the soul of man, making plain the secret springs that move to action or thought, illuminating those secret recesses where he thinks he is most securely hidden from human gaze. In “Anna Kerénina,” “The Dominion of [730] Darkness,” and “A Night’s Lodging,” Tolstoy has ruthlessly stripped all our rags and tatters from us; he demonstrates like a man in a clinic; he slits like a surgeon, scraping to the bottom.

His works might collectively be entitled “Views of the Nude Human Soul.” In “Anna Karénina” we see the Soul in that gigantic web called society; in “War and Peace” we see the Soul in battle and in love; in “A Night’s Lodging” we see the Soul where vodka and lust do their work, in a place which even the rats scorn; in “The Dominion of Darkness” we see the Soul—but there is no Soul in that monstrous play; and in “The Kreutzer Sonata” we see the Soul in the sex-coil.

To turn from this magnificent, well-rounded life of good-and-evil, from his masterpieces that rank with Flaubert’s and Ibsen’s, to the sickly renunciant distributing his little pamphlets to the Russian peasants—but let us forget it, for Tolstoy the Great is already in Valhalla.


Shortened and republished as a letter to The New York Times Saturday Review of Books on July 18, 1908, (p. 405) under the title “Tolstoy the Artist.”