Tolstoy the Artist

The New York Times Saturday Review of Books

July 18, 1908, p. 405

New York Times Saturday Review of Books:

In the discussion about Tolstoy in The New York Times Saturday Review of Books, Tolstoy, the artist, has almost been completely lost sight of. The world will remember two Tolstoys. One was a great artist; he died many years ago. The other is a neo-Schopenhauerian, a stranded Platonist, a sick soul; he still lives. The latter Tolstoy sticks his tongue in his cheek and pronounces the former Tolstoy a fraud. He tossed the bayleaf into the mud and donned a hair shirt. He forsook the slopes of Olympus to wail on the dunghills of penitence. Then he sent for a photographer. For Tolstoy has no sense of humor.

But Tolstoy still remains a wonderful man—whether we consider him an artist or a prophet. He is as significant and as perplexing as life itself. Nature hewed him out of her own bowels. She made him the slave of every vice and put into him the aspiration for every virtue. He is Goethe’s “Faust” come to life. In that wonderful book, “My Confession,” Tolstoy has laid before us the record of a soul’s adventures in hell, the minutiae of spiritual torture. He has been gambler, murderer, lecher, and drunkard. He has been lashed, like Orestes, by the giant whips of the Furies of retribution, and in his hair, if one look closely, there can be seen twisted serpents. He is the most august personality in the world to-day.

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 upon the naked soul of man, that soul that cringes and cowers and hides under the rags of conformity. Tolstoy has found out our most secret springs; he has peered into the vats of the unconscious; he has put on paper a few facts, and they will last as long as anything in contemporaneous literature. In “Anna Karenina,” “The Dominion of Darkness,” “Ivan Ilyitch,” he demonstrates like a man in a clinic, he slits like a surgeon, he scrapes to the bone.

His collective works might be entitled “Views of the Nude Human Soul.” In “Anna Karenina” we see the soul in the coils of passion; in “War and Peace” we see the soul in battle and intrigue; in “A Night’s Lodging” we see the soul where vodka and worse gnaw it. “The Dominion of Darkness” takes us into the catacombs of the hideous. “Ivan Ilyitch” is the greatest study of death ever made, writes Tolstoy, the artist, the vision of Dante with the inexorable style of Flaubert. His philosophical doctrines will go into the wind; his art will remain. He is already, before his death, in the Pantheon of immortals.


New York, July 11.


A longer version of this essay was published in Putnam’s Magazine in March 1907 under the title “The Two Tolstoys.”