Tolstoy, Mystic and Realist

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Ernest Howard Crosby

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TOLSTOY, MYSTIC AND REALIST.

BY ERNEST HOWARD CROSBY.

"'Resurrection,' Count Tolstoy's popular novel, ten cents," was the cry which I heard yesterday in Park Place. Here is a book written by an aged moralist, in a country distant from ours by half a hemisphere in space and tradition and language —a book written with a deep, ethical purpose, and containing the most radical arraignment of all the customs of the civilized world—and yet it is called "popular" by a street vendor. Nor is the term a misnomer. The authorized expensive edition of the book has had a large sale in this country, and "pirated" editions have sprung up here and there, and apparently they have prospered. And now the story has been dramatized, and simultaneously in France, England, and America the play has been presented to crowded audiences. Two companies are acting "Resurrection" now in Greater New York, and there is talk of others. The American press has uniformly condemned the drama, but I confess that it seemed to me a powerful one and a fair rqjresentation of the novel. And it is a good sign that people will go to see such plays. There is nothing whatever salacious in the seduction scene to attract the prurient, and the rest of the play is the story of the regeneration of two souls, ending, not in their union (as is generally supposed to be necessary in such a plot), but in Maslova's renunciation of Nekhludov.

We are often told that Tolstoy's recent religious and social ideas have destroyed or seriously impaired his artistic and literary skill, but it is a fact that "Anna Karenina" failed to make such an impression as "Resurrection" has, and that what the great author may have lost in charm he seems to have gained in force. But it is a mistake to suppose that there was any great break in Tolstoy's life. He was always a man of religious feeling, and it always inspired his art. The critics who say, "What a pity that Tolstoy has gone astray into the paths of mysticism and reform!" fail to see that these religious and altruistic attributes of his were always the very source of his genius. Prince Nekhludov, the hero of "Resurrection," may be said in a way to bind together the two extremes of Tolstoy's career. When the novelist was a young man he endeavoured to reform the management of his estate at Yasnaia Poliana. He had no socialistic or anarchistic ideas then, but he had already been impressed by the injustice of society to the working-class, and he wished to improve the condition of his serfs. But his attempt was a failure. The peasants distrusted him and would have none of his new methods and machinery, and Tolstoy found that there was something' in the relation of landlord and tenant which prevented full cooperation. He gave the world his experiences in the form of a novelette which he called "Prince Nekhludov," under which title he scarcely concealed himself. It was a picture of the evils of landlordism and serfdom, and it is significant that nearly half a century later he should have taken the same man for his hero, and in "Resurrection," be it noted, Nekhludov finds a solution of the land question in the doctrines of Henry George. The mystical development of his hero's character is accompanied by a practical application of the "single tax" upon his estates, and it is a defect of the play that no reference is made to this important episode. It is this combination in Tolstoy of the spiritual and practical that makes him such a unique force in literature. He is at once a mystic and a realist. He commands a perfectly clear vision of the world of matter and custom, and, at the same time, of the world of spiritual life and growth.

That Tolstoy is a mystic cannot be doubted, although he would repudiate the term. He teaches us that love is the regenerative power in the world. He relates how, when he made this discovery and at last gave himself up as best he might to the new sensations of love for God and neighbor, he felt lifted above the plane of time and space, and became conscious for the first time of the immortal soul within him. His book on "Life," which gives his innermost thought, is a mystical book from cover to cover. But unlike other mystics he does not stop there. There is usually something invertebrate in the thoughts of the man who devotes himself to the task of delving in his own consciousness. We would hardly look to Whitman or Blake for a workable drama, nor to Ibsen or Sudermann for revelations from the subconscious world. We may be tempted to take Maeterlinck as an example of the dramatizing mystic, but his plays are mystical rhapsodies after all, and as unlike the compact handiwork of "Ghosts" or the "Doll's House" as a jelly-fish is unlike a life-boat. Tolstoy, however, is a born dramatist. "Resurrection," of course, is not an example of his dramatic skill, although there are many dramatic passages in it; but Tolstoy has written two plays, "The Powers of Darkness" and the "Fruits of Science," and not long ago I read a newspaper interview with Sir Henry Irving in which he spoke with enthusiasm of these plays as among the greatest of recent times. It is not upon them, however, that I base my belief in Tolstoy's dramatic instinct, but rather upon the whole story of his life. He has always seen the world dramatically. Books, sermons, arguments, have never appealed to him as strongly as the enacted event. He has seen the problems of the age in the neglected episodes of the street, and has learned the lessons of his life from life itself. Thus they say that his first acquaintance with the labor question came from the freezing of a coachman who was waiting for him to come out from a ball on a cold, winter night while he was attending the University of Kazan. The man's life was saved, but that dramatic event fixed itself upon his mind and formed a lasting picture of the condition of a society in which the gentleman feasts and makes merry in a luxurious house, while the representative of the class that built the house and produced the luxuries is shut out to suffer in the cold. An execution by the guillotine at Paris stamped itself upon his soul as the reductio ad absurdum of criminal law, and urged him on to complete non-resistance. It was only when, while walking in Moscow with a wood-sawyer, they each cast a penny together into a beggar's hat, that this simple act set his mind to work at the great problem of charity, and gave the impulse which brought him to the conviction that the only true alms-giving is the giving of a man's own labor or of its products. It was the great drama of the Crimean War which, treasured in Tolstoy's memory, revealed to him the iniquity of licensed manslaughter, and it was in the village school at Yasnaia Poliana, where for many months he played the part of schoolmaster, that he learned to his own satisfaction that love of neighbor is the keystone of education, as it is of life. That a man who saw dramas great and small on every hand should have written books full of dramatic scenes was but natural. No man has ever been a greater realist than this mystic.

There is a certain degree of fitness in the fact that this most dramatic (but least theatrical) of men should have become in his own person a dramatic incarnation of the social problem of his time. I have had the privilege of seeing him at his country home. There he stood, the nobleman, the landlord, is no pose, no play to the galleries, but that Tolstoy has felt himself irresistibly impelled, even against all his natural tastes and instincts, to make himself a living protest against the divisions of society, against caste and exploitation and unbrotherliness in all its forms. His is a rough figure, for he is a pioneer on a steep and stony road, but it sums up in itself the whole stress and storm of our social unrest. He is, in a sense, the protagonist of mankind in the tragedy of the day, and the most conspicuous searcher for the solution of its problem—the tragedy of the chasm between man and man, and the problem of closing it forever.



Source:

  • Ernest Howard Crosby, “Tolstoy, Mystic and Realist,” Mind 12, no. 3 (June 1903): 161-165.