The Old Magician

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BOOKS APRIL 27, 1992

The Old Magician


Reading the aged Tolstoy stirs the heart. He will not yield to time, sloth, or nature. He clings to the waist of the life force. Deep into old age, he battles with the world, more often with himself, returning in his diaries, fictions, and tracts to the unanswerable questions that torment him. Blessed old magician, he is free of literary posture and the sins of eloquence.

“And what truth can there be,” he demands of Chekhov, “if there is death?” Death will not pass him by, and its certainty dissolves all claims to meaning. (Levin in Anna Karenina: “I am working; I want to do something, and I had forgotten it will all end in death.”) Yet a need for meaning allows him no rest, and finally it overcomes, provisionally, the absurdity in which he thinks that all must end. The state is evil, a “conspiracy” for “demoralizing” and “exploiting” the people, but the artist, as companion to reality, must acknowledge the power and thereby perhaps the charms of the state. In all but his late writings, the state takes on a human aspect, by no means the mere enemy that his “Christian anarchism” would make it out to be. Sexuality comes to seem deeply suspect, a blossom of evil, but the old man, still in the grip of male vanity, teases Chekhov: “I was an indefatigable fornicator” in my youth, and how about you? Firm in his rationalist version of Christianity, he also lives near the shadow of nihilism. One absolute bruises another.

The most painful but also fruitful of Tolstoy’s contradictions is the one between the aesthetic and the ethical. The writer who would dismiss Anna Karenina (“there is no good in it”) weeps with emotion upon bearing a Beethoven sonata. Determined to shake off the trivialities of literary representation—yet another triangle, yet another sensitive hero!—he can also write in his diary in 1903: “It’s time to die and I’m still thinking up things for new stories.” A year before his death, after producing all those doctrinal tracts (some very brilliant, by the way), he confides to his diary “the desire to do some literary work, but a real desire—not as before with a definite [moral] purpose, but without any purpose—or rather with an invisible purpose beyond my reach: to look into the human soul.” The artistic side of Tolstoy may be subdued, but it is never quite destroyed.

I love the old magician in the way, I like to imagine, that Chekhov and Gorky loved him: for the restlessness of his mind, for his unquenchable desires. Of course he succumbs to moral crankiness, to demented attacks upon Shakespeare, to intemperate demands for temperance. But stubborn and even perverse, be remains faithful to the contradictions of his sensibility. In an astonishing entry in 1903, he writes in his diary: “The truth is always accessible to man”—as if it hardly bears notice that for seventy-five years he has been stumbling in the “deserts of thought,” imploring like his Father Sergius, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief!”

In person Tolstoy was often insufferable, except of course when he chose to charm the heart out of you. His “style of old age” brought neither calm nor resignation—only weariness. Little time is left to him, and the truth, “always accessible,” keeps slipping through his fingers; he must continue to grope and to search. There is no end to it.

“The more infectious art is,” be writes in 1898, “the better it is. But whether this activity [art] is good or bad doesn’t depend only on how far it satisfies the demands of art, i.e., on its infectiousness, but also on how far it satisfies the demands of religious awareness, i.e., morality, conscience.” (A few decades later Eliot would say something fairly similar.) In 1897 Tolstoy speculates on the relations between art and morality:

The aesthetic and the ethical are two arms of one lever: to the extent to which one side becomes longer and heavier, the other side becomes shorter and lighter. As soon as a man loses his moral sense, he becomes particularly responsive to the aesthetic.

He keeps looking for some stable position between the “two arms,” a conciliation, if only in thought, between the aesthetic and the ethical. He never quite finds it, perhaps because no one can, but in such major fictions as “Master and Man” and “Father Sergius,” as also in parts of his last novel, Resurrection, he can write as if indeed he has. The common complaint is that in old age Tolstoy became a scold, but it is beside the point, at least with regard to his fiction. For what happens is not at all an abandonment of art, but a radical change in the aesthetic motivating his art.


NOTHING IN THE late Tolstoy reaches the “epic” largess of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but several of the late writings are of a very high order. There is now less interest in the witnessing of life for its own pleasurable sake, less likelihood of aesthetic surprise revealed through a character in spontaneous behavior. And while the passion for enclosing an entire way of life that informs much nineteenth-century fiction—a passion that the earlier Tolstoy shared with Dickens and Balzac—is not wholly suppressed, it is subordinated to a narrative pointing up the relation between depicted event and thematic line.

There are, to be honest, a few instances in which Tolstoy’s ethical imperiousness does overwhelm the aesthetic pattern, but even in so notorious a story as “The Kreutzer Sonata,” with all its revulsion from human sexuality and its tirades against male desire and female coquetry, there are still keen renderings, still Tolstoyan insights into the miseries of marriage. What he would call “the tragedy of the bedroom” is strongly insinuated as a universal plight of post coitum tristesse, the hostility between the sexes after “the cessation of sexuality.” This quoted phrase comes from Podznyshev, the raisonneur of “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and we must assume that he serves as Tolstoy’s mouthpiece, so unrelenting is his voice and so little resistance does the story, through other characters or Tolstoy himself, offer to his wrath. Excessive, even brutal, “The Kreutzer Sonata” is far from Tolstoy at his best. Yet only hopeless romantics would deny that even in this dour story Tolstoy seizes upon fragments of truth.

In the late Tolstoy the relationship between the aesthetic and the ethical is always unsettled—by no means the monolithic dogmatism that many readers and critics have supposed. Let me glance briefly at a few of the late stories and then a bit more fully at Resurrection.

In “Master and Man” (1895), the ethical thrust emerges even before the narrative climax, but no matter: in this sort of quasi-allegorical piece that does no harm. So gratifying is the narrative on its own and so elegantly does the ethical suffuse the action that we become quite content to be led to a foreseeable conclusion. The merchant Brekhunov and his servant Nikita get lost on a journey dining a snowstorm: their sled provides slight refuge; the merchant, snug in his fur coat, throws himself upon the freezing body of the servant. “At first and for a long time Nikita lay motionless, then he sighed deeply and moved. ‘There and you say you are dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way ...,’ began [Brekhunov].”

In part “Master and Man” is a fable of fraternity, with signs of status brushed aside; it clearly follows Tolstoy’s fixed design more than any strong sense of verisimilitude. But Tolstoy’s design—some would say his will—is so commanding that we grant him a fusion of image and idea. Crucial and touching is Brekhunov’s remark, “That’s our way.” What way? The piety of God-fearing Russians, the noblesse oblige of the gentry. the democracy of all mankind, or what? It hardly matters, the power of the story rests in its openness of possibility.


ANOTHER LATE STORY, “Father Sergius” (1898), centers on a figure so fierce in moral passion one is tempted to see him as a surrogate of Tolstoy. Prince Kasatsky forsakes the ugly world to become a monk. But he remains captive to his “passion for distinguishing himself,” a passion not exactly unknown to Tolstoy himself. Now called Father Sergius, he still wishes “to be [morally] above those who considered themselves his superiors.” He undergoes a series of tests, the first of these with a society beauty who schemes to lure him into a sexual encounter which he can resist only by the desperate act of chopping off a finger. In the eyes of both Tolstoy and his character this is a sign of weakness, but it also wins Father Sergius fame as a holy man unrelenting in rectitude. There follows a sequence of tragicomic confusions in which he is beset by pilgrims begging for miracle cures. He tries to resist, but again the drives of his character, his “true self,” push him into acts of vanity that, to all but himself, seem saintly. In a last reaching toward humility, Father Sergius is seen as a hired hand in Siberia, bowing to man and earth, but Tolstoy refrains from telling us whether the monk has indeed managed to subdue his will.

Life itself, this bitterly ironic story suggests, is the temptation: life, and the world in which it must be endured. About “Father Sergius” Tolstoy said, “The old man wrote it well,” and he was right: surface and suggestions are neatly joined. Or almost neatly joined, for when Father Sergius turns toward an old peasant woman for a way out of his self-torments and finds comfort in her unassuming goodness, one feels an uneasiness that always follows Tolstoy’s resort to the saintliness of the simple.

The great narrative “Hadji Murad” (1904) has often been praised as an instance of how the old Tolstoy abandoned his tiresome moralizing and returned to the purity of art. But that is a misreading. For Tolstoy, as perhaps for all serious writers, the purity of art can be achieved only through the impurity of moral substance. Actually, this supposedly unmarred narrative advances all of the aged Tolstoy’s ideas and sentiments: the rejection of worldly authority, both Russian and Tatar, which underlies his “Christian anarchism” (the great Russian critic Boris Eichembaum calls it “social anarchism”); the disdain for all bureaucratic styles of conduct, whether in public affairs or private relations; the sympathy for “the outsider,” here the Tatar chieftain Hadji Murad, who can find a place neither among his own people nor the Russian conquerors. Seamless, even blithe as the prose surface appears, the story is full of dramatized thought and inducements to persuasion. As John Bayley has nicely remarked, “The parabolic conception of art which he had come to hold had the unexpected effect of making his artistry seem more and not less evident—the smell of art is the smell of a moral.”

These entanglements of the aesthetic and the ethical—there is no literature without them—reach a point of crisis in Resurrection (1899), a novel one can neither live with easily nor abandon with a good conscience. The book is little read, condemned by the received opinion that once again the old scold has brushed aside the pleasures of creativity for the aridity of dogma. Even more moderate opinions suggest that while there are fine portions, especially the idyllic flashbacks to the youth of the protagonist Prince Nekhlyudov (these might almost have been written by the young Tolstoy), most of the book resembles an irritable tract. But Resurrection is much richer in felt life and far less monochromatic than “The Kreutzer Sonata,” if only because the novel as a form forces Tolstoy to reveal himself.

Still, the usual disparagement of Resunection has some truth. We no longer encounter many of those seemingly spontaneous touches of incident and characterization—the surprises of recognition—that light up the earlier novels. We no longer enjoy the free interaction between two or more minds, while Tolstoy retains a serene distance from them. Something has happened, a shift from the depiction of life to a stringent interpretation—but that puts the matter too simply, for there is plenty of interpretation in the earlier Tolstoy and a quantity of depiction in the later. Say, rather, that in Resurrection we are always aware that his artistry is driven by “a definite purpose,” certainly more doctrinal than the purpose of “looking into the human soul.”

The story seems to be known to many people who have not read the book. Prince Nekhlyudov, well born and pleasing in manner, seduces the young maid Katusha, and thoughtlessly abandons her. Years later, serving as a juror in a sordid trial, he recognizes a defendant, a worn-out woman of the streets, as the once lovely girl he had seduced. Again through the carelessness that Tolstoy saw as a privilege of the powerful, Nekhlyudov acquiesces in her conviction, though she is in fact innocent. But then, through a severe scrutiny of his past, he undergoes a change of mind—more than a change of heart—and recognizes that he is responsible for Katusha’s plight. In an act of contrition, he accompanies the wronged woman to Siberia, and in the same rational spirit he offers to marry her; but Katusha, .sensing the dryness of his decision, refuses him. Finally, Nekhlyudov begins “an entirely new life,” though what it will be like and whether the effort will succeed Tolstoy, as at the end of “Father Sergius,” shrewdly avoids saying. And perhaps it is just as well.

There is a sense in which Resurrection is the most Dostoyevskian of Tolstoy’s novels, dealing as it does with themes of guilt, self-accusation, and renewal. While this gives it a strong interest, it does not account for what I take to be the power of the book. The modern reader is likely to find Nekhlyudov’s self-transformation less exalting, certainly less exciting, than Raskolnikov’s in Crime and Punishment. A Tolstoyan in style of thought, Nekhlyudov goes through his conversion largely as an exercise in rational self-understanding. He makes a considered moral judgment, so that his “purging of the soul,” in Tolstoy’s phrase, seems to lack the high rapture of a Dostoyevskian spiritual conversion. There is a certain dryness to Nekhlyudov’s experience, especially if it is detached from the encasing reflections of Tolstoy. “Life only requires us to do what is right,” says Nekhlyudov to his sister, to which she replies “with a sigh.” That sigh is one of Tolstoy’s sharp details, disqualifying the thrust of his “moral purpose.”


TOLSTOY IS NOT really the master of reincarnation that Dostoyevsky is. We are told by Tolstoy that the youthful Nekhlyudov has entered “a state of exaltation” upon discovering “all the beauty and significance of life…That year he had read [Herbert] Spencer’s Social Statics.” It is possible that serious readers in the late nineteenth century felt otherwise, but by now the linkage of “exaltation” and Spencer seems faintly comic.

The spiritual wanderings of Pierre Bezhukhov in War and Peace are not only comforted by Tolstoy’s affectionate smile, they are climaxed at the end by the portrayal of Pierre as a reflective man who is deeply troubled, perhaps soon to become a Decembrist. At the very last page we still cannot quite fix Pierre: he slips out of our descriptions. Nekhlyudov’s conversion, by contrast, though it is rendered with much earnestness, seems settled in advance. In fairness to the old Tolstoy, I should add that he focuses upon moments of smugness that mark Nekhlyudov’s ponderings, quite as he had recognized the pride behind Father Sergius’s dives into humiliation.

When Nekhlyudov tells Katusha that it is he who had wronged her, Tolstoy remarks: “The idea that, on moral grounds, he was ready to sacrifice everything and marry her made him feel very warm and tender toward himself. ...” But Katusha—this is another fine moment—will not let Nekhlyudov “make use of her spiritually as he had done physically, nor would she allow herself lo be an object for magnanimity on his part”:

“Go away from me! I am a convict and you are a prince, and you have no business here,” she cried, her whole face distorted with anger... “You want to save yourself through me…You had your pleasure from me in this world, and now you want to get your salvation through me in the world to come! You disgust me—with your spectacles and your fat ugly mug!”

That Katusha, in her anger, should notice his “fat ugly mug” is the kind of enhancing detail we expect from Tolstoy at any age. The old master could still command the resources of his art when he chose to, but the argument I want to make for Resurrection depends mainly on a riskier perception. If a case can be made for the greatness of Resurrection, it is not of the kind we are likely to provide with regard to most novels. The greatness of this book resides not primarily in the narrative of Nekhlyudov’s journey from betrayal to contrition, nor in the finely (if faintly) drawn figure of Katusha as innocent maiden and exploited woman. It resides in the things that happen near and about these figures; in the events for which they serve mainly as literary auxiliaries or catalysts; in the thickly brushed depictions of what the world calls justice, of the sadism it calls punishment, of the heartlessness of what it declares to be civilization, of the humiliations of those forgotten and obscure souls upon whom it turns its back. Here Tolstoy’s “Christian anarchism” comes into full play, not just as a theoretical option or an ideological position, but as a great upswell of moral fury.

Bayley, though he is a critic responsive to these of Tolstoy’s late writings, writes that the rejection of “worldliness” that he rightly sees as a central motif in Resurrection leads Tolstoy to “close his eyes to the kind of justice which [worldliness] may be capable of administering, even in a corrupt society.” A standard rebuttal might be that Bayley doesn’t really engage Tolstoy’s novel, since he is making a reasonable argument for a moderate liberalism while Tolstoy is composing a work of the literary imagination, and the two move along different planes of discourse. But such a rebuttal would be too easy, for Resurrection is by design a tendentious novel, and critics ought to have the right to make tendentious criticisms.

Tolstoy writes here both as an artist and a rhetorician. He wants both to create a work of art and also to convert readers to a moral position. And he approaches us from a prophetic stance, so that his moral condemnations must be as sweeping as those of prophets usually are. He cannot stop to notice, let alone accept, the reasonable view that a measure of justice may be possible even in a “corrupt” society. And this for at least two reasons. First, he offers the tacit but strong argument that the conditions prevailing in czarist Russia make the unjust trial at the center of the book entirely typical (if not inevitable). Second, he writes out of a deep persuasion that the very presence of organized government entails injustice—and at this point his prophetic stance and his Christian anarchism come together.

In every prophetic posture there is likely to be a strain of anarchism: a total rejection of society as it exists, an unqualified assault upon the prevalent morality, all declared with impatience and ultimatistic righteousness. That is one reason why prophetic utterances can be tremendously powerful while still being taken more as an incitement to conscience than a guide to action. The prophet’s cry is not reasonable in the way that Bayley’s critical point is; that cry cannot be met by declaring his case to be extreme, since he has made it precisely in order to be extreme. The old Tolstoy has no interest in compromise.


THE CENTRAL THRUST of Resurrection draws upon Tolstoy’s moral passion as it becomes, so to say, an autonomous presence, almost a “character” in the novel, released at times through direct authorial statement and at other times through scenes such as those that show the sufferings of prisoners on the way to Siberia. If you start with a strict Flaubertian conception of fiction, all this will seem superfluous and unintegrated, a mere flaunting of opinion, but Tolstoy rejected such a conception of the novel. The old man looms before us, grand in his dishevelment, refusing to make peace with the world, ferocious in his judgment and his monomania. He looms within the novel, his voice filling every space, speaking as the godlike judge who will not heed moderate cautions but keeps asking the one question before which even the most humane liberalism must tremble: “Why should these things be?”

The shackled prisoners march through the city, and a little boy

knew without any doubt—he was quite sure, for he had the knowledge straight from God, that these people were just the same as he and everyone else was, and therefore something wicked had been done to them, something that ought not to be done and he was sorry for them, and horrified not only at the people who were shaved and fettered but at the people who had shaved and fettered them.  

I doubt anyone but the old Tolstoy could get away with saying that the little boy’s knowledge comes “straight from God.” And then the scene in which the prisoners lie about in the Siberian muck and Nekhlyudov sees that

all the vices which developed among the convicts…were neither accidents nor signs of mental and physical degeneration…but that they were the inevitable result of the delusion that one group of human beings has the right to punish another.  

I wish to be clear. The case I am proposing—it can be validated, if at all, only by a full reading of the book—is not, as a sympathetic reader has put it, that Tolstoy in Resurrection “stepped outside the framework of pure art.” No, it is that the force of Tolstoy’s moral passion becomes transformed into something very much like the matter of art. Transformed into the matter of art and also of a truth that, like the little boy, he has “straight from God.” For if God were to vouchsafe it to anyone, who else could it be but the old magician?

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