Monday, September 28, 2009

Fragment 2809

Turgenev writing to Tolstoy in 1883:

I am on my death-bed; there is no possibility of my recovery. I write you expressly to tell you how happy I have been to be your contemporary, and to utter my last, my urgent prayer. Come back, my friend, to your literary labors. That gift came to you from the source from which all comes to us. Ah, how happy I should be could I think you would listen to my entreaty! My friend, great writer of our Russian land, respond to it, obey it!

Turgenev, perhaps gifted with the prophetic accuracy of those near death, saw what Tolstoy could not. That Tolstoy’s turning away from his art in order to concentrate on his preaching, on his polemics, was, viewed in the light of history and from the long perspective of those who have contributed most to humanity’s great treasure of art, a mistake.

Tolstoy, during the late 1870s, went through a religious crisis or depression, which resulted in him eventually turning away from his art, renouncing it, like Prospero. Not with a sense of loss, however, but with a sense of anger and determination to carry his rationality to the end and to use his remaining time and great gifts to (what he saw as) the immediate service of humanity. Most of his writing after 1880 is tendentious and tedious; most of his views full of a fanatic narrow mindedness which is always the true mark of those who bear a secret hatred of (their own) humanity. The endless temperance and anti-tobacco tracts that streamed from his pen, the wrong headed judgments of What is Art?, the willfully destructive criticisms of Shakespeare and Homer, the boring parallelism of his fables and didactic plays, all these are not worthy of the greatness of soul which produced War and Peace, Anna Karenina and the biographical trilogy Childhood, Boyhood and Youth. Tolstoy himself wanted to be remembered for the preachings of his late phase, and deeply regretted, as if it had been the commission of a sin, that he had ever created those masterpieces.

History has judged otherwise, however, and treasured the earlier work over the preaching, the formal perfection, universalism and aestheticism of the great early novels over the parochial utilitarianism and rancid ranting of the later writing. Turgenev alone could see the irony of this, and begged Tolstoy on his deathbed to return to literature, to return to the fold of those who fed from the source.

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