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Tolstoy or Tolstoy?
University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 57, Number 4, Summer 1988, pp.
Published by University of Toronto Press
For additional information about this article
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Tolstoy or Tolstoy?
Richard F. Gustafson. Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger:
A Study in Fiction and Theology
Princeton University Press 1986. xviii, 480. us $29.50
Gary Saul Morson. Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in
'War and Peace'
Stanford University Press 1987. xiv, 322. us $32.50
Tolstoy's stock has for long been middling. Recognized as great and promptly
reshelved, Tolstoy has seemed to be one of those authors whose greatness leaves
criticism with little to say, because it is a greatness which is fulfilling rather than
transgressive. Transgressive writers - Sterne, Joyce - give to criticism the task of
measuring and negotiating the distance between the genre and the individual
work. Fulfilling writers - Scott, Trollope - do in their novels all that the novel can
do, and the individual work is useful to criticism for mere deictic instantiation.
Henry Gifford has noted that shortly after the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet pact in
1941 the English translation of War and Peace was reissued in a propaganda edition
and 'achieved a popular success not unlike that of Gone With the Wind.' Vulnerable
to such political abuse, War and Peace has also been susceptible to abuse in literary
and cultural polemic: a nostalgic exemplar, a work innocent of the problems of
both modernism and modernity. In Gifford's words, the reputation of Tolstoy
would suggest that 'George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope and even John Stuart Mill
had been rolled into one.'
Morson speaks of the 'pacification of War and Peace' over the past fifty years;
analogously both Morson and Gustafson can be described as warmongers. Both
seek to overthrow the established consensus, and each disagrees with the other at
almost every point. To read these two books is to suspect that Tolstoy may now be
the battleground on which the major critical arguments of narratology are going to
be fought. Retrospectively one can see indications of this in Gifford's discontent,
in the subversive reassurances of John Bayley, in the semiotic analyses of Boris
Uspensky, Krystyna Pomorska, and others. But most important, most stringently
provocative, is the silence of Bakhtin. It appears that Bakhtin fully endorsed the
UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME
57, NU MBER 4, SU MMER 1988
TOLSTOY OR TOLSTOY?
conventional opposition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: where Dostoevsky is
polyphonic and dialogical, there, inevitably, Tolstoy is a monological, homogenizing bore. Caryl Emerson's article of 19851 'The Tolstoy Connection in Bakhtin/
initiates the confrontation between Bakhtin's principles and Tolstoy's novels.
(Here one might in passing mention that just as Tolstoy is being studied afresh,
Dostoevsky is in danger of being pacified and domesticated by Joseph Frank's
biography - wonderfully detailed, full of contexts and contingencies, but
stubbornly and [in vol 3] increasingly anti-Bakhtinian.)
What has been for so long 'hidden in plain view' is the oddity of War and Peace.
This oddity is itself a plurality, of which Morson's chapter, 'Formal Peculiarities of
War and Peace,' offers a preliminary classification, And the more peculiarities that
one is forced to admit into view the clearer it becomes that in War and Peace
nothing is as it ought to be. This should be no surprise: Tolstoy himself
announced in 'Some Words about War and Peace' that the book was anything but
conventional: 'What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and
stiU less a historical chronicle ... . Such an announcement of disregard for
conventional form in an artistic production might seem presumptuous were it
premeditated, and were there not precedents for it. ' Tolstoy claims that his own
disregard of convention is not premeditated, but simply necessary, given
Tolstoy's place in the tradition of Russian literature which 'since the time of
Pushkin not merely affords many examples of such deviations from the European
forms, but does not offer a single example of the contrary.'
Tolstoy thus claims the status of transgressor, not for himself alone but on
behalf of the entirety of Russian literature. It is the West, guardian of civilization
and classical values, that maintains and preserves the literary genres that it has
inherited. The one genre that lacks classical warrant is of course the novel. And
what Tolstoy means is that Russia - part and not part of Europe - will have,
already has a literature that is entirely novelistic, that lives courageously without
the authorization of classical precedent or the reassurance of European analogue.
At the same time that Tolstoy was consolidating Russia's independence from the
classical and the normative, European novelists such as Flaubert and Henry James
were striving to obtain for their novels, on behalf of 'the novel,' the prestige and
security of a classical genre.
It would not be merely mischievous to suggest that Bakhtin's theory of the
novel, as presented in the essays 'Epic and Novel' and 'From the Prehistory of
Novelistic Discourse' (collected in The Dialogic Imagination), is an extended
reflection on Tolstoy's 'Some Words about War and Peace.' What is a work of
literature when it cannot be classified according to classical genres? What is a work
of literature when it is written outside the one literary tradition? What are all
works of literature when they are written within the classical literary tradition but
when that tradition is losing its authority? With modernity, according to Bakhtin,
comes the 'novelization' of literature; that is, each work contains within it that
which breaks its form, transgresses its boundaries, makes overt and problematic
the convention without which the work would not be written. Stylization is
Bakhtin's tenn (we might use mannerism) for those works which refuse to be
novelized, which perpetuate classical genres for their own sakes.
If there is one thing that Tolstoy is not, that even his most obtuse admirers or
detractors have never found him, it is mannered. We seldom say 'How
Tolstoyan,' either of a slice of prose or a piece of life. And so, very quickly, the
assumption is made that Tolstoy and life are much the same thing, contingent,
immediate, and all-encompassing. The equation is true only if the reader allows
Tolstoy drastically to complicate such a notion of life. 'Truths,' wrote Nietzsche,
'are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are.' Tolstoy
might adjust: 'The representation of reality is based on conventions about which
we have forgotten that this is what they are - and sois realityitseif.' The condition
of modernity, in which the novel is prevalent, is that in which art and life are no
longer distinguished by convention, but confused. Precisely by transgressing the
boundaries of genres, novelization encroaches on 'life .'
Why has all this been 'hidden in plain view'? Why is the new readingofTolstoy
creating so much controversy and disbelief? Tristram Shandy was one of Tolstoy's
favourite novels. Which is to say that Tolstoy was not interested in merely
repeating it, as some of the Russian Formalists tried to argu e. Sterne had known
how to 'lay bare the device' - which for Shklovsky was to be almost the sale
criterion of literary value. Tolstoy at once lays bare the device and disguises it
again. This he does by baring the literary device or convention, only to dress it up
in the devices and conventions of 'life' or 'reality.' That is why War and Peace is so
lifelike and yet so very different from other lifelike novels.
Life is most vulnerable to art's encroachments in its texts - that is, the letters,
the documents, the reports, the plans, the invitations, the visiting cards, which
are simply out there, part of reality. War and Peace contains all of these - it even,
most outrageously, contains a map - and of course plenty of speeches, aU of them
transcribed, some of them translated. I wrote 'War and Peace contains ... ' the better
to question the nature of the container. Is War and Peace anything except what it
contains? To ask the question is to begin to realize why the book suffers so from
incontinence. The leakage is not, as most readers have assumed, from fiction into
history, from literature into life. We can see that into which the book leaks - the
documents, the letters, etc - but we do not know what they were supposed to be
in their proper, 'contained' state. We know what these things are in real life, but
what are they doing here? To traditional readers the answer is no answer: they are
here to destroy our assumption that we know what they are in real life. The
documents are not out there, contained by life; they are themselves the unseen
conventions and devices - framing, plotting, etc - by which life is itself
constituted and circumscribed.
The complexity of Tolstoy's project can alone explain the misapprehensions in
the reading of War and Peace. On my first reading I found it (as prescribed)
familiar, consoling and a trifle dull. On the second, post-Morson reading, I found
the book all too familiar, long and tiresome, untill suspected that I was avoiding
the obvious, that which is hidden in plain view by our predilection for the
TOLSTOY OR TOLSTOY?
expected and the safe. Before the third reading it is not boredom but trepidation
that will need assuaging. In Morson's words, 'Tolstoy intended War and Peace as a
challenge to the genre of the novel, indeed, asa challenge to all narrative,' A more
radical and comprehensive threat is unimaginable.
Tolstoy can well sustain the weight of such claims made on his behalf, as
Gustafson demonstrates in his examination of Tolstoy's position as anomalous
and estranged in almost every context. As part of Russian litera ture he inherits
what Bakhtin might call its constitutive novelization. As a Russian he can avail
himself of European models, or he can disdain them. Two historical factors are
pertinent: Slavophilism and historicism. The debate in nineteenth-century Russia
between Slavophiles and Westernizers was not a local phenomenon. At stake
were the notions of tradition, the classical, culture and civilization. Are these
hierarchical, central, and unique, or might there be two traditions, and other ways
of being cultured? Gennan Romanticism had offered the possibility of a certain
autonomy for each of the provinces in the tradition. Russia was the only country
to be influenced by German Romanticism while being able to claim that it had
never been in that tradition. Polarization occurred in Russia not between classes
but within the educated, literate class. The Slavophiles are the first to write, to
debate in the intellectual forums and institutions of European culture, out of
hostility to that culture. It was the first articulation of the right to be marginal,
even the first hint of this century's predominant aspiration, to be decolonized.
The Slavophile debate was conducted around the theme of Rome and its
influence, both as an Empire and as a Church. Russia took pride in having been
beyond the reach of either. And the Westernizing reforms initiated by Peter the
Great could be seen not as making good any deficiency (on the old model of stages
of development in a single civilization) but as sacrificing the advantage of
difference. To see difference rather than deficiency was possible only because of
the authority of the Orthodox Church. That Slavophiles gathered round the
Church that was by historic identity 'non-Roman,' but which had named Moscow
'the Third Rome' (the first two having fallen away, to papists and pagans),
foreshadows the now familiar dialectics of nationalism and decolonization.
Remarkably, Tolstoy, alone among major Russian writers and thinkers, took no
side, almost no part in the debate. For Tolstoy what mattered was that the debate
was happening, for it had implications for narrative.
Gustafson gives a good account of Tolstoy'S 'estrangements: but his thesis
collapses on the claim that in one sphere Tolstoy was at home, in residence - the
Orthodox Church. My specifically theological objections to Gustafson's thesis
have been raised in a separate review (SI. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 31:2
119871, 175- 81). What here concerns us is that if Tolstoy had felt 'at home' in the
Orthodox Church he would have been a Slavophile; and thus in his denunciations
of Western Civilization he would not have noticed the marvel that such
denunciation was possible, or speculated on the implications. Gustafson's
argument is severely and gratuitously weakened by the exception to 'estrangement' made for the Orthodox Church. Without that, Gustafson's idea of a Tolstoy
thoroughly versed in a literary and philosophical tradition to which he owes no
allegiance, feels no kinship, is daunting and persuasive. Gustafson gives a fine
account of Tolstoy's many uses of the word nasilie (,coercion') to be resisted by
Tolstoy wherever identified. Tradition is a major instrumentaf coercion, ensuring
thatthe skills and capabilities of the individual are harnessed to social ends - that,
bluntly, transferrable skills are not transferred. Slavophilism upheld one tradition
at the expense of another; Tolstoy would use the one to negate the other, that
finally all competing traditions might cancel each other out, leaving the individual
free. This, for Gustafson, is the importance of the fact that so many of Tolstoy's
heroes and heroines are orphans. Death of fathers is not just a common theme but
a primary emancipation. Tolstoy's Christ would have been constrained as a
member of the Trinity: all the talk of his Sonship with the Fatheris, for Tolstoy, but
the embarrassed excuses of a bastard - a "'bright, abandoned" child's explanation
to his friends, ' Special pleading is a measure of the seriousness of the principle it
subserves. The appeal of Christ to Tolstoy was through estrangement; without
parents, estranged from his own people and equally from the Romans, Jesus is for
Tolstoy a model of the individual emancipated from all tradition.
With his major theme of estrangement, Gustafson allows for no significant
development in Tolstoy's life: he argues, quite persuasively, that the famous crisis
of 1880 was an invention of Tolstoy's biographers, a biographical inference drawn
solely from the Confession. As Gustafson rightly insists, the style of Tolstoy's
writing does not undergo drastic transformation after 1880. Resurrection, 'The
Death of Ivan I1yich' and 'Hadji Murad' all display continuities with the early
work. More dubiously Gustafson makes further claims, that 'in the manner and
purpose of the late tales we find the key to the nature of Tolstoy's art: and that
'The perfect type of Tolstoy's fiction is Master and Man: The problem with this is
that while there may have been no unique crisis in 1880 it does not follow that
there was no crisis at all. It would be better to say that 1880 was of no special
importance because Tolstoy'S entire life was an unending series of crises. Always
disgusted with himself and trying to evade aspects of himself, Tolstoy rejected
War and Peace and Anna Karenina no more definitively than he was to cast behind
him all his productions. And nothing would be more distressing to Tolstoy than
the notion that one work, or group of works, could be taken as representative of
the whole - as if Tolstoy had ever been whole.
This flaw in methodology and criticism does not entirely undermine the
achievement of Gustafson's book. That all of Tolstoy's works need to be
considered would be obvious in the case of another writer, and many of the
connections drawn and themes identified by Gustafson have been entirely
overlooked by those who study only the literature, or only the philosophy or only
the politics. Long, thorough, and comprehensive, the book demonstrates its
author's intimacy with all ninety volumes of Tolstoy'S writings, and gives us a
Tolstoy considerably more complex and strange than any to be found in earlier
Morson's book is less comprehensive but even more ambitious. Concentrating
TOLSTOY OR TOLSTOY?
only on War and Peace (another volume on Anna is in progress) Morson builds on
the unlikely combination of Bakhtin and Isaiah Berlin. To Tolstoy's distrust of
narrative, historicism holds the key. If the Slavophile-Westernizer debate is the
historical circumstance on which Gustafson builds the case of estrangement,
historicism is the concept through which Morson focuses Tolstoy's attack on
narrative. Chapters on the 'Hazards of History' and 'The Problems of Historiography' rehearse, and uncover Tolstoy's awareness of, the weaknesses of
historicism exposed by Butterfield in The Whig Interpretation of History, Berlin in
Historical Inevitabiiity and, of course, Popper in The Poverty of Historicism. It is a
remarkable fact that historicism and nineteenth-century narrative have never
been studied together; Mandelbaum's authoritative account of historicism,
History, Man, and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth -Century Thought (1971) mentions
not one single novelist.
Once stated it is fairly incontrovertible that historicism is the validating premise
of nineteenth-century fiction. Whether character is destiny, or whether character
determines incident and incident reveals character, life is to be understood
through narrative. Returning to Bakhtin's theories it is imperative to ask: what has
novelization to do with historicism? At a hazard: novelization can break the
bounds of genre only because it can trust and cling to the thread of linearity.
Novelization might then be not quite as liberating as Bakhtin supposes. For
Tolstoy Russia's difference from Europe may be marked in literary terms by a
bondage to narrative . Tolstoy's solu tion, disdainful alike of genre and historicism,
is presented by Morson in his study's central, incisive chapter, 'Forms of Negative
War and Peace is a parody of a historical novel, and a parody of historicism and
narration. The explanations of statesmen and generals are shown to be false, but
the demonstration is entirely negative. Tolstoy offers no more accurate or
adequate explanation himself; he simply looks on while explanations, like
traditions, cancel each other out. The weakness of historicism is revealed as soon
as rival theories of development come into conflict. Each nation, each national
tradition, founds its historicism on the myth of progress, and knows only one sort
of enemy - reaction. What happens if the myths of progress of two nations come
into conflict, not in war itself but in the subsequent historiography? They don't,
for the simple reason that historiography is an instrument of the national
tradition. Such a conflict can oq:ur only in translation.
Morson cites a Russian reviewer in 1868 who describes War and Peace as
'nothing but the story of two battles, Austerlitz and Borodino. In the intervals
between these battles, some nice young officers fall in love with some no less nice
young ladies, while the old people speak French very badly and Count Tolstoy
translates their words into Russian in footnotes.' No reader of an English
translation can be aware of the macaronic element, whose presence and effects
Morson analyses at length. In some sections of the book one third of the text is in
French; as that one third is then translated into Russian in footnotes the work
contains far more words than English readers would guess, and has its own
double or parallel text. Morson shows how the Russian is not always an exact
translation of the French, not only because of the inevitable inexactitude of
translation but also beca use of Tolstoy' s enjoyment of word-play and interlingual
puns and echoes. Russian readers are not much better off, for in the third edition,
of 1873, all French was removed from the text, and it is the 1873 edition that has
been used for most subsequent editions. Eikhenbaum has argued that Tolstoy
was not responsible for the 1873 edition, as it makes nonsense of so much of the
Russian text, elevated from its dialogical, comparative role in footnotes to the
status of single authority in the main text. If in fact Tolstoy was responsible for the
1873 edition we should regard this as an act of self-mutilation infinitely more
damaging than the writing of the Confession.
Because of the necessary inexactitude of translation there is no more blatant
way of putting the referential into question than by describing the same events in
two different languages simultaneously. What is described is a war between two
nations and two tongues - a war in which the Russians have the linguistic
advantage because they (being the readers of this book) can understand French.
Prince Andrei understands what Napoleon is saying on the field of Austerlitz;
Pierre acts as interpreter for the French soldiers in Moscow. When describing
battles Tolstoy makes use of historians, both French and Russian: when Thiers's
French is translated into the Russian in the footnote it is not merely the inherent
problem of translation that makes the Russian footnote so very different from the
Russian of the Russian historian. Nor can such difference be entirely attributed to
the problem of bias and perspective. Tolstoy places great emphasis on a French
historian's misspelling of the name of a Russian village - because such an error or
'distortion' is obviously not caused by prejudice.
Like two traditions, two notions of civilization, two historicisms, the two
languages of War and Peace undermine the validity of either. The binary title which has led critics to make extraordinarily crude divisions, and to debate
whether a particular episode 'belongs strictly' to 'War' or 'Peace' - establishes the
model of two-ness, or duplicity. But 'two.' looking like a balance, a counterweight, an aid to objectivity, conceals multitudes. Where there is 'more than one'
history, or story, or tradition, or language, or civilization, there is already an
infinity - which is to say, none. Where there are conflicting and parallel stories,
languages, and traditions, it is imperative to think anew all the values, entities,
and institutions founded on centrality, continuity, hierarchy, and the oneness of
We can now better answer the question why so much that is in War and Peace has
been hidden in plain view. Speculation about multiplicity, the non-reality of self
and of story, is characteristically witty, humorous, tending to the absurd,
precisely because Sterne and Cervantes and Borges and Nabokov and all their
read ers have such a very strong and secure sense of their own selves. There is an
implicit contract by which it is agreed that such exercises in wit are based on
philosophical paradoxes, and that what is at stake is philosophy and the processes
TOLSTOY OR TOLSTOY?
of reasoning, rather than selves themselves. As clear-sighted as any of the writers
with whom Morson's reading would make him superficially kin, Tolstoy sees in
the disparity of sense and reason nothing ludic, no opportunity for graceful,
sophisticated wit. Every instance of inconsistency, contra-diction, hypocrisy,
dissembling - all that is present in and consequent on duplicity - is held up for our
outrage and indignation.
As Plato knew, mimesis is duplicity. For Tolstoy representation can avoid
duplicity only through multiplication, only when it is as multiple, as randomly
uncountable as that which it represents. Here Morson introduces his major
innovative term, 'prosaics.' Tolstoy's unease with aesthetics is partly based on its
inability to deal with prose except as a form of 'fallen poetry: elevated and
restored only in exceptions such as Flaubert and Joyce. Prosaics seeks to approach
and appreciate prose not in categories borrowed from poetics but in terms of its
response to the real, the messy, the quotidian, the contingent, the ordinary and
unnoticed. One result of the critical application of prosaics to War and Peace is the
discovery that Andrei and Pierre both strive to live determined lives, to be
exceptional and conspicuous - and that the true hero, according to prosaics, is
Nikolai Rostov. 'Hero' is of course a term borrowed from poetics, while the 'hero
according to prosaics' is akin to the anti-hero found in novels at their most prosaic.
While it can be allowed that narrative, plot, pattern, and all varieties of aesthetic
and symbolic organization are false to the nature of prose, syntax poses problems.
A worked-out theory of prosaics is merely adumbrated by Morson, properly
enough in this volume, for its application would go far beyond Tolstoy. If poetics,
from Aristotle onwards, has been constructed on a syntactic foundation, then
prose must be a low form of poetry unless it can be demonstrated that the
relationship between prose and syntax is accidental or imposed.
We would thus be faced with the complex task of constructing a theory of prose
in which the place of syntax would be accidental or irrelevant. It could safely be
assumed until recently that what can be theorized must be syntactic. 'Random
theory' (the theory of randomness that must itself be random) is specifically
un-designed to question that assumption in contemporary mathematics. Fractals
might be contingently useful in the construction of 'prosaic theory,' a theory of
prose that remains true to its messy ordinariness.
'Hidden in plain view' is Morson's phrase for those things in the world so basic,
so fundamental as to be unnoticed. It is Tolstoy's almost incoherent achievement
to draw our attention to the unnoticed things of the world, but to draw our
attention in a manner so true to those things that we, as readers, remain
unnoticing, always ready to be distracted by shallow posturing, cheap heroics,
and other betraya]s of the prosaic. Morson's subtitle, 'Narrative and Creative
Potentials,' indicates the importance of 'latency,' not only in War and Peace but in
this critical understanding. Latency, signifying both the obscured and the
potential, is the condition in which the prose of the world is to be not found, but
not always (not here) overlooked.