“Whenever—at whatever moment—she was asked what she was thinking about she could have answered without fail, ‘Always about my happiness and my unhappiness.’” No novelist but Tolstoy could have charged this apparently unremarkable sentence, which summarizes the preoccupations of an unfaithful wife, with so potent a current of meaning, and in Anna Karenina, a novel powered in large part by philosophical and religious speculation, no other sentence carries significance of a higher voltage. For Tolstoy, happiness and unhappiness were the human matters of the utmost consequence, and they were the principal themes of his writings.
One must make the appropriate distinctions: the life of a well-to-do woman preoccupied with her adultery is not, after all, that of a great novelist who imagines such a woman and her experience. Yet what Tolstoy wrote of Anna Karenina he might have said, at almost any time, and just as truly, of himself. The pursuit of happiness was his true life’s work; it engaged all his powers. Somehow he knew that he had been made for happiness, and that happiness was the end man was made for. “The craving of a man’s body and soul for happiness,” he wrote in his diary at the age of twenty-four, “is the only path to an understanding of the mysteries of life.” To desire happiness, he understood, was to seek the meaning of one’s life, and to attain it was to see as deeply into the divine intention as a man could hope to do. He poured his colossal energies into discovering what this happiness might be, and how he could take possession of his rightful share.
The recent publication of two new biographies1 provides an occasion to examine the marks left on Tolstoy’s spiritual person by this effort. Unfortunately, neither the English novelist A.N. Wilson nor the French biographer Martine de Courcel—though both of them are gifted and serious writers—does much to illuminate the happiness Tolstoy fought for or to demonstrate just what part of it he managed to get. The trouble is that the question of Tolstoy’s happiness is essentially a religious one, and de Courcel takes Tolstoy seriously but not religion, while Wilson takes religion seriously but not Tolstoy.
“Tolstoy was never so happy as when he was writing War and Peace,” Wilson rightly observes, yet he determines this happiness to be a neurotic’s absorption in an art that offers “the comforting possibilities of distortion, of laundering experience. . . .” De Courcel, for her part, finds that Tolstoy was happiest when overcome by “an irresistible urge to write, having nothing to do with any humanitarian, social, or religious consideration.” Yet for Tolstoy, who wrote novels, novellas, short stories, plays, religious treatises, political tracts, articles on pedagogical theory, in addition to keeping a diary (intermittently) from the age of eighteen until his death at eighty-two, there was no desire to create that did not have its religious impulse. Neither biographer ever really considers it possible that, somewhere in the tumultuous religious quest that was Tolstoy’s life, he might have found, if only for a spell, something like the true way to live, of which his greatest writing was the natural expression.
One would be surprised if a man like Tolstoy had not believed himself made to be happy. His fellow novelist and contemporary Turgenev once said of him, “Now there’s a man of many blessings. Fortune has smiled on him his whole life long.” He certainly had an auspicious start, being born (in 1828) to a noble and wealthy family—he was Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy—on the estate that he was to inherit, Yasnaya Polyana. And quite apart from the social advantages, he enjoyed any number of others, beginning with literary genius but not stopping there. Plainly the work of one of nature’s most glorious days, Tolstoy was a marvel of ability, energy, sensitivity, strength. He sprouted passions and talents prodigiously, from every inch of him, with an extravagance that bordered on the joyous preposterousness of heroic folklore; it was as though Homer had been endowed with the eye, not only of Monet, but also of Ted Williams.
In his youth, Tolstoy aspired to be the wisest man in the world, and the bravest, and the strongest, and certainly the most admired: sizable ambitions, by anybody’s reckoning. He did not do so badly by them. He even grew up to be something of a he-man; more perhaps than any other man of comparable intellectual and artistic gifts, he knew the full reach of the body’s power and pleasure. A gymnast, a weight-lifter, a wrestler, he was renowned for his feats of strength. He prided himself on handling a plough as easily as did the sturdiest of his serfs. He served in the army for several years, and not without gallantry, being awarded a high honor for valor as an officer in the Crimean War.
Surely no one seemed to love life’s variety, to crave the joys of sensation, emotion, and thought, more voraciously than he. He was a graceful horseman, and a crack shot; the birds, Turgenev complained, flew his way. His passion for the hunt extended also to women, who tended to fly his way as well. A fine pianist, he thought for a time of becoming a composer, and once spent an afternoon playing a piece by Haydn over and over for some nightingales outside his window. He tried his hand at sculpture. He managed an estate of 4,000 acres. He founded a school for the peasant children of Yasnaya Polyana, which was perhaps the most successful school ever run on anarchist principles, mostly because it had him for a teacher. He fathered fourteen known children, nine of whom lived, one, a peasant woman’s son, unofficially. To his children’s delight, he joyfully outdid them at childishness, a boisterous paternal festival. He bred horses and kept bees. At the age of sixty-three, he took up the study of Hebrew. After getting that down, he decided to learn how to ride a bicycle. It was the crowning touch.
In 1865, two years into the writing of War and Peace, Tolstoy remarked to a younger colleague that the artist’s purpose is “to compel us to love life in all its countless and inexhaustible manifestations.” Who could seem better suited to the task than a man with so exceptional a gift for living? If superabundant talent and sheer force of vitality were sufficient to ensure a man’s happiness, his would surely have been among the happiest of lives. But in the end all this energy and high accomplishment and worldly pleasure brought him small enjoyment, and even great pain.
For it was not vitality and its myriad joys that he ultimately revered; rather, it was goodness. Turgenev would have loved to have had Tolstoy’s vital gifts—provided he could have had them and still remain Turgenev—but for Tolstoy they were a source of anguish. In A.N. Wilson’s tersely elegant summation, “The fates . . . showered upon this improbable recipient imaginative gifts . . . almost without parallel. He [feared] them, et dona ferentes [and the gifts they bore].” The more fortune smiled on him, the more he grimaced and fretted; he was afflicted with the conviction that almost everything a man could want he should in fact abhor and renounce, for the sake of his soul’s one true need.
It was in childhood that he discovered what that need was, although then he did not feel it as a need at all, but as utter fulfillment. “Happy, happy, irrecoverable days of childhood! How can one fail to love and cherish its memories?” In Tolstoy’s first novel, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, published in installments between 1852 and 1857, the narrator, Eugene Irtenyev, recalls his wondrous childhood comprehension of the world’s perfection. Enveloped in the ardent tenderness of his mother’s love, he felt God’s love, too, enfolding all the world in its embrace. Years later, during adolescence, looking out from his window at a flawless spring afternoon, Eugene feels again an intimation of this same perfection, and understands the moral teaching that it bears: “Everything spoke to me of beauty, happiness, and virtue; told me that each of these was quite easy and attainable for me, that the one could not be without the others, and even that beauty, happiness, and virtue were one and the same thing.”
By the time Tolstoy wrote Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, such happiness, for him, was already sadly torn. Tolstoy’s powers of mind, sharp-toothed, swift, and relentless, were unloosed at an early age, and they gave those blessed certainties of the childish soul a mauling. Like Eugene Irtenyev, the young Tolstoy philosophized just enough to undo “the convictions which, for [his] life’s happiness, [he] ought never to have dared to disturb.” Tolstoy came to question everything he had cherished most; his skepticism, however, was not that of the born philosopher, at ease among endless vistas of uncertainty, but rather that of an unsettled soul, in dire need of refuge. Once he had thought sufficiently to cast all into doubt, what moved him to think further was not the joy of questioning but the need to have an answer.
He knew what he wanted the answer to be. Spiritually dispossessed, he tried to think his way back to the certainty of God’s ultimate loving goodness that he had once found in his family’s love and that had seemed to offer protection from all sorrow. Unable to recover the path by means of his intellect, he relied on his memory of the old feelings to guide him. In his diary he wrote, “I believe in goodness and love it, but I don’t know what can show me the way to it. . . . It is better to do good, without knowing how one knows what it is, and not to think about it.”
All his life he was to live—or at least try to live—according to this irrational and uncertain wisdom, yet all his life he was to suffer from the need for a wisdom that his exacting reason could certify. To think about the ultimate questions was painful for Tolstoy, sometimes even dangerous, but he could not stop thinking about them. “I must work with my brain. I know I would have been happier if I hadn’t known this sort of work. But God set me on this path: I must follow it.” His soul at odds with his mind, he prayed with all his strength to a loving and merciful God Who, he periodically declared, most likely did not exist.
There were times when his confusion amounted to nihilism, and his youth was among the most distressing of these times. The swirling winds of his doubt swept away the path of virtue, and he found himself in the well-rutted track of the aristocratic pleasure-life. He dressed with elegance, cut an imperious figure, and tended to despise the drab, the stammering, the socially unclean. He got knee-walking drunk, gambled away piles of money, flirted with the decent young women and spent his nights with the indecent ones, usually Gypsies or prostitutes. The sort of life he led seemed natural enough to most of those living it, and he had quite a liking for it himself; yet he sensed, intermittently at any rate, that something fine in him was being disfigured. From his first diary entry, which he made when he was eighteen and taking the cure for gonorrhea, he recorded his struggle to renounce “the disorderly life . . . [that is] a consequence of the early corruption of the soul.”
As formidable a nemesis as Tolstoy’s sexual compulsion was for him, or his laziness, or his despair, more pernicious and discomfiting still was the social compulsion that overpowered him: his vanity. In 1852, at the age of twenty-four, he observed, “Throughout my diary one main idea and desire can be seen—to be rid of the vanity which was oppressing me and ruining all my pleasures, and to search for ways to rid myself of it.” His attempt to analyze the vice rapidly acquired an uncontrollable emotional momentum and became a diatribe eloquent with disgust and shame:
It’s a sort of moral sickness like leprosy—it doesn’t destroy any one part but disfigures the whole—it insinuates itself gradually and imperceptibly and then develops throughout the whole organism; there is no manifestation of life which it doesn’t infect; it’s like venereal disease—if it’s driven out of one part it appears with greater force in another.
Tolstoy’s understanding of this moral plague was to inform his whole life’s work. That understanding derived chiefly from his beloved Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom A.N. Wilson correctly calls “the greatest single influence on the development of Tolstoy’s thought.” Émile, Rousseau’s masterpiece on the ideal education of democratic man, offers his fullest treatment of vanity, or amour-propre—Tolstoy himself occasionally uses the French term—but it is in a note to the Discourse on Inequality that Rousseau most succinctly defines the scourge: “Amour-propre is only a relative sentiment, artificial and born in society, which inclines each individual to have a greater esteem for himself than for anyone else, inspires in men all the harm they do to one another, and is the true source of honor.” In Émile Rousseau writes: “. . . what makes man essentially good is to have few needs and to compare himself little with others; what makes him wicked is to have many needs and to depend very much on opinion.”
The young Tolstoy was a needy sort who lived very much for the eyes of others. So importunate was his need for admiration, so keen his sensitivity to insult, that the most commonplace social gathering became an ordeal for him. The “Rules for Society” he set down in his diary rest upon the understanding that the ordinary social intercourse of professedly convivial people is governed by the very amour-propre that ignites raging warfare. “At a ball, ask the most important ladies to dance. If you feel shy, don’t become flustered, but carry on. Be as cold as possible and don’t betray any impressions.” “Don’t tolerate the slightest unpleasantness or sarcasm from anyone, without paying it back twofold.” Tolstoy needed Rousseau to save him from the worldly nobleman in himself, and to remind him where his true happiness lay; left on his own, he was prone to confusion.
True, in his dithering and misery he accomplished more than most happy men dream of doing, but neither the activity nor the achievement nor the admiration raised him up out of his unhappiness. Even telling the truth in his writing, which was the supreme law of art, exacerbated his pain, for he was too weak to live the rest of his life in accordance with the truth his work proclaimed. In the story “A Billiard-Marker’s Notes,” written in 1852, he recounts the degeneration and eventual suicide of an aristocratic young man who knew how he ought to live but fell into the life that men of his type were expected to lead. His suicide note has a familiar ring:
God gave me everything man can desire: wealth, a name, intelligence, and noble aspirations. I wanted to enjoy myself and trampled in the mire all that was good in me. . . . And how good and happy I might have been had I trodden the path which on entering life my fresh mind and my childlike, genuine feeling indicated to me! More than once I tried to escape from the rut in which my life was moving and get back to that bright path. I told myself: I will use all the will I have—but I could not. . . . Thoughts of what will be beyond the tomb and of what will be said tomorrow about my death at Aunt Rtishcheva’s present themselves to me with equal force.
Tolstoy’s moral lucidity here is pitiless, even savage, as it tends to be in the diaries as well, although A.N. Wilson, for one, is unable to recognize the honesty with which Tolstoy saw himself and recorded what he saw. According to Wilson, “like many self-obsessed people, [Tolstoy] was entirely lacking in self-knowledge.” In writing fiction, says Wilson, Tolstoy enjoyed the power of “arranging events to make them tolerable to himself,” and Wilson adds: “One cannot exaggerate the extent to which Tolstoy’s fiction is his version of how he wanted life to be.” But to exaggerate that is exactly what Wilson does. In fact, one of Tolstoy’s rarest gifts was his clear awareness of how painfully far his own life fell short of what he wanted it to be, and no writer who has put his own life to the uses of fiction has spared himself less than Tolstoy. He knew only too well that the success of his writing in no way mitigated the failures of his life.
Since art would not save him, he dreamed of something that would—specifically, a woman’s love to restore his innocence, empower him to live rightly and in utter happiness. “Love is man’s one vocation and happiness on earth,” he declared to Valeriya Arsenyeva, the daughter of a neighboring landowner whose guardian he became on her father’s death and with whom he fell in love during the summer of 1856. She was twenty, seven years younger than he, and his letters to her were full of the sad but hor lul wisdom of “a man morally old, who did many foolish things in his youth for which he has paid with the happiness of the best years of his life, and who has now found for himself both a purpose and a vocation. . . .”
In the end, however, he found Valeriya insufficiently substantial for the noble love he had in mind. (The failed romance did move him to write the fine novella Family Happiness, about the way love deepens and matures in the early years of a marriage.) Only six years later did he find the woman he knew was meant for him, Sonya Behrs, a doctor’s daughter, just eighteen: “A child! It could be!” She was pretty; she sang; she wrote; she was devout and good as only a child could be: she was perfect, and she terrified him. Tolstoy suddenly stopped short—afraid he might be in love with love and not with her, afraid that in any case she could not possibly love him—and pronounced himself unsuitable for married happiness; a nature like his was intended for something else altogether, for an art to be pursued in solitude. “A monastery, work—that’s your vocation, and from its height you can look down calmly and gladly at other people’s love and happiness.” That, however, was precisely what he could never do. His literary vocation was in fact to be the supreme artist of family happiness, and that vocation could not be fulfilled until he was the head of his own loving and happy family.
He overcame his misgivings, which were plentiful and recurred frequently. Once married, he found himself happier than he had thought he ever could be. Yet before long, he began to see that this happiness too was unstable, as happiness based on luck and not on virtue was bound to be: “All the conditions for happiness have come together for me. Often the only thing missing (all this time) is the awareness that I’ve done everything that I ought to have done in order to enjoy to the full what has been given me, and to repay others, the whole world, by my work for what they have given me.” For Tolstoy, happiness could not be happiness if it was mere accident. He needed to feel sure there was a divine warrant, that the unexampled joys of marriage were God’s reward for his having lived the life he was intended to live.
In time, he attained the precise equilibrium that was required for his first great artistic achievement; he found himself just happy enough with his wife and children, and just unhappy enough with himself, to undertake with joyous diligence the writing of War and Peace (1865-69) and later Anna Karenina (1875-77)—a greater novel still, and one in which he subjects family happiness to the most searching ordeal.
The fifteen years during which Tolstoy himself managed to hold on to this equilibrium were the happiest of his life—probably among the happiest of any life. (During this time he wrote in his diaries hardly at all.) Sonya’s younger brother, who spent his every youthful summer with the Tolstoys, wrote in his memoirs, “I cannot sufficiently describe the joyous and happy frame of mind that usually reigned at Yasnaya Polyana. Its source was always Leo Nikolayevich.” The writing of War and Peace, which was to repay “all the world” for Tolstoy’s undeserved happiness, ended up celebrating his deserved happiness.
But it, too, vanished; the fear of death dissolved it. Early in his marriage Tolstoy had mentioned in his diary the worry that his happiness might be impermanent, that death would come and sweep it all away forever. He had looked away from this fear, and he had forgotten it. It had not gone away, though. Once he mustered the courage to look eternity in the face, it stared him down, and left him shaken. The sight convinced him that the meaning of his life had eluded him after all, that family happiness was merely a diversion from the horror of eternity’s unendurable emptiness.
Unable to understand what life was for, he found that he could not live. Death was everywhere he looked, and, pitiless, inexplicable, it blasted all life’s joys. Art, family, prosperity, fame: none of these meant a thing any more. All he wanted was to die, to end the horror of a meaningless life. “And all this befell me at a time when all around me I had what is considered complete good fortune,” he wrote in A Confession, the great autobiographical essay he finished in 1882.
He searched everywhere for the wisdom that could save him from despair. He ransacked the words of the wisest men—Socrates, Solomon, Schopenhauer, Buddha—but found at the heart of their reputed wisdom only disgust with, or even horror at, life: “Happy is he who has not been born. . . .” He consulted the latest findings of modern science, which informed him that he was no more than “a transitory, casual cohesion of particles.” At last, having perceived that his powers of reason could not provide him with life’s meaning, but could only make clear its meaninglessness, he concluded (in a variant of the conclusion he had reached once before in his youth) that rational knowledge itself leads inexorably to the longing for death, while irrational knowledge, of the sort possessed by millions of ordinary people, gives the strength to live happily.
So it was that Tolstoy came to seek, and claimed to find, his happiness in the religious faith of this great multitude. He rejoined the flock of the Orthodox Church, and for a while was a paragon of conventional piety. However, before long he decided the Orthodox Christ bore only a superficial resemblance to the true Christ, whom he discovered by studying the Gospels with utmost intentness and by searching his own heart. What institutional Christianity had persistently ignored in Christ’s teaching, Tolstoy wrote in What I Believe (1884), was the injunction “that men must create their own happiness here,” in this world.
To create his happiness, Tolstoy sought to reduce his seigneurial way of life to an exemplary peasant starkness. He denounced his previous writings as immoral amusements pandering to the wicked tastes of the privileged classes, and he refused to accept any money from the sale of his books. He swore off meat, alcohol, and tobacco. He toiled in the fields with the rest of the peasants, and he took up cobbling, in order to have a truly useful skill. He even emptied his own chamber pot.
With withering logic, Tolstoy reduced life’s “countless and inexhaustible manifestations” to a series of problems that needed solving so that the reign of happiness could begin. So long as any man was miserable, no man could be happy; to concern oneself with anything but the poverty, hunger, cruelty, and injustice that remained to be eradicated was to miss the point of life entirely. Tolstoy entered the political world with a view toward putting an end to politics. The existence of government in any form was inimical to happiness, he maintained, for every state was based on the evil of violent force. He inveighed tirelessly against the Russian state and church. When, in 1881, revolutionary terrorists murdered Czar Alexander II, Tolstoy wrote fecklessly to his son and successor asking him to spare the assassins’ lives; such saintly forgiveness would inspire all Russia with goodness and love. The Czar, not unreasonably, opted for hanging.
The truth that Tolstoy found at last in the Gospels changed his life utterly. Or so he proclaimed: “And I became assured of this truth and was reassured, and have joyfully lived twenty years of my life since then and am now joyfully approaching my death.” That was not the whole story, however. In his own diary, in 1897, he wrote that he had thought his new faith would be “a haven and a respite. But it wasn’t so. The real difficulties have begun and are continuing and will probably stay with me till death.” His wife observed in her diary that he was “unhappy as ever even now that he has faith.”
He saw to it that he was not alone in his unhappiness. Family life became a pitched battle of the spirit. Tolstoy berated his wife as the epitome of pagan selfishness, and blamed her obstinate benightedness for his own misery; she mocked his spitefulness, vanity, and hypocrisy. “Only old men and children, free from sexual desire, live a true life,” he declared; in his novella Father Sergius a monk chops off one of his fingers to help himself resist a seductive beauty. Sonya taunted Tolstoy with his own irrepressible goatishness, which mortified him: “I’m sad, sad. Lord, help me, burn up the old carnal man in me.”
But sex was a simple and straightforward evil, compared with amour-propre. The pride of self-abasement was an unconquerable temptation; Tolstoy hated his desire for saintliness at eighty as he had his desire for women at eighteen, although he was no more successful in overcoming the one than the other. Sonya took a malicious delight in his failures. Finally enough was enough. At the age of eighty-two Tolstoy sneaked off from home, and died days later in a railroad station to which his disciples refused Sonya admittance. It was as unhappy an end as one could have imagined for such a life.
Writing in his diary in 1905, sick of art, sick of himself, Tolstoy analyzed the achievement of his that everybody else most esteemed: “I have all the vices, and to a very high degree. . . . My own salvation is that I know it, and have been fighting—fighting all my life—against it. For this reason they call me a psychologist.”
It is clear, though—and not only from his later life—that to his own mind he was foremost a moralist, fighting for the sake of his soul and others’, and that he was a psychologist to that end. What gives Tolstoy’s art its main force is the tumultuous coexistence in his characters’ souls of longings as potent as his own for both the false happiness and the true. He is expert at observing the force with which, and the angle at which, the contrary desires in a soul collide, and he is superb at calculating the effect of these collisions: the disturbance they produce in a person’s thoughts, feelings, dreams, demeanor, appetite, complexion, gait; the efforts one makes to shake off these disturbances; the degree to which these efforts increase one’s true happiness or unhappiness.
Tolstoy is often spoken of as the master of rendering sensation—what it feels like to skate gracefully or to walk bearishly, to ride in a sleigh, to be caught in a snowstorm, to mow a field of hay, to dance with someone incomparably exciting, to be injured or ill, to go hungry or to slip a platter of oysters down the hatch, to ride a horse or even to be a horse. But his unsurpassed mastery really lies in something deeper. What he is intent on rendering when he examines a body’s contour, feeling, motion is the full complex of moral and even of metaphysical implication that sensation bears: the way the unseen and impalpable forces of good and evil that govern life make their presence known through these strange physical natures of ours. “The body? Why the body?” he asked in his diary, not long before he died. The answer, which in fact he had known since youth, was that the life of the body was above all the appointed trial of the soul’s integrity and strength.
The current estimation of Tolstoy’s writings reflects the degree to which the happiness of the animal man has come to dominate modern opinion. The Russian writer Ivan Bunin recalls how his father laughingly told him about the way certain neighbors of theirs read War and Peace: some could not get enough of War but skipped Peace altogether, while the others read every word of Peace but preferred to give War a miss. Today the descendants of the former rule, although the lines of descent are confusing. Underlying the 20th-century appreciation of Tolstoy’s War and the denigration of his Peace is the modern cult of the body. It is the physical horror of war that makes it supremely repulsive to modern eyes; it is physical pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, that furnishes the chief attraction of peace. Modern admirers of Tolstoy’s War tend to admire it precisely because war is the worst thing they can think of. Which is not to suggest they dislike Peace; it is rather that they do not care for Tolstoy’s quaint and confining notions of how Peace is best spent.
Contrary to the prevailing opinion, however, it is in writing of peace—especially of love, and of its most beguiling perversions—that Tolstoy is peerless, and it is in his understanding of war—indeed, of political life in general—that he is most wanting. What he really knows about happiness and unhappiness is not what most people think he knows.
In War and Peace the first sight Tolstoy provides of men engaged in soldiering, a Russian regimental inspection, cuts to the vicious amour-propre he sees at the heart of the enterprise. When the general spots a soldier dressed inappropriately for the occasion, in a fancy dress coat, he erupts at the company commander, plainly reveling in the chance to unloose his lavish contempt: “He was evidently pleased at his own display of anger and . . . wished to find a further excuse for wrath.” The general then lights into the peculiarly dressed soldier—an officer who has been reduced to the ranks for insubordination, but who has received permission to dress as a gentleman. The soldier, Dolokhov, stares right back at the general “with his clear, insolent eyes,” and announces that, although he must obey orders, he will not endure insults. The general, still angry but acknowledging the gentleman’s sense of honor, asks him, politely, to change his coat.
Tolstoy’s introduction to the military temperament emphasizes the inane anger that flares up when one man’s pride strikes hard against another’s. Even among men who are fighting on the same side, there is an endless combat of wills. Where amour-propre is the guiding passion and each man aches to prove himself supreme, the warlike emotions know no rest; one’s friends, too, are one’s foes. In the middle of combat, a Russian general and a German colonel, colleagues who despise each other, launch into loud disagreement about tactics “with the sole object of offending one another.” At a Russian council of war, every general—except Kutuzov, Tolstoy’s military hero—is bent above all on showing himself the best man in the place, and no one (except Kutuzov, who dozes through the nonsense) much cares what the best strategy might really be.
Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, quoting Montesquieu, declares that honor is the predominant passion among men living under monarchies; the undertaking of Tolstoy’s art is the demolition of this cult of honor and the restoration of natural morality. The passion for glory, Tolstoy teaches, stunts and twists the human soul, and men have grown so accustomed to their own spiritual deformity that they revere as all but divine the most misshapen among them: Napoleon. The “confident, self-complacent happiness” of the villainous Napoleon, and the “great happiness” Prince Andrei feels on his way to his first battle with that enemy (whom he also worships), rest on this willful mass delusion.
Andrei is not going to war in defense of his country, or even of his own family. As far as he is concerned, this immense and gruesome collision between nations is taking place so that other men might marvel at his courage and skill in the face of death. Like Napoleon, he is possessed by a warlike spirit of maniacal frivolity. The suffering of millions is but the occasion for his conquest of happiness. Although over the course of the novel Andrei’s spiritual life takes many turns, and although he does in the end find a happiness that is true and durable, and that sees him through the pain of his slow dying, Tolstoy shows that it is a second-best happiness, for someone who learned too late how to live. It is, rather, Pierre Bezukhov who learns in time, who marries Andrei’s sometime fiancée, Natasha Rostov, and who lives in blessed family happiness.
Only by renouncing the delusions that govern public life, Tolstoy contends, can a man hope to find happiness. Insofar as men act in the name of nations, they live in servitude to a monstrous unreality, which has founded its virtually universal dominion on vanity and on the tendency of every human being unthinkingly to live as he sees others living. Indeed, the greater the political man, the more helplessly he lives the life that Tolstoy repeatedly likens to that of an insect swarm. To pursue the chimerical happiness of supreme power and glory is to become, instead, “history’s slave.”
Although Tolstoy does not cite Machiavelli by name, his teaching is principally a refutation of The Prince, which Napoleon took as his gospel. Machiavelli observes matter-of-factly that it is man’s “natural and ordinary desire to acquire”—to acquire wealth, power, renown. If a man has the prudence to understand what he must do in order to get what he wants, and the ability to do these necessary things, then he will be happy, felice; if not, he will end unhappily. Tolstoy, by contrast, declares that no man can predict the consequences of any political or military action he might take, and that therefore no one really has the power to make events turn out the way he wants. What might seem to be chance, but is in fact Providence, invariably overrules human presumption, as Tolstoy purports to demonstrate in describing grand military designs brought to nothing by the confusion of battle. Events never unfold according to the intention of the great man who believes himself their master, but rather according to the unfathomable will of God, which Tolstoy plainly believes himself to have fathomed rather more deeply than the nearest contender.
Yet Tolstoy is mistaken. The thunderous profundities with which he explains God’s Own History seem, indeed, shrill, callow, and even vain when set beside the work of a great statesman and historian like Winston Churchill. Churchill, too, knew what soldiers suffered, and felt their pain sharply; like Tolstoy’s favorite, General Kutuzov, he was notoriously quick to tears. Unlike Tolstoy, however, Churchill did not permit his deep compassion the privilege of blind moral outrage, which leaps without thinking—or at least without thinking hard enough—from the observation of war’s cruelty to the wholesale condemnation of political life as men have always known it. Churchill’s is the wiser pity, and it does not fail to honor the familiar political virtues.
For Tolstoy, the murderous horror of warfare is sufficient proof that there is no such thing as the political greatness which men have traditionally honored. Terrible as war is, what else can it be? Churchill shows us. Seeing that political life—war inevitably included—is the natural human state, Churchill refuses to lament or to execrate that condition of existence, but accepts it as simple unalterable fact, and acknowledges it as the ground as well of much that is honorable, heroic, decent, even charitable in human action.
Churchill understood, of course, how much in war depends on chance, and he was also inclined to give Providence its due as well; yet he understood that, in determining the course of events, what tends to be truly critical is in fact human decision, the choices made in the highest reaches of political and military command. Churchill’s account of World War I, The World Crisis, which is his greatest history, is a brilliant study in “the sublime responsibility of men”: he describes the appalling imprudence of kings, ministers, and generals that caused the war’s then-unparalleled destruction—the pathos with which he renders the carnage rivals Tolstoy’s own—and he presents the prudent alternatives to the prevailing imbecility that could have averted the worst of the horror. Even in the most wretched debacle, Churchill recognizes the honorable men who tried to prevent disaster.
On the eve of World War I Churchill wrote to his wife, “I am interested, geared up & happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?” He knew it was both horrible and magnificent to be built like that. Churchill clearly relished the trial of his personal merit that war provided—the chance to show himself, and the world, what strength and splendor were his—and he never felt more joyously alive than when engaged in war. That is, Churchill loved war in a way that Tolstoy attempted to prove no one should: for his pride’s sake, as the chance to display his greatness.
“I pray God to forgive me for such fearful moods of levity,” Churchill wrote of his wartime exhilaration, and one hopes that he was forgiven. His passion for honor was indispensable to his moral greatness, and that greatness was indispensable to the preservation of civilized life. The incapacity to understand a man like Churchill, to appreciate his genius and excellence, was perhaps Tolstoy’s gravest failure of imagination.
It is in peace, then, in the joys of love, of the family, that Tolstoy presents the real hope of human happiness.
The happiness he exalts in War and Peace and Anna Karenina tends, it is true, to be a foursquare, stolid affair, maybe even a bit on the dull side. Although intimations of ecstasy might herald its approach, its presence consists chiefly in the orderly succession of placid days, each bearing a hearty but unexceptional portion of contentment in love and work. Still, although such happiness might cease to thrill, it does not fail to satisfy. It is as durable as human things can be. One comes to regard all of life by the light it casts, the radiance of deserved joy that God grants to those who see how they ought to live and who fulfill their destinies.
Possessing this happiness makes one grateful even for the crudest pains of one’s earlier life; one’s sufferings seem in retrospect to have been necessary trials, proving one’s worthiness for the prize that was waiting all along. But the quest for happiness always holds the danger of tragic failure. The way is a perilous one, strewn with human wreckage, the broken remains of those beguiled by simulacra; it is as much in his accounts of these various failures as in his accounts of the rare triumphs that Tolstoy honors the moral heroism of those who win family happiness and who hold on to it.
To the enlightened modern reader of Anna Karenina, the principal impedimenta to such happiness would seem to lie not within but without, in outworn and restrictive institutions. People no longer have to suffer the way Anna did. Liberal divorce laws and a little more tolerance in general, the thinking goes, would have solved her problem.
The general inclination these days is to feel sympathetic, at the very least, toward Anna and her adulterous lover, the dashing officer Vronsky. Anna, after all, has the misfortune to be married to a man who does not know what love is. Karenin is a creature of the purest amour-propre. He lives solely for his place in the world’s estimation; a bureaucrat of estimable rank, he has no purpose behind his work but the craving continually to advance. He thinks nothing of it when he sees his wife talking passionately with Vronsky at a social affair; addressing Anna on the matter, he declares that he has no intention of becoming jealous, for jealousy is “an insulting and degrading feeling. . . .” As for Anna, she sees how pinched her husband’s nature is, and thinks disdainfully that her infidelity would not affect him at all if Society were not there to notice it.
Next, Vronsky. D.H. Lawrence—in some ways Tolstoy’s antithesis among the great novelists—chastised Tolstoy for envying “the healthy passionate male in the young Vronsky” and for therefore turning him into someone “abject and pitiable.” For Lawrence and for his followers, Vronsky represents a modern erotic ideal, and Tolstoy is perverse in his refusal to honor it. And indeed, beside the jug-eared nullity of a Karenin, Vronsky does excite with his bold erotic gleam: Karenin’s failure as a husband is Vronsky’s triumph as a lover, at least in the crudest sense.
Yet as a triumphant lover, Vronsky values love less than triumph. When he meets Anna, he admires her obvious charms—her grace, her tender expression, her insistent vitality—but what really incites him is her apparent indifference to his charms. In the perversion of love that is Vronsky’s desire, amour-propre and animal passion are fused. Tolstoy makes it clear that the consummation of that desire is the equivalent of murder, and that Vronsky’s amour-propre is the trigger man.
Vronsky and Anna’s adultery is more passionate than such things generally are among people of their set, yet very different from what Tolstoy thinks of as love. Anna might have actually been capable of loving Vronsky, but he does not have it in him to love her; and his inadequacy corrodes her own feelings. Informing Vronsky that she has told her husband about them, Anna hopes he will urge her to leave Karenin and go off with him; for this, she is willing to abandon even her beloved son. Instead, Vronsky first imagines how proud he will look when he fights a duel with Karenin, then suddenly recalls a friend’s warning that the wrong sort of romance can wreck a career: “. . . he knew he could not pass on the thought to her.” In the need for this reticence is a ruinous betrayal. Vronsky is more like Karenin at this instant than he could ever admit to himself.
The fatality of Vronsky and Anna’s romance is not the tragic consequence of passion so extraordinary that society cannot endure it; rather, it is the dismal end of love that simply is never good enough. The killing flaws are not in the society the lovers defy but in the lovers themselves. Love like theirs is its own punishment, just as Tolstoy thought war to be. And such failings are timeless. If Anna and Vronsky were to meet in New York during the late 20th century, their passion most likely would not wind up getting them killed, as it does in the novel, but it would probably leave them terminally wretched, with a touch of death in their souls. Men are essentially the same in all times and places, Tolstoy believed, and in Anna Karenina he portrays the spiritual havoc that souls like Anna’s and Vronsky’s, embracing some false happiness as true, will inevitably cause, wherever and whenever they might happen to meet.
Unhappiness is the rule in this world of Tolstoy’s, and happiness seems all the happier for its rarity. In Anna Karenina, Kitty Shcherbatsky and Constantin Levin, like Pierre Bezukhov and Natasha Rostov, and Nicholas Rostov and Marya Bolkonsky, in War and Peace, come to enjoy this happiness: a life of heroic normality transfigured by love, which is the surest approach to knowledge of the divine. Through zigzag careers of misleading speculation and wayward passion, they are preserved by some undying sense of what life truly requires, until they reach an end to their tortuous questing.
The contrast between Levin and Kitty’s love and Vronsky and Anna’s is revealing in every detail. Vronsky’s early infatuation with Anna induces a kind of rapture of self-regard, in which he stares right through the people around him as if they did not exist; Levin’s joy at his engagement to Kitty fills him with a powerful surge of love for everyone he sees. As romance goes bad, Anna tries to make every young man she meets fall in love with her; Kitty, by contrast, is nonplussed when a houseguest flirts with her, and Levin throws the rascal out. Anna scarcely pays any mind to the child she has with Vronsky, and in order to preserve her sexual charm, she takes pains not to have any more children; Kitty is a loving mother, and her eroticism serves the fullness of her sexuality.
It is not hard to tell the happy from the unhappy in Tolstoy’s world—which is not to say that unhappiness is without forces in reserve to break in just when happiness itself seems a sure thing. Like Anna and Vronsky, like Tolstoy himself, Levin finds himself drawn to death, and all but irresistibly. Levin has no trouble living his life so long as he simply lives; it is thinking about life’s meaning that becomes the bane of his existence, and nearly the end of it. What saves him is hearing one peasant speak of another who “‘lives for his soul and remembers God.’” Restored to sanity, Levin is able to identify the thing that almost killed him: “Ah yes! Pride!”—specifically, pride of intellect, “mind-swindling.”
All this strikes Levin with the force of revelation, but in fact it is no more than a reminder of what love has already taught: that the loving soul enjoys a privileged approach to the mysteries of life which reason is denied. Early in their marriage, as Levin listens to Kitty cry out in labor with their first child, he recognizes that he has felt similar feelings once before, watching his brother die of consumption: “. . . that sorrow and this joy were equally beyond the usual conditions of life: they were like openings in that usual life through which something higher became visible. . . . [The] soul soared, as then, to heights it had never known before, at which reason could not keep up with it.” Levin, who is not a praying man, prays then, as readily and as intently as in childhood. And when at last his son is born, he returns suddenly “to the old everyday world, now radiant with the light of such new joy that it was insupportable.”
For Tolstoy, the impulse that moves one person truly to love another is nearly the same as that which moves one to prayer; and the most urgent of prayers, which begs for assurance that life is not without meaning, may be answered by the existence of another human being whom one cannot but love. Here, for Tolstoy, is the heart of family happiness, the truth on which it rests: the ordinary irradiated by the majestic, the incomprehensible, the godly.
However remarkable the happiness of the worthy souls in Tolstoy’s great novels, one cannot but think how much greater still must have been the happiness of bringing them to imagined life. In the writing of these books, there had to be such ecstasy as few men ever know, the pleasure of artistic genius in full command of its powers. As in Mozart’s composition, Socrates’ philosophizing, Michelangelo’s painting and sculpture and poetry and architecture, there is a potency that makes it possible to speak of a man as being godlike.
The truest things Tolstoy knew about happiness went into his art; that art, however, could not ensure his own happiness. He even came to think he was better off without art, at a time when he thought too much for his own good—and yet did not think deeply enough, did not remember what it was he had really lived by during the time of his greatest happiness. His late-blooming career as a holy man brought him no nearer to God than his life as husband, father, and writer had done; and indeed pushed him farther away. For that earlier life, the one he denounced and cast aside, truly was a blessed one: a life of sublime earthly love, in family happiness and in the artistic vocation that honored this happiness; human love embraced and sustained by divine. It ended unhappily for Tolstoy; yet in the best of his writing, his truest happiness will stand through time, its radiance undiminished, showing others what might be possible.
1 Tolstoy, by A.N. Wilson, Norton, 572 pp., 125.00. Tolstoy: The Ultimate Reconciliation, by Martine de Courcel, translated by Peter Levi, Scribners, 458 pp., $27.50.