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Man of Masks

A review of two books on Leo Tolstoy

The publication of these two books is an important event for everyone interested in Tolstoy, and for many others interested in the theory of literature. Boris Eikhenbaum (1886-1959) is already known to the latter as one of the leading Russian Formalists, that group of aestheticians who revolutionized literary theory in Russia between 1915 and 1930—and in other countries since then. But he was also a Tolstoy scholar. Of the more than four hundred items in his bibliography, well over sixty refer to Tolstoy, according to his latest translator, Albert Kaspin. His first such articles appeared in 1919, and he kept on writing about Tolstoy until his death forty years later.

Of book-length works The Young Tolstoi (1922) was followed by a large project, which Eikhenbaum intended to call Lev Tolstoi. The first volume is now sometimes called Tolstoi in the Fifties (1928) and the second and third are these volumes, now translated into English. They were published in Russia in 1931 and 1960 respectively. Tolstoi in the Seventies had been finished before the war and set in type, but the type was destroyed in the bombardment of Leningrad. Eikhenbaum reconstituted the manuscript later, but he could not do the same for a fourth volume, about Tolstoy in the 1880s, which was lost in March 1942 when Eikhenbaum was evacuated from Leningrad.

Perhaps that volume too might have been re-written but for another kind of interference by history. The Formalists had been harassed by the literary apparatchiks from the beginning, and pure formalism was in effect taboo from 1930. The Party theory of literature, and its practice of exerting control, was inimical to these brilliant intellectuals. Eikhenbaum found ways to survive, but in 1949 he fell into disfavor for failing to “overcome the fallacious methods of Formalism and of bourgeois literary criticism”; and he was more or less silenced until 1953. There is some irony in the role politics played in Eikhenbaum’s work, for one of his major theses about Tolstoy was that he had used politics to “motivate” the strategies of his literary career—that Tolstoy’s dramatic interventions in public life, and interruptions of his fiction-writing, including his conversion to Christian values around 1880, were devices that worked to give him something new to write about, and to give other people new reasons to talk about him. In Eikhenbaum’s own experience, life intruded upon his work in a way it would be hard to regard as a “motivation.”

He argued this thesis directly in an essay of 1929, and these two books bear only traces of it. (For example, he describes Tolstoy’s beliefs as well as his actions as “strategies” or “tactics.”) Indeed, by the time he wrote these works, Eikhenbaum was no longer a Formalist in any pure sense. These volumes are works of literary history, though of a special and brilliant kind. Eikhenbaum is demonstrating “literature’s social mode of being”—the boundary lines that connect it with and separate it from other modes of discourse, such as history, pedagogy, and political polemic. Eikhenbaum describes the contemporary state of opinion and the direction of feeling on some of Tolstoy’s main topics and motifs; for instance, in a particularly fine chapter he tells us about the widespread imaginative interest in horses at the time Tolstoy wrote his horse story, “Strider.”

His formalism is therefore expressed obliquely here, and the conventional decorum of literary studies—the critic’s reverence and support for the man he is writing about—is not disturbed. Indeed, one feels that Eikhenbaum understands Tolstoy’s personality sympathetically and is alive to all the nuances of his writing. But of course as a Formalist he is basically hostile to Tolstoy the moralist, which is to say, Tolstoy the presenter of his own work. The Formalists were the direct descendants of those aesthetes whom Tolstoy attacked in What Is Art? in 1898. And one element in Eikhenbaum’s work even here is the persistence of his original iconoclasm. “We have made an icon of Tolstoy,” he said in his first article on the subject; and he promised to “liberate” the real Tolstoy from the icon-painting of literary historians, which was a discreet way of saying from Tolstoy himself. He would show that Tolstoy was really a wonderful writer, who pretended to be something more—pretended not to be a writer. He would exorcise his nineteenth-century moralism. Mutatis mutandis, this essay was a Russian equivalent of Strachey’s Eminent Victorians.

Since I am a Tolstoyan in a simpler and more wholehearted sense than Eikhenbaum, I take a different view. He quotes an important letter on the subject of art which Tolstoy wrote to his friend Strakhov on March 25, 1872 (after War and Peace, before Anna Karenina), about his disgust with the elaborate language and structures of “literature,” and his preference for simpler forms and more direct truths. But let me preface the quotation by reminding you that “Russian literature” began only with Pushkin, in the generation immediately before Tolstoy’s; the question of literature’s right-to-life was therefore a more existential one for a Russian writer in 1872 than it could be for any of our ancestors. In the letter, Tolstoy wrote:

But we must descend, and go down lower, where it will be safe. And again, by chance, this down lower is where the people are—Poor Liza [Karmazin’s sentimental tale] squeezed out tears, and it was praised, and you know that no one reads it any longer—but the songs, tales, epic poems—everything that is simple will be read as long as there is a Russian language. ... I have changed the devices and the language of my writing, but, I repeat, not because I decided that it was necessary to do so. But because I find even Pushkin ridiculous...

Eikhenbaum’s comment on this is that Tolstoy’s decision to give up “literature” was “prompted by purely literary, artistic, requirements ... his new artistic principles naturally (‘by chance’ in this sense) coincided with the principles of folk poetry...” But I think Tolstoy was reacting against purely literary, artistic requirements; I think Tolstoy meant what he said. Eikhenbaum rejects that possibility—no doubt because of the threat it poses to his own life in art.

He has a long sequence on the epigraph to Anna Karenina, which is to me unintentionally comic. The epigraph is “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” which Tolstoy always said was to remind the reader that the heroine was punished for having broken God’s law. Eikhenbaum describes the attempts of Russian men of letters to persuade Tolstoy to assent to some more liberal and imaginative reading—persuasions Tolstoy always rejected. But after telling us this story, Eikhenbaum goes on to propound his own, yet more ingenious interpretation, as what Tolstoy must have really meant.

However, his tendentiousness does not inhibit Eikhenhaum’s impressive understanding of Tolstoy at almost every turn of his purely literary career, and at many turns of his personal relations. Tolstoy was, even I admit, a profoundly ambitious man, in his late phases as well as his early ones. He wrote to his cousin toward the end of his life that as a young man he had wanted to make himself the strongest man in the world, and now he wanted to achieve the best death in the world. When his wife said his Christian sufferings were all for the sake of glory, she was not wholly wrong, as Tolstoy himself acknowledged. But she was not wholly right, and what do we do about that? This is the challenge he put to her and us: what about the jagged vein of genuineness—what about the gleam of gold in the fracture? No doubt Tolstoy used his brilliant egotism as a magnifying lens, to focus our attention on his sense of sin, but must we look only at the lens, and never through it?

Tolstoy was certainly a highly ambiguous personality. He did not settle on even preliminary self-definitions until he was twenty-five, and he could make himself feel almost any emotion—except of course that he was very skeptical about what he said he felt, as about what other people said they felt. Eikhenbaum is a good guide to many of those complexities. One of his words for Tolstoy is “archaist,” meaning that he refused to identify himself with any of the ideas or models in the life around him, but went back to earlier times and other places. In the 1850s, for instance, he was learning to write from eighteenth-century Englishmen. Frenchmen, Americans—Sterne, Rousseau, Franklin.

I would even admit that Tolstoy’s models were used so freely and inventively that one could call them (as his wife did call them, in her fury) disguises or masks. For instance, Tolstoy portrays himself in War and Peace and Anna Karenina as a Rousseau figure—all broad, sensual, naive, good nature, intellectually incoherent but spiritually aspiring, above ail ardent and benevolent, full of good feeiing. But there is evidence, in his diaries and in the accounts of other people, that he was more of a Voltaire, a total skeptic, with a harsh and irritable temperament, and a terribie mocking eye that paralyzed, for instance, Turgenev. Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace is described as being like Voltaire or Frederick the Great, with a bright sardonic eye and a harsh voice emerging from bunched-up little features, all willpower and intelligence; and that portrait was drawn from Tolstoy’s grandfather, whom he was said to resemble. So we can see the Tolstoy of the great novels as a Voltaire wearing a Rousseau mask—in many places in his diaries as well as in his novels. He wore such masks not to disguise himself but to find himself; but the practice explains, in some sense justifies, the irritation he provoked.

Eikhenbaum did not of course write a biography primarily concerned with such questions of personality. What he did is represented at its best, I think, by the chapters in Tolstoi in the Sixties on Auerbach and Riehl, two German Populists well-known in Russia in the 1850s. What Eikhenbaum does is not so much show us that they were important to Tolstoy—though they were—as show us that they are important to us. When we set them next to Tolstoy, we understand him better.

Berthold Auerbach was a Jewish writer involved In liberal politics in the 1840s whose first book was a novelized biography of Spinoza. After 1848 he began to write stories and novels about village life, and about education and gradual growth as an alternative to revolutionary politics. His fiction was rather sentimental, and fell out of favor in the later nineteenth century, but at least in the novel that most influenced Tolstoy, A New Life, he is genuinely interesting even now.

This is the story of a liberal aristocrat, proscribed for his part in the 1848 revolution, who changes identities with a village schoolmaster named Eugen Baumann. The novel describes his regeneration of the school, the village, and himself, and at its end he marries a village girl. It will be obvious why this story appealed to Tolstoy, who in 1860 both wanted to teach school and to escape the pressure of the intelligentsia to make everyone a revolutionary. Moreover, he was at that time falling in love with his peasant mistress, and beginning to dream of himself becoming a peasant. (He had a literal dream of himself wearing peasant clothes, and his mother failing to recognize him.) He was even writing differently, using peasant language, composing peasant idylls in the Auerbach vein, presenting no educated characters. So it is no wonder that when he went to Germany he made his way to Auerbach’s house and sent up the message that Eugen Baumann had arrived. He was Eugen Baumann.

The case of Wilhelm Riehl is in some ways even more interesting. Riehl was a professor at the University of Munich, who wrote some books of social theory, which Tolstoy declared in a diary note to be as revolutionary in their genre as Luther’s ideas were in religion. Riehl was, however, counterrevolutionary, in that he advocated a return to something like the estate structure of feudal Europe. He wanted the social classes to see each other as mutually complementary, not mutually competitive; which implied, of course, giving up the ideal of social mobility and progress:

Let the man of the middle class again desire to be a man of the middle class, the landholder to be a landholder. ... Let each person proudly and joyfully acknowledge his membership in the social circle to which he belongs by his birth, upbringing, education, and calling...

One of the reasons this is so interesting is that this is a caste theory of society, and Tolstoy’s attraction to it prefigures his attraction to India and China (as opposite to the West) at the end of his life. It marks yet another link between himself and his greatest disciple, Gandhi, who also defended the caste system as superior to the West’s class system. And this was in a sense clear even in Russia in the 1850s, where Riehl’s opponents described his doctrine as Oriental or Buddhist.

Russians of course use “Oriental” rather differently from the way we do, because for them Orientalism is simply the opposite of Westernism, modernism, Europeanism. Nevertheless, it is striking that recurrently, through all the seemingly divergent phases of his career, Tolstoy should have been reproached with being Oriental. (Partly it is striking because Tolstoy, like Gandhi, was remarkably uninterested in the occult, the exotic, and even the mystical in its picturesqueness. They were both remarkably rationalist, moralist, and Puritan—children of seventeenth-century English Dissent.)

This, then, is what Eikhenbaum does so well. He paints an intellectual map on which we can see Tolstoy like a chameleon, who assumed some patch of color from one area of background, other colors from another, and gradually we learn to see his own outlines and movements. And Eikhenbaum’s understanding of the life of the mind is generous enough to escape the corsetries of “the history of ideas”; he knows that the way people talked about horses in the 1840s, and the way they used horse metaphors, is as much a part of intellectual life as the Great Chain of Being, and more so than the state of Aristotelian studies.

However, he was concerned to do something more than that. Showing what Tolstoy took from the current of ideas around him, he also shows the continuities between literature and nonliterature. But he wants to show also the discontinuities—the “literariness of literature.” This was the essence of Russian Formalism, as it is the essence of Formalism’s successor, French Structuralism. And part of the enterprise of discovering the literariness of Tolstoy was to explode the author’s claims to be something more than a man of letters. For the Formalists, Tolstoy was a giant lying across their path, whom they had to move.

But it is not quite right to say that Tolstoy lay across their literary path, which suggests that their formalism was predetermined, and that he fell accidentally athwart it. The truth is rather that that formalism was their means, and the attack on Tolstoy was what was predetermined. These men were adolescents when Tolstoy died, and he had been a great name for generations. He was indeed more than just himself; he was the last of the great nineteenth-century Russian writers. And beyond that, he was the great moralist, the martyr and saint of Christianity, who had rejected literature after having conquered it. For all these reasons, he was the natural enemy, the authority figure, the doom hanging over these young men, who were determined to build a whole new intellectual and artistic movement in Russia. Formalism was their way of interpreting Tolstoy away from his own terms of self-presentation, into their terms, assimilating him into their theory, consuming and digesting him.

And there is a striking likeness L between the origins of Formalism and those of Structuralism. The Tolstoy-like figure in France in 1950 was JeanPaul Sartre, a hero of writing and thinking but also of the Resistance, the national crisis; who had in What Is Literature? (comparable with Tolstoy’s What Is Art? of fifty years earlier) set firm limits to the value of literature, fixed chains of duty to the wings of the imagination. In response to that enchainment, the Structuralists, like the Formalists before them, went into a frenzy of theory-spinning, in order, like a spider, to enwrap their enemy in a cocoon of interpretation. The enemy was not named as Sartre—it was rather the vulgar error of connecting literature with life; but then in the Russian case it was not Tolstoy who was overtly attacked, but the literariness of literature that was asserted.

Sartrean existentialism was as strenuous a Puritanism, an exorcism of the magic of the mind-at-play, as Tolstoyan Christianity had been. Formalism and Structuralism are parade-ground drills for the troops defending the freedoms of the mind, the freedom to speculate and imagine, the liberal imagination and the liberal education. Eikhenbaum’s books can therefore help us to understand not only Tolstoy, but the contemporary literary scene. They remind us, for instance, that the Structuralists have not yet made any full-length studies of their enemy-precursors—though Sartre himself wrote Eikhenbaum-like books about Flaubert and Baudelaire.

So it is a considerable service that Ardis has done us, in translating and publishing these books. Unfortunately, both the translating and the editing are so sloppy as to impede the reader at points. It merely irritates to read of Macauley and Montalambert, but to get one-word references to Lewis or Breddon is likely to be positively mystifying. (The persons meant are G. H. Lewes and Miss Braddon, the Victorian novelist). Indeed, reader irritation, however low a form of animal life, is one an editor must deal with. “I am preceeding here form [sic] a premise in the light of which the question of borrowing or influence becomes insignificant in principle.” Sentences like this are the equivalent of persistent smudges on the page. And when “at least” is printed as “at last” and “I hate” as “I have” the reader sees a conceptual blur which he can clear up only if he slows down, goes back, and figures out what went wrong.

It sounds picayune to go on about this sort of thing, but I must make the point that it happens often enough to matter. When we are told that German Populism was “detached from” Russian nihilism, we have to guess that it was “different from” or “diverged from.” When we are told of Tolstoy’s “merits in the analysis of the child’s will,” what seems to be meant is “his skill in analyzing a child’s will.” And in a summary of a story, when we are told “Andryusha went away and his boots got lost,” what seems to have happened is that he slipped away and left his boots behind. It is easy to understand how these mistakes occur, and no doubt great care was taken; but since I am here as consumers’ representative, I have to protest.

In any case, the books survive these mishaps. They are in English what they were in Russian, and any lover of Tolstoy must be glad to get them.