January 17, 2018

Tolstoy Reborn

On this day in 1881, Count Leo Tolstoy donned his peasant coat and homemade bark shoes, gathered his walking staff and two bodyguards, and set out from his estate for the Optina Pustyn monastery. Tolstoy was a national hero for his two masterpieces -- War and Peace (1869), Anna Karenina (1877) -- but already in the grip of the religious-political mania which would dominate his writing and trouble his life over the last three decades. In A Confession, written shortly after his pilgrimage to Optina Pustyn, Tolstoy portrays himself to be doubtful of his accomplishments, troubled by guilt, and ready to be born again:
    I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants' toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder -- there was not a crime I did not commit...Thus I lived for ten years.
Biographer A. N. Wilson may be right that "the progress from artist to sage or holy man, which, to western readers seems embarrassing or a bit of a bore, is a fairly common phenomenon among Russian writers," but Tolstoy went at it with typical excess. Intellectually, this not only meant a series of books and pamphlets on religious, social and aesthetic issues but a denunciation of all his other writing. (And not just his own masterpieces: on one famous occasion Tolstoy told his friend Chekhov that his plays were as bad as Shakespeare's.) In practical terms, all this meant living according to Sermon-on-the Mount austerity and peasant simplicity -- abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, meat and sex, and agreeing to neither serve in the military nor cast a political vote.

Although many in Russia and around the world regarded Tolstoy as a moral leader and prophet –- his estate became a place of pilgrimage itself -- his wife and children were less enthusiastic. In the end, the marriage that had been so important to the creation of the great novels was in ruins. At the age of eight-two, Tolstoy "escaped" his wife, Sonya, in the middle of the night, setting of with several attendants to some unclear destination to live in reclusion, his route including one last visit to the Optina Pustyn monastery. The Tolstoys' marriage was ever volatile, but this last crisis proved calamitous for both: Sonya carried through with her hysterical threats by attempting to drown and starve herself; Tolstoy became ill while travelling and died in a railway station, refusing to the end to see his wife, who had waited for days outside the stationmaster's hut begging for admission. From Tolstoy's farewell note to her, written on the night of his departure:
    ... My position in the house is becoming and has become unbearable. Apart from everything else, I can no longer live in these conditions of luxury in which I have been living, and I am doing what old men of my age commonly do: leaving this worldly life in order to live out my last days in peace and solitude.

    Please try to understand this and do not follow me if you learn where I am.... I thank you for your honorable forty-eight years of life with me, and I beg you to forgive me for anything in which I have been at fault toward you, as I with all my soul forgive you for any wrong you have done me. I advise you to reconcile yourself with the new position in which my departure places you....

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