In Job's Balances \ I \ The Last Judgment|
The Diary of a Madman is in a sense the key to Tolstoy's work. If it had not been written by Tolstoy himself, we should certainly have looked upon it as a calumny, since we are accustomed to look upon great men as the incarnation of all the civil and even the military virtues. Indeed, had some one dared depict his existence to him as it is shown in the Diary a year or even a week before madness came upon him, he would himself have been profoundly indignant, and have regarded it as a criminal attack on his good name. As a matter of fact, the most poisonous calumny could not compare with the truth as Tolstoy shows it to us himself. He wanted to buy an estate, but he did not want to pay the proper price for it. He is looking out for some imbecile" (these are his own words) who will sell him a property for a song; then by cutting down and selling timber from it he will obtain a sum which will pay for the whole estate, which he will thus have acquired for nothing. He will certainly find an "imbecile" of this kind quite easily; good fortune attends the good hunter. Tolstoy patiently bides his time, reads the advertisements, collects information. If God does not send him a fool, then he will have to make it up at the expense of the peasants. He will buy his estate in some district where the peasants own very little land; thus he will get abundant labour at a starvation wage.
It is easy enough to prove that this story is not fiction, but that the landowner in question is Tolstoy himself, for we have only to look at one of his letters to his wife (No. 63). He was then traveling in the Penza district to look at an estate which he considered and in fact afterwards bought. I will give the whole letter:
This letter and The Diary of a Madman agree down to the last details; the purchase of an estate, the journey, the province of Penza, the town of Arzamass, the remembrance of his wife, the wild, unreasoning terror.
- "The night before last I slept at Arzamass, and a most extraordinary thing happened to me. At two o'clock in the morning I was seized by a strange anxiety, a fear, a terror such as I had never before experienced. I will tell you the details later, but I have never known such painful sensations, and may God preserve others from the same! I got up and gave the order to have my horses harnessed. While this was being done, I fell asleep, and woke up again quite well. Yesterday, on the journey, the same feeling recurred, but in a much milder form. Today I feel as well and happy as I can ever be when I am not with you. During my Journey I have felt as never before how near you and the children are to me. I can be alone so long as I am constantly occupied, as in Moscow, but the moment that I have got nothing to do, I simply feel that I cannot be alone."
There is a firmly established tradition in literature, which is to show to the reader only the good side of a great man's existence. The "lower" truths are of no use to us; what can we do with them? We are convinced that truths are not necessary to us for their own sakes, but only in so far as they can help us to action. This is the position taken up, for example, by Strakhov in writing Dostoevsky's biography, as he himself admits in a letter to Tolstoy which was only published in 1913.
I do not know if in the whole of literature there are many documents more valuable than this. I am not even sure whether Strakhov himself really understood the meaning and significance of what he admitted to Tolstoy. Many men in recent times have declared that a lie is better than the truth. Oscar Wilde and Nietzsche have said it, and even Pushkin declares that "The lie which elevates us is dearer to us than a legion of base truths ". But they were all addressing the reader, teaching him. Strakhov is quite simply and sincerely making a confession, and this gives his words a special force and significance. It is probable that this letter produced a great impression on Tolstoy, who was just then finding the burden of the conventional lie very hard to bear, and burned with the desire to purify himself by a full confession. For he himself was one of the priests of the supreme lie, and how beautiful and beguiling that lie was!
- "All the time that I was writing I had to struggle against a feeling of disgust which kept rising in me. I tried to stifle my evil thoughts. Help me to get rid of them! I cannot look upon Dostoevsky either as a good or a happy man. He was malicious, envious, and debauched. Throughout his whole life he was a prey to passions which would have rendered him miserable and ridiculous if he had not been so clever and so wicked. I remembered these feelings vividly while I was writing his biography. In Switzerland once he treated his servant so abominably in my presence that the man could stand it no longer and cried out, "But I am a man too!" I remember how these words struck me as reflecting the ideas of a free Swiss on the rights of man, and addressed to one who was for ever preaching to us about humanist feelings. Such scenes occurred frequently, he was unable to control his bad temper. Many times I answered his ravings with silence, when he burst out suddenly and often perversely, like an old woman; but once or twice I did break out and say very disagreeable things to him.
But he always got the better of ordinary people, and the worst of it was that he enjoyed it and never genuinely repented of his bad behaviour. He liked wickedness and gloried in it. Vistovatov (a professor of Dorpat University) told me how he had boasted to him of having seduced in her bath a little girl who had been brought to him by her governess. Among the characters of his books, the ones most like him are the hero of The Notes from Underground, Svidrigailov, and Stavrogin. Katov refused to publish one of the scenes with Stravrogin (the rape, etc.), but Dostoevsky read it aloud here to a large company of people. With all this, he was inclined to sickly sentimentality, and exalted humanitarian dreams, and it is these dreams, his literary gifts, and his tenderness of heart which endear him to us. In fact, all his novels are an attempt to exonerate their author; they show that the most hideous villainy can exist in a man side by side with the noblest feelings. This is a little commentary to my biography; I could describe that side of Dostoevsky's character; I remember many other incidents even more remarkable than those which I have quoted; my story would have been more genuine; but let the truth perish; let us go on exhibiting the beautiful side of life, just as we always do on every occasion."
Like Strakhov, Tolstoy taught us to exhibit the beautiful side of existence and to hide the truth. He wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, glorifying the existence of the country gentleman while he himself was trying to buy estates for a song from imbeciles, exploiting the labour of landless peasants, and so on. All this was going on, and much of the kind besides. But it all seemed lawful, even holy to him, because it helped to maintain the existence which is common to us all. If you turn aside from it, you will have to build your own world for yourself. This is just what happened to the hero of The Diary of a Madman. He saw that he had to choose; either his wife and his neighbours who attacked his new ideas were right, and he really was ill and in need of treatment - or else all mankind are ill and afflicted with madness. The title The Diary of a Madman would cover everything which Tolstoy wrote after the age of fifty. And it seems to me no mere chance that Tolstoy borrowed this title from Gogol. A young lady to whom Gogol's The Diary of a Madman was once read in my presence, showed great astonishment that Gogol was able to describe so accurately the minute details of the state of an unbalanced mind. And indeed, what could have been the attraction of this subject to a young writer? Why describe chaos and madness? What can it matter to us that Popristchin, the hero, imagines himself to be the King of Spain, that a small clerk falls in love with the daughter of his chief, etc.?
It is evident that the unbalanced imagination of the madman did not seem to Gogol so absurd and wholly meaningless as it does to us, just as this man's peculiar private world did not seem so unreal to him as it does to us. Popristchin and his madness attracted him; the strange world and the miserable existence of his hero had an interest for the future author of the Correspondence with Friends. Why else should he have troubled about the absurd and pitiable and, at first glance, totally meaningless things! It is to be remarked that Popristchin's was not the only madness which absorbed Gogol's attention at this period of his life. It was at this time too that he wrote Vii, The Terrible Revenge, Old-fashioned Gentlefolk, and it would be wrong to think in these tales Gogol is only an impartial observer of the customs and life of the people.
The horrible death which so abruptly wrenches Afanassy Ivanovich and Pulcheria Ivanovna from the torpor of their vegetating existence clearly troubled Gogol's imagination constantly in his youth. It is evident that the mysterious horror of popular tales and myths intoxicated him, that he himself lived in a fantastic world just as much as in the real world of his fellow-men. The sorcerers, witches, and demons which he depicts so inimitably, all the terrors, all the delights which awaken in the human heart upon contact with the mysteries of the other world, had an irresistible attraction for him. If you want to pin fast Gogol's inner nature, the essence of him, all that was different in him to the outer world; if you want to know where to look for the true Gogol, whether in the place assigned to him in the history of art, or where his capricious fancy spreads its wings; you will not have sufficient material to answer your questions unless, indeed, you will turn to one of the modern theories of knowledge, which, following Aristotle's example, have arrogated to themselves the right to trace the limits between the waking and dreaming states, between reality and imagination. But if you are not of those who blindly believe in ready-made theories, if you are sometimes capable of freeing yourself, if only for a moment, from the hypnotism of modern ideas, then you will be less categorical in your condemnation of Gogol's efforts to paint that mysterious reality, so greatly discredited by theory, so inaccessible and yet so alluring. Then perhaps you will admit that even in Dead Souls Gogol was not trying to reform manners, but to understand his own destiny and that of humanity. He himself has told us that his apparent laughter hid invisible tears and that when we laugh at Chichikov and Nozdrev, we are really laughing at their creator.