In Job's Balances \ I \ The Last Judgment


     Unlike Tolstoy, Gogol even in his earliest works approached that dividing line which separates ordinary, everyday reality, accessible to all men, from the eternal mystery which is hidden from mortal eyes. He draws near to this line sometimes with laughter and sometimes in all seriousness. He enjoys leaning over the abyss and experiencing the agony of vertigo. He was convinced that he had the strength to draw back from it when he wanted to. He felt himself bound to the common world by solid ties, and the incursions which he allowed himself into the region of the mysterious were in his eyes only pleasant trips which presented no particular danger. That was what he thought. But fate had other plans for him. This became clear at the end of his life. His Dead Souls and Fragments collected from my Correspondence with Friends were his Diary of a Madman. Even Pushkin, who could understand everything, did not grasp the real significance of Dead Souls. He thought that the author was grieving for Russia, ignorant, savage, and outdistanced by the other nations. But it is not only in Russia that Gogol discovers "dead souls." All men, great and small, seem to him lunatics, lifeless, automata which obediently and mechanically carry out commandments imposed on them from without. They eat, they drink, they sin, they multiply; with stammering tongue they pronounce meaningless words. No trace of free will, no sparkle of understanding, not the slightest wish to awake from their thousand-year sleep. Although none of them, of course, has so much as heard of Aristotle, they are all profoundly convinced that their sleep, their life, and their common world are the only supreme, definite reality. The Correspondence really does no more than comment on Dead Souls. In it we can see the secret aspirations, the secret hopes of the people's soul appearing under another form. Here once more are Vii, the sorcerers and witches and demons, all the phantasmagoria of which we have already spoken.

     But this fantastic world seems to Gogol to be much more real than the world where Chichikov boasts to Sobakevich of his dead souls and where Pietak stuffs his guests till they are ill, where Pliuchkin hoards, and Ivan Ivanovich quarrels with Ivan Nikiforovich, etc.: "Here verily one can say: 'Let us flee, let us flee to our dear fatherland.' But how can we flee? How escape hence? Our fatherland is the country whence we are come; and there dwells our Father." Thus spoke Plotinus; thus Gogol felt and taught; only death and the madness of death are able to awaken man from the nightmare of existence. This is what Tolstoy's Diary of a Madman also tells us - not the short unfinished story which bears this title, but the whole of what he wrote after Anna Karenina. His "madness" lay in the fact that everything which had formerly seemed to him to be real and to have a solid existence, now appeared illusory, whereas all that had seemed illusory and unreal now seemed to him the only reality.

The review the Russian Archive published in i868 an article by Tolstoy which, for no reason that I know, has never been republished since; it is called "A Few Words about War and Peace." It contains some extremely significant passages showing Tolstoy's attitude towards serfdom. He had been reproached with not having sufficiently depicted the character of the times in War and Peace.
"To these reproaches," Tolstoy declares, "I should reply as follows: I know quite well what are the characteristics of the times, which are supposed to be wanting in my novel: the horrors of serfdom, the burial of women alive, the flogging by men of their grown sons, Saltychikha,[1] etc., but I do not consider that this character, as we imagine it today, conforms to reality, and therefore I did not want to describe it. I have studied letters, memoirs, and hearsay, but have not found that these horrors were more frequent then than now or at any other period. People loved in those days, were jealous, sought truth, virtue, or were the slaves of their passions just as now; the intellectual and moral life was the same - often, indeed, more refined than today, especially in the upper classes. If we represent these times to ourselves as particularly cruel and brutal, it is only because the novels, stories, and legends of that period have only preserved what was exceptionally brutal or strikingly savage."
Tolstoy was forty years old when he wrote these lines. It is the age when the intellectual powers reach their zenith. In Tolstoy, at that age, the days of Arakcheev awaken no horror, no disgust; yet we remember that as a child lie gave way to mad despair on seeing a little boy beaten or hearing his nurse and the steward quarrelling. He certainly knew what to think of Arakcheev and his men, he also knew what serfdom was and the condition of the peasants under the despotic rule of the landed proprietors; but he did not want to "see" it; reason, which should know all things, forbade. Why? Because such a vision would have been useless. It would have destroyed that ordo et connexio rerum which had established itself historically in the face of so many difficulties, and upset the common world outside whose boundaries there exists nothing but madness and death. Unvarnished truth, that truth which runs contrary to the vital needs of human nature, is worse than any lie. This is what Tolstoy thought when he wrote War and Peace, when he was still entirely possessed by Aristotle's ideas, when he was afraid of madness and the asylum and hoped that he would never have to live in an individual world of his own. But when he was obliged to say to himself, "They certified that I was sane, but I know that I am mad"; when he felt himself expelled from the world common to all, then he was obliged, willy-nilly, to look at things with his own eyes and not with every one else's. Then the character of Arakcheev's day appeared to him quite otherwise. Formerly he had spoken of "the refined existence of the upper classes ". Later he spoke of the cruel, coarse, and debased "uppermost classes".

     The outward seeming is spick and span and elegant, but beneath this beautiful appearance there are folly, emptiness, vile cruelty, narrow, inhuman selfishness. The Rostovs, Bezukhovs, and Bolkonskis change before our eyes into Sobakevich, Nozdrev, and Chichikov. There is no longer even Gogol's laughter, only his tears.

     In another short story, also unfinished, "The Morning after the Ball," written in 1903, when the author was eighty years old, Tolstoy, with obvious intention, confronts his old and new visions. The story is in two parts; the first describes, with an art unequaled in Russian literature before or since, a gay, elegant, and amusing ball. It is a really marvelous ball: there are music and dancing, there is champagne, the young people are of the highest class, charming and aristocratic; naturally there is also a charming young lady there and a young man who is in love with her; it is he who tells the story. An hour after the ball, the narrator, still gay, excited, and possessed by his "refined" emotions, is witness of quite another scene in the street; a Tartar deserter is being made to run the gauntlet. And this is being done at the orders of the colonel, the father of the charming young girl, the very man who, to the universal delight, himself had danced the mazurka with his daughter at the end of the ball, displaying such charm and old-world gallantry. I have said that the scene at the ball is described by Tolstoy with inimitable art; the torture of the Tartar is described with no less strength and feeling. I will not quote extracts, for the story is well known. The important point is to compare and contrast the two ways of looking at reality. And considering the whole of Tolstoy's work, one might say, metaphorically of course and with certain reservations, that in his youth Tolstoy described life as a fascinating ball; and later, when he was old, it was like a running of the gauntlet. When he was old, it was not only the time of Arakcheev and Nicholas I which seemed to him like a mad and oppressive nightmare; he could not even endure our own comparatively mild ways. His own family became unendurable to him, that family which he had described in such idyllic colours in Anna Karenina. And he saw himself under an aspect as hideous as that of the people with whom he lived. As it is said in Scripture, one must hate one's father and mother, wife and children, and even oneself; there is evidently no other way for the man who is shut out from the world common to us all.

     Tolstoy says somewhere that autobiography is the best form of literature. I think this is not quite true, nor can it be so under the conditions of our human existence. We all belong too much to the society in which we live and we live too much for that society, and therefore we are accustomed not only to speak, but also to think as society demands. To write the true history of one's life, to make a full and sincere confession, to tell, that is to say, not what society expects and requires of us, but what really happened, would be to put one s own neck in the pillory. Society does not forgive those who break its laws; and its verdict is merciless. We all know this, and even the bravest among us adapt ourselves to its rules. Tolstoy's Diary has not yet been published in full, but the autobiographies and memoirs which we know confirm what we have said. No one has yet succeeded in telling the truth about himself in a direct form, not even the partial truth. This is as true of St. Augustine's Confessions as it is of Rousseau's, of the autobiography of John Stuart Mill or of Nietzsche's Diary. None of these works tells us the most intimate, the deepest, the truly individual things about their author. Men reveal the most painful and significant truth only when not speaking directly of themselves. If Dostoevsky had left us his autobiography it would have been no different from the biography written by Strakhov; he would have described to us the beautiful side of his life. But the real Dostoevsky, as Strakhov himself has told us, is to be found in The Notes from Underground and the Svidrigailov of Crime and Punishment.

     It is the same with Ibsen. Do not look for him in his letters and his memoirs; you will not find him there. But he has put the whole of himself into The Wild Duck and his other plays. It is just the same with Gogol; it is not in the Confessions of an Author that you will find him, but in Dead Souls. This is true of all authors.

     One must not ask for sincere autobiographies from writers. Fiction was invented precisely to give men the possibility of expressing themselves freely. But, you will say, must we believe in the truth, as we did and still do believe in lies? Is it possible? Do we know what the truth will give us? But we must admit that the lie that we worship has not given us very much...

     Moreover, I will say in Consolation to those who are afraid to break with tradition, that the truth is not really so dangerous as is generally believed. For even if brought into the open, it will not become common property; this is the primordial decree of fate. No one will see the truth who is not destined to see it, even though it appear naked at every street corner. Furthermore, as long as the world shall last, there will always be people who, either for the sake of peace or from an unquiet conscience, will build up sublime lies for their neighbours. And these people have always been and will always be the masters of human thought.

     Be this as it may, autobiographies contain no more of the truth than biographies. He who wants to learn the truth must first learn the art of reading works of literature. It is a difficult art. To know how to read is not enough. It is for this reason that rough drafts, and notes thrown hastily on paper, are so valuable. A sketch, a few words, a half formed thought, can often tell us more than a finished work; the man has not yet had time to adapt his visions to the demands of society. The introduction which was to prepare the way, and the conclusion which rounds it off, are alike missing. The brutal, naked truth rises to its full height, like a rock above the waters,, and no one has yet attempted to "justify" its stark savagery, neither the author himself nor his sedulous biographer.

     This is why I have lingered so long over The Diary of a Madman, an unfinished and incomplete story. Tolstoy in his finished works obstinately insists that he is working for the cause of common sense; that his one object is to strengthen, men's faith in common sense. Only once, in this short sketch, did he allow himself to call what happened in his soul by its true name. "They certified that I was sane; but I know that I am mad." This confession gives us the key to what is most important and significant in Tolstoy's hidden life.

     We must not, however, forget that Tolstoy was not always in this state of "madness", even during his last years. There were only passing attacks; sometimes he lived in his own particular world, sometimes in the world common to all. Wild unreasoning terrors suddenly welled up, God knows whence they disappeared, overthrowing and breaking the treasures which reason had amassed; they dissipated themselves and vanished, God knows how or whither, as abruptly as they had arisen. And then Tolstoy became a normal man once more, he was like every one else, except for certain strange ways, pale reflections of the storms which had passed or which were brewing. Hence the inequalities of his character and actions, the flagrant contradictions on which his many enemies have maliciously insisted. Tolstoy was even more afraid of madness than of death, yet at the same time he hated and despised his normal state with his whole soul. And his restless, impetuous inconsequence reveals more to us than the even and reasonable consistency of his accusers.

[1] The mistress of Arakcheev, Alexander I's favourite. She was killed by peasants, who were driven to desperation by her tyranny and cruelty.

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