In Job's Balances \ I \ The Last Judgment|
Many people, in the effort to calm themselves and dissipate the uneasiness which seizes them on reading Tolstoy's works, have thought to explain his struggles and his wild outbursts as the result of his fear of death. They think that such an explanation would free them once and for all from every difficulty and would also re-establish in their old strength the solutions which he had rendered null and void. This proceeding is not new, but it is effective. Aristotle had already suggested it when, with firm hand, he traced a definite line to mark the limit beyond which human endeavour and inquiry must not go. The ultimate mystery must not be approached, the idea of death must not be allowed to take possession of the human soul.
But Plato taught otherwise. In one of his most inspired dialogues, he does not fear to reveal to all men that great and eternally hidden truth that philosophy is nothing else but a preparation for death and a slow dying. He did not fear to say it, because he knew that though this truth were to be cried aloud from the four corners of the market-place, yet those whom he calls hoi polloi and Nietzsche calls "numerous, too numerous ", would never hear it. If Plato is right, not Aristotle, then we must allow that during the last decades of his life Tolstoy shows us an example of genuine philosophic activity. All that he did had but one object, one significance; to loosen the bonds which bound him to this world common to all men, to throw overboard all ballast that gave his vessel equilibrium, but at the same time prevented it from leaving the earth. To the uninitiated Tolstoy's work often seems criminal and sacrilegious. He tramples underfoot everything that men hold most dear, he outrages all that they hold most sacred; shakes the foundations of society, and poisons the most innocent joys. He brings to us, and can bring to us, nothing but suffering.
"What accursed Christianity is this?" cries Princess Cheremissov in all sincerity, in Tolstoy's posthumous drama The Light shines in Darkness. She is right. Her son is on his trial; he has refused to perform his military service, converted by the new doctrine that the hero of the play, Nicolai Ivanovich (or rather, Tolstoy), has proclaimed. This means, of course, that he has ruined his life absolutely. Nicolai Ivanovich's own wife expresses herself no less strongly. "How cruel you are!" she says to her husband. "What sort of Christianity is this? It is just malice." The words of the two women sum up all the indignation, the legitimate and natural anger which Tolstoy's aspirations and ideals awakened among his nearest and dearest.
"If you were not my sister," says the sister of Nicolai Ivanovich's wife to her, "if you were a stranger, and Nicolai Ivanovich was not your husband, but a simple acquaintance, I should find all this very original and charming and might even agree with him myself. But when I see your husband indulging in such folly, downright folly, then I can no longer control myself from saying what I think." Almost every one talks like this, every one is ready to admit that Tolstoy's ideas are original, interesting, full of every possible quality, so long as he confines himself to argument. But directly he tries to realize them, his neighbours rise up against him as one man.
Tolstoy cannot and does not give up his own individual world for our sakes. But his family has its own faith, no less deeply rooted; for it the common world is the only real one. That world alone holds the first and only authentic truth, the ultimate truth, that truth which Tolstoy himself, not so very long ago, as he said himself, was ready to defend "with dagger and pistol ", to whose glory he raised a magnificent monument in War and Peace. Two truths stand opposed to one another, and hurl anathema at one another. "Si quis mundum ad Dei gloriam conditum esse negavarit, anathema sit," proclaimed one truth. Who so denies that the world was created to the glory of God, let him be anathema! While the other replies no less imperiously, "Si quis dixerit, mundum ad Dei gloriam conditum esse, anathema sit." Whoso affirms that the world was created to the glory of God, let him be anathema!
Who shall arbitrate in this discussion between the representatives of two so opposite truths? Does the world exist for God, or for man? Are Tolstoy's relatives right in remaining faithful to the old law, or is Tolstoy right, the renegade, he who only yesterday was among the supporters of that law which he attacks today? Whom can one ask? Who can be judge between men whom the blood-tie unites indissolubly, and who suddenly hate one another so bitterly? Can there be such a judge? If we are to believe Tolstoy's own words, he has no doubt about the matter. He insists with particular warmth on this in his discussion with the young priest.
Nicolai Ivanovich is here expressing an idea which seems to have dominated Tolstoy's mind even to the end of his life; reason is the same in all men and remains itself ever the same. It says the same to every one and demands the same of every one. But how was it, then, that up to the age of fifty Tolstoy failed to hear the imperious voice of his "reason"? And why did he feel such abject terror when he first felt that it was impossible to escape from this master? Why did he find himself obliged to say: "They certified that I was only subject to attacks of madness, but I know that I am mad"?
- Nicolai Ivanovich. One must believe, believe, there is no doing without faith; but one must not believe what other people say, but what one's own thought and reason teaches one to believe... believe in God, in the true and eternal life.
The Priest. Reason can deceive; each man has his own reason.
Nicolai Ivanovich (warmly). That is a frightful blasphemy. God has given us a sacred instrument with which to discover the truth; it is the only thing that can bring us together. And we do not believe in it.
The Priest. But how can we believe when there are so
many differences of opinion, so many contradictions?
Nicolai Ivanovich. What differences of opinion? That twice two is four, that we must not do unto others what we would not have them do unto us, that everything has a cause, and other truths of this sort, we can all accept, because they all agree with our reason, but when we are told that God was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, or that Buddha flew away on a ray of the sun, or that Mohammed was received up into heaven, in these and such-like matters each of us has his own opinion.
The attentive reader can hardly doubt that Tolstoy expressed the state of his soul more successfully in The Diary of a Madman than in the dialogue which I have just quoted. Reason, which is based upon the world common to us all, which furnishes us with truths like "twice two is four" and "nothing happens without a cause" - this reason not only cannot justify and explain these new terrors and anxieties of Tolstoy's; it condemns them pitilessly as unreasonable, motiveless, arbitrary, and consequently unreal and visionary.
Tolstoy himself has told us that they sprang up without any cause; that they were always unreasonable; we shall see this for ourselves. For reason, Tolstoy says again, "twice two is four" and "there is no action without a cause are indisputable truths. Then how could reason sanction Tolstoy's new doctrine, which was born under the direct action of his unreasoning terrors, which are only impostors having no claim to reality?
And behold the consequences of this doctrine:
The family had lived in peace and unity twenty-five years. But directly Tolstoy tried to live in his own way there was an end of friendship, peace, and love. The members were unable to separate, but their common life was like the existence of convicts who are bound together by a single chain. If it is true that the work of reason is to unite, it is obvious that after Tolstoy's conversion the family was dominated by a principle directly hostile to reason. All his relatives were gathered against him; no one found the arguments which he advanced to defend and excuse himself in the least convincing. On the contrary, they all felt, even if they did not understand, that behind these arguments lay that madness of which Tolstoy speaks in The Diary of a Madman, and they struggled against him as best they could, by prayers and supplications, by threats and even by force.
The final scene of the tragedy reflects, as in a mirror, the hell into which a family once happy fell under the guidance of reason and the new "accursed" Christianity. We see only too well how illusory were Tolstoy's hopes of union and "unification". Upstairs, in the brilliantly lighted rooms of the first floor, an evening party is being given; there are music, dancing, flowers, gallant French speeches... in a room on the ground floor the master of the house is preparing for flight; no matter whither, only not to have to witness any longer the folly which his wife and children regard as the essence and ornament of existence. He would have gone; neither his wife, his children, nor any one in the world would have made him change his mind. Then his wife found a last argument - threat. She threatened to throw herself under a train if he left the house. Nicolai Ivanovich yields, not to reason but to threats. And while the younger members of the family are carelessly amusing themselves, quite blind to the hideous struggle which is going on between their father and mother, Nicolai Ivanovich sees his last hope in the triumph of reason perish. He submits, he promises to stay and continue his existence against his convictions, but still refuses to acknowledge that this submission signifies the final defeat of reason. But even this consolation does not last for long. With that courage and honesty which does not shrink from the most staggering contradictions, Tolstoy describes, immediately after the scene of the struggle between husband and wife, another scene, no less painful, and one which cuts at the foundation of all the rights and prerogatives of reason.
The mother of Prince Cheremissov intervenes (the mother, that is, of the young man who is in prison for refusing to perform his military service). Carried away by her despair, and fully convinced of the justice of her cause, she attacks Nicolai Ivanovich and his Christianity with such bitterness and such force that he no longer has the strength to defend his cause against her. All the words, all the arguments with which he is accustomed to confront his adversaries in his calmer moments now seem to him empty and meaningless. What can he say to a mother mad with grief, whose son is going deliberately to his destruction? Whatever Nicolai Ivanovich may say, whatever effort he may make to persuade her, she refuses to admit that it is right and just that her son, her only support, her only hope, should be shut up in a madhouse amongst savage, howling creatures, or else sent to a disciplinary company amongst soldiers deprived of all human rights, who have almost lost their human faces. "You and Nicolai Ivanovich have invented some strange brand of Christianity. It is not Christianity, it is a diabolical doctrine which makes every one suffer."
In the eyes of Princess Cheremissov, of Nicolai Ivanovich's wife and children, in the eyes of the whole world, this new doctrine is an accursed and diabolical teaching. To act as it teaches is to die. This is in fact what Stepa, Nicolai Ivanovich's son, says. But the father does not look upon this as a refutation. "Yes," he answers, "and if you were to die for your neighbours, it would be a very fine thing, both for yourself and for others." Such is the paradoxical logic to which the human soul is brought at last. Unreasoning terrors give rise to a courage Just as unreasoning. To die is not terrible, it is our stupid, inept, useless existence which is t&rible. Our life is death, our death is life, or the introduction to life. This is what Tolstoy says to those around him, and what they do not understand and never will understand. Is it possible, indeed, to understand this? Did Tolstoy himself understand it?