In Job's Balances \ I \ The Last Judgment|
Eight years after The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy wrote Master and Man. These two stories are, in spite of their surface dissimilarity, so intimately connected with one another that they seem to be only variations on a single theme. Since Tolstoy had been forced out of the common way by the terrors which he had described to us in The Diary of a Madman, one single thought, one single problem pursued and obsessed him. If Plato is right in saying philosophers "concern themselves with nothing but dying and death" (ouden allo epitÍdeuousin Í apothnÍskein kai tethnanai) then we must admit that few of our contemporaries have so wholly devoted themselves to philosophy as Tolstoy. Tolstoy begins by describing to us, in these two stories, a man in the ordinary circumstances of existence, circumstances which are well known and universally admitted. Then suddenly, in Master and Man (the catastrophe is even less prepared than in The Death of Ivan Ilych), he transports his characters to that solitude which could not have been more complete in the bowels of the earth or in the depths of the sea. Vassili Andreivich Brekhunov is a "self - made man", a rich villager, of the corporation of merchants, proud of his intelligence and of the fortune which he has won. He owes nothing to any one but himself, to his own talents, his own energy, for everything that he possesses; and he is, moreover, convinced that he possesses a great many excellent things. He genuinely despises those who have not succeeded in carving out their own path through life; misfortune and incapacity are synonyms in his eyes. He would probably repeat with others: "Trust in God, but look out for yourself," but in his mouth these words would mean:
"God's duty is to help those who do not sit with folded arms. If he had had a theological education he would have said: Facienti quod in se est Deus infallibiliter dat gratiam, and he would protest against those who affirm that Deum necessitare non posse. But he does not know Latin and expresses the same ideas in Russian with no less emphasis. The man worthy of the name is the one who has the means to make himself beloved of God by his own efforts. Masses, fat wax candles, and all the rest are not for a miserable moujik like the workman Nikita, who earns with difficulty a few kopeks to supply his immediate needs. But he, Vassili Andreivich, can do anything. By his own energy and intelligence he has assured his welfare here below and his eternal salvation above.
The consciousness of his righteousness, indeed of his election, never leaves him. He even cheats with conviction. Two days before the festival which marks the opening of the story, Marfa, the servant Nikita's wife, has come to Vassili Andreivich and has obtained from him white flour, tea, sugar, the eighth of a measure of brandy, three roubles' worth altogether, besides five roubles in money. She has thanked him for all this as though he had done her a special favour, although at the lowest computation he owed Nikita twenty roubles for his work. "'Are we agreed on our bargain?' Vassili Andreivich had said to Nikita: 'if you want anything you shall have it from me, and you shall pay me in labour. I am not like others where you must wait, make out bills and then pay fines into the bargain. No, I am a man of honour. You serve me and I will not desert you.' As he spoke thus Vassili Andreivich was quite sincerely convinced that he was Nikita's benefactor, so persuasive were his arguments and so wholeheartedly did all those who depended on him, beginning with Nikita himself, support him in the opinion that, far from exploiting other people, he was loading them with benefits."
Tolstoy insistently underlines this gift which Vassili Andreivich possessed of being able to convince himself and others of his rectitude. It was a precious gift. To it Vassili Andreivich owed the comfort of his position. A few pages later on Tolstoy quotes another example of his talents. He is trying to sell Nikita a worthless horse.
Brekhunov, as we have seen from these extracts, was no ordinary man. Being a merchant, he could only make use of his great powers over himself and others for a modest end, bargaining. But if fate had seen fit to put him in a more exalted position, if he had had the necessary education, his voice, which was now only used to confuse his fellow merchants in their ideas, to deceive buyers and sellers, would certainly have been used for other purposes. Who knows to what he might not have persuaded the masses which he could then have addressed? The secret of talent lies in the ability to work upon men. Conversely, success, general approbation, is the atmosphere which talent needs for its development. Crowds need leaders, but leaders also need crowds.
- "'Well, take the bony horse; I won't charge you much for him,' cried Brekhunov, feeling agreeably excited and joyfully seizing the opportunity to drive a bargain, which he loved of all things.
'Give me fifteen roubles or so instead, it will buy one at the horse fair,' said Nikita, who knew quite well that the bony beast which Vassili Andreivich was trying to pass off on him was worth seven roubles at the outside, and that it would be reckoned against him at twenty-five. He would not see the colour of his money again for many a long day.
'It is a good horse. I want your good as well as my own. Word of honour! Brekhunov deceives no one. I would rather lose on the bargain myself. I am not like others. I give you my word that the horse is a good one,' he cried in the special tone which he used in order to talk over and deceive buyers or sellers."
Tolstoy knew this; the hero of his story was no ordinary character; he had a powerful will and a clear intelligence, in his own way he was a genius. Such is the personality which Tolstoy will now tear out of his natural setting and put abruptly into the midst of new conditions, facing him with the absolute solitude which we have already met in Ivan Ilych.
Nikita goes out with Brekhunov and together they are caught in a snowstorm. But Nikita's agony in the snow is of no interest either to Tolstoy or to us. Perhaps Brekhunov is right when he prepares to abandon his faithful servant and says: "It doesn't matter to him whether he dies or not. What was his life like? He won't regret his life. But I, thanks be to God, I still have something to live for!" Nikita prepares to die as he has lived, peacefully, with that calm submission which, losing itself in the grey uniformity of the surrounding world and obeying eternal laws, makes no particular individual impression which can be seized and retained in the mind of the observer. Tolstoy himself cannot guess at what happens in Nikita's mind when life ceases and death begins in it under the snow which covers him. Perhaps this is why Nikita lives and Brekhunov dies. Tolstoy wanted to confront life with death; but a rich life, full to the brim, confident in itself and its sacred rights and without even a suspicion that an implacable enemy infinitely stronger than itself is watching it at every turn. Even when it turns out that master and man have lost their way and that they will have to pass the night buried under the snow, Brekhunov will not admit that his reason and his talents, which have already got him out of so many difficult situations, will betray him now; that in a few hours his stiffened hands will let fall the potestas clavium, which gave him the proud right to look upon the future with the same confidence as the present.
This is what he is thinking of while Nikita, in his thin clothes, drowses under the falling snow and tries to protect his shivering body against the raging of the bitter wind. Brekhunov is warmly clad, as yet he does not feel the cold, and from past experience is confident he never will.
Brekhunov continues for a long time to sing the praises of these reasonable, active principles, the source of all "good" on earth. And I repeat: if Brekhunov had received a superior education, he would have been capable of writing an excellent philosophical or theological treatise, which would have made him famous, not only in his own district but throughout all Russia and Europe.
- "What did we possess in my father's time? Nothing much; he was no more than a rich peasant. An inn, a farm; that was all. And I, what have I collected in fifteen years? A shop, two inns, a mill, barns for grain, two farm properties, a house and its outbuildings all under iron roofs.' He thought of all that with pride. 'It is quite different from my father's time. Who is now famous throughout the whole district? Brekhunov! And why? Because I never lose sight of business. I work. I am not like others who are always sleeping or else running their heads into some foolishness or other.'"
But here we come to the second part of the story, where an unexpected reality suddenly supervenes and affords the critique of this treatise which Brekhunov might have written.
In the middle of this reasoning Brekhunov began to doze. "But he suddenly felt a shock and awoke. Whether it was that the horse had tugged at a few straws from behind his head, or whether it was the effect of some internal uneasiness, he suddenly awoke and his heart began to beat so violently and quickly that it seemed as though the whole sledge were trembling beneath him." This was the beginning of a whole series of events of which Brekhunov had no suspicion in spite of his long life, his powerful intelligence, and his rich experience. Around him was the boundless plain, boundless, at least, to him, and snow, cold, and wind, Nikita, already numbed by the cold, and the shivering horse. He felt unreasonable but insistent and overmastering terror. "What to do? What to do ?" This is the regular question which every man asks when he finds himself in a difficult situation. It presents itself to Brekhunov, but this time it seems completely absurd. Hitherto, the question had always held the elements of its own answer, it had at least always shown him the possibility of an answer. But this time it held nothing of the sort. The question excluded all possibility of an answer; there was nothing to be done.
Brekhunov was no coward. He had been in many difficult places in his lifetime, and had always been ready to fight any adversary, even one stronger than himself. But his present situation was such that it would have been impossible to imagine anything more terrible. The enemy was formidable and - this was the worst part of it - completely invisible. Against what could he direct his blows? Against whom could he defend himself? Brekhunov's reason could not admit that such a thing was possible.
When they had stopped at Grichkino, an hour earlier, everything had seemed so comfortable, so natural, so easy to understand. One was able to talk, to listen to other people, drink tea, give orders to Nikita, drive the bay. And now there was nothing to be done but to look on and feel oneself freeze. Where is truth, where is reality? Over there at Grichkino, or here on this plain? Grichkino had ceased to exist for ever; must one then doubt the reality of its existence? And with it the reality of the existence of all the old world? Doubt everything? De omnibus dubitandum? But did great Descartes really doubt everything? No, Hume was right: the man who has once doubted all things will never overcome his doubts, he will leave for ever the world common to us all and take refuge in his own particular world. De omnibus dubitandum is useless; it is worse than storm and snow, worse than the fact that Nikita is freezing and that the bay is shivering in the icy wind.
Always so strong, so clear-minded, Brekhunov tries, for the first time in his life, to take refuge in dreams. "He began once more to reckon up his profits, the sums which were due to him. He began to boast to himself again, and to take pleasure in his excellent situation; but at every moment fear slipped into his thoughts and interrupted their pleasant flow. Try as he might to think of nothing but his accounts, his transactions, his revenues, his glory and his wealth, fear little by little took possession of his whole soul."
It will seem strange that Brekhunov, like King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, told over the tale of his riches and his glory. But this was just what Tolstoy wanted, and he knew what he wanted. If the great king himself had been in Brekhunov's place, the situation would not have been changed in any way. Riches and glory added nothing to Brekhunov's strength, nor diminished in any way that of his invisible adversary. For the lowly and humble Nikita it was much easier. "He did not know whether he was dying or whether he was falling asleep, but he was equally ready to do either."
All his existence, utterly devoid alike of glory and wealth, had accustomed Nikita to the thought that he was not his own master, that he must not ask any one to render him an account, or to explain what was happening. He had never understood anything, and he continued not to understand; there was not much difference. But for Brekhunov it was quite another matter. He was accustomed to being his own master, and to having clear and distinct explanations given him; everything indefinite and indeterminate was intolerable to him. To live in the unknown is to live under a strange power which slays or spares us as it will. Can one have confidence in it? Why should it have mercy on us? It will certainly condemn us. One cannot believe any one or anything, except oneself. And in any case, before believing one must ask cui est credendum - whom shall we believe? You must not be surprised that Brekhunov takes to talking Latin and quoting St. Augustine, for it was certainly no more surprising than everything else which was happening to him.
And Brekhunov, gathering together all his strength for the last time, firmly declared: "I will never believe in this silence, in this forsaken solitude, in the snowstorm, the shivering horse, freezing Nikita, this cold and dreary desert, and this infinite waste." Reason was still alive within him, and reason which had always taught him what to do would guide him again. There was still some possible answer, although a lying terror was whispering to him that he must yield.
Brekhunov decides to abandon Nikita and take his chance, mounts the horse and goes off in search of the road.
This was undoubtedly a reasonable decision; the only reasonable decision. Was he to die, caught by the cold, like a dog, he, Brekhunov, who for so many years had filled Russia and Europe with the fame of his inns, his house, his barns with their iron roofs?
Brekhunov makes a last, supreme effort to defeat his invisible foe. But what he does, what he is forced to do, in no way resembles what one would call "action". He urges on his horse, which obeys him docilely, but his strength of mind, in which he had always had so much confidence, now betrays him. Without noticing it, he continually changes the direction of his march. Everything overwhelms him, he is trembling more from fear than from cold now - a quite absurd and unreasonable fear of every tussock which appeared through the snow. To his distracted eyes every outlined object was as a phantom. He suddenly found himself placed in circumstances so contrary to his usual reasonable, positive nature, that everything appeared to him stupid and absurd as in a fairy tale. But where is truth? In that old world, with that old reason where everything is clear and comprehensible, or here? Until now there had been nothing hostile or terrible or mysterious in that tussock or in those dried grasses. They had been subject to man and useful to him. What then, is the force that suddenly takes possession of them? Why do they inspire him with such terror? And not they alone; this immense, mournful desert appears peopled with phantoms who until now, as he had positively known, did not exist and could not exist.
The last chance of safety disappeared, terror invaded his soul and took possession of it. Explanations which had formerly driven away all his doubts and fears were now powerless and brought him no comfort. "One must think, one must be calm," said Brekhunov to himself; but in vain. He had already crossed the fatal border line, he was cast off for ever from solid earth, where order reigns and laws and methods which have been securely established for the ascertaining of truth. The phantoms with which the desert is peopled will disappear no more, whether or no he succeeds in explaining that the dried grasses are nothing but a vegetable growth and the cry of terror no more than the neighing of his horse. And, moreover, are these descriptions accurate? Has that black bush not got some occult force which had escaped Brekhunov's sagacity until now?...
"Suddenly a terrible cry rang in his ears and everything trembled and moved beneath him. Vassili Andreivich clung to the neck of his horse, but the neck trembled and the cry rang out again, more terribly still. For a few minutes Vassili Andreivich could not take heart again, could not understand what had happened. But all that had happened was simply that the horse had neighed with all its powerful voice, either to give itself courage or else, perhaps, to call for help. 'Oh, curse you,' said Brekhunov, 'how you frightened me!' But even when he understood the real cause of his terrors, he did not succeed in overcoming them."
Brekhunov falls from his horse into a snowdrift, the horse goes on and leaves him alone, utterly alone in the snow. The forest, the farmsteads, the inns, the house under its iron roof and the barns... will his heir - 'what', he thinks, 'will become of these? But what is happening? This cannot be.' Suddenly he remembers the tuft of grass which the wind had shaken and which he had passed twice already. Such a terror invaded him then that he could not believe in the reality of all that was happening to him. He thought, 'Is not this a dream?' And tried to awake. But it was not a dream.
He tried to remember the theories of knowledge which even a few hours earlier had given him the power to distinguish between the real and the visionary, dreams from waking; but these principles, hitherto so clear and definite, had effaced themselves and could no longer guide him. They defined nothing, taught nothing, and could not deliver him. Then he gave up all scientific theories and remembered that he had one last resource left to which he had not resorted until now, having felt no need of it, and having kept it in reserve for a last emergency.
But what does this new reality call to mind? Nothing that Brekhunov knows, except dreams. Brekhunov's powerful and well-balanced understanding can imagine nothing, it feels itself lost in the midst of the dreams which press in on reality, he struggles like a madman and does just the opposite of what could help him. "Only, no confusion! No haste!" lie repeats to himself these well-learned and tried rules of reasonable action and methodical search. But his terror grows, and instead of looking for the road, calmly and carefully, according to rule, he begins to run, falls, picks himself up again, falls once more and loses the last remnants of his strength. Thus he arrives, quite by accident, at the sledge where Nikita is lying. There, at first, from old habit, he makes proof of great activity. Then suddenly a complete change comes over him, such as could not have been deduced by any ordinary rules, from his empirical character.
- "Queen of Heaven, Holy Father Nicholas, Lord of Renunciation..." He thought of the Mass, of the icon with its dark face in the gilded frame, of the candles which he sold for this icon, the candles which were immediately brought back to him, hardly burnt at all, and which he hid in a drawer of his writing table. Then he began to pray to this same St. Nicholas that he would save him, and promised him a Mass and candles. But he immediately and very clearly understood that this face, those ornaments, the candles, the priest, the Mass might all be very important, very necessary even, over there in church, but that they could not help him in any way, that there had not been and was not any connection between the candles and the religious ceremonies, and his present situation."
Before Nikita, who, as it seems to him, is about to die, in the face of inevitable death, Brekhunov suddenly resolves to break completely with his past. Whence this decision comes, and what it means, Tolstoy does not explain; and presumably he does well, for the fact admits of no explanation; in other words, we can establish no connection between the force which drives a man towards the unknown, and the facts that we have previously known about him. This break means, in the words of Plato and Plotinus, "a flight from the known", and any explanation, in so far as it tries to re-establish broken ties, is only the expression of our wish to maintain the man in his former place, to prevent him from accomplishing his destiny.
"Vassili Andreivich," Tolstoy tells us, "stood for some moments in silence, and then, suddenly, with the same decision with which he used to clinch a successful bargain by a handshake, he took a step backwards, rolled up the sleeves of his coat and set about rubbing life back into Nikita's half frozen body." Can you explain this "sudden" and "suddenly" from which spring the decisions of those who are forsaking the common world? Brekhunov suddenly descends from the height of his glories to warm that worthless peasant Nikita. Is it not an obvious absurdity? But it is still to a certain extent the old Brekhunov; one feels his need to do something, in order not to have to look IT in the face. In the words which he addresses to Nikita we still catch a ring of the old boasting tones, the old self-glorification. Brekhunov still tries instinctively in his old way to escape the inevitable. He is still afraid to let drop from his trembling hands the potestas clavium which obviously no longer belongs to him.
"Ah, there you are! You are all right!... And you talk of dying. Don't get up, keep warm. That's what we do, we cunning ones..." Vassili Andreivich begins to hold forth. But he could not go on in the same strain. And he was obliged to throw this act, too, overboard. "That's what we do..." - this phrase might have been of some use to him formerly, but now, after the decision of this autocratic "suddenly", it is of no use at all, even though crowned by supreme self-abnegation. Something else is wanted, something quite different.
Brekhunov rejoiced in his weakness; the same Brekhunov who all his life had gloried in his strength, according to the laws of common humanity, persuaded that he was not and could not be happy except in his full strength; and in this conviction he had disputed the potestas clavium, the power to bind and loose, with Heaven itself. This joy which was born of weakness, was the beginning of the miraculous, inconceivable, enigmatic change which we call death. Brekhunov, Tolstoy tells us, tries once more to get back for a moment into the old world; he boasts to someone that he has saved Nikita, that he has sacrificed his life to him; but these abrupt stirrings of the old consciousness, the consciousness of strength, become shorter and shorter and eventually cease altogether. Then there remains in him only the joy of his weakness and his liberty. He no longer fears death; strength fears death, weakness does not know this fear. Weakness hears the appeal coming from the place where, long pursued and despised, she has found her eventual refuge. Brekhunov renounces, eagerly and with feverish haste, his inns, his barns, and all the great ideas, including the potestas clavium, which had gathered in his soul and been the boasts of the other, the learned, Brekhunov. And now an admirable mystery is revealed to him. "'I come, I come,' he cried joyfully with his whole being. And he felt that he was free and that nothing held him back any more." And he went, or rather he flew on the wings of his weakness, without knowing whither they would carry him; he rose into the eternal night, terrible and incomprehensible to mankind.
- "To his great astonishment he was unable to go on, for his eyes filled with tears and his lower jaw began to tremble. He stopped talking and could only swallow the lump in his throat. 'I have been frightened,' he thought to himself,'and now I am very weak.' But this weakness was not unpleasant; it caused him a peculiar feeling of joy such as he had never previously known."
The end of Master and Man turned out to be a prophecy. Leo Nicolaevich Tolstoy also ended his days on the steppe, in the midst of storms and tempests. Thus destiny will end. The glory of Tolstoy was spread abroad throughout the whole world while he still lived. And yet, in spite of that, soon after his eightieth birthday, which was celebrated in the four quarters of the globe, in every language - an honour which no one before his day had enjoyed - he yet left all and fled from his home one dark night, not knowing whither or wherefore. His works, his glory, all these were a misery to him, a burden too heavy for him to bear. He seems, with trembling, impatient hand, to be tearing off the marks of the sage, the master, the honoured teacher. That he might present himself before the Supreme Judge with unweighted soul, he had to forget and renounce all his magnificent past.
Such, in fact, is the revelation of death. Down here on earth, all that was of importance, but here one wants something quite different. PheugŰmen dÍ philÍn eis patrida... Patris de ÍmÓn hothen parÍlthomen kai patÍr ekeÓ (Let us flee to our dear fatherland... for thence are we come, and there dwells our Father.) (Plotinus, Enn. I, vi, 8.)