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Tolstoy, Leo

In a previous post, I criticized Tolstoy’s What is Art? for putting forth an impoverished view of art, impoverished because it forbids any kind of quasi-private communicative role for art. Here I want to discuss a second manner in which it is impoverished. Tolstoy’s view of the function of art—roughly speaking, the furtherance of the brotherly union of all people—forbids art from contributing to any sense of local identity. Thus, for instance, Barlow’s Columbiad and Paulding’s Backwoodsman (post coming soon) are unacceptable simply on the grounds that they are inherently American, that they contribute to a conception of specifically American identity in that country’s youth.

Consider Tolstoy’s tempered praise of certain modern works that he thinks instantiate “universal art, which conveys the simplest everyday feelings of life, such as are accessible to everyone in the world” (p. 132; Penguin Classics):

It is still more difficult to point in modern art to examples… of good universal everyday art, especially in verbal art and in music. If there do exist works which by their inner content might be placed in this category, such as Don Quixote, the comedies of Molière, Dickens’s David Copperfield and Pickwick Papers, the tales of Gogol and Pushkin, and some of the writings of Maupassant, even so these works, by the exclusiveness of the feelings they convey, by the superfluity of specific details of time and place, and above all by the poverty of their content as compared with examples of universal ancient art (for instance, the story of Joseph and his brothers), are mostly accessible only to people of their own nation and even of their own circle. (p. 133)

Tolstoy criticizes as superfluous and inherently exclusionary the “superfluity of specific details of time and place,” and it is precisely these details that allow works of art to contribute, not just to the elaboration of what it is to be human, but of what it is to be a particularly situated human. To understand the complex emotional state of Gabriel Conroy in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the reader needs to understand not just his relationship to his wife but his broader relation to the Ireland in which this relationship is situated. Even though I am not an early 20th century Irishman and so cannot experience precisely the same set of co-existing pressures as Gabriel, my sympathy is only increased by this complexity and nuance.

But for Tolstoy, the ineliminably Irish character of the story detracts from its universality, and so makes it less valuable as art. In a sense, he is correct (about the first part, not the second). Undoubtedly, there are aspects of the story that will speak differently to an Irish person than they speak to me. But what of it? Why must everyone react the same way to a work? Insistence on such homogeneity is infantilizing, because the only feelings that can truly be universally shared are the simplest feelings taken in isolation. But actual human experience consists of complex combinations of feelings, combinations inextricably linked with the “superfluous” details of one’s time and place.

And this leads to a broader point about what Tolstoy’s view of the function of art leaves out. It leaves out any sense of local identity. Tolstoy’s cosmopolitan picture of the brotherly union of all people is characterized in such a way as to preclude all identities more specific than “human,” because, for Tolstoy, all such local identities give rise to in-group and out-group, and so detract from universality. Brotherly union, for Tolstoy, is inherently homogenizing. And, once again, this insistence on homogeneity is infantilizing. It strips human beings of their complex relationships to one another.

In this regard my beginning to read Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity is well-timed in a way I had not expected. For Appiah is concerned precisely to explore the ethical role of local identities within a broadly cosmopolitan political outlook. On Tolstoy’s view, Appiah’s project is fundamentally misguided. But it seems to me that Tolstoy’s view is monstrous and—for all his emphasis placed on what is universally human—inhuman. I look forward to seeing how Appiah solves the problem that Tolstoy cannot even pose.

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In an earlier post, I defended the ideal of the communicative poet, writing:

The communicative poet always speaks to the individual, to the (perhaps unknown) friend. I know for whom I write. I can see him, can imagine his responses, his delights and consternation. It is always an individual I see, and I speak to him directly. If I am lucky, and if I develop my nascent talents sufficiently to warrant such luck, perhaps I shall find multiple such readers, but they do not thereby form an assembly. I never reach out to the mass.

In What is Art?, Tolstoy adopts a thoroughly different understanding of what it means for a poet (or any artist) to communicate. He sees the task of art as furthering the brotherly union of all people. The artist seeks to convey some feeling to his audience, to infect them with this same feeling. Importantly, for Tolstoy, this art must be accessible, infectious, to all. Any art that is in any regard private is depraved. Obviously, this stands in stark contrast to my view of art as communicative always privately, always to the individual. What are the consequences of a view such as Tolstoy’s for art?

Tolstoy’s basic opposition to art that is anything less than global in its prospective reach is that all such art creates an ingroup (those for whom the art is for) and an outgroup (everyone else). And this, he says, is opposed to “the religious consciousness of our time.” The religious consciousness of any given time represents the highest thought thus far achieved by humanity. In our time (that is, Tolstoy’s time), this thought was “the consciousness of the fact that our good, material and spiritual, individual and general, temporal and eternal, consists in the brotherly life of all people, in our union of love with each other” (p. 126). In former times it consisted of more localized unions, it “united only one part of human society among others” and was concerned with a desire “for the power, grandeur, glory and prosperity” of that group (p. 127). Such, for instance, is the feeling conveyed by Homer’s Iliad. But such art is no longer acceptable, because religious consciousness has ascended to a higher thought.

There is much in the background theory about religious consciousness to disagree with, but I will put that aside, for, even if we grant that theory, Tolstoy’s position still impoverishes art, for two reasons. First, because the insistence on universality is inherently exclusive in a manner that Tolstoy wholly overlooks. The desire for brotherly union with all people is noble, I am sure, and by some people genuinely felt. But it is not my desire. I find humans mostly miserable up close, though almost infinitely sympathetic from the right distance. My ideal is not brotherly union with all, but close communion with a few and distant, mutual toleration with the rest. This does not involve any hostility between the ingroup and outgroup, a possibility Tolstoy simply fails to see. (Whatever else it may be, Tolstoy’s What is Art? is certainly not charitable to its opposition.)

No doubt Tolstoy would call this desire of mine depraved, a failure to live up to the religious consciousness of the time. This is in keeping with Tolstoy’s fundamentally dishonest method of arguing in the book—dishonest in the sense that any disagreement with his position is indicative, for Tolstoy, of some moral failure on the part of him who disagrees—and all I can do is shrug at his suggestion of the perversity of my desire. With Emerson, I say, “[it does] not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”

Thus Tolstoy would impoverish art by eliminating all art for and by people like me, people who prefer the intensity of a private conversation between two to the mass union of many.

Tolstoy’s view, if enacted, would lead to a second impoverishment of art. Tolstoy’s view that art operates by infecting others with some feeling felt by the artist, if taken in its most basic form, has the consequence of stripping art of all its emotional nuance. On Tolstoy’s model of how art communicates, the artist has some feeling (which feeling must, in our time, be compatible with the brotherly union of all) that he would communicate. The artist then makes a work of art that, if successful, brings others to share this same feeling. Tolstoy nowhere suggests any more complicated model of infection than this fairly direct one, and the general tenor of the book suggests to me that he really does want us to adopt this simple view. So I will treat it as his considered view.

This model of how art communicates in effect means that art, on Tolstoy’s model cannot consider feelings that are impure, problematic. Suppose the artist has some feeling from which he is estranged, yet which he cannot escape—certainly a common enough experience for me, and one that underlies much of my poetry. Suppose the artist wants to convey this tangled relationship to himself, acknowledging its reality as well as its problematic status. Perhaps he is uncertain how to feel about it, and wishes to capture this uncertainty. Such a work of art is, on Tolstoy’s picture, impermissible, because, rather than seek to infect the audience with some feeling, it seeks to make the audience regard that feeling from a position quite different than infection. The entire realm of attitudes we take toward our feelings is forbidden territory for art, on Tolstoy’s view, because it cannot fit the infection model.

It may seem as if I am being unfair to Tolstoy. But I do not think so. Tolstoy is insistent that the only means of communication appropriate to art is infection. Thus art cannot, for Tolstoy, treat of feelings not worth infecting another with, feelings that are only worth communicating in some other form. And this is an impoverishment of art.

I therefore reject Tolstoy’s vision of the function of art. I think it a vision that forbids art to serve the purpose for which people like myself turn to it, and is therefore a vision that is exclusive to those able to share Tolstoy’s desire for the brotherly union of all people. Tolstoy justifies this exclusion by insisting that all who lack that desire are depraved, are failing to live up to the religious consciousness of the time. Perhaps he is right. I think it unlikely in the extreme, but I will grant the supposition hypothetically. Suppose Tolstoy is right, and in my desire for more private, localized communication, I am depraved. Suppose I have failed to attain to the highest thought thus far attained by humanity’s religious consciousness. So be it. What do I care of Tolstoy’s “highest” and “lowest”? These “are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”

Most art—more precisely, most of what is called art—is fake, according to Leo Tolstoy in his polemical What is Art? (Penguin Classics). The purpose of art is to convey feelings. To achieve this, it is true, the artist calls upon all of his talent, but the main thing is the sincerity of the feeling and of the desire to communicate it, to bring another to feel it. If the feeling is gone, if only talent remains, if, as Tolstoy puts it “the author never had any other feeling than the desire to write a story or a novel” (p. 117), then what is produced is not art, but a mere imitation of art—indeed in many cases an imitation of an imitation.

Why should this be? Tolstoy traces it to art having become an upper-class diversion rather than a real contribution to life. The over-educated upper class, with perverted and atrophied sensitivity to genuine human feeling, and above all else bored, seeks in art diversion, pleasure. That is why the philosophy of aesthetics has focused on beauty. (Tolstoy believes he can reduce every account of beauty to a subjective feeling of pleasure.) Bored and wealthy, the upper class pays artists to produce art that is, precisely because commissioned, insincere. Because of their atrophied sensitivity, they cannot tell that what they are paying for is not the real thing.

Tolstoy goes on, weaving more threads into this general narrative, but that is enough for my purposes here. My sympathy for Tolstoy’s views has oscillated as he has unfolded them. His diagnosis of the poverty of beauty as a fundamental aesthetic principle, and his promise to replace it with something integrated with the whole of human life, I found intriguing. Certainly the role that art plays in my life is something more than a mere pleasure-bringer, and if Tolstoy made this point in a manner manifestly unfair to the 150-year history of aesthetics that he surveyed, I was willing to forgive him this.

His proposed replacement principle views art as fundamentally communicative: the true work of art conveys to the public, in a manner accessible to all, a feeling felt by the artist. I do not agree with the exact manner in which Tolstoy characterizes the aim of art, but I do believe that art is (or should be) inherently communicative. (I may have more to say about this in a subsequent post.) And I think Tolstoy is right when he claims that while some art is born out of a felt need to communicate, much is simply the product of a mere desire to write a novel, or a poem, or whatever.

The moment that Tolstoy tries to explain how we are to tell these apart, however, his story unravels. Take this:

There are many conditions necessary for a man to create a true object of art. It is necessary that the man stand on the level of the highest world outlook of his time, that he have experienced a feeling and have the wish and opportunity to transmit it, and that he have, with all that, a talent for some kind of art. (p. 90)

But how are we to tell when a man stands on the level of the highest world outlook of his time? What are we to make of the very real disagreement between people about what world outlook is the highest? Further, how are we to tell when the artist has experience a feeling and when he is merely counterfeiting it extremely compellingly? It is not as if Tolstoy is unaware of this family of problems, for he asks a version of it himself. Given that most works of art are fakes, are simulacra, how are we to find those very rare few that are genuine?

How to find this one work, not differing in any way superficially, among the hundreds of thousands of works deliberately made to resemble the true one perfectly?

For a man of unperverted taste, a laboring man, not a city-dweller, this is as easy as it is for an animal with an unspoiled scent to find, among thousands of trails in forest or field, the one it needs. An animal will unerringly find what it needs; so, too, a man, if only his natural qualities are not perverted in him, will unerringly choose out of thousands of objects the true work of art that he needs, that infects him with the feeling experienced by the artist; but this is not so for people whose taste has been ruined by their upbringing and life. (p. 115)

Practically speaking, this is utterly unhelpful. How are we to tell? Well, the right people will know. Now, to be fair, Tolstoy does have a theory of who the right people are and how they got to be that way, but it still strikes me as a slick intellectual move. Does your judgment about a work of art disagree with Tolstoy’s? Well, have you considered that you are simply incompetent to judge? It is means of delegitimizing disagreement, whatever theoretical basis purports to justify it.

Combined with that is the fact that “sincerity,” because it is an inner state of the artist, is not really something one can test. Tolstoy’s criterion of genuine art thus sounds meaningful, but is in fact infinitely flexible: Tolstoy can invoke it to justify his preferences in art no matter works he likes or does not like (unless, I suppose, the work is especially obscure). The charge of “insincerity” condemns nothing of its own accord. It condemns only with the help of the active agency of the one who applies it.

Thus my sympathy for Tolstoy began to dissolve. But then Tolstoy explained, not his theory of art, but the phenomenology of his interactions with art, both negative and positive:

I remember seeing Rossi’s performance of Hamlet, in which the tragedy itself and the actor playing the leading role are considered by our critics to be the last word in dramatic art. And yet, during the whole time of the performance, I experienced both from the content of the play and from its performance that special suffering produced by false simulacra of artistic works. (pp. 118-19)

This “special suffering” is an experience I know, and know well. I find it hard to imagine having that experience with respect to Hamlet, but I know it for other works. And, on the positive side, Tolstoy writes:

The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the perceiver merges with the artist to such a degree that it seems to him that the perceived object has been made, not by someone else, but by himself, and that everything expressed by the object is exactly what he has long been wanting to express. The effect of the true work of art is to abolish in the consciousness of the perceiver the distinction between himself and the artist, and not only between himself and the artist, but also between himself and all who perceive the same work of art. It is this liberation of the person from his isolation from others, from his loneliness, this merging of the person with others, that constitutes the chief attractive force and property of art. (p. 121)

This hardly requires comment for anyone familiar with the experience Tolstoy describes. It is not the whole of positive engagement with art (what if what the artist expresses is not precisely what one wants to express, yet one is glad that it was expressed in that manner?), but it is a major aspect of it.

Recognizing that the experiences underlying Tolstoy’s approach to art are experiences I know as well makes me more sympathetic to his book, not in the sense that I agree with him, but in the sense that I feel I grasp the motivation for it. Of course, the fact that I have these same experiences while liking what Tolstoy deplores (and while certainly falling into his category of the over-educated elite) speaks against his general theory, which requires a sharp dichotomy between those who seek the communication of feelings and those who seek only pleasure.

Ultimately, I think, my verdict on Tolstoy is much the same as Tolstoy’s own verdict on those who attempt to find an objective basis for beauty. Tolstoy thinks that aestheticians can be reduced to two schools: those who treat beauty subjectively and those who treat it objectively. Those who treat it objectively “call beauty something absolutely perfect which exists outside of us” (p. 32). Of course, we must recognize this beauty outside of us, and that is just where the trouble arises:

But since we recognize the absolutely perfect which exists outside us and acknowledge it as such only because we receive a certain kind of pleasure from the manifestation of this absolutely perfect, it means that the objective definition is nothing but the subjective one differently expressed. (p. 32)

Therefore, “in fact, both notions of beauty come down to a certain sort of pleasure that we receive.” Tolstoy has thus reduced all attempts at defining beauty to subjective definitions, dependent on our experience of pleasure.

It seems to me that the same line of reasoning applies to Tolstoy’s attempt to determine what art is sincere: ultimately, it is that art that gives him a certain sort of feeling, of leaving his isolation and loneliness. But must art be truly sincere to give rise to that feeling? There is no reason to think so. We acknowledge it as such only because we receive a certain kind of experience from this manifestation of the sincere. Tolstoy’s apparent objective definition of sincere art is, by his own line of argument, nothing but a subjective definition differently expressed.