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Tolstoy and His Quaker

Aylmer Maude (1858-1938) was an English businessman in czarist Russia, a committed Quaker, and a frequent visitor to Tolstoy’s great estate at Yasnaya Polyana. With his Russian-born wife Louise, Maude translated Tolstoy’s principal works. Tolstoy, who knew English well, said that these were the best English translations of his work. This was at a time when many English versions of the novels were being made from old French versions, so that Tolstoy’s name was still ridiculously spelled Tolstoi.

Maude knew Russian perfectly, he knew the old Russia, Tolstoy’s own Russia, as brilliant biographers in our day have not known it. Above all, he knew Tolstoy. He was Christian idealist enough himself, in a safe and sane English way, to sympathize with Tolstoy’s belief that he, the greatest literary and intellectual figure against czarism, could help create a new moral order. He understood Tolstoy’s guilt as a great aristocratic landowner in the backward Russian countryside, and so watched with interest and admiration, if not with full participation, Tolstoy’s vehement efforts to proclaim out of his own nature, as it were, a new (“Tolstoyan”) Christianity as the only way out for the unhappy Russian people.

Maude was fascinated by the crushing directness and often profound uncanny “simplicity” of Tolstoy’s art, though in Maude’s biography of Tolstoy he did not analyze his novels with the knowledge that as a practiced translator he could have given to such an analysis. Above all, Maude was fascinated by the endlessly contradictory personality of Tolstoy himself. Maude was a modest, alert recorder of the great man’s private storms at a time when he publicly declared his disgust with art and was propounding vows of poverty, chastity, pacifism, manual labor, etc., that were driving his wife crazy and confusing many of the best minds in Russia. We get from this quiet English perspective an unforgettable, unique picture of Tolstoy in old age—Tolstoy as Lear—Tolstoy as the “impossible,” destructive, yet finally impressive moral genius that he was now trying to be. Even as a young officer during the Crimean War, Tolstoy was able to write in his diary:

A conversation about Divinity and Faith has suggested to me a great, a stupendous idea, to the realization of which I feel capable of devoting my life. That idea is the founding of a new religion corresponding to the present state of mankind: the religion of Christ but purged of dogmas and absolutism—a practical religion, not promising future bliss but giving bliss on earth. I understand that to accomplish this the conscious labor of generations will be needed. One generation will bequeath the idea to the next, and some day fanaticism or reason will accomplish it. Deliberately to promote the union of mankind by religion is the basic thought which I hope will dominate me.

Never trust the artist,” said Lawrence, “trust the tale.” We of the Western world who owe so much to Tolstoy the artist have never understood just why some of the best Russian writers, from Turgenev to Gorky, to say nothing of the Russian democrats and socialists most concerned for Russia itself, have always felt with some alarm that Tolstoy was a moral despot as well as a great writer, and that his dogmas on personal behavior and practical politics were unfairly drawn from the sovereignty he exercised as a novelist. No psychological or aesthetic theorist has ever satisfactorily explained the unmistakable kind of authority we recognize in certain powerful personalities. Great writers are not necessarily authoritative; many a wonderful writer, like Chekhov, has been essentially as impersonal as the Shakespeare whom Keats credited with “negative capability”—the ability to be nothing in himself, substantially nothing but his own characters. But the two most towering Russian writers, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, have tried to be “heroes” in Carlyle’s sense—evangelists and founders of a new belief. Maude quotes Tolstoy as saying that Dostoevsky (whom he never met) was a man constantly struggling between good and evil. “One cannot sit on a pedestal for the instruction of posterity a man who was all struggle.” And it is true that Dostoevsky never knew the eerie boundless self-trust in all things that Tolstoy did.

What fascinates—and nowadays usually irks—critics and biographers of Tolstoy is his personal absolutism (in all political and psychological associations of the word). The nineteenth-century cult of genius supreme, a law to itself, seems to us properly as ridiculous as Victor Hugo’s sycophants saying (according to Henry Adams)—“How Wonderful! A god who believes in God!” We have had enough of the destructiveness of Great Men. Tolstoy’s bitter attacks in War and Peace on Napoleon and other supposed “architects of world history” have not saved Tolstoy himself from the distrust expressed by Isaiah Berlin, Edward Crankshaw, Henri Troyat. And Tolstoy does seem to have thought of himself as something of a god on the Russian landscape, a transcendent human power in a way that is summed up but not explained by the fact that Tolstoy was a literary genius, a great Russian aristocrat and landowner, an eager reformer.

Tolstoy so naturally aroused trust and adoration (not least among millions of readers in all languages) that one is struck by his hold on so many people whom he disparaged—not least a wife who had as much trouble understanding him as everyone else did, but wanted nothing better than to copy his manuscripts and be the consort of the magnetic, world-famous, and endlessly disturbing Count Tolstoy.

Now it is obvious that Tolstoy’s sense of his own power belongs to the history of Russia. What Maude brings out—in the offering of letters, diaries, conversations, his relations with other writers—is the (to us) unnaturally direct Revelation that Tolstoy had about all difficult questions relating to God, science, morality, and society. He was as confident about his access to Truth as he was about the peasants on his estate and the characters in his novels. I have never forgotten Tolstoy saying to Gorky—“I myself, when I write, suddenly feel pity for some character, and then I give him some good quality or take a good quality away from someone else, so that in comparison with the others he may not appear too black.”

The sublime “self-confidence” we are awed by in this is of course a patriarchal authority—as fatherlike about Russia as Tolstoy was about the characters in his novels. And no doubt the authority of the novelist, as well as the authority of the great barin, was made possible by the never-again-to-be-duplicated combination of literary genius, feudalism, overlordship, etc. But in Tolstoy’s moral absolutism I see what is not only absurd and wasteful (for he did sacrifice, from time to time, his incomparable talent for fiction), but something that must be understood in the context of the nineteenth-century craving for a new universal religion stripped of supernaturalism. Many of Tolstoy’s contemporaries found this in socialism; Tolstoy found it in the light within us, in the idea of being right, forever and ever, with one’s God, and with God alone.

What Maude’s documentary materials show, what he does not attempt to take away from Tolstoy, is the hunger for God as the Other. Tolstoy needed on this one point only the assurance of being right. Otherwise, as that most haunting of Tolstoy’s intimate cries reminds us, “It is impossible to live so! It is impossible to live so!” But we cannot easily credit Tolstoy’s wanting to be “right” on this question, for he himself is too imposing. Yet Tolstoy was right with his God, right with himself, in a way that twentieth-century writers cannot be. Vladimir Nabokov, in his own way as aristocratic and egotistic as Tolstoy himself, has portrayed in a whole series of novels, Russian and English, what it is to be a Russian genius without Russia, a genius in perpetual displacement, especially from the God who, as Tolstoy said to Gorky, was simply “my desire.” Nabokov’s desire is not for God but for perfect reason or pre-eminence.

Tolstoy in some way felt himself allied with the hidden power of the universe. This was the fitful power of nineteenth-century romantic genius. No matter how carefully we examine, through Aylmer Maude’s modest bearing of witness, Tolstoy’s authority over his peasants, his wife and family, the easily excited urban intelligentsia of Russia, over the other writers who adored his gift but distrusted his imperial self, nothing comes near the sense of power that Tolstoy derived from his special feeling for God as the Other who spoke for Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy. And although many other nineteenth-century writer prophets had this sense of themselves as the voice of “God” or “History”—Wordsworth, Carlyle, Marx, Emerson, Victor Hugo—none of them was so devastated by it personally, yet so well protected by social position in keeping to it. Tolstoy certainly listened to the God within; even when he was making some hilarious pronouncement on the need for absolute chastity—this from a famous hedonist and sexual despot on his own estate! God looks after a fool, if he is absolute enough in his folly. Tolstoy could play the Fool, since no one else could be the King.

Maude, who from his book seems to have remained a model Englishman for all his knowledge of Russia, was understandably amazed by the extent to which Russians differed from all other peoples—and the extent to which Tolstoy differed from all other Russians. He notes of Tolstoy’s “ethical arrogance”—“He was indeed strangely ignorant of industrial and commercial matters and his ignorance found an ally in an ethical arrogance—a readiness ruthlessly to condemn the achievements of those whose work was remote from his own experience, and to impute base motives to men and movements he knew little of.” His father-in-law, Dr. Andrey Behrs, was shocked by Tolstoy’s insistence that his wife breast feed her babies even when she was too ill to do so. As Henri Troyat noted, Dr. Behrs said of his always too positive son-in-law: “He is a great master at speechifying and literature, but life is another matter. Let him write a story about a husband who tortures his sick wife by forcing her to nurse her baby. He will be stoned by every woman alive.”

As everyone knows who knows nothing else of Tolstoy, the great man did not and could not live up to his own furious prescriptions laid down to the human race. But who else but Tolstoy, as Maude notes in one of his most wonderful anecdotes, would have preached chastity to a young bridegroom-to-be and then have wept because the young man confessed to being a virgin? Gorky said that Tolstoy was disappointed because he was not supernatural. Another powerful revelation in this book, so full of the most amazing personal material about Tolstoy, is that after finishing War and Peace Tolstoy took up Greek, learned it quickly, but felt the power of Greek so keenly, and his differences from the Greek outlook on life, that “the contradiction produced in him a feeling of melancholy and apathy profound enough to affect his health.”

To what extent Tolstoy’s unique, “unnatural” (as it seems to us), vaguely occult identification with supreme power made him the writer he was is a question that cannot ever be satisfactorily answered. The gift gave him a sense of his power, and the sense of power became so comprehensive, yet above all a cry for redemption, a release from the guilt of being Leo Tolstoy, that what tormented him was the chimera of absolute truth. We are so far now, at the end of our century, from the universalizing secularizing impulse of the nineteenth century that we miss the fact that behind Tolstoy’s identification with the supreme power lies his unique gift and craving for a religious expression, a single truth, natural to mankind. Maude, closer to him in time and nineteenth-century hopes than any contemporary biographer, makes us see Tolstoy the God-seeker not as a figure of fun, not as a vague hypocrite or sublimator of his erotic impulses, but as a tormented man really concerned with the mysterious mental ideal behind conventional religion.

Tolstoy realized quite early why his own Greek Orthodox faith troubled him so much. A priest said to him that any concessions made by the Church would bring reproach on the Russians for deserting the faith of their fore-fathers; their task was to safeguard the inherited faith in its “purity.” Tolstoy: “And I understood it all! I am seeking a faith, the power of life, and they are seeking the best way to fulfill before men certain human obligations.”

Aylmer Maude’s life of Tolstoy is full of precious personal testimony. He saw Tolstoy without illusion, but with steady love, respect, and sympathy for the mighty struggles of this immense figure, chained by the circumstances that supported his gifts, his name, his power. Maude was “simple” enough to see the main fact about Tolstoy—that this one man could contain so many contradictions, so much folly, yet leave so curiously single an impression of genius, directness, honesty, and charm.

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