Russia is the natural mediator between Europe and Asiaby@havelock

Russia is the natural mediator between Europe and Asia

by Havelock EllisApril 11th, 2023
Read on Terminal Reader
Read this story w/o Javascript
tldt arrow

Too Long; Didn't Read

I. Russia is the natural mediator between Europe and Asia. It happens with the regularity of an ethnic law that every race partakes of the characteristics of neighbouring races. The extinct Tasmanian, by his curious aberrations from the Australian type and approximation to that of Polynesia, furnished an unexpected anthropological problem that is still unsolved. Everywhere the same mysterious blending or transition may be witnessed. Apart from complexion, it has been said, many a Russian peasant might pass in Lahore or Benares as a native of the Ganges valley. Whatever the ethnologist may say, one way or another, as to the racial elements of the country, anyone who approaches the study of Russian men and Russian things perpetually meets with traits that are not familiar to him as European, but which he may have already learnt to know as Asiatic. Nor is it only in the little traits of character and daily life that these Eastern influences appear; the language itself has close Oriental affinities, and the old Sclavonic is nearly related to Sanscrit. In trying to make Russia plain to ourselves, it is constantly necessary to sound this keynote.
featured image - Russia is the natural mediator between Europe and Asia
Havelock Ellis HackerNoon profile picture

The New Spirit by Havelock Ellis is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. TOLSTOI



Russia is the natural mediator between Europe and Asia. It happens with the regularity of an ethnic law that every race partakes of the characteristics of neighbouring races. The extinct Tasmanian, by his curious aberrations from the Australian type and approximation to that of Polynesia, furnished an unexpected anthropological problem that is still unsolved. Everywhere the same mysterious blending or transition may be witnessed. Apart from complexion, it has been said, many a Russian peasant might pass in Lahore or Benares as a native of the Ganges valley. Whatever the ethnologist may say, one way or another, as to the racial elements of the country, anyone who approaches the study of Russian men and Russian things perpetually meets with traits that are not familiar to him as European, but which he may have already learnt to know as Asiatic. Nor is it only in the little traits of character and daily life that these Eastern influences appear; the language itself has close Oriental affinities, and the old Sclavonic is nearly related to Sanscrit. In trying to make Russia plain to ourselves, it is constantly necessary to sound this keynote.

A nation’s instincts are revealed in its art. The complex history of the origin and development of Russian art is full of interest. “Russia,” as Viollet le Duc wrote in his charming book, “L’Art russe,” “has been a laboratory in which the arts coming from all parts of Asia have united to assume an intermediate form between the eastern and western worlds.” The art of Russia has three great sources, the Scythian, the Byzantine, and the Mongolian, but when these are analyzed it is found that each of them consists largely, when not entirely, of Oriental elements. Not less than nine-tenths of these component elements, Persian, Greek, Hindu, Finnic, and other, may, in Viollet le Duc’s opinion, be set down as Eastern. Sometimes the art of Russia seems to have been almost effaced by Byzantine or Hindu influences, yet it ultimately assimilated all these Eastern influences until it reached its highest point of development at the end of the sixteenth century. In the gilded bulbous domes we see Hindu influence. Persian influence was peculiarly strong; the beautiful Holy Gate of the Church of St. John at Rostoff, the work of sixteenth century Russian artists, is of thoroughly Persian character. All that Russia took from Central Asia and Persia strengthened her art, though it[176] retained its own characteristics, shown partly by the love of splendour peculiar to a youthful and semi-barbaric race, as in the fantastic magnificence of that “gigantic madrepore,” the Church of Vassili Blagennoi in the Kremlin at Moscow; partly by a freedom of conception and variety of execution in which the native spirit found expression. Gothic art, with its whole gamut of notes, from divine aspiration to grotesque humour, remained absolutely alien. When Peter the Great introduced Latin and Teutonic influences, and German, Italian, English, above all, French elements poured into the country, an “official Russia” grew up, speaking a foreign language and having no contact with the nation. Russia remained the same, but the dissolution of Russian art was ensured.

The genuine Russian spirit seems not to have emerged distinctively into the region of great art until it was brought into the peculiarly modern and western shape of the novel by Gogol, the Ukranian Cossack. “Dead Souls” is the first great Russian example of the modern story-teller’s art, and still the most popular. Oriental influences have ceased; in Gogol we find western, especially English, influences, but, unlike the literary tendencies of the last century, they are duly subordinated to elements that are essentially Russian. The direct simplicity of the Russian, his love of minute realistic detail, which[177] seems to be expressed even in the ancient form of the Russian cross, his quietism, his profound human sympathy, have all found adequate voice in the modern Russian novel. The Russian painters of to-day, and the artists in bronze, with their simple realism and constant research for the expression of life in action, have but followed in the steps of the Russian novel, which has, as its supreme representatives, Tourgueneff, Dostoieffski, and Tolstoi. Tourgueneff, so delicate and sensitive in his realism, with its atmosphere of ineffable melancholy, a Corot among novelists, as De Vogüé calls him, is great not only by the breadth and insight of his art, but by the unique position he holds in the development of Russian literature. The “Stories by a Hunter,” published a few years before the emancipation of the serfs, to which they are supposed to have contributed, turned the Russian novel in the direction of peasant life. The study of the peasant which occupies so much attention in Russia to-day is much more than a mere fashion, for the peasant in Russia represents by far the chief element in the population; certainly the interest in him has already left an ineffaceable mark on those great Russian novelists whose influence is world-wide. Tolstoi, Gregorovitch, Tchedrine, and others, have drawn the moojik with the breadth and faithfulness of Millet, in every attitude of godlike strength, of pathetic resignation, of abject[178] vice. In Dostoieffski, as in the poet Nekrassoff, this democratic element is more fundamental than in either Tourgueneff or Tolstoi. Dostoieffski’s profound science of the human heart could never get near enough to its primitive and instinctive elements. There are two or three scenes in “Recollections of the Dead House,” of Dantesque awfulness, which seem to bring nearer to us than anything else the very flesh and spirit of humanity. Such is that scene of the convicts in the bath-room, close and crowded, until, on the reddened backs, beneath the stress of the heat and the steam, stand out clearly the old scars of whips and rods. In all Dostoieffski’s books we are constantly irritated and fascinated by this same strange penetrating odour of humanity.

Russian art has always been very closely allied with religion, and the Russian is very religious. Ever since, a thousand years ago, the Muscovites swam by thousands into their rivers, headed by the chiefs, to receive Christian baptism, they seem to have taken great interest in religion. But their religion has a distinctive character. It has no clear demarcation from ordinary life, a characteristic that is reflected in the similarity of religious and secular art in Russia. More than this, unlike both the favourite religions of the Indian and of the Teutonic races, it is not largely mystical; it is simply a mystical communism. Sympathy and the need of com[179]radeship, which seem to be deeply rooted in the national character, are the characteristics of Russian religion. “Pity for a fallen creature is a very national trait,” wrote Gogol, and among the great Russian novelists, Dostoieffski, who is the most intensely Russian, is throughout penetrated by the passion of pity. This spirit shows itself in the remarkable sympathy with which, in Russian popular stories, the devil is treated. “He is represented,” Stepniak remarks, “as the enemy of man, doing his best to drag him down into hell. But as this is his trade he cannot help it, and the people bear him no malice. He is a good devil after all.” Of the three persons of the Christian Trinity, the second, most associated with images of love, appeals most to the Russian popular imagination. God the Father, as an austere personage, lacking in sympathy, is, on the other hand, regarded with indifferent, not to say hostile, feelings. This was well exemplified by the innocent remark of a venerable moojik in a remote part of the country: “What! Is the old fellow alive still?”

The Russian has yet changed but little. The Scythians, as we see them in the realistic repoussé work of the Nikopol vase of twenty-three centuries ago, are the Russian moojiks of to-day; the features and the dress have scarcely changed. They are, as Herodotus described them, a race very tenacious of their customs. The sorcerer[180] still holds his own among them, while the orthodox pope, it is well known, is regarded with no reverence, but rather as a tradesman. Propitiatory sacrifices, it is said, are still paid by fishermen to the river-gods, and families in the same way try to keep on good terms with the household deities. The ancient communistic land customs still flourish, together with the ineradicable belief that the land must be the property of everyone. In some parts of the country it is not uncommon for a poor man to help himself to the corn of a rich man, the loan being repaid with interest in subsequent years. The deeply-rooted indifference of the people to external laws appears in the difficulty with which they have been induced to accept an officially recognized marriage ceremony, and in the indulgence which is still felt towards liberty, which is not always licence, in such matters. In some parts of Russia, even to-day, it is said, a kind of Pervigilium Veneris is held periodically; the young people ascend a mountain to sing and to dance, after which it is de rigueur to separate and to spend the night in couples. The primitive matter-of-fact simplicity of the people, as well as their indifference to law and authority, is shown in an incident that is said to have occurred only a few years ago. The peasants in a certain village decided that it was not desirable for their widowed pope to live alone, but the priest of the Greek Church is not allowed[181] to re-marry; therefore the peasants, having obtained the consent of a soldier’s widow to be the pope’s mistress, insisted on introducing her into his house.[11] Such incidents often took place in the western Europe of five centuries ago.

We have to bear in mind these characteristics when we try to understand the great religious movements that are going on in Russia. In all these sects we see the tenacity with which the Russian people have clung to their inborn practical instincts of communism, fraternity, and sexual freedom. This religious movement is but another aspect of the spirit that shows itself in Nihilism, and it is a wider, deeper, and more interesting aspect. Both represent a profound antagonism to the State and to the official western methods of social organization promulgated by the State. Religious nonconformity dates far back into the Middle Ages, but to Peter the Great is owing the first great development of Russian sects. That Tzar, with his hatred of all things Russian, was naturally regarded by pious and patriotic Russians as Antichrist, and they perished, in thousands at a time, by their own hands, rather than submit to the western notions which, knout[182] in hand, he tried to force upon them. On the soil of poverty, wretchedness and disease, which distinguishes Russia to-day from the rest of Europe, these religious sects have everywhere sprung up and flourished; some of an ascetic type, with Asiatic tendencies, belonging more especially to the north of Russia, such as those frantic devotees, the Skoptsy, who mutilate themselves after the manner of the Phrygian worshippers of Cybele; or of those sects, belonging more to the south, and rapidly gaining ground over the others, who desire to lead a life of reason and love, such as the Doukhobory, who recognize no more divinity in Jesus than resides in all men, deny all dogmas, ceremonies, authority, give equal rights to every man and woman, treat children with the same respect as the aged, practise free marriages, and are in their daily lives both more moral and more prosperous than their neighbours. One of the most recent of these sects is the Soutaiefftsky, that first became generally known about 1880. Basil Soutaieff, an uneducated mason, belonging to the centre of Russia, from his early years pondered and dreamed over the misery of the world. To obtain light he visited the priests, and one referred him to the Gospels. His zeal induced him to learn to read, and he studied the New Testament eagerly. One day he carried to the church the body of a young son for burial. The pope asked fifty kopecks for the ceremony;[183] Soutaieff had only thirty, and the pope began to bargain with him over the corpse. Soutaieff indignantly took up the body and buried it in his own garden. From that time dated his criticism of the Church, and side by side grew up also a criticism of the world. He observed in his own trade the tricks of commerce and the perpetual effort to amass money and to deceive the worker. He abandoned his work as a mason and returned from St. Petersburg to the country to cultivate the earth, distributing to the poor the money he had previously earned. But in the country he found, from pope to peasant, the same vices as in the town, and with no wish to found a new sect, he became, by example as well as by precept, the teacher of a religion of universal love and pity.

Soutaieff rejects all ceremonies, including baptism and marriage (for which he substitutes a simple blessing and exhortation to a just life), and all those external manifestations of religion which render men hypocritical. At the same time he rejects all faith in angels or devils, or in the supernatural generally, and is absolutely indifferent to the question of a future life. We have to occupy ourselves with the establishment of happiness and justice on this earth; what happens above, he says, I cannot tell, never having been there; perhaps there is nothing but eternal darkness.

He recognizes that the moral regeneration of[184] men is closely connected with social and economic questions. Private property is the source of the hatreds, jealousies, and miseries of men. The proprietors must give up the land of which they have arbitrarily gained possession, and work for their living. But this end is to be gained, not by violence, but by persuasion; men will recognize the hypocrisy and injustice of their lives, and those who persist in evil will be shut out from the fraternal community. Soutaieff refused, at one period at all events, to pay taxes. Once he went to St. Petersburg to explain the state of things to the Emperor; great was his indignation when not only was an interview refused, but he was summarily expelled from the city. Soutaieff and his disciples refuse military service, for the men of all nations and religions are brothers: why should they quarrel?

This is the substance of Soutaieff’s teaching. Large numbers of persons come to hear him, sometimes out of curiosity, more often as disciples. He leads the life of a simple peasant. One evening, it is said, on going to his barn, he found several men carrying away sacks of flour. Without saying a word, he entered the barn and found a sack that the robbers had not yet carried off. He pursued them, and on catching up with them, he said: “My brothers, you must be in need of bread; take the sack that you have forgotten.” The following day the robbers[185] brought back the flour, and asked Soutaieff’s forgiveness.

He has himself summed up his teaching. “What is truth?” a hearer once asked him. “Truth,” answered Soutaieff with conviction, “truth is love, in a common life.”


Every artist writes his own autobiography. Even Shakespeare’s works contain a life of himself for those who know how to read it. There is little difficulty in reading Tolstoi’s; moreover, it is very copious, and possesses the additional advantage of being written from at least two distinct points of view. It is seldom necessary to consult any other authority for the essential facts of his life and growth. “Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth,” the earliest of his large books, and one of the most attractive, tells us all that we need to know of his early life. An English critic has remarked that, if Tolstoi has here described his boyhood, he must have been a very commonplace child. The early life of men of genius is rarely a record of precocities. The boy here described so minutely, with his abnormal sensitiveness, his shy awkwardness and profound admiration of the comme il faut, his perpetual self-analysis, his brooding dreams, his amusing self-conceit, bears in him the germs of a great artist much more certainly[186] than any small monster of perfection. It is scarcely necessary to say that the autobiography here is not one of incident, as some persons have foolishly supposed; it is neither complete nor historically accurate. Tolstoi uses his material as an artist, but the material is himself. The artist craves to express the inward experiences of his past life, of which he can scarcely speak. He invents certain imaginary events, or rearranges actual events as a frame into which he fits his own inward experiences. Whatever is most poignant and vivid in the novelist’s art is so produced; and you say to him, “This is so real; you are narrating your own history.” He will be able to reply laughingly, “Oh, no! my life is not at all like that.” Imagination is a poor substitute for experience. There is sufficient external evidence extant, even if it were possible to doubt the internal, that Tolstoi is here throughout drawing on his own youthful experiences. Like Irteneff, young Tolstoi followed Franklin’s injunctions as to the use of “Rules of Life;” his favourite books are the same; like him, also, he early developed a love of metaphysics, owing to which, young Irteneff says, “I lost one after the other the convictions which, for the happiness of my own life, I never should have dared to touch.” All the slight indications in the “Confessions” of young Tolstoi’s spiritual experiences agree with young[187] Irteneff’s. Even the plain face, “exactly like that of a common peasant,” the small grey eyes and thick lips and wide nose, that caused the boy of the story to look at himself in the glass with such sorrow and aversion, to pray so fervently to God to be made handsome, correspond exactly to those of the real hero. No sign of the boy’s early development is left untouched. We feel that this book, in which the artist is first fully revealed, was the outcome of an overmastering impulse to give expression to the accumulated experiences of an intense and sensitive childhood, now receding for ever into the past.

Descended from a well-known minister and friend of Peter the Great, and belonging to a family that has been eminent for two hundred years in war, diplomacy, literature, and art, Lyof Tolstoi was born in 1828, the youngest of four sons; his mother, the Princess Marie Volkonsky, was the daughter of a general in Catherine’s time, and, according to friends of the novelist’s family, she resembled the Marie Bolkonsky of “War and Peace.” Both parents were, he says, in the general esteem, “good, cultivated, gentle, and devout.” He was early left an orphan, his mother dying when he was not yet two years of age, his father when he was nine. At the age of fifteen he went to the University of Kazan; he left it suddenly to settle on the estate at Yasnaya Polyana which had fallen to him. In 1851,[188] at the age of twenty-three, he became a yunker (the usual position of a nobleman entering the army, doing the work of a common soldier and associating with the officers) in the artillery at the Caucasus; he was stationed on the Terek. This expedition to the Caucasus was a memorable event in young Tolstoi’s life. It determined finally his artistic vocation. A centre of military activity on the most interesting frontier of the empire, it is a land of wonderful scenery and strange primitive customs, hallowed with association with Poushkin and Gogol. Tolstoi’s elder and most loved brother Nikolai had just come home on leave from the Caucasus; it was natural that young Lyof, who had never yet left the neighbourhood of Moscow, should be attracted to a land which held for him a fascination so manifold. Under the influence of this strange and new environment he became, almost at once, a great artist, and “Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth” was written in 1852.

Tolstoi’s critics have sometimes regretted that he never continued this story. The only possible continuation of “Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth” is “The Cossacks.” The young Irteneff of the end of the former book corresponds as closely as possible with the Olyenin who is analyzed at the beginning of the latter. A few years only have intervened. These years he long after summed up briefly and too sternly in[189] the “Confessions”: “I cannot think of those years without horror, disgust, and pain of heart. There was no vice or crime that in those days I would not have committed. Lying, theft, pleasure of all sorts, intemperance, violence, murder—I have committed all. I lived on my estate, I consumed in drink or at cards what the labour of the peasants had produced. I punished them, and sold them, and deceived them; and for all that I was praised.” Tolstoi condemns himself without mercy, as Bunyan condemned himself in his “Grace Abounding;” even in the “Confessions” he admits that at this time his aspirations after good were the central element in his nature, and it was out of desire to benefit his peasants that he left the university prematurely to settle on his estate.

Tolstoi’s spiritual autobiography is carried on as accurately as anyone need desire in “The Cossacks.” It was in the Caucasus that he first powerfully realized what nature is, and natural life; he was, for the first time, forced to consider his own relation to such life. Lukashka, the healthy, coarse young Cossack soldier, Maryana, the beautiful robust Cossack girl, and the delightful figure of Uncle Jeroshka, the old hunter, display their vivid and active life before Olyenin, the child of civilization. He lives constantly in the presence of the “eternal and inaccessible mountain snows and a majestic woman endowed with the[190] primitive beauty of the first woman;” he feels the contrast between this and the life of cities: “happiness is to be with Nature, to see her, to hold converse with her;” and he longs to mingle himself with the life of Maryana. In vain. “Now if I could only become a Cossack like Lukashka, steal horses, get tipsy on red wine, shout ribald songs, shoot men down, and then while drunk creep in through the window where she was, without a thought of what I was doing or why I did it, that would be another thing, then we should understand one another, then I might be happy.... She fails to understand me, not because she is beneath me, not at all; it would be out of the nature of things for her to understand me. She is light-hearted; she is like Nature, calm, tranquil, sufficient to herself. But I, an incomplete feeble creature, wish her to understand my ugliness and my anguish.” The book is full of strongly-drawn pictures of the beauty of natural strength and health; sometimes recalling Whitman at his best. They are strange, these resemblances between three great typical artists of to-day, so far apart, so little known to each other, Millet, Whitman, and Tolstoi. In “The Cossacks” Tolstoi gives his first statement of that problem of man’s natural function in life which he has been seeking to solve ever since. Here he has no sort of solution to offer;[191] “some voice seemed to bid him wait, not decide hastily.”

In 1854 Tolstoi was transferred at his own request to the Crimea, to obtain command of a mountain battery, doing good service at the battle of the Tchernaya. At this period also he wrote his “Sketches of Sebastopol.” By this time he had attracted considerable attention as a writer, and by command of the Emperor, who said that “the life of that young man must be looked after,” he was, much to his own annoyance, removed to a place of comparative safety.

When peace was made, Tolstoi, then twenty-six years of age, left the army and settled in St. Petersburg, where he was warmly received by the chief literary circle of the capital, then including Tourgueneff, Gregorovitch, and Ostroffsky; the first, who was a comparatively near neighbour at Yasnaya Polyana, becoming one of his most intimate friends. During the following ten years he wrote little, but travelled in Germany, France, and Italy, and devoted himself to the education of the serfs on his estate, marrying in 1862 the young and beautiful daughter of a German military doctor at Tula. Although he wrote little, he was enlarging his conception of art and studying literature. He admired English novels, both for their art and naturalism, and among French novelists he preferred Dumas and Paul de Kock, whom he called the French[192] Dickens. Schopenhauer was a favourite writer at this period. He found his chief recreations in that love of sport in all its forms which has left such vivid and delightful traces throughout his work. In his portraits he appears with a shaggy bearded face, with large prominent irregular features, and rather a stern fixed and reserved expression; the deep eyes are watchful yet sympathetic, and at the same time melancholy, and the thick lips are sensitive. His acquaintances described him as not easy to approach, very shy and rather wild (très-farouche et très-sauvage), but those who approached him found him “extremely amiable.” In his later “Confessions” he thus summarizes his view of things, and that of the group to which he belonged, during this literary period of his life, more especially with reference to the earlier part of it. “The view of life of my literary comrades lay in the opinion that in general life developed itself; that in this development we, the men of intellect, took the chief part, and among the men of intellect we, artists and poets, stood first. Our vocation was to instruct people. The very natural question, ‘What do I know and what can I teach,’ was unnecessary, for, according to the theory, one needed to know nothing. The artist, the poet, taught unconsciously. I held myself for a wonderful artist and poet, and very naturally appropriated this theory.[193] I was paid for it, I had excellent food, a good habitation, women, society; I was famous.... When I look back to that time, to my state of mind then, and to that of the people I lived with (there are thousands of them, even now), it seems to me melancholy, horrible, ludicrous; I feel as one feels in a lunatic asylum. We were all then convinced that we must talk, talk, write and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible; because it was necessary for the good of humanity.” This is by no means a satisfactory or final account of the matter.

“War and Peace,” Tolstoi’s longest and most ambitious work, which began to appear in 1865, is from the present point of view of comparatively slight interest. His art had now become more complex, and this was a serious attempt to give life to various aspects of a great historical period. Much of himself, certainly, we find scattered through the work, especially in Pierre Besoukhoff, though it is unnecessary to say that a very large part of Pierre’s experiences had no counterpart in Tolstoi’s; the not very life-like or interesting Masonic episode, for instance, has clearly been read up. Pierre, however, appears before us, from first to last, as Tolstoi appears before us, a seeker.

“Anna Karenina” is full of biographic material of intense interest. In Vronsky, doubtless much of his earlier experience, and in Levine,[194] his own inner history at that time, are written clearly enough. From this standpoint the book has the vivid interest of a tragedy; we see the man whose efforts to solve the mystery of life we can trace through all that he ever wrote, still groping, but now more restlessly and eagerly, with growing desperation. The nets are drawn tight around him, and when we close the book we see clearly the inevitable fate of which he is still unconscious.

I once lived on the road to the cemetery of a large northern town. All day long, it seemed to me, the hearses were trundling along their dead to the grave, or gallopping gaily back. When I walked out I met men carrying coffins, and if I glanced at them, perhaps I caught the name of the child I saw two days ago in his mother’s lap; or I was greeted by the burly widower of yesterday, pipe in mouth, sauntering along to arrange the burial of the wife who lay, I knew, upstairs at home, thin and haggard and dead. The road became fantastic and horrible at last; even such a straight road to the cemetery, it seemed, was the whole of life, a road full of the noise of the preparation of death. How daintily soever we danced along, each person, laughing so merrily or in such downright earnest, was merely a corpse, screwed down in an invisible coffin, trundled along as rapidly as might be to the grave-edge.—It was at such a[195] point of view that Tolstoi arrived in his fiftieth year.

“When I had ended my book ‘Anna Karenina,’” he wrote in his “Confessions,” “my despair reached such a height that I could do nothing but think, think, of the horrible condition in which I found myself.... Questions never ceased multiplying and pressing for answers, and like lines converging all to one point, so these unanswerable questions pressed to one black spot. And with horror and a consciousness of my weakness, I remained standing before this spot. I was nearly fifty years old when these unanswerable questions brought me into this terrible and quite unexpected position. I had come to this, that I—a healthy and happy man—felt that I could no longer live.... Bodily, I was able to work at mowing hay as well as a peasant. Mentally, I could work for eighteen hours at a time without feeling any ill consequence. And yet I had come to this, that I could no longer live.... I only saw one thing—Death. Everything else was a lie.”

The greater part of the “Confessions” is occupied with the analysis of this mental condition, and with the earlier stages of his deliverance, for when he wrote the book he was scarcely yet quite free. The direction in which light was to break in upon him is very clear even to the reader of “Anna Karenina.” It seemed to him at length[196] that the awful questions which had oppressed him so long had been solved for thousands of years by millions upon millions of persons who had never reasoned about them at all. “From the time when men first began to live anywhere,” he says in the “Confessions,” “they already knew the meaning of life, and they carried on this life so that it reached me. Everything in me and around me, corporeal and incorporeal, is the fruit of their experiences of life; even the means by which I judge and condemn life, all this is not mine, but brought forth by them. I myself have been born, bred, grown up, thanks to them. They have dug out the iron, have tamed cattle and horses, have taught how to till the ground, and how to live together and to order life; they have taught me to think and to reason. And I, their production, receiving my meat and drink from them, instructed by their thoughts and words, have proved to them they are an absurdity!... It is clear that I have only called absurd what I do not understand.”

When he had made this great discovery the rest followed, slowly, but simply and naturally. First, he understood the meaning of God. He had all his life been seeking God. Now, one day in early spring, he was in the wood, trying to catch among the tones of the forest the cry of the snipe, listening and waiting, and thinking of the things he had been thinking of for the last three[197] years, especially of this question of God. There was no God—that he knew was an intellectual truth. But is the knowledge of God an intellectual matter? And it seemed to him that he realized that God is life, and that to live is to know God. “And from that moment the consciousness of God, as known by living, has remained with me.”

Following up this clue, he proceeded to attend church regularly, and to fulfil all the orthodox ceremonies. This, however, was a failure. He could not get rid of the consciousness that these things were—“bosh.” He turned from the church to the Gospels. At this point the “Confessions” end. In the year 1879, in which he wrote that book, he heard of, and met, Soutaieff.

One evening a beggar woman had knocked at Soutaieff’s door, asking shelter for the night. She was given food and a place of rest. Next morning all the family went to work in the field. The woman took the opportunity of collecting all the valuables she could lay her hands on, and fled. Some peasants at work saw her, stopped her, examined her bundle, and having bound her hands, led her before the local authorities. Soutaieff heard of this, and soon arrived. “Why have you arrested her?” he asked. “She is a thief; she must be punished,” they cried. “Judge not, and you will not be judged,” he said solemnly; “we are all guilty at some point. What is the[198] good of condemning her? She will be put in prison, and what advantage will that be? It would be much better to give her something to eat, and to let her go in the grace of God.” Such curiously Christ-like stories as this of the peasant-teacher reached Tolstoi, and made a deep impression on him. They were in the line of his mental development, and threw light on his own experiences. The influence of Soutaieff appears in “What then must we do?”—a further chapter in the history of Tolstoi’s development, and perhaps the most memorable of his attempts at the solution of social questions.

What then must we do? It was the question the people asked of John the Baptist, and we know his brief and practical answer. It was the question that pressed itself for solution on Tolstoi when he began to investigate the misery of Moscow, and to start philanthropic plans for its amelioration. He tells us in this narrative, which has a dramatic vividness of its own that will not bear abbreviation, how he was gradually forced, by his own well-meaning attempts and mistakes, to abandon his philanthropic projects, and to realize that he himself and all other respectable and well-to-do people were the direct causes of the misery of poverty.

He investigated the worst parts of the city, finding more comfort and happiness amidst rags than he had expected, and only discovering one[199] hopelessly useless class—the class of those who had seen better days, who had been brought up in the notions that he himself had been brought up in as to the relative position of those who are workers and those who are not workers.

He met with a prostitute who stayed at home nursing the child of a dying woman. He asked her if she would not like to change her life—to become, he suggested at random, a cook. She laughed: “A cook? I cannot even bake bread;” but he detected in her face an expression of contempt for the occupation of a cook. “This woman, who, like the widow of the Gospel, had in the simplest way sacrificed all that she possessed for a dying person, thought, like her companions, that work was low and contemptible. Therein was her misfortune. But who of us, man or woman, can save her from this false view of life? Where among us are the people who are convinced that a life of labour is more honourable than one of idleness, who live according to such a conviction, and value and respect men accordingly?” He came across another prostitute who had brought up her daughter of thirteen to the same trade. He determined to save the child, to put her in the hands of some compassionate ladies, but it was impossible to persuade the woman that she had not done the best for the daughter whom she had cared for all her life and brought up to the same occupation as her[200]self; and he realized that it was the mother herself who had to be saved from a false view of life, according to which it was right to live without bearing children and without working, in the service of sensuality. “When I had considered this, I understood that the majority of ladies whom I would have called on to save this girl, not only themselves live without bearing children and without working, but also bring up their daughters to live such a life; the one mother sends her daughter to the public-house, the other to the ball. But both mothers possess the same view of life, namely, that a woman must be fed, clothed, and taken care of, to satisfy the wantonness of a man. How, then, could our ladies improve this woman and her daughter?” He was anxious to befriend a bright boy of twelve, and took him into his own house among the servants, pending some better arrangement to give him work. At the end of a week this ungrateful little boy ran away, and was subsequently found at the circus, acting as conductor to an elephant, for thirty kopecks a day. “To make him happy and to improve him I had taken him into my house, where he saw—what? My children—older, younger, and the same age as himself—who not only did not work for themselves, but in every way gave work to others: they spoiled everything they came in contact with, over-ate themselves with sweets and deli[201]cacies, broke crockery, and threw to the dogs what to this boy would seem dainties.... I ought to have understood how foolish it was on my part—I who brought up my children in luxury to do nothing—to try to improve other people and their children, who lived in what I called ‘dens,’ but three-fourths of whom worked for themselves and for others.” His experience was the same throughout, and he brings his usual keen insight to the analysis of his mental attitude when he gave money in charity, and to the mental attitude of the recipients of his charity. He found also that, even if his charity were to rival that of the poor, he would have to give 3,000 roubles to make a gift proportioned to the three kopecks bestowed by a peasant, or to sacrifice his whole living for days at a time, like the prostitute who nursed the dying woman’s child.

It seemed to him that he was like a man trying to draw another man out of a swamp, while he himself was standing on the same shifting and treacherous ground; every effort only served to show the character of the ground that he stood upon himself. When he was at the Night Shelter at Moscow, and looked at the wretched crowd who sought admission, he recalled his impression when he had seen a man guillotined at Paris thirty years previously, and with his whole being had understood that murder would always[202] be murder, and that he had his share in the guilt. “So, at the sight of the hunger, cold, and degradation of thousands of men, I understood, not with my reason, but with my heart and my whole being, that the existence of ten thousand such men in Moscow, while I and other thousands eat daintily, clothe our horses and cover our floors—let the learned say as much as they will that it is inevitable—is a crime, committed not once but constantly, and that I with my luxury do not merely permit the crime, but take a direct part in it. The difference in the two impressions consisted only in this—that before the guillotine all I could have done would have been to cry out to the murderers that they were doing evil, and to try to prevent them. Even then I should have known beforehand that the deed would not have been prevented. But here I could have given, not merely a warm drink or the little money that I had about me, but I could have given the coat from my body, and all that I had in my house. I did not do so, and therefore I felt, and still feel, and shall never cease to feel, that I am a partaker in that never-ceasing crime, so long as I have superfluous food and another has none, so long as I have two coats and another has none.”

“My Religion,” the best known of Tolstoi’s social works, contains—not, indeed, the latest or the final statement, for Tolstoi is not a man to[203] stand still—the clearest, most vigorous and complete statement of his beliefs. He here frankly admits that he has arrived by the road of his own experience at convictions similar to those of Jesus as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. That he has nothing to say in favour of the Christianity of to-day, which approves of society as it now is, with its prison cells, its factories, its houses of infamy, its parliaments, one need scarcely point out. He has nothing but contempt for “faith” which he regards as merely a kind of lunacy. “But reason, which illuminates our life and impels us to modify our actions, is not an illusion, and its authority can never be denied.... Jesus taught men to do nothing contrary to reason. It is unreasonable to go out to kill Turks or Germans; it is unreasonable to make use of the labours of others that you and yours may be clothed in the height of fashion and maintain that source of ennui, a drawing-room; it is unreasonable to take people, already corrupted by idleness and depravity, and devote them to further idleness and depravity within prison walls: all this is unreasonable—and yet it is the life of the European world.” The doctrine of Jesus is hard, men say. But how much harder, exclaims Tolstoi, is the doctrine of the world! “In my own life,” he says, “(an exceptionally happy one, from a worldly point of view), I can reckon up as much suffer[204]ing caused by following the doctrine of the world as many a martyr has endured for the doctrine of Jesus. All the most painful moments of my life—the orgies and duels in which I took part as a student, the wars in which I have participated, the diseases that I have endured, and the abnormal and unsupportable conditions under which I now live—all these are only so much martyrdom exacted by fidelity to the doctrine of the world.” And what of those less happily situated? “Thirty millions of men have perished in wars, fought in behalf of the doctrine of the world; thousands of millions of beings have perished, crushed by a social system organized on the principle of the doctrine of the world.... You will find, perhaps to your surprise, that nine-tenths of all human suffering endured by men is useless, and ought not to exist—that, in fact, the majority of men are martyrs to the doctrine of the world.”

Tolstoi sums up his own doctrine under a very few heads:—Resist not evil—Judge not—Be not angry—Love one woman. His creed is entirely covered by these four points. “My Religion” is chiefly occupied by the exposition of what they mean, and in his hands they mean much. They mean nothing less than the abolition of the State and the country. He is as uncompromising as Ibsen in dealing with the State. “It is a humbug, this State,” he remarked[205] to Mr. Stead. “What you call a Government is mere phantasmagoria. What is a State? Men I know; peasants and villages, these I see; but governments, nations, states, what are these but fine names invented to conceal the plundering of honest men by dishonest officials?” Law, tribunals, prisons, become impossible with the disappearance of the State; and with the disappearance of the country, and of “that gross imposture called patriotism,” there can be no more war.

In place of these great and venerable pillars of civilization, what? The first condition of happiness, he tells us, is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken, that he may enjoy the sky above him, and the pure air and the life of the fields. This involves the nationalization of the land, or rather, to avoid centralizing tendencies, its communalization. “I quite agree with George,” he remarked, “that the landlords may be fairly expropriated without compensation, as a matter of principle. But as a question of expediency, I think compensation might facilitate the necessary change. It will come, I suppose, as the emancipation of slaves came. The idea will spread. A sense of the shamefulness of private ownership will grow. Someone will write an ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ about it; there will be agitation, and then it will come, and many who[206] own land will do as did those who owned serfs, voluntarily give it to their tenants. But for the rest, a loan might be arranged, so as to prevent the work being stopped by the cry of confiscation. Of course I do not hold with George about the taxation of the land. If you could get angels from Heaven to administer the taxes from the land, you might do justice and prevent mischief. I am against all taxation.” The second condition of happiness is labour, the intellectual labour that one loves because one has chosen it freely, and the physical labour that is sweet because it produces the muscular joy of work, a good appetite, and tranquil sleep. The third condition of happiness is love. Every healthy man and woman should have sexual relationships; and Tolstoi makes no distinction between those that are called by the name of marriage and those that are not so called; in either case, however, he would demand that they shall be permanent. The fourth condition is unrestrained fellowship with men and women generally, without distinction of class. The fifth is health, though this seems largely the result of obedience to the others. These are the five points of Tolstoi’s charter. They seem simple enough, but he is careful to point out that most of them are closed to the rich. The rich man is hedged in by conventions, and cannot live a simple and natural life. A peasant can associate[207] on equal terms with millions of his fellows; the circle of equal association becomes narrower and narrower the higher the social rank, until we come to kings and emperors, who have scarcely one person with whom they may live on equal terms. “Is not the whole system like a great prison, where each inmate is restricted to association with a few fellow-convicts?” The rich may, indeed, work, but even then their work usually consists in official and administrative duties, or the observance of arduous social conventions which are odious to them: “I say odious, for I never yet met with a person of this class who was contented with his work, or took as much satisfaction in it as the man who shovels the snow from his doorstep.” From this standpoint Tolstoi has never since greatly varied.

Such as he is now he is known throughout the civilized world. He lives at his old home at Yasnaya Polyana, surrounded by less luxury than may be found in many a Siberian cottage, writing or shoemaking or ploughing, or kneading clay in a tub to build incombustible cottages, or spending the day in spreading manure over the land of some poor widow. Such we see him in his portraits, in the coarse blouse and the leather belt that he has always worn, with the massive, earnest, suffering, baffled face, as of a blind but unconquered Samson.


With Tolstoi the artist we have here little concern. Yet from the first he has been an artist, and in spite of himself he is an artist to the last. We cannot pass by his art. One realizes this curiously in reading “What then must we do?” A profoundly sincere record without doubt of deeply-felt experiences and of a mental revolution, it is yet the work of an artist, a tragedy broadly and solemnly unfolding the misery of the world, the impotence of every scheme or impulse of charity, the light that comes only from freedom and self-development. Let us read, again, that little popular tract—“Does a man need much land?”—brimming over with meaning, about the man who gained permission to possess as much land as he could walk round from sunrise to sunset. Can he get so much into the circuit, not omitting this fine stretch of land, and this other? His constantly growing desires, his efforts, are told in brief, stern phrase, his feverish and failing strain to reach the goal, that at sunset is reached, and the man drops down dead. Then the curt and unaccentuated conclusion: “Pakhom’s man took the hoe, dug a grave for him, made it just long enough from head and foot—three arshins—and buried him.” All the tragedy of the nineteenth[209] century is pressed together into those half-dozen pages by the strong, relentless hand of the great artist who deigns to point no moral. From the early and delicious sketch of the frail musician, Albert, down to the sombre and awful “Death of Ivan Ilyitch,” Tolstoi has produced an immense body of work that must be considered, above all, as art. One reads this body of work with ever-growing delight and satisfaction. Gogol was a finer artist than Dickens, but there are too many suggestions about him of Dickens and the English novelists. Tourgueneff, a very great artist—how great, those little prose-poems, “Senilia,” would alone suffice to show—an artist who thrilled to every touch, suffered from the excess of his sensitiveness, and perhaps also from an undue absorption in the western world. In Dostoieffski there is nothing of the west; he is intimately and intensely personal, with an even morbid research of all the fibres of organic misery in human nature. In all his work we seem to hear the groans of the prison-house, the house of the dead in Siberia. When we have read the wonderful book in which he has recorded the life of his years there, we know the source of all his inspiration. Reading all these authors, we are constantly aware of the neurotic element in Russian life and Russian character, the restless, diseased element that is revealed to us in cold scientific[210] analysis by Tarnowsky and S. P. Kowalevski and Dmitri Drill. It is not so when we turn to Tolstoi. In him we find not merely the insight and the realistic observation, but a breadth and sanity and wholeness that the others mostly fail to give us. His art is so full and broad and true that he seems able to do for his own time and country what Shakespeare with excess of poetic affluence did for his time, and Balzac for his. He is equal to every effort, he omits nothing that imports, he describes everything with the same calm ease and simplicity. It makes no difference whether, within the limits of a slight sketch, he is tracing delicately the life of the drunken artist, Albert, or producing the largest literary canvas of modern times, “War and Peace.” In “Family Happiness” he analyzes passion, marriage, parenthood, the cycle of life, in a simple narration, a few chapters, yet nothing is omitted, and one shudders at the awful ease with which to this man these things seem to yield their secret. In “Ivan Ilyitch” he analyzes death and the house of death, quietly, completely, with a hand that never falters. He writes as a man who has touched life at many points, and tasted most that it has to offer, its joys and its sorrows, but he gazes upon it, even from the first, with the luminous and passionless calm of old age. His art is less perfect than Flaubert’s, but Flaubert’s[211] intense personal note, the ferocious nihilism of the Norman, is absent. He holds life up to the light, simply, and says: “This is what it is!”

For one who cannot read Tolstoi in the original, and who misses the style so much praised by those who are more privileged, Tolstoi seems an uncompromising realist. He has therefore often been compared with Zola, the prodigious representative and champion of Latin realism. In vain Zola himself disclaims this position; it is he more than any other who has influenced the novel, especially in the Latin countries, in the direction, if not of realism, at all events in that of anti-idealism; not Balzac or Stendhal, who have reached sure summits of fame, but have ceased to be living influences; not the De Goncourts, whose style cannot be imitated; least of all Flaubert, an idealist of idealists, whose profound art and marmoreal style are of the sort that it takes generations even to understand. It is interesting, doubtless, to put Tolstoi beside Zola, but the resemblance is not deep. Zola is the avowed prophet of a formula. He has read and pondered the “Introduction à l’étude de la Médicine Expérimentale,” in which the great physiologist, Claude Bernard, expounded the principles of the experimental method as applied to the sciences of physical life. He has asked himself: “Can we not apply this same method to the psychological life? Can we not have an experi[212]mental novel?” “We seek the causes of social evil,” he declares in “Le Roman Experimental,” a collection of essays not less instructive than his novels, and more interesting; “we present the anatomy of classes and of individuals, in order to explain the aberrations which are produced in society and in man. This obliges us often to work on bad subjects, and to descend into the midst of human miseries and follies. But we bring the documents necessary to be known by those who would dominate good and evil. Here is what we have seen, observed, explained in all sincerity. Now it is the turn of the legislators!” To bring the scientific spirit of the age into the novel: it was a brilliant idea, and Zola forthwith set to work, with his immense energy and unshakeable resolution, to draw up a procès-verbal of human life—for this is the most that the “experimental method” comes to in the novel—which has not ceased to this day.

But, one asks oneself, what is reality? Zola has frankly explained how a novel ought to be written; how one must get one’s human documents, study them thoroughly, accumulate notes, systematically frequent the society of the people one is studying, watch them, listen to them, minutely observe and record all their surroundings. But have we got reality then? Does the novelist I casually meet, and who has opportunities to take notes of my conversation and appearance, to[213] examine the furniture of my house and to collect gossip about me, know anything whatever of the romance or tragedy which to me is the reality of my life, these other things being but shreds or tatters of life? Or if my romance or tragedy has got into a law-court or a police-court, is he really much nearer then? The unrevealable motives, the charm, the mystery, were not deposed to by the policeman who was immediately summoned, nor by the servant-girl who looked through the key-hole. Certain disagreeable details: do they make up reality? To select the most beautiful and charming woman one knows, and to set a detective artist on her track, to follow her about everywhere, to keep an opera-glass fixed upon her, to catch fragments of her conversation, to enter her house, her bedroom, to examine her dirty linen,—would Helen of Troy emerge beautiful from this procès-verbal? And on which side would be most reality? Nature seems to resent this austere method of approaching her, and when we have closed our hands the reality has slipped through our fingers. A great artist, a Shakespeare or a Goethe, is not afraid of any fact, however repulsive it may seem, so long as it is significant. But it must be significant. Without sympathy and a severe criticism of details, the truly illuminating facts will be missed or lost in the heap. It is interesting to note that Zola himself recognizes this, and admits that he has[214] been carried away by his delight and enthusiasm in attempting to vindicate for Art the whole of Nature. Whatever is really fine in Zola’s work—“La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret,” or the last chapters of “Nana”—is fine because the man of a formula is for awhile subordinated to the artist.

Zola may work as hard as he will in the cause of the formula; he remains, above all, a man of massive temperament and peculiarly strong individuality. That is the real secret of his influence. A youth, developed in the poverty and hunger of a garret on the outskirts of Paris, who was fascinated by the great city he has lovingly painted, as it was there spread out before him, in “Une Page d’Amour,” and condemned to see it only from the outside,—here was material for that irony, unending and absolutely pitiless, that runs through the whole of the vast Rougon-Macquart drama of the world. He is an austere moralist, with no tenderness for human weakness, “un tragique qui se fâche,” as he calls himself, a Republican in spirit long before the Republic was proclaimed, a hater of all hypocrisies and empty prettinesses and fine phrases and elegant circumlocutions, a fighting man ready to fight to the last, with rude weapons but in fair combat. He represents the revolt against the French romantic movement—“une émeute de rhétoriciens,” he calls it—which found its supreme[215] incarnation in Victor Hugo. The Forty Immortals may have laughed serenely, but when Zola declared that he was carrying on the classic tradition he was not altogether wrong. The classic tradition of France is marked by a very vivid sense of life; it has a close grip of the practical and material side of things, a wholesome contempt for all pretence, and sometimes a certain rather rank savour of audacity. Zola will scarcely stand beside Rabelais and Montaigne and Molière; the artist in him is too much crushed by ideas, and he has altogether run too much to seed; but he is fighting on the same side, and he has been proved to possess one quality which leaves little more to be said, effectiveness. Whatever the value of his work, he has turned the tide of novel literature, wherever his influence has spread, from frivolous inanities to the painstaking study of the facts of human life. Whatever we may think for the moment, that is a very wholesome and altogether moral revolution.

As for great art, that is neither here nor there. Shakespeare, Goethe, Flaubert,—for such men the extremes of poetry and of realism are equally welcome. Tolstoi, it is clear, is more of a realist than a poet, but his realism is of the kind that grows naturally out of the experiences of a man who has lived a peculiarly full and varied life. It is life sur le vif, not studied from a garret[216] window. Nothing is omitted, nothing is superfluous; the narrative seems to lead the narrator rather than the narrator it, and through all we catch perpetually what seems an almost accidental fragrance of poetry. See the account of the storm in the “Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth,” or of the child in the raspberry bush, or of the mowing, or the horse-race, in “Anna Karenina,” with their peculiar, intangible yet vivid reality. But these things, it may be said, are poetry, the effluence of some divine moment of life, the record of some unforgettable thrill of blood and brain. Compare, then, the account of a childbirth in “Anna Karenina” (there is an earlier and less successful attempt in “War and Peace”) with a similar scene which is the central episode in Zola’s “La Joie de Vivre.” The latter, doubtless, is instructive from its fidelity; every petty detail is coldly and minutely set forth. Its artistic value is difficult to estimate; it can scarcely be large. Zola presents the subject from the point of view of a disinterested and impossible spectator; in Tolstoi’s scene we have frankly the husband’s point of view. There is no room here for instructive demonstration of the mechanism of birth, of all its physical details and miseries. It is real life, but at such a moment real life is excitement, emotion, and the result is art. What, again, can be more unpromising than a novel about a remote historical war? But read[217] “War and Peace” to see how lifelike, how vivid and fascinating, the narrative becomes in the hands of a man who has known the life of a soldier and all the chances of war.

Tolstoi is not alone among Russian novelists in the character of his realism. Gogol’s “Dead Souls” has something of the wholesome naturalism as well as of the broad art and the good-natured satire of Fielding. He is perpetually insisting on the importance to the artist of those “little things which only seem little when narrated in a book, but which one finds very important in actual life.” In his letters on “Dead Souls” Gogol wrote: “Those who have dissected my literary faculties have not discovered the essential feature of my nature. Poushkin alone perceived it. He always said that no author has been gifted like me to bring into relief the triviality of life, to describe all the platitude of a commonplace man, to make perceptible to all eyes the infinitely little things which escape our vision. That is my dominating faculty.” Tourgueneff declared that the novel must cast aside all hypocrisy, sentimentality, and rhetoric for the simple yet nobler aim of becoming the history of life. Dostoieffski, that tender-hearted student of the perversities of the human heart, so faithful in his studies that he sometimes seems to forget how great an artist he is, justifies himself thus: “What is the good of prescribing to[218] art the roads that it must follow? To do so is to doubt art, which develops normally, according to the laws of nature, and must be exclusively occupied in responding to human needs. Art has always shown itself faithful to nature, and has marched with social progress. The ideal of beauty cannot perish in a healthy society; we must then give liberty to art, and leave her to herself. Have confidence in her; she will reach her end, and if she strays from the way she will soon reach it again; society itself will be the guide. No single artist, not Shakespeare himself, can prescribe to art her roads and aims.” Tolstoi but followed in the same path when, in one of the earliest of his books, the “Sebastopol Sketches,” he wrote: “The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I have tried to set forth in all his beauty, and who has always been, is, and always will be, most beautiful, is—Truth.”

It is, after all, impossible to disentangle Tolstoi’s art from the man himself and the ideas and aspirations that have stirred him. When we consider his history and development we are sometimes reminded of our own William Morris. They are both men of massive and sanguine temperament, of restless energy, groping their way through life with a vague sense of dissatisfaction; both pure artists through the greater part of their career, and both artists still, when[219] late in life, and under the influence of rather sectarian ideas, they think that they have at length grasped the pillars of the heathen temple of society in which they have so long been groping, and are ready to wreak on it the pent-up unrest of their lives. But they go to work in not quite the same way. Both, it is true, having apparently passed through a very slight religious phase in early life, have had this experience in later life, and in both it has taken on a social character; both, also, have sought their inspiration, not so much in a possible future deduced from the present, as in the past experiences of the race. Tolstoi with his semi-oriental quietism has returned to the rationalistic aspects of the social teaching of Jesus. Morris, who regards Iceland rather than Judæa as the Holy Land of the race, looks to Scandinavian antiquity for light on the problems of to-day. It is on the robust Scandinavian spirit of independence and comfortable well-to-do intolerance of all oppression and domination that Morris relies for the redemption of his own time and people. So far from identifying art, as Tolstoi is inclined to do, with the evil and luxury of the world, Morris finds in art a chief hope for the world. It is not, therefore, surprising that his art has suffered little from the fervour of his convictions, while his varied artistic activities have given him a wholesome grip on life. His new beliefs, on[220] the other hand, have given new meaning to his art. His mastery of prose has only been acquired under the stress of his convictions. It is prose of massive simplicity, a morning freshness, unconscious and effortless. There is about it something of the peculiar charm of the finest Norman architecture. The “Dream of John Ball,” a strong unpretentious piece of work, penetrated at every point by profound social convictions, yet with the artist’s touch throughout, may be read with a delight which the complex and artificial prose we are accustomed to cannot give. England, it is said, is predominantly a Scandinavian country; Morris is significant because he gives expression in an extreme form to the racial instincts of his own people, just as Tolstoi expresses in equally extreme form the deepest instincts of his Sclavonic race.

Against the “Dream of John Ball,” we may place the work produced at the same time by the Russian’s keener and more searching hand, “The Dominion of Darkness.” This sombre and awful tragedy is a terribly real and merciless picture of the worst elements in peasant life, a picture of avarice and lust and murder. Only one pious, stuttering, incoherent moojik, whose employment is to clean out closets, appears as the representative of mercy and justice. So thick is the gloom that it seems the artistic[221] effect would have been heightened if the concluding introduction of the officers of an external and official justice had been omitted, and the curtain had fallen on the tragic merriment of the wedding feast. The same intense earnestness taking, almost unconsciously, an artistic shape, reveals itself in the little stories of which in recent years Tolstoi has produced so many, some indeed comparatively ineffective, but others that are a fascinating combination of simplicity, realism, imaginative insight, brought to the service of social ideas. Such is “What men live by,” the story of the angel who disobeyed God, and was sent to earth to learn that it is only in appearance that men are kept alive through care for themselves, but that in reality they are kept alive through love.

Tolstoi’s voice is heard throughout the vast extent of Russia, not by the rich only, but by the peasant. That is why his significance is so great. Sometimes the religious censure prohibits his books; sometimes it allows them; in either case they are circulated. Published at a few halfpence, these little books are within the reach of the poorest, and Tolstoi gives free permission to anyone to reproduce or translate any of his books. His drama, “The Dominion of Darkness, or when a bird lets himself be caught by one foot he is lost,” was intended for the public who frequent the open-air theatres of[222] fairs, and eighty thousand copies were sold during the first week, although certainly not altogether among the audience he would have preferred. The stories for children are circulated in scores of editions of twenty thousand copies each. Tolstoi has nothing to teach that he has not learnt from peasants, and which thousands of peasants might not have taught him. He has used his character and genius as a sounding-board to enable his voice to reach millions of persons, many of whom, even the most intelligent, are not aware that he is but repeating the lessons he has learnt from unlettered moojiks.

Now his voice has reached the countries of the West, and it sounds here far more unfamiliar than in a land so stirred by popular religious movements as Russia. “My Religion,” that powerful argument ad hominem to the Christian from one who accepts both the letter and the spirit of Jesus’s simplest and least questionable teaching, has had an especially large circulation in the West. Such a challenge has never before been scattered broadcast among the nations. What, one wonders, will be the outcome?

To most people the simplicity of the challenger is a cause of astonishment. After the assassination of Alexander II. and the sentence on the assassins, Tolstoi wrote to the present Tzar imploring him not to begin his reign with judicial murder, and he was deeply and genuinely dis[223]appointed at the inevitable reception of his appeal. Count Tolstoi, the author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” made the same mistake as the simple peasant Soutaieff. That little incident throws much light on his mental constitution. It is the attitude of a child, absorbed wholly in one thing at a time, unable to calculate the nature and the strength of opposing forces. It is the same fact of mental structure which leads the world-renowned novelist to delight to learn from children, to be mortified when they do not like his stories, and to experience one of the greatest excitements of life when he thinks he detects the dawn of genius in a child of ten. The same characteristic appears in his treatment of science. He had heard, he told Mr. Kennan, that a Russian scientist had completely demolished the Darwinian theory. In “Life,” one of his latest books, this tendency has carried him far away into a sterile and hopeless region of mystical phraseology. He dismisses scientific men briefly as the Scribes. It has not occurred to him apparently that this book, “Life,” is a book of science. And, certainly, if science could produce nothing better than “Life,” the language that Tolstoi uses regarding it were not one whit too strong. This childlike simplicity is not peculiar to Tolstoi; it is more or less the attitude of every true Russian, of the peasant who[224] sets up the kingdom of Heaven, as of the Nihilist who thinks he can emancipate his country by destroying a few Tzars. It is a weakness that must often mean failure because it cannot estimate the strength of difficulties. At the same time it is a power. It is by this intense concentration on one desired object, this heroic inability to see opposition, that the highest achievement becomes possible.

Whatever Tolstoi’s limitations and failures of perception, those things which he believes he has seen he grasps with inexorable tenacity. The violence and misery of the world—that is a reality; a reality, he feels, which must be fought at all costs. Mr. Kennan tells how he pressed home on Tolstoi the cases of extreme brutality and oppression that he had known practised on political prisoners in Siberia, and how, though Tolstoi’s eyes filled with tears as he imagined the horrors described, he still pointed out in detail how, by opposing violence to violence in the cases cited, the misery of the world would be increased: “At the time when you interposed there was only one centre of evil and suffering. By your violent interference you have created half-a-dozen such centres. It does not seem to me, Mr. Kennan, that that is the way to bring about the reign of peace and good-will on earth.”[12]


Tolstoi possesses that social imagination which, though growing among us, is still so rare. If at the dinner where cheerful guests prolong their enjoyment, there were placed behind each chair a starved, ragged figure, with haggard and haunting face—would not the meal be broken up as speedily as if every guest had found the sword of Dionysius hanging by a thread above his head? Yet it is only a lack of imagination which prevents us from seeing through the few layers of bricks that screen us off from these realities. For him who has seen it there is little rest, “so long as I have superfluous food and another has none, so long as I have two coats and another has none.”

With tears in his voice, and in words whose intense reality pierces through the translation, though this, we are told, cannot reproduce the graphic vividness of the original, Tolstoi speaks to us through his life and his work as he once spoke to the interviewer who came to him:

“People say to me, ‘Well, Lef Nikolaivitch, as far as preaching goes, you preach; but how about your practice?’ The question is a perfectly natural one; it is always put to me, and it always shuts my mouth. ‘You preach,’ it is said, ‘but how do you live?’ I can only reply that I do not preach—passionately as I desire to do so. I might preach through my actions, but my actions are bad. That which I say is not[226] preaching; it is only my attempt to find out the meaning and the significance of life. People often say to me, ‘If you think that there is no reasonable life outside the teachings of Christ, and if you love a reasonable life, why do you not fulfil the Christian precepts?’ I am guilty and blameworthy and contemptible because I do not fulfil them; but at the same time I say,—not in justification, but in explanation, of my inconsistency,—Compare my previous life with the life I am now living, and you will see that I am trying to fulfil. I have not, it is true, fulfilled one eighty-thousandth part, and I am to blame for it; but it is not because I do not wish to fulfil all, but because I am unable. Teach me how to extricate myself from the meshes of temptation in which I am entangled,—help me,—and I will fulfil all. I wish and hope to do it even without help. Condemn me if you choose,—I do that myself,—but condemn me, and not the path which I am following, and which I point out to those who ask me where, in my opinion, the path is. If I know the road home, and if I go along it drunk, and staggering from side to side, does that prove that the road is not the right one? If it is not the right one, show me another. If I stagger and wander, come to my help, and support and guide me in the right path. Do not yourselves confuse and mislead me and then rejoice over it and cry, ‘Look at[227] him! He says he is going home, and he is floundering into the swamp!’ You are not evil spirits from the swamp; you are also human beings, and you also are going home. You know that I am alone,—you know that I cannot wish or intend to go into the swamp,—then help me! My heart is breaking with despair because we have all lost the road; and while I struggle with all my strength to find it and keep in it, you, instead of pitying me when I go astray, cry triumphantly, ‘See! He is in the swamp with us!’”

About HackerNoon Book Series: We bring you the most important technical, scientific, and insightful public domain books.

This book is part of the public domain. Havelock Ellis (2017). The New Spirit. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at, located at