An Extremely Personal Rant on Tolstoy

Epistemic status: not too serious. I’m making another attempt at blogging more casually.

If I were a humble person, I would not pick fights with great authors.  I would recognize that I am not an expert in literature, and that the literary canon has stood the test of time, and I would assume that I’m probably missing something if there’s a famous author I dislike.

I am not a humble person. I have issues with Tolstoy.

I don’t just, like George Orwell, have a problem with his later, utopian political writing, in which, for instance, he declared that the work of Shakespeare has no value. I don’t just have a problem with him raping his wife.  No, I have a problem with Anna Karenina.

Joyce praised Tolstoy’s fiction, “He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical!”  This is true.  And I can see why Joyce, who hated sentimentality, found Tolstoy restful. The style of Anna Karenina is understated, clear, and ordinary, without excess drama.  It is “lifelike”, in the sense that it could easily be a story your friends told you about someone they knew; it is an act of expert attention to the mundane in social interaction and human psychology, in the same way that a Dutch still-life is an act of expert attention to the objects of everyday life.

The characters are all mildly despicable, and presented as such, with the authorial voice ironically pointing out where they self-deceive and rationalize.  Oblonsky is shallow, philandering, and a slave to convention; but he’s a rather generous friend.  Vronsky is a pure creature of machismo with almost no inner life; but he is a conscientious lover and responsible landowner. Karenin is self-righteous and pompous; but he is, on the whole, fairly reasonable to his wife.  Anna is flighty and utterly unreflective; but she is capable of some deep emotion and warmth.  We are not meant to hate these people, we are meant to pity their foibles, and consider their tragedies akin to ours.  It’s supposed to be “the human condition.”  But is it really the human condition to cheat on your spouse? To be pregnant and not plan ahead for the fact that you will eventually have a baby?  To let your source of income dwindle to nothing and have exactly no intention of doing anything about it?  Or is this just, perhaps, avoidable stupidity?

I’d contrast Anna Karenina with Middlemarch, which is also an ensemble-cast novel, also involves unhappy marriages, and is also a “novel of cognitive biases” in which the characters’ self-deceptions lead them to the brink of ruin.  But the characters in Middlemarch are, for the most part, basically sincere idealistic people who fool themselves into thinking their dreams are possible.  Reading it, I yearned for Dorothea and Tertius and Fred and Will to get their acts together — and they do, barely.  Middlemarch treats the theme of self-deception as though it is a human challenge, a serious problem that everyone must face, but that effort can sometimes overcome.

Anna Karenina‘s answer to the problem of self-deception is less appealing.  Levin, the author-insert character, has a realization at the end of the book: while all the time he has been doubting the existence of God and the purpose of life, he has been unconsciously living well — running his estate effectively, caring for his wife and child, upholding traditions.  The confusion and tragedy of the city people, he thinks, results from them trying to figure out how to live and screwing it up. If we all stopped overthinking things and imitated what we were taught in childhood, including religious belief, we’d make less of a mess.

It’s an ideology that places human thought and intention as bad.  Simplicity is good. Tradition is good. Faith is good. If you try to come up with your own damn fool ideas, you’ll ruin everything. Peasants are especially to be admired for their simplicity and faith — but we are carefully shown that Levin doesn’t treat them with any special respect and is quick to call them stupid, and sympathizes with the old-fashioned landowners who are nostalgic for the days of serfdom.  It’s not “peasants are human, just like aristocrats” — it’s “peasants are subhuman, and that’s AWESOME!”

The characters in Anna Karenina are extraordinarily unreflective.  There are no characters with a strong intellectual or artistic temperament; they are mostly “Sensing” rather than “Intuitive” types in the Myers-Briggs sense.  I rarely see the inner lives of such people; not only do I rarely meet them personally, but I rarely read about them, because it’s introspective people who are most likely to write personal narratives or explain their thought processes.  So it’s instructive, in a way, to see them in the daylight of Tolstoy’s prose.  And I feel that I ought to empathize with them.  I ought to be able to love them.  But I can’t, most of the time. The only exceptions are at the great occasions of life — Levin’s marriage, the birth of his child, the death of his brother, Anna’s meeting with her son.  These really are human universals, and as I share a species with these people, I can care for them and pity them.  But love, for me, requires some kind of recognition, and that just isn’t there…

Tolstoy is an eloquent defender of a worldview which is probably substantial enough to deserve attention. This simplicity thing, that goes with his voluntary poverty, his mistrust of modernity (note the role of trains!), his mistrust of thought. A horse or a dog can be good in a simple way, loyal and loving, and he wants humans to be good the way a horse or a dog is good.

For better or for worse, I can never, ever be good in that way; if I am to be good it will have to be a different way.

And I think that people really aren’t meant to be like horses or dogs, and you do them no favors when you treat them as such, even in the guise of admiration (see: the cruelty of Tolstoy’s personal life.)  Even at his best, even in his most celebrated novel, that cruelty comes through here and there.  It’s not actually okay.  Tolstoy is bad, and he should feel bad.