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Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger

Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger

by Richard F. Gustafson

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"Richard Gustafson has written what will undoubtedly prove to be one of the major studies of Tolstoy produced in his generation . . . an especially thoughtful book, full of ideas, insights, and perceptions that are very much Gustafson's own."--Hugh McLean, The Russian Review


"Richard Gustafson has written what will undoubtedly prove to be one of the major studies of Tolstoy produced in his generation . . . an especially thoughtful book, full of ideas, insights, and perceptions that are very much Gustafson's own."--Hugh McLean, The Russian Review

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This serious and important book challenges the widely held view of Tolstoy as two radically different men, ``the pre-conversion artist and the post-conversion religious thinker.'' By using the later works to clarify the earlier ones, Gustafson argues persuasively for the essential coherence of Tolstoy's work, a coherence that stems from his religious thinking and his desperate life-long search for faith. This book is a remarkable piece of scholarship and should appeal both to scholars and the general public, especially those interested in Tolstoy's work, in theology, or in the history of ideas. Essential for research libraries and recommended for other large collections. Joyce S. Toomre, Russian Research Ctr. , Harvard Univ.
From the Publisher

"Richard Gustafson has written what will undoubtedly prove to be one of the major studies of Tolstoy produced in his generation . . . an especially thoughtful book, full of ideas, insights, and perceptions that are very much Gustafson's own."--Hugh McLean, The Russian Review

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Leo Tolstoy

Resident and Stranger A Study in Fiction and Theology

By Richard F. Gustafson


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06674-5



Life is like the steps a baby takes from the moment his mother lets him out of her arms until she picks him up again. (52,60;1891)

Art is the microscope under which the artist puts the secrets of his soul in order to show people those secrets that are common to all. (53,94; 1896)

Tolstoy was a man of many crises. Throughout his long and full life, from his youthful Caucasian adventures and military service, his enthusiastic pedagogical endeavors, his inspired period of literary creativity, his histrionic mid-life conversion, his intense immersion in matters theological, and his tortured attempts to reshape himself and the world, culminating in the tragic drama of his married life, he was moved by one continually reiterated experience. "I feel that I am perishing — that I am living and dying, that I love life and fear death — how can I be saved?" (48,187;1878). And with these repeated crises came the Tolstoy an questions: "Why am I alive? What is the cause of my existence or of anything at all? What is the purpose of my existence or of anything at all? What does the division of good and evil that I feel in myself mean and why is it there? How am I to live? What is death?" Few men, and especially men of such noble position and privilege as Count Leo Tolstoy, have lived life thus on the brink. "I am tumbling, tumbling downhill to death and scarcely feel the strength to stop," he wrote but a year after his marriage and just before beginning War and Peace. "But I do not want death, I want and love immortality" (48,57; 1863). Tolstoy's crises of death call to life now and forever. For Tolstoy, however, life is life only when it is spent in meaningful labor. "The consciousness of the continuous process of dying is useful because one cannot have this consciousness without the consciousness of life which evokes the necessity of using one's dying life for some task" (51,15;1890). This task of life Tolstoy eventually came to understand as the "mission" on which he, like Christ or anyone else, has been sent: he must "serve and instill the truth not only in people but in the whole world" (mir) (63,207;1885). In his pedagogy, fiction, and journalism his duty is to "bring his reason into the world." The content of this "truth" and "reason," however, can always be reduced to the Christian idea of love. Tolstoy's crises at the brink of death, then, are moments of purposelessness and meaninglessness which flow from a sense of duty to others neglected and a mission of love which has failed.

These crises continually called Tolstoy to a clarification of his duty and his mission. He found his answer in faith. Tolstoy's faith, however, rests not quite in "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen" (Heb.11:1). Rather, his faith arises from the "consciousness of one's position in the universe" (mir) and the actions that follow therefrom (35, 170; 1902). His search for faith in the face of death becomes a quest for an identity which will reveal his true vocation. His faith is thus a matter of conscience, of that call from an authentic future to an authentic self. His life is thus a matter of finding his place (mesto), task (delo), and destined purpose (naznachenie) within the unfolding universe, a drama of the self in search of a vocation that will be meaningful not just to itself but to the whole of existence. In the end the "inevitable, necessary and sufficient faith" Tolstoy found was the "faith in the fact that God or the One that sent me into the world (mir) exists, that I am His product, His worker, a particle of Him, and that what will happen with me is what ought to, the faith of a child in its mother who is holding him in her arms" (54,52;1900). At the start, when he was beginning his now famous diary, he turned inward to seek that "reason" which was to be "drawn into accord" and "merge with the whole (tseloe), the source of everything" (46,4; 1847). With this turn inward he found and then recorded his first clarification of that faith which would save him:

What is the goal of a person's life? ... The goal of a person's life is the most possible enabling in all directions of the development of all that exists (vsë sushchestvujushchee). ... If I look at nature, I see that everything in it is constantly developing and that every component part in it unconsciously enables the development of the other parts. Man, since he is just such a part of nature but endowed with consciousness, ought just as the other parts to strive for the development of everything that exists but consciously using his mental abilities. ... When I look at these mental abilities of man, that is at the soul of every person, I find the unconscious striving which comprises the necessary need of his soul. ... From the point of view of theology, I find that almost all peoples recognize a perfect being the striving to attain which is the goal of all men. And so it seems I can accept without error as the goal of my life the conscious striving for the development in all directions of all that exists. I would be the most unhappy of men if I did not find a goal for my life, a common (obshchaja) and useful one, useful because the immortal soul, once it has developed, naturally turns into a being which is higher and corresponds to it. (46,30-31;1847)

In this first articulation of his identity as a striving soul that corresponds to and turns into a higher being and his vocation as the development of all that exists, Tolstoy lays down the foundation for his doctrine of person, his doctrine of work, and his doctrine of God. His own life and works gloss this first confession of faith.

What is striking about Tolstoy, then, is not the contradictions in his life and thought that many have found with great ease, but the consistency of his crises and the questions they brought to his mind. Tolstoy's life is shaped by his quest for faith, his need to clarify who he is and what he must do. In the Caucasus and again on his return home, in his school and in his study, during his solitary walks in the woods and in his encounters with the peasants, in his literary creations and his diary entries, he returned again and again to this theme of faith first articulated in 1847: the nature of the soul, the purpose of its "unconscious striving," its role in the development of "all that exists," what he later will call the All (vsë), and the soul's goal of development into "a being which is higher and corresponds to it," the "merging" of a part with the "whole." Furthermore, for Tolstoy, who believed that the "task of life is perfection" (sovershenstvo) (52,140; 1894), this vision of the universe in the process of development provides the model for his own life of self-perfection. The underlying image is centrifugal. Life is the process of striving outward in all directions from some imagined center toward the fullness of the circle of "everything that exists." The striving soul "develops" by unfolding itself (razvitie means "development," "unfolding," "unwinding") to its completion. For Tolstoy this "process of perfection" (sovershenstvovanie), for which Christ's exhortation "Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt.5:48) later became the proof text, requires the nurturing of the seed of the self, the "eternally growing soul" (52,155;1894), by weeding away whatever hinders its growth, a process of continual clearing of consciousness and conscience through ever more precise articulations of the self. Tolstoy's whole life takes its shape from this paradigmatic action: his early rules for behavior, his lifelong habit of weight lifting, his obsession with reworking his manuscripts, his tendency in his diaries to return to the same sets of ideas just to write them out more precisely, his repeated moments of repentance followed by firm resolve for right action, his self-instructing message of "death, humility, silence" written on his fingernail, his attempt to acquire the practice of perpetual prayer in order to reform himself, his theological belief in salvation through "effort" — all stem from the great need to find and form the self, to discover, nurture, and reveal the perfection already within. "He who has understood that all life depends on a more or less dull or sharp knife, for him every sharpening is important and he knows that there is no end to this sharpening, that the knife is a knife only when it is sharp, when it cuts what it must cut" (25,226;1886). Tolstoy's real mission is the continuous articulation of identity and vocation. Only in death will he find his true and complete self. "However old or ill, however much or little you have done, your whole life's task has not only not ended, but not yet received its final decisive meaning until the last breath" (51,20;1890).

This process of articulation unto death provides the key to reading Tolstoy. "I am all that I have written" (83,547;1885), he wrote, and to understand his life's text as well as his life's task we must see it whole. Just as in any human utterance a sound takes its meaning only from within the total statement, so any Tolstoyan text takes its meaning only from within the complete oeuvre. To understand any part of his life's text, a story or novel, an essay or tract, a diary entry or a letter, we must see the particular set of words in their relationship to all his words. The pattern of this relationship is shaped by the process of articulation. The primary rule in reading Tolstoy, therefore, is that the later clarifies the earlier. This does not mean that an earlier work of art is better than a later one or vice versa. It does mean, however, that an earlier work may be an experimental version of a later one and that later works may reveal the hidden patterns and meanings of earlier ones. This primary rule of reading also does not mean that the later philosophical and religious essays, not to mention the letters and diaries, are to replace the great novels and stories in our estimation of Tolstoy's accomplishment. It does mean, however, that we must grasp the clearest articulations of Tolstoy's view of the world if we are to understand the vision embodied in his great fictions. Tolstoy himself believed this was the correct way to approach his literary works (66,188-89;1892).

Tolstoy attempts to understand and express his experience of life by trying out images and working out ideas. The diaries record experience and analyze it; they move from experience to idea. The fictions create images grounded in his inner life; they move from experience to image. A diary entry elaborating some metaphysical concept may begin or end with a humble simile, an image which is meant to embody the abstract idea. A work of fiction, for example War and Peace, may include an abstract dissertation on the idea imaged in the story. Even the essays often begin with an image which contains the seed for the idea to be argued. The pattern of articulation which governs Tolstoy's life in general, however, moves from experience to image to idea. It is significant, in this respect, that while creating his most complex fictions, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy virtually abandoned his diaries and wrote no essays. In this period of his life he recorded and analyzed life only in the novels. Tolstoy's best fiction is an image of his experience that contains his view on life. Therefore, just as beyond Tolstoy's art there is the clarified idea of faith embodied in it, so behind his art there is the experience of the search for that faith, the quest for identity and vocation. Before we can study Tolstoy's fictional images articulated in the idea beyond them, we must attempt to define the pattern of experience behind them.


Tolstoy's most ideal image of himself, his most cherished sense of life, his most firm conviction of faith, flow from his urge and desire to belong. His many years of family life rooted in Yasnaya Polyana surrounded by his wife and many children testify to this deep-seated need to feel himself a part of a community. If in his later years he so vehemently asserted his universal citizenship and so loudly preached the ideal of human relatedness, this assertion and this preachment grew from an expanded sense of residency in the whole world. Just the thought of the millions of people in Africa and Japan unknown to him, "alien" (chuzhie) to him, so terrified him that he had to believe that "they and I are one, as are one with me those now living, who have lived and who will live and I live through them and they through me" (52,62;1892). Tolstoy the Resident belongs in and to a world which belongs to him. His best sense of self is realized in this reciprocal belonging. He is called to be at one with all.

In the mythology of his life, the first image of this sense of human relatedness appears in the game of "ant brothers" the five-year-old Tolstoy used to play with his brothers. One day his older brother Nicholas announced that he knew of a wonderful secret that would make all men happy by eliminating disease, misery, and anger: all would love one another and become "ant brothers." But the secret was written on a green stick buried by the road at the edge of a ravine in the Zakaz forest. The boys were so taken with the story that even without the stick in hand they used to play "ant brothers," huddling together in shared love and tenderness under a shawl draped over two chairs. Tolstoy never forgot this game; it symbolized to him his highest ideal and best self. "The ideal of the 'ant brothers' clinging lovingly to one another only not under two armchairs draped with shawls but of all the peoples of the whole world under the wide dome of heaven, has remained unaltered for me," he wrote in his Memoirs (34,387;1905). "As I then believed that there was a little green stick whereon was written something that would destroy all evil in men and give them great blessings, so I now believe that such truth exists among people and will be revealed to them and will give them what it promises." In a grand and highly significant symbolic gesture Tolstoy requested that he be buried at the spot of the green stick and to this day there he lies.

The image of all people huddled together loving one another haunted Tolstoy all his life. It represented the ideal to which he was drawn and the perfection toward which he would strive. He later discovered the ideal in the Enlightenment principles of equality and fraternity and himself believed that his conversion grew from a heightened awareness of these eighteenth-century ideals (52,158;1894). The controlling idea of his thought is unity. But the unity with others that Tolstoy experiences transcends the Enlightenment idea. Tolstoy's "unity" is a cosmological and metaphysical reality. "The tenderness and ecstasy we experience in contemplating nature is the recollection of that time when we were animals, trees, flowers, the earth. More precisely, it is the awareness of the unity (edinstvo) with everything, which is hidden from us by time" (55,217;1906). For this Tolstoy life's moments of unity with everything strike the only truthful chord. "I am walking along the hard road, while at my side brightly dressed peasant women are walking home from work singing most lively. A moment between tunes and the measured thump of my feet against the road becomes audible and then again the song rises and again fades off and the thump of my steps. That's good. In my youth without the women something used to sing inside me always and often. And everything, the sound of my steps, the light of the sun, the fluttering of the hanging birch branches, and everything, everything was accomplished (sovershilos' also means "made perfect") as it were to the tune of the song" (52,30;). The Resident belongs to a world harmonized into accord, made perfect because all participate together in the one song of life. For him music is the art and metaphor of this unity.


Excerpted from Leo Tolstoy by Richard F. Gustafson. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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