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Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism

by George Steiner
Acclaimed literary critic George Steiner on two of the literary canon’s greatest and most influential writers

“Literary criticism,” writes Steiner, “should arise out of a debt of love.” Abiding by his own rule, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky is an impassioned work, inspired by Steiner’s conviction that the legacies of


Acclaimed literary critic George Steiner on two of the literary canon’s greatest and most influential writers

“Literary criticism,” writes Steiner, “should arise out of a debt of love.” Abiding by his own rule, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky is an impassioned work, inspired by Steiner’s conviction that the legacies of these two Russian masters loom over Western literature. By explaining how Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky differ from each other, Steiner demonstrates that when taken together, their work offers the most complete portrayal of life and the tension between the thirst for knowledge on one hand and the longing for mystery on the other. An instant classic for scholars of Russian literature and casual readers alike, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky explores two powerful writers and their opposing modes of approaching the world, and the enduring legacies wrought by their works. 

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Tolstoy or Dostoevsky

An Essay in Contrast

By George Steiner


Copyright © 1980 George Steiner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-1191-3


Ein Buck wird doch immer erst gefunden, wenn es verstanden wird.

GOETHE to SCHILLER, May 6, 1797

* * *

LITERARY criticism should arise out of a debt of love. In a manner evident and yet mysterious, the poem or the drama or the novel seizes upon our imaginings. We are not the same when we put down the work as we were when we took it up. To borrow an image from another domain: he who has truly apprehended a painting by Cézanne will thereafter see an apple or a chair as he had not seen them before. Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order. Through some primary instinct of communion we seek to convey to others the quality and force of our experience. We would persuade them to lay themselves open to it. In this attempt at persuasion originate the truest insights criticism can afford.

I say this because much contemporary criticism is of a different cast. Quizzical, captious, immensely aware of its philosophic ancestry and complex instruments, it often comes to bury rather than to praise. There is, indeed, a vast amount that requires burial if the health of language and of sensibility is to be guarded. Instead of enriching our consciousness, instead of being springs of life, too many books hold out to us the temptations of facility, of grossness and ephemeral solace. But these are books for the compulsive craft of the reviewer, not for the meditative, re-creative art of the critic. There are more than a "hundred great books," more than a thousand. But their number is not inexhaustible. In distinction from both the reviewer and the literary historian, the critic should be concerned with masterpieces. His primary function is to distinguish not between the good and the bad, but between the good and the best.

Here again, modern opinion inclines to a more diffident view. It has lost, through the loosening of the hinges of the old-established cultural and political order, that serenity of assurance which allowed Matthew Arnold to refer, in his lectures on translating Homer, to the "five or six supreme poets of the world." We would not put it that way. We have become relativists, uneasily aware that critical principles are attempts at imposing brief spells of governance on the inherent mutability of taste. With the decline of Europe from the pivot of history, we have become less certain that the classical and western tradition is pre-eminent. The horizons of art have retreated in time and in space beyond any man's surveyance. Two of the most representative poems of our age, The Waste Land and Ezra Pound's Cantos, draw on Oriental thought. The masks of the Congo stare out of the paintings of Picasso in vengeful distortion. Our minds are shadowed by the wars and bestialities of the twentieth century; we grow wary of our inheritance.

But we must not yield too far. In excess of relativism lie the germs of anarchy. Criticism should recall us to the remembrance of our great lineage, to the matchless tradition of the high epic as it unfolds from Homer to Milton, to the splendours of Athenian, Elizabethan, and Neo-classical drama, to the masters of the novel. It should affirm that if Homer and Dante and Shakespeare and Racine are no longer the supreme poets of the whole world—it has grown too large for supremacy—they are still the supreme poets of that world from which our civilization draws its life-force and in defence of which it must take its imperilled stand. Insisting upon the infinite variety of human affairs, on the role of social and economic circumstance, historians would have us discard the old definitions, the long-founded categories of meaning. How can we, they ask, apply the same title to the Iliad and to Paradise Lost, separated as they are by millennia of historical fact? Can "tragedy" signify anything if we use it at once of Antigone, of King Lear, and of Phèdre?

The answer is that ancient recognitions and habits of understanding run deeper than the rigours of time. Tradition and the long ground-swell of unity are no less real than that sense of disorder and vertigo which the new dark ages have loosed upon us. Call epic that form of poetic apprehension in which a moment of history or a body of religious myth is centrally engaged; say of tragedy that it is a vision of life which derives its principles of meaning from the infirmity of man's estate, from what Henry James called the "imagination of disaster." Neither definition will do in respect of exhaustiveness or inclusion. But they will suffice to remind us that there are great traditions, lines of spiritual descent, which relate Homer to Yeats and Aeschylus to Chekhov. To these criticism must return with passionate awe and a sense of life ever renewed.

At present, there is grievous need of such return. All about us flourishes the new illiteracy, the illiteracy of those who can read short words or words of hatred and tawdriness but cannot grasp the meaning of language when it is in a condition of beauty or of truth. "I should like to believe," writes one of the finest of modern critics, "that there is clear proof of the need, in our particular society a greater need than ever before, for both scholar and critic to do a particular job of work: the job of putting the audience into a responsive relation with the work of art: to do the job of intermediary." Not to judge or to anatomize, but to mediate. Only through love of the work of art, only through the critic's constant and anguished recognition of the distance which separates his craft from that of the poet, can such mediation be accomplished. It is a love made lucid through bitterness: it looks on miracles of creative genius, discerns their principles of being, exhibits these to the public, yet knows it has no part, or merely the slightest, in their actual creation.

These I take to be the tenets of what one might call "the old criticism" in partial distinction from that brilliant and prevailing school known as "the new criticism." The old criticism is engendered by admiration. It sometimes steps back from the text to look upon moral purpose. It thinks of literature as existing not in isolation but as central to the play of historical and political energies. Above all, the old criticism is philosophic in range and temper. It proceeds, with most general application, on a belief particularized by Jean-Paul Sartre in an essay on Faulkner: "the technique of a novel always refers us back to the metaphysic of the novelist [à la métaphysique du romancier]." In works of art are gathered the mythologies of thought, the heroic efforts of the human spirit to impose order and interpretation on the chaos of experience. Though inseparable from aesthetic form, philosophic content—the entry of faith or speculation into the poem—has its own principles of action. There are numerous examples of art which moves us to performance or conviction through its proposal of ideas. To these modes contemporary critics, with the exception of the Marxists, have not always been attentive.

The old criticism has its bias: it tends to believe that the "supreme poets of the world" have been men impelled either to acquiescence or rebellion by the mystery of God, that there are magnitudes of intent and poetic force to which secular art cannot attain, or, at least, has not as yet attained. Man is, as Malraux affirms in The Voices of Silence, trapped between the finiteness of the human condition and the infinity of the stars. Only through his monuments of reason and artistic creation can he lay claim to transcendent dignity. But in doing so he both imitates and rivals the shaping powers of the Deity. Thus there is at the heart of the creative process a religious paradox. No man is more wholly wrought in God's image or more inevitably His challenger than the poet. "I always feel," said D. H. Lawrence, "as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me—and it's rather an awful feeling. One has to be so terribly religious, to be an artist." Not, perhaps, to be a true critic.

Such are some of the values I would bring to bear on this study of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. They are the two greatest of novelists (all criticism is, in its moments of truth, dogmatic; the old criticism reserves the right of being so openly, and of using superlatives). "No English novelist," wrote E. M. Forster, "is as great as Tolstoy—that is to say has given so complete a picture of man's life, both on its domestic and heroic side. No English novelist has explored man's soul as deeply as Dostoevsky." Forster's judgment need not be restricted to English literature. It defines the relationship of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to the art of the novel as a whole. By its very nature, however, such a proposition cannot be demonstrated. It is, in a curious but definite sense, a matter of "ear." The tone we use when referring to Homer or Shakespeare rings true when applied to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. We can speak in one breath of the Iliad and War and Peace, of King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov. It is as simple and as complex as that. But I say again that such a statement is not subject to rational proof. There is no conceivable way of demonstrating that someone who places Madame Bovary above Anna Karenina or considers The Ambassadors comparable in authority and magnitude to The Possessed is mistaken—that he has no "ear" for certain essential tonalities. But such "tone-deafness" can never be overcome by consequent argument (who could have persuaded Nietzsche, one of the keenest minds ever to deal with music, that he was perversely in error when he regarded Bizet as superior to Wagner?). There is, moreover, no use lamenting the "non-demonstrability" of critical judgments. Perhaps because they have made life difficult for artists, critics are destined to share something of the fate of Cassandra. Even when they see most clearly, they have no way of proving that they are right and they may not be believed. But Cassandra was right.

Let me, therefore, affirm my unrepentant conviction that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky stand foremost among novelists. They excel in comprehensiveness of vision and force of execution. Longinus would, quite properly, have spoken of "sublimity." They possessed the power to construct through language "realities" which are sensuous and concrete, yet pervaded by the life and mystery of the spirit. It is this power that marks Matthew Arnold's "supreme poets of the world." But although they stand apart through sheer dimension—consider the sum of life gathered in War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Resurrection, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were integral to the flowering of the Russian novel in the nineteenth century. That flowering, whose circumstances I shall consider in this opening chapter, would seem to represent one of the three principal moments of triumph in the history of western literature, the other two being the time of the Athenian dramatists and Plato and the age of Shakespeare. In all three the western mind leapt forward into darkness by means of poetic intuition; in them was assembled much of the light that we possess on the nature of man.

Many other books have been written and will be written about the dramatic and illustrative lives of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, about their place in the history of the novel and the role of their politics and theology in the history of ideas. With the advent of Russia and Marxism to the threshold of empire, the prophetic character of Tolstoyan and Dostoevskyan thought, its relevance to our own destinies, has forced itself upon us. But there is need of a treatment at once narrower and more unified. Enough time has elapsed so that we may perceive the greatness of Tolstoy and of Dostoevsky in the perspective of the major traditions. Tolstoy asked that his works be compared to those of Homer. Far more precisely than Joyce's Ulysses, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina embody the resurgence of the epic mode, the re-entry into literature of tonalities, narrative practices, and forms of articulation that had declined from western poetics after the age of Milton. But to see why this is so, to justify to one's critical intelligence those immediate and indiscriminate recognitions of Homeric elements in War and Peace, requires a reading of some delicacy and closeness. In the case of Dostoevsky there is a similar need for a more exact view. It has generally been recognized that his genius was of a dramatic cast, that his was, in significant respects, the most comprehensive and natural dramatic temper since Shakespeare's (a comparison which he himself hinted at). But only with the publication and translation of a fair number of Dostoevsky's drafts and notebooks—material of which I shall largely avail myself—has it become possible to trace the manifold affinities between the Dostoevskyan conception of the novel and the techniques of drama. The idea of a theatre, as Francis Fergusson has called it, suffered a brusque decline, so far as tragedy is concerned, after Goethe's Faust. The chain of being which leads back, through discernible kinship, to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides seemed broken. But The Brothers Karamazov is firmly rooted in the world of King Lear; in Dostoevskyan fiction the tragic sense of life, in the old manner, is wholly renewed. Dostoevsky is one of the great tragic poets.

Too often Tolstoy's and Dostoevsky's excursions into political theory, theology, and the study of history have been dismissed as eccentricities of genius or as instances of those curious blindnesses to which great minds are heir. Where they have received serious attention, that attention has discriminated between philosopher and novelist. But in mature art techniques and metaphysics are aspects of unity. In Tolstoy and in Dostoevsky as, one would suppose, in Dante, poetry and metaphysics, the impulse towards creation and towards systematic cognition, were alternate and yet inseparable responses to the pressures of experience. Thus, Tolstoyan theology and the world view operative in his novels and tales had passed through the same crucible of conviction. War and Peace is a poem of history, but of history seen in the specific light or, if we prefer, in the specific obscurity of Tolstoyan determinism. The poetics of the novelist and the myth of human affairs which he propounded are equally pertinent to our understanding. Dostoevsky's metaphysics have, of late, been closely attended to; they are a seminal force in modern existentialism. But little has been observed of the crucial interplay between the novelist's messianic and apocalyptic vision of things and the actual forms of his craft. How do metaphysics enter into literature and what happens to them when they get there? The last chapter of this essay will address itself to this theme as it is exemplified in such works as Anna Karenina, Resurrection, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov.

But why "Tolstoy or Dostoevsky"? Because I propose to consider their achievements and define the nature of their respective genius through contrast. The Russian philosopher Berdiaev wrote: "It would be possible to determine two patterns, two types among men's souls, the one inclined toward the spirit of Tolstoy, the other toward that of Dostoevsky." Experience bears him out. A reader may regard them as the two principle masters of fiction—that is to say, he may find in their novels the most inclusive and searching portrayal of life. But press him closely and he will choose between them. If he tells you which he prefers and why, you will, I think, have penetrated into his own nature. The choice between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky foreshadows what existentialists would call un engagement; it commits the imagination to one or the other of two radically opposed interpretations of man's fate, of the historical future, and of the mystery of God. To quote Berdiaev again: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky exemplify "an insoluble controversy, in which two sets of assumptions, two fundamental conceptions of existence, confront each other." This confrontation touches on some of the prevailing dualities in western thought as they reach back to the Platonic dialogues. But it is also tragically germane to the ideological warfare of our time. Soviet presses pour out literally millions of copies of the novels of Tolstoy; they have only recently and reluctantly issued The Possessed.


Excerpted from Tolstoy or Dostoevsky by George Steiner. Copyright © 1980 George Steiner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author

George Steiner, author of dozens of books (including The Death of Tragedy, After Babel, Martin Heidegger, In Bluebeard’s Castle, My Unwritten Books, George Steiner at the New Yorker, and The Poetry of Thought), is one of the world’s foremost intellectuals. He has been professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva, professor of comparative literature and fellow at the University of Oxford, and professor of poetry at Harvard University. He lives in Cambridge, England, where he has been an Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge since 1969. 

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