Слике страница
PDF
ePub

young Russian who wrote: “I can quite understand that the most atrocious crimes may be committed without any object, without any desire to injure— like that!'—from curiosity, from the unconscious need for action. There are moments when a man sees the future in such sombre colours that he dares not pause to contemplate that future, that he suspends his reasoning faculty and tries to persuade himself that he is to have no future, and that he has had no past.

Meantime Tolstoi acquired, from reading in all languages, an encyclopædic knowledge. There was no taint of the midnight oil about this easy acquisition of a culture which was universal, if somewhat superficial. One often finds this sort of learning among the Russians, with their wonderful power of assimilation; and one cannot understand how they have acquired so much without effort. When Tolstoi had seen all sorts and conditions of men, and read all sorts of books, he wrote Guerre et Paix.

This work is so well known that I need not pause to describe it. What Russia had been at the moment when she became conscious of herself, at the beginning of the century; from what elements she had formed herself; toward what ideal she was groping - these were the problems which tempted Tolstoi's philosophic mind. These abstract ideas he made flesh in his characters, these characters which were always in action, showing in each of their words and gestures the social type of the time. His powerful vision shows us more than Russia; it reveals a great part of the human race at large, with the undercurrents and the tendencies which inspire its action in all countries and in all periods. A romance or an epopee, call it what one may, Guerre et Paix is the largest and the most faithful mirror which has ever been held up before us in order that we may recognise in it our neighbours and ourselves.

After this picture of the past, contemporary society was, in its turn, put in the witness - box by Tolstoi; Anna Karenina summoned it before the Judge; that is the word which suggests itself when one thinks of Tolstoi questioning mankind. Of the

two great novels which comprehend the whole of Russian life, the second embraces fewer facts and ideas than the first, it probes more deeply the wounds of the heart; it describes the disturb ances of the passions, as well as the philosophical disturbance of the Russian soul, during the ebullitions which marked the reign of Alexander II. Begun about 1865, the publication of this work was greatly delayed. Tolstoi abandoned it, took it up again, let some of its chapters wait for years, and the book did not appear in its completeness until 1877.

It was at this time, when the success of Anna Karenina had assured Tolstoi's dominion over his compatriots - on the eve of the extension of his influence and his fame to other parts of the world, at the zenith of his power and of his glory,—that the capricious comet departed to new skies, plunging into the night, losing himself among the nebulæ. Leo Nikolaievitch abandoned his art, covering it with anathemas. Since then, during twenty years, he has used his pen only to heap up accusations against that art, against the civilisation of which it forms a part, against love and war and science and the established church. Theologico-rationalist treatises follow one another without interruption : Ma Confession, Ma Religion, Commentaires sur l'Evangile. This prisoner, chained upon a treadmill of thought, struggling always to escape from his enforced task, labours unceasingly in the effort to search his soul and to simplify its functions, drags himself wearily around and around the same circle of complications. He hardly knows what he desired, and yet his vague aspirations are vigorous; above all, he knows that he wishes for nothing that exists. He constantly supplied illustrations of his doctrine, more clear than the dogma itself, brief parables, moral tales adapted to the popular ear. Art is a demon not easily exorcised, and some of these tales are masterpieces of a new form of literature, Maitre et Serviteur for instance, De Quoi vivent les Hommes, or that drama of peasant life, at once touching and revolting, La Puissance des Ténèbres.

The instinctive method of the great realist triumphs and conquers us in the exposition of his thesis, whether it unveils the misdeeds of love as in the Sonate à Kreutzer, or denounces the charlatanism of art, in the last of his destructive undertakings, Qu'est-ce que l'Art ?

It is a method of which the essence is to strip from the real fact the traditional verbiage with which we habitually see it clothed, and to show us this fact naked, simple, living. This direct vision communicates an incomparable force to the critical premises of the iconoclast,—we yield to the evidence, we share his opinion of the wretched nothing which is to be found beneath outward appearances. But we avoid, by the force of our vital instinct and our horror of absolute emptiness, a participation in his conclusions, which would lead us to absurdity, to the void.

Tolstoi himself shunned these conclusions, for he himself gives a striking answer to his blasphemies against his art. He returns to that art. At seventy years of age, the robust old man wrote another great romance. The publication of Résurrection has been but recently begun in a Russian newspaper, and I have read the first pages of the work; but to judge by these, it promises to equal Anna Karenina and Guerre et Paix, and it will add to the world's admiration for a writer who was never more powerful, never more touching, more thoroughly master of the life which he fixes in his deathless pictures.

Living in retirement on his property of Yasnaia-Poliana, near Toula, “regenerated” beneath his peasant's caftan, the complex apostle of the simple life gives only a few hours a day to his numerous literary tasks. The greater part of his time is devoted to philanthropic undertakings, to the management of the schools, to the work of the famine-committees, to conversations with the sectaries and seers who come from all parts of rural Russia to visit their great colleague. It is well known that he also imposes upon himself the performance of manual labour, tilling the soil, and making boots, which, I fear, find fewer purchasers than his novels. I have even heard that Tolstoi desired, one day, to take his turn at driving the village herd to pasture, but that the villagers gently gave him to understand that they preferred the services of a trained cowherd who could take better care of their kine.

Are we to suppose that there has been in the last twenty years a change, a breach of unity, in Tolstoi's mind and in his work? Not at all: anyone who thinks so has not read his books understandingly. In a volume of pedagogic essays, written long ago, the writer describes his ideal in a few words: “I wish to teach the children of the people to think and to write, it is I who should give them their lessons in writing and thinking while they are at school. We seek the ideal before us, it is behind us. The development of man is not the process by which we can realise our ideal of harmony, it is, on the contrary, an obstacle to its realisation. A healthy child is more like the creatures that do not think, to the animals, the plants, to nature, which is the eternal type of truth, of beauty, and of goodness."

The young hero of Cosaques, Olénine, had already been represented as longing to strip himself of his highly civilised soul, in order that he might be more like the little Asiatic, Marianne, happier, closer to nature. In Guerre et Paix, Count Bézouchoff had explored all the philosophies, and yet a poor dull-witted soldier, Platon Karataieff, with a few simple words produces a moral revolution, which leaves Bézouchoff humbled, at peace, enlightened. In the same way we see in Anna Karenina the troubled soul of Lévine finding its salvation in abdication, taught by the words and the example of the peasant Fédor.

All the children of Tolstoi’s imagination have had the same aspirations, they have all preceded him on the path upon which he afterwards followed them, when he went to the peasants' school and learned again, or thought that he had learned again at that school, the essential knowledge which is to know little, to think little, to seek the kingdom of God upon the earth, without thought of the hereafter; to realise that kingdom on earth by kindness, by the abolition of war, of tribunals, of industries, by a return to the pastoral life. But this Rousseau of our age-for it is Rousseau who has re-appeared, in Russian costume, after an interval of a hundred years does not, any more than did the other Rousseau, follow his theories to their logical conclusion. In order to be completely freed from the depravation of thought, one should hark

a

back to the status of the animal, the plant, the stone ; lose oneself in Nirvana. Nihilist and Buddhist, as he sometimes was, this disciple of Çakia-Mouni thinks that he is teaching the doctrine of Christ, but does not dare to follow to their final teachings the doctrines of his real master. Yet it is in the old world of India that we must search for the magnet which most strongly influenced his soul and the souls of the Russians whom he represents.

With his magnificent gifts, his chimerical aspirations, his excesses of negation, which are absurd in our western

eyes,

Tolstoi remains the great man who first gave expression to the whole spirit of his race. Leo Nikolaievitch is nothing but a Russian; he has perceived everything which belongs to his country, confusedly, for the subject is confused, grandly, because the subject is grand. He is only a Russian, and yet he passes the frontiers and reaches humanity at large; beyond all racial particularities, he makes his way to the specific temperaments common to all men.

Through him and through the other novelists who preceded him and those who complete his work, Russia has at last manifested herself in literary form. It is this that I have tried to demonstrate in these pages. I have devoted myself to this most important manifestation, neglecting the more feeble efforts of recent philosophers, historians, and poets who, with the exception of the powerful and bitter socialistic poet Nékrassoff, offer very little of real interest to the student. During the forty years which elapsed between the publication of Ames Mortes and of Anna Karenina, from the time of Gogol to the disappearance of Dostoïevsky, Gontcharoff, and Tourguéneff, to the interruption of Tolstoi's activity as a writer of fiction, the novel has borne all the weight and won all the honours of this admirable period of literary fertility. This fertility has not continued during these last fifteen years; there is still much writing done in Russia, and much talent expended in writing, but I do not perceive any successors who take the place of the original writers of whom I have spoken.

It seems as if no living plant can thrive under the shadow of the giant oak of Yasnaia-Poliana, of this Tolstoi who monopolised all the forces of Russian thought, all the attention of his compatriots and of the

« ПретходнаНастави »