Tolstoy’s response to the divided Russian soul

Tolstoy knew the depressive mind. Both Andrey Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezuchov, the protagonists, of War and Peace are full, vivid embodiments of a bifurcated response to the world that finds one pole in a very modern depression and the other in a quintissentially Russian mysticism. Tolstoyan happiness is an attempt to transcend or reconcile this polarity through an ascetic recognition that the needs these poles offer to satisfy are artificial.

Tolstoy’s conception of happiness – his peasant happiness – is a response to this modern Russian development, to the divided soul. On the one hand this protagonists are inflicted with this sense of meaningless, of relativism, of the futility of all things – an alien, but irresistible presence, that pulls them down from without. At these moments of psychological malady the world is disclosed in its pettiness, worldliness, and senselessness.’ On the other hand they find these moments of clarity, these epiphanic moments when they almost feel their metaphysical longing satisfied: when the desire for order in the world, for majesty, for a connection with ‘that great inscrutable infite something’ is almost satisfied. Bolkonsky is overcome with sort of feeling on the field of Austerlitz and Pierre during a moonlit sleigh ride through the snow.

So throughout you see a striving to resist anguish and despair – a striving that makes itself manifest for Pierre in the constructive universalistic benevolence of his masonism, through his desire for a great historical role as the assassin of Napolen and through his love of Natasha. These are attempts to implicate or embed oneself in the world and to bind ourselves to other people in such a way as to sustain a sense of meaningfulness. The Christianity of Princess Marya also, albeit with superabundant placidity, this same defensive function against dissolution. In some sense they all enact that need to see behind and through things, that treacherous ache for the meaningful.

Tolstoy’s attempt to break out of the cycle is sentimental and unworkable, but what it expresses more than anything is a skepticism about human potential, a sort of sad humility. Tolstoy wants to blame civilization and artifice and learning and abstract-learning; statecraft, war, institutionalised churches; idleness, luxuriance and probably urban as well as metropolitan living. Tolstoyan happiness is to be reached through a stripping away of layers; it is a return and a renunciation. During his captivity Pierre realises ‘that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfaction of simple human needs, and that all unhappiness arises not from privation but from superfluity.’ The peasant happiness is limited; it is a negative happiness. Happiness is not connection with the infinite or the sham power of world historical figures; nor is it great wealth and the supersatisfaction of human wants. It certainly isn’t polish and learning, wit or beauty. Instead it is simplicity and spontanaeity. To be happy is to be busy and useful; to be connected to the land and to one’s past; to be manually skilful; to take pleasure in the satisfaction of basic needs; but it is also to be independent and detached. As I said, it is an ideal of renunciation. A general small-scale benevolence is to be practiced with all of the people with whom we come into contact, but particular attachments are to be deprecated. To implicate ourselves in the world in that way is to surrender a necessary detachment and autonomy. Love is dangerous; exclusive attachments make us vulnerable in an unsentimentally deterministic world and one characterised by powerful alienating passions and discontinuous, unstable selves.

The temptation to call Tolstoy’s a coward’s happiness is very strong, but I don’t think that’s right. I think it is the happiness of someone who has suffered. When one reads the pages written about Bolkonsky’s and Pierre’s despair that’s what one feels: Tolstoy is writing his own pain. To think abstractly and to try and see our way behind the world so as to orient ourselves within it, is a very costly folly for which we will be made to suffer. The quest for love and glory and virtue are futile enterprises in an alien world of determinism. All that is left us is to have sufficient humility to accept our limitations and to pursue happiness in the very limited sense that is open to us. Ultimately, Tolstoy’s is a counsel of resignation.

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