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Fourth part


2. Leo Tolstoy: Renewed Epic Constrained by Philosophy

In Lukács’s Theory, it is Leo Tolstoy rather than Gogol’ who represents the true beginning of the renewed epic form, the first glimmers of the new world. Lukács treats Tolstoy more generally than he does Gogol’, rather than approaching his ideas solely through a particular work; though he does focus on Anna Karenina and War and Peace. This broader focus is appropriate to the fact that Tolstoy was a prominent philosophical and nonfictional writer as well as a great novelist. Lukács recognizes Tolstoy’s philosophy as the origin of his achievement of true epic: Tolstoy’s rejection of the artificialities of Westernization and his expressed desire to return to the integrated civilization of peasant life drawn from the soil inspired his development of a renewed epic form.

Tolstoy...created a form of novel which overlaps to the maximum extent into the epic. Tolstoy’s great and truly epic mentality, which has little to do with the novel form, aspires to a life based on a community of feeling among simple human beings closely bound to nature, a life which is intimately adapted to the great rhythm of nature, which moves according to nature’s cycle of birth and death and excludes all structures which are not natural, which are petty and destructive, causing disintegration and stagnation.1

This is in complete harmony with the above concept of renewed epic; such aspiration is only possible in an environment in which totality has been made artificially distant and observable while interiority is simultaneously problematic, resulting in a “problematic novel form.”

Yet despite this wholly epic quality, which corresponds so perfectly with the above description of the renewed epic, Lukács goes on to stipulate that true renewal of epic takes place in only a few rare and widely-spaced instances in Tolstoy’s novels; that it blazes up at great moments and then “vanishes without a trace.” If these moments were “spread out into a totality,” the resulting form “would be completely inaccessible to the categories of the novel and would require a new form of artistic creation: the form of the renewed epic.”2 But as it is, Lukács sees Tolstoy not as a writer truly of the new world but as more of a prophet, fully aware of interiority but never moving on from it into totality. And indeed, while Lukács’s selection of profound moments is quite sparing and his description of the tranquil epilogue of War and Peace as “more profoundly disconsolate than the most problematic novels of disillusionment” seems a bit extreme, it is true that Tolstoy’s novels tend to focus much more on the problematized interiority revealed by the nineteenth-century Russian perspective than on its corresponding totality. Tortured, completely enclosed souls like Levin (Anna Karenina), Prince Andrei and early Pierre (War and Peace), Father Sergius, and Pozdnyshev (The Kreutzer Sonata) populate Tolstoy’s major works more densely, it seems, than such people populate any part of the real world. Some of them may approach a resolution of some sort, but it is definitely their starkly problematic experience of interiority that constitutes their importance. Tolstoy clearly had the meta-consciousness which is the philosophical prerequisite for the renewal of epic, but did not frequently use that consciousness to depict totality, preferring instead to center on the sharp focus given to interiority by its foreign nature: “Going outside and beyond culture has merely destroyed culture but has not put a truer, more essential life in its place; the overlapping into the epic only makes the novel form still more problematic, without coming concretely closer to the desired goal, the problem-free reality of the epic.”3 Tolstoy criticized interiority as an injurious and artificial Westernization; he never hesitated to point out its painful and distorted consequences in fiction or in philosophy. But he did not progress beyond the exaggerated problem of interiority; he instated no truly comparable substitute.

This was because Tolstoy’s specific objection to Westernization presented totality primarily as a philosophical opposition to interiority, rather than as a political or cultural one. Tolstoy was no Slavophile. He opposed Westernization, but his principal conflict was within Russian culture. He decried the Russian government on the basis of his strict pacifism and hatred of despotic rule, and rejected Russian Orthodoxy on the same grounds,4 as well as for his disillusionment with its emphasis on formalities.5 His alternative to interiority and Westernization was not a Russian totality that had existed prior to the Petrine reforms, but a new Russian totality in a life whose rounded borders were simple and heartfelt Christian faith, pacifism, freedom from despots and forced military service, and a pastoral life of the soil. Totality was his ideal, yes; but his standards were so particular and so high that for the most part, it had to remain only an ideal. For Tolstoy, totality was not an attribute of an easily-accessible past only slightly removed from the present; but a quality far less material and concrete, and in its fullest expression truly heavenly and divine.

Thus when, for a brief moment, the totality of Tolstoy’s ideal does find way into the world of one of his novels, it does not appear in the form of some “unspoiled Russian wisdom” still present and accessible wherever Westernization has failed to penetrate. Instead, it appears either as a transient period of spiritual revelation occurring in an interior individual in a moment of extremity (these are the “great moments” Lukács cites), or in the form of rare but sustained and more fully realized instances (such as Platon Karataev from War and Peace, and the titular character of the story “Alyosha the Pot”) whose spiritual perfection appears to be closer to a miracle than to any condition that could apply to an entire population.6 Neither of these is sustainable through an entire book, and neither one presents a workable model for life in the modern world. “Such paths cannot be trodden,” Lukács points out, “and when people believe they are treading them, their experience is a bitter caricature of what the revelation of the great moment had shown.”7 Instead of painting a “new world” in which the Russian awareness of interiority as a foreign element allows its negotiation as a conscious problem, Tolstoy depicted a world in which the awareness of interiority makes totality an end, the terminus of a lifelong quest. This is how totality appears in what is perhaps its most complete manifestation in War and Peace, Pierre’s dream after the death of Platon Karataev:

Again real events blended with dreams and again someone, whether he himself or anyone else, gave voice to his thoughts, and even to the same thoughts that had been expressed in his dream at Mozhaysk.
“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything changes and moves, and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy; there is consciousness of the divine. Love of life is love of God. Most difficult and most blessed above all is to love this life in one's suffering, in innocent suffering.”
“Karataev!” Pierre recalled.
And suddenly, Pierre vividly saw before him the long-forgotten, kindly old man who in Switzerland had taught him geography. “Wait,” said the old man, and he showed Pierre a globe. This globe was alive—a scintillating orb without fixed dimensions. Its whole surface consisted of drops, closely pressed together. All these drops moved and changed, sometimes several merging together, sometimes one dividing into many. Each drop tried to spread out and fill as much space as possible, but others, striving to do the same, compressed it, sometimes destroyed it, and sometimes fused with it.
“That is life,” said the old teacher.
“How simple and clear,” thought Pierre. “How could I not know it before?"
“God is at the center, and each drop tries to expand, in order to reflect Him to the greatest extent. And it grows, merges, and disappears from the surface, sinks to the depths, and again emerges. You see, Karataev has spread out and disappeared. Do you understand, my child?” said the teacher.8

To “spread out and disappear,” to transcend the bounds of the individual and return to life’s purest expression: perfect unity with God and all creation. This is the essence of totality appearing as a goal rather than a condition; this is why it appears affiliated with the moments transcending the material life or approaching death, as Lukács points out. Totality is present for Tolstoy in revelation and in transcendence, but not in the everyday experience of reality; and it is reality that is the stuff of Tolstoy’s art. The conditions that enabled the renewal of the epic form apply perfectly to Tolstoy, and although his personal philosophy caused that renewal to take place only in those few instances in which the real intersects with the heavenly, his works bear the clear marks of the renewal of epic in their flashes of totality, in their expansiveness, and their awareness of interiority.



1 Lukàcs, Georg. The Theory of the Novel, pp. 145-146. Trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1971.
2 Ibid., p. 152.
3 Ibid., p. 151.
4 “At that time the war took place in Russia. And Russians took up the sword in the name of Christian love, to kill their brothers. It was impossible not to think about this; it was impossible not to see that murder is evil and contrary to the most fundamental principles of any faith. And yet the churches prayed for the success of our aims, and teachers of faith acknowledged that all this killing was a product of the faith.” — Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession / What Do I Believe? (Исповедь / В чем моя вера?), pp. 108.
5 “If there is a difference between explicitly professing Orthodoxy and denying it, the comparison does not favor the former. Today, as before, one usually finds the public confession of Orthodox faith among stultified, vicious and immoral people who have falsely inflated opinions of themselves. The Catechism is taught in schools and students must attend church; civil servants have to be able to certify that they have had communion. But a person of our circle, who no longer studies in school and is not working in public service, can live years without remembering once that he lives among Christians and is himself a professed member of the Orthodox Church.” — Ibid., pp. 32-33.
6 Lukács hints at the consciousness of interiority that distinguishes the “great moments” when he says that in such characters as Karataev, “their life does not objectivise itself, it cannot be given form but only hinted at.” – Lukàcs, Georg. The Theory of the Novel, p. 150. Trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1971.
7 Ibid., p. 149.
8 Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace (Война и мир), pp. 588-589. Moscow: State Publishers / Literary Encyclopedia (Государственное издательство // Литературная энциклопедия), 1953.


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