Monday, September 20, 2010

The Cult of Tolstoy

I recently purchased a membership to Netflix and was surprised to discover a fairly large collection of modern Russian and classic Soviet films. I expect to be including more references to cinema in the near future. I began with a relatively formulaic documentary of Trotsky, which nevertheless helped to put the man into context as an international symbol of the proletariat and global hero for would-be revolutionaries in every inhabited continent. From there, I watched the Last Station, and was pleasantly surprised to see how the film captured some of the importance of Tolstoy's later life as well as its complexity. To the end, Tolstoy was waging an idiosyncratic and sometimes muddled but always admirable war against violence, war, and various other forms of human iniquity.

The film helps one to see how close Tolstoy came to becoming the fountainhead of a sustainable religion and we see his family and network of close supporters in a state of quasi-religious exhalation over his charismatic presence and undisputed reputation as novelist, social critic, and quasi-religious thinker. There's a fine line between cult and formal religion, and the Tolstoyans walked that line. The film reminds readers of Tolstoy's importance to pre-revolutionary Russia as well. As he fled his wife and fell ill, the whole country followed the melodrama. Tolstoy's celebrity is witness to the fact that Russia had developed, despite its autocratic government and calcified Orthodox Church (which had excommunicated Tolstoy for his beliefs), a powerful public sphere of ideological opposition, relatively free intellectual inquiry, and social criticism.

With the benefit of hindsight, to see Tolstoy die in the film is to see liberalism die. But the real subject of The Last Station is Tolstoy's marriage. As the film begins, Tolstoy and his wife have been married for decades. She, much younger than he, had born him a huge brood of children--and lost five children in the process--and these children have become surrogates in a marital war, ostensibly over Tolstoy's literary inheritance. Tolstoy, although conflicted, hopes to turn over a large portion of his writings to the people at large, and is, he says, ashamed of the privilege he retained.

Strangely, at this time Tolstoy had essentially renounced all wealth, and yet he remained a denizen of an aristocratic estate, now ostensibly owned by his family. It puts one in mind of a quote about Gandhi, one of Tolstoy's most important admirers. It was said that although Gandhi was poor, it took a vast fortune to keep him that way. Tolstoy's marriage was grueling: despite a deep and abiding love and decades of intellectual cooperation, the two had become bitter antagonists. The film gives us a sense of the dimensions of the complexity involved here. When they were young, Tolstoy encouraged if not forced his wife to read his diaries related to his sexual adventures. Now, notwithstanding the fourteen or so children, his wife suspects her husband of harboring inappropriate feelings toward other men (not entirely without reason). The marriage endured, but it existed in the physical presence of strange sycophants and religious devotees, as well as the children, and with national and even international humanistic causes in the background.

Even the madness of Tolstoy's final flight from his wife (who claimed to have almost drowned herself in response), highlights his greatness, or at least the uniqueness of his contribution to Russian and Western history. Even as the stage is set for this final drama, Tolstoy is profoundly interested in humankind, at the individual level of one of his protégées as well as at the abstract level of the Russian narod. And, although he may well be partially blinded about the faults of his own admirers, he retains a healthy skepticism about his own reputation, and also tolerates his wife's mockery of that reputation. It's this spirit of honest and searching self-criticism (which isn't ever entirely successful of course, but it's the heroic effort at honesty that is so exceptional) and empathy for others that made him one of Russia's finest novelists.

No comments:

Post a Comment