Falling Short of the Glory of God
No bookshelf is complete without those massive Russian tomes, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Many say Leo Tolstoy authored the greatest novels ever written. The size of these sweeping epics was rivaled only by the writer's formidable beard. Each novel pondered those questions that plague man most -- the meaning of life, the struggle with lust, political freedom, union with God, death. His books were highly moral, yet they were often censored by the Russian government, for the mere mention of adultery and suicide and war that kept those pages turning.
Tolstoy became a spiritual master in his later life, to ardent followers who believed he was closer to God than the rest of us mortals. He had spent his life writing essays and fictions showing his philosophies of pacifism, equality, anarchy, compassion, animal rights, and chastity. He also extolled the virtues of labor and condemned the elite for "pharisaic" leisure they passed off as work. Though he was born into nobility and heir to vast fortune, he gave away large sums of money to beggars, sometimes abandoning his possessions and even the copyrights to his own work. A devout Christian, his ideas about peace influenced Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Yet Tolstoy's detractors point out that the man who preached humility toward every being, human or animal, was mightily arrogant. The writer dismissed Shakespeare as repulsive and tedious, and called critical and popular acclaim for the bard "evil." He was obsessed with moralizing, and his fixation on chastity, even for married couples, was just plain bizarre, a fetish in its own right. His eternal compassion did not seem to extend to women -- prostitutes and wives both were "whores" seducing men and the fruits of their labor with baubles and curves. Worse, some sought "women's rights," and to avoid bearing children. "You will not say after two children, or after twenty, that you have done enough," he wrote in To Women.
And while it was very generous of him to give so much to the poor, it did not always sit well with his wife, who bore him thirteen children and had to feed the seven who lived. And while it's only fair to mention that he converted from his own drinking, gambling, flesh gobbling lifestyle, he was moralizing others for these same habits long before he himself was free of them. He never practiced chastity, though preaching it was his primary concern. Finally, War and Peace, which boasts some 580 characters and ranks as literature's premiere work of fiction, also consistently lands on 'overrated' lists. Many readers found it painfully wordy and boring to boot.
Well, as the old saying goes… those crazy Russians. Tolstoy was tormented, stumbling toward morality with the same clumsy gait as the rest of us, baring his quest through his unforgettable literature. His greatest disappointment was his failure to meet the perfection he sought.
Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 outside of Moscow. His father was an impoverished count. His mother was Princess Marya, an heiress with 800 serfs and vast estates. But Mom died when Leo was just two, and Dad had a stroke in 1837. A few years later, both Grandma and Leo's guardian aunt died. Leo and his siblings inherited vast wealth, but they were rudderless from early on.
Leo was 17 when he started to study Oriental language in university, but his teachers considered him unwilling and unable to learn. He never finished his studies, though he began writing, critiquing Russian society and philosophizing on property management.
Leo's brothers had already taken him to a brothel to lose his virginity by this time, and the experience was pivotal: he would forever after be excruciatingly conflicted about sex. But Tolstoy had problems that were of far more consequence than his tortured musings on the devil in the shape of a woman. He developed a crippling addiction to gambling that would erase much of his fortune by the time he turned 25. He also drank like a fish. He made resolutions to change his ways, and even joined the army in hopes of discipline, but he sold his forests, homes, even his watch and gambled the money away. By 1855, he was so tormented by "fits of lust" and reckless spending that he turned with careful attention to the teachings of Christ. He began to turn his life from one of excess into one of ascetic denial.
The peace Tolstoy sought was nothing short of becoming perfect, like Jesus, through denial of the material world. But Tolstoy didn't trust the church to lead him -- he believed truth was in The Sermon on the Mount. He processed existential struggles through fiction novellas and serials, short stories, and essays, and while still in the throes of the compulsions of his youth, he published the biographical reflections Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. (By the time he was 40 when he finished War and Peace.)
In 1862, the writer married a woman half his age. He wed the 17-year-old girl a week after proposing, and their marriage, lifelong though it lasted, was doomed and tumultuous from the start. Tolstoy's obsession with purity and his guilt for repeated STDs plagued him, and to start fresh, he felt he and his bride should come clean and harbor no secrets. But the young girl didn't have many secrets. Still, she was subjected to Leo's sex diaries. "I don't think I ever recovered from the shock of reading the diaries when I was engaged to him," Sonya wrote decades later. The journals chronicled his youthful deflowering at 14, his bastard children, and his promiscuous adventures with married women, gypsies, and loose ladies of every ilk. "Tolstoy, though he loved and desired Sonya, thought nothing of sacrificing her … peace of mind, to his need to enforce his own truth. He wanted to confess his sins, whether his wife wanted to know them or not," wrote David Laskin in Tolstoy's War with Love.
Laskin notes that the marriage suffered because of Tolstoy's hang-ups. Despite the flash education in Porn 101, Sonya was devoted and dedicated to nurturing Leo's literature. But soon, the pleasures of the flesh came to symbolize the pain of pregnancy and childrearing -- poor Sonya gave birth to thirteen kids, of whom only seven survived past childhood. The constant grief and the exhaustion was hell. Laskin quotes Sonya: "With each new child," she wrote, "one sacrifices a little more of one's life." Tolstoy's routine of "uncontrollable lust" followed by guilt and berating the source of that lust got tired fast.
Worse, Tolstoy went on and on about women's God-given role as baby making machines, speaking with detest of anyone who might complain or express suffering. He insisted that the "loftiest height of bliss" was only available to women who submitted entirely to men and sacrificed their bodies to him, even if death became her. All other women were whores, and he wrote cruel letters to Sonya when she evaded his advances or his teachings.
Meanwhile, as Tolstoy got older, he began to amass a discipleship. He preached in an old sackcloth, speaking about love of humanity, sacrifice, the denial of materialism, compassion, following the teachings of Jesus, chastity like Christ, and of course, famously, vegetarianism. His wife was horrified that he could preach love and peace while neglecting his own children and exploding with rage at home.
The story of how the world's foremost genius condemned the killing and eating of animals as unnatural is used frequently to illuminate vegetarian ethics. It is true the pain he witnessed visiting a slaughterhouse moved him. But Leo had other reasons for preaching abstinence -- he believed it inflamed lust. "Virtue is incompatible with beefsteaks," he wrote in The Immorality of Carnivorism. Meat "only … to excite desire, and to promote fornication and drunkenness." Today, PETA claims vegetarians do it better, but for Tolstoy, it was meat, not vegetables, that meant "the excitation of the passions." All that fornicating and pregnancy meant poor Sonya needed a bit of protein time to time, for which Leo berated her.
Then he told her he could not love her until she had reached his level of spiritual enlightenment, but as he waxed philosophical, she went about trying to feed the family. Some of her profitable enterprises -- reissuing his complete works, for example -- infuriated him. His perceived superior grasp on Christ's teachings of humility and neighbourly love were ironic as the relationship with his wife turned abusive. Then, in an ultimate act of vindication, in 1889, Tolstoy published The Kreutzer Sonata, an indictment of marriage as a disgusting cesspool of prostitution. The thinly veiled 'fiction' clearly demonstrated his hatred toward women and sex so much so that the character murders his wife. Laskin notes that Sonya found it repulsive that Leo should publicly humiliate her and call her ugly and immoral, yet continue to force himself on her sexually, and she continued to pump out babies. It was not long after the book's circulation that Sonya attempted suicide. She was to make several attempts.
Leo, meanwhile, continued to wrestle with angels and demons, and he faced great depressions at the fact he had never lived up to his ideals. Though Tolstoyism was now rippling throughout the world, even to South Africa to young Ghandi, Tolstoy was still struggling with lust, copyright and the material world. He continued to write about art, God, Russian imperialism, materialism and Christ, but he never reached the perfection he'd been sure was within grasp. Though much of his work was censored for political or pacifist content, it was circulated widely nonetheless. And while Leo philosophized and wrote, it was the half-mad Sonya who held the family and its affairs together. She struggled to hold onto property and money in order to feed and clothe her kids even as Leo insisted on giving it away, frequently renouncing their property entirely. At one point, he signed over all copyrights to share his work publicly with no royalties. This was not exactly wise in the middle of the Russian famine.
In later life, even more troubles abounded. The government began releasing propaganda renouncing Leo as a dangerous revolutionary. The family lived in fear of arrest or deportation, until an aunt in the Tsar's court smoothed ruffled feathers on the writer's behalf. Then his unorthodox views got him into trouble with the Orthodox Church, and he was excommunicated. Several of his disciples were exiled, and police followed the family.
But Tolstoy was still mostly worried about his failure to renounce his family and possessions and live as an ascetic. At 82, he gathered the nerve to abandon his wealth and loved ones for good. He didn't make it far. As if God was mocking Tolstoy's eventual courage, the writer took ill at the train station, and died.
And in final punctuation of their love-hate relationship, Tolstoy's disciples would not let Sonya near his deathbed. So much for Christ-like love and humility! And when she died, the couple's request to be buried together was not honored and a lifetime of upheaval together ended in eternal separation. Perhaps their turmoil could have been abated if both had heeded Tolstoy's famous advice: "Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love."
He's been buried for nearly a century, but I'm not so sure Tolstoy is yet at peace with that struggle for his own ideals. As the Buddhists like to say, no matter where you go, there you are. In Tolstoy's own words, it goes like this: "I am always with myself and it is I who am my tormentor."