I have read Leo Tolstoy. Granted, I only read a snippet of his — and, granted, the initial elation eventually shattered upon learning that the What Is Art? that I read was a mere excerpt — but I’ve read Leo Tolstoy. More disclaimers, I suppose: It’s not his fiction, and am I not “supposed to” read his fiction first? [Plus, I'm reading Tolstoy for The Classics Circuit, and I admit flaking out. For one, I don't have a copy of his novels, though his short stories look appealing.] But — although I enjoyed what I’ve read of Tolstoy, snippets they might be — I’m wondering whether I really do want to read Tolstoy, a Tolstoy not as, well, not as priggish as he came to be. The Tolstoy I was witness to.
From Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy, edited by Jay Parini, I read Work, Death and Sickness, Three Questions, and an excerpt [augh] from What Is Art?, the bulk of which I’ll talk about in this post. Some quick impressions on the first two — they’re rather pedantic, in the format of “legends” or “fables”, incredibly moralistic, and I was rather tolerant with Tolstoy the Preacher. I don’t know why I bore it — maybe because, well, I had an inkling of the track Tolstoy’s life took in his final years. I was tolerant, yes, but I didn’t like them.
And that leads us to What Is Art?, which I liked. A lot. Too bad it’s not the whole text. [Rest assured, I was crushed upon learning this.] I wasn’t able to take notes on my notebook, but I was scribbling on the margins, some of which I’ve taken pictures of. [I apologize in advance for the crappy photos. I was freaking out re creasing the spine, haha.] Where was I? Oh yeah. I liked this one, I liked it a lot.
Perhaps it’s today’s whole “Art is whatever art is for everybody” that makes a lot of people reticent about proclaiming something about the nature of art. And when someone does pose a definition, most look upon them with scorn, think them arrogant, at times laughable. How dare you? we tend to say. It’s not so much cowardice, I think, on the part of people who want to define. But it could be indifference, in that Hey, everyone else has a definition, why bother? It could be pragmatism, in that, Hey, everyone else has a definition, why bother? It could be, I don’t know, it could be the humility of knowing that everyone else has a definition. Plus, more often than not, people who have risked defining art these days, well, most do it to just ruffle some feathers.
And Tolstoy, well, he’s got guts. I guess that’s what hit me first with this — The audacity to define what art is, and to do it so skillfully, so artfully. Although a part of me still rebels against the idea that someone dares define art — doesn’t that take away a piece of the art? but that’s just me — I liked how Tolstoy said it, I liked that he said his piece. Then again, he’s Tolstoy — I could forgive him many things.
I suppose what struck me most about Tolstoy’s treatise — and I nodded several times throughout the text — was 1] how earnest the man was, 2] how sincere he seemed, 3] how he himself defined his very standards. A conscious effort, perhaps, or maybe simply effortless. . . . The receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. That’s what Art is, Tolstoy tells us: An infection, a total permeation, a seamless union.
I am the first to admit that I read him as I would read assigned text for school. The scribbles and markings are not so much marginalia as they were notes, even weapons, haha. I wish I had a scanner, then I could show you how I argued with Tolstoy at times, posed questions to the text and myself, seemed like I was preparing for a graded recitation for the next day. Though some may point out that this is not “the right way” to read literature, this was the very way I enjoyed Tolstoy. He who struck fear into many a heart with just the sight of his name printed on the cover of a book.
Reading begets reading:
- Of course I want to read the whole thing. Of course, not a single copy can be found in this country.
- Jay Parini, who edited this Penguin Classics collection, has written a novel: The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year, and the novel is threaded with snippets from the collection, be it letters or essays, or just reflections. As of posting this, I’m halfway through the novel. And can I just whine about how many names I have to keep track of? One person has seventy-eight nicknames, it confuzzles me.
- This means I have to read Anna Karenina, no? Gulp. To those who have read it, seriously now: Is my brain going to melt? Are my bones going to buckle by lugging the book around? [Although I am partial to getting this edition.] Or maybe I just want to read Anna Karenina because of, well, peer pressure? Should I just stop at this collection? I’m leaning towards Yeah, let it go.