Tolstoy’s preposterously perverse (and delightfully hilarious) claim that Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was a finer work of literature than Shakespeare’s King Lear has (since its declaration in his 1897 essay, “What is Art?”) provoked more sound and fury than insight into its elusive meaning. Tolstoy’s seemingly unjust belittlement of Shakespeare’s genius (and his elevation of Stowe’s moralistic novel to such exalted status) has been attributed to the Count’s envy of the bard, or to his stubborn preference for ‘moral’ art over what he took to be Shakespeare’s reluctance to cast definitive moral judgment upon his characters. And while there is no doubt a measure of truth in such attempts to account for Tolstoy’s outlandish and peculiar remark, I’m not sure they satisfactorily resolve this mysterious matter.
It should first be recalled that in his later years, Tolstoy’s practical and philosophical asceticism was carried to such an extreme that he effectively renounced his entire previous literary output—arguably, the work of one of the supreme artists in the history of world literature. Few novelists have given the world such rich offerings as came from the prolific pen of this great lover—and keen observer—of humanity. If anyone can be said to have understood and to have appreciated the enormous value of art for life—from the inside out, so to speak—Tolstoy did, as Shakespeare had before him.
If we can provisionally allow that the marvelous creations of literary genius come to us from the province of the soul, or imagination—and the peculiarly anti-worldly virtues of asceticism come from the austere and purified spirit, then perhaps we place ourselves in a better position to understand Tolstoy’s gripe with Shakespeare—as well as his near-rejection of his own imaginative creations—from a slightly subtler psychological perspective than those typically entertained.
I would suggest that what we are up against in Tolstoy’s implicit disparagement of the imagination (or, more precisely, an imagination that is not ultimately beholden to his unconventional version ‘Christian’ morality) is the perhaps unavoidable tension between spirit, as such, and soul, regarded here as the reflective and imaginative mediatrix between spirit and body. This creative tension (when regarded from the perspective of spirit) arises because the imagination, by its very nature, seduces the spirit out of its detached, isolated unity, bringing it down from its imageless altitude and purity—back into ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil,’ as it were—the tragicomedy of the human-all-too-human. Tolstoy’s asceticism, like all genuine forms of asceticism, aspired chiefly to transcendence, to complete and pure renunciation of all binding (and blinding) selfish attachments. My suspicion is that the most stubbornly tenacious attachment of all for Tolstoy was his attachment to his work as an imaginative artist. (We should be eternally grateful for the ‘lapses,’ in his old age, from this austere suspension of his literary work—when his genius got the better of him, and, as a result, we have an extraordinary novella like the splendid Hadji Murat to delight in.) It would seem that in spite of his unquestionably sincere efforts to transcend his former self he was, to the very end, an artist through and through. The swipe he makes at Shakespeare is perhaps best taken as the index of his frustration over being unable altogether to change his own spots.
It is worth noting that in Shakespeare’s final play, Prospero throws his book of spells and magic incantations into the sea after striking the ‘magical isle’ stage set he has previously conjured. But then Shakespeare, too, seems to have been unable entirely to sever his long and vitalizing connection with the London theater, as we know from his subsequent collaborations.
Perhaps the deepest hindrance that stood in the way of Tolstoy’s efforts to become thoroughly ‘spiritualized’ or ‘transcended’ rested in his ultimate inability to decisively move ‘beyond good and evil’—as Nietzsche may very possibly have done, if only in episodic, discontinuous spurts of ecstasy. Tolstoy’s thoroughly humane and compassionate nature, and not merely his infinitely fertile imagination, prevented him, ironically, from abstracting his mind and attention completely into the realm of cold, pure spirit, where all attachments must first be incinerated before entrance is permitted.