Brain Pickings

War, Peace, and Listicles: Leo Tolstoy on Money, Fame, and Writing for the Wrong Reasons

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A lament on being “self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is.”

Celebrated as a titan of literature, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828 – November 20, 1910) wasn’t always a man of timeless wisdom on how to live well and immutable insight on what makes great art. In his 1879 memoir of emotional crisis, A Confession (public library), he recounts with exquisite self-awareness and harrowing remorse his early days of breaking into writing — a time during which he had become blinded to the deeper meaning of life by the lustrous promise of fame and money, embodying Orwell’s cynical assertion that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy”:

During that time I began to write from vanity, covetousness, and pride. In my writings I did the same as in my life. To get fame and money, for the sake of which I wrote, it was necessary to hide the good and to display the evil. And I did so. How often in my writings I contrived to hide under the guise of indifference, or even of banter, those strivings of mine towards goodness which gave meaning to my life! And I succeeded in this and was praised.

The pursuit of that praise became a religion at the altar of which Tolstoy began to worship zealously as he came to believe that the artist’s goal was to teach mankind — a proposition at which he winces in hindsight, realizing that to teach requires to know what is meaningful to be taught:

I was considered an admirable artist and poet, and therefore it was very natural for me to adopt this theory. I, artist and poet, wrote and taught without myself knowing what. For this I was paid money; I had excellent food, lodging, women, and society; and I had fame, which showed that what I taught was very good.

This faith in the meaning of poetry and in the development of life was a religion, and I was one of its priests. To be its priest was very pleasant and profitable. And I lived a considerable time in this faith without doubting its validity.

But in a couple of years, he began to doubt this religion of authorship-as-sainthood and to notice its toxic hypocrisies, which both he and his circle of peers — his “personal micro-culture,” as William Gibson might say — embodied. And still, he found himself at once repelled by the duplicity of the acclaim he had worked so hard for and attracted to the status it bestowed upon him:

Having begun to doubt the truth of the authors’ creed itself, I also began to observe its priests more attentively, and I became convinced that almost all the priests of that religion, the writers, were immoral, and for the most part men of bad, worthless character, much inferior to those whom I had met in my former dissipated and military life; but they were self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is. These people revolted me, I became revolting to myself, and I realized that that faith was a fraud.

But strange to say, though I understood this fraud and renounced it, yet I did not renounce the rank these people gave me: the rank of artist, poet, and teacher. I naively imagined that I was a poet and artist and could teach everybody without myself knowing what I was teaching, and I acted accordingly.

From my intimacy with these men I acquired a new vice: abnormally developed pride and an insane assurance that it was my vocation to teach men, without knowing what.

Leo Tolstoy at age 20, 1848

His most poignant lament, however, is chillingly prescient of today’s linkbait “journalism” of ceaseless listicles and vacant slideshows published by those who seek easy riches rather than the enrichment of a reader’s soul — or their own souls — with articles like “20 Amazing Things You Didn’t Know about Miley Cyrus’s Cat.” Tolstoy writes:

We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote — teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions: What is good and what is evil? We did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another — just as in a lunatic asylum.

[…]

It was terribly strange, but is now quite comprehensible. Our real innermost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible. To gain that end we could do nothing except write books and papers. So we did that. But in order to do such useless work and to feel assured that we were very important people we required a theory justifying our activity. And so among us this theory was devised: “All that exists is reasonable. All that exists develops. And it all develops by means of Culture. And Culture is measured by the circulation of books and newspapers. And we are paid money and are respected because we write books and newspapers, and therefore we are the most useful and the best of men.” This theory would have been all very well if we had been unanimous, but as every thought expressed by one of us was always met by a diametrically opposite thought expressed by another, we ought to have been driven to reflection. But we ignored this; people paid us money and those on our side praised us, so each of us considered himself justified.

A Confession is immeasurably poignant in its entirety, at once timeless and timely whenever it is read. Complement it with this rare recording of Tolstoy reading from his Calendar of Wisdom shortly before his death.

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