Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Leo Tolstoy’

20 NOVEMBER, 2013

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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09 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Leo Tolstoy on Emotional Infectiousness and What Separates Good Art from Bad

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“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.”

By 1897, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) was already a literary legend of worldwide acclaim and a man deeply invested in his ultimate quest to unravel the most important wisdom on life. But he shocked the world when he published What Is Art? (public library; public domain) that year — an iconoclastic , which gave us Tolstoy’s addition to history’s finest definitions of art and which pulled into question the creative merits of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and even his very own Anna Karenina. Underneath his then-radical and controversial reflections, however, lies a rich meditation on the immutable, eternal question of what art — especially “good art” — actually is, and how to tell it from its impostors and opposites.

Tolstoy puts forth a sentiment Susan Sontag would come to echo decades later in asserting that “art is a form of consciousness,” and frames the essential role of art as a vehicle of communication and empathy:

In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.

Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression.

[…]

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. … And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.

This core quality of art Tolstoy calls its “infectiousness,” and upon the artist’s ability to “infect” others depends the very recognition of something as art:

If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art.

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling — this is the activity of art.

Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.

Tolstoy defies the academy’s intellectualizations of art:

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.

More than a bridge from person to person, he argues, art is a bridge across eras, cultures, and lifetimes — a kind of immortality:

As, thanks to man’s capacity to express thoughts by words, every man may know all that has been done for him in the realms of thought by all humanity before his day, and can in the present, thanks to this capacity to understand the thoughts of others, become a sharer in their activity and can himself hand on to his contemporaries and descendants the thoughts he has assimilated from others, as well as those which have arisen within himself; so, thanks to man’s capacity to be infected with the feelings of others by means of art, all that is being lived through by his contemporaries is accessible to him, as well as the feelings experienced by men thousands of years ago, and he has also the possibility of transmitting his own feelings to others.

If people lacked this capacity to receive the thoughts conceived by the men who preceded them and to pass on to others their own thoughts, men would be like wild beasts… And if men lacked this other capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still, and, above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another.

An illustration by Maurice Sendak from a 1963 edition of 'Nikolenka's Childhood' by Tolstoy. Click image for more.

Lamenting the growing perversion of the art world, which has warped our ability to tell good art from bad, Tolstoy insists that the only way to distinguish true art from its counterfeit is by this very notion of infectiousness:

If a man, without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint on reading, hearing, or seeing another man’s work, experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with other people who also partake of that work of art, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art. And however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it).

[…]

The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that 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. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist — not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.

Infectiousness, however, is not a mere binary quality. Tolstoy argues that, much as in Samuel Delany’s distinction between good writing vs. talented writing, the degree of infectiousness is what separates good art from excellent art. He offers three conditions that determine the degree of infectiousness:

The stronger the infection, the better is the art as art, speaking now apart from its subject matter, i.e., not considering the quality of the feelings it transmits. And the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:

  1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
  2. on the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
  3. on the sincerity of the artist, i.e., on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he transmits.

The more individual the feeling transmitted the more strongly does it act on the receiver; the more individual the state of soul into which he is transferred, the more pleasure does the receiver obtain, and therefore the more readily and strongly does he join in it.

The clearness of expression assists infection because the receiver, who mingles in consciousness with the author, is the better satisfied the more clearly the feeling is transmitted, which, as it seems to him, he has long known and felt, and for which he has only now found expression.

But most of all is the degree of infectiousness of art increased by the degree of sincerity in the artist. As soon as the spectator, hearer, or reader feels that the artist is infected by his own production, and writes, sings, or plays for himself, and not merely to act on others, this mental condition of the artist infects the receiver; and contrariwise, as soon as the spectator, reader, or hearer feels that the author is not writing, singing, or playing for his own satisfaction — does not himself feel what he wishes to express — but is doing it for him, the receiver, a resistance immediately springs up, and the most individual and the newest feelings and the cleverest technique not only fail to produce any infection but actually repel.

I have mentioned three conditions of contagiousness in art, but they may be all summed up into one, the last, sincerity, i.e., that the artist should be impelled by an inner need to express his feeling. That condition includes the first; for if the artist is sincere he will express the feeling as he experienced it. And as each man is different from everyone else, his feeling will be individual for everyone else; and the more individual it is — the more the artist has drawn it from the depths of his nature — the more sympathetic and sincere will it be. And this same sincerity will impel the artist to find a clear expression of the feeling which he wishes to transmit.

Therefore this third condition — sincerity — is the most important of the three. It is always complied with in peasant art, and this explains why such art always acts so powerfully; but it is a condition almost entirely absent from our upper-class art, which is continually produced by artists actuated by personal aims of covetousness or vanity.

Such are the three conditions which divide art from its counterfeits, and which also decide the quality of every work of art apart from its subject matter.

[…]

The presence in various degrees of these three conditions — individuality, clearness, and sincerity — decides the merit of a work of art as art, apart from subject matter. All works of art take rank of merit according to the degree in which they fulfill the first, the second, and the third of these conditions. In one the individuality of the feeling transmitted may predominate; in another, clearness of expression; in a third, sincerity; while a fourth may have sincerity and individuality but be deficient in clearness; a fifth, individuality and clearness but less sincerity; and so forth, in all possible degrees and combinations.

Thus is art divided from that which is not art, and thus is the quality of art as art decided, independently of its subject matter, i.e., apart from whether the feelings it transmits are good or bad.

Complement What Is Art? with Tolstoy’s timeless Calendar of Wisdom and this rare recording of the author reading from the latter in English shortly before his death.

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19 JUNE, 2013

Maurice Sendak Illustrates Tolstoy

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Soulful drawings of sorrow and love by the young and insecure artist.

In 1961, legendary editor Ursula Norstrom sent young Maurice Sendak an exquisite letter of creative encouragement as he was spiraling into self-doubt while working on a children’s adaptation of Nikolenka’s Childhood (public library) by Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1852 — an intense, expressionistic chronicle of the inner life of a young boy, the first novel in the author’s autobiographical trilogy.

Thanks to Nordstrom’s steadfast support, Sendak did finish the project and it was published two years later, the same year Sendak’s own now-iconic Where the Wild Things Are was released. His youthful insecurity, however, presents a beautiful parallel to the coming-of-age themes Tolstoy explores. The illustrations, presented here from a surviving copy of the 1963 gem, are as tender and soulful as young Sendak’s spirit:

The closing pages of the book echo the ideas and ideals of Tolstoy’s personal magnum opus, his Calendar of Wisdom, as he describes the final moments of the family’s lovable servant, Natalya Savishna:

She left this life without regret, did not fear death, and accepted it as a boon. This is often said, but how seldom it really is so! … Her whole life had been pure unselfish love and self-sacrifice.

What if her beliefs might have been more lofty and her life devoted to higher aims — was that pure soul therefore less worthy of love and admiration?

She accomplished the best and greatest thing in life — she died without regrets or fear.

Though long out of print, used copies of the Sendak-illustrated Nikolenka’s Childhood can still be found online. Complement it with Sendak’s posthumous love letter to the world and his unreleased drawings and intaglio prints.

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