No Comment, Quotation — December 28, 2011, 7:26 pm

Tolstoy: The Chain of Ideas that Constitutes Art

ilja_jefimowitsch_repin_004

??? ??? ?????? ????? ????? ??????, ??? ?????????, ???? ????????? ??? ????. ??????, ??? ???? ?? ?? ???? ?????? ???????, ?? ????? ?? ????????? ? ??, ?????????? ?????????, ???? ?? ???????. ?????? ??, ??????, ??? ????? 9/10 ????? ????????? ???? ???????, ?? ??? ??????? ????????? ????? ????, ??????? ?? ?????????? ??????????? ??????????? ?????? ? ?????????????? ???????????? ? ????????? ?????????? ?? ????????? ? ??? ??????????? ????????? ?????????, ? ??????? ? ??????? ???????? ?????????, ? ? ??? ???????, ??????? ?????? ?????????? ???? ?????????.

? ???? ??????? ?????? ??? ???????? ? ? ????????? ????? ???????? ??, ??? ? ???? ???????, ?? ? ?? ?????????? ? ????? ???? ??????? qu’ils en savent plus long que moi.

And this is why such a charming egghead as Grigoriev is of so little interest to me. It’s true, if there had been no criticism at all, then Grigoriev and you, persons who understand literature, would be superfluous. Today, however, when 9/10 of all that is published is criticism, for art criticism, we need people who would show the senselessness of looking for ideas in a work of art, but who instead would continually guide readers in that endless labyrinth of linkages that makes up the stuff of art, and bring them to the laws that serve as foundation for those linkages.

And if critics can now understand, and even express in newspaper scrawl what I am trying to say, then I congratulate them and can bravely assure them that they know more about it than I do.

—Count Lev Nikolaievich Tolstoy, letter to Nikolai Strakhov, April 23, 1876.


Leo Tolstoy had some rather eccentric thoughts about art and its role in society. He rejected the art-for-art’s-sake view arising from antiquity, insisting instead upon a moral foundation for art—in his case, a morality based on an understanding of early Christianity. He was notoriously distant from the thinking of the Orthodox Church of his day, being persuaded that it had strayed far from the original thinking of Christ and his early followers.

Art, for Tolstoy, was about conveying feelings across time and cultures; good art involved the transmission of feelings that were compelling and associated with proper moral values. Of course, the reader of the Kreutzer Sonata or Anna Karenina knows that these morals are not necessarily consonant with the mores of society, for fidelity to one’s emotions plays a significant role in Tolstoy’s artistry, too.

Tolstoy was also a pronounced anti-snob. Too much refinement, too conscious an effort to play to the sentiments and understandings of a small cultural elite, ruined art. In his view, a Beethoven sonata might well be serious art, but the heroic Choral Symphony could never be, because too few listeners could appreciate it. Universality is therefore an essential aspect of Tolstoy’s vision of art. True art must strive to free itself from the conventions of any given age and place; it must needs be true in different societies and cultures. This very universality helps to clarify that something is not trivial or transitory, but enduring and thus something that merits the name art. This thought emerges briefly in a letter Tolstoy wrote to his friend Nikolai Strakhov in 1876, in the midst of a lampooning delivered to contemporary Russian art critics. One of the things that marks great art is a sense of linkage, or engagement with the past. This very engagement is evidence of universality.

My friend Harold Bloom takes this passage as a motto for his recent book of literary criticism, The Anatomy of Influence—very appropriately, for it is a work of genuine art criticism in the Tolstoyan tradition. Though fortunately for us, Bloom is far more generous in his understanding of what great art may be.


Listen to the first movement (Präludium) of Max Reger’s Cello Suite No. 3 in A Minor, opus 131c (1915) performed by Guido Schiefen:

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2019

“Tell Me How This Ends”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Without a Trace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What China Threat?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going to Extremes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What China Threat?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
Article
Without a Trace·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
Article
Going to Extremes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Illustration by Leigh Wells (detail)
Article
“Tell Me How This Ends”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2, 2015

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chances that a black American adult attended Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963:

1 in 60

Undersea volcanoes erupt almost always between January and June.

The 70th governor of Ohio was sworn in on nine Bibles, which were held by his wife.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today