Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Orwell

Tolstoy hated Shakespeare and thought that other people’s admiration for him was “a great evil, as is every untruth.” Orwell’s response, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” is a rich and wise essay that probably expresses more of what I believe than almost any other 10 pages in English. It includes many interesting asides, for instance, about the relationship between aesthetic and moral judgment, Tolstoy’s personal resemblance to Lear, and–quite timely for us–a warning not to equate libertarianism/anarchism with real love of freedom:

    There are people who are convinced of the wickedness both of armies and of police forces, but who are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances. They will not say to somebody else, ‘Do this, that and the other or you will go to prison’, but they will, if they can, get inside his brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars. Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind. For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics — a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage — surely that proves that you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.

Orwell is not in the least pious about Shakespeare. His essay is full of high-handed complaints like this one: “Tolstoy is right in saying that Lear is not a very good play, as a play. It is too drawn-out and has too many characters and sub-plots. One wicked daughter would have been quite enough, and Edgar is a superfluous character: indeed it would probably be a better play if Gloucester and both his sons were eliminated.” (I don’t agree in the slightest, but we have to acknowledge Orwell’s independence.)

In any case, the main theme of the essay is a defense of Shakespeare as a “humanist,” and one might summarize the debate as follows. The elderly Tolstoy hated the world because people suffered in it. But he thought (along with Schopenhauer, Gandhi, and Christian ascetics) that the world was so organized that one could achieve happiness and redemption by renouncing the everyday temptations and evils of it. As a person, Tolstoy tried to renounce his title, estate, money, and copyrights–although, like Lear, he found that abdication is not easy. As an author, he also increasingly favored renunciation. As Orwell notes:

    He never said that art, as such, is wicked or meaningless, nor did he even say that technical virtuosity is unimportant. But his main aim, in his later years, was to narrow the range of human consciousness. One’s interests, one’s points of attachment to the physical world and the day-to-day struggle, must be as few and not as many as possible. Literature must consist of parables, stripped of detail and almost independent of language. The parables–this is where Tolstoy differs from the average vulgar puritan–must themselves be works of art, but pleasure and curiosity must be excluded from them.

Shakespeare, in sharp contrast, was a man of the world–to a fault. (“He liked to stand well with the rich and powerful, and was capable of flattering them in the most servile way.”) His love of the world was the essence of his art. It led him away from simplifications, generalizations, theories, and moralistic endings. It made him want to depict every kind of thing and character and to keep his own judgments off the stage. It made him love speech to the extent that he could write complete nonsense for the sheer music of it. “Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life.”

I am deep into War and Peace but not finished with it, and I cannot say whether the younger Tolstoy was already ascetic enough to be an opposite of Shakespeare. Whether to embrace or renounce “life” is an explicit question for Andrei, Pierre, and Marya, among other characters in War and Peace. When Prince Andrei is gravely wounded at Borodino, he is filled with a love for life that makes him embrace and forgive the odious Anatole Kuragin, whom he had once wanted to kill in a duel. The “life” that Andrei loves is highly abstract; its “best and happiest moments” are exemplified by times when, “in his most distant childhood, … burying his head in the pillows, he had felt happy in the mere consciousness of life.” With your head buried in pillows, you are not aware of anyone in particular. Andrei could be one of those who love humanity but can’t stand people. Shakespeare, I think, was just the opposite–he liked each one of his characters without thinking that the whole business meant anything. “Ripeness is all,” as Edgar puts it (having just seen Lear, Tolstoy-like, defeated).

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