One hundred years ago, Leo Tolstoy lay dying at a train station in southern Russia. Journalists, acolytes and newsreel photographers gathered for the passing of the great prophet. Between 3:30 and 5:30 on that freezing November morning, Tolstoys wife stood on the porch outside his death chamber because his acolytes would not let her in. At one point she begged them to at least admit her into an anteroom so that the photographers would get the impression she was being allowed to see her husband on his final day.
There are many reasons to think about Tolstoy on the centennial of his death. Among them: his ability to see. Tolstoy had an almost superhuman ability to perceive reality.
As a young man, he was both sensually and spiritually acute. He drank, gambled and went off in search of sensations and adventures. But he also experienced piercing religious crises.
As a soldier, he conceived a stupendous idea, to the realization of which I feel capable of dedicating my whole life. The idea is the founding of a new religion corresponding to the present development of mankind: The religion of Christ purged of dogmas and mysticism.
But when he sat down to write his great novels, his dreams of saving mankind were bleached out by the vividness of the reality he saw around him. Readers often comment that the worlds created in those books are more vivid than the real world around them. With Olympian detachment and piercing directness, Tolstoy could describe a particular tablecloth, a particular moment in a particular battle, and the particular feeling in a girls heart before a ball.
He had his biases. In any Tolstoy story, the simple, rural characters are likely to be good and the urbane ones bad. But his ability to enter into and recreate the experiences of each of his characters overwhelms his generalizations.
Isaiah Berlin famously argued that Tolstoy was a writer in search of Big Truths, but his ability to see reality in all its particulars destroyed the very theories he hoped to build. By entering directly into life in all its contradictions, he destroyed his own peace of mind.
As Tolstoy himself wrote, The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.
But after Anna Karenina, that changed. He was overwhelmed by the pointlessness of existence. As his biographer A.N. Wilson surmises, he ran out of things to write about. He had consumed the material of his life.
So he gave up big novels and became a holy man. Fulfilling his early ambition, he created his own religion, which rejected the Jesus story but embraced the teachings of Jesus. He embraced simplicity, poverty, vegetarianism, abstinence, poverty and pacifism. He dressed like a peasant. He wrote religious tracts to attract people to the simple, pure life.
Many contemporary readers like the novel-writing Tolstoy but regard the holy man as a semi-crackpot. But he was still Tolstoy, and his later writings were still brilliant. Moreover, he inspired a worldwide movement, deeply influencing Gandhi among many others. He emerged as the Russian governments most potent critic the one the czar didnt dare imprison.
What had changed, though, was his ability to see. Now a crusader instead of an observer, he was absurd as often as he was brilliant. He went slumming with the peasantry, making everybody feel uncomfortable. Hed try to mow the grass (badly), make shoes (worse), and then hed return to his mansion for dinner. He was the first trust-fund hippie. He seemed to lose perspective about himself: I alone understand the doctrine of Jesus.
There were many consistencies running through Tolstoys life, but there were also two phases: first, the novelist; then, the crusader. And each of these activities called forth its own way of seeing.
As a novelist, Tolstoy was an unsurpassed observer. But he found that life unfulfilling. As he set out to improve the world, his ability to perceive it deteriorated. Instead of conforming his ideas to the particularities of existence, he conformed his perception of reality to his vision for the world. He preached universal love but seemed oblivious to the violence he was doing to his family.
In middle age, it was as a novelist that Tolstoy achieved his most lasting influence. After all, description is prescription. If you can get people to see the world as you do, you have unwittingly framed every subsequent choice.
But public spirited, he also wanted to heal the world directly. Tolstoy devoted himself to activism and spiritual improvement and paid the mental price. After all, most historical leaders write pallid memoirs not because they are hiding the truth but because theyve been engaged in an activity that makes it impossible for them to see it clearly. Activism is admirable, necessary and self-undermining - the more passionate, the more self-blinding.
David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and a commentator on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.