What is the role of the author biography in our culture? Or more to the point, where do the lives of writers come into play? This question is not meant to be restricted to any particular brand of writers, “popular” or “literate,” “political” or “commonplace,” “fantastical” or “realist”, etc. It is merely an attempt to understand, does the life of a writer profoundly affect us as much as their particular works? In the case of John Locke it seems to matter very little to the common laymen whether or not his characters was of disreputable standing. Whereas in the case of Thomas Jefferson, who built a lasting legacy through plagiarizing the latter’s ideas and texts, it is of great importance whether or not the man was a rapist or sexual oppressor, history has answered at least one these questions and been proven true. Writers such as George Orwell, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and William Shakespeare are surrounded by a kind of “romantic aura of the writer” to the society that houses them and their works. Each name inspires emotions, sensations, images, and feelings that are distinctly their own and we cannot possibly imagine them otherwise.
What then of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy? Ask many people and their opinions will most likely be vague apart from knowledge of his great works War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I admit to my great shame that I have read neither of these supreme works, though I did begin the second before my mother announced she had always wanted to read it and I charitably returned her copy of the book back to her (the woman did give birth to me so I suppose letting her keep her books is a fair trade off). She informs me regularly that it is excellent. Returning to my original point however, the name Tolstoy, I cannot say “carries great weight” for that is both stale and borders on empty repetitious rhetoric, is a powerhouse. Would that we live in a world, where Russia did not inspire such sublime awe. The writing of Tolstoy effects not simple emotion but a larger sense of possibility. The name War and Peace summons in our collected unconscious a sense of achievement. Note how I stated to you that I felt great shame for having completed neither work. Through the reinforcement of our culture, the novel now exists as a great intellectual achievement ranking beside wonders as Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, Les Miserables, and Moby Dick (which I admit with pride I have read all but one, Finnegan’s Wake is…well, that is for another essay). So what? Tolstoy’s work exists in our public knowledge as a really long book, does that really matter?
Yes it does. If a work is surrounded by such mystique and cultural respect, then the author who has penned such a work must assume pressing significance to the culture that created him. There are many biographies of Tolstoy on the market. I have read only one and it is unlikely that is going to change. Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson, like the author is a powerhouse that leaves the reader emotionally drained and simultaneously fascinated to a level that is wondrous. Few biographies reach the depth of human character that Wilson summons for the reader, but more importantly, his work places Tolstoy into the character and idea of Russia.
Published in 1988, three years before the soviet Union officially dissolved reverting back into Russia, though with Putin’s most recent behavior one wonders how long before Soviet ambitions become re-realized, the book’s effort is to present Tolstoy as the spiritual animal of the country while demonstrating the power of the man who surpassed the people’s around him inspiring a cult around his ideas and works. The typical image of Tolstoy is the bearded old peasant writing stories of aristocracy, and Wilson is effective in helping us realize that Tolstoy’s life was a balancing act between peasantry and the aristocracy of his country. Indeed, he even manages to touch upon,
Wilson’s contemporary, soviet influence by examining this trait of his character. Tolstoy was, in many early communist minds, a a bit of a conundrum, though Trotsky, the old goat, did have quite a few positive remarks on the man. Observe just a few lines from his 1908 tribute to Tolstoy.
In the ancestral home of the Princes Volkonsky, inherited by the Tolstoy family, the author of War and Peace occupies a simple, plainly furnished room in which there hangs a hand-saw, stands a scythe and lies an ax. But on the upper floor of this same dwelling, like stony guardians of its traditions the illustrious ancestors of a whole number of generations keep watch from the walls. In this there is a symbol. We find both of these floors also in the heart of the master of the house, only inverted in order. If on the summits of consciousness a nest has been spun for itself by the philosophy of the simple life and of self-submergence in the people, then from below, whence well up the emotions, the passions and the will, there look down upon us a long gallery of ancestors.
Here we have an excellent summation of the continued difficulty of the idea of Tolstoy. As one reads it becomes clear that the man himself suffered from this conflict for after the publication of Anna Karenina he launched a personal, and doomed I might add, attempt to re-write religious philosophy for his country. The movement he sought to inspire never seemed to really get off from the ground due to massive illiteracy, happily accepted by many peasants, as well as a hard headed continual of the practice of Greek Orthodox which had been the religious tradition of the Motherland for decades if not centuries. Tolstoy himself seems to have, following the eventual conclusion of Anna Karenina, entered into an intense spiritual, in every sense of the word, crisis derived from the understanding that he had penned what would become one of the greatest novels of the world. Tolstoy’s crisis can be gathered into a single idea: When you have put everything into a work of art, and the work is the greatest achievement society has seen up to this point, how do you follow it? The answer is he didn’t. As stated before, he spent his remaining years trying to create a new spiritual system, penning a few novellas and stories such as the Death of Ivan Ilyich which I have read, that, while they did affect numerous readers in Russia, have failed to reach mass audience appeal or understanding outside of academia. It should be noted that a latter document, A Letter to a Hindoo, in which he argues that the Indians should enact a peaceful protest against the British for independence, would provide Mahatma Gandhi the inspiration to begin his peaceful resistance movement in South Africa before spilling over into his home country.
But if I may return to my original idea, what exactly is important about Wilson’s biography? I will allow Wilson, and please pardon this terribly long quote but it will have to be so to effectively stimulate you and make my argument substantial, to say it best.
“The Contemporary went on to ask the fascinating question, how can we recognize immortals? Supposing there was a man whom all his friends and acquaintances took to be an ordinary mortal but who was in fact a Napoleonic genius. Would this not secretly entitle him to disregard the ordinary laws of morality? For such a person, might it not be acceptable, for instance to commit a murder, just as it might be permissible for a man of destiny to start a war or a revolution in which thousands of his fellow mortals would be killed? […] There is a good example here of how one senses Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky straining to disagree with one another through the medium not of overt public controversy but through the different artistic presentation of an idea. The differences reveal so much about both men, both as individuals and as writers. Dostoyevsky, who was by now preoccupied with an apocalyptic dread of socialism, made the ‘Napoleonic’ theme an occasion for meditating first on the nature of personal evil, and secondly something of a prophecy about the shape of things to come. Raskolnikov, who (before his redemption through the prostitute Sonya) scorns personal morality, and has decided that all the great men in history could be described as ‘criminals’, is both the terrifying emanation of Dostoyevskyian idea of human nature, and a prophetic figure. Dostoyevsky was thrilled that after he had begun the story just such a murder as Raskolnikov commits was in fact perpetrated by a student called Danilov. He would have been even more thrilled and disgusted by the close resemblances between Raskolnikov and Lenin in his brutal notions of what is forgivable in a man of destiny. Dostoyevsky’s use of the Napoleonic idea is terrible, melodramatic, and yet plausible. Tolstoy’s hero, Pierre Bezukhov, is completely unlike the crazed murderer Raskolnikov of Dostoyevsky’s imagination. Pierre (who was to become the Decemberist in the finished novel) is an idealistic fellow, who believes in the initial stages of the book that Napoleon is a great deliverer of mankind, and gets so carried away with his imagination that he actually imagines himself to be Napoleon. […] Here we have a cause of Tolstoy making one of his characters adopt his own habit of so identifying with a character that he almost imagines himself to be that person. What is most striking of all is that Dostoyevsky, in spite of all his moral protestations, fundamentally accepts the Napoleonic idea—he accepts, that is to say, the cant that there are ‘men of destiny’ who change history. Tolstoy, as he labored at his book, was to distance himself further and further from that point of view and, indeed, to re-write history in order to establish his point of view.
Stop. Take a breath. Process.
Okay. Begin. Tolstoy re-writes history to validate his perception of the world. The great novel War and Peace, which stands at the forefront of many of the great “lists” of necessary books to be read, is one man’s attempt to re-create the history of his country and the ideals that shaped a period of it. Now before someone objects due to ignorance it is important to note what history actually is. Many make the mistake of assuming the events of the past constitutes history. They don’t. That is the past. A great professor of mine once said that “history is the discourse over what occurred in the past.” This statement is essential for those who wish to study politics. There is a reason the name Sally, in relation to our afore mentioned plagiarist-founding-father Thomas Jefferson, inspires such controversy. The study of a culture is in essence the study of the “story” that culture tells itself about its formulation, it’s current belief system, and the various advancements it had made. In the case of Russia there was no such bitter wound, that is before the Russo-Japanese War, as the invasion by Napoleon in 1812 (which inspired the beautiful, albeit excessively cited, Overture by Tchaikovsky, perhaps you’ve heard of it). By re-writing the history of this war and the country during so, Tolstoy is able to come to a personal understanding concerning the implications of the events and how it has affected the society
The biography Tolstoy reveals how essential “The Old Man” was, and still to is to his homeland. Tolstoy in effect summons the idea of Russia and the lasting immortality of his self. The image of the bearded peasant-noble riding across his fields is a definitive image that lingers in the consciousness. But what does any of this give to the reader to understand his significance? As I said before, there have been numerous biographies written on Lev Tolstoy, the fact that I read Wilson’s first however, has dramatically altered my perception of the writer. This is due to the fact that the work is a marvel of historical and literary ability, rather than a cold regurgitating of events that works to the whole of a man’s legacy. Tolstoy, captures Lev Tolstoy showing us a human being that accomplished marvels during his lifetime, as opposed to a caricature, as well as the climate and feel of the age in which the writer occupied.
Therein lies I feel an essential component of excellent biographies. The writer in our society holds a difficult position for it is easy for that writer to slip and fall into the cavern of anonymity and mediocrity. It is just as easy for a writer to become a cartoon character of themselves which, unfortunately, seems to be the case of writers like Stephen King, Hunter S. Thompson, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Tom Wolfe (that white suit), and Mark Twain (ALSO that white suit). These writers possess enough “chops” in my mind to overcome this
unfortunate cartoonization, but what of the writers that don’t. I have stated before that laughter and parody are the easiest tools to destroy the powerful. The biography must be sure to accurately convey character, less the central image of the writer become a lampoon of his or herself.
Wilson ensures Tolstoy’s significance, and defends against the caricature of the man.
“In a few days,” she told Alexander III, “a report will be made to you about shutting up in a monastery the greatest genius in Russia.”
“Tolstoy?” he asked.
“You’ve guessed it sir.”
“Does that mean that he is plotting against my life?”
This replay shows how stupid and how remote the Emperor was from anything. Clearly his ministers found it much more convenient to lump together all the revolutionaries and anarchists, and to frighten him into thinking Tolstoy might do to him what the revolutionaries had once done to his father. But evidently wiser councils prevailed. It was said that he squashed the proposal on the grounds that such an imprisonment would make a martyr out of Tolstoy. The extraordinary fact, however, emphasized by Ge’s picture, is that artists, poets, and writers are and have been martyrs in Russia since the beginning of the nineteenth century. In a country ruled by the suppression of the truth, the imaginative writer is in a peculiar position of strength, for he or she can see through the lies without need for evidence. Perhaps this is why there has existed at the very heart of the Russian autocracy a powerful lingering of respect for literary genius.
Recently the country of Russia has become more and more important to our public consciousness. Numerous pundits, really just shameless alarmists, claim that war is looming and the figure of Putin is steadily becoming, scratch that, he has always been but his recent behavior is yet another offense on a long line of lists, that of a bully and tyrant who refuses to even the consider diplomacy. All of this combines to perform yet another re-imagining of Russia as the “Cold Nation” bent on selfish interests and harsh political gestures that provide only self serving means. In writing this essay as always I wanted to find some correlation to contemporary events so that these essays are not simply just a reading list and so I researched the character of Vladimir Putin. I eventually stumbled upon an excellent essay published by The Atlantic written by Joseph Burgo, I’ve sampled a portion of the essay to get a good idea of the situation of Russia’s governmental direction.
Another important detail from Gessen’s biography that captures the emotional chaos of Putin’s childhood environment: He spent a great deal of time with an elderly Jewish couple who lived across the hall and told his official biographers that he “did not differentiate between his parents and the old Jews.” His father worked at a train car factory and his mother took a series of “backbreaking” jobs: night watchman, cleaning woman, truck loader. Though they doted on their child, the parents were desperately trying to survive, childcare was virtually non-existent, and Putin passed an increasingly large part of his time in the communal courtyard below, a space dominated by drunken thugs, cursing, and fistfights. In the personal mythology he has created, Putin takes special pride in having become one of those thugs. According to Oleg Blotsky’s Vladimir Putin: The Road to Power, childhood friends support this view.
In exploring the past of prominent figures who seem to display features of narcissistic personality disorder, I have found that many of them were childhood bullies who may also have been bullied by others. The bully is a special type of narcissist who offloads or projects his sense of defect into the victims he persecutes. I’m not a loser, you are. I don’t feel vulnerable and afraid, you do. Though younger and smaller than many of them, Putin fought back against the courtyard thugs and became something of a bully himself. With an explosive temper and thin skin, Putin regularly took offense, instantly lashing out with violence. According to Gessen, one childhood friend recalls that if anyone dared to insult Putin, he “would immediately jump on the guy, scratch him, bite him, rip his hair out by the clump—do anything at all never to allow anyone to humiliate him in any way.”
The bullying narcissist is in flight from himself. His entire personality expresses an ongoing, relentless battle to ward off unconscious shame and a sense of internal defect, which accounts for his inability to take criticism or tolerate the smallest of slights. To deny the unconscious sense of being small, defective, and vulnerable, he projects a self-image that conveys his superiority. He establishes his own power and prestige by humiliating other people and filling them with the shame he has disavowed. For the bully, social interaction is all about proving himself a winner by making other people feel that they are the losers.
Though his history suggests, certainly, the possibility for narcissism to take root, it’s impossible actually to diagnose the man at a distance. But while a courtyard thug may inspire fear, the notion of a narcissistic bully with a large army and an arsenal of nuclear weapons is terrifying. Is that what we’re looking at? Some of Putin’s behavior might support the narcissism theory—but there’s always competing explanations:
- Putin’s apparent desire to reunite former Soviet republics could suggest he harbors fantasies of unlimited power. But it’s also at least in part clearly a political response to the dispersal of ethnic Russians in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
- He shows difficulty tolerating criticism, which could be because his pride is easily injured. But it’s also clearly a method of maintaining control of his government that has strong precedents in Soviet and Russian history.
- His invasion of Ukraine could be seen as the move of a man who feels he’s entitled to have what he wants. But it could be a cool-headed political strategy aimed at ensuring Russia’s regional dominance and ability to challenge the West.
- All those action man photos could be a symptom of a grandiose self-image. But maybe he just took his shirt off because it was hot that day.
A lot of Putin’s seemingly narcissistic behavior, meanwhile, gives expression
to attitudes shared by many of his fellow citizens. A large percentage of
Russians look back with nostalgia on the Soviet era; they feel humiliated by the loss of power and prestige that came with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and admire their president for standing up to the West. According to official polls, a large majority of Russians approve of Putin’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine as well as the annexation of Crimea. His current approval rating stands at an astonishing 80 percent. As the voice of his people, Vladimir Putin offers to avenge their injuries and restore their feelings of pride.
As Russia becomes re-imagined, though the media and war starving mongrels on both sides of the issue, and while Putin wages further war upon Ukraine and people who choose to wear shirts, the character of Tolstoy seems an important cultural being to be remembered. The writers and free thinkers of that nation will become hushed voices, and those that respect the freedom of individual men and women must be sure to be ready to hear them. Tolstoy’s genius was his ability to speak across all levels of society without alienation. He soon began to embody the face and spirit of his country in a way that politicians, since then and continually through today, could only ever aspire to.
It the genius of Wilson’s biography that the face of an artist, the face of a writer, became the identity of a nation, rather than narcissistic tyrants. Tolstoy was not without faults, for his marital problems were clearly the stuff of wretched legend, but that in itself is only further proof of his merit as a worthy influence. Artists and writers are mammals and human beings subject to fault, but through their works they can help unite the people of their culture by their achievements, rather than physical intimidation.
Such can be the stuff of greatness. Such can be the stuff of genius.
I cited the Atlantic in this article and have here provided a link, lest any attempt to accuse me of plagiarizing of violation a law in the books that I am ignorant thereof. I would encourage any and all to read it as the figure of Putin will most likely become a pressing issue in the coming years as he continues to ignore humanitarian efforts with that sour scowl carved into his countenance.