Tolstoy: Kind of a Dick
by PAUL JOHNSON
It has been said that a careful reading of Anna Karenina, if it teaches you nothing else, will teach you how to make strawberry jam.
Leo Tolstoy's diaries reveal that, as a young man of twenty-five, he was already conscious of special power and a commanding moral destiny: 'Read a work on the literary characterization of genius today, and this awoke in me the conviction that I am a remarkable man both as regards capacity and eagerness to work. I have not yet met a single man who was morally as good as I, and who believed that I do not remember an instance in my life when I was not attracted to what is good and was not ready to sacrifice anything to it.' He felt in his own soul 'immeasurable grandeur'. He was baffled by the failure of other men to recognize his qualities: 'Why does nobody love me? I am not a fool, not deformed, not a bad man, not an ignoramus. It is incomprehensible.'
Tolstoy believed himself to be very highly sexed. Diary entries record: 'Must have a woman. Sensuality gives me not a moment's peace.' 'Terrible lust amounting to a physical illness.' At the end of his life he told his biographer Aylmer Maude that, so strong were his urges, he was unable to dispense with sex until he was eighty-one. In youth he was extremely shy with women and so resorted to brothels, which disgusted him and brought the usual consequences.
One of his earliest diary entries in March 1847 notes he is being treated for 'gonorrhoea, obtained from the customary source'. He records another bout in 1852 in a letter to his brother Nikolai: 'The venereal sickness is cured but the after-effects of the mercury have caused me untold suffering.' But he continued to patronize whores, varied by gypsies, Cossack and native girls, and Russian peasant girls when available. The tone in his diary entries is invariably self-disgust blended with hatred for the temptress : 'something pink... I opened the back door. She came in. Now I can't bear to look at her. Repulsive, vile, hateful, causing me to break my rules.' 'Girls have led me astray.'
The following day he made good resolution but 'the wenches prevent me.' An entry for April 1856 records, after a visit to a brothel: 'Horrible, but absolutely the last time.'
Another 1856 entry: 'Disgusting. Girls. Stupid music, girls, heat, cigarette smoke, girls, girls, girls.' Turgenev, whose house he was then using like a hotel, gives another glimpse of Tolstoy in 1856: 'Drinking bouts, gypsies, cards all night long, and then sleeps like the dead until two in the afternoon.' When Tolstoy was in the country, especially on his own estate, he took his pick of the prettier serf-girls. These occasionally excited more than simple lust on his part. He wrote later of Yasnaya Polyana, I remember the nights I spent there, and Dunyasha's beauty and youth... her strong, womanly body.'
One of Tolstoy's motives in travelling in Europe in 1856 was to escape what he saw as the temptations of an attractive serf-girl. His father, as he knew, had had such an affair, and the girl had given birth to a son, who was simply treated as a male estate serf, being employed in the stables (he became a coachman). But Tolstoy, after his return, could not keep his hands off the women, especially a married one called Aksinya. His diary for May 1858 records: 'Today, in the big old wood. I'm a fool, a brute. Her bronze flesh and her eyes. I'm in love as never before in my life. Have no other thought.' The girl was 'clean and not bad-looking, with bright black eyes, a deep voice, a scent of something fresh and strong and full breasts that lifted the bib of her apron.'
Probably in July 1859, Aksinya gave birth to a son, called Timofei Bazykin. Tolstoy brought her into the house as a domestic and allowed the little boy to play at her heels for a time. But, like Marx and Ibsen, and like his own father, he never acknowledged the child was his, or paid the slightest attention to him. What is even more remarkable is that, at a time when he was publicly preaching the absolute necessity to educate the peasants, and indeed ran schools for their children on his estate, he made no effort to ensure that his own illegitimate son even learned how to read and write. Possibly he feared later claims. He seems to have been pitiless in dismissing the rights of illegitimate offspring.
Tolstoy knew he was doing wrong in resorting to prostitutes and seducing peasant women. He blamed himself for these offenses. But he tended to blame the women still more. They were all Eve the Temptress to him. Indeed it is probably not too much to say that despite the fact that he needed women physically all his life and used them - or perhaps because of this - he distrusted, disliked and even hated them.
In some ways he found the manifestation of their sexuality repulsive. He remarked at the end of his life, 'the sight of a woman with her breasts bared was always disgusting to me, even in my youth.' Tolstoy was by nature censorious, even puritanical. If his own sexuality upset him, its manifestations in others brought out his strongest disapproval. In Paris in 1857, at a timewhen his own philandering was surging in full spate, he noted: 'At the furnished lodgings where I stayed, there were thirty-six menages, of which nineteen were irregular. That disgusted me terribly.'
Sexual sin was evil, and women were the source of it. On 16 June 1847, when he was nineteen, he wrote: 'Now I shall set myself the following rule. Regard the company of women as an unavoidable social evil and keep away from them as much as possible. Who indeed is the cause of sensuality, indulgence, frivolity and all sorts of other vices in us, if not women? Who is to blame for the loss of our natural qualities of courage, steadfastness, reasonableness, fairness, etc if not women?' The really depressing thing about Tolstoy is that he retained these childish, in some respects Oriental, views of women right to the end of his life.
In contrast to his efforts to portray Anna Karenina, he never seems to have made any serious attempt in real life to penetrate and understand the mind of a woman. Indeed he would not admit that a woman could be a serious, adult, moral human being.
He wrote in 1898, when he was seventy: '[Woman] is generally stupid, but the Devil lends her brains when she works for him. Then she accomplishes miracles of thinking, farsightedness, constancy, in order to do something nasty.' Or again: 'It is impossible to demand of a woman that she evaluate the feelings of her exclusive love on the basis of moral feeling. She cannot do it, because she does not possess real moral feeling, i.e. one that stands higher than everything.'
His choice finally fell, when he was thirty-four, on an eighteen-year-old doctor's daughter, Sonya Behrs. He was no great catch: not rich,a known gambler, in trouble with the authorities for insulting the local magistrate. He had described himself, some years before, as possessing 'the most ordinary coarse and ugly features... small grey eyes, more stupid than intelligent... the face of a peasant, and a peasant's large hands and feet'. Moreover, he hated dentists and would not visit them, and by 1862 he had lost nearly all his teeth. But she was a plain, immature girl, only five feet high and competing with her two sisters; she was glad to get him. He proposed formally by letter, then seems to have had doubts until the last minute.
The actual wedding was a premonition of disaster. On the morning he burst into her apartment, insisting: 'I have come to say that there is still time... all this business can still be put a stop to.' She burst into tears. Tolstoy was an hour late for the ceremony itself, having packed all his shirts. She cried again. Afterwards they had supper and she changed, and they climbed into a traveling carriage called a dormeuse, pulled by six horses. She cried again. Tolstoy, an orphan, could not understand this and shouted: 'If leaving your family means such great sorrow to you, you cannot love me very much.' In the dormeuse he began to paw her and she pushed him away.
They had a suite at a hotel, the Birulevo. Her hands trembled as she poured him tea from the samovar. He tried to paw her again, and was again repulsed. Tolstoy's diary relentlessly recorded: 'She is weepy. In the carriage. She knows everything and it is simple. But she is afraid.' He thought her 'morbid'. Later still, having finally made love to her, and she having (as he thought) responded, he added: 'Incredible happiness. I can't believe this can last as long as life.' Of course it did not. Even the most submissive wife would have found marriage to such a colossal egotist hard to bear.
Sonya had sufficient brains and spirit to resist his all-crushing will, at least from time to time. So they produced one of the worst (and best recorded) marriages in history. Tolstoy opened it with a disastrous error of judgment. It is one of the characteristics of the intellectual to believe that secrets, especially in sexual matters, are harmful. Everything should be 'open'. The lid must be lifted on every Pandora's box. Husband and wife must tell each other 'everything'. Therein lies much needless misery. Tolstoy began his policy of glasnost by insisting that his wife read his diaries, which he had now been keeping for fifteen years. She was appalled to find - the diaries were then in totally uncensored form- that they contained details of all his sex life, including visits to brothels and copulations with whores, gypsies, native women, his own serfs and, not least, even her mother's friends. Her first response was : 'Take those dreadful books back - why did you give them to me?'
Later she told him: 'Yes, I have forgiven you. But it is dreadful.' These remarks are taken from her own diary, which she had been keeping since the age of eleven. It was part of Tolstoy's 'open' policy that each should keep diaries and each should have access to the other's - a sure formula for mutual suspicion and misery. The physical side of the Tolstoy marriage probably never recovered from Sonya's initial shock at learning her husband was (as she saw it) a sexual monster. Moreover, she read his diaries in ways which Tolstoy had not anticipated, noting faults he had been careful (as he thought) to conceal.
She spotted, for instance, that he had failed to repay debts contracted as a result of his gambling. She observed, too, that he failed to tell women with whom he had sex that he had contracted venereal disease and might still have it. The selfishness and egotism the diaries so plainly convey to the perceptive reader - and who more perceptive than a wife? - were more apparent to her than to the author. Moreover, the Tolstoyan sex life so vividly described in his diaries was now inextricably mingled in her mind with the horrors of submitting to his demands and their ultimate consequence in painful and repeated pregnancies.
She endured a dozen in twenty-two years; in quick succession she lost her child Petya, while pregnant with Nikolai, who in turn died the same year he was born; Vavara was born prematurely and died immediately. Tolstoy himself did not help with the business of childbearing by taking an intimate though insensitive interest in all its details. He insisted on attending the birth of his son, Sergei (later using it for a scene in Anna Karenina), and broke into a frightening rage when Sonya was unable to breast-feed the baby.
As the pregnancies and miscarriages proceeded, and his wife's distaste for his sexual demands became manifest, he wrote to a friend: 'There is no worse situation for a healthy man than to have a sick wife.' Early in the marriage he ceased to love her; her tragedy was that her residual love for him remained. At this time she confided in her diary: 'I have nothing in me but this humiliating love and a bad temper, and these two things have been the cause of all my misfortunes, for my temper has always interfered with my love. I want nothing but his love and sympathy but he won't give it to me, and all my pride is trampled in the mud. I am nothing but a miserable crushed worm, whom no one wants, whom no one loves, a useless creature with morning sickness and a big belly.'
Take the famous sentence from Anna Karenina: 'All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' The moment one begins to search one's own observed experience, it becomes clear that both parts of this statement are debatable. If anything, the reverse is closer to the truth. There are obvious, recurrent patterns in unhappy families - where, for instance, the husband is a drunk or a gambler, where the wife is incompetent, adulterous, and so forth; the stigmata of family unhappiness are drearily familiar and repetitive. On the other hand, there are happy families of every kind. Tolstoy had not thought about the subject seriously, and above all honestly, because he could not bring himself to think seriously and honestly about women: he turned from the subject in fear, rage and disgust. The moral failure of Tolstoy's marriage, and his intellectual failure to do justice to half the human race, were closely linked.
Paul Johnson is the world's greatest living historian. He is the author of Intellectuals, from which this excerpt is taken. You can purchase that volume here.
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