George Steiner DONAT O'DONNELL [pseudonym of CONOR CRUISE O'BRIEN] - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The area covered by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky is vast; Mr. Steiner's arguments are numerous, close in themselves and yet rather loosely connected. The book, therefore, defies summary; it has to be read. In what follows I shall do no more than take up those of his themes that have particularly interested me, and have consequently aroused at least some degree of disagreement.

The fifty years or so before the Revolution of 1905 were, as Mr. Steiner points out, "the anni mirabiles of Russian fiction." As he also points out, "the Russian novel"—he might have widened the judgment to include the Russian theatre—"was conceived under a single sign of the historical Zodiac—the sign of approaching upheaval." Underlying most of what Mr. Steiner has to say about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is the question of their relationship to that "approaching upheaval." On the whole he agrees with Communist criticism in seeing Tolstoy as "for" the Revolution and Dostoevsky as "against." On Tolstoy's Christianity he twice quotes Gorky with approval and with telling effect. On Tolstoy and Christ: "When he speaks about Christ it is always peculiarly poor—no enthusiasm, no feeling in his words, and no spark of real fire. I think he regards Christ as simple and deserving of pity; and although at times he admires him, he hardly loves him." On Tolstoy and God: "With God he has very suspicious relations; they sometimes remind me of the relations of 'two bears in one den.'"

This Tolstoy is essentially a man of the Enlightenment, rationalist, authoritarian, supremely confident in a reasoned program for the improvement of man's life on earth, contemptuous of tradition and rituals—in short the Voltaire of the Russian Revolution. With Tolstoy—who said "I love truth more than anything in the world"—is contrasted Dostoevsky who said that he would remain with Christ even if "someone had proved that Christ is outside the truth." And it was Dostoevsky, with his perception of the dark and tragic in human nature, who, on this view, turned out to be right. "The univers concentrationnaire—the world of the death camps—confirms beyond denial," writes Mr. Steiner, "Dostoevsky's insights into the savagery of men" … It was Dostoevsky who foreshadowed, and Tolstoy—provisionally and rather shyly identified with Ivan Karamazov's Grand Inquisitor—who is in some degree responsible for the totalitarian regimes and the brutish delight of the masses in the musical and dance-like rituals of the Nuremberg rallies and the Moscow Sports Palace.

Mr. Steiner's...

(The entire section is 1061 words.)