George Steiner

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DONAT O'DONNELL [pseudonym of CONOR CRUISE O'BRIEN]

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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 reasoning on this matter is not quite as crude as I have had to make it in summary, but I do not think I have distorted his argument significantly. It is because he is a good critic and because his book is important that it seems necessary to challenge him here, on this border of literature and politics, where his argument is weakest and likely to be most influential. For one actual reader, who has considered Mr. Steiner's admirable detailed criticisms of passages in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, there are likely to be several bystanders who receive indirectly the impression that Dostoevsky was a good man but Tolstoy was a Red. Indeed Mr. Steiner himself very nearly says as much, in a dangerously quotable passage on his last page: "Dostoevsky, pre-eminently the man of God; Tolstoy one of His secret challengers." It is hard to see how this judgment could be sustained by anyone except a committed Dostoevskian: one, that is, who not merely admires Dostoevsky's genius, but also completely and uncritically accepts Dostoevsky's teachings. For Dostoevsky, as Mr. Steiner shows, had his own very peculiar religious notions, hardly more orthodox than Tolstoy's. He,...

(This entire section contains 1061 words.)

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no less than Tolstoy, was co-bear in the divine den. If Tolstoy could be accused of atheism, Dostoevsky could be accused of diabolism. Mr. Steiner, without coming to any conclusion, presents the grounds on which such a charge could be made. Both writers were, in fact, heretics. If the Russian Orthodox Church put up with Dostoevsky and not with Tolstoy, that was not for any abstruse doctrinal reasons but simply because Dostoevsky became a conservative and Tolstoy became a rebel. And that also, I suspect, is what Mr. Steiner means when he says that Dostoevsky was preeminently the man of God and Tolstoy one of His secret challengers. (pp. 144-47)

As regards the relation between the two great Russian writers and the politics of our own time, Mr. Steiner does much less than justice to Tolstoy. Tolstoy was no stranger to the univers concentrationnaire. How could any Russian be, then or now? The prisons, the law courts and the exile trains of Resurrection form a clear testimony against oppression—all the clearer for being matter-of-fact in tone, detailed and measured. The character of Novodyorov in the same novel proves that Tolstoy was not under the illusion that revolution would automatically bring oppression to an end. Tolstoy is uncompromising not only in Resurrection but in all his work about power, about pretence, about cruelty. No tyrant could ever really "make him do." It is useless for any official critic to expound him as criticizing only the cruelty of "the people who were." He makes his meaning too plain, and no power can prevent people from trying that meaning against the life around them. Instead then of exclaiming "C' est la faute à Tolstoi!" when we hear that his books are issued in enormous editions in the Soviet Union, we ought surely to be glad and thankful. If Russian history has tended to inculcate callousness and prostration before power, it is surely well that great classics of Russian literature, central texts of the Russian language, work to correct the pressures of history. Since no people is so close to the great age of its literature as are the Russians, and no people reads its own classics so much (they have no thrillers and no telephone directories), it is probable that no other great writer is such a living force in the world now as is Tolstoy. It is hard to see how anyone who—like Mr. Steiner—believes in the moral force of great literature can be indifferent to this. (p. 147)

Donat O'Donnell [pseudonym of Conor Cruise O'Brien], "Bears," in The Spectator (© 1960 by Conor Cruise O'Brien; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), No. 6878, April, 1960 (and reprinted in his Writers and Politics, Pantheon Books, 1965, pp. 144-48).

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