Tolstoy’s Emotional Affair

I’m almost done reading Tolstoy’s recent biography, so I promise to stop bugging everybody with posts on Tolstoy. Just bear with me for a little longer, OK?

Tolstoy never cheated on his wife Sonia in the 48 years they lived together. He was deeply religious and considered marriage to be one of life’s two most important events (the second one being death, which for a Christian is not a negative thing). This is why physical infidelity was unimaginable for Tolstoy. He did, however, have an emotional affair that made his wife suffer tortures of jealousy. She referred to her husband’s spiritual paramour as “a beautiful idol” and “family-breaker.”

“Every day I wait for your letters, I see you in my dreams, I think about you in my every waking moment. What is happening to you? Did I do anything to upset you? I keep thinking about it but have no idea what it is I might have done wrong” writes 62-year-old Tolstoy to the much younger object of his affections.

“Thank you for your recent letter,” writes Tolstoy in response to a missive where nasty insinuations were made about the writer’s wife. “You probably cannot even imagine how happy it made me feel. . . I feel joyous and I love you.”

So who was this person seen by aging Tolstoy as his only true spiritual companion and who undermined the writer’s long marriage, separating him eventually from his wife of 48 years and children?

It was Vladimir Chertkov, a young, mentally disturbed officer who became Tolstoy’s most ardent follower.

In a patriarchal society, such a chasm exists between men and women that even a marriage of 30 or 40 years cannot bridge it. Tolstoy was dying for somebody to share his intellectual, emotional and spiritual life, but it never occurred to him to turn to his wife for the fulfillment of these needs. The curious thing is that the writer’s wife was a lot better suited to the role of Tolstoy’s spiritual companion than Chertkov. She was a much better writer, she understood her husband’s work in a more profound way, and she had a much more varied sphere of intellectual interests.

Yet, no true communion between men and women is possible in patriarchal societies. Homosociality is the only option for people who have emotional and spiritual needs but cannot even imagine turning to their partners in life for the fulfillment of these needs. And this is yet another tragedy of the patriarchy.

“Women who have liberated themselves from the yoke are horrible,” wrote Tolstoy. His intense spiritual loneliness in his own family and the humiliating groveling before young men who used him were the price he paid for this belief.

Are Horrible Acts Always Horrible?

Reader Kinjal says:

People ought to be judged according to the times and social mores they lived in.

I disagree with this statement profoundly. I believe that horrible acts such as rape, murder, torture, abuse of children, and pedophilia are always horrible. Their evilness is immanent and does not depend on when the perpetrator lived and what his or her society sanctioned. If you abstain from doing horrible things only because you are afraid of retribution, what is the value of your morality?

Tolstoy raped his wife. In my eyes, he is as much of a vile rapist as anybody who lives today and does the same thing. He saw a human being in pain, crying, begging him to stop, suffering because of what he was doing to her. And he somehow didn’t know that it was wrong because nobody told him that it was? And then he continued doing it many times over because he kept not knowing? I just can’t buy that.

Major crimes like the one I listed are not relative. Some people are capable of them and some aren’t. Different times and changing social norms are just an excuse used to justify perpetrators and disgusting creatures who mask as human beings.

On Tolstoy, Feminism, and 1%ers

I’m reading a new biography of Leo Tolstoy by Pavel Basinsky. There is no translation yet, so I can’t link to it, but I wanted to share my impressions nonetheless. (If you read in Russian, though, here is the book.)

First of all, I’m really traumatized by the story of Tolstoy’s poor wife, Sonia. If you have read Tolstoy’s Kreutzer’s Sonata, you probably already can imagine the extent of Tolstoy’s contempt for women. It turns out, however, that the writer’s wife wrote her own response to Kreutzer’s Sonata and narrated her side of their marital drama. When Tolstoy married Sonia, he was a very sexually experienced man of 35, while she was a very innocent young girl of barely 18. The way young women from “good families” were brought up at that time made them more ignorant of human sexuality than any of today’s 5-year-olds. Sonia saw her entire married life with Tolstoy as a series of rapes he constantly perpetrated against her. And this was Tolstoy, a great humanist, a deeply religious person, a philosopher whose ideas of non-violent resistance to evil later inspired Gandhi. One can only imagine what less humanistically inspired men did to their wives.

Sonia gave birth to 13 children, eight of whom survived. She spent 10 years of her life pregnant and 13 years nursing. Tolstoy insisted that she keep having children as long as she physically could, even though doctors insisted it put her life at risk. He also prevented her from getting wet nurses for her children because he believed that “breast is best.” Those who are still not sure of the value of feminism will be well-served to read about Sonia’s life and ask themselves how fair is the system where Sonia’s kind of existence was actually the best a woman could hope for.

Tolstoy was a count, a landowner, a celebrity, and a very rich man. In the last decades of his life, however, he became deeply ashamed of his existence as a 1%er and dreamt of joining the 99% in their life of hardship, poverty, and hard labor. For years, he tried to convince his family to get rid of all their property and begin living the life of poor peasants. When it became clear that they were not interested, Tolstoy ran away from home and started putting into practice his plan of being a 99%er. Of course, in the very first village he reached on his journey, he discovered that he had left behind his nail-brush, his favorite cushion, and a special ink-well that had been created especially for him. And what peasant can do without an ink-well and a nail-brush? It is not surprising that Tolstoy only survived 10 days of living as a regular Russian 99%.

I read all 14 volumes of Tolstoy’s Collected Works when I was a teenager and I always considered all of the fiction he wrote to be of very little value, except one novel, Resurrection. From Basinsky’s biography of Tolstoy, I discovered that there was one person who agreed with my evaluation of the writer’s novelistic production: Tolstoy himself. In his later years, he repudiated everything he wrote before Resurrection, including the supremely boring War and Peace and the failed attempt at imitating the French realists that is Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy on Joy

The meaning of life, its goal is joy. Feel joyous as you look at the sky, the sun, the stars, the grass, the trees, the animals, the people. And make sure that nothing spoils this joy. If the joy disappears, this means you made a mistake somewhere. You need to look for this mistake and correct it.

  – Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is not one of my favorite writers but this statement is impossible to disagree with. Many people accept misery or, in the best of cases, lack of any strong emotions about their existence as the normal state of affairs while exultant joy and happiness are seen as rare aberrations. It shouldn’t be that way, though. If we possess the capacity to feel intensely happy, then this skill should be put to use as often as possible.