Orwell, Tolstoy, Shakespeare: Utopianism and Humanism

February 28, 2017 by Eric Shytle

George Orwell’s essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” has significantly preoccupied me. Not least because Orwell would make my long list (as best essayist), Tolstoy would make my short list (as best novelist), Shakespeare stands alone (as best playwright), and this essay brings the three together. More than that, the essay gives voice to Orwell, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare on a persistent illusion in human experience: that belief that someday, something will happen, and suddenly life will be easy.

I attach the essay, but you need not read it for these purposes. In brief, Tolstoy did not like Shakespeare, in particular did not like King Lear, and late in life wrote a savage pamphlet making clear his dislike. As summarized by Orwell, Tolstoy found Lear to be “stupid, verbose, unnatural, unintelligible, bombastic, vulgar, tedious and full of incredible events, ‘wild ravings’, ‘mirthless jokes’, anachronisms, irrelevancies, obscenities, worn-out stage conventions and other faults both moral and aesthetic.” Orwell, while not affording Shakespeare the awestruck deference that most do, nonetheless disagrees.

We need not examine Orwell’s summary of and response to Tolstoy’s aesthetic points. This summary and response is quite enjoyable, and Orwell is always worth reading carefully, but the really interesting part is when Orwell considers why Tolstoy didn’t like Shakespeare.

A detour. Orwell was interested in many things, but he was most interested in politics and the institutional misuse of power. As such, he hated totalitarianism — we know him best as the author of 1984 and Animal Farm — and distrusted Christianity and the church. For all of his brilliance, Orwell brings these prejudices to bear against Tolstoy, who was himself both a quasi-socialist (albeit also an anarchist) and a Christian (albeit also a pacifist). So, for example, Orwell observes that:

Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage [the] habit of mind [of still demanding power, but instead through indirect coercion]. For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics — a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage — surely that proves that you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.

Orwell’s conclusion, then, is that Tolstoy remained a power-hungry autocrat, “imperious as well as egotistical.” I don’t know. Perhaps Orwell is right; perhaps this conclusion is the heart of the matter; and perhaps the external operation of politics and power is our proper focus. But I would rather consider the internal aspects of the issue: What can Shakespeare and Tolstoy tell us about our own lives and minds, at a level deeper than mere politics?

Tolstoy, like Orwell, was deeply anti-authoritarian. He would have surely have abhorred the communist state, but he died in 1910, before the Bolshevik revolution. He in fact did abhor the institutional church, and was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church for his troubles. Also like Orwell, Tolstoy came to prioritize politics and power over the aesthetic and the personal.

We know Tolstoy best as the author of War and Peace, published in 1869 when he was 41, and Anna Karenina, published in 1877 when he was 49. Later in life, Tolstoy had a spiritual crisis, renounced his work as a novelist, and became a sort of mad prophet, a proto-John Lennon without the drugs and naked album covers. His convictions led him to renounce his aristocratic title, his wealth, and his lands, and try with unequalled vigor to apply the teachings of Jesus literally and actually. As noted above, he became an anarchist and a pacifist, openly hostile to any institutional localization of power and authority. As a result, he became a spiritual hero to many, including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He also became quite boring to read.

But to get to the point, finally. Orwell cuts very close to the bone in noting “that Tolstoy renounced the world under the expectation that this would make him happier. But if there is one thing certain about his later years, it is that he was not happy.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this remark; my disagreement is that Orwell then articulates a conception of happiness that turns on respect, deference, and power. I prefer to take Tolstoy at his word. He hoped, perhaps expected, that his Christian renunciation would in fact redeem his very nature and character, such that the defects of his former nature would be swept away in God’s all-consuming grace. Sadly, that didn’t happen, and Orwell neatly summarizes the end of Tolstoy’s life: “[T]he sudden unplanned flight across country, accompanied only by a faithful daughter, the death in a cottage in a strange village.”

I began by noting our persistent illusion “that someday, something will happen, and suddenly life will be easy.” This is an overly simple formulation; rather than “easy,” perhaps I should use the words meaningful, or complete, or even holy. However articulated, this illusion shadows our lives. As adolescents, we imagine the boundless happiness and freedom of moving out of our parents’ homes. Later, we dream that careers, money, and success will fulfill us. Many of us move on to hopes of happy marriages and healthy children, and later still to a productive and prosperous retirement. The “something” that might happen always withdraws, transforms, eludes, but we continue to hope for it.

This is of course a maudlin observation, and we even have clichés for it, like “the grass is always greener.” But how interesting it is when a genius makes a mistake that even fools can make. Tolstoy sought no solace in worldly things, renouncing his title, lands, wealth, and status. As for domesticity, Orwell notes “Tolstoy’s remark that marriage is ‘slavery, satiety, repulsion’ and means putting up with the proximity of ‘ugliness, dirtiness, smell, sores.” Tolstoy was too brilliant, or perhaps too contrary, to look to such prosaic sources of fulfillment. He instead looked to transcend the worldly categories entirely, to live out perfect serenity in a community free from violence and power.

Tolstoy was therefore a utopian, although of a very curious and compelling sort. Today we swim in a torrent of utopianism, and of a sort far less curious and compelling. Political parties, the institutional church, the non-institutional church, relentless advertising, self-help books, grass roots opposition movements, fitness regimens, meditation retreats, organized sports … They all promise, in various ways, that someday, something will happen, and suddenly life will be easy, or at least comprehensible.

Shakespeare would have none of it. His most compelling characters knew exactly the “something” that needed to happen. Hamlet would have revenge, Macbeth would have a crown, Othello would have an utterly faithful wife. And far from finding fulfillment or meaning in the achievement, these characters found chaos, disorder, loss. Yet some sort of dignity, of meaning and purpose, survives the chaos and disorder. I believe this to be close to the irreducible truth about life: it never gets easier, you just get deeper.

There is much more that could be said about things that are truer and more meaningful than the happiness promised by the myriad forms of utopianism. But I will close for now with Orwell’s most succinct statement of the case: “All of [Shakespeare’s] tragedies start out with the humanist assumption that life, although full of sorrow, is worth living, and that Man is a noble animal — a belief which Tolstoy in his old age did not share.”

February 28, 2017 /Eric Shytle

Originally published at www.bryanericshytle.com.