Count Tolstoy at Home

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At first he was very favorably impressed, and said that he would translate the book into Russian. He believed that this was the true way that people should have, literally, all things in common, and so on. I replied that matters would never arrive at the state described unless this planet were visited by another deluge, and neither Noah nor any other animal endowed with the present human attributes saved to continue this selfish species. I declared that nothing short of a new planet, Utopia, and a newly created, selected, and combined race of Utopian angels, would ever get as far as the personages in that book, not to speak of remaining in equilibrium on that dizzy point when it should have been once attained. He disagreed with me, and an argument royal ensued. In the course of it he said that this only objection lay in the degree of luxury in which the characters of the new perfection lived.

“What harm is there in comfort and luxury to any extent,” I asked, “provided that all enjoy it?

“Luxury is all wrong,” he answered severely. “You perceive the sinful luxury in which I live,” waving his hand towards the excessively plain furniture, and animadverting with special bitterness on the silver forks and spoons. “It is all a fallacy that we can raise those below us by remaining above them. We must descend to their level in habits, intelligence, and life; then all will rise together.”

“Even bread must have yeast; and if we all make ourselves exactly alike, who is to act as yeast? Are we to adopt all vices of the lower classes? That would be the speediest way of putting ourselves on a complete equality with them. But if some of us do not remain yeast, we shall all turn out the flattest sort of dough.”

“We certainly cannot change the position of a thing unless we go close enough to grasp it, unless we are on the same plane with it.”

“Perhaps not; but being on the same plane does not always answer. Did you ever see an acrobat try that trick? He puts one leg on the table, then tries to lift his whole body by grasping the other leg and putting it on a level to begin with. Logically, it ought to succeed and carry the body with it, if your theory is correct. However, it remains merely a curious and amusing experiment, likely to result in a broken neck to any one not skilled in gymnastics, and certain to end in a tumble even for the one who is thus skilled.”

He reiterated his arguments. I retorted that human beings were not moral kangaroos, who could proceed by leaps, and that even the kangaroo is obliged to allow the tip of his tail to follow his paws. I said that in the moral as well in the physical world it is simply a choice between standing still and putting one foot before the other; that one cannot get upstairs by remaining on the bottom step; one member of the body must rise first.

We were obliged to agree to disagree as usual, but I fancy that he may have hanged to my opinion of the subject by this time. I have already noted that he is open to influence.

One evening, as we sat on the steps of the uncovered terrace outside the study, the conversation fell on the book which he was then engaged upon, and which the countess had shown us that she was copying for the fourth time. He had been busy on it for two years. Neither of them went into details or mentioned the plot, but I had heard on my arrival in Russia, twenty months previously, that it related to the murder of a woman by her husband, and had a railway scene in it. I did not interrogate them, and when the count said that he hoped I would translate the book when it should be finished, I accepted the proposal with alacrity. I inquired whether I was to read it then.

“You may if you wish,” was the reply, “but I shall probably make some changes, and I should prefer that you would wait; but that shall be as you please.”

His wife said that he might suddenly take a fancy to view the subject from an entirely different point, and write book all over.

I declined to anticipate my future pleasure by even glancing at it, and asked no questions. Neither did I to see The Fruits of Civilization, which was already written and named. I was not there to exploit their hospitality.

The count and his wife differed on what ought to be the fate of the coming volume. He wished to give it to the world (that is, to some publisher) for nothing. She argued that some one publisher at least, would make money out of it; then why not let his own family have the profit, as was just? He insisted that it was wrong, inconsistent, in the same strain as he discusses the subject of his writings in What to Do? But she urged him, in case he would, not consent to justice, to leave the manuscript with her, unpublished, so that the family could use it after his death. (When the book was ready it was named The Kreutzer Sonata.)

I think that every one must side with the countess in her view of this matter and in her management of the family. It is owing solely to her that the younger members of the family are receiving that education to fit them for their struggle with life which her husband bestowed upon the elder members voluntarily. It is due to her alone, also, that her husband is still alive. It is not an easy task to protect the count against himself. One adds to one’s admiration for the count’s literary genius an admiration for the countess’s talent and good sense by an extended acquaintance with this family.

More than one community has been organized for the express purpose of carrying out the life of toll which Count Tolstóy has advocated at times. One of these communities, of which I had direct information, purchased an estate of a landed proprietor, including the manor house, and began to work. This acquisition of an estate by them, while the count would like to give away his as sinful to retain, does not strike one as a good beginning. However, they did not use the manor house, but lived in one small peasant hut. “They all slept on the floor and benches, men and women,” said a Russian to me. A wealthy man had sold his property to join this community against the wishes of his wife, who accompanied him nevertheless. When her baby came, they allowed her to occupy a room in the mansion and required no work from her, since she had the care of the child.

“They never swept or scrubbed anything, and they propagated every insect known to man, and probably a few new ones.” But the count has never preached this doctrine, or that an indefinite number of persons should occupy a single cottage. Thus do his too enthusiastic disciples discredit him by running into excesses.

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