The longing for perfection often turns men against the world as it is. Almost always, those who glimpse the possibility of sainthood determine to enter at once upon a state of complete love, harmony, and peace. They become impatient with the imperfections of the living men and women about them. In some societies the aspirants for holiness escape into total isolation; the anchorites and hermits seek a refuge in uninhabited places and bother no one. But in our crowded times, the wilderness has ceased to be a refuge and no flight is possible from the company of men. The insistence on being perfect more often than not has tragic consequences.
These reflections emerge from a reading of HENRI TROYAT’S TOLSTOY (Doubleday, $7.95), a monumental biography worthy of its subject. Troyat is a distinguished French student of Russian literature and himself a sensitive novelist. He has mastered the details of Tolstoy’s long and complex life and has written a fascinating account both of the man and of his work.
Tolstoy was born in 1828, the fourth son of a noble family. Russia was just emerging into modernity; and the combination of influences from the West and the traditional heritage of an old regime supplied the context in which he matured. Most of his early life passed in the usual round of aristocratic pursuits on his great estate at Yasnaya Polyana. The pleasures of the chase, war, the presence of hordes of serfs, and violence without the veneer of polite manners were as familiar to him as the drawing rooms of his relatives in St. Petersburg. Orphaned at the age of nine, he bore the weight of many self-doubts and yearned for love and approbation. As a young man he sought to satisfy the need for savoir faire, for the skill to behave comme il faut, in sex and gambling as did others of his class. Although he did not marry until late in life, he remained a passionate man until his death at eighty-two.
Yet Tolstoy also felt the romantic stirrings of a desire for cultural achievement. Slowly he discovered his vocation as a writer, and the support of Turgenev quickly won him recognition. War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Kreutzer Sonata, Resurrection, and a torrent of other books and stories securely established his place in world literature.
Troyat is particularly successful in demonstrating the connection between Tolstoy’s life and his work. The circle of friends and acquaintances supplied the raw materials for the characters of the novels. Again and again the incidents and people of fiction correspond to the events and the men and women of Tolstoy’s career. The interplay between experience and writing was basic to his success as a novelist. He was not learned in an academic sense, nor was he a fluent stylist. He worked and reworked his pages in the laborious effort to get down just how his characters should act and feel. And the knowledge of how this multitude should act and feel he derived from observation, from the shrewd and sympathetic perception of the life about him. Hence, more than in the case of most writers, the understanding of his personal experience illuminates his works. There is, for instance, a lucid explanation of how the conceptions of the men and women in Anna Karenina evolved as the events of Tolstoy’s own life deepened his insight.
In reconstructing Tolstoy’s career, Troyat was fortunate to have available not only the autobiographical elements in the novels but also the diaries and the correspondence, in which Tolstoy spoke with utter frankness and candor. He was given to introspection and to constant selfexamination, so that these documents form an immense repository of the man’s expressed thoughts and emotions; and Troyat has used them with remarkable skill.
Few love stories in fiction, for instance, can match the beauty, the pathos, and the ultimate horror of Tolstoy’s relationship to the young girl who became his wife. That lie was a conscious artist immensely complicated the love that unfolded between them. To the virginal bashfulness of women of her class was added the offense to wifely dignity offered by the sensuality of the descriptions of love in his books. Sonya blushed as she read these passages, which seemed like an obscene exhibition in front of a crowd. At first married life seemed tolerable to her only because the inconvenience of being mauled about now and then was a small price to pay for the satisfaction of dominating such a great man.
In time, Sonya became involved in her husband’s work, copying the tortured pages as he revised them; War and Peace she transcribed seven times. And as he and she followed the lives of the fictional characters, the couple achieved total understanding. Their relationship deepened. “We face each other with equanimity,” Tolstoy wrote. “We have no secrets and no shame.”
So long as writing occupied him, he was sensitive to the human heart, of his wife and of others. When he became a prophet in the 1880s, vaporous abstractions obscured his perceptions of real people. Turgenev at once saw the danger. When a self-educated man like Tolstoy sets out to philosophize, the older novelist pointed out, he invariably “invents some universal system that seems to provide a solution to every problem.” The devotion to absolute ideals prevented Tolstoy from being a husband and father. In 1900, when his daughter was having her skull trepanned, he was arguing that hospitals were evil because they saved only a few while thousands died because they could not afford treatment.
The gospel Tolstoy elaborated demanded total perfection. Always subject to surges of vague though intense piety, he nevertheless refused to submit to the Church, and was attracted by the natural freedom he thought Rousseau expounded. The search for moral perfection led him finally to a faith, derived from primitive Christianity, the cardinal clemeats ol which were complete nonviolence and poverty. Alas, Sonya remained in the real world, incapable of following into his ethereal realm. His wish to divest himself of all his property was hardly persuasive to a mother who thought of the welfare of her numerous children.
The tension intruded into their most intimate relationships. Overwhelmed with the horror of the human condition, he rejected “this loathsome flesh” and preached the necessity of total conjugal abstinence. “Let everyone try not to marry,” he wrote, “and if he be married, to live with his wife as brother and sister” — harsh words for a wife whom he had just gotten with child for the thirteenth time.
The climax comes with the heartbreaking events that led to his death. Contemplating the inconsistencies of his life, the old man reels in horror. “He preached universal love — and made his wife miserable; poverty — and lived in luxury; forgetfulness of self — and recorded his every twinge; fusion with God — and wasted his life in domestic bickering.” He flees with the aid of fanatical disciples and perishes miserably among strangers, while Sonya, grief-stricken, is barred from his room.
The young Churchill
RANDOLPH S. CHURCHILL in WINSTON S. CHURCHILL: YOUNG STATESMAN 1901-1914 (Houghton Mifflin, $10.00) carries the story of Churchill’s career down to the outbreak of the First World War. Biographies written by sons are rarely notable for either clarity or objectivity. This is an eminent exception, made so by the abundance of material quoted from the letters of the subject. Randolph Churchill wisely stands aside and generally lets his father speak for himself, which he does vigorously and with unflagging interest.
Considered from a purely historical point of view, the most significant revelation is the continued importance of the Crown. Contemporaries were all too ready to believe that parliamentary supremacy had reduced the monarch to a mere ceremonial figure, particularly after the reign of Edward VII. Yet George V played a substantial role in government and exerted considerable, if hidden, influence on public affairs. Churchill was certainly aware of the fact, and he did his utmost to capitalize on it.
More important, the book reveals the working of a vibrant personality whose active mind was acutely sensitive to the realities of power. Churchill’s self-confidence and his family connections were invaluable. He could afford to propose to Ethel Barrymore, knowing that marriage to an actress would not damage his future, yet not fearing the rebuff of a rejection. Impatient with the little he had achieved by the age of thirtytwo, he consoled himself with the thought that he was nevertheless “younger than anyone else who I counts.”He accepted the fact that “we are .all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.”
Often Churchill gave the appearance of being dogmatic. He was a free-trader. Therefore the theory of protection was simply wrong. No two ways about it. In practice, however, he showed a singular malleability, a willingness to shift his position as information became available and as the balance of conflicting interests changed. That is, he adapted himself to the necessities of a situation. He entered Parliament as a Tory backbencher. Then he made his career in the Liberal Party and later would shift still again. On such questions as Irish home rule, his attitude seemed ambivalent and erratic. Yet it represented a shrewd, tactful effort to manipulate others while accommodating himself to the demands of changing conditions.
Churchill was a master of tactics and did not hesitate to use any means that came to hand. In (exasperation a critic wrote that he had “never known the time when sympathy was not asked for Winston on grounds of health” — a remarkable achievement for a man of robust physical powers.
Churchill’s interests were coming to focus on foreign policy. But he had also glimpsed the poverty of the great cities and in the Cabinet had to think of ways to do something about it. In 1906 he was shocked to observe a Manchester slum. “Fancy,”He said, “living in one of these streets — never seeing anything beautiful — never eating anything savoury — never saying anything clever!“ He was still a Liberal. But dealing “with petty and even squalid details, full of hopeless and insoluble difficulties” in the Home Office, he gradually began to perceive the outlines of a policy. He came to argue for a minimum standard at which it was the obligation of government to provide some security to the population. To set up a system of labor exchanges, Churchill called on William Beveridge, an Oxford don, whose recommendations took Britain on its first steps toward the modern welfare state,
Churchill carried the faith in experts into the Admiralty; under his leadership a naval war staff was first created. On the other hand, he was canny enough to know that experts were to be used, not trusted, and he learned to recognize when the admirals were procuring false information to frighten the civilian leaders. In l914, as the volume ends, Britain is on the verge of the fateful events that will transform it. Churchill, whose great achievements still lay before him, had already left his mark on British history.
GKOIKIE F. KENNA’S MEMOIRS 1925-1950 (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $10.00) is a thoughtful account of one of our earliest professional diplomats. Until the First World War, the United States was represented abroad by amateurs — politicians, businessmen, sometimes even scholars, who chose to spend a few years in a foreign capital. Not until the 1920s, when it already bore the responsibilities of world power, did the country become aware that it needed a corps of trained career officers. Kcnnan, a Midwesterner fresh from Princeton, was among the first recruited for this purpose. Encouraged to concentrate on the Soviet Union, while most Americans were still innocently ignorant of the place and the people, he made contributions of genuine importance to the development of American foreign policy in almost three decades of service.
Kennan always conceived of himself as an intellectual, and even before his withdrawal to an academic career, devoted much thought to the general problems of international relations. This book sums up his views, drawing copiously upon His diaries and the thoughtful political reports he wrote from his various stations. There are interesting vignettes of people and places; but Kennan, though modest, was always an introspective man, and the value of these memoirs lies in his reflections on the guiding principles of American foreign policy.
Kennan goes to some length to dispel the myth that he was the author in 1947 of the doctrine of containment. His article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs that year was taken as a call for the vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting points in order to offset the persistent tendencies of Soviet policy toward aggression. Kennan now rejects the meaning then given his essay. Yet the reader of that article twenty years later will still find that it says what its author does not wish it to say.
The discrepancy does not arise simply from the fact that Kennan now shies away from the application of the containment idea to Vietnam. Nor is it the product of the “careless and indiscriminate language” with which he now charges himself. The discrepancy results from a much more complex issue: the difficulty of fitting the expert into the process of formulating foreign policy in the United States.
Kennan’s underlying assumption is the desirability of a diplomacy dedicated to the maintenance of peace and the furtherance of the national interest, and administered dispassionately by men unentangled in politics and capable of dealing as a scientist does with the hard facts of life. Those facts in his view are primarily geopolitical, established by the position of the nation and its economic and military resources. He therefore places no weight at all on the influence of ideology. Thus, stationed though he was in Central Europe before 1941, he could not believe that the Germans were consumed with enthusiasm for the ruin and enslavement of the rest of Europe. Ideologies come and go, but states can behave only in accordance with the dictates of their situation. Pre-Munich Czechoslovakia, for instance, was tragically slow in adjusting itself to its role.
Hence, Kennan insists, we are Americans, not defenders of freedom. We deal with Germans not Nazis, with Russians not Communists. Of his personal abhorrence of totalitarianism in any form there is no doubt. From his Presbyterian upbringing and from his college studies he carried away a stern moral code which, indeed, enabled him to see, as others did not, the hypocrisy of welcoming Russia as an associate in the defense of democracy in 1941. But moral judgments of any sort, he argues, ought to be clinically separated from the formulation of policy. As a result he cannot understand politicians like FDR or Truman whose acts “often placed on American statesmanship the stamp of a certain histrionic futility . . . allowing it to degenerate into a mere striking of attitudes before the mirror of domestic political opinion.” Ultimately Kennan’s impatience with such leadership led to his resignation.
Yet the expert’s knowledge is but one of the factors that play upon policy decisions. Diplomacy is not the exclusive province of the Depart ment of State. The Treasury, the Bureau of the Budget, and the armed services influence and are influenced by foreign affairs; and each has its own corps of experts whose views do not always coincide. In dealing with the wartime use of Portuguese bases or occupation policy lor Germany, Kennan had his own grounds for criticizing the expertise of others.
Moreover, the dictates of science must sometimes yield to less precise imperatives. Viewing the ruins of Hamburg, he concluded that no military advantage could have justified the stupendous destruction. Mankind “had to learn to fight its wars morally as well as militarily.” The same injunction applies to the diplomat as well as to the general. Neither foreign affairs nor war can be conducted according to purely technical considerations. Both involve such estimates of attitudes and purpose as Roosevelt and Truman were compelled to make.
Containment was the idea enunciated twenty years ago in Foreign Affairs, whether Kennan really wished it to be or not. The article was written and read in the context of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan; and the texture of the argument was established not by the author’s private thoughts alone but also by the anticipated reaction in the State and Navy Departments, in the White House, and among the public.
The professional diplomat often finds it difficult to understand his position in a democracy where the ultimate decision lies in the hands of an unskilled amateur swayed by the gusts of an inchoate public opinion. The Foreign Service Officer is particularly vulnerable because he spends much of his life abroad. Coming back from a summer’s visit to the United States in the 1930s, Kennan became “aware that I was no longer a part of what I had once been a part of — no longer, in fact, a part of anything at all. It was not just that I had left the world of my boyhood ... it was also that this world had left me. It had left everyone else, for that matter; but . . . those who remained had . . . adjusted in varying degrees to the change. I, like all other expatriates, simply had been left behind.”
That isolation is part of the price the best of professional diplomats pay in serving their country. The rest of the price is acquiescence in a political process that sometimes uses their expertise, but at other times subordinates it to considerations they cannot wholly understand.