Oct 272003

Literary criticism turns up in odd places. I’ve been waiting to have my say about Tolstoy, that youthful rake turned pious old fraud, only to find that the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, in his curious novel Mysteries, beat me to it by a century. His main character, Nagel, gets drunk and begins to rant:

To get back to Tolstoy, in my opinion his intellect is no greater than, say, General Booth’s. They are both preachers, not thinkers but preachers. They deal with the status quo, popularize already accepted ides, reduce them to the lowest common denominator, and then sit back and watch them take root. But if you’re going to sell, you must do so at a profit, and Tolstoy’s enterprises show a staggering loss. Once two friends made a wager; one bet the other twelve shillings that he could shoot a nut out of the other fellow’s hand without grazing it. Well, he fired, missed, and blew the whole hand to shreds, but he did it with style. As he was about to faint, his injured friend moaned, ‘You lost the bet — give me the twelve shillings. Give me twelve shillings,’ he said! God, how Tolstoy labors to eliminate humanity’s happy vices and make the world full of love and mankind! It just fills me with shame… It would be different if Tolstoy were a young man struggling against temptation or if he had a battle to fight and tried to win it by preaching virtue and clean living. But his sources have run dry; he has no more humanity left to struggle with. You may say: But this has nothing to do with his philosophy. But it has everything to do with it! Oh, just wait until old age has made you self-satisfied and callous! Then you go to the young man and say, ‘Renounce these superficial trappings.’ The young man ponders, sleeps on it, and comes to the conclusion that this indeed is what the Bible preaches. But he doesn’t ‘renounce’; he goes on sinning for the next forty years. And so it is. When his forty years are up and the young man has grown old, he saddles his snow-white mare and rides off with his crusader’s banner held high in his bony hand, calling out a pious message of renunciation to the youth of the world. It’s a comedy that endlessly repeats itself. I get a kick out of Tolstoy. I’m glad the old boy is capable of so much munificence.

Lord, make me chaste, forty years hence.

  5 Responses to “Give Me Twelve Shillings”

  1. That’s pretty much what my wife thinks and feels about Tolstoy. But fixating on his attitudes and "philosophy", she ignores his purely literary merits. As Scherbina wrote in an epigram,

    In his hunter’s nature
    There is some strange Babylon:
    He is a general in literature
    And a Bourbon in philosophy.

    The "Bourbons" were originally the sergeants and corporals whom Louis XVIII promoted to lieutenants on his ascension, so that their loyalty should be to him, not Napoleon.

  2. Lord, make me chaste, forty years hence


    Not me. I’m going out the way Nicholas van Rijn wanted to: "at the ripe old age of 150, shot by an outraged husband."

  3. I prefer the following punctuation:

    Lord, make me chaste–forty years hence.

  4. There’s a first time for everything: criticism for too few em-dashes.

  5. To every thing there is a season…

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