Tolstoj and the Authenticity of the Other

Inessa Medzhibovskaya, Princeton University

This paper analyzes Tolstoj's portrayal of the "other" in conversional parables of the 1890s. The "other" in these experiences is consistently a conduit to salvation of a self-discovered sinner. Tolstoj considered sin to be unrecognized moral error and consequently a crime. He thus did not discriminate between a penal crime and a crime of conscience and proceeded to deny the legitimacy of all enforced impositions of justice. In salvation through punishment he saw inability to bridge the divide between solitary moral deliberations and voluntary persuasion by moral duty through a dialogue of engaged moral subjects--all striving for goodness in equal proportion. Although repelled by the fact that plurality of moral consensus could not be achieved other than be enforced by legal agreement, Tolstoj was also not fully convinced of the success of an individual moral enterprise. (An engagement in such enterprise, in sum total of all engaged efforts, would not necessarily guarantee "one good work" by the whole of humanity). Because this divide clearly troubled him, Tolstoj also tried to shove his moral agents "in each other's shoes." Unlike the members of a pluralistic society who practice interchangeable moral subjectivity, Tolstoj's heroes, it is argued, practice this transposition literally, but as a kenotic exercise.

Tolstoj's parabolic conversions are thus transformed into symbolic dramatizations of spiritual tasks. His frugal moral art, therefore, purposefully delimits human exposure and genuine human interaction. The contribution that this paper seeks to make is two-fold. First, it uncovers the reasons for Tolstoj's conscious kenotic limitation. Secondly, it analyzes the process of symbolic conversion and shows its results. Tolstoj's practice of "availing" the other for the purposes of moral correction is unusual. Though unapologetically self-serving, it goes against the grain of those conversion narratives in which the other is jeopardized, sacrificed or scapegoated. The unparalleled kenotic brotherhoods of spiritual "others" that Tolstoj establishes in the 1890s are still self-centered and even suggestive of spiritual plunder. But a closer look reveals that the other never incurs loss from his beneficiary's symbolic engagement. Whether this is sufficiently authentic art, is the final point of contention that the paper addresses.