Self-Consciousness in Tolstoj's Early Writings

Brett Cooke, Texas A & M University

From the very beginning of his work as a writer—and evident earlier in his diaries—Tolstoj shows a special interest in the phenomenon of consciousness. As evidenced in the very first paragraph of "A History of Yesterday," it constitutes a focal point of his motivation to write. As other scholars have noted, Tolstoj's fixation with consciousness is readily linked backwards to his reading of Rousseau and Sterne and forwards to his differentiation of such characters as, in descending order, Pierre Bezuxov, Nikolaj Rostov, and Anatole Kuragin in War and Peace a decade and a half later. Certainly Tolstoj's highly developed conception of consciousness is one of his greatest achievements. And for good reason: it began early.

The thrust of my paper will be to see what more we can learn of the role this interest played in Tolstoj's early work by placing his central questions in a Darwinian context. The phenomenon of consciousness, including, as in Tolstoj's case, consciousness of consciousness, is not taken for granted by evolutionists. It requires a particularly large somatic effort by the brain, already the least efficient and most expensive part of the body. Why, according to the economy of natural selection, should energies be diverted from one organ to another? As anthropologists surmise, the adaptive need was so great as to require the development of bipedalism and consequently the division of labor and much, much else that make us modern human beings.

As it turns out, many of the likely answers regarding the phenomenon of consciousness are evident in Tolstoj's early writings and diaries of the time when he became a writer. As Robert Trivers pointed out, the major selection pressure on human beings comes from other humans. Tolstoj, more than almost any other writer, from the very start is acutely aware of the figure he cuts in society and how that affects his competitive standing. As Nicholas Humphrey notes—and he is hardly alone—the only personality you will ever really know is yourself. Consequently, our construction of all other personalities is based on self-introspection, a distinguishing feature of Tolstoj's art. Notably, our intense need to anticipate the actions of others, vital in the selection of allies and deterrence of rivals, drives such introspection. Trust, particularly between presumed allies, as in the case of lovers and spouses, becomes a keen issue in Tolstoj's work. Not only does our need to understand others motivate some people to conduct formal self-analysis, as in the case of diaries and journals, it impels virtually everyone to take an intense interest in narrative. For good reason Daniel Rancour-Laferriere situates our interest in novels in our interest in ourselves. In what better way do we have something to learn from Tolstoj? Thirdly, personal consciousness is partly self-constructed on the basis of the aforementioned interest. As Tolstoj observed at the time, consciousness is neither similarly nor equivalently developed in different people. This underlies many of his characterizations. It appears in "A History of Yesterday" in his disquisition over the problem of how the mind is related to the body which holds it.

There is a fourth and fairly troubling stage to this dialectic. Social competition requires not just discernment of other consciousness but also deception regarding one's own—and this in turn dictates self-deception. As a result, we do not even know ourselves completely, despite our intense practice of introspection. More than any other writer before his time, Tolstoj is acutely suspicious that he does not understand himself. That he could not control himself, after all, was one of his immediate reasons for becoming a writer.