“The Rest is Silence”: Reticence and Theology in Hadji Murat

David Herman, University of Virginia

As a fiction writer, Tolstoy is most famous for strategies for the authorial domination of material, manipulative techniques like interior monologue, ostranenie, absolute language, massive detailization in the pursuit of first causes. After his crisis, however, this invasive, totalizing fiction recedes not into, but towards, silence. Fictions are no longer the writer’s main focus; those he does write are fewer in number, shorter in length, and at their climaxes suddenly parsimonious with language. Only in his final major work, Hadji Murat, however, does the author figure out a way to build an entire tale upon silence, both literal and figurative. This awkward novella, its publication intentionally delayed until after its author's death in a foretaste of the absences readers would uncover there, departs from almost every Tolstoyan precedent. The standard moralizing, the standard compositional strategies, the criteria for art advanced in What Is Art?, indeed the lion's share of the late Tolstoy's moral and aesthetic worldview, is vacated in the sudden hush. In line with the devaluation of the easily articulated, Hadji Murat shifts focus from self-perfection to enlightenment. Unsurprisingly, though, a paean to resistance by a prophet of non-resistance has engendered something of a critical silence as well, inspiring more perplexity than true commentary, most famously John Bayley's underestimation of it as "a parable without a point."

Trying to get beyond the overly conspicuous silence of apophatic theology and the ineffable of Romantic poetry, Tolstoy crafts a tale in which the essential goes unspoken while the trivial is left to rise to the surface, returning silence to its rightful low profile, but also complicating the reader's task. Meanwhile the structure is an exercise in overdetermination, positioning silence as, on one hand, the refusal to divulge, the denial of readers' textual desire in various senses, and the lack of the insight we seek from religious teachings, and, at the same time, as the wisest response to these glaring lacks and frustrations, as humility and the only true form of acceptance. Tolstoy lets the structure of reality itself tell us about God and faith precisely by virtue of what can never quite be said, implying in the process that this is a lesson so fundamentally resistant to articulation that it is not a lesson, but rather a deferral to truths that must be self-evident to be meaningful at all.