Slot:       28C-2          Dec. 28, 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.                                                

Panel:     Lev Tolstoy: Revising and Revisiting the Critical Tradition

Chair:     Susan McReynolds Oddo, Northwestern University


Title:       Vital Force or Deity? The Philosophical Quandary in the Epilogues to War and Peace

Author:   Inessa Medzhibovskaya, The New School

In one of his notebooks, Tolstoy outlined his ideas for the second, “philosophical” epilogue to conclude War and Peace: “To show that people, in obedience to zoological laws, never understand these laws, and, by pursuing their personal goals, involuntarily carry out universal laws. And to show how this comes about.  It is especially obvious during cataclysms. … There is a safety valve everywhere.” This is an intriguing and adversely layered proposition. The novel just established, for Pierre and others, that the safety valve is engaged to distract one’s attention from the unanswerable probing of divine law and its justice, and leave open room for freedom. It also established that freedom is not reducible to the pursuit of personal interest. In their best, freest, and always intimate moments, characters in the book are grateful for the divine richness of life, while the collective scenes, in their worst moments, do not descend to zoology, but direct attention to the mystery of what triggers collective reactions. Yet the plan for the epilogue suggests that people should unwittingly obey zoological laws to serve the purposes of universal laws.

This paper contextualizes Tolstoy’s paradoxical position. It argues that thanks to extreme, at times tragic, but artistically fecund complexity of Tolstoy’s approach, rather than a mocking intention to trivialize, the epilogues do maintain their contradictory attitude to the problem of law. By producing new evidence about the sources of Tolstoy’s challenging position, the paper will add to the ongoing dialogue about the philosophical meaning of the book.


Title:       Better Together: Tolstoevsky and Cultural Mythologies of the Great Author

Author:   Julie Buckler, Harvard University

In the age of post-structuralism, it has become intellectually and ideologically suspect to imagine a literary work as the conscious creation of a great mind.  Readers can no longer ignore the exclusions of race, culture, and gender that have a hand in the making of Great Authors, and many contend that Great Authors do not create literary works, but are themselves “produced” by the discursive practices of their times.   This paper proposes an alternative model that is author-based, yet self-conscious about being so.  The Great Author might be imagined in dialectical terms, reflecting the significance of two authors in relation to one another at a given cultural-historical moment.   Consider, for example, whether Tolstoy would have been Tolstoy had there been no Dostoevsky. “Tolstoevsky” is not a marriage of convenience, but an ordering principle of the literary cosmos. 

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?  Tolstoy and Dostoevsky?  These are the “infernal questions” that plague Russian literature specialists, as distinct from the “infernal questions” that plague the literary heroes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  The complementary life-narratives of these twin pillars are considered, as are moments from their fictional writings that anticipate “Tolstoevsky” discourse.  Recall the First Epilogue of War and Peace: “…[J]ust as one cannot imagine a blossom or seed for any single plant better suited to it than those it produces, so it is impossible to imagine any two people more completely adapted . . . for the purpose they had to fulfill, than Napoleon and Alexander.”  This paper unpacks the “canonical” pronouncements on the Tolstoevsky dialectic (Merezhkovsky, James, Mirsky, Bakhtin, Nabokov, Steiner, Brodsky), and examines contemporary critical and popular writing in terms of the Tolstoevsky paradigm.  The discursive notion of “Tolstoevsky” —so familiar to Slavists — mocks the concept of the Great Author, even as it doubly monumentalizes Lev and Fedor.


Title:       A Child by the Deathbed: On Some Aspects of Tolstoy’s Psychological Method

Author:   Olga Voronina, Harvard University

Tolstoy’s pedagogical activities are well documented and provide rich material for biographers and interpreters of his works in a historical context. A child in these studies is a recipient of Tolstoy’s intellectual, moral, or artistic guidance. Little has been written, however, about Tolstoy’s interest in the child as a writer’s guide to the world. And yet his writings show that in relation to children he often saw himself a student rather than a teacher and as much a man under observation as the one who observes. Tolstoy was fascinated with children’s intense self-reflection, acute perception, and a heightened sense of language. He confessed this attraction in the trilogy Childhood, Adolescence, Youth, and continued to explore it throughout his career.

This paper analyzes the influence Tolstoy’s interest in childhood had on the development of his writing method and especially on the depth and multi-dimensionality of his psychological prose. It includes a close reading of deathbed scenes in Childhood and War and Peace, followed by an argument which shows that Tolstoy placed children, either as characters or metaphors, in close proximity with death in order to explore the moment of dying as one of the “borderline psychic states” (Lydia Ginzburg), and that he linked human transition to the state of non-being to the moment of awakening of human consciousness during the first years of childhood. The goal of the paper is to demonstrate that Tolstoy populated his fiction with children not because he needed a symbolic figure for the expression of moral sentiments, like Dickens, or because he wanted to communicate his pedagogical ideas, like Rousseau, but because placing the psychological complexity of adult’s spiritual life against the unique psychic reality of childhood allowed him to discuss death, mortality, and consciousness as issues “adequate to life” rather than as abstract philosophical categories.