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TOLSTOY ON ART
AND ITS CRITICS
THE most attractive feature of this pamphlet will be found to be the quotation in full of a remarkable review of Tolstoy's What is Art? by Mr. Bernard Shaw, which has lain buried in the files of the Daily Chronicle since 1898, and is now reprinted for the first time. The rest consists chiefly of a discussion of that review and of the utterances of other critics. Mr. Bernard Shaw's comment on Tolstoy was not one of entire agreement, and I do not entirely agree with Mr. Bernard Shaw's disagreement, highly as I value the lucidity with which his article brings out several essential points.
TOLSTOY'S WHAT IS ART?
BY BERNARD SHAW
LIKE all Tolstoy's didactic writings, this book is a most effective booby-trap. It is written with so utter a contempt for the objections which the routine critic is sure to allege against it, that many a dilettantist reviewer has already accepted it as a butt set up by Providence to show off his own brilliant marksmanship. It seems so easy to dispose of a simpleton who moralizes on the Trojan war as if it were an historical event.
Yet Tolstoy will be better understood in this volume than in his Christian epistles because art is at present a more fashionable subject than Christianity. Most people have a loose impression that
Tolstoy as a Christian represents Evangelicalism gone mad. As a matter of fact, Tolstoy's position, as explained by himself, is, from the Evangelical point of view, as novel as it is blasphemous. What Evangelicalism calls revelation, vouchsafed to man's incapacity by Divine wisdom, Tolstoy declares to be a piece of common sense so obvious as to make its statement in the Gospels superfluous. 'I will go further,' he says. This truth (Resist_not_evil) appears to me so simple and so clear that I am persuaded I should have found it out by myself, even if Christ and his doctrine had never existed.' Blasphemy can go no further than this from the point of view of the Bible-worshipper. Again he says, 'I beg you, in the name of the God of truth whom you adore, not to fly out at me, nor to begin looking for arguments to oppose me with, before you have meditated, not on what I am going to write to you, but on the Gospel; and not on the Gospel as the word of God or of Christ, but on the Gospel considered as the neatest, simplest, most comprehensible and most practical doctrine on the way in which men ought to live.'
What makes this attitude of Tolstoy's so formidable to Christians who feel that it condemns their own systematic resistance to evil, is the fact that he is a man with a long, varied, and by no means exclusively pious experience of worldly life. In vain do we spend hours in a highly superior manner in proving that Tolstoy's notions are unpractical, visionary in short, cranky. We cannot get the sting and the startle out of his flat challenge as to how much we have done and where we have landed ourselves by the opposite policy. No doubt the challenge does not make all of us uneasy. But may not that be because he sees the world from behind the scenes of politics and society, whilst most of us are sitting to be gulled in the pit? For, alas !
nothing seems plainer to the dupe of all the illusions of civilization than the folly of the seer who penetrates them.
If Tolstoy has made himself so very disquieting by criticizing the world as a man of the world, he has hardly made himself more agreeable by criticizing art as an artist of the first rank. Among the minor gods of the amateur he kindles a devastating fire. Naturally, the very extensive literary output of delirium tremens in our country receives no quarter from him he has no patience with nonsense, especially drunken nonsense, however laboriously or lusciously it may be rhymed or alliterated. But he spares nobody wholly, dealing unmercifully with himself, sweeping away Mr. Rudyard Kipling with the French decadents, and heaping derision on Wagner. Clearly, this book of his will not be valued for its specific criticisms, some of which, if the truth must be told, represent nothing but the inevitable obsolescence of an old man's taste in art. To justify them, Tolstoy applies a test highly characteristic of the Russian aristocrat. A true work of art, he maintains, will always be recognized by the unsophisticated perception of the peasant folk. Hence Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, not being popular among the Russian peasantry, is not a true work of art!
Leaving the Ninth Symphony to take care of itself, one cannot help being struck by the fact that Russian revolutionists of noble birth invariably display what appears to us a boundless credulity concerning the virtues of the poor. No English county magnate has any doubt as to which way an English agricultural laborer would choose between Tolstoy's favorite Chopin nocturne (admitted by him to be true art) and the latest music-hall tune: we know perfectly well that the simplicity of our peasants' lives is forced on them by their poverty, and could be dispelled at any moment by a sufficient