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Dec 30, 2011

History of Literature

The history of literature is the historical development of writings in prose or poetry which attempt to provide entertainment, enlightenment, or instruction to the reader/hearer/observer, as well as the development of the literary techniques used in the communication of these pieces. Not all writings constitute literature. Some recorded materials, such as compilations of data (e.g., a check register) are not considered literature, and this article relates only to the evolution of the works defined in the first sentence above.

Early Literature
Literature and writing, though obviously connected, are not synonymous. The very first writings from ancient Sumer by any reasonable definition do not constitute literature—the same is true of some of the early Egyptian hieroglyphics or the thousands of logs from ancient Chinese regimes. Scholars always have and always will disagree concerning when the earliest records-keeping in writing becomes more like “literature” than anything else: the definition is largely subjective.

Moreover, it must be borne in mind that, given the significance of distance as a cultural isolator in earlier centuries, the historical development of literature did not occur at an even pace across the world. The problems of creating a uniform global history of literature are compounded by the fact that many texts have been lost over the millennia, either deliberately, by accident, or by the total disappearance of the originating culture. Much has been written, for example, about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE, and the innumerable key texts which are believed to have been lost forever to the flames. The deliberate suppression of texts (and often their authors) by organisations of either a spiritual or a temporal nature further shrouds the subject.

Certain primary texts, however, may be isolated which have a qualifying role as literature’s first stirrings. Very early examples are Epic of Gilgamesh, in its Sumerian version predating 2000 BCE, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead written down in the Papyrus of Ani in approximately 250 BCE but probably dates from about the 18th century BCE. Ancient Egyptian literature was not included in early studies of the history of literature because the writings of Ancient Egypt were not translated into European languages until the 19th century when the Rosetta stone was deciphered.

Many texts handed down by oral tradition over several centuries before they were fixed in written form are difficult or impossible to date. The core of the Rigveda may date to the mid 2nd millennium BCE. The Pentateuch is traditionally dated to the 15th century, although modern scholarship estimates its oldest part to date to the 10th century BCE at the earliest.

Homer‘s The Iliad and The Odyssey date to the 8th century BCE and mark the beginning of Classical Antiquity. They also stand in an oral tradition that stretches back to the late Bronze Age.

Indian śruti texts post-dating the Rigveda (such as the Yajurveda, the Atharvaveda and the Brahmanas), as well as the Hebrew Tanakh and the a mystical collection of poems attributed to Lao Tze, the Tao te Ching, date to the Iron Age, but their dating is difficult and controversial. The great Hindu epics were also transmitted orally, likely predating the Maurya period.

Other oral traditions were fixed in writing much later, such as the Elder Edda, written down in the 12th or 13th century.

There are various different possible answers to the question “Which was the first novel ever written?” (See Candidates for the first novel).

Early Indian literature
Indian literature, Kannada literature, Sanskrit literature, and Tamil literature
Indian epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, have influenced countless other works, including Balinese Kecak and other performances such as shadow puppetry (wayang), and many European influenced works. Pali literature has an important position in the rise of Buddhism.

Early Chinese literature or Chinese literature
The first great author on military tactics and strategy was Sun Tzu, whose The Art of War remains on the shelves of many modern military officers (and its advice has been applied to the corporate world as well). Philosophy developed far differently in China than in Greece—rather than presenting extended dialogues, the Analects of Confucius and Lao Zi‘s Tao Te Ching presented sayings and proverbs more directly and didactically.

Classical Antiquity The Greeks
Ancient Greek society placed considerable emphasis upon literature. Many authors consider the western literary tradition to have begun with the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, which remain giants in the literary canon for their skillful and vivid depictions of war and peace, honor and disgrace, love and hatred. Notable among later Greek poets was Sappho, who defined, in many ways, lyric poetry as a genre.

A playwright named Aeschylus changed Western literature forever when he introduced the ideas of dialogue and interacting characters to playwriting. In doing so, he essentially invented “drama”: his Oresteia trilogy of plays is seen as his crowning achievement. Other refiners of playwriting were Sophocles and Euripides. Sophocles is credited with skillfully developing irony as a literary technique, most famously in his play Oedipus the King. Euripedes, conversely, used plays to challenge societal norms and mores—a hallmark of much of Western literature for the next 2,300 years and beyond—and his works such as Medea, The Bacchae and The Trojan Women are still notable for their ability to challenge our perceptions of propriety, gender, and war. Aristophanes, a comic playwright, defines and shapes the idea of comedy almost as Aeschylus had shaped tragedy as an art form—Aristophanes’ most famous plays include the Lysistrata and The Frogs.

Philosophy entered literature in the dialogues of Plato, who converted the give and take of Socratic questioning into written form. Aristotle, Plato’s student, wrote dozens of works on many scientific disciplines, but his greatest contribution to literature was likely his Poetics, which lays out his understanding of drama, and thereby establishes the first criteria for literary criticism.

The Romans: Latin literature
In many respects, the writers of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire chose to avoid innovation in favor of imitating the great Greek authors. Virgil‘s Aeneid, in many respects, emulated Homer’s Iliad; Plautus, a comic playwright, followed in the footsteps of Aristophanes; Tacitus‘ Annals and Germania follow essentially the same historical approaches that Thucydides devised (the Christian historian Eusebius does also, although far more influenced by his religion than either Tacitus or Thucydides had been by Greek and Roman polytheism); Ovid and his Metamorphoses explore the same Greek myths again in new ways. It can be argued, and has been, that the Roman authors, far from being mindless copycats, improved on the genres already established by their Greek predecessors. For example Ovid’s Metamorphoses creates a form which is a clear predecessor of the stream of consciousness genre. What is undeniable is that the Romans, in comparison with the Greeks, innovate relatively few literary styles of their own.

Satire is one of the few Roman additions to literature—Horace was the first to use satire extensively as a tool for argument, and Juvenal made it into a weapon. The New Testament is an unusual collection of texts–Paul‘s epistles are the first collection of personal letters to be treated as literature, the Gospels arguably present the first realistic biographies in Western literature, and John‘s Book of Revelation, though not the first of its kind, essentially defines apocalypse as a literary genre. Augustine of Hippo and his The City of God do for religious literature essentially what Plato had done for philosophy, but Augustine’s approach was far less conversational and more didactive. His Confessions is perhaps the first true autobiography, and certainly it gives rise to the genre of confessional literature which is now more popular than ever.

The Medieval Period: Medieval literature: Europe
After the fall of Rome (in roughly 476), many of the literary approaches and styles invented by the Greeks and Romans fell out of favor in Europe. In the millennium or so that intervened between Rome’s fall and the Florentine Renaissance, medieval literature focused more and more on faith and faith-related matters, in part because the works written by the Greeks had not been preserved in Europe, and therefore there were few models of classical literature to learn from and move beyond. What little there was became changed and distorted, with new forms beginning to develop from the distortions. Some of these distorted beginnings of new styles can be seen in the literature generally described as Matter of Rome, Matter of France and Matter of Britain.

Following Rome’s fall, Islam‘s spread across Asia and Africa brought with it a desire to preserve and build upon the work of the Greeks, especially in literature. Although much had been lost to the ravages of time (and to catastrophe, as in the burning of the Library of Alexandria), many Greek works remained extant: they were preserved and copied carefully by Muslim scribes.

In Europe Hagiographies, or “lives of the saints“, are frequent among early medieval texts. The writings of Bede—Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum—and others continue the faith-based historical tradition begun by Eusebius in the early 300s. Playwriting essentially ceased, except for the mystery plays and the passion plays that focused heavily on conveying Christian belief to the common people. Around 400 AD the Prudenti Psychomachia began the tradition of allegorical tales. Poetry flourished, however, in the hands of the troubadours, whose courtly romances and chanson de geste amused and entertained the upper classes who were their patrons. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote works which he claimed were histories of Britain. These were highly fanciful and included stories of Merlin the magician and King Arthur. Epic poetry continued to develop with the addition of the mythologies of Northern Europe: Beowulf and the Norse sagas have much in common with Homer and Virgil’s approaches to war and honor, while poems such as Dante‘s Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer‘s The Canterbury Tales take much different stylistic directions.

In November 1095 – Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont. The crusades would affect everything in Europe and the Middle East for many years to come and literature would, along with everything else, be transformed by the wars between these two cultures. For instance the image of the knight would take on a different significance. Also the Islamic emphasis on scientific investigation and the presevation of the Greek philosophical writings would eventually affect European literature.

Between Augustine and The Bible, religious authors had numerous aspects of Christianity that needed further explication and interpretation. Thomas Aquinas, more than any other single person, was able to turn theology into a kind of science, in part because he was heavily influenced by Aristotle, whose works were returning to Europe in the 1200s.

Early Islamic literature: Arabic literature
Among the innovations of Arabic literature was Ibn Khaldun‘s perspective on chronicling past events—by fully rejecting supernatural explanations, Khaldun essentially invented the scientific or sociological approach to history.

Persian literature: Pahlavi literature and Persian literature
From Persian culture the book which would, eventually, become the most famous in the west is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The Rubáiyát is a collection of poems by the Persian mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyám (1048-1122). “Rubaiyat” means “quatrains”: verses of four lines.

Turkic literature: Turkish literature
Between the 9th and 11th centuries, there arose among the nomadic Turkic peoples of Central Asia/Turkistan a tradition of oral epics, such as the Book of Dede Korkut or the Manas epic. Among the early written prose Yusuf Has Hajib‘s Kutat-Ku Bilik (Blessings and Wisdom), the Divan-i Lugat-it Turk an encyclopedic dictionary written by Mahmut Kasgari and Mir Ali Shir Nava’i are early epic masterpieces.

Later Chinese literature: Li Po Chanting a Poem, by Liang K’ai: (13th century)
Chinese literature
Lyric poetry advanced far more in China than in Europe prior to 1000, as multiple new forms developed in the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties: perhaps the greatest poets of this era in Chinese literature were Li Bai and Du Fu.

Printing began in Tang Dynasty China. A copy of the Diamond Sutra, a key Buddhist text, found sealed in a cave in China in the early 20th century, is the oldest known dated printed book, with a printed date of 868. The method used was block printing.

The scientist, statesman, and general Shen Kuo (1031-1095 AD) was the author of the groundbreaking Dream Pool Essays (1088), a large book of scientific literature that included the oldest description of the magnetized compass. During the Song Dynasty, there was also the enormous historical work of the Zizhi Tongjian, compiled into 294 volumes of 3 million written Chinese characters by the year 1084 AD.

Some authors feel that China originated the novel form with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong (in the 14th century), although others feel that this epic is distinct from the novel in key ways.

The true vernacular novel was developed in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).

European Renaissance Literature
European Renaissance Literature and 15th century in literature
Had nothing occurred to change literature in the 1400s but the Renaissance, the break with medieval approaches would have been clear enough. The 1400s, however, also brought Johann Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press, an innovation (for Europe, at least) that would change literature forever. Texts were no longer precious and expensive to produce—they could be cheaply and rapidly put into the marketplace. Literacy went from the prized possession of the select few to a much broader section of the population (though by no means universal). As a result, much about literature in Europe was radically altered in the two centuries following Gutenberg’s unveiling of the printing press in 1455.

William Caxton was the first English printer and published English language texts including Le Morte d’Arthur (a collection of oral tales of the Arthurian Knights which is a forerunner of the novel) and Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales. These are an indication of future directions in literature. With the arrival of the printing press a process begins in which folk yarns and legends are collected within a frame story and then mass published.

In the Renaissance, the focus on learning for learning’s sake causes an outpouring of literature. Petrarch popularized the sonnet as a poetic form; Giovanni Boccaccio‘s Decameron made romance acceptable in prose as well as poetry; François Rabelais rejuvenates satire with Gargantua and Pantagruel; Michel de Montaigne single-handedly invented the essay and used it to catalog his life and ideas. Perhaps the most controversial and important work of the time period was a treatise printed in Nuremberg, entitled De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium: in it, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus removed the Earth from its privileged position in the universe, which had far-reaching effects, not only in science, but in literature and its approach to humanity, hierarchy, and truth.

The early modern period in Western Europe
16th century in literature and 17th century in literature
A new spirit of science and investigation in Europe was part of a general upheaval in human understanding which began with the discovery of the New world in 1492 and continues through the subsequent centuries, even up to the present day.

The form of writing now commonplace across the world—the novel—originated from the early modern period and grew in popularity in the next century. Before the modern novel became established as a form there first had to be a transitional stage when “novelty” began to appear in the style of the epic poem.

Plays for entertainment (as opposed to religious enlightenment) returned to Europe’s stages in the early modern period. William Shakespeare is the most notable of the early modern playwrights, but numerous others made important contributions, including Christopher Marlowe, Molière, and Ben Jonson. From the 16th to the 18th century Commedia dell’arte performers improvised in the streets of Italy and France. Some Commedia dell’arte plays were written down. Both the written plays and the improvisation were influential upon literature of the time, particularly upon the work of Molière. Shakespeare, and his associate Robert Armin, drew upon the arts of jesters and strolling players in creating new style comedies. All the parts, even the female ones, were played by men (en travesti) but that would change, first in France and then in England too, by the end of the 17th century.

The epic Elizabethan poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser was published, in its first part, in 1590 and then in completed form in 1597. The Fairie Queen marks the transitional period in which “novelty” begins to enter in to the narrative in the sense of overturning and playing with the flow of events. Theatrical forms known in Spenser’s time such as The Masque and the Mummers’ Play are incorporated into the poem in ways which twist tradition and turn it to political propaganda in the service of Queen Elizabeth I.

The earliest work considered an opera in the sense the work is usually understood dates from around 1597. It is Dafne, (now lost) written by Jacopo Peri for an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the “Camerata“.

Miguel de Cervantes‘s Don Quixote de la Mancha has been called “the first novel” by many literary scholars (or the first of the modern European novels). It was published in two parts. The first part was published in 1605 and the second in 1615. It might be viewed as a parody of Le Morte d’Arthur (and other examples of the chivalric romance), in which case the novel form would be the direct result of poking fun at a collection of heroic folk legends. This is fully in keeping with the spirit of the age of enlightenment which began from about this time and delighted in giving a satirical twist to the stories and ideas of the past. It’s worth noting that this trend toward satirising previous writings was only made possible by the printing press. Without the invention of mass produced copies of a book it would not be possible to assume the reader will have seen the earlier work and will thus understand the references within the text.

The new style in English poetry during the 17th century was that of the metaphysical movement. The metaphysical poets were John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan and others. Metaphysical poetry is characterised by a spirit of intellectual investigation of the spiritual, rather than the mystical reverence of many earlier English poems. The metaphysical poets were clearly trying to understand the world around them and the spirit behind it, instead of accepting dogma on the basis of faith.

In the middle of the century the king of England was overthrown and a republic declared. In the new regime (which lasted from 1649 to 1653) the arts suffered. In England and the rest of the British Isles Oliver Cromwell‘s rule temporarily banned all theatre, festivals, jesters, mummers plays and frivolities. The ban was lifted when the monarchy was restored with Charles II. Thomas Killigrew and the Drury Lane theatre were favorites of King Charles.

In contrast to the metaphysical poets was John Milton‘s Paradise Lost, an epic religious poem in blank verse. Milton had been Oliver Cromwell’s chief propagandist and suffered when the Restoration came. Paradise Lost is one of the highest developments of the epic form in poetry immediately preceding the era of the modern prose novel.

An allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come was published by John Bunyan in 1678.

Other early novelists include Daniel Defoe (born 1660) and Jonathan Swift (born 1667).

European literature of the 18th century refers to literature (poetry, drama and novels) produced in Europe during this period. The 18th century saw the development of the modern novel as literary genre, in fact many candidates for the first novel in English date from this period, of which Eliza Haywood‘s 1724 Fantomina is probably the best known. Subgenres of the novel during the 18th century were the epistolary novel, the sentimental novel, histories, the gothic novel and the libertine novel.

18th Century Europe started in the Age of Enlightenment and gradually moved towards Romanticism. In the visual arts, it was the period of Neoclassicism.

See also:

French literature of the 18th century,
The novel and new psychology in the 18th century
List of years in literature: the 1800s
Literary neoclassicism
English literature: Augustan literature, British amatory fiction
German literature: German Romanticism, Sturm und Drang
Modern Literature, 19th century
The 19th century was perhaps the most literary of all centuries, because not only were the forms of novel, short story and magazine serial all in existence side-by-side with theatre and opera, but since film, radio and television did not yet exist, the popularity of the written word and its direct enactment were at their height.


The early part of the century

The romantic movement was well under way and along with it developed the splintering of fiction writing into genres and the rise of speculative fiction. There was a romantic tendency toward the exploration of folk traditions and old legends. In 1802 Sir Walter Scott published Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Amelia Opie, another romantic, was publishing poetry in the early 19th century and was an active anti-war campaigner. Anne Bannerman (1765-1829) reworked legends of King Arthur and Merlin. William Blake worked in words and pictures to share his visions and mysticism. In 1807 Thomas Moore published Irish Melodies. Lord Byron produced many influential poems during this period. In 1808 Goethe published part one of Faust. In 1810 Sir Walter Scott published Lady of the Lake. Percy Shelley published a gothic novel: Zastrozzi. The term “Gothic” had, by this time, come to mean a desire for a romantic return to the times before the renaissance. Percy Shelley also published a gothic novella: St. Irvyne in 1811.

North Americans who would later produce great literature were being born in the first third of the century. In 1803 the great American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was born (May 25) in Boston and in 1804 Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1807 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and then Edgar Allan Poe in 1809. Phillipe-Ignace Francois Aubert du Gaspe, author of the first French Canadian novel was born in 1814 followed by Henry David Thoreau in 1817 and Herman Melville in 1819. Canadian poets Octave Crémazie and James McIntyre were both born in 1827. In 1830 was the birth of Emily Dickinson and, just over a third of the way through the century, in 1835 Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) arrived in this world. Before all of them was Washington Irving, said to be the first American “Literary Lion” and mentor to several other American writers. Washington Irving wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (a short story contained in his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon) while he was living in Birmingham, England and it was first published in 1819.

In 1807 Charles and Mary Lamb published Tales from Shakespeare, a simple retelling of some of Shakespeare’s plays in the form of little stories accessible to a child readership. Along with all the other genres born in the 19th century came the genre of Children’s literature.

In 1809 Schlegel published On Dramatic Art and Literature. Alfred, Lord Tennyson was born (August 6).

In 1811 Jane Austen published (anonymously) Sense and Sensibility

In 1812 George Crabbe published Tales in Verse. Byron published Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Cantos I and II. Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Remorse. On February 7th Charles Dickens was born. On May 7 Robert Browning was born in London. On October 4, in London, Percy Shelley first met William Godwin (3 March 1756 – 7 April 1836), an English writer, husband of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who would eventually marry Shelley and become Mary Shelley).

In 1813 Jane Austen published (anonymously) Pride and Prejudice. Byron published The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos. January 23 Drury Lane reopened with Coleridge’s Remorse. In May Percy Shelley published his poem Queen Mab. In September Sir Walter Scott declined the offer of being made Poet Laureate, Robert Southey accepted the post. Wilhelm Richard Wagner born 22 May.

In 1814 Sir Walter Scott published Waverley. Jane Austen‘s Mansfield Park was published anonymously. Robert Southey published Roderick, the Last of the Goths. An English translation of Dante‘s Divine Comedy appeared. On July 28 Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin (Mary Shelley) eloped. In 1814 Jane Austen published Mansfield Park and, in 1815, Emma.

In 1816 Thomas Love Peacock published Headlong Hall. Coleridge published Christabel and Kubla Khan. Jane Austen anonymously published Emma. E.T.A. Hoffmann published Undine. Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley went to Geneva and met Byron (with his physician John Polidori). At Byron’s villa they told ghost stories and invented the basic ideas which led eventually to Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein and Polidori’s novel The Vampyre. Their stay at Byron’s villa was one of the most famous events in the Gothic/Romantic movement.

In 1817 John Keats published a volume of Poems. Sir Walter Scott published Harold the Dauntless. Byron published Manfred.

In 1818 Mary Shelley anonymously published Frankenstein which came to be known, eventually, as the first science fiction novel and the template for the mad scientist subgenre. Byron published Childe Harold Canto IV. John Keats published Endymion. Thomas Love Peacock published Rhododaphne and Nightmare Abbey. Jane Austen‘s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously. Sir Walter Scott published Rob Roy.

In 1819 John Polidori published The Vampyre.

In 1820 John Keats published Lamia, Isabella and Hyperion. Percy Shelley published Prometheus Unbound. Elizabeth Barrett published The Battle of Marathon. Sir Walter Scott published Ivanhoe, The Abbott and The Monastery. James Catnach: Street Ballads. A gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer was published by Charles Robert Maturin.

In 1821 February 23: John Keats died. Percy Shelley published Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats and Epipsychidion. Byron published The Prophecy of Dante. Sir Walter Scott published Kenilworth. Fyodor Dostoevsky was born.

In 1822 Thomas De Quincey published Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Percy Shelley published Hellas.

In 1823 Mary Shelley published Valperga. Byron published The Age of Bronze and The Island. Charles Lamb published Essays of Elia. Sir Walter Scott published Quentin Durward. An English translation of Jacob Grimm, Grimms’ Fairy Tales appeared.

In 1824 Sir Walter Scott published Redgauntlet. Byron died in Greece.

In 1826 Mary Shelley published The Last Man, a novel set in the 21st century.

In 1827 Alfred and Charles Tennyson Turner published Poems by Two Brothers. August 12: William Blake died.

In 1828 Leo Nikolayevitch Tolstoy was born 9 September.

In 1829 Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel died 11 January. Edgar Allan Poe published a poem: Al Aaraaf.

In 1831 Sir Walter Scott published Castle Dangerous. Edgar Allan Poe published a poem: The City in the Sea. (1831)

In 1832 Percy Shelley published his poem The Masque of Anarchy, a reaction to the Peterloo massacre. Johann Wolfgang Goethe published part II of Faust. On March 20 Goethe died. Jerrold Douglas published The Factory Girl, The Golden Calf and The Rent-Day.

In 1833 Caroline Bowles published Tales of the Factories. Charles Lamb published The Last Essays of Elia.

In 1834 Frederick Marryat published Peter Simple and Jacob Faithful. Balzac published Le Pere Goriot. William Morris was born. On July 25th Samuel Taylor Coleridge died.

The first modern Arabic compilation of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights was published in Cairo.

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is the study, discussion, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals. Though the two activities are closely related, literary critics are not always, and have not always been, theorists.

Roland Barthes: Death of The Author

“Death of the Author” (1967) is an essay by the French literary critic Roland Barthes that was first published in the American journal Aspen. The essay later appeared in an anthology of his essays, Image-Music-Text (1977), a book that also included “From Work To Text”. It argues against incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of text; writing and creator are unrelated.

Some Post-Structural Assumptions

The following are intended to be some suggestions which you should expect to modify, add to, contest, and otherwise work with. Post-structuralism is not a school, but a group of approaches motivated by some common understandings, not all of which will necessarily be shared by every practitioner. Post-structuralism is not a theory but a set of theoretical positions, which have at their core a self-reflexive discourse which is aware of the tentativeness, the slipperiness, the ambiguity and the complex interrelations of texts and meanings. There may be some sharp differences about what ‘post-structuralism’ includes; I see a substantial ideological component which others may not, for instance.

Jacques Derrida: Structuralism/Poststructuralism

Structuralism is appealing to some critics because it adds a certain objectivity, a SCIENTIFIC objectivity, to the realm of literary studies (which have often been criticized as purely subjective/impressionistic). This scientific objectivity is achieved by subordinating “parole” to “langue;” actual usage is abandoned in favor of studying the structure of a system in the abstract. Thus structuralist readings ignore the specificity of actual texts and treat them as if they were like the patterns produced by iron filings moved by magnetic force–the result of some impersonal force or power, not the result of human effort.

Literary Criticism and Theory of Criticism

There are a great many books to read; there are many place to travel to. Travellers are often much better for advice — where to go, where to avoid, what to know and what to do to get the most out of their trip. It is my humble opinion that works of literary criticism are the travel books of the written world — sometimes guides (and it is, for instance, a rash traveller who visits Wallace Stevens without one), sometimes reportage, travelogues, impressions. This is, or can be, a worthwhile enterprise, but it does not sound like one which needs or would benefit from a vast and obscure body of theory, nor one whose successful practioners are likely to be able theorists.

Social Construction of Reality

Something very peculiar occured to some members of Europe’s educated classes around the beginning of the Renaissance: they read the ancients and realized the past was different from the present. Not just in the obvious, trivial sense that that was then and this is now, but that in antiquity they had talked differently, acted differently, lived differently, even thought differently. This was rather a shock; one can see it reflected in, say, Machiavelli, as he explains why the ancient polities simply cannot be revived. This realization, that “they do things differently there,” did not go away; it only acquired more force and a broader scope as the “discovery of the historical world” (Cassirer) progressed along-side contact with other cultures. (Islam had of course been next door to Europe, even in Europe, for centuries, but it shared an Abrahamic religion and Hellenistic philosophy, and each side could condemn the other as deviants from the True Faith. This resource was unavailable to the Jesuits when they got to Kerala and China.) So far this was just an uneasy awareness that we can be led into error by the customs of our country (to try to keep to the language of the time), and that, if we want to avoid such errors, we need to carefully scrutinize those customs and received notions. (Thus Descartes at the start of the Discourse on Method.)

It took another peculiar event to change the fear of inherited errors into a positive doctrine; that was the Great French Revolution of 1789, or more precisely the conservative response to it. The basic point made by, for instance, Edmund Burke, was that it was neither possible nor desirable to start from scratch, from tabulæ rasæ, as (according to the conservatives) the philosophes and the revolutionaries had tried to do. We are, after all, not blank slates, we do not evolve our thought out of pure abstraction, but inherit our modes of thought and categories from our ancestors; our intellect as much as our institutions and our feelings are part of a vast social fabric, stretching back into a literally immemorial past. So we can’t start from stratch; but we can modify our inheritance. Yet (the conservative argument continues) that inheritance is the product of millennia of sifting and winnowing; however imperfect it may be, it has in fact endured and worked for a very long time, and as such is not to be lightly tampered with, much less completely rejected in favor of very recent and very speculative, hence very uncertain, substitutes, especially not when serious matters of human life and happiness are at stake. (The contrast between this sort of conservativism, and the doctrinaire radicalism of Thatcher, the Reagan administration and Gingrich, is most instructive.)

I have a lot of sympathy for this line of argument, certainly as it applies to politics, though I think conservatives generally unfair to the Enlightenment, but that’s a side-issue for the moment. The important point, for our present purposes, is the notion of that thought is social, is traditional, most especially that the categories we employ in thinking are social, inherited, traditional. Add to this the idea that our concepts form a closed, coherent system, from which there is no (rational) escape. Result: The terms in which we thinks are fixed by society; the very effort to condemn or escape our society and its conventions, even in thought, is sabotaged from the start. Add one more belief, that we never have an unmediated contact with reality, that all we know are (socially-approved) representations, and the circle is complete. “Reality” as such, independent of all ideas, concepts, modes of representation, etc. inherited from our past, is nothing to us. What we have is (allowing for the barbarization of learned prose since Burke’s day) a social construct; reality, as we know it, is socially constructed. Radical challenges to the status quo are thus, quite literally, unthinkable and unrealistic.

The phrase, “social construction of reality,” was in fact brought into general use, if not invented, by a book of the same title by a pair of conservative sociologists, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. (They do not give the argument in quite this form, but I think mine is a neater derivation.) It’s very curious that the idea has been taken up so enthusiastically by academics who pride themselves on being leftists and radicals. (Though not without precedent; much of Marx’s work is an attempt to expropriate the original conservative arguments.) Their reasoning seems to run roughly as follows. Many (if not all) oppressed people are thought of in an invidious, demeaning, repressive way; if we teach people to think in different categories, we’ll get rid of those kinds of oppression. But this presumes that we can change the system of concepts, and in a deliberately chosen way at that, which blocks the premises we started from. In any case, Marx and Engels knew all about this kind of optimism a hundred and fifty years ago:

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This honest fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany. [
The German Ideology,
preface.]

Of course, today it’s not just “in Germany”…

This is a reductio, so let’s see where the reasoning went wrong.

In the first place, let’s start with this idea of “society.” It’s a pretty harmless one, and an invaluable short-hand, but here it leads us into mistakes. We do not, pace Durkheim, ever actually deal with society; we deal with other people — our parents, our playmates, our bosses, our enemies, our spawn, etc., etc. It’s certainly true that we acquire many concepts, ideas and ways of thinking from these people, through formal instruction, through shared experience, through conversation and conviviality, and through direct imitation, but it by no means follows that we acquire a coherent system of thought from them, much less that we all share the same system by virtue of getting in each other’s hair. This doesn’t make it impossible to talk about (e.g.) which conceptions are common in a certain population, but it does or should warn us against laying out elaborate conceptual systems and saying “This is what the English aristocracy thought in 1900″ or the like.

More: I spoke above as though the social origin of ideas meant that they form a closed, self-consistent and self-supporting system, a vicious (or, if you like it, virtuous) circle. But there’s no a priori reason to suppose this is so, and certainly not much evidence. Variation from established concepts is common; useful variants, alas, are rare. (As one of my biology professors put it: “Most errors don’t work.”) This modification of ideas from within can even be a perfectly rational process, as, for instance, Toulmin shows. Nor does the fact (if it is true) that we can’t grab hold of reality unmediated by some form of representation show that we can’t use experience to weed out ideas and methods which work poorly; even that we can’t use experience to change our forms of representation.

That said, I’m far from wanting to dismiss the idea totally. We do acquire many ideas from others, and it’s a damn good thing too: it’s what makes intellectual progress possible (“shoulders of giants” and all that). For people to share a certain concept, they must at the very least agree on when to apply it, at least roughly. But some of our concepts seem to have nothing more to recommend them than such consensus. Probably the most important such categories, at least in modern America, are those of race. (Personal anecdote: In most of the US, despite the fact that we have the same biological parents, I’m classified as white but my brother is not. Here in New Mexico, since we’re neither Spanish nor Native American, we’re both Anglos.) At the beginning of this century, many, perhaps most WASPs regarded the Irish, let alone the Italians, the Poles and the Jews as belonging to a different race; by the middle of the next century, I expect that “white” will have come to include people of East Asian descent, and probably changed its name. Moreover, whether a new idea, or a new variation of an old one, becomes entrenched in a population is a social process; but that’s not the social construction of reality, that’s the social selection of beliefs and practices, a far weaker and more reasonable notion, which can still do the good works which attract people to its impossibly strong cousin.

I also expect that the doctrine of social construction will go from strength to strength. True, at the moment it’s tied up with some pretty fru-fru sorts of leftism, which limits its reach, but that’s an unstable, unnatural combination. We leftists want to say that oppression is wrong, unjustified and rest on false premises. But if social construction holds, what counts as right, justified and even true is set by society, and ultimately by the powers that be within it, i.e., the very people we’re struggling against. Turned around, of course, this makes a splendid argument for the status quo: dissent is, automatically, inescapably nonsensical. Wait a few decades for the people being educated in social constructivism to grow up and get with the strength, and watch this argument fill up the journals.

Recommended:
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge
Peter Burke, The Renaissance Sense of the Past
Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? [Deserves a full review, which will take me a little while at least]
Richard F. Hamilton, The Social Misconstruction of Reality: Validity and Verification in the Scholarly Community
Robert K. Merton, On the Shoulders of Giants
Bruce Sterling, Zeitgeist: A Novel of Metamorphosis [This is science fiction: an alternate world where reality really is socially constructed, all the way down, with hilarious side-effects.]
Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding, vol. I: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts.
Stephen Turner, The Social Theory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge, and Presuppositions
To read:
Kenneth Gergen, An Invitation to Social Construction
Eric Heubeck, The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement ["The truth of an idea is not the primary reason for its acceptance"]
John Shotter, Cultural Politics of Everyday Life: Social Constructionism, Rhetoric and Knowing of the Third Kind

Leo Tolstoy Life and Works

Tolstoi, Lev Nikolaevich (1828-1910), writer, was born 9 September 1828 at Yasnaya Polyana, his family’s estate, 200 km south of Moscow. He was the fourth of five children born to Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoi (died 1837) and Mariya Nikolaevna, née Princess Volkonskaya (died 1830). In 1847 Tolstoi received Yasnaya Polyana in the distribution of his parents’ property. Thereafter, although occasionally absent (especially in the 1850s) for extended periods, he maintained the estate as his home. In 1862 he married Sofiya Andreevna Bers (born 1844), the daughter of a Moscow physician. Thirteen children were born of the marriage, ten of whom survived infancy. Tolstoi left Yasnaya Polyana for the last time in November 1910. He contracted pneumonia on his journey and died of heart failure on 20 November, aged 82, in the stationmaster’s house at Astapovo (today called “Lev Tolstoi”).

Educated and cared for by tutors, Tolstoi’s early childhood was typical for his social class. He showed a gift for languages and a fondness for literature, including fairy tales, the poems of Pushkin, and the Bible, especially the Old Testament story of Joseph. After their father’s death the children passed through the hands of a number of female relatives, finally (1841) being sent to five with an aunt in the provincial city of Kazan. In 1844 Tolstoi enrolled in the local university and began a notably unsuccessful career as a student. He did, however, develop a keen interest in moral philosophy. He steeped himself in the writings of Rousseau. He later listed Dickens, Schiller, Pushkin, Lermontov, D. V. Grigorovich, Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, and Laurence Sterne, especially A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, as also having made a “great impression” on him as a young man.

He left the University in 1847 without a degree and settled at Yasnaya Polyana. In 1851 he went to the Caucasus to join his brother Nikolai who was serving there in the army. He became a commissioned officer himself in 1854, serving first on the Danube and later in the Crimea. While in the army he began his literary career. His first published work, Childhood, appeared pseudonymously in The Contemporary (Russ. Sovremennik) in 1852 and was greeted by general acclaim. It was followed by a sequel, Boyhood, and a number of tales of military life. When, in 1856, Tolstoi retired from the army and went

[477] to live in St. Petersburg, his reputation as a writer was already very considerable. He took an active part in literary circles and made the acquaintance of the leading writers and critics of the day. He was much in demand in the fashionable salons of the city. Stories of various types flowed from his pen.

He soon discovered, however, that he got on badly with his fellow writers and disliked his life as a literary celebrity. In 1857 he made his first trip abroad, and by 1859 he had decided to abandon literature in favor of more “useful” pursuits. He returned to Yasnaya Polyana to devote himself to the management of his estate and to the education of the children of his serfs. Thus began Tolstoi’s first pedagogical interlude. He established a school at Yasnaya Polyana, and, in 1860 and 1861, he traveled extensively in order to acquaint himself with European, especially German, educational theory and practice. He resumed teaching on his return, but in 1862 he handed the bulk of the classroom duties over to others. He took upon himself the writing and publication of a periodical describing his theory of education and the pedagogical practice of his school. Twelve issues of Yasnaya Polyana appeared in 1862 and 1863. Tolstoi formulated his ideas most strikingly in “Who Should Learn to Write from Whom, the Peasant Children from Us or We from the Peasant Children?” (“Komu u kogo uchit’sya pisat’, krest’yanskim rebyatam u nas, ill nam u krest’yanskikh rebyat?”).

After his marriage Tolstoi became increasingly preoccupied with estate management, bent on achieving the ideal of the well-regulated life of a prosperous country squire. He published The Cossacks, a novel on which he had been working at intervals for ten years, in order to pay his outstanding gambling debts and enable him to enter into married life with balanced account books. Shortly thereafter he began his first long novel, War and Peace, a work of colossal proportions which occupied him until 1869.

In 1870 Tolstoi once again turned his back on literature and began a second period of preoccupation with pedagogical work. Over the next five years he wrote and compiled materials for a complete course of elementary education. He tested them in his school and revised them. The final versions were published in 1875 as The New Primer (Novaya azbuka) and The Russian Readers (Russkie knigi diya chteniya). Tolstoi’s materials eventually met with fairly general acceptance and were widely used in the nation’s schools.

In 1873 Tolstoi’s thoughts turned once again to literature, and in the course of the next four years he ‘wrote his second long novel, Anna Karenina. His work on the later parts of the novel was disturbed by ever more frequent fits of emotional distress. This condition was brought on by his inability to find an acceptable answer to the question: “What meaning can a person’s life have which would not be annihilated by the awful inevitability of death?” Tolstoi became more and more convinced that the bitter truth was that life is meaningless, that there is no escape from the power of death. By the mid-1870s Tolstoi was occasionally so depressed that he entertained thoughts of suicide. By 1878, however, his “crisis” had culminated in what is customarily referred to as a “conversion” to the ideals of human life and conduct which he found in the teaching of Jesus.

Tolstoi described the period of crisis and conversion in his Confession (Ispoved’, 1882). The censor forbade its publication, a fate shared by many of Tolstoi’s subsequent writings. Tolstoi regarded Confession as his first step along a new road in life, one which he hoped was secure from the lurking menace of the power of death. To Tolstoi the crisis and conversion meant a break with his past, especially his literary past. The convention of dividing his career into two parts (using 1878 as the year of demarcation) has a definite basis in the facts of his life, at least as these were understood by Tolstoi himself. It should not be forgotten, however, that most of the preoccupations, themes, purposes, and style of the “old” Tolstoi are present with greater or lesser clarity already in the work of the “young” Tolstoi.

Confession was, more specifically, the introduction to a group of three books on religion, written in the years 1880 to 1883 and thereafter considered by Tolstoi to be his most important work. The first volume, A Study of Dogmatic Theology (Issledovanie dogmaticheskogo bogosloviya), is a sustained polemic against the teachings of the established church. The second, A Harmony and Translation of the Four Gospels (Soedinenie i perevod chetyrekh evangelii), was Tolstoi’s greatest religious labor. This heavily annotated work of [477] exegesis demonstrates both his thorough acquaintance with the French, German, English, and Russian biblical scholarship of the 19th century and his fluent command of New Testament Greek. Tie last part of the religious trilogy is What I Believe (V chem moya vera), a reasoned statement of Tolstoi’s version of the Christian teaching.

Tolstoi devoted the remainder of his life to the propagation of his religious views in publicistic essays, works of fiction, and in personal contacts with visitors and through correspondence. He dealt with a variety of subjects in his essays. On Life (O zhizni, 1886-87) offers the most extended discussion of that dualism of body (the “animal life of man”) and spirit (the “true life”) which is the philosophical heart of his teaching. What Then Should We Do? (Tak chto zhe nam delat’?, 1886) begins with a gruesomely realistic portrait of the poverty of the Moscow slums, which Tolstoi had observed firsthand while helping conduct the Moscow census of 1882. He advocates the abolition of the use of money in favor of the direct exchange of services and the disestablishment of private property rights. He condemns philanthropy as a symptom of “the willingness of the rich to do everything for the poor except to get off their backs.” The Kingdom of God Is Within You (Tsarstvo Bozhie vnutri vas, 1893) takes up two favorite themes: non-resistance to evil and anarchism. This work was among the several written by Tolstoi which had a profound influence on Mohandas Gandhi. In What Is Art? (Chto takoe iskusstvo?, 1898) Tolstoi gives a detailed account of his aesthetic thought. He also wrote many briefer essays on such subjects as the nature of religion, vegetarianism, famine relief (in which he took an active part in the early 1890s), and on the evils of alcohol and tobacco, patriotism, military conscription, war, terrorism (as practiced both by terrorists and by governments), and capital punishment.

Tolstoi resumed literary activity in the mid-1880s with a series of stories written for the popular audience (i.e., for the common people, especially the peasants). To facilitate the publication and distribution of the “Stories for the People” he and his friend and disciple V. G. Chertkov founded (1884) a non‑profit publishing house which they called The Intermediary (Posrednik). Tolstoi also developed an interest in the drama and wrote his only major play, The Power of Darkness. The leading examples of Tolstoi’s fiction written for the educated audience also reflect his religious teachings. These include the short novels The Death of Ivan llyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Master and Man. He also wrote two more novels, Resurrection and Hadji-Murad, and more than a dozen short stories.

The last ten years of Tolstoi’s life were marred by intermittent ill health. He devoted such strength as remained to him chiefly to the compilation of vast compendia of morally and spiritually elevating extracts from the writings of sages of various epochs and cultures. These miscellanies reflect both Tolstoi’s wide reading in the world’s wisdom literature and his lack of temerity in bending or adjusting the words of others to suit his own purposes. The largest of these compilations are The Cycle of Reading (Krug chteniya, 1904-08), For Every Day (Na kazhdyi den’, 1907-10), and The Way of Life (Put’ zhizni, 1910). Although not expressly so described by Tolstoi, the miscellanies represent his version of the “perennial philosophy,” the concept of which had been central to his view of religion from the early 1880s and even before.

Tolstoi was the best-known Russian in the world during the last decade of his life. Tolstoian communities sprang up throughout Europe and in the United States. He was described in the newspapers as “the sage of Yasnaya Polyana” and “the conscience of humanity.” His vast correspondence touched hundreds of people at a distance and many more came to visit him each year. He was a constant irritant to the authorities. His associates suffered exile and other manifestations of the government’s displeasure, and he was himself excommunicated from the Orthodox Church in 1901. Most of the works written after 1880 were either banned outright or mutilated by the censor. His public stature in Russia and abroad, however, was such that his person, even in times of vigorous repression, remained inviolable. At home he was the center of a distasteful competition between his disciples, led by Chertkov, and his family, mainly his wife. Sofiya Andreevna made frequent and covert nocturnal searches of his private papers. It was the experience of lying sleepless in his darkened bedroom listening to his wife rustling through his papers in his study next door that finally prompted him

[479] to leave Yasnaya Polyana for good and embark on the journey which ended in his death.

Tolstoi was a multi-dimensional man. In his long career he had been a teacher and educational theorist, a philosopher and social critic, a successful farmer and paterfamilias, a soldier, and a prophet. Above all, however, he was a great artist, and it is on his fiction that his fame at present rests. The literary career of this “great writer of the Russian land” (as his contemporary Turgenev called him) may be divided into three parts: the early period of literary apprenticeship (1851-63), the period of the great novels (1863-77), and the later period of preoccupation with the message of his religious teaching (1878-1910).

The works of the early period may be regarded as the “school” in which Tolstoi taught himself to write. He isolated the themes and developed the literary techniques which characterize his more mature writings. The spirit of trial and error is reflected in the journal which he began in 1847 and continued to keep, with greater or lesser regularity, throughout the remainder of his life. The journals, especially those of the 1850s, are one of the richest sources for the study of the development of Tolstoi’s literary style, so much so that their reliability as sources of biographical detail has always to be assessed in the light of the fact that they are also (according to some views, primarily) the record of his literary experiments.

Tolstoi’s first substantial literary endeavor, “The History of Yesterday” (“Istoriya vcherashnego dnya”) reflects the psychological self-analysis characteristic of the journals. Written in 1851, it was not submitted for publication, perhaps because its young author feared that its originality would occasion public rejection. The story is an account of the sequence of thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind of the protagonist in the course of a single day. Tolstoi’s fascination with the operation of the psyche found a more conventional outlet in Childhood (Detstvo, 1852), where it is cloaked in the format, familiar to contemporary readers, of childhood reminiscences. Childhood and its sequels, Boyhood (Otrochestvo, 1854) and Youth (Yunost’, 1857), were conceived as parts of a tetralogy to be called The Four Ages of Development (the fourth volume was never written). The spontaneous impressions of the child as child alternate with the analysis of those impressions by the child grown up. The result is a combination of the lyrical representation of the memories of childhood (typical of the genre) and a detached, quasi-scientific investigation of the operations and growth of the conscious mind at various stages of its development.

The Trilogy (as the three novels are collectively called) abounds with autobiographical material, a feature characteristic also of Tolstoi’s later works. Another noteworthy element is the unconcealed presence of the author’s voice (the author as narrator), i strategy which Tolstoi seems to have adopted on the basis of his fascination with the work of Sterne. Boyhood and Youth continue the account of the child-hero’s development through his late teens. In the former he discovers philosophy, and considerable attention is given to the phenomenon of the paralysis of the will when it seeks to be guided by reason alone. The distinction drawn here between the enervation arising from abstract mentation and the more practical philosophy in which the head and the heart cooperate remained thereafter a prominent motif in many of Tolstoi’s works, e.g., the tension between “reason” and “consciousness” in War and Peace. Youth concerns the hero’s education in manners and concentrates on the theme of social comme il faut, a favorite target also in War and Peace (the characters of Berg and Vera) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Tolstoi’s tales of military fife reflect his experiences in the Caucasus and the Crimea. “The Raid” (Nabeg, 1853) and “The Woodfelling” (Rubka lesa, 1855) belong superficially to the familiar Russian genre of the Caucasian military tale. They contain an indirect polemic with the romantic clichés of fearless heroism, the glory of battle, and exaggerated patriotism characteristic of such earlier practitioners of the genre as Aleksandr Bestuzhev (Marlinsky). Tolstoi reduced the conventional exciting plots of such stories to the level of mere incidents which he used as a framework to display his true interest, a neatly categorized series of psychological portraits of the Russian soldiers and officers and their opponents, the mountain tribesmen. The stories blend the traditional Caucasian military tale of the 1820s with the strategies and devices characteristic of the Natural School of the 1840s. Tolstoi’s interest in the latter, be-

[478] spoken by his high opinion of Grigorovich (a leading practitioner of the “Physiological sketch”). is also reflected in “Notes of a Billiard Marker” (Zapiski markera, 1855) with its use of skaz (i.e., the interposition of a narrative persona, usually one with a “local color” value and characterized by dialectal or sub-literary speech, between author and reader), and “The Snowstorm” (Metel’, 1856), a physiological sketch of the Russian coachman.

The three Sevastopol Stories (“Sevastopol’ v dekabre mesyatse,” 1855; “Sevastopol’ v mae,” 1855; “Sevastopol’ v avguste 1855 goda,” 1856) are difficult to classify. They represent a blend of fiction and reportage with a startling admixture (in “Sevastopol in December”) of the stylistic conventions of a tourist guidebook. They also (especially “Sevastopol in May”) make extended use of the narrative device of stream of consciousness (“the dialectic of the soul” as it was called by the critic N. G. Chernyshevsky) with which Tolstoi had first experimented in “The History of Yesterday.” The stories, especially the first of them, display the characteristically Tolstoian device of estrangement whereby familiar sights and events are made to seem new and striking by distorting or ignoring the conventions which usually govern our perception of them. This descriptive technique was to become a hallmark of Tolstoi’s style. The loci classici are the account of Natasha at the opera in War and Peace, the description of the service in the prison church in Resurrection, and the ridiculing of the rehearsal of a Wagnerian opera in What Is Art? Finally, it was in “Sevastopol in May” that Tolstoi proclaimed that the “hero” of his fiction was not any of the characters who appeared in it but rather that which “I love with all the power of my soul” and which “has been, is, and will be beautiful,” namely, The Truth.

The stories of the later 1851)3 illustrate several more of the themes and devices which became characteristic of Tolstoi’s work. He had already touched upon death and various attitudes toward it in the Trilogy and the military tales. He devoted “Three Deaths” (Tri smerti, 1859) exclusively to this subject. The story describes the pain and anxiety attendant on the death of a wealthy noblewoman, the patient and uncomplaining acceptance of his death by a poor coachman, and the death of a tree. Despite his physical suffering, the coachman dies with less anguish than the noblewoman. The death of the tree is the least painful, because the tree is unaware that it is dying.

“Three Deaths” makes its point through comparison and contrast of the experiences of its three protagonists. This device, ubiquitous in Tolstoi’s work, also forms the structural basis of “Two Hussars” (Dva gusara, 1856). He describes incidents from the lives of two Hussar officers, father and son. The comparison is distinctly unflattering to the younger generation, as the “progressive” critics of the time were quick to note and regret. They saw the story as proof of Tolstoi’s disaffection from the liberal cause and of his recalcitrance in the face of their demand for literary works which would reflect modern ideas and ideals. Tolstoi added offense to innuendo with two stories based upon the experiences of his first trip to Europe. “Lucerne” (Iz zapisok knyazya D. Nekhlyudova. Lyutsern, 1857) contains a diatribe against the moral shortcomings of the values of “civilized” Europeans (especially the English) as compared with their rural brethren, and reminds us of Tolstoi’s continuing interest in the ideas of Rousseau. “Albert” (1858) expresses the idea that art is valuable in itself and not merely as a medium for the communication of ideological or social concerns.

Tolstoi worked on The Cossacks (Kazaki, 1863) throughout the entire period of his literary apprenticeship, and it reflects the whole range of themes and stylistic techniques which then preoccupied him. The novel breaks new ground as well. More comprehensively and directly than in any other of his early works, Tolstoi here delves into the theme of the relationship between the individual and the group. The hero’s (Olenin) inability to find a satisfying place for himself, the unattached individual, either in the Moscow society which he leaves at the beginning of the novel or the Cossack village which he leaves at the end is a foretaste of the investigation of the role of the individual in the context of the historical and social collective which Tolstoi will conduct in War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

The foundation of Tolstoi’s reputation is the work of his middle period (1863-77). It was then that he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, both of which are, by common consent, well up on the list of the greatest novels ever written. War and Peace defies facile categorization. It is a sui generic combination of the psychological novel, the Bildungsroman, the family novel, and the historical novel, with a liberal admixture of the scope and tone of the epic. Set amidst the historical conflict between the France of Napoleon and the Russia of Alexander I, it deals primarily with the events of the years 1805 to 1812 and ends with an epilogue set in about 1820. Against a backdrop of alternating periods of peace and war Tolstoi unfolds the stories of the Bolkonsky and Rostov families, and of Pierre Bezukhov.

The novel’s epic qualities are most prominent in the account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. All the classes of Russian society (with the exception of some portions of the St. Petersburg elite) unite in the defense of the homeland and in a spirit of national solidarity. On the family level it is the Rostovs who are the primary bearers of the epic spirit: the naturalness and spontaneity of Natasha; the courage and devotion of Nikolai; the scenes, most of which are associated with the Rostovs, of feasting and hunting, singing and dancing.

The novel as Bildungsroman is preoccupied with the moral and psychological growth of Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov. Andrei passes from dreams of military glory to disillusionment, from dreams of honor in the career of statesman to disillusionment, from dreams of love to a final disillusionment which ends in a death which is, at least in part, a voluntary withdrawal from “vital life.” Pierre’s road is similarly bumpy. He passes, with intermediate periods of despair, from sensuality to Freemasonry and philanthropy to mysticism. At last he seems to find the truth which he has sought in the example of the peasant soldier Platon Karataev. In the “First Epilogue,” however, it is suggested that Pierre has begun to slip away from that truth, too, as from its predecessors. Unlike Andrei, but like the novel itself, he continues along the undulating curve of life, from indeterminate beginnings to an indefinite and unspecifiable end.

The various aspects of War and Peace are united in a variety of ways. Tolstoi interweaves the fates of the fictional characters and connects them to those of the historical personages. The novel as a whole is marked by the vividness, fullness, and plasticity of description which is recognized as the hallmark of the Tolstoian manner. Life itself is, in a way, the unifying hero of this multi-dimensional book and Tolstoi is everywhere fascinated with its various aspects (youth and age, peace and war, mind and spirit, reason and intuition, the individual and the swarm) and its key moments: birth, love, and death. He raises many questions and explores many answers.

In one of its dimensions War and Peace is a historical novel. As a whole, however, it would be better described as a novel about history. Especially in the later parts of the novel proper and in the “Second Epilogue” Tolstoi is preoccupied with the investigation of the forces that move history. His primary target is the “great-man” theory of historical causation, both in direct argument and in his portrayal of Napoleon (the epitome of the great man) as limited ineffectual, and essentially powerless to control the movement of history. The Russian commander Kutuzov, the salutary contrast to the pretentious Napoleon, succeeds precisely because he seeks to accommodate himself to the flow and flux of history rather than trying to manipulate it.

The “Second Epilogue” of War and Peace extends the discussion of historical causation into the realm of the more general philosophic question of freedom and necessity, a topic which was to retain a vital interest for Tolstoi throughout the remainder of his career. In reading Tolstoi, “freedom” and “necessity” can be understood as rubrics which summarize nearly all of his central thematic concerns. Under “freedom” come consciousness, life, the individual; under “necessity” fall reason (i.e., logic without intuition), death, the group. War and Peace explores the role of the individual within the group conceived of as the historical mass. Here is another unifying factor in the novel, for Tolstoi presents not only the involvement of the historical characters in the great events of history but that of the fictional characters as well. They all face situations which exemplify the tension between the immediacy of the individual’s sense of freedom as individual and the feelings of powerlessness and constraint within the group. The intuitive freedom perceived by consciousness does battle with the indubitable ne-

[479] cessity proven by reason, and from this war not one of the leading characters is allowed, in fife, an unbroken peace. The same questions, cloaked in a different setting and explored in the context of another dimension of the “group,” emerge again in Tolstoi’s second great novel.

Anna Karenina is an account of two marriages. The story of the ruin of Anna’s in her adulterous affair with Count Aleksei Vronsky alternates with the story of the courtship and family life of Konstantin Levin and Kitty Shcherbatskaya. The two main characters, Anna and Levin, are brought together on only one occasion, however, so that while it is easy to see the contrast between these two characters and their respective fates, it is more difficult to understand the sense in which they are also comparable to one another.

At the beginning of the novel Anna is a highly respected member of society. She enters into a love affair and finds herself unable to conduct it discreetly. She abhors hypocrisy and deceit. She cannot be content with the stolen moments of passion in which so many of the women and men of her acquaintance indulge. Anna is caught between the power of the passionate “aliveness” within her and the equally pressing demands of the society to which she belongs. She finds herself in the position of serving two masters: her individuality, with its striving for freedom and self‑expression through love, and her social self, with its need to belong to an authentic group context. As she herself says, she is, in her affair, “guilty, and yet not to blame.” Anna commits suicide when she becomes convinced that Vronsky, the only remnant of social context remaining to her, wishes to leave her.

Levin’s course is the reverse of Anna’s. He begins as an acknowledged “outsider,” an independent individualist, and gradually becomes ever more enmeshed in the web of social and familial constraints. Like Anna, he senses the tension between the force of his individual ideals and the obstructions of recalcitrant social reality. Unlike her, he finds a middle course which allows him to function with the social group while yet retaining a part of himself, what he calls on the last page of the novel his soul’s “holy of holies,” under his absolute control. In this hidden part of himself he is neither constrained nor obstructed by his continuing attachment to the group. His life, in this respect at least, is “full of the meaning with which I have the power to invest it.”

In this respect the stories of Anna and Levin are truly comparable. Both experience the frustration of having their expression of themselves as individuals thwarted by an unmanageable social reality. As in War and Peace Tolstoi had shown the powerlessness of individuals to force historical reality to conform to their own ambitions and plans, so here he explores their inability to realize the ideals of the free imagination in the context of society and the family. Although the group is of a different order of magnitude, the question is the same: wherein is a person free, wherein subject to the constraints of necessity. The hopeful implication of War and Peace that people are at least relatively free in the context of their personal and familial affairs is replaced in Anna Karenina by the suggestion that they are really free only within themselves, in that “holy of holies” which they alone may enter.

Tolstoi devoted rest of the first seven years of his later period (1878-1910) to non-fictional writing. When, in 1885, he returned once again to literature, he was determined to forswear the “nonsense” of his former style and to make all his fictional works conveyances for the message of the Christian teaching as he understood it. He distinguished between the educated and the popular audiences, and his first literary efforts were intended for the latter.

Tolstoi’s primary problem in writing “for the people” was to devise a style that was both accessible to them and commensurate with his artistic standards. He employed narrative models and subjects familiar from fairy tales, religious legends, and proverbs. He trimmed his customarily complex literary style to the bare bones, much as be had in the stories, especially “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” (Bog pravdu vidit, da ne skoro skazhet, 1872), written for The Russian Readers. To this simplified base he added, through appropriate lexical and syntactic selection, either a folkish or Biblical flavor. He consulted a well-known teller of folktales and was in the habit of eavesdropping on the conversations of simple folk in search of choice words and phrases. The stylistic innovation produced by these efforts is the chief glory of the collection of moral exempla which Tolstoi called his Stories for the People. They represent a,

genre unto themselves within Tolstoi’s work and include such gems as “What Men Live By” (Chem lyudi zhivy, 1882), “Where Love Is, God Is” (Gde lyubov’, tam i Bog, 1885), “Two Old Men” (Dva starika, 1885), “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” (Mnogo li cheloveku zemli nuzhno?, 1885), and “The Three Hermits” (Tri startsa, 1886).

Tolstoi’s concern to bring the message of his teaching to the popular audience also led him into dramatic work. There were efforts afoot in the mid‑1880s to develop a repertory of plays suitable for production in “popular” theaters. Tolstoi, who had experimented briefly with and then abandoned the drama in the 1860s, was invited to contribute. In response he wrote The Power of Darkness (Vlast’ t’my, 1886). This peasant tragedy, its five acts neatly apportioned to rising action, climax, and denouement, is constructed very much in the classical manner. As it happened, it was not produced for the popular audience, but it had a notable theatrical success in the 1890s under the direction of K. S. Stanislavsky. It has since remained a fixture of the Russian repertory. Tolstoi’s several later plays do not reach the level of The Power of Darkness. The best known is The Fruits of Enlightenment (Plody prosveshcheniya, 1889-90), a comedy in which Tolstoi ridicules the spiritualism which was fashionable in the 1880s.

The major literary achievements of Tolstoi’s later period are to be found among the works which he wrote for the educated audience. Like the Stories for the People, these works are nearly all invested with the teaching; unlike them, they are written in a style which is much more typically Tolstoian. Tolstoi seems to have felt that his peers were in need of instruction mainly with respect to the themes of death and sex, subjects which appear rarely and never, respectively, in the Stories for the People. The theme of death evoked the short novels The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Smert’ Ivana II’icha, 1886) and Master and Man (Khozyain i rabotnik, 1895). Both portray the encounter between a solid, respectable citizen and his death, an encounter which reveals that the very solidity and respectability of the lives of the protagonists was what was most wrong with them. Both works are painstakingly structured, densely allusive, and profoundly symbolic. It is here that Tolstoi best succeeded in converting the raw material of his religious teaching into genuine works of art. The stories on the theme of sex are less well realized from the artistic point of view. The Kreutzer Sonata (Kreitserova sonata, 1889) aroused a storm of controversy. Tolstoi was accused of advocating a celibacy so complete that it would, if practiced, result in the extinction of the human race. The pernicious results of sexual attraction are also the focus of The Devil (D’yavol, 1890 unfinished) and Father Sergius (Otets Sergii, 1898).

Tolstoi’s last long novel, Resurrection (Voskresenie, 1899) occupied him intermittently for eleven years. He published it to raise money for the transportation of the Dukhobors, a Christian sect with whose style of life he sympathized, to Canada. It is generally conceded that Resurrection does not compare well with its predecessors, and Tolstoi himself felt that the novel was published before it had reached a fully satisfactory state of readiness. In Resurrection Tolstoi attempts to provide a comprehensive account of the ills of contemporary society as seen from the vantage point of his religious teaching. The church, the government, the institution of private property, the judicial and penal system, the conventions of upper-class social life: all are mercilessly attacked and ridiculed. Tolstoi uses his considerable gifts as a satirist with telling effect. Resurrection is also Tolstoi’s final fictional word on the perplexing question of freedom and necessity. He had left Levin (in Anna Karenina) in a state marked by the coexistence of an external, physiological obeisance to the laws of determinism and a spiritual, but wholly internalized, sense of freedom and individual worth. The hero of Resurrection, Prince Dmitry Nekhlyudov, strives to resolve this contradiction by externalizing the dictates of his spiritual consciousness. He abandons his position in society, turns his property over to his peasants, and follows the heroine (for whose ruin he feels responsible) into her Siberian exile. For the later Tolstoi the mere recognition of the spiritual essence of man is no longer enough, even when (as in The Death of Ivan Ilyich) the recognition is total and entails the complete rejection of a life lived with the spirit submerged. Levin’s compromise is replaced by Nekhlyudov’s decision to act so as to remove from his life every vestige of dissonance with the commands of the spirit. Freedom seems at last to win its long struggle with

[480] necessity in the work of Tolstoi. The freedom exemplified in Resurrection is the freedom to act in accord with the requirements of the spirit, to control the fears and desires which were, for the later Tolstoi, the necessary adjuncts of the “animal life” of man, and to reject as irrelevant the physical death which was its determined end.

With his last remarkable work of fiction, Hadji-Murad (Khadzhi-Murad, 1904), Tolstoi’s literary career seems to come full circle. This novel’s Caucasian setting and descriptions of armed conflict and the warrior’s life mark a recurrence of themes which had engaged Tol­stoi’s interest at the beginning of his career. He himself referred to Hadji-Murad as a return to his former manner of writing. Indeed, its stylistic artifice and the relative absence of the later Tolstoi’s cus­tomary moral certitude are hardly in full accord with the principles expressed in What Is Art?. It was perhaps for this reason that Hadji­Murad was held back by Tolstoi and published only after his death.

Works: The definitive edition in Russian: Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. 90 vols. Ed. V. Chertkov et al. 1928-58.

Translations: Most of Tolstoi’s published works have been translated into English, many of them more than once. A good collection is: Oxford Centenary Edition of Tolstoy. 21 vols. Ed. and trans. L. and A. Maude. 1929-37. (The Maudes were friends of Tolstoi and had the benefit of frequent consultation with him. As a general rule, their translations are the most satisfactory of those available.)

Correspondence:

R. F. Christian, ed. and trans., Tolstoy’s Letters. 2 vols. 1978.

Biography:

N. N. Gusev, Letopis’ zhizni i tvorchestva L’va Nikolaevicha Tolstogo. 2 vols. 1958, 1960. [A chronology of the doc­umented facts. For more extensive details see the same author's series:] Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoi: Materialy k biografii. 5 vols. to date [the latest by L. D. Opul'skaya]. 1954, 1957, 1963, 1970, 1979. The standard biographies in English are: A. Maude, The Life of Tolstoy. 2 vols. 1930. E. J. Simmons, Leo Tolstoy. 1946. Also of interest: A. Tolstoy, Tolstoy: A Life of My Father. 1953.

Bibliography of critical studies:

Russian sources (Soviet period only):

N. G. Shelyapina et al., Bibliografiya literatury o L. N. Tolstom. 3 vols. (Coverage through 1967.] 1960, 1965, 1972.

For criticism in English:

D. R. and M. A. Egan, An Annotated Bibliography of English-language Sources to 1978. 1979.

Secondary literature:

J. Bayley, Tolstoy and the Novel. 1966. I.

Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox [concerns War and Peace]. 1953.

S. P. Bychkov, ed., L. N. Tolstoi v russkoi kritike. 1960.

R. F. Christian, Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction. 1969. , Tolstoy’s

War and Peace: A Study. 1962.

B. M. Eikhenbaum, Molodoi Tolstoi. 1922. [English translation: The Young Tolstoi (Ann Arbor, 1972)]; Lev Tolstoi. 3 vols. 1928, 1931, 1960 [English translation of the second and third volumes: Tolstoi in the Sixties and Tolstoi in the Seventies (Ann Arbor, 1982)].

G. Gibian, Tolstoj and Shakespeare. 1957.

H. Gifford, ed., Leo Tolstoy [anthology of criticism]. 1971.

N. K. Gudzii, Lev Tolstoi. 1960.

E. N. Kupreyanova, Estetika L. N. Tolstogo. 1966.

K. Leont’ev, Analiz, stil’ i veyanie: O romanakh gr. L. N. Tolstogo. 1911.

K. N. Lomunov, Dramaturgiya L. N. Tolstogo. 1956.

R. Matlaw, ed., Tolstoy: A Collection of Critical Essays. 1967.

D. Matual, Tolstoy’s Translation of the Gospels: A Study. 1985.

L. M. Myshkovskaya, Masterstvo L. N. Tolstogo. 1958.

V. Shklovskii, Material i stil’ v romane L. N. Tolstogo Voina i

mir. 1928.

G. W. Spence, Tolstoy the Ascetic. 1967.

E. Stenbock­Fermor, The Architecture of Anna Karenina. 1975.

E. Wasiolek, Tolstoy’s Major Fiction. 1978.

G. R. J.
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