Deep in a Russian forest, in a well-concealed hermit’s cave, the lone occupant, who hadn’t spoken to another human being for seven years, a hermit named Sergius who had renounced the world, is forced to resist the wiles of a worldly woman who has come to seduce him and almost succeeds had he not, Tolstoy tells us, forfended her intentions by taking an axe and chopping off one of his fingers “below the second joint.”
While, in a contemporaneous Tolstoy novella, a wealthy rural landowner, Evgeny, alone in his study, tries to contain his obsession with the vision of a serving girl with “dark eyes,” and, failing to do so, takes out his pistol and contemplates a choice: whether to murder the serving girl whose laughing eyes have him transfixed, or to put a bullet through his brain to preserve his “honor.” And elsewhere, in a third novella, out on the frozen steppes, the passengers in the crowded compartment of a long-distance train find themselves at the mercy of Pozdnyshev, a confessed wife-murderer, who, Tolstoy tells us, has only just been released on grounds of insanity but insists on taking up the long rail journey by offering his extremely long-winded “explanation” for slashing his wife to death with his saber.
Perhaps other more aggressive genocides have overshadowed the peaceful extermination Tolstoy envisioned.
What do these three scenes have in common? Each is the dark center of one of Lev Tolstoy’s trilogy of late novellas whose venomous animus against love, sex, and human reproduction leads to what is his most shocking argument of all: that all of mankind would be better off if it were to die out, exterminate itself by ceasing “swinish” sexual reproduction and abandoning the love that all too often led to it. Exterminate itself. Seriously.
Three different stories of murder, insanity, and self-mutilation in the very different, very bitter, seldom-read trilogy of late Tol- stoy novellas—Father Sergius, The Devil, and the exterminationist The Kreutzer Sonata—all three written late in Tolstoy’s life (somewhere between 1880 and his death in 1910) and unfamiliar to most of those readers who have been entranced by the two massive earlier novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina (1869 and 1877, respectively).
Should you wonder why Tolstoy belongs in a book called In Defense of Love, think of Tolstoy as a not-well-recognized enemy of love. A new perception to me prompted by the startling surfacing in 2010 of an “answer novel” to Lev’s Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy’s wife, Sofiya. Her novella, called Whose Fault?, put a spotlight on the animus to women, sex, love, marriage, and human reproduction Lev portrayed in The Kreutzer Sonata. Such a critique of Lev’s dark, hate-filled final works had rarely been on the cultural radar, which has tended to exalt Tolstoy’s saintly “wisdom” uncritically.
Sofiya’s long-unpublished, untranslated manuscript, hidden for a century in the Moscow State Library Tolstoy Collection, apparently at the insistence of the Tolstoy estate for its exposure of the view of the “other” Tolstoy, Tolstoy’s wife. Her novella is a portrait of a marriage and a love affair that implicitly depicts Lev Tolstoy’s denial of love’s existence or worth. Her fictionalized account of the trial of a marriage like hers is both heartbreaking and well written.
Her “answer novel” or “mirror novel,” as she sometimes called it, is a work that took arms against her husband’s grand ambition for the extinction of the human race—and his petty animosity toward love. When translated into English by scholar Michael R. Katz and published by Yale University Press in 2014 (in an anthology called The Kreutzer Sonata Variations), it gave a newness to a neglected aspect of Tolstoy’s work—his hostility toward humanity in his largely overlooked late work. New to those who hadn’t read the late trilogy of his novellas and their poisonous attitude toward sexual reproduction and love. They will shock many for whom Lev Tolstoy was a near-prophetic giver of wisdom to the world.
What the three novellas—Father Sergius, The Devil, and The Kreutzer Sonata—have in common is a bleak, dark vision of love and sex that made late Tolstoy seem almost a different person from the celebrated genius and sage whose peerless worldwide reputation for sanctity and sagacity was unequaled in the nineteenth century and sustained long beyond it. I believe, however, that it is important to let us have the whole of Tolstoy, not just the genius/sage of Russian romanticism.
And that is why Tolstoy’s wife’s novel seems significant to me: It offers a vision of love not as an enemy but as a possibility. Tolstoy’s wife’s “answer novel” is a kind of defense of love, in a way, like Sir Philip Sidney’s “apology for poetry.” A defense of a different kind of love than the “swinish” interaction late Tolstoy came to envision eros as.
All this drama—especially his Kreutzer novella and her “answer” to it, to his vicious view of love—made me want to dig deeper into that dark trilogy and look anew at the source of Tolstoy’s rage. What made him an enemy of love?
Although scholars have not definitively posited a sequence in which Tolstoy wrote the three works and he might have been composing them simultaneously, I see in them a continuum of escalating malice in which Father Sergius comes first (and offers a skeleton key to the psychology of the others), followed in murderous succession by The Devil, which is particularly tricky since Tolstoy wrote an even more extreme alternative murderous end that he hid from his wife and the world and was only discovered posthumously. And finally, Kreutzer, which takes us to the edge of madness, and indeed over the edge. It was Kreutzer that drove his wife to answer its sick rage, his turn toward extermination of the human race.
Yes, I said it, extermination of the human race. Not the way Hitler’s genocide proceeded, with all the apparatus of death camps, gas chambers, and the like. More passive but more vast an extermination. A demand for a total cessation of “swinish” sexual congress and a condemnation of love as a dangerous adjunct that could—horrors—lead to reproduction. He advocated, in all seriousness, a slow dying out of what had been human life from total anti-sexual chastity. No fucking at all. Somehow readers have not seen this as the terminal development of a deep theme of his work. Perhaps other more aggressive genocides have overshadowed the peaceful extermination Tolstoy envisioned.
I doubt he had an actual belief that this would happen. It was his belief that it should happen. It was Tolstoy’s dream.
What happened to Tolstoy?
Did he lose his mind over love or hatred of love?
It’s the “hard problem of love,” redux. Before dealing with “the enemies of love,” a definition of love would be desirable, but would it be possible? I believe the hard problem of love is harder than “The Hard Problem of Consciousness.” It may be the hardest problem of all. And at the heart of the hardest problem is the problem of the qualia.
At least we know consciousness when it’s happening to us. It’s certainly different from unconsciousness. You might think of Love as a flavor of consciousness. But does that help? One of the most difficult if not impossible things the human mind fails at is describing flavor and other sensual qualities abstracted from the objects in which they inhere. Yes, a red apple, but what is red, and, yes, a smoky garlic-flavored rib, but define garlic flavor. You can identify (name) the color or flavor but not the intrinsic properties—how it feels to you. Your unique subjectivity.
At what point can we say we’ve passed over from one realm, one magisterium, to another, from sex to love?
Philosophers call it “the problem of the qualia,” qualia being those pesky attributes—those qualities, hence the Latinate term—whose nature challenges coherent definition. In what sense is red my red and not your blue? In what sense is love love and not sex, eros, or affection, or close friendship or some combination of elements? One can grasp at it but never quite capture it.
I love the term “qualia.” It can’t help summoning up images of the feathered quail so determinedly but often futilely hunted. The philosophers like a pack of hunting dogs on the gallop in attempting to sniff out and track down a way of expressing or analyzing whether one’s qualia correspond to another’s, indeed to anyone but oneself. And how could we know?
We can know the effects of love, yes. Usually after its departure. I’ve said I am addicted to sad country music, contemporary poetry of loss at its finest. Country singer-songwriters are our Metaphysical poets. (One of my proudest reportorial achievements was getting Willie Nelson to disclose the hidden heart-breaking verse of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” That title, a wrenchingly sad, lovely metaphysical phrase in itself involving the unity of the realms of earth and sky.)
Did Tolstoy’s qualia—or lack of them—explain his change of heart in his later work? Qualia can’t be reduced to mathematics or digitized fMRI traces. Qualia are everything that fMRI machines can’t measure with brain scans that light up under certain stimuli, but do your fMRI voltage equivalences tell us how to describe the subjective feeling it is supposed to represent other than its quantitative magnitude? Or how deeply we feel, much less how Tolstoy felt? Did Tolstoy lack or lose the qualia of love by the time he wrote the Kreutzer trilogy? Not only can we not define or articulate what flavors taste like or even, more difficult, whether they taste the same to everyone. It’s an ancient problem of philosophy: How do I know that the taste I get from chocolate is the same as the taste you get from chocolate; or, maybe your chocolate might be raspberry to me, and vice versa. It’s dizzying. Like love.
Neuroscience can identify correlations between nerve endings sharing an identical electron pattern in two different people, but it cannot tell us if two identical maps of sensation in the brain indicate that the same feeling in the heart is evoked by that sensation. That was Philip Larkin’s point—one of them—in “An Arundel Tomb”: How can we know what feeling, if any, inspired the stone handclasp on the sarcophagus? There may be an intensity scale in some lab, but there isn’t in most hearts. A scale of feeling, a metric of emotion. But is “what will survive of us,” that aspect of love, the same for all of us?
At what point can we say we’ve passed over from one realm, one magisterium, to another, from sex to love, say, and do we leave one behind or just add another? How does one define the difference between love and sex? Is the latter so deeply embedded in the former that it’s a hopeless task, like trying to separate a swirl of crème fraîche from the soup it’s in? The foam from the latte?
Can we learn anything from the radical change in Tolstoy that scholars locate taking place between 1878 and 1883? Some kind of spiritual crisis, but what?
From In Defense of Love: An Argument by Ron Rosenbaum. Copyright © 2023. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.