George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old CriticismTolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism by George Steiner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a superb book. It abounds in literary-historical insight; it goes to the heart of these authors’ achievements. The title is a bit misleading in that it’s not really about deciding whether Tolstoy or Dostoevsky is “better” but about contrasting their literary modes: the point of the book, in fact, is that these two figures represent poles of thought and value between which western culture has been torn since its beginnings. Steiner’s thesis is that, despite the many dislocations of modernity, western culture is still comprehensible as a unity, and the two Russian masters of the novel are best understood as carrying on ancient traditions: Tolstoy as the modern master of epic, the legatee of Homer, and Dostoevsky as our great tragedian, inheritor of the Athenian playwrights and of Shakespeare.

But Steiner has a bigger point to argue, namely, that these modes—epic and tragedy—are not merely aesthetic but metaphysical, ethical, and political, bearing within themselves two very different attitudes toward life. In the Homeric-Tolstoyan epic, we find a land-based evocation of natural rhythms, of the vast movements of the seasons, an ultimately hopeful sense that vitality surges on through and past the individual, who would do well to join him- or herself to the motions of the earth. In the Shakespearean-Dostoevskian tragedy, on the other hand, we see a deracinated court-and-city world of mistrust, suspicion, demonic urges, weird passions, perverse convictions, pervasive violence, cruel comedy, an underground perspective that ends in chastened humility before the suffering mystery of things. Therefore, Tolstoy’s pagan-Christianity demands that we realize the Kingdom of God on earth and leads to such utopian political ideologies as communism, anarchism, and possibly national socialism. For Dostoevsky, on the other hand, free will in the face of the divine and of evil is paramount, is the essence of the holy in humanity; though the far less secular and far more reactionary of the two, Dostoevsky therefore has the metaphysical outlook more amenable to a free society. Steiner implies all this in a concluding allegorical re-write of the “Legend of the Grand Inquistor” as a debate between the Inquisitor (Tolstoy) and Christ (Dostoevsky), as if replying in advance to this article that made the rounds a few months ago.

Steiner insists that the New Criticism reigning in the 1950s when he wrote—with its focus on the well-wrought urn, the formally balanced lyric poem, the necessity of cool irony, the functionally authorless text—can’t handle Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, can’t address their old-fashioned creation of fiercely passionate religious/philosophical novels bursting with a moral urgency that can hardly be contained by the slyly ironic indirections of a T. S. Eliot or Henry James. Thus, he turns to an older and more holistic critical approach:

[New Criticism’s] concentration on the single image or cluster of language, its bias against extrinsic or biographical evidence, its preference for the poetic over the prosaic forms, are out of tune with the governing qualities of Tolstoyan and Dostoevskyan fiction. Hence the need for an “old criticism” equipped with the wide-ranging civilization of an Arnold, a Saint-Beuve, and a Bradley. Hence also the need for a criticism prepared to commit itself to a study of the looser and larger modes. In his Quintessence of Ibsenism, Shaw observed that “there is not one of Ibsen’s characters who is not, in the old phrase, the temple of the Holy Ghost, and who does not move you at moments by the sense of that mystery.”

When we seek to understand Anna Karenina, such old phrases are in order.

This book abounds in quotable passages—on the reasons America and Russia produced the weirdest and most intense nineteenth-century novels, on why Anna Karenina is better than Madame Bovary, on the function of Homeric metaphor, on the Gothic sources of Dostoevsky’s manner and matter, on the two authors’ varying fates under communism and liberalism, and more. A brilliant work of criticism.