Almost twenty years ago, when my wife’s German cousin was enrolled at Yale University, he and a friend visited us in upstate New York. Benny is very bright, with a mind at once analytical and pragmatic, and gifted with a distinctly un-Teutonic sense of humor. We once had a good laugh vivisecting Günter Grass, and that was even before we knew he had served in the Waffen-SS. Benny’s friend was another story. An American, he thought like a German. He was an English major who bragged about not bothering with novels or poems, sticking to a rigorous diet of theory. At first I thought he was parodying the aliterate creeps I had heard so much about but never known in the flesh. No, he really meant it. He explained that theory had usurped the role once played by literature. Critics had done us the favor of eliminating the need for books, which were profoundly archaic and irrelevant. Never had I witnessed the cross-pollination of nihilism and snobbery.
I’m glad I met this guy. He gave neo-barbarism a human face, bolstered my love of literature, and buried theory in its grave forever. Whenever a writer, even a writer of genius, spouts theory, it’s time to slam the book shut. No writer so perfectly embodies the corrosion of literary gift by theory as Tolstoy. The author of War and Peace later in life was perfectly content to write silly, preachy drivel. On this date, April 17, in 1897, Chekhov wrote a letter to Alexander Ertel, a novelist much admired by Tolstoy. “There’s no news,” he writes. “Literature is at a standstill.” Then he gets to the point:
“Tolstoy is writing a book on art [What Is Art?, 1897]. He visited me at the clinic and told me that he’d abandoned his Resurrection [eventually published in 1899] because he didn’t like it and that he was now writing exclusively about art and had read sixty books on the subject. His idea is not new; it’s been reiterated in various forms by clever old men in every century.”
In What Is Art?, Tolstoy famously denounced, to varying degrees, Shakespeare, Gogol, Pushkin, Baudelaire, Dickens, Cervantes and his own earlier work. “Lev Nikolayevich,” Chekhov continues, “is out to convince everybody in his book that art has in our time entered upon its final phase, that it is stuck in a blind alley from which it has no way out (forward).” The translators of the quoted passages above are Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky (Letters of Anton Chekhov, 1973). In his notes to this letter Karlinsky explains:
“Chekhov rejected in toto two of the basic premises of Tolstoy’s What Is Art? even before reading it, namely the idea that in order to be good, moral and `infectious,’ a work of art had to be instantly comprehensible to an illiterate peasant or to a child . . . and the concomitant notion that all the arts and especially painting and music were going through a period of utter decline throughout the Western world at the end of the nineteenth century.”
Such an odd human near-convergence: a fashion-minded Yale undergraduate and Tolstoy.