Tolstoy and the Last Station of Modernity
August 15, 2010
After seeing several months ago the movie “The Last Station,” by the director Michael Hoffman, based on Leo Tolstoy’s final year of life and his death at the train station of Astapovo in 1910, I found my thoughts often turning to him. I’ve had a long interest in Tolstoy and his work, having spent considerable time as a student reading large swaths of his journals and other more obscure books during the early 1970s and repeatedly going back to him during intervening years. While the acting of Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer was superb, the latter of whom I admire having seen Plummer perform live a couple of times at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, the movie left me with an uneasy feeling regarding the interpretation of Tolstoy. The film script was based on Jay Parini’s novel, The Last Station, which may be part of the problem, in turn perhaps tracing back to the unsympathetic biographies by Henry Troyat and R. N. Wilson, both derisively presenting Tolstoy as a religious crank and fanatic. Neither biography understands the full weight of who Tolstoy was and what he actually believed and why. Touching on the problem, fearing other biographers would repeat the errors of Troyat, Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra wrote in 1968, in The Real Tolstoy, that “Troyat . . . shows no respect for Tolstoy’s inner life. He speaks about it in vulgar, cynical expressions…. I fear that the errors in Troyat’s book will be repeated in other works.” Beyond the biographies, skewing also the movie, lies the pervasive nihilism and cynicism of modernity that has no respect or appreciation for any spiritual vision of life, including even a highly universal one, such as Tolstoy’s, for he had embraced, by the last decade of his life, the universal principles and teachings, not only of Christianity, but of all the great religions. To see or set him in a more limited context is to fail to understand him within his own stated terms and the plenitude and scope of his work….
Now available in
The Myth of the Enlightenment: Essays
Forthcoming, September, 2014.