War, Peace, and Listicles: Leo Tolstoy on Money, Fame, and Writing for the Wrong Reasons

Posted on: November 29th, 2013 by bobmorris

tolstoyconfessionHere is a brief excerpt from another thought-provoking article by Maria Popova for her website, Brain Pickings, during which she provides a lament on being “self-confident and self-satisfied as only those can be who are quite holy or who do not know what holiness is.” To check out the wealth of resources at her website, please click here.

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Celebrated as a titan of literature, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828 – November 20, 1910) wasn’t always a man of timeless wisdom on how to live well and immutable insight on what makes great art. In his 1879 memoir of emotional crisis, A Confession, he recounts with exquisite self-awareness and harrowing remorse his early days of breaking into writing — a time during which he had become blinded to the deeper meaning of life by the lustrous promise of fame and money, embodying Orwell’s cynical assertion that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy”:

“During that time I began to write from vanity, covetousness, and pride. In my writings I did the same as in my life. To get fame and money, for the sake of which I wrote, it was necessary to hide the good and to display the evil. And I did so. How often in my writings I contrived to hide under the guise of indifference, or even of banter, those strivings of mine towards goodness which gave meaning to my life! And I succeeded in this and was praised.”

The pursuit of that praise became a religion at the altar of which Tolstoy began to worship zealously as he came to believe that the artist’s goal was to teach mankind — a proposition at which he winces in hindsight, realizing that to teach requires to know what is meaningful to be taught:

“I was considered an admirable artist and poet, and therefore it was very natural for me to adopt this theory. I, artist and poet, wrote and taught without myself knowing what. For this I was paid money; I had excellent food, lodging, women, and society; and I had fame, which showed that what I taught was very good.

“This faith in the meaning of poetry and in the development of life was a religion, and I was one of its priests. To be its priest was very pleasant and profitable. And I lived a considerable time in this faith without doubting its validity.”

But in a couple of years, he began to doubt this religion of authorship-as-sainthood and to notice its toxic hypocrisies, which both he and his circle of peers — his “personal micro-culture,” as William Gibson might say — embodied.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

To learn more about Maria and Brain Pickings, please click here.

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