A thought provoking piece by David Brooks on the difference between observing and acting, through the lens of Tolstoy's life.
"... There are many reasons to think about Tolstoy on the centennial of his death. Among them: his ability to see. Tolstoy had an almost superhuman ability to perceive reality.
As a young man, he was both sensually and spiritually acute. He drank, gambled and went off in search of sensations and adventures. But he also experienced piercing religious crises.
As a soldier, he conceived “a stupendous idea, to the realization of which I feel capable of dedicating my whole life. The idea is the founding of a new religion corresponding to the present development of mankind: the religion of Christ purged of dogmas and mysticism.”
But when he sat down to write his great novels, his dreams of saving mankind were bleached out by the vividness of the reality he saw around him. Readers often comment that the worlds created in those books are more vivid than the real world around them. With Olympian detachment and piercing directness, Tolstoy could describe a particular tablecloth, a particular moment in a particular battle, and the particular feeling in a girl’s heart before a ball.
He had his biases. In any Tolstoy story, the simple, rural characters are likely to be good and the urbane ones bad. But his ability to enter into and recreate the experiences of each of his characters overwhelms his generalizations.
Isaiah Berlin famously argued that Tolstoy was a writer in search of Big Truths, but his ability to see reality in all its particulars destroyed the very theories he hoped to build. By entering directly into life in all its contradictions, he destroyed his own peace of mind.
As Tolstoy himself wrote, “The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.”
But after “Anna Karenina,” that changed. He was overwhelmed by the pointlessness of existence. As his biographer A.N. Wilson surmises, he ran out of things to write about. He had consumed the material of his life.
So he gave up big novels and became a holy man. Fulfilling his early ambition, he created his own religion, which rejected the Jesus story but embraced the teachings of Jesus. He embraced simplicity, poverty, vegetarianism, abstinence, poverty and pacifism. He dressed like a peasant. He wrote religious tracts to attract people to the simple, pure life.
Many contemporary readers like the novel-writing Tolstoy but regard the holy man as a semi-crackpot. But he was still Tolstoy, and his later writings were still brilliant. Moreover, he inspired a worldwide movement, deeply influencing Gandhi among many others. He emerged as the Russian government’s most potent critic — the one the czar didn’t dare imprison.
What had changed, though, was his ability to see. Now a crusader instead of an observer, he was absurd as often as he was brilliant. He went slumming with the peasantry, making everybody feel uncomfortable. He’d try to mow the grass (badly), make shoes (worse), and then he’d return to his mansion for dinner. He was the first trust-fund hippie. He seemed to lose perspective about himself: “I alone understand the doctrine of Jesus.”
There were many consistencies running through Tolstoy’s life, but there were also two phases: first, the novelist; then, the crusader. And each of these activities called forth its own way of seeing...."
Read more here.