Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 284-303
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Tolstoy's Poetics of Unintentionality
Michael A. Denner
ART'S ABILITY TO INFECT another with an emotion, the concept that has come to be probably the most readily identified catchphrase in What Is Art? (though it crops up in his earlier writings on art), derives from L. N. Tolstoy's dynamic identity claim about art: we know an artist has created a genuine work of art when he "hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them." 1 "What is art?" is then a taxonomical question, and, according to Tolstoy, art is identifiable from non-art not by some set of external characteristics—the way, say, Aristotle categorized animals in his natural history—rather art is recognizable by its function, by what it does. In this sense art is like a tool: A given thing is art because it performs a certain task, much as one might claim a screwdriver is anything that sets and removes screws, regardless of its external characteristics. Tolstoy, in fact, repeatedly refers to art as "orudie," "a tool," or even "a weapon."
It is worth noting from the outset that this metaphor of contagiousness is one of sublimated violence. For its passive "perceiver" (Tolstoy's characteristic term for the consumer of art), art amounts to irresistible, surreptitious emotional manipulation by an external entity. Tolstoy is ever attentive to the underlying meanings of the words he chooses, and I think he means to emphasize the latent, etymological meaning of the zarazit', to infect, the root of which is razit', to strike, a military term that likely resonated with Tolstoy, a war veteran. 2 Etymological arguments aside, Tolstoy makes explicit the psychological violation that goes hand-in-hand [End Page 284] with the experience of a work of art in a diary entry from a period of work on an earlier variant of What Is Art?: "One must hone the artistic work so that it penetrates. To hone a work means to make it perfect artistically, in which case it will pierce through the indifference. . . ." 3 In an earlier version of the essay, Tolstoy offers "hypnotism" as a synonym for infection (p. 53).
With its ability to "penetrate" through indifference and colonize, willy-nilly, the other, art accomplishes directly and immediately what no amount of rational argument could accomplish: "Art is differentiated from the activity of rational activity, which demands preparation and a certain sequence of knowledge (so that one cannot learn trigonometry before knowing geometry), by the fact that it acts on people independently of their state of development and education, that the charm of a picture, of sounds, or of forms, infects any man whatever his plane of development" (p. 178).
The effect of art does not depend on some graduated, sequential process as it does for rational activity: art's infectiousness is immediate and irresistible. According to What Is Art?, the summum bonum of art's infectiousness, its best use, but notably not its only, is bringing about the Kingdom of God by effecting a change in the psychology of all the individuals who experience it. "Religious art," Tolstoy's supreme category of art, surmounts the (ultimately illusory for Tolstoy) individuality of the perceiver by inducing in him or her an emotional union with the artist and all others who have experienced the work of art, thereby inducting all perceivers into the universal collective of humankind: "In this freeing of our personality from its separation from other people, from its isolation, in this uniting of personality with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art" (p. 228). Art is a sacrament and the artist a priest of sorts.
It is often said, even by those who have read the work, that Tolstoy "rejected" art in the last decades of his life, and What Is Art? is often cited as evidence. Granted, much of the book excoriates much of the art of the ages, but one must not...