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Making art political is one way to make it bad

The arc of Leo Tolstoy’s career is a reminder that literature that tries too hard to meet the moment tends to be forgotten when the moment is over.

Even an author as talented as Leo Tolstoy fell into the trap of ideological literature.Getty Images/Getty

Donald Trump presents a problem for writers. His political success led to calls for artists to confront authoritarianism and bigotry directly in their work. “Many writers would argue that all fiction should be political, and even explicitly ideological,” Aatif Rashid observed in the Kenyon Review in 2018. In late 2020, the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen worried that Trump’s election loss would cause writers to "retreat back to the politics of the apolitical,” and argued that fictionists should prioritize “critical and political work that unsettles whiteness and reveals the legacies of colonialism.” With Trump again vacuuming up attention in his bid to become president, appeals for politicized literature are likely to be renewed.

But ideologically driven fiction poses dangers to writers intent on creating powerful, lasting prose. And readers suffer for their choices, being deprived of complex, rich characters caught up in timeless conflicts in favor of flattened stereotypes, flash-in-the-pan references, and intellectual fads. Often enough, literature that aims to meet the politics of the moment becomes obsolete as soon as the moment passes.

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That lesson is easily forgotten, but the impulse to supplant artistic concerns with urgent social commentary is an old one. It has ensnared — and damaged the work of — the greatest artists in history, like Leo Tolstoy.

Tolstoy (1828-1910) was celebrated in Russia and globally for the unmatched realism and naturalistic drama of his novels and short stories. “War and Peace” (1869) and “Anna Karenina” (1877) would be points of pride for most scribblers — they were masterpieces that brought the author wealth, fame, and literary immortality. But he often felt that writing those books was a trivial pursuit. He thought the writer’s most important job was to inspire moral improvement.

“Fiction is unpleasant. Everything is invented and untrue,” he wrote in a letter in 1895. Ethical improvement would advance people toward the kingdom of heaven on earth, as outlined in the Gospels in the Christian Bible. “Art, all art, has this characteristic, that it unites people,” he wrote in his 1897 nonfiction book, “What Is Art?” “All history shows that the progress of humanity is accomplished not otherwise than under the guidance of religion.” That rigid view led him to denigrate Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Dante, among others, since they constructed beautiful works but were indifferent to moral instruction.

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Tolstoy’s artistic impulses initially overpowered his desire to educate readers. When he began writing “Anna Karenina,” he wanted to illustrate the evils of adultery. In early drafts, the heroine was ugly and unpleasant, while her husband was selfless and innocent. But by the time it was published, the book was far more sympathetic and loving toward Anna and her transgressions, and indeed to all the other characters who float through the book. Like “War and Peace” before it, “Anna Karenina” is far less concerned with preaching than with portraying, without judgment, the struggles of love, life, and death. “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy,” gushed the Russian journalist Isaac Babel.

For the next 30 years, however, his fiction progressively elevated sermonizing above realism and complexity. He was still capable of combining moral edification with psychological astuteness to produce masterworks like the short story “The Death of Ivan Ilych” in 1886, but by the time of his third and final novel, “Resurrection” (1899), the battle in Tolstoy’s soul was over, and the commitment to ideology had won.

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Even fans of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” are often unaware of “Resurrection,” even though it is shorter and perhaps more accessible than the other two. It tells of an aristocratic man, Prince Dimitri, who serves on a jury in a case in which the defendant, Katyusha, is someone he had used sexually years earlier while she worked in his home. He learns that Katyusha fell into despair, debauchery, and disrepute after he discarded her. Like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (1866), “Resurrection” chiefly concerns itself with a man’s guilt and his struggles for redemption. Some passages are notable for their intimacy and insights, characteristic of the author’s previous works. “In his mind, he went through the common experience whereby the face of someone loved but not seen over a long period seems at first sight to show nothing but the changes that have been wrought in it during the period of absence, only for it to become little by little exactly the same as it was years ago, as the changes slip away and the eyes of the spirit begin to focus on the expression that belongs to that unique and exclusive spiritual personality,” goes one such lovely passage.

But the book includes long passages on the injustice of the state of imprisonment in Imperial Russia, some of which feel timely in our age of mass incarceration but are nonetheless tiresome and hectoring. Tolstoy admired Dostoyevsky, his fellow Christian moralist, and called him “the closest, the dearest man for me, the man whose presence I needed the most.” But unlike “Crime and Punishment,” Tolstoy’s version of the search for salvation is predictable; his ideas about human nature are simplistic; and, most shockingly, coming from the greatest of all fictionists, his characters are poorly drawn.

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Much of “Resurrection” details Prince Dimitri’s transformation from selfish aristocrat to Christ-like figure, an evolution that is made way too obvious to the reader. “He had stopped believing in himself and started believing in others because it was too difficult to live with belief in oneself; living with belief in oneself meant deciding all things not in favor of one’s animal ego, which seeks easy pleasures, but almost always against it, whereas living with beliefs in others meant that no decisions had to be taken, everything had already been decided, and always decided against the spiritual self and in favor of the animal ego,” Tolstoy writes. It is difficult to identify with lines like this, so utopian, naive, and divorced from the lives of any actual human beings. Katyusha, particularly, is a magical figure, one who exists only in relation to the goodness of the man who debased her but later becomes determined to save her.

It cannot be said that “Resurrection” is hypocritical. On the contrary, the problem is that it is too true to Tolstoy’s extremist beliefs and way of life. He spent much of his post-”Anna” life trying to extricate himself from his extravagant wealth, and biographers have pointed to the direct parallels between his evolution and Prince Dimitri’s. Tolstoy believed deeply in pacifism, asceticism, and anarchism; his hostility toward the Russian Orthodox Church was so great that “Resurrection” led to his excommunication. He agreed to write his final novel only if the proceeds would go to the Doukhobors, a Christian sect that was persecuted by the Russian government. Tolstoy’s sincerity and views had a great impact on individuals like Gandhi and the American social reformer Jane Addams. However laudable some of Tolstoy’s behavior and ideas were at times, however, they were inimical to the complexity and empathy that make for vital fiction.

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These criticisms of Tolstoy’s hyperpolitical work are not only retrospective. When “Resurrection” was released, one reviewer noted that “its perpetual sermonizing, its overloaded descriptions of private vice and public corruption, the author’s pitiless aloofness and want of sympathy, or even of comprehension, in dealing with sinners and their temptations, have repelled not a few critics.” At the same time, the author’s appeal to humans’ capacity for love and sacrifice found some applause, as did its criticism of the Russian regime and evocative portrayal of prison horrors.

But ultimately, “Resurrection”’s didactic imperiousness overpowered whatever is laudable in the book, causing it to undergo a cruel fate, one that “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace” are unlikely ever to suffer as long as novels are read: It was forgotten. Even a man of Tolstoy’s gargantuan talents could not escape the perils of ideological art. When Chekhov wrote of him that “what he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature,” the flip side was that Tolstoy’s failures were equally disappointing. Readers who might have gotten a third novelistic masterpiece from him are worse off for his ideological decisions, and so is literature itself. It’s a fate that contemporary creative writers would do well to remember.

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing editor at The New Republic and was a speechwriter for then-New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among other publications.