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Description

Leo Tolstoy critiques a play by George Bernard Shaw

Leo Tolstoy Letter Signed in English "Yours sincerely Leo Tolstoy" to George Bernard Shaw. Three pages of a bifolium, 8.5" x 10", "Yasnaïa Poliana, Toula, Russia," "18/31 August, 1908." The letter was dictated by Tolstoy, then translated in English before sending to Shaw ("Dictated" is written in the upper left corner of page one). In this letter, the Russian novelist thanks the Irish playwright for sending "the book" (the four-act drama Man and Superman) earlier in the year. Tolstoy spends the first half of the letter discussing their differing worldviews and the second half criticizing Shaw's book. Despite this, Tolstoy emphasizes that Shaw had great potential as a writer. Moderate toning on ruled paper with smoothed folds. Minor stains. Very small holes exist at fold intersections.

Shaw clearly intended Man and Superman, which Tolstoy read twice, to have much deep meaning than its comedic method suggested (Shaw took the name from Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of the "superman"-humanity's ideal), and Tolstoy, a fervent Christian ascetic, was happy to offer his own opinions, pointing out differences in their philosophies concerning the improvement of mankind and emphasizing the practical advantage of his "method of the liberation of men from evil."

Preparing Shaw for his critique halfway through the letter, Tolstoy writes, "Dear Mr. Shaw, life is a great and serious thing and we all in general during the short interval of time given to us, should endeavor to discover our vocation and as far as possible to fulfill it. This concerns everyone and especially you with your great talent, independence of thought, and penetration into the essence of every problem. And therefore I will, boldly hoping not to offend you, mention to you the deficiencies which I thought I saw in your book."

Man and Superman's "first fault," Tolstoy writes, "is that you are not sufficiently in earnest. One cannot jestingly speak of such a subject as the object of a man's life and the reasons of its distortion and of the evil which fills the life of present-day humanity. I would have preferred that Don Juan's utterances were not those of an apparition but the words of Shaw, and likewise that 'The Revolutionist's Handbook' were attributed, not to a non-existing Tanner, but to the living, responsible-for-his-words, Bernard Shaw." In the play, the main character, John Tanner, writes The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion, a fifty-eight page book published with the play, through which Shaw hoped to spread his own ideas.

Tolstoy's "second rebuke" was, perhaps, his harshest: "the problems you touch upon are of such enormous importance that for a man with so deep an understanding of the evils of our life and so brilliant a power of expression as you possess, to treat these problems merely as objects of satire may often rather do harm than contribute to the solution of these important questions. In your book I see the desire to astonish, to astound the reader with your great erudition, talent, and cleverness: whereas all this is not only unnecessary for the solution of the questions you touch upon, but very often distracts the attention of the reader from the essence of the subject, attracting It by brilliancy of exposition."

Hoping to instill in the fifty-two-year-old Shaw a sense of a greater destiny, Tolstoy, only two years from his death, admonishes in his closing, "At all events I think that this book of yours does not express your views in their full and clear development but only in their embryonic condition. I think that these views, developing further and further, will reach that one Truth which we are all seeking after and towards which we are all gradually approaching. I hope you will pardon me if you find, in what I have said, anything unpleasant for yourself. I have said what I have only because I recognize in you very great gifts and entertain for you personally that most friendly relations, with which I remain."

Shaw must have appreciated the criticism from the author of War and Peace because later in 1910, he sent Tolstoy a copy of his next play, The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet. In Shaw's letter transmitting that book, he suggested in response to Tolstoy's criticisms above that humor and laughter could be utilized, rather than jettisoned, in man's search for truth. The letter offered here is a wonderful example of Tolstoy's ideas of love, religion, the art of writing, and human progress. This letter has been published in numerous books, including The Life of Tolstoy (Oxford, World's Classics, vol. II). To read this letter in its entirety, please visit our website.

More Information:

The text of this letter reads in full:

"Please excuse me for not having thanked you earlier for the book you so kindly sent me through Mr. Mande some considerable time ago.

 

On re-reading it now, and particularly noting the places indicated by you, I have especially appreciated Don Juan's words in the interlude (although I think that the subject would have gained by being treated more seriously and not as a casual insertion in a comedy) and 'The Revolutionist's Handbook.'

 

In the former I found myself without any effort in complete agreement with Don Juan's words that he is right 'who seeks in contemplation to discover the inner will of the world . . . and in action to do that will by the so-discovered means,' which is the same that I express by the words: 'To learn the will of God and to fulfill it," - a will the essence of which it is easy for us to comprehend as we are always conscious of it in our heart. This essence is love to all without any exceptions.

 

In the letter I particularly liked your attitude towards civilization and progress - the perfectly correct assertion that however much the one and the other may continue, they cannot improve the state of mankind unless men become changed.

 

The difference between our views is only this - that according to you the improvement of mankind will take place when ordinary men have become supermen or when new supermen have been born; whereas in my opinion this will take place when men have thrown off from true religions, including Christianity, all these excrescences which distort them, and, becoming all united in the one understanding of life which lies at the basis of all religions, have established their own rational relation towards the Infinite Source of the Universe, and follow in life that guidance which flows from it.

 

The practical advantage of my method of the liberation of men from evil, as compared with yours, lies in this: that it is easy to imagine that great masses of people even little or not at all educated may accept true religion and follow it, whereas for the formation of super-men from those men who now exist, as well as for the production of new super-men, such exceptional conditions are necessary as are as little attainable as the improvement of humanity by means of progress and civilization.

 

Dear Mr. Shaw, life is a great and serious thing and we all in general during the short interval of time given to us, should endeavor to discover our vocation and as far as possible to fulfill it. This concerns everyone and especially you with your great talent, independence of thought, and penetration into the essence of every problem.

 

And therefore I will, boldly hoping not to offend you, mention to you the deficiencies which I thought I saw in your book.

 

Its first fault is that you are not sufficiently in earnest. One cannot jestingly speak of such a subject as the object of a man's life and the reasons of its distortion and of the evil which fills the life of present-day humanity. I would have preferred that Don Juan's utterances were not those of an apparition but the words of Shaw, and likewise that 'The Revolutionist's Handbook' were attributed, not to a non-existing Tanner, but to the living, responsible-for-his-words, Bernard Shaw.

 

My second rebuke is that the problems you touch upon are of such enormous importance that for a man with so deep an understanding of the evils of our life and so brilliant a power of expression as you possess, to treat these problems merely as objects of satire may often rather do harm than contribute to the solution of these important questions.

 

In your book I see the desire to astonish, to astound the reader with your great erudition, talent, and cleverness: whereas all this is not only unnecessary for the solution of the questions you touch upon, but very often distracts the attention of the reader from the essence of the subject, attracting It by brilliancy of exposition.

 

At all events I think that this book of yours does not express your views in their full and clear development but only in their embryonic condition. I think that these views, developing further and further, will reach that one Truth which we are all seeking after and towards which we are all gradually approaching.

 

I hope you will pardon me if you find, in what I have said, anything unpleasant for yourself. I have said what I have only because I recognize in you very great gifts and entertain for you personally that most friendly relations, with which I remain

 

[Signed] Yours sincerely Leo Tolstoy."

 





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