Tolstoy’s Body

Diet, Desire, and Denial
  • Ronald L. LeBlanc

Abstract

Recent critical thought on the human body has mounted a serious challenge to the mind/body dichotomy, a construct that has long dominated the European philosophical tradition and that became effectively dogmatized in the wake of Rene Descartes’s writings during the early modern period. Contemporary body theorists, especially those who adopt a feminist perspective, boldly reject the dualistic Cartesian model of the body as a machine distinct from, and subordinate to, the workings of the mind and soul.1 Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s late-nineteenth-century vision of the human body—as an unruly and dangerous “desiring” machine that must be somehow directed and controlled by instructions from the mind and/or soul—would seem to fit perfectly what Bryan Turner has characterized as the Cartesian paradigm of ascetic rationalism, whereby corporeal government (regulation of the body) enables the soul to become liberated from its incarceration within the body.2 However, the enormity of Tolstoy’s worldwide reputation as a great writer, as well as a committed social reformer, political activist, moral spokesman, and religious prophet, often overshadows and conceals his deeply problematic relationship with the impulses of his own body. As we know from his diaries, letters, and literary works (fictional and non-fictional alike), Tolstoy’s attitude toward sensual pleasure was deeply ambivalent.

Keywords

Morphine Assure Posit Kelly Abate 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    See, for instance, Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits ofSex” (NewYork: Routledge, 1993), Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), Linda Nochlin, Representing Women (New York:Thames and Hudson, 1999), Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick, eds., Feminist Theory and the Body (New York: Routledge, 1999), Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo, eds., Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), and Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury, eds., Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). For a useful collection of essays that illustrate the current feminist challenge to Cartesian dualisms, see Susan Bordo, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Rene Descartes (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Bryan S.Turner, The Body and Society (London: Sage Publications, 1996), 9–11, 17–19.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See R. F. Christian, ed. and trans., Tolstoy’s Diaries (NewYork: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985), vol. 2, x.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Judith M. Armstrong, The Unsaid Anna Karenina (NewYork: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 18.Google Scholar
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  6. 6.
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  7. 7.
    See Rene Fueloep Miller, “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader,” Russian Review, 19:2 (1960), 101–102.Google Scholar
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    Eve Levin discusses the Russian Orthodox Church’s medieval views on sex and the body in Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900–1700 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
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    For discussions of “moral masochism,” see Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, Tolstoy on the Couch: Misogyny, Masochism and the Absent Mother (New York: New York University Press, 1998) and The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering (NewYork: NewYork University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See A. P. Sergeenko, Rasskazy o L. N. Tolstom: Iz vospominanii (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1978), 63. For a fuller treatment of Tolstoy’s relationship to food and eating, see my essay, “Unpalatable Pleasures: Tolstoy, Food, and Sex,” Tolstoy Studies Journal, 6 (1993), 1–32.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    For an examination of this connection between Tolstoy’s views on diet and those held by some of the leading nineteenth-century American food reformers, see my essay, “Tolstoy’s Way of No Flesh: Abstinence, Vegetarianism, and Christian Physiology,” in Food in Russian History and Culture Musya Glants and Joyce Toomre, eds. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), 81–102.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Following his conversion experience, Donna Orwin argues, Tolstoy “rejected the body, and, therefore, nature, as the source of or even a possible participant in higher human goodness.” See Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847–1880 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 217.Google Scholar
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    Henrietta Mondry, “Beyond the Boundary: Vasilii Rozanov and the Animal Body,” Slavic and East European Journal, 43:4 (1999), 653.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    L. N.Tolstoi, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 90 vols. (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1928–1958), vol. 26, 348. All quotes from Tolstoy’s works, letters, diaries, etc. come from this ninety-volume jubilee edition of his complete works. References are listed parenthetically by volume (Roman numerals) and page (Arabic numbers).All translations from the Russian, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.Google Scholar
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  16. 17.
    Laura Engelstein, The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Finde-Siecle Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992). See especially chapter six, “Eros and Revolution: The Problem of Male Desire,” 215–253.Google Scholar
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    Paul Birukoff, The Life of Tolstoy (London and New York: Cassell and Co., 1911), 97.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    For a discussion of this debate on sexual morality in late nineteenth-century Russia, see Peter Ulf Mmller, Postlude to the Kreutzer Sonata:Tolstoj and the Debate over Sexual Morality in Russian Literature in the 1890s, John Kendal trans. (New York: E. J. Brill, 1988).Google Scholar
  19. 20.
    This aspect of Foucault’s argument is developed most successfully in the second volume of his three-volume History of Sexuality. See Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, Robert Hurley, trans (NewYork:Vintage Books, 1985).Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    Tolstoy was especially distressed by the gluttony he saw in his own pampered children. “They eat to excess and amuse themselves by spending money on the labors of other people for their own pleasure,” he wrote angrily to Chertkov in 1885 (LXXXV, 294). “You look for the cause; look for the remedy,” he lectured his wife a few days later. “The children can stop overeating (vegetarianism)” (LXXXIII, 547).Google Scholar
  21. 22.
    See Leo Tolstoy, The Relations of the Sexes, Vladimir Chertkov, trans (Christchurch, UK: The Free Age Press, 1901), 37–38.Google Scholar
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    See my essay, “Vegetarianism in Russia:The Tolstoy(an) Legacy,” The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, 1507 (2001), 1–39.Google Scholar
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    T. Coraghessan Boyle, The Road to Wellville (New York: Penguin, 1993). For critical studies of the nineteenth-century American health reform movement, see Stephen Nissenbaum, Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), Jayme A. Sokolow, Eros and Modernization: Sylvester Graham, Health Reform, and the Origins of Victorian Sexuality in America (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983), and James C.Whorton, Crusaders for Fitness:The History of American Health Reformers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  24. 26.
    Ankovsky pie, in the words of one critic, served as “an indispensable attribute of the festive table in the Tolstoy household” and became for Tolstoy himself “a symbol of a life put right and sanctified once and for all.” See Vladimir I. Porudominskii, “L. N. Tolstoi i etika pitaniia,” Chelovek, 2 (1992), 115.Google Scholar
  25. 27.
    S. A. Behrs, Recollections (London: Heinemann, 1893). I am quoting here from Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy (London: Constable & Co., 1910), vol. 2, 336.Google Scholar
  26. 30.
    “Lev Nikolaevich is unwell,” Sophia records in her diary on 14 March 1887. “He has bad indigestion and stomach aches, and yet he eats the most senseless diet: first it is rich food, then it is vegetarian food, then rum and water, and so on.” See Sof’ia Tolstaia, Dnevniki Sof’i Andreevny Tolstoi (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1928–1936), vol. 1, 139. All further references to Sophia’s diaries will come from this four-volume edition and will be noted parenthetically in the text (by volume and page number).Google Scholar
  27. 31.
    “Sofia Andreevna’s quarrels with her husband over food issues possess a culinary character only in outward appearance,” explains Porudominskii. “These were actually quarrels about [competing] worldviews.” See “L. N.Tolstoi i etika pitaniia,” Chelovek, 3(1992),132–133.Google Scholar
  28. 33.
    Maxim Gorky, Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreyev, S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf, trans. (New York:Viking Press, 1949), 53.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Christopher E. Forth and Ana Carden-Coyne 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ronald L. LeBlanc

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