The Complete Works of Lyof N. Tolstoï/Wherein is Truth in Art?

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Wherein is Truth in Art?  (1887) 
by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Nathan Haskell Dole
 
 

WHEREIN IS TRUTH IN ART?

 

PREFACE TO A COLLECTION

 

"O generation of vipers! how can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasury brings forth good things, but an evil man out of the evil treasury brings forth evil. But I say unto you that for every idle word which men shall speak, they shall give account in the day of judgment.

"For by thy words shalt thou be justified and by thy words shalt thou be condemned"Matthew xii. 34-37.

 

IN this book, besides stories in which veritable events are described, there are collected histories, traditions, tales, legends, fables, fairy tales of the kind composed and written for the edification of the people.

We have selected such as we consider consonant with the teaching of Christ, and therefore consider good and true.

Many persons and especially children, in reading a story, a fairy tale, a legend, or a fable, ask, first of all: Is what is written true? and, frequently, if they find that what was described could not have happened, they say: That is an idle invention and it is not true.

Persons who judge in this way judge unjustly.

It is not he who knows only what has been, what is, and what will be, that knows the truth, but he who knows what should be in accordance with God's will.

It is not he who only describes how a thing was, and what this, that, and the other man did, that writes the truth, but he that shows what men are doing well, that is to say, in accordance with God's will, and what men are doing ill, that is, against God's will.

The truth—that is the way. Christ said: I am the way and the truth and the life.

And therefore it is not the man that keeps his eyes fastened on the ground that knows the truth, but he that knows by the sun where he is going.

All literary works are good and needful, not when they describe what has taken place, but when they show what ought to be; not when they tell what men have done, but when they set a value on what is right and wrong, when they show men the one strait and narrow way of God's will leading to life.

In order to show this way it is impossible to describe only what has taken place in the world. The world lies sunken in evil and in temptations. If you want to describe the world as it is, then you must describe much falsehood, and there will be no truth in your words. In order that there should be truth in what you describe, you must write, not what is, but what ought to be—describe, not the truth of what is, but the truth of God's kingdom which is near at hand, but not yet come to us.

Hence it results that there are mountains of books in which it says just what has taken place or might have taken place, but all these books are lies, if those that wrote them do not themselves know what is good, and what is bad and do not know, and do not show, the only way that leads men to the kingdom of God. And it happens that there are fairy tales, parables, fables, legends which describe such marvels as never have taken place, and never could take place, and these legends, fairy tales, and fables are true because they point out what God's will always has been, is, and will be, point out what the truth of God's kingdom consists in.

There may be a book—and there are many, many of such novels and stories—in which it is described how a man lives for his passions, torments himself, torments others, endures perils, privation, uses craft, struggles with others, escapes from poverty; and in the sequel is united with the object of his love, and becomes distinguished, rich, and happy. Such a book, even if all that is in it describes things exactly as they existed, and even if there was nothing improbable in it, would nevertheless be false and misleading, because a man living for himself and his passions, however beautiful his wife might be, and however rich and distinguished he were, could not be happy.

But there might be some legend of Christ and His apostles wandering through the earth and coming to a rich man who would not receive Him, and coming to a poor widow and she took Him in, and then he might command a barrel of gold to come to the rich man, and might send a wolf to the poor widow to devour her last calf, and it might prove a blessing to the widow and a misfortune to the rich man.

Such a story is wholly improbable because nothing of what is described in it ever took place or could have taken place; but it is all true because in it is shown what always should be, in what good consists, in what evil, and toward what a man ought to strive in order to fulfil God's will. Whatever miracles are described, whatever wild beasts talk in human speech, whatever self-flying carpets bear people through the air—legends and allegories and fairy tales will be true if the truth of the kingdom of God is in them.

But if there is none of this truth, let all that is in it be ever so well authenticated, it will all be falsehood, because the truth of the kingdom of God is not in it. Christ Himself spoke in parables and His parables have remained eternally true. He only adds, "Beware how you hear."

1887.

This is a translation and has a separate copyright status from the original text. The license for the translation applies to this edition only.
Original:
This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.
 
Translation:
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1935, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.