What is Art? || Leo Tolstoy

So, when he wasn’t busy writing War and Peace (other Russian blockbusters are available), Leo Tolstoy had opinions. His one on Shakespeare wasn’t entirely complimentary.

This comes as part of a series called Designer Classics from Roads, a small publisher I confess I wasn’t previously aware of. It turns out that our Leo was quite a thinker and wrestled with the question in the title for, it says here, 15 years. A lot of things come into it, not least religion, “All history shows that the progress of humanity is accomplished not otherwise than under the guidance of religion.” I rather feel a PhD thesis, a weighty tome and possibly a TV series in the offing there. He’s not afraid of the big stuff!

As well as this, which I’ve picked pretty much at random, Tolstoy deals with that nature of taste, value and, indeed, the nature of a cultured class. This latter does rather put him in the context of his place and time; I think today we’d be rather more dismissive. Doubtless there was a chattering class in nineteenth century Russia and, if there was, they’d have chattered in French, which probably tells you everything you need to know.

I’m not going to suggest that this is an entertaining read, not because it isn’t, but because it would be to do its author and its re-publication a disservice. It is, however, an intriguing and thought-provoking one and, to quote Laurence Sterne in a quite deliberately different context, one of the best of its kind.

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