What follows is an essay I wrote for my graduate class. I share it here because writing it was not just an academic exercise for me. This essay addresses the tension that I feel as a writer striving to balance the marketability of my work with the need to be true to my own deeply held beliefs. In reading Anna Karenina recently, I found myself identifying with Tolstoy, whose work has been criticized (and even despised) by some who did not share or respect his religious convictions. I can't help but believe Tolstoy wrote himself metaphorically into the chapters discussed below. In these chapters I found practical advice and encouragement reaching out to me across centuries and continents -- from one writer to another. That in itself was an experience worth blogging about!
Embedded in the center of Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina is a detailed metaphor of the writer's life. Through a string of brief scenes in Part V, chapters 10-13, Tolstoy uses a character referred to as "Mikhaylov, the artist" to illuminate the tension the artist (or writer) feels by being forced to simultaneously occupy two realms. These realms could be labeled as the spiritual and the material, or simply as the creative and the pragmatic. It is in the vast region between the places where his mind and his body dwell that the artist must reconcile matters such as inspiration and execution, criticism and appreciation, conviction and necessity. This tension both frustrates and fuels the artist.
In these brief pages, Mikhaylov first appears in an argument with his wife over money. He shouts at her and calls her names, then shuts himself into his studio to work. Tolstoy writes, "He never worked with such ardour or so successfully as when things were going badly with him, and especially after a quarrel with his wife. 'Oh dear! If only I could escape somewhere!' he thought as he worked." (p. 467) Mikhaylov then finds a discarded sketch which his young daughter had smudged and in the smudge finds inspiration for a new and much-improved drawing. These details illustrate the dual world of the artist – a world in which the chaos of money troubles and messy children actually cultivates rather than stifles his creative energy. We see that though part of him longs for a solitary life in a painter's loft, the true artist in him knows that his inspiration depends on the very things from which he longs to escape.
Mikhaylov the artist cannot create without inspiration. Inspiration is the key to executing his art successfully. It is clear that Mikhaylov will not paint just anything. This perhaps explains why he is poor. He can paint only what he sees and feels through the eyes of his soul. That is why he is so irritated by Vronsky's use of the word "technique." Tolstoy writes, "[Mikhaylov] often heard the word technique mentioned, and he did not at all understand what was meant by it. He knew it meant mechanical capacity to paint and draw, quite independent of the subject matter. He had often noticed…that technique was contrasted with inner quality, as if it were possible to paint well something that was bad." (p. 472) In his opinion, "the most experienced and technical painter could never paint anything by means of mechanical skill alone, if the outline of the subject matter did not first reveal itself to his mind." (p. 472) Mikhaylov had not just to see something but to see into it before he would even consider painting it. That is why he was so eager to paint Anna. He didn't just see her beauty and long to capture it. He saw something of her soul, and that was what he wanted to reproduce on canvas. Not being a true artist, Vronsky did not have this second sight.
Thus, when Vronsky sees Mikhaylov's portrait of Anna he sees her "sweetest spiritual expression" (p. 475) for the first time on the canvas, even though it has been apparent in her face all along.
Mikhaylov the artist is at the mercy of, though not defined by, other's criticism. When Mikhaylov enters his studio and views his own paintings, particularly Pilate's Admonition, he is quite satisfied with his work. It seems perfect to him. Then, as he anticipates strangers coming in to view it, he becomes agitated. When Golenishchev, Anna, and Vronsky enter, he knows they are not qualified to judge his art, yet he is filled with self-doubt as they scrutinize his work. Then Golenishchev makes an observation about the figure of Pilate, rightly discerning the character traits Mikhaylov had attempted to portray. This thrills the artist, but not as much as Anna's comment about Christ's expression: "One sees he is sorry for Pilate," she observes. The irony in her statement is the reason she makes it. Far from discerning the deep spiritual truth about Christ which the artist has deliberately communicated, Anna merely "felt that it was the centre of the picture, and that therefore praise of it would be agreeable to the artist." (p. 471) Still, Mikhaylov devours the praise eagerly and allows it to nourish his artistic soul.
Mikhaylov the artist must paint out of his convictions, not to please the consumer. In spite of the fact that he needs to earn money to provide for his family, Mikhaylov must paint what he believes in. To him, interpreting Christ as both deity and humanity is "the highest theme open to art," (p. 473) therefore he paints it. However, this theme does not resonate with every viewer. In fact, some (like Golenishchev) find it repugnant. Fortunately, Mikhaylov also has a gift for portraying lofty truth in the most mundane contexts. It is not Pilate's Admonition that fills his visitors with delight, but a painting of two boys fishing by a stream. Yet even in this simple painting, Mikhaylov has managed to display the duality of matter and spirit, as one boy is preoccupied with the act of fishing while the other has abandoned his pole to gaze dreamily at the water. Though they were turned off by this theme in an overtly religious painting, Anna and Vronsky are irresistibly drawn to it in this relatable context. They decide they must purchase the painting – and thus the artist survives, true to his principles yet palatable to his market.
Through these chapters on Mikhaylov and his painting, Tolstoy gives the reader a glimpse at what was certainly his own experience as a writer. First, Tolstoy's work bears witness to the fact that he did not attempt to write without inspiration. He saw humanity with a second sight that penetrated to the matters of soul and spirit, and it is the spiritual condition of men and women that he lays bare in his characters. Tolstoy also wrote without undue regard to criticism, though he took it to heart. Through Mikhaylov, Tolstoy reveals that it is far more painful to have one's work misinterpreted than merely disliked. Liking or not liking is a matter of taste, but if misunderstanding is possible then the writer feels he has failed in his work. Finally, in the same spirit as Mikhaylov, Tolstoy wrote from his conscience and convictions, with an aim to tell the truth – not to please his market. His writing was laced with religious themes and the spiritual principles in which he firmly believed. Surely it was Tolstoy, the artist, speaking through Mikhaylov when he said, "I could not paint a Christ whom I had not in my soul." (p. 472