Tolstoy's Absolute Language

Critical Inquiry 7 (4):667-687 (1981)
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Among Tolstoy's absolute statements are those that exhibit characteristics of both biblical commands and proverbs—and of other types of absolute statements as well. He also draws, for example, on logical propositions, mathematical deductions, laws of nature and human nature, dictionary definitions, and metaphysical assertions. The language of all these forms is timeless, anonymous, and above all categorical. Their stylistic features imply that they are not falsifiable and that they are not open to qualification: they characteristically include words like "all," "each," "every," "only," and "certainly" and phrases like "there neither is nor can be," "the human mind cannot grasp," and "it is impossible that." Even in sentences that omit such phrases, the very refusal to use a qualifier of any kind can assert unqualifiability. When Tolstoy's absolute statements take the form of syllogisms, the use of the word "therefore" or some explicit or implicit equivalent carries the force of logical inevitability. It carries the same force with Tolstoy's enthymemes, which omit the major premise for the reader to reconstruct. [An example] from The Death of Ivan Ilysch,1 cited above, for instance, contains a minor premise and a conclusion of a syllogism; the reader himself must supply the major premise, which would be: "The simpler and more ordinary a life is, the more terrible it is."· 1. "Ivan Ilysch's life was the most simple and the most ordinary, and therefore the most terrible."Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilysch, ed. John Bayley, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude , p.225.Gary Saul Morson is an associate professor of Russian literature at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky's Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia, and The Broken Frame: The Anti-tradition of Russian Literature. The present article is from a theoretical study of literary creativity and the biography of authors



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