Tolstoy Calls It Infection

“Great art is when a great man who has the highest life-conception of his time tells what he feels. Then the infection is universal. Everybody understands it and at once.” Leo Tolstoy

Did you ever think of writing about an experience of yours, perhaps an incident you were involved in, or an encounter with someone that was too intimate, too private to even talk about, but you held back because your relative or friend might recognize herself in the book and be offended? Instead you created a made up story so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. And as a result you gave your readers a fabricated, second-hand account and you cheated them out of a your real first rate story.

“You cannot move people by a second-hand infection. But besides true art, here is a great deal of imitation art, pseudo art.” Leo Tolstoy

As a writer you must abandon all pseudo (fake, pretend, simulated, imitation, artificial, counterfeit) approaches to your story and your craft. You must dig deep for your own motives, evaluate your own weaknesses or strengths, reveal your inner feelings and pains without shame. You must write about those emotions that cause a lump in your throat. You must uncover all truths about yourself that are too private, too intimate and which you are afraid to reveal to anyone, as you yourself find some of them harder to accept.

Robert Frost describes the start of a poem saying, “It begins as a lump in your throat, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never thought to begin with. It finds its thoughts and succeeds, or it doesn’t and comes to nothing.”

No one is compelled to read a story or a novel he/she dislikes. But if your story or book thrusts your readers into the depths of their feelings and thoughts, forces them into the core of their hearts and minds, and yet paradoxically embodies what they secretly long for, then with your work you have created a universal infection. Allen Ginsberg whose poem Howl was one of those rare poems that exploded on impact, said in an interview:

“I didn’t intend to publish Howl. It was just too private. I thought my father would be embarrassed by it. In the writing, I figured I could say anything I wanted since it wasn’t going to be published. That gave me freedom to be frank, which I wouldn’t have if I’d thought that I was writing for publication. This is always a sort of trap that a writer, painter or musician has, to actually express himself completely without worrying about what it looks like in public.”

You must not hold back on your beliefs. You have your taboos, we all have our prohibitions which is part of our individuality. It is how we feel about violence, abuse, bullying, crime, religion, war, dishonesty, etc. That’s what makes us who we really are. And that’s who we have to stay true to.

On the subject of infection and pseudo-art Leo Tolstoy told the following story:

“Some forty years ago, a stupid but highly cultured lady (since deceased) asked me to listen to a novel written by herself. It began with a heroine who, in a poetic white dress, and with poetically flowing hair, was reading poetry near some water in a poetic wood. The scene was in Russia but suddenly from behind the bushes the hero appears, wearing a hat with a feather à la Guillaume Tell (the book specially mentioned this) and accompanied by two poetical white dogs…. But as soon as the gentleman began to converse with the maiden in the white dress, it became obvious that the authoress had nothing to say, but had merely been moved by poetic memories of other works…. But an artistic impression, i.e. infection, is only received when an author has, in a manner true to himself, experienced the feeling which he transmits and not when he passes on another man’s feeling, previously transmitted to him.”


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3 Responses to Tolstoy Calls It Infection

  1. Samir says:

    Lovely post! It’s hard to unlock all those hidden desires that I may want t write about. Yes, it’s true that it’ll all be from the heart and ten thousand times more authentic and therefore, it’ll have more of an impact. Sometimes though, it can be hurtful to those involved, and while the story needs to come out and it eventually will, timing is important. This is especially true if I want any person whose feelings might be hurt to stay connected to me. It’s a tight rope but also, art is art.

    • chichikir says:

      Thanks Samir. What if your story never comes out? Who should you be loyal too? Your art or your friend or… Should you separate yourself from your art? It’s a tight rope, as you mentioned but…

  2. Pingback: Truth « Rubber Tyres –> Smooth Rides

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