Monday, 8 February 2010

Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Edison: Mark Making Between East and West

Leo Tolstoy puts Thomas Alva Edison and Attila in the same sentence. "Edison declared", writes Tolstoy in his treatise of 1895 Patriotism or Peace, "that he will devise such ammunition that can kill in an hour more people than Attila killed in all his battles". It was a shocking statement coming from Tolstoy but one that had a purpose. Tolstoy wanted to carve a new identity for Russia: it was not an identity purged from its "Tartar/tribal/Oriental savagery" associations and made to embrace the "civilized West"; and it was not an identity that equated Russians to "ferocious Asian nomads". Tolstoy wanted to stand between East and West.


In his "Tolstoy, Attila, Edison" Yokota-Murakami, writes that by reducing the technical innovations of Thomas Edison to inhumanity on par with Mongol vandalism, Tolstoy distances Russian identity both from "the barbarism of the Khans" and from the West. Mongol ferocity is not so much different to Western violence. By identifying Russia with Asian nomads and distancing himself "both from the vandal king and from the modern inventor", Tolstoy rejects the ideology of the nation-state over "fluid social structures based on a nomadic or tribal way of life" - a third way for Russian identity.

Thomas Alva Edison

Murakami goes on to suspect Tolstoy's nonviolent principles as insincere, pointing to the "persistent and constant association of the sexual and the violent" in his writings. Perhaps, he writes, his pacifist pronouncements concealed the unconscious desire for violence. Identities are fluid and constantly toppled by unconscious desire; national identities too: "they are constructs without 'essences', always tricky and evasive, created through a negative representational game which uses the images of the 'Other'":
But this situation may not necessarily mean that (incorrectly conceived) identities should be abandoned and replaced by the revealed real "self". Perhaps there is really no "true self" except in forms of construction and interpretation.
Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana

Indeed the same Tolstoy who equated Edison's inventions to barbarism had accepted Edison's gift, a phonograph, and complied with his request to record his (Tolstoy's) voice on it. Recounting the last year of Tolstoy's life in Yasnaya Polyana, Bulgakoff remembers:
Although Tolstoy denounced civilization and all that it had produced for man's enjoyment or otherwise, still he was interested in all the latest inventions. Once the gramophone was started to play songs by Mikhailowa and Panina and a balalaika piece. "I want to dance!" exclaimed Tolstoy when the "Trepak" (Russian National dance) was played. After a balalaika record "Scene de Ballet" was played and Tolstoy had shouted "Encore, encore!" ... the gramophone was placed outside a hut, the peasants were invited to come and the machine was set going.

Games, singing, dancing, masquerades and performances 
often took place in the dining room in Tolstoy's house in Yasnaya Polyana

Bulgakoff also refers to an "electric pencil" being sent to Tolstoy, I assume from Thomas Edison. Edison had developed an electric pen in 1875 which he patented in 1876. "It was the first mass-produced electric-motor-powered appliance ever offered for sale" and it was an immediate success. Tolstoy was like a lively boy, says Bulgakoff, who jumped for joy every time a new toy was around and wanted everyone to see.
An electric pencil having been sent him as a present, as soon as dinner was over Tolstoy sprang up and exclaimed in a solemn tone: "All who have not seen an electric pencil write, come along, please!" Three grandchildren and others set off to a dark room but unfortunately the pencil would not move. "It is a pity to disappoint the children", said Tolstoy in a tone denoting real dissatisfaction and disappointment.
Leo Tolstoy's study in Yasnaya Polyana

Takayuki Yokota-Murakami, "Tolstoy, Attila, Edison: The Triangular Construction of a 'Peace-Loving' Russian Identity across Borders", The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 45, no. 2 (Summer 2001);  "With Tolstoy during the last year of his life", The New York Times, September 1, 1912. You can see a drawing of Edison's electric pen here.

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