I’ve been thinking lately that Tolstoy’s relative lack of a sense of humor might have something to do with his habitually assuming the perspective of God. This is unlike Dostoevsky, whose humanism includes at least some of the absurdity of our place on earth in it. This can be funny (“funny Dostoevsky” — kha, kha, kha…), even if only darkly so.
Can we make God laugh, I wonder? Divine foreknowledge must (I say must) make some forms of humor a challenge. Slapstick, for instance. But then I think that knowing what’s going to happen in a film one has seen many times doesn’t necessarily ruin it. It changes one’s feeling certainly, the surprise is gone, but might there not be a deeper sense of joy in it at that point, like watching old home movies of one’s children playing, dancing? Funny and so much more.
But what’s the problem with Tolstoy? I can think of only one funny scene (and it’s only sort of funny), the one with the poof cushion in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, where Peter Ivanych is trying to sit down with the dead man’s widow, maintain a sense of decorum and composure, but the dang cushion is too poofy and keeps giving the lie to all the supposed decorum. It’s so clear that that’s its function — to poke holes in the decorum — that I can really only smile a little at it. There are kids playing in lots of his works, a perfect opportunity to lighten things up and do something different, maybe with humor, but no.
There is laughter. I’m pretty sure that, along with the weird noise in his throat, the narrator of Kreutzer Sonata, laughs with a sort of mad abandon at some point, and then there’s Pierre Bezukhov’s laughter at the thought that the French are trying to imprison him and his immortal soul. But yeah. As soon as you go in the immortal soul direction, it’s hard to get back to funny.
A student of mine pointed out recently that a doctor in War and Peace, who is examining Natasha Rostova, jokes with her without noticing her lack of a response (she has a Tolstoyan streak!), and this might be part of the issue, namely, that Tolstoy has a problem with humor in the face of suffering, something that little scene suggests in microcosm. This could be. My student is going to be researching with this hypothesis in mind. I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.