Tolstoy on the Couch. Misogyny, Masochism and the Absent Mother

By Stolberg, Eva-Maria | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 1999 | Go to article overview

Tolstoy on the Couch. Misogyny, Masochism and the Absent Mother


Stolberg, Eva-Maria, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Daniel Rancour-Laferriere. Tolstoy on the Couch. Misogyny, Masochism and the Absent Mother. New York University Press: New York 1998. 270pp. $40.00, cloth.

The history of psychoanalysis in Russia is a popular theme in cultural studies. The works of Julie Y. Brown on pre-revolutionary Russian psychiatry, David Joravsky's Russian Psychology: A Critical History (New York 1989), Alexander Etkind's Eros of the Impossible (Boulder 1997), Martin Miller's Freud and the Bolsheviks (New Haven 1998), and Rancour-Laferriere's array of psychoanalytic studies (e.g., The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering, 1995) have all demonstrated how abundant the elaboration of this theme can be. Tolstoy on the Couch takes the reader on a fascinating psychoanalytic tour through the life and work of one of Russia's greatest writers. Not only does it deliver a delightful insight into Tolstoy's psychobiography, but is also bares the mental disposition of Russian literature and culture.

In fin-de-siecle Russia, Tolstoy broke a taboo when he initiated a provocative discussion on sex (polovoi vopros). As a frequent guest of brothels in his youth and as father of fifteen children, including at least two illegitimate ones, he suddenly changed his promiscuous attitudes and became an ardent advocate of sexual abstinence. How can such a change be explained? Based on an in-depth survey of the Kreutzer Sonata, Rancour-Laferriere argues that Tolstoy's ideal of sexual abstinence derived from maternal loss in the writer's childhood. The suffering that resulted from this separation led to masochism in adulthood. A lifelong separation-anxiety disorder finally led to existential anxiety. Repeatedly, Tolstoy told about his depression and wish to die. He revealed strong inclinations to punish and destroy himself. His dead and therefore absent mother remained the lifelong object of his conscious and unconscious feelings and wishes. Love became for Tolstoy a value of highest spirituality and lost its originally biological destination of sexual intercourse and reproduction. Against this background, it is understandable why Tolstoy equates wives with prostitutes. Sexual intercourse in the institutionalized form of marriage means the exploitation of women by men's physical and animalistic need. As Tolstoy formulates, abstinence (vozderzhanie) guarantees human dignity and makes the decisive difference between human beings and animals. In marriage "man and wife should replace carnal love with the pure relations that exist between a brother and a sister" (p. 68). Moreover, Tolstoy's viewpoint reveals a special understanding of Christianity when he says, for example: "Set up brothels, and set up marriages, institutions of the flesh, but be aware of the fact that, just as there cannot be Christian brothels, there also cannot be Christian marriages" (p. …

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