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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 May 19; 334(7602): 1061.
PMCID: PMC1871801
Between the Lines

A viol prejudice

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

According to Gorky, Lenin feared the music of Beethoven because it made him want to pat people's heads, and this was a distraction from having them shot, which was so much more constructive.

Tolstoy had a similar, though of course not identical, reaction to Beethoven, in so far as the character of Pozdnyshev in the story The Kreutzer Sonata may be taken to express Tolstoy's own views (as I think it may). The Kreutzer causes “an awakening of energy and feeling unsuited both to the time and place . . . ” and “cannot but act harmfully.”

In the story, Pozdnyshev kills his wife because he believes she has formed a liaison with a violinist, recently returned from Paris (a sure sign of depravity), with whom she plays the sonata.

From the medical point of view, what is interesting about the story is Tolstoy's vicious hatred of doctors, whom he regarded as corrupters of the world. He accused them of materialism, and indirectly of having been responsible for the murder. It was they, after all, who told the victim how to go about having sexual relations without risk of pregnancy, thus arousing her husband's insensate jealousy.

You can almost see Tolstoy, who wrote the story in his self determined role of prophet, foaming at the mouth when he spoke of doctors: “They have ruined my life as they have ruined and are ruining the lives of thousands and hundreds of thousands of human beings . . . It is impossible to number all the crimes they commit. But all these crimes are as nothing compared to the moral corruption of materialism they introduce into the world, especially through women.”

By this stage in his life, Tolstoy was opposed to sex, and was fighting a war against it, which so far he appears to have lost. He was not the only Russian of this mind: the sect called the Skoptsi castrated themselves in their struggle against sensuality. It is not surprising that Tolstoy objected to the fact that doctors treated syphilis as a mere disease, and not the root cause of syphilis, which was sexual desire and the resultant intercourse.

Another great Russian writer, Chekhov, was incensed by what Tolstoy wrote. In a letter to A N Pleshtcheyev in the year after the story's publication, Chekhov recognised its literary merits: “Among all the mass that is written now, one could scarcely find anything else as powerful both in the gravity of its conception and the beauty of its execution.” But, he continued, “it has one fault for which one cannot readily forgive the author—that is, the audacity with which Tolstoy holds forth about what he doesn't know and is too obstinate to care to understand. Thus his statements about syphilis . . . are not merely open to dispute, but show him up as an ignoramus who has not, in the course of his long life, taken the trouble to read two or three books written by specialists.”

Shall I be accused of the same fault when I quote something that Tolstoy says in connection with doctors that, my agreement with Chekhov notwithstanding, does strike me as true: “Today one can no longer say, ‘You are not living rightly, live better.' One can't say that to oneself or to anyone else. If you live a bad life, it is caused by the abnormal functioning of your nerves, etc. So you must go to the doctors, and they will prescribe eight penn'orth of medicine from a chemist, which you must take!”

You can almost see Tolstoy foaming at the mouth when he spoke of doctors

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