“Darwin and Mechnikov in Tolstoy’s literary imagination”

Friday 9 October sees the start of the 2015/16 CamCREES seminars. At the previous year’s final seminar, Professor Anna Berman (McGill University) spoke on Tolstoy’s attitude towards the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin and Il’ia Mechnikov.  These CamCREES bibliographical notes look at accounts of Tolstoy’s meeting with Mechnikov and at Russian books on the latter and Darwin.

Darwin, Mechnikov, Tolstoy

An intellectual triptych:Darwin, Mechnikov, Tolstoy.

Tolstoy’s opinion of science and scientists was, as all his opinions, very certain and firmly held.  Mechnikov in particular comes in for a scathing reception in his letters and diaries (one of his books is described as “very interesting in its scientific stupidity”).  Yet, as Professor Berman explained, despite Tolstoy’s frequent criticism of Darwin’s and Mechnikov’s theories “their ideas helped shape his fictional works. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy used his two main characters to represent an acceptance and a rejection of Darwinian theory and, in so doing, highlighted the dangers of regarding it as scientific law. In his final novel, Resurrection, rather than making the characters’ fates provide a judgement on scientific theory as he did in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy co-opted Mechnikov’s phagocytic theory for his own ends, making it the metaphoric basis for his moral philosophy. This offered him a way of synthesizing science and religion through art.” (from the talk’s abstract)

Mechnikov’s phagocitic theory – a major work on immunity – won him the Nobel Prize in 1908, but such frivolities could not impress Tolstoy.  In May 1909, he and Mechnikov finally met.  The two men’s accounts provide a diverting insight into their characters.  While noting frankly what he considered to be Tolstoy’s flaw – his artistic and instinct-led reaction to issues versus the scientist’s more considered and informed response – Mechnikov wrote with enthusiasm about the day.  His host was evidently not overly keen to put him at his ease.  Tolstoy’s hard stare alone gets two mentions in the narrative, the first coming as soon as the Mechnikovs descend from their carriage.  “[Tolstoy] stared hard at me with his piercing pale eyes and, before anything else, informed me that I bore few resemblances to any likenesses he had seen of me”.

Mechnikov’s enjoyment at meeting Tolstoy, whose literary genius he greatly admired, is clear from his account, though, and he clearly felt that the two had a constructive meeting of minds and found agreement on various issues.  Tolstoy, on the other hand, had formed a rather different impression of the day.  “Mechnikov”, his diary reads, “turned out to be a very light-headed person … And very talkative.  Towards evening, as usual, I had grown tired of idle talk.”  Mechnikov is mentioned again that summer in Tolstoy’s journal.  In July, he wrote “I have been reading Mechnikov’s book … and have been horrified by its light-headedness and downright stupidity.”

Looking at what the University Library has on and by Mechnikov opened up a bibliographical can of worms.  As with so many Russians (Tolstoy included), Mechnikov has been transliterated by cataloguers and publishers in many different ways.  Our holdings were indexed under a total of 5 different forms of his name:

Metchnikoff, Elie, 1845-1916
Mechnikov, I. I.
Mechnikov, I. I. (Il’ia Il’ich)
Mechnikov, Ilya
Mechnikov, Il’ya Il’ich

The Library of Congress authorised form is the first (the French version of his name; Mechnikoff spent the last 18 years of his life in France), and all catalogue records now link to that.  Many of these books are in English, with others in Russian, French and German.  Other libraries such as the Whipple Library and the Balfour & Newton Libraries hold further material, reflecting Mechnikov’s scientific bent.

Darwin, in 8365.d.4. The illustration shows squirrels climbing his coat and trousers.

Most readers of this blog post will probably never have heard of Mechnikov before.  They will most certainly, however, have heard of the other scientist discussed – Charles Darwin.  The huge impact of Darwin’s work on intellectual thought throughout Europe and further afield is reflected in the huge number of items which can be found under the subject heading string Darwin, Charles, 1809-1882–Influence.  Among these is Alexander Vucinich’s Darwin in Russian thought (379:5.c.95.337), in which Tolstoy features many times.

Given the University Library’s particularly keen interest in Darwin (the building is home to the Darwin Correspondence Project‘s team), we hold works by him in a wide number of languages including five items in Russian.  Chief among these is an 8-volume collected works from 1907-9 (S380.c.90.1-8).  The earliest Russian Darwin-related book held is one about him: an 1894 work by the translator and editor of the 1907-9 set, Kliment Timiriazev – Charlz Darvin i ego uchenie (Charles Darwin and his teachings; 8365.d.4).  Ours is a third edition and is accompanied by the appendix Nashi antidarvinisty (Our anti-Darwinists).  Two figures appear as the main Russian anti-Darwinists: the naturalist Nikolai Danilevskii and the philosopher Nikolai Strakhov (a close friend of Tolstoy).

The photographs of the three men at the top come from: S380.c.90.1 (Darwin), 303:12.c.90.5 (Mechnikov), and S756.c.92.82 (Tolstoy).  The Mechnikov book – Stranitsy vospominanii (Pages of recollections) – is also the source of his memoir of his visit to Tolstoy.  The Tolstoy diary and letter excerpts come from the tolstoy.ru online version of his works featured in an earlier blog post on Tolstoy and completed since then.  That blog post used the form “Tolstoi” (we are in this one sticking to the form in Professor Berman’s seminar title); another Tolstoy/Tolstoi blog post addressed the sticky issue of his transliteration.

The CamCREES bibliographical notes aim to link Cambridge library resources with the fortnightly seminars hosted by CamCREES (the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies) in the Michaelmas and Lent terms of each academic year.  Each set of notes starts by looking at the specifics of a seminar and then goes on to explore related research tips and library issues.  The CamCREES bibliographical notes were introduced in February 2011 on the University Library’s Slavonic webpages, where all earlier notes can be found.

Mel Bach

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