Leo Tolstoy had a problem with sexual desire. By the 1880s he had nearly convinced himself that desire debased and ruined human beings. Like a rapid malignancy, Tolstoy believed, sexual desire attacked spirituality, forcing it to retreat into the deepest corners of humanity. Designed in the image of divinity, Tolstoy’s human beings became animals when they succumbed to their primal sexual urges. And yet Tolstoy understood desire to be an essential experience that made human animals human, and gave art its structure and texture. Desire’s dispiriting and dehumanizing nature forms a central theme in Tolstoy’s fiction, perhaps most famously in Anna Karenina (1878), but also in the shorter works of the 1880s-1900s.
As the majestically chaste Victorian age neared its descent (ascent?) into modernism, Tolstoy increasingly had a problem with art itself, especially musical and performing arts that provoked and aroused. The linkage of melody and carnality harkened back to early and middle Tolstoy, who employed musical forms as markers of sexual brooding (folk songs in Cossacks) or catalysts of passion (the mazurka in Anna Karenina). In the novella “The Kreutzer Sonata” (1889), Tolstoy’s pathologically jealous murderer Pozdnyshev attributes a demonizing influence to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major for piano and violin (Opus 47) as he recollects his wife duet with a male violinist:
Do you know the first presto? Do you? […] A terrible thing this sonata. That part precisely. And in general, music is a terrible thing. […] They say, music impacts the soul in an edifying fashion—nonsense, all untrue! Impact it does, terribly, and I speak of myself, not at all in a way that edifies the soul. It impacts the soul not in an edifying fashion, nor by debasing the soul, but in a way that irritates the soul (all translations mine—M.D.S.)
Yet one of the greatest pleasures of reading Tolstoy’s life and art is that his views of desire became less dogmatic during his last decade. A case in point: the short novel Father Sergius, which Tolstoy wrote in 1890-98. Published posthumously in 1911, Father Sergius betrayed the writer’s readiness to accept that desire not only destroys, but also reaffirms or even liberates humanity. The brief summary that follows offers a look at the ghosts of Tolstoy’s art dancing on the digital screens of today.
Father Sergius opens in St. Petersburg during the 1840s, in the middle of the rule of Nicholas I. The protagonist, Stepan (Stiva) Kasatsky—note the arrow pointing to Anna Karenina’s brother—is a tall handsome commander of the Lieb Guard Cuirassiers Regiment, and the scion of a princely family. Upon learning that his young fiancée, Mary, who is a lady-in-waiting favored by the empress, had been the emperor’s mistress, Prince Kasatsky experiences an existential crisis: “If only the one, who had been his fiancée’s lover, had been a private person, he would have killed him, but it was his beloved tsar.” Kasatsky enters a monastery. In his struggles with disavowing worldly life, “even the victory over the sin of lust, of both greed and fornication, came easily to him.” He is ordained into priesthood as Father Hieromonk Sergius, after St. Sergius of Radonezh, a patron saint of Russia. Promoted and placed at a prominent monastery close to the capital, he experiences boredom and struggles with temptation. Father Sergius begs his spiritual father to be sent to a hermitage.
By the late 1850s or early 1860s, Father Sergius is in his sixth year as an anchorite and his 16th as a monk:
He was 49 years of age. His life was hard […] There were two sources of the struggle: doubt and carnal lust […] “My Lord! My Lord!” he thought. “Why won’t you give me faith? Yes, lust, yes, and St. Anthony and other saints fought it, but faith? They had it, and here I am, with whole minutes, hours, days, when I have none. Why this whole world, all its loveliness, if it’s sinful and one must repudiate it? Why did you create temptation?”
At Shrovetide, Tolstoy puts Father Sergius through his first trial of temptation. A group of free-thinking wealthy men and women celebrate with blini and abundant drinking and go riding in sleighs. Among them is one Makovkina, a divorcée, whose “wild antics surprised and bewildered the whole city.” On a bet, Makovkina proposes that she will spend the night in Father Sergius’ cell so as to prove that he is not beyond temptation. She knocks, complains of being frozen, begs Father Sergius to let her in. Looking through a small window, he expects to see the devil of carnality:
“But I’m not the devil …” and he could hear that the lips that spoke it were smiling. “I’m not the devil, but simply a sinful woman, who is lost—not figuratively but literally—(she laughed)—“frozen and begging for a shelter...” He pressed his face to the glass. The icon lamp was reflected and shining everywhere in the glass. […] She. Yes, a woman in a fur coat of white long fur, in a hat, with a gentle, lovely, kind, terrified face, here, two inches from his face, leaning closely. Their eyes met and recognized one another. […] After this glance there was no way to doubt that this was the devil, and not a simple, kind, lovely, shy woman.
The hieromonk reluctantly lets Makovkina into his cell. She starts undressing, in part because her clothes are wet, in part because she is attempting to derail a saint in the making. “For God’s sake! Oh, please come here! I’m dying, oh,” she cries out. Here comes the short novel’s most shocking moment, in which Tolstoy tests a theory of curtailing desire:
“I will come to you now,” he muttered, and then, after opening his door, without looking at her, he walked past her to the entryway, where he chopped wood, groped for the stump, which he used as a chopping block, and for the ax, leaning against the wall. “Be right there,” he said, and taking the ax in his right hand, he placed the index finger of his left hand on the block, raised the ax and hit the finger below the second joint. The finger sprung off with a greater ease than did pieces of firewood of the same thickness, turned over and tumbled down first onto the edge to the block, then onto the floor… He heard these sounds before he felt the pain. Before he had a chance to feel surprise that there was no pain, he felt a burning pain and the warmth of the pouring blood. He swiftly grabbed the chopped off piece of finger with the flap of his cassock and, pressing it to his hip, he went back inside through the door, and after pausing in front of the woman, he lowered his eyes and quietly asked: “What do you want?”
Makovkina is so shocked, horrified, and ashamed of having been the cause of Father Sergius’ self-mutilation that a year later she enters a convent.
Several historical prototypes from the ranks of the Russian nobles informed Tolstoy’s novel, their principal feature being the act of leaving society and opting for monasticism. At the same time, Father Sergius’ act of self-mutilation stems from Eastern Christian hagiography. It is important, especially for Tolstoy’s non-Russian readers, that Father Sergius’ self-mutilation be steeped not in the context of stigmata familiar to the Catholic religious imagination, wherein wounds appear on the bodies of stigmatics, often monks and nuns, in places that correspond to crucifixion wounds. Instead, in Tolstoy’s universe, the severing of one’s the digits is understood specifically as an Orthodox Christian act of forestalling temptation and shunning sexual desire.
Into the life of the fictional Father Sergius, Tolstoy inscribed a key episode from the life of the Venerable James the Solitary of Syria, sometimes referred to as St. James the Ascetic of Cyrrhus, a fourth-fifth century hermit known in Russian as Iakov Otshel’nik (Jacob the Hermit) or Iakov Postnik (Jacob the Faster). St. James the Solitary lived in a mountain cave not far from Cyrrhus in ancient Syria. Sanitized accounts of his life speak of his having attained spiritual perfection through prayer and self-deprivation and possessing gifts of healing. However, full accounts of the saint’s life, collected both in the Russian Orthodox and Western Christian traditions, emphasize his struggles with sexual temptation. Tolstoy had in mind the account by Dmitry Rostovsky (Tuptalo), known as St. Demetrius of Rostov, in his Monthly Readings (1684-1705). In St. Demetrius’ account, a harlot is sent to the cave of St. James the Solitary to seduce him. She begs him to heal her with his hands: “… in the course of three hours [he] held his left hand in the fire, steadfastly overcoming pain, until the joins of the fingers fell off. Thus the saint fought diabolical temptation, so as from the unbearable pain not a single impure design would not enter his mind.” Following the encounter with the ancient hermit, his temptress became a “Christ’s bride.”
Tolstoy both followed and departed from the hagiographic account of the hermit’s self-mutilation. In having Father Sergius chop off the left index finger with an ax rather than slowly char off the joints, Tolstoy portrayed a symbolic self-castration, in which the index finger stands in for the male sexual organ. (We should also note that in modern psychiatry, self-mutilation as a subset of self-harming behaviors often signals a personality disorder or other mental disorders.)
So what does Tolstoy’s trepidations of carnality or the tortured lives of anchorites have to do with The Banshees of Inisherin, an austerely beautiful new movie about desire and solitude set on a small Irish island? Maybe the Anglo-Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh was aware of Tolstoy’s pro-Irish sympathies and inspired to make a coded homage to the great Russian artist and visionary? While visiting Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana in 1904, the republican activist Michael Davitt was struck by Tolstoy’s concern and apparently asked him to “say a word for Ireland’s right to rule herself […].” Given Tolstoy’s broad support of the national right of self-determination, his endorsement of the Irish cause was neither unexpected nor surprising, and it hardly creates a bridge from Tolstoy’s legacy to a film set in 1923 in the wake of the Irish Civil War. In McDonagh’s morbidly exquisite film, not Tolstoy’s vague pro-Irish sentiment but rather Tolstoy’s embattled, intertwined spirits of desire and music—and the self-amputated finger of his Father Sergius—clamor for recognition.
The film’s setting, Inisherin, is a fictional island off the west coast of Ireland. For Martin McDonaugh, the west coast of Ireland around Galway, where he spent a formative part of his childhood, represents a privileged space to which he keeps returning in his work. Previously, it was the setting of six stage plays, including The Cripple of Inishmaan. The imagined Inisherin shares the history, landscape, and potential for wordplay with the real Aran Islands (Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer.) This wordplay oddly speaks to one of the central themes of the film, the vicissitude of desire—I sin more, I sin man, I sin sheer, and, finally, I sin herein—with these unwanted anagrams standing especially apparent to a mind not steeped in local Gaelic history and lore.
At the same time, a viewer’s imagination rooted in Irish history and culture would immediately recognize a banshee. In Celtic folklore, a banshee is a female spirit whose mournful wailing foretells the death of a family member to the one who hears it, and in the film it is a master trope. The lives of the residents of the small island community are filled with longing and with daily lamentations. There are three main deaths in the film: the death of a village fool whose father, the island’s single constable, abuses him in multiple ways; the death of a beloved pet; and the death of an intimate friendship. There is also not much love or tenderness among inhabitants of the island. The two main characters, the younger Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and the older Colm (Brendan Gleeson), share a close bond. (The actors’ zesty tête-à-tête was previously at the center of McDonagh’s In Bruges, a cult film among survivors of the Soviet intelligentsia.) The degree of intimacy in their friendship is obfuscated, which perhaps is the point. But when Colm unexpectedly tries to sever off the relationship, his actions throw not only Pádraic but the whole island community into turmoil.
Colm, a 50-something fiddler and composer of Irish folk music, and the island’s only relative celebrity, lives in a waterfront cottage on the edge of the village with his dog and a collection of painted masks and dolls. Pádraic, a dairy farmer presumably in his late 30s, has two cows, a calf, a pony, and a little donkey for a pet. The naive Pádraic shares a house—and an upstairs bedroom with two narrow beds—with his unmarried sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), who is a voracious reader. Pádraic used to visit Colm at his cliffside cottage almost daily, or they would share a pint at the island’s only pub that doubles as the village music hall. One day Colm discontinues the established routine of their friendship. He no longer welcomes Pádraic to his cottage—now a private space of desire and music composition. The dialogue, in which Pádraic first confronts Colm, resonates with notes of an undefined intimacy:
Pádraic: If I’ve done something to you, just tell me what I’ve done to you.
Colm: I just don’t like you no more.
Pádraic: But you liked me yesterday.
When Pádraic, restless and unhinged, presses Colm for an articulate explanation, Colm eventually tells him that all he seeks now is solitude, aloneness, hermitage—to be able to compose and leave something to the world. Pádraic does not buy the justification, and nor does his sister Síobhan find it convincing. Colm explains to her that Pádraic is “dull.” You are “all feckin’ boring,” Síobhan retorts, and the collective pronoun encompasses most of the island’s folks, inbred philistines and bores, despite some variation of culturedness and natural wit. Even Colm, despite his claim of exceptionality, is not too different from his fellow islanders.
Why, then, the breakup? A partial reveal occurs during Colm’s confrontational exchange with the priest during the first of the film’s two confession scenes:
Priest: Why aren’t you talking to Pádraic no more?
Colm: That wouldn’t be a sin though, would it, Father?
Priest: No, but it’s not very nice either, is it?
In the course of this (failed) confession, the priest asks Colm if he is having “impure thoughts” about men, and Colm angrily turns the question around. How can one read McDonagh’s film through lenses of queerness without overinterpreting both the unsaid and the unshown? Consider Guy Lodge’s elegantly elusive comment in Variety: “As Colm insists to the priest that he’s never had ‘impure thoughts about men,’ it’s tempting to consider a queer undertow to the bond that was, though the truth is that the two warring men never seem much like soulmates—simply the next best thing on a[n] isle short of souls.” Being soulmates, especially in crushing narratives of love and death, is not usually a prerequisite of desire.
In a telling scene, a forlorn Pádraic stands outside the window of Colm’s cottage as Colm sits inside, seeking yet not finding peace in solitude. The camera, compulsively the voyeur, shows Pádraic looking in while it imagines Colm looking out at his intimate ex-friend. The composition of the scene—the hermit inside his private space, the intruder’s face pressed to the cloudy window like an icon of untamed desire—is hauntingly reminiscent of the scene in Tolstoy’s Father Sergius, where the libertine lady visits the monk. Like Tolstoy’s anchorite, Colm, too, sees not the devil of temptation but a “a simple, kind, lovely, shy [man].” And like Tolstoy’s former Prince Kasatsky, McDonagh’s Colm resorts to self-mutilation as a desperate means of stopping desire in its tracks. “Stop bothering me,” Colm warns Pádraic in the pub. “I have a set of shears at home. And each time you bother me from this day on, I’ll take those shears, and I’ll take one of my fingers off with them, and I’ll give that finger to you, until I have no fingers left. Does this make things clearer to you?”
Colm is not deploying the injunction bluffingly. As does Tolstoy’s Father Sergius, he cuts off his left index finger, which is a finger acutely needed for playing the fiddle. He even presses the severed hand to the side of his long black coat, a garment that evokes a cassock, in a manner reminiscent of Tolstoy’s description of Father Sergius’ self-mutilation. But McDonagh does not stop with one Tolstoyan digit; he goes on to multiply it fivefold, and here the film’s gruesome naturalism borders on absurd tragic comedy. In a follow-up scene, Colm takes off the remaining fingers of his left hand, forever parting with his own life as a fiddler. The ecclesiastical underpinnings of self-mutilation come to the surface toward the end of McDonagh’s film. Colm throws his four cut-off fingers at Pádraic’s door. Jenny, Pádraic’s donkey, ends up eating Colm’s bloodied finger and choking to death. The death of Jenny “the Messiah’s donkey” hints at the public, crude murder of spirituality. “Self-mutilation” is a “sin,” the priest tells Colm at the next confession, and Colm storms out of the church.
And herein lies a transformation of the Tolstoyan theme of desire, perhaps even McDonagh’s polemical rejection of the ending of Tolstoy’s Father Sergius. In his late short novel, Tolstoy deliberately isolated desire from its linkages with art. He focuses instead on a pure experiment of sorts: putting his chosen monk through a cycle of temptation that first crescendos in self-mutilation without liberating Father Sergius’ soul, and later opens a path to spiritual freedom—a path Tolstoy also sought in his personal life. Following the incident with the visiting temptress and the severment of his left finger, Father Sergius lives for seven more years as a hermit, becoming an object of veneration. He develops healing powers and feels increasingly burdened by his gift and his position. At the end of the novel, on a “lovely May evening,” a wealthy merchant brings his blond daughter for healing and leaves her with the elder. Regard the scene that radically changes Father Sergius’ life:
“You will be healthy,” he said. “Say your prayers.”
“What’s the point of praying, nothing helps.” And she kept smiling.
“Now you, father, will pray and lay your hands on me. I saw you in my dream.”
“What did you see?”
“I saw that you took your little hand and put it on my chest.” She took his hand and pressed it to her chest. “Right here.”
He gave her his right hand.
“What’s your name?” he asked, his whole body trembling, and he felt that he had been defeated. That the lust had already gotten out of his control.
She took his hand and kissed it, and then she weaved one hand around his waist and pressed him to herself.
“What are you?” he said. “Marya, you are the devil.”
“Well, it should be alright.” Embracing him, she sat with him on the bed.
My late teacher Robert Louis Jackson (1923-2022), a profound Jewish American interpreter of the Russian classics, called this turn in Tolstoy’s story “the paradox of the fortunate fall.” Why fortunate? Fortunate because in the morning Father Sergius trims his hair and beard, dresses in the clothes of a peasant and leaves the hermitage. He wanders across Russia for eight months. “The less the opinion of the people mattered, the stronger he felt God’s presence,” Tolstoy describes the former hieromonk’s freedom.
This is not so for the trapped heroes of The Banshees of Inisherin. They do not experience a “fortunate fall.” Nor do they have anywhere to go, except across the water (can they walk on water?) to the mainland, where Síobhan escapes, unable to bear the loneliness and the isolation that Colm seeks and Pádraic abhors. A hellish fire (have you guessed the name of the vengeful arsonist?) destroys Colm’s cottage, formerly a place of song and of love. In the final scene, the two intimate frenemies stand side by side on the shore, one of them missing five fingers, staring at Galway Bay. Whither to go?
Tolstoy ends Father Sergius with a vision of the dissolution of the self, which brings about the end of all ambition, all pride, and all desire:
For eight months Kasatsky walked around this way, and on the ninth month he was detained in the provincial capital, in a shelter where he spent the night with other wanderers, and because he had no passport, they took him to the police station. When they asked him where his papers were and who he was, he replied, that he had none, and that he was God’s servant. In Siberia he settled down on a homestead that belonged to a wealthy peasant, and he lives there now. He works in the owner’s kitchen garden, teaches the kids, and tends to the sick.
This was Tolstoy’s triumph of the freedom of the soul, of living for God alone. For his part, Martin McDonagh allows Colm to complete the composition of a tune titled “The Banshees of Inisherin,” and in making music Colm sublimates his pent-up desire for Pádraic. The unspoken death of their intimate friendship—and of the little Messiah’s donkey—is the price for the creation of art, both onscreen and offscreen. Leo Tolstoy, who called (silent) cinema “the great mute one,” would have disagreed with McDonagh’s concept of art. But he certainly would have cheered the intoxicating power of the film’s language.
Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual author and translator and a professor at Boston College. He was born in Moscow and has been living in the USA since 1987. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Of Politics and Pandemics. Shrayer’s new memoir, Immigrant Baggage, was published in May 2023.