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That Time When Tolstoy Wrote a Red-Pill Novel

‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ is as shocking today as it was in the 19th century — because its vein of misogyny endures in the Manosphere

Two days after Christmas, 47-year-old Lyndon James McLeod went on a shooting rampage around the Denver area, killing five people before he was fatally shot by police. As authorities delved into McLeod’s personal life to find a motive for the massacre, they found that he had self-published a trilogy of science-fiction novels titled Sanction. The content of these books was fiercely violent, racist and misogynist — but, more alarming still, the text directly named two of his future victims and described their deaths at the hands of his protagonist.

McLeod’s lurid literature and online behavior convinced one reader to inform the police and FBI of the danger he posed in January 2021. Seemingly, nothing came of it. In the meantime, it appears his writing had approving fans: When Amazon took the novels off their website following the shooting, Newsweek reported that they “were overall mostly praised” by reviewers. The trilogy had also garnered the attention of alt-right personalities, including Jack Posobiec.

The quality of McLeod’s prose was doubtless a secondary concern behind the extremist views and personal vendetta he was pushing, but polemics are nothing new in fiction — and the great masters have certainly written their share. One that still has the capacity to shock is Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, a novella that caused a scandalous uproar when published in 1889, was swiftly censored in both Russia and the U.S. and caused Teddy Roosevelt to call its esteemed author a “sexual and moral pervert.” 

The narrative takes the form of a long confession made by an aristocrat, Pozdnyshev, to a mostly silent narrator who meets him on a train. Pozdnyshev has murdered his wife, a crime for which a jury has acquitted him; he wants to relate what led him to this monstrous act, and warn his listener how to avoid the same fate.

Tolstoy, of course, was a genius, and The Kreutzer Sonata is a stunning exercise in tension — although we know the horrific way in which Pozdnyshev will end his marriage, we are held rapt by his philosophizing on the hatred and jealousy that brought him to the point of no return. Crucially, as in McLeod’s books, the killing is framed as something predestined or inevitable, with Pozdnyshev a victim of “the dominant power of women — the cause of all the suffering in the world.” He imagines how they have achieved that power through men’s lust: “‘Ah, you wish us to be merely the objects of sensuality; very well, as objects of sensual pleasure we will make you our slaves,’ say the women.” 

Indeed, his rant is striking in how it foreshadows the misogynist, red-pilled rhetoric of the manosphere, incel groups and particularly the MGTOWs, or Men Going Their Own Way. In the course of the tale, we learn that Pozdnyshev regards sexual intercourse as “swinish,” an “animal passion” that debases men and women alike, and believes the institution of marriage is complicit in undermining chastity in favor of “carnal love.” The intolerable domestic arrangement is also what sets him on the path to suspecting his wife has begun an affair with a musician — when he watches them perform Beethoven’s difficult Kreutzer Sonata together on piano and violin, he becomes convinced and resolved to take vengeance.  

It’s tempting to read Pozdnyshev as a hypnotic villain tortured by his own foul logic, but Tolstoy, who by then had reinvented himself as a Christian anarchist, emphatically agreed with the character, as he later explained in his “Epilogue to the Kreutzer Sonata.” Moreover, the novella was widely interpreted as a bitter attack on his own wife, Sofiya, who in turn wrote stories challenging the concepts presented therein, none published during her lifetime. And the same year The Kreutzer Sonata appeared, he was heard to remark: “I now look on all girls and women with pity and contempt.” 

Many readers took the lesson of the book to heart and began to strive toward the ideal of celibacy, rejecting the prospects of family life and procreation — surely the theme that so concerned government censors at home and abroad, over and above the  commonplace sexism and flashes of anti-Semitism. These latter bigotries, not the critique of bourgeois values, are what appall a contemporary audience, but all of it could resonate with the sort of man who was drawn to Lyndon McLeod’s furious epic of a man driven over the edge.  

What makes literature both thrilling and dangerous is precisely this: Its ability to shake you out of an accepted worldview and plunge you headfirst into another — the cognitive shift of taking the so-called red pill and waking up to the “truth,” however you define it. McLeod’s deficiencies as a writer and deadly shooting spree mean his books will fade into the forgotten past, but Tolstoy’s enormous talent and high seat in the canon mean The Kreutzer Sonata will be read, admired and adapted for generations to come, often in ways that reproduce its misogyny with little additional commentary. 

That isn’t to advocate for its censorship, or say it’s currently radicalizing anyone, only to observe how a pattern of anti-feminist hatred echoes through significant novels and disjointed manifestoes alike. It seems no mistake that Pozdnyshev, rather than speaking directly to us, regales a stranger during a journey they share — a man who sometimes interrupts to disagree but ultimately relents, absorbing the terrible leaps of the argument, carried along by the momentum of the story and a train that hurtles on into darkest night. 

Like a young man who stumbles into a red-pill forum and begins to harbor its principles, he has discovered a relentless voice of authority that will change him, and his life, forever.