Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?
No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.
And it is very much lamented, Brutus,
That you have no such mirrors as will turn
Your hidden worthiness into your eye
– from Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare
The general consensus of opinion appears to be that while Tolstoy’s greatness as a novelist is beyond dispute, his polemics are a bit loopy, and are, on the whole, best ignored.
I think I probably subscribed to this also: after all, from what I knew of Tolstoy’s life, the moral and religious convictions of his later years brought happiness neither to himself nor to the people around him. And what great wisdom can it be that makes people unhappy?
So I, too, was content to think of his polemical writings as merely “loopy”; and so, I ignored them. But this won’t really do: his fiction, right to the end of a life, is quite clearly the product of an extraordinary mind; and that he should switch this mind off when writing polemics, and allow some inferior mind to take over, seems unlikely to say the least.
So I turned to the first of his major polemical writings of his late period, “A Confession”, written in 1879 shortly after the completion of Anna Karenina, while he was in his early 50s. Here, the writer who is perhaps equalled only by Shakespeare in his understanding of humanity in all its extraordinary diversity, turns the spotlight upon himself, and tries to understand the promptings of his own soul. The result is enthralling, but, as with the last section of Anna Karenina (which finds frequent echoes here), it is also, it seems to me, open-ended.
As is well-known, the depiction of the spiritual crisis Levin undergoes in Anna Karenina is almost entirely autobiographical. The details of Levin’s crisis, and that of Tolstoy’s as recorded here, seem virtually identical. Here too, we get the startling details of how he had kept away from ropes and knives and guns for fear that he might be tempted into suicide; here too is the realisation that there exist powerful forces other than reason that shape his thoughts. But before we get to this stage, Tolstoy tells us how his spiritual crisis had come about.
Although raised in the Orthodox Russian faith, he had not, he tells us, taken it very seriously. At first, he had accepted the outward shows without thinking too hard; but after a while, he couldn’t help but note the various absurdities of human life itself, and what struck him as its pointlessness. And set against this pointlessness, the rituals of the church seemed meaningless. All this may come as something of a surprise to those who know and love War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as those books could only have been written by someone who loved life, who loved the constant flux that constituted living, who was dazzled by the sheer plenitude of it all. And yet, this same man, having already scaled some of the greatest peaks of artistic achievements, says this:
Before occupying myself with my Samara estate, with the education of my son, or with the writing of books, I had to know why I was doing these things. While I did not know why, I could not do anything. Amidst my thoughts concerning the farm, which at the time kept me very busy, a question would suddenly come into my head: “Well, fine, you will have 6,000 desyatins in the Samara province and 300 horses, and then what?” And feeling completely taken back, I would not know what to think next. Or, beginning to reflect on the education of my children, I would ask myself, “Why?” Or deliberating how the peasants may achieve prosperity I would suddenly ask myself, “What concern is it of mine?” Or thinking about the fame my own writing had brought me, I would say to myself, “Well, fine, so you can be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world, and so what?”
And I had absolutely no answer.
On reflection, perhaps it was precisely because Tolstoy loved so much that these questions were for him so terrible: only someone who loves life could be so horrified by the possibility of its futility. These questions, for Tolstoy, demanded answers: there had to be, for him, some meaning to his life, to his activities, that would not be obliterated by his physical death. In the absence of answers, his life became for him, he tells us, “hateful”; and this is why he had to keep himself away, like his creation Levin, from temptations of self-slaughter.
At this point, he introduces what he claims is a traditional fable. A man falls down the well, but manages to hold on to a branch projecting from the wall of the well. At the bottom of the well is a dragon. While he is holding on to this branch, he knows he is safe from the dragon, but two mice – a black and a white, night and day – are gnawing away at the branch, and he knows that eventually he will fall prey to the dragon. And the thought of this gives him no peace. Near where he hangs is honey which he can lick, but the thought of that dragon, and of the fate that awaits him, prevents him from enjoying this honey.
The meaning of the fable is obvious enough, but there is a contrivance about it that seems most unTolstoyan, and very far from the seemingly effortless simplicity of the fables he was later to go on to write (“How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, “What Men Live By”, etc.) How could other people enjoy the honey while being aware of the dragon? he asks himself. He describes some mechanisms whereby the question of the dragon may be avoided, but such mechanisms, he decides, are not for him: at the end of it all there’s that dragon, and that sucks out of life all possibility of meaning.
And yet, Tolstoy is not prepared to turn his back on life. He speaks of Socrates, of Buddha, and of Schopenhauer, all in their different ways turning away from this world, renouncing desire, abjuring the earthly. But the man who had written War and Peace and Anna Karenina couldn’t do that: even when he had renounced these works, he couldn’t do that: he loved life too much. And in any case, he reflected, even Socrates, Buddha and Schopenhauer, for all their renunciation, went on living. Tolstoy could not force himself into renunciation: to renounce life was unthinkable, and to go on living a life which one had renounced seemed to him yet another form of meaninglessness.
As ever with Tolstoy, the writing is extraordinarily simple and direct. Whether or not the reader shares Tolstoy’s outlook, the intensity and directness with which his crisis is described is startling:
My position was terrible. I knew that I could find nothing along the path of knowledge, other than negation of life. While in faith I found nothing other than a negation of reason, which was even more impossible than denial of life. According to rational knowledge life is an evil and people know it. They have the choice of ending their lives and yet they have always carried on living, just as I myself have done, despite having known for a long time that life is meaningless and evil. According to faith it follows that in order to comprehend the meaning of life I must renounce my reason, the very thing for which meaning was necessary.
Like Levin, Tolstoy saw the possibility of an answer – a possibility only – from the simple life of peasantry. Now, Tolstoy is frequently accused of idealising peasant life, and peasant wisdom; however, Tolstoy was close to the peasantry, while his accusers are almost invariably far removed from the lives of the illiterate and the impoverished. So perhaps we ought to give Tolstoy at least some benefit of the doubt when he says that in the lives of many peasants, poor, illiterate and uneducated, he had found a serenity and an equanimity that were so conspicuously lacking in his own life. And the possibility struck him that they may be in possession of something that had eluded him.
And there came to him a realisation also that there were powerful forces in his mind other than the rational:
Thus in addition to rational knowledge, which I had hitherto thought to be the only knowledge, I was inevitably led to acknowledge that there does exist another kind of knowledge – an irrational one – possessed by humanity as a whole: faith, which affords the possibility of living.
It is easy for the modern reader to dismiss this merely as sentimental religiosity, but perhaps, once again, we should not be so cavalier in rejecting this. For it is true that there is much we – even secularists, even atheists – hold on to that we have not arrived at through exercising our reason. For instance, I am convinced that slavery is a great evil; but did I reach this moral position through exercising my reason? Did I set out to myself what the objectives of human activities should be, and why, and then reason to myself why slavery hinders rather than helps us achieve our objectives? Of course I didn’t. I don’t know where my conviction comes from that slavery is evil, but it’s not through reason. Of course, we all know slavery is very cruel, but the conviction that cruelty is an evil is not, once again, one that I have arrived at through ratiocination. How I have arrived at it, I don’t know. But Tolstoy’s realisation that there are powerful forces at work in shaping our thoughts and our moral values that are not in themselves rational is one I find myself sympathetic with.
But I do find myself somewhat nervous, to say the least, in Tolstoy’s placing so much faith in the power on unreason – in his identifying our inner moral voice as divine. For inner moral voices have led people to commit all sorts of horrors. And I cannot believe that Tolstoy could have been unaware of this. Perhaps it is not surprising that Tolstoy’s religious conversion never brought him the serenity he so craved.
But, provisionally, his religious conversion gives him some semblance at least of answers to those questions which, for him, had to be answered:
…to the question: what meaning is there that is not destroyed by death? The answer is: unity with the infinite, God, heaven.
But Tolstoy was at least as complex a character as any that he had depicted in his work, and reading this, it’s hard to escape the feeling that perhaps he didn’t see himself to quite as much depth as he saw his own creations: as Brutus knew, the eye sees not itself. Tolstoy, by temperament, was a rational creature: accepting the irrational, though attractive, though seemingly the answer to the questions that so tormented him, was not easy. There was nothing of the mystical in Tolstoy: the heaven he yearned for was not the heaven in some promised life to come, but heaven in the here-and-now. And to this end, he went on to make moral demands of his fellow human beings that he must have known his fellow human beings could not live up to. He made these same moral demands of himself, and it seems he couldn’t live up to them either. Tolstoy was as fascinating a character as any he created.
I am not capable of providing a critique of “A Confession” from a philosophical or a theological point of view: I am not sufficiently knowledgeable in either area. With hindsight, we can see that Tolstoy’s religious conversion had not brought him the peace and serenity he had so craved. That his questions remained unanswered, or, at best, only partially answered, was perhaps inevitable: the most profound questions about our lives will always elude us. But what I find particularly enthralling about “A Confession” is Tolstoy’s attempt, after having peered so deeply into the minds of others, to understand himself: The eye may not see itself, and Tolstoy’s vision of himself may have been incomplete; but it is, nonetheless, an extraordinary eye.
[All excerpts taken from the translation by Jean Kentish, published by Penguin Classics]