Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Tolstoy's Confession - so what?

While Leo Tolstoy was writing the greatest novel of all time, Anna Karenina (1877) he was passing through a period of personal religious crisis that led him to renounce the artistic impulse that led to that novel and to War and Peace and so on as worthless.  As he writes in Confession (1884):

In spite of the fact that during these fifteen years I regarded writing as a trivial endeavor, I continued to write.  I had already tasted the temptations of authorship, the temptations of enormous monetary rewards and applause for worthless work, and I gave myself up to it as a means of improving my material situation and as a way of stifling any questions in my soul concerning  the meaning of my life and of life in general.  (Ch. 3, pp. 25-6, tr. David Patterson)

At some point, the crisis overtakes his life:

It happened with me as it happens with everyone who  contracts a fatal internal disease.  At first there were the insignificant symptoms of an ailment, which the patient ignores; then these symptoms recur more and more frequently, until they merge into one continuous duration of suffering.  The suffering increases, and before he can turn around the patient discovers what he already knew: the thing he had taken for a mere indisposition is in fact the most important thing on earth to him, is in fact death.  (p. 26)

I would not say that Confession is essential reading for a student of Tolstoy’s fiction.  It is obviously central for the Tolstoyan, like a religious text.  Much of it covers the basic issues of a loss of faith – is there a god, why do we die, does the Church have the answers?  Tolstoy works his way to the kinds of answers these questions lead to.  Rhetorically, Tolstoy’s book is superb, but people have been working on these questions for a long time.  Does life have any meaning?  Confession is a deeply Ecclesiastian book.  Is all vanity?

Or in the middle of thinking about the fame that my works were bringing to me I would say to myself, “Very well, you will be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world – so what?”
And I could find absolutely no reply.  (p. 27)

As the previous passage, the metaphor about terminal illness, suggests, Confession casts a lot of light on the literature Tolstoy wrote soon afterwards.  Just naming what I have read:  “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886), in embryo in those lines, the nightmarish play The Power of Darkness (1886), and the two problematic novellas about the torments of the male sex drive, “The Devil” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” (both 1889).

The latter two are recognizably Tolstoy, although he has simplified his language and despite throwing every distancing device he has at them – frames, unreliable narrators – they are unappealingly didactic and unpleasant, to me, at least.  The play is beyond belief, bonkers.  “Ivan Ilych” is an astounding masterpiece.  All the product of the same shift in aesthetic ideas.


  1. the trouble is, you can't tell anybody anything. people develop their own explanations for existence over a lifetime, some indoctrinated, some not, but no one cares to throw away their convictions for someone else's... in my reality, tolstoy had a sort of awakening when he left home and soon after passed away in a train station(if i remember rightly), but it took a whole life to bring him to that point... everyone has his own ideas. i studied zen and have a degree in geology, so i have a pragmatic pov involving some unpopular thoughts. consciousness is an illusion and we are, basically, dust in the wind, and that's it... probably shouldn't publish this, but maybe it will help somebody... (it's been my experience that dropping religion, ideas of death, and the other "beliefs" frees a person from worrying. then the only thing that matters is kindness... humans are a mess, but they usually do the best they can...

  2. Tolstoy had an interest in Buddhism, too. I had not known that until I read Confession. Buddha, the author of Ecclesiastes, Socrates, and Schopenhauer were his sages.

    "Ivan Ilych" seems to recognize that it takes your whole life to reach the end of it, pretty much by definition. I suspect that no one will take much comfort in Tolstoy's answers who is not already somehow ready to do so. Dropping religion and death, acts of kindness - you sound pretty Tolstoyan there at the end!

  3. I got bogged down about halfway through the greatest novel of all time and have yet to return to it. Spent less time than I did with Dosto's Demons, that is, which is surely NOT the greatest novel of all time. Somewhat relieved to hear that even the greats doubt their worth at times although Tolstoy's religious reasons complicate the aesthetics of the matter, I guess. Interesting post topic.

  4. Anna Karenina is the greatest novel for the purposes of this post. There are a few other good candidates.

    Tolstoy is among the sanest of all writers, which is a good part of what makes this episode so interesting.

  5. You say: "the greatest novel of all time, Anna Karenina (1877)"

    Wow! That is quite a declaration. When I consider all that I have read among your past postings, I am surprised by that statement. Perhaps "the greatest" could be replaced with "one of the great." I could buy into that statement.

    In any case, I guess I should read it. (Yes, shame on me. I have neglected it and most of Tolstoy.)

  6. Yes, there are some other greatest novels of all time, but none so relevant to this post.

    Anna Karenina is unusual in its balance and blend of Flaubert's stylistic perfection and, say, Eliot's ethical concerns.

    Have you read Tolstoy's military fiction? It's extraordinary. I would point you to Hadji Murad or Sevastopol Sketches before Anna Karenina, actually.

    1. In my crumbling Swiss-cheese memory, I vaguely recall reading (or beginning) _Hadji Murad_, but I couldn't tell you anything about it. Damn, getting old and forgetful sometimes really sucks! Then again, there are some blissful moments within forgetfulness.