Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Tolstoy: A Confession

"It is impossible now as it was then to tell whether a man is a believer from the way he lives and what he does."

"At first, of course, my goal was moral perfection, but this was soon replaced by holistic perfection, which is to say by a desire to be better, not in my own eyes or in God's but in the eyes of my peers. And the aspiration to be better in their eyes surrendered to a desire to be stronger--more famous, more important, and richer--than they." That faith in perfectability Tolstoy later claims was part of the social faith in Progress. That was shattered by witnessing a public guillotining; by the death of his brother. But nothing flew down to replace it until he had experienced the "distraction" of family life.

Yet amid his happiness he discovered: "The truth was that life is meaningless." And this curio: "And in this situation I had gotten to the point that I couldn't live, and since I feared death, I had to outfox myself so as not to take my life." That cleverness is the root of philosophies; they exist so that we may be smarter than Hamlet. Just as Chesterton said we cannot think ourselves out of lunacy, however, so we also cannot think ourselves out of despair. It was not wit that saved Tolstoy, whatever his representations. Science, like reason, is no solace, and was none for him, as he relates. Nor literature: Tolstoy cites in extenso from Schopenhauer; from Ecclesiastes; from the tale of Buddha: all these pushed him to the edge of suicide. (Why not over it, he omits to say.)

There are then four outs: ignorance; hedonism; fortitude, meaning suicide; or weakness, meaning waiting. Waiting supplied Tolstoy with observation of others, men unexposed to the sham wisdom of Schopenhauer and Solomon, who did not question the meaning of life, but lived by an implicit faith. Tolstoy disdains the commoners for their ignorance of his dilemma, while envying their happy freedom from it. "It appeared that rational knowledge gave no meaning to life, but excluded it. So the meaning that billions of people, that all humanity, attached to life was based on a kind of contemptible false knowledge...Judging by faith it appeared that to understand the meaning of life I had to renounce reason--the same reason that made a meaning necessary." Of course his error was in the formulation of the question ("Why should I live?"), which only admitted tautological replies: "Life, which represents itself to me as nothing, is nothing." Hence the need for irrational belief. Belief beyond life: beyond the terms of the tautology 0=0. That is worth remembering. Tolstoy knew that "the smarter we are, the less we grasp the meaning of life." "How many times I envied the peasants their illiteracy and lack of education."

Writers often despise books, and writing, in writing. Stevens's admonition that "the rose / of paper is of the nature of its world" is the most eloquent of these that I have read. Anti-intellectualism is the fruit of this thinking, which is (among true poets) nearly universal. Literature then exists, in a sense, to warn us away from it and back to the world. It changes us by an unthinking, a jarring of the rational. It is in that sense that it is a questioning. Not in any other.

Tolstoy's aunt's wisdom though is the sagest in the book: "Rien ne forme un jeune homme comme une liaison avec une femme comme il le faut." In the arms of a girl comme il le faut he would find the bane against the sorcery of Solomon: would have dwelt in the Song of Songs, instead of Ecclesiastes.

"I killed human beings in war, challenged still other men to duels in order to kill them, gambled away money at cards, squandered peasant labor. I punished them, fornicated, cheated...They regarded me then and even now as a comparatively moral man...During that time I began to write out of vanity, cupidity, and pride. I did the same thing in my writings as I did in my life. In order to receive the fame and money for which I wrote, I had to conceal the good and display the evil. And so I did."

Tolstoy's narrative is one of finding something he had always had but without knowing it: "I returned to belief in God, in moral perfection, and in tradition, which had handed down the meaning of life. The only difference was that back then I had accepted all this unconsciously, but now I knew I couldn't live without it." Chesterton and T.S. Eliot had like epiphanies, though Tolstoy did not seek in quite the same way the bosom of orthodoxy. The best passage in the book: "Then life itself seemed full of meaning, and faith an arbitrary series of propositions uttered unnecessarily to me, unreasonable, and unconnected with life...Now, on the contrary, I knew for sure that my life had no meaning, and could have none. And so far from seeing these articles of faith as necessary, I was convinced by manifest experience that they alone gave meaning to life."

Shocked to find, here, words also from Blake: "Everything that people truly believe in must be true...And so if it strikes me as a lie, that simply means I don't understand it." So he believes from the Bible only what he can understand.

Reading these apologies for Christian belief, accounts of how the writers came to believe what they believe and why, and why we also should: is it not enough that their belief fortifies them? Christianity, if it has a justification, does not have it as the trove at the far side of a life-search: it has it in its immanent power to knead and remake the one individual clay. Accordingly a record of faith should begin after the cross rings the author's neck, instead of from doubt in adolescence. Pragmatism: rationale for belief is less than effect of belief.

Beautiful metaphors are the Dantean lost-in-the-forest motif for Tolstoy's missing sense of purpose. And the coda, his dream at the end, the bed that terrorizes him until he gazes upward into an abyss and it reveals himself as a secure cradle-contraption, with that metamorphosis of states of mind that only dreams and decades can convey. Tolstoy's confession is important to me because Anna Karenina for me was long (and formatively) the alpha and omega of New Testament commentary.

Quotations adapted without reference to the original from Peter Heinegg's translation.

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