Leo Tolstoy and the Origins of Spiritual Memoir

TWO THINGS ARE TRUE about Leo Tolstoy in 1879. First, he had mostly given up on fiction, having published his two titanic novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The latter book exhausted him physically and morally: not long after its appearance, he termed his saga of adultery “an abomination.” He found novel writing to be a poor substitute for confronting religious issues and his existential lot. Second, because of his early literary acclaim and the immoral lifestyle it had spawned and enabled, he was miserable. He was so ashamed of himself that post-Karenina his ambivalent atheism collapsed and he sought a new relationship to the “truth.” He abdicated the throne of novelist and took up the mantle of religious critic — on the side of Christianity and against it.

Raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, Tolstoy lost his religion at 18. After a life of debauchery, in his early 50s, he wanted religion — or some source of intellectual security — back. In 1882, he published his Confession, a retrospective analysis of the previous five years in which his midlife crisis of faith unbalanced his literary and philosophical bearing. It is among the oddest of Christian tell-alls, a treatise searching for its own focal truth. Throughout, he hungers for spiritual fortitude: “Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?” Readers note that the title has no “a” or “the” attached. (There are no articles in Russian, but this particular absence in English is meaningful.) The singular noun by itself emphasizes its currency.

Early on in the book, he asserts, in defiance, that “Christian teaching plays no part in life; one never comes across it in one’s relations with others and one never has to deal with it in one’s own life.” He pegs believers as “stupid, cruel, and immoral people who think themselves very important.” He tags unbelievers as the finest people he knows: they have “[i]ntelligence, honesty, uprightness, goodness of heart, and morality.” He renounces religion in favor of “reading and thinking” — in essence, reason — and recalls that five years prior “my only real faith […] was a faith in self-perfection.”

Of course, reason means progress, and progress, for an egoist like Tolstoy, entails an unchecked liberality in one’s behaviors. At this, the young Tolstoy, an aristocrat and braggart, more than excelled. Here’s part of his resume:
I killed people in war, I challenged people to duels in order to kill them, I lost at cards, I consumed the labor of peasants, I punished them, I fornicated, I deceived. Lies, theft, adultery of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder. … There was no crime I did not commit, and for all this my contemporaries praised me and thought me a relatively moral man, as they still do.
But the hyper-observant and self-obsessed Tolstoy suffers, despite his ego, a debilitating paranoia. He believes that people ridicule him because of his alcoholic, adulterous, and arrogant excesses. He has often imagined he’s dying: the darkness is drawing close, and he must find a purpose, because soon, for him, “nothing will remain but stink and worms.” (The death-obsessed Russian lived another 30 years after Confession.) At times, despair clings to his words like a rose vine: “You can only live as long as you’re drunk with life; but when you sober up, you can’t help but see that all this is just a fraud, and a stupid fraud. Precisely that: there’s nothing even amusing or witty about it; it’s simply cruel and stupid.” He says he doesn’t know why the universe exists. He is tortured by the question. He wants it answered; he can’t bear living in an untended and unintended cosmos.

By mid-book, Tolstoy’s searching starts to change — not just his focus but his sensibility. To unburden his longing, he quotes Bible passages, an Indian sage, and nuggets from the saints and the martyrs, honoring what he said earlier were useless “teachings of faith.” He wonders if to feel secure all we need is the wisdom of the ancients. These teachings have, he argues, lasted this long. His disclosures work him into a lather, and he declares that a pure belief in reason, without room for God as ultimate mystery, leads to insanity and suicide. A worrywart, Tolstoy plunges on with the tone of a querulous depressive. Moreover, he shifts, as it suits his gain, the blame for who should tow his anguish: from pagan nihilists to scientific rationalists to Orthodox dogmatists to jurisprudent bureaucrats — these last, the Ivan Ilyiches of the world. The only blameless one, he decides, is he who lives as Jesus lived. And yet, he counters, who can? It’s impossible.

Tolstoy decides that no faith is truer than the Christian peasant’s, whose “irrational knowledge” paves the road to happiness. Irrational knowledge is faith, he posits. Peasants should know. They are (though he aspires to join up, Tolstoy is definitely not one of them) the “great mass of people, the whole of mankind” — the nonindividuated mass, whom he lauds but who also rise, in his characterization, no higher than type. Uniformly, he writes in Chapter VIII, they believe God is “one and three,” father, son, spirit, “creation in six days, devils and angels and everything I couldn’t accept as long as I didn’t go mad.” That odd admission, with its tortuous grammar and emphatic final clause — as long as I didn’t go mad — is a performative leap away from his natural inclinations. He needs to believe something that transcends his inherent, incessant self-questioning, and he decides to do so. For him, peasant certainty is true because he, the great literary arbiter of truth, has arrived at it, not because Christianity has told him to accept it.

Thus, with a thunderclap, Tolstoy’s short and intensely self-defensive polemic turns into a classic Christian conversion story, worthy of Augustine’s tale of tribulation. After weighing all the possibilities, mad or not, Tolstoy drapes the crucifix around his neck. As one of his best biographers, Martine de Courcel, writes, he has, rather Christianly, “admitted his sins and proclaimed his faith.” Saved, he declares that his actions from now on will embody his intentions — he will attend church, participate in sacraments, live frugally, leave his bourgeois habits, love God and peasant equally. But wait. Opening faith’s creaking door hardly calms his restlessness. Though Tolstoy says he erred “not so much because I thought wrongly as because I lived badly,” the insight is not enough. He cannot settle his thoughts. Try as he might, Tolstoy, a self-cleansing fanatic, cannot rid himself of his deviant past or his disputatious nature. He can neither forgive himself nor stop analyzing the demands of Christian belief. As long as he keeps writing pages, he’s not sure about Christ as savior or about divine intervention. His belief demands more and more tuning.

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