“A Confession” by Leo Tolstoy
(First publication: 1882 / This edition: Penguin Books—Great Ideas 2008)
Taken while procrastinating (haha) with orange ixora flowers and a fresh pot of coffee
It is not clear to me that there was no difference between our behavior and that of people in a madhouse;
but at the time I only dimly suspected this, and like all madmen,
I thought everyone was mad except myself. (p.11)
Since I read Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness” and “Anna Karenina”, I feel like I want to read all of his works now—kind of like a Tolstoy-arathon. Anyway, after “Anna Karenina” (my review here) I thought I’d find some of his shorter books to read. I ordered this one and “The Kreutzer Sonata”.
I didn’t know anything about “A Confession”—except that my high school philosophy teacher gave it 5 stars on Goodreads (and he always recommends great books). I’m so glad I read it—”glad” in the strangest way. Never had I been so shaken up and felt so suffocated while reading a book. Not even exaggerating or melodramatic—I was having coffee in Dean & Deluca reading this while waiting for my friend, and my hands literally started shaking and I felt this strongest urge to cry. (Thank goodness I was able to control myself though, haha) When my friend came, I immediately made her read this passage that had given me the chills just moments before she arrived:
But the only answer […] provided to my question concerning the meaning of life was this:
you are that which you call your life; you are a temporary, incidental accumulation of particles.
The mutual interaction and alteration of these particles produces in you something you refer to as your life.
This time; when the interaction of these particles ceases, that which you call life will cease,
bringing an end to all your questions.
You are a randomly united lump of something.
This lump decomposes and the fermentation is called your life.
The lump will disintegrate and the fermentation will end, together with all your questions. (p.35)
In this book—an essay—Tolstoy talks about his existential crises and his severe “panic” of trying to figure out the meaning of life. He goes through his struggles and processes of attempting to understand it all using philosophy, science, different fields of wisdom, his companion’s explanations, faith, and etc. He tried to find reason and truth in faith by using reason and truth. His panic led to unbearable depression that he thought over and over again of committing suicide.
It is the question without which life is impossible, as I had learnt from experience.
It is this: what will come of what I do today or tomorrow? What will come of my entire life?
Expressed another way the question can be put like this: why do I live? Why do I wish for anything, or do anything?
Or expressed another way: is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me? (p.26)
I was feeling so torn up and suffocated from the beginning until maybe halfway through the book, when he was explaining his frustrations and anxiety on the absurdities of life. Once he got deeper and deeper into his process of trying to break down everything, I got a bit confused and wasn’t sure if I actually understood 100% what he was trying to say—or couldn’t follow his thoughts. At the end, I still wasn’t sure what his conclusion was—he still seemed confused. I lack knowledge and understanding in Christianity and its different branches—especially since this is about an old era in Russia—so when he got deep into dissecting faith, sometimes I lost track. I believe in faith though. I’m a Buddhist, and though it says that “Tolstoyan Christianity” is also Buddhist-influenced, I still need more knowledge (from both) to understand better. I will probably have to re-read it again in the future.
I think I found relief in knowing that even the great Tolstoy got frustrated about the absurdities and limitations of life like I do—a man from over a hundred years ago who has accomplished so much. I feel like that many passages reflected exactly what I’ve been feeling and struggling with for so long but I didn’t know how to articulate it all. Reading it made me feel like I’ve been surrounded by fog or haze or something, and then the fog/haze clears up—and what I see ahead and around me, that has been surrounding me this whole time, is something that’s just so terrifying. I still don’t know or understand what it is, but at least I see the situation clearer now, however unpleasant and scary. I feel that reading his thoughts made my thoughts clearer.
Tolstoy wrote this shortly after “Anna Karenina”. I think the character Konstantin Dmitrich Levin in “Anna Karenina” kind of portrays how Tolstoy was feeling. Towards the end of the book, Levin goes into bouts of depression because he didn’t understand the point of life and faith, and didn’t know how to figure it out and to be content with his life.
I guess some people might say that there’s “no point” in
thinking worrying about these things (especially if you have faith or believe in a religion) but I still think it’s something you should wonder about at some point. (But please try not to get too depressed or stressed about it.) I just want to know the point of it all—when sometimes faith feels like not a good enough (or at least “reasonable”) answer. Reading Camus and Dostoyevsky also made me wonder about these issues, but I think Tolstoy really hit—slammed—on the nail, regarding the questions that’s been fogging up my mind. I would recommend this book if the passages I put at the end of this post trigger any strong emotions in you. And if you read it, and you understand his conclusion, then please share with me what you think and all too. 🙂
Here are some of my favorite passages from the book:
If a magician had come and offered to grant my wishes I would not have known what to say. If in my intoxicated moments I still had the habit of desire, rather than real desire, in my sober moments I knew that it was a delusion and that I wanted nothing. I did not even wish to know the truth because I had guessed what it was. The truth was that life is meaningless. (p.18)
I was afraid of life and strove against it, yet I still hoped for something from it. (p.19)
I longed with all my soul to be good, but I was young; I had passions and I was alone, completely alone in my search for goodness. (p.6)
Living as I was then, like any individual I was tormented by the problem of how to live a better life. I did not yet understand that in answering ‘live in conformity with progress’, I was speaking exactly like a person who is in a boat being carried along by wind and waves and who when asked the most important and vital question, ‘Where should I steer?’ avoids answering by saying, ‘We are being carried somewhere’. (p.12)
On these occasions, when life came to a standstill, the same questions always arose: ‘Why? What comes next?’
At first I thought the questions pointless and irrelevant. I felt the answers were well known and that should I wish to resolve them it would not cost me much effort; that for the time being I did not have the time to work it all out, but that when I put my mind to it I would find all the answers. However, the questions repeated themselves over and again, demanding answers with more and more urgency. The fell like full stops, always on the same spot, uniting in one large black spot. (p.16)
Likewise the simple uneducated working people, who we refer to as the herd, fulfill the will of their master without ever reproaching him. But we, the wise, eat the master’s food without doing what he asks of us, instead of doing it we sit around in circles debating whether we should do something as stupid as moving a handle up and down. And then we think it over and decide that either the master is stupid, or that he does not exist and that we are the only intelligent ones. The only thing is, we feel that we are no good for anything and that we must somehow escape from ourselves. (p.70)