The Question That Haunted Tolstoy

It was this:

Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?

Reviewing Peter Carson’s new translation of two works Tolstory wrote in the aftermath of a spiritual awakening, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession, William Giraldi explores how legendary Russian writer approached an answer:

It’s the very question—​the very horror—​that pesters Ivan Ilyich during his months-​long agon against death. And Camus must have had these lines in mind when he was composing Meursault’s demise [in The Stranger]: “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.”

And so the great man searched. Schopenhauer, Solomon, and Buddha offered no solace. Scientific rationalism was a coffin for his soul. Others of his own class and education had no clue. Then, in a suicidal stupor, he began to see that the supernaturalism and irrationality of faith, and all the vulgate attached to it, wasn’t so stupid after all:

“It alone gives mankind answers to the questions of life and consequently the possibility of living.” Writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina wasn’t enough; the love of his wife wasn’t enough; the lives of his children weren’t enough; Leo Tolstoy also had to have an invitation from the infinite. And those who mailed him this invitation to the infinite were the peasants—​because, like Gerasim in Ivan Ilyich and unlike all the poseurs from Tolstoy’s own set, the peasants didn’t pretend. Their beliefs weren’t disconnected from their lives; their superstitions were meaningful because they enhanced happiness. Furthermore, their privation and ceaseless hardship were not sources of wonder or remorse—​they accepted existence as it was. And by accepting existence as it was they accepted its cessation too.