Chapter 4 from “A Confession” by Leo Tolstoy

Sometimes you read something that is challenging, painful and profound and you just have to share it. Take five minutes to engage with this chapter and maybe realise that we’ve all been in this position at some time.

My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I desired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfill my desires I should not have know what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a delusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death – complete annihilation.

It had come to this, that I, a healthy, fortunate man, felt I could no longer live: some irresistible power impelled me to rid myself one way or other of life. I cannot say I *wished* to kill myself. The power which drew me away from life was stronger, fuller, and more widespread than any mere wish. It was a force similar to the former striving to live, only in a contrary direction. All my strength drew me away from life. The thought of self-destruction now came to me as naturally as thoughts of how to improve my life had come formerly. and it was seductive that I had to be cunning with myself lest I should carry it out too hastily. I did not wish to hurry, because I wanted to use all efforts to disentangle the matter. “If I cannot unravel matters, there will always be time.” and it was then that I, a man favoured by fortune, hid a cord from myself lest I should hang myself from the crosspiece of the partition in my room where I undressed alone every evening, and I ceased to go out shooting with a gun lest I should be tempted by so easy a way of ending my life. I did not myself know what I wanted: I feared life, desired to escape from it, yet still hoped something of it.

And all this befell me at a time when all around me I had what is considered complete good fortune. I was not yet fifty; I had a good wife who lived me and whom I loved, good children, and a large estate which without much effort on my part improved and increased. I was respected by my relations and acquaintances more than at any previous time. I was praised by others and without much self- deception could consider that my name was famous. And far from being insane or mentally diseased, I enjoyed on the contrary a strength of mind and body such as I have seldom met with among men of my kind; physically I could keep up with the peasants at mowing, and mentally I could work for eight and ten hours at a stretch without experiencing any 3 ill results from such exertion. And in this situation I came to this – that I could not live, and, fearing death, had to employ cunning with myself to avoid taking my own life.

My mental condition presented itself to me in this way: my life is a stupid and spiteful joke someone has played on me. Though I did not acknowledge a “someone” who created me, yet such a presentation – that someone had played an evil and stupid joke on my by placing me in the world – was the form of expression that suggested itself most naturally to me.

Involuntarily it appeared to me that there, somewhere, was someone who amused himself by watching how I lived for thirty or forty years: learning, developing, maturing in body and mind, and how, having with matured mental powers reached the summit of life from which it all lay before me, I stood on that summit – like an arch-fool – seeing clearly that there is nothing in life, and that there has been and will be nothing. And *he* was amused. …

But whether that “someone” laughing at me existed or not, I was none the better off. I could give no reasonable meaning to any single action or to my whole life. I was only surprised that I could have avoided understanding this from the very beginning – it has been so long known to all. Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort? … How can man fail to see this? And how go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.

There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveller overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes s twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon’s jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them.

So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the unescapable dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. and this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all.

The deception of the joys of life which formerly allayed my terror of the dragon now no longer deceived me. No matter how often I may be told, “You cannot understand the meaning of life so 4 do not think about it, but live,” I can no longer do it: I have already done it too long. I cannot now help seeing day and night going round and bringing me to death. That is all I see, for that alone is true. All else is false.

The two drops of honey which diverted my eyes from the cruel truth longer than the rest: my love of family, and of writing – art as I called it – were no longer sweet to me.

“Family”…said I to myself. But my family – wife and children – are also human. They are placed just as I am: they must either live in a lie or see the terrible truth. Why should they live? Why should I love them, guard them, bring them up, or watch them? That they may come to the despair that I feel, or else be stupid? Loving them, I cannot hide the truth from them: each step in knowledge leads them to the truth. And the truth is death.

“Art, poetry?”…Under the influence of success and the praise of men, I had long assured myself that this was a thing one could do though death was drawing near – death which destroys all things, including my work and its remembrance; but soon I saw that that too was a fraud. It was plain to me that art is an adornment of life, an allurement to life. But life had lost its attraction for me, so how could I attract others? As long as I was not living my own life but was borne on the waves of some other life – as long as I believed that life had a meaning, though one I could not express – the reflection of life in poetry and art of all kinds afforded me pleasure: it was pleasant to look at life in the mirror of art. But when I began to seek the meaning of life and felt the necessity of living my own life, that mirror became for me unnecessary, superfluous, ridiculous, or painful. I could no longer soothe myself with what I now saw in the mirror, namely, that my position was stupid and desperate. It was all very well to enjoy the sight when in the depth of my soul I believed that my life had a meaning. Then the play of lights – comic, tragic, touching, beautiful, and terrible – in life amused me. No sweetness of honey could be sweet to me when I saw the dragon and saw the mice gnawing away my support. 

Nor was that all. Had I simply understood that life had no meaning I could have borne it quietly, knowing that that was my lot. But I could not satisfy myself with that. Had I been like a man living in a wood from which he knows there is no exit, I could have lived; but I was like one lost in a wood who, horrified at having lost his way, rushes about wishing to find the road. He knows that each step he takes confuses him more and more, but still he cannot help rushing about.

It was indeed terrible. And to rid myself of the terror I wished to kill myself. I experienced terror at what awaited me – knew that that terror was even worse than the position I was in, but still I could not patiently await the end. However convincing the argument might be that in any case some vessel in my heart would give way, or something would burst and all would be over, I could not patiently await that end. The horror of darkness was too great, and I wished to free myself from it as quickly as possible by noose or bullet. that was the feeling which drew me most strongly towards suicide.

Read More about Tolstoy and his spiritual writings


In Review – January 2017



I’m not entirely sure how we’re already at the end of January (obviously, I know it’s the cycle of days but there must have been a few missing?)

January started the year well but it is also the month I started reading Anna Karenina and I have a feeling not much more will be read until mid to late February. I knew that reading classic literature and histories would slow me down this year and I’ve adjusted my Goodreads goal accordingly.

What can I say about this group of books?

Bleak House is simply superb. I adore Miss Summerson. Lady Deadlock is intriguing. Mr Guppy is a fawning fool and Mr Tulkinghorn is delightfully wicked. I know he’s essentially ‘the bad guy’ but I can’t help but like him. Dickens is a master of the craft – a book of this length, without all our modcons and phone apps, created entirely from his enormous brain and more than likely, copious notes. I am in awe of him that he managed to keep the narrative flowing and interesting and didn’t give the reader any information or instruction that wasn’t one hundred percent necessary.

One Day in France was interesting in a different way. Partly, I think, because it didn’t need to be an entire book. Jean-Marie Borzeix has written a fascinating family history of a town during WWII, however, it could really have been a slightly better edited essay in a history magazine or a journal. It felt like a stretch needing to have it produced as a book. This is in no way meant to detract from the story he tells. Those of us who are also keen on family history will share his excitement at meeting individuals connected to our own tree and also individuals connected to other trees you’ve been distracted by. It is truly a fascinating read.

The Simple Act of Reading is also falls into the ‘not necessarily an entire book’ category. The book is a series of short essays by Australian authors and describes the way they remember becoming a reader. Individually, their stories are fascinating. As a whole book, they’re a little monotonous. Had they appeared in a national magazine, newspaper or international blog site, it would have made more sense. I would recommend this book but it is one to dip in and out of, rather than consume in one sitting.

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. I still think about it now, nearly two or three weeks later. If you haven’t read it and want something a little creepy before bedtime, this is my recommendation.

Magna Carter by David Starkey was a random selection one weekend at the library. I had only gone in to return a couple of books but as usually happens, left with a few more finds in my bag. For anyone who doesn’t know much about Magna Carter, this is a great starting point. Starkey breaks the history of the document down to focus only on the period it was written in. He introduces you to King John and the rebel barons and links them to the Pope and France and makes the relevance of the document clear. I’m not convinced it’s as important as some historians make out but the world would be a very different place if we didn’t have it. The only problem with the book is that it feels as though the editing was rushed. There are sentences that suffer from strange structuring and a lack of punctuation. If you ignore this though, which on some pages is easier said than done, you’ll understand a period of English history a little better.

Average rating for the month 3.6