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.

IV.
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

Best Novel – Sarah Perry

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I have nothing but admiration and awe for Sarah Perry. There are so many highlights I could spoil the entire book but instead I’ll share the most poignant part.

One of the characters is depicted sharpening a pencil with a razor and an almost tangible memory of my Grandad burst from the page. I remember he always had a pencil sharpened this way. It also made me remember the old, battered suitcase, full of felt pens and pencils that were kept for all the grandkids to use. I don’t know what happened to that. Thanks for the memory, Sarah. It makes the book so much more for me.

Best Adventure – Matthew Reilly

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What a wild ride! This book is so much fun. Anyone who has read Reilly’s earlier work will have an idea of what to expect. For anyone reading Reilly for the first time, you’re in for a blast. Think Hollywood blockbuster for the page.

What surprises me is how many negative reviews for The Great Zoo of China appear on Goodreads. Seriously, what do people want? Most of the criticisms are shallow and snobby and I’m really shocked. Reilly even says, to paraphrase, he wants readers to enjoy his books and have a good time, which I did. I can understand people might find some of the elements cliched but so are a lot of books – think stereotypical Mills and Boon, half the fantasy I see being published or the young adult, I need to have a boyfriend to be a real girl, garbage, Walking Dead or half the dreck out of Hollywood lately. If these are the dominating books on your shelves, you will never convince me your argument is valid. Never. Ever.

Suspend your disbelief, go with the flow and enjoy yourself.

Most Beautiful – Billy Coffey

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Allie Granderson, 12 years old, and her best friend Zach go in search of her mother who disappeared during a tornado five hundred and forty three days ago. The first thing you learn about Allie is she’s independent, head strong and in some ways, older than her years.

It is actually quite difficult to write a review for this book because it so different from what I usually find myself reading and because it was nice. Nice is also an inadequate word because whatIn the Heart of the Dark Woods proves is that there are writers who can tell a story that is reliant on skill and talent rather than built on shocks and vulgarity. Do not misunderstand me, I also like these books but occasionally, it is a pleasure to step away from them.

The strength of the characters in this book and the imagery used to portray them are so stark and vivid. Coffey describes the desolation and the cold and the pains of the children’s bodies and all of the elements feel so real. There are moment in the book where I sighed aloud in frustration and disappointment as something went wrong for Allie and Zach.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to reset the reading button in their heart and soul.

There’s so much you can know and so much more you can’t and that’s why God has sharp edges. Hug Him anyway. A life with pain means more than a life without it.