Reminiscences of Leo Tolstoy
(c) "Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy", authorized translation from the Russian by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf, B. W. Huebsch, 1920
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[ ... ] All his life he feared and hated death, all his life there throbbed in his soul the "Arsamaxian terror" -- must he die? The whole world, all the earth looks towards him; from China, India, America, from everywhere living, throbbing threads stretch out to him; his soul is for all and forever. Why should not nature make an exception to her law, give to one man physical immortality? Why not? He is certainly too rational and sensible to believe in miracles, but on the other hand he is a bogatyr, an explorer; and, like a young recruit, wild and headstrong from fear, and despair in fact, of the unknown barrack. I remember, in Gaspra he read Leo Shestov's book "Good and Evil in the Teaching of Nietzsche and Tolstoy," and, when Anton Tchekhov remarked that he did not like the book, Tolstoy said: "I thought it amusing. It's written swaggeringly, but it's all right and interesting. I'm sure I like cynics when they are sincere." Then he said: "Truth is not wanted; quite true, what should he want truth for? For he will die all the same."
And evidently seeing that his words had not been understood, he added with a quick smile:
"If a man has learnt to think, no matter what he may think about, he is always thinking of his own death. All philosophers were like that. And what truths can there be, if there is death?"
He went on to say that truth is the same for all -- love of God. But on this subject he spoke coldly and wearily. After lunch on the terrace he took up Shestov's book again and finding the passage: "Tolstoy, Dostoievsky, Nietzsche could not live without an answer to their questions, and for them any answer was better than none," he laughed and said:
"What a daring coiffeur, he says straight out that I deceived myself, and that means that I deceived others too. That is the obvious conclusion . . ."
"Why coiffeur?" asked Suler.
"Well," he answered thoughtfully, "it just came into my mind that he is fashionable, chic, and I remembered the coiffeur from Moscow at a wedding of his peasant uncle in the village. He has the finest manners and he dances fashionably, and so he despises every one."
I repeat this conversation, I think, almost literally; it is most memorable for me, and I even wrote it down at the time, as I did many other things which struck me. Sulerzhizky and I wrote down many things which Tolstoy said, but Suler lost his notes when he came to me at Arsamas; he was habitually careless and although he loved Leo Nikolaevich like a woman, he behaved towards him rather strangely, almost like a superior. I have also mislaid my notes somewhere and can not find them; some one in Russia must have got them. I watched Tolstoy very attentively, because I was looking for -- I am still looking for and will until my death -- a man with an active and a living faith. And also because once Anton Tchekhov, speaking of our lack of culture, complained:
"Goethe's words were all recorded, but Tolstoy's thoughts are being lost in the air. That, my dear fellow, is intolerably Russian. After his death they will all bestir themselves, will begin to write reminiscences, and will lie."
But to return to Shestov. "It is impossible," he says, "to live looking at horrible ghosts, but how does he know whether it's horrible or not? If he knew, if he saw ghosts, he would not write this nonsense, but would do something serious, what Buddha did all his life."
Someone remarked that Shestov was a Jew.
"Hardly," said Leo Nikolaevich doubtfully. "No, he is not like a Jew; there are no disbelieving Jews, you can't name one . . . no."
It seemed sometimes as though this old sorcerer were playing with death, coquetting with her, trying somehow to deceive her, saying: "I am not afraid of thee, I love thee, I long for thee," and at the same time, peering at death with his keen little eyes: "What art thou like? What follows thee hereafter? Wilt thou destroy me altogether, or will something in me go on living?" [ ... ]