REVELATIONS OF DEATH
agôn megistos kai eschatos taîs psuchaîs prokeitai.
A supreme and final battle awaits the soul.
- PLOTINUS, Enneads I, vi, 7.
THE LAST JUDGMENT
Tolstoy's last works
...orthôs happomenoi philosophias lelęthenai toűs allous, hoti ouden allo epitędeuousin ę apothnęskein te kai tethnanai.
Other men seem not to have noticed that those who truly embrace philosophy concern themselves with nothing else but dying and death.
- PLATO, Phaedo 64 A
Aristotle says somewhere that every one has his own particular world in his dreams, while in his waking state he lives in a world common to all. This statement is the basis, not only of Aristotle's philosophy, but also of all positive scientific philosophy, before and after him. Common sense also looks upon this as an indisputable truth. Can man give up self-evident truth? Certainly not. Nobody, not even God Himself, can ask this of him. Deus impossibile non jubet (God does not ask the impossible). That is a self-evident truth which is admitted equally by common sense, by science, and even by the Catholic Church, impregnated with mysticism though it may be.
But death takes no heed of this. It has its own truths, its own self—evidence, its possibilities and its impossibilities, which do not agree with our ordinary ideas, and which we, therefore, cannot understand. Only a few exceptional men have succeeded, in rare moments of extreme tension and excitement, in hearing and understanding the mysterious language of death. This understanding was given to Tolstoy. What did death reveal to him? What were the impossibilities which were changed into possibilities for him? Death does, as a matter of fact, unlike common sense, demand the impossible of man. In spite of Aristotle, it drags him out of the world common to all. How does this happen? How can the impossible become possible?
Among Tolstoy's posthumous works there is a short, unfinished story called The Diary of a Madman. The subject is very simple. A rich landowner, having learned that an estate was for sale in the province of Penza, makes up his mind to go down, have a look at it and buy it. He is very pleased about it; according to his calculations, he will be able to buy it at a very low figure, almost for nothing. Then, suddenly, one night at an hotel on the way, without any apparent reason, he is seized by a horrible, insufferable anguish. Nothing in his surroundings has changed, nothing new has happened, but until now everything had always inspired him with confidence, everything had seemed to him to be normal, necessary, well - regulated, soothing; he had felt the solid earth beneath his feet and reality on all sides of him. No doubt, no questions! Nothing but answers! Then suddenly, in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, everything is transformed as though by a magic wand. Peace, answers, the solid earth, consciousness of right, and the easy feeling of lightness, simplicity and certainty which springs from this — all suddenly disappear. Around him are nothing but looming questions with their inevitable train of importunate anxiety, of doubt, and senseless, gnawing, invincible terrors. The ordinary means by which these painful thoughts are usually routed are completely ineffectual.
Thus Tolstoy pitilessly strips himself before our eyes. There are few writers who show us truths like these. And if one wants, if one is able to see this truth - for even naked truth is not easy to see - then a whole series of problems arise which are out of all relation with our ordinary thoughts. How are we to apprehend these groundless terrors which so suddenly appeared, red, white, and square? In the world which is common to us all, there is not and cannot be a "suddenly"; there can be no action without a cause. And its terrors are not red, nor white, nor square. What happened to Tolstoy is a challenge to all normal, human consciousness. Now it is Tolstoy who has been suddenly and causelessly seized by terror; tomorrow it may be another, then a third, and one fine day it will be the whole of society, the whole of mankind who will be attacked. If we take seriously what we are told in The Diary of a Madman there is no third alternative; either we must repudiate Tolstoy and cut him off from our midst as lepers and others suffering from contagious diseases were cut off in the Middle Ages; or else, if we consider his experiences justifiable, we must be prepared for others to undergo the same, for the "world common to us all" to fall to pieces and men to begin to live in their own separate worlds, not in dreams but in their waking moments.
- "I tried to think of things which interested me; of the acquisition of the estate, of my wife. Not only did I find nothing pleasant in these thoughts, but they were all as nothing to me. The horror of my wasted life overshadowed everything. I tried to go to sleep. I lay down, but no sooner was I on my bed than terror roused me again. And anxiety! An anxiety like one feels before one is going to be sick, but it was moral. Fear, anguish - we think of death as terrible, but when we look back upon life, it is the agony of life which overwhelms us! Death and life seemed in some way to be confounded with one another. Something tore my existence to rags, and yet could not succeed in tearing it completely. I went once more to look at my fellow-sleepers; I tried again to get to sleep; but terror was ever before me, red, white, and square. Something was tearing, but it still held."
Common sense, and science which derives from it, cannot hesitate for a moment before this dilemma. Tolstoy is in the wrong with his senseless anxieties, his unreasonable terrors, and his mad uncertainty. It is "the world common to us all" which is right, with its solid beliefs, its eternal, satisfying truths, clear, defined, and accessible to all. If the person concerned had not been a world-famous writer, his fate would have been quickly decided; he would have been exiled from society as a dangerous and unhealthy member. But Tolstoy is the pride and glory of Russia; it is impossible to treat him like this. Although what he says appears utterly meaningless and unacceptable, one goes on listening to him, one goes on reckoning with him.
It is beyond question that he is right, not they. All his life Tolstoy was aware that there was something in his soul driving him out of the world common to all. He tells us that it had happened to him before, although not often, to experience crises like that which occurred on the road to Penza. From childhood upwards, he would suddenly find himself overwhelmed on quite trivial occasions by intolerable terrors which would brutally deprive him of all joy in life and of all sense of the normality and natural balance of existence. He would be lying in his bed, warm, comfortable, at rest, thinking idly that all men are good and that they love one another. Suddenly he would hear his nurse and the house steward exchange a few disagreeable words and immediately the whole charm was broken. "I am ill and frightened: I no longer understand anything. Terror, icy terror takes possession of me and I bury my head under the blankets."
- "Today," he continues, "they took me before the provincial council for a mental examination. Opinions were divided. They argued, and finally decided that I was not mad. But that was because I constrained myself not to speak frankly during the medical inspection. I was not frank because I am afraid of the lunatic asylum. I am afraid that there they would not allow me to accomplish my madman's work. They declared that I was subject to fits and other things of the sort, but that I was of sane mind. They certified this, but I know that I am mad."
Another time he saw a little boy being beaten. "I had an attack. I began to sob and for a long time no one was able to console me. Those sobs were the first signs of my madness."
The third attack happened when his aunt told him the story of the Passion of Christ. He wanted to know why Christ had been so tortured. His aunt did not know what to answer. "And once again something took possession of me. I sobbed, I beat my head against the wall."
We have all been present when our neighbours have exchanged high words, we have seen children ill-treated, we have heard and read the story of the suffering of Christ. Tolstoy was not the only one. But no one else, or hardly any one, has reacted so violently, so irresistibly. People weep a little, and then forget; other impressions come to obliterate the first. But it was not given to Tolstoy to forget. The memories of his childhood were deeply graven in his soul, be even seems to have preserved them carefully, like a precious treasure, like Plato's mysterious anamnesis, a vague witness to another, unrealizable existence. And these impressions were waiting for the turn of the wheel when time should bring about their mastery and establish their right.
The pleasures, preoccupations, and all the innumerable business affairs of life naturally distracted Tolstoy's attention from his extraordinary visions for many years. And then, as he tells us, he had an instinctive dread of the madhouse, and an even greater dread of madness, of having to live in his own individual world instead of in the common world. Therefore he made desperate efforts to live like every one else, and to see only what is contained within everyday limits.