A letter from Lev Shestov to his daughters
Translated by Bernard Martin from the French version, Sur la balance de Job, published by Flammarion, Paris, 1971.
It has seemed worthwhile to preface this volume with a letter written by Lev Shestov to his daughters shortly after the publication in Paris, in 1920, of his essay on Tolstoy, "The Last Judgment," in Nos. 1 and 2 of the Russian review "Annales contemporaines" ("Sovremennye Zapiski"). This essay was later included in the first part, entitled "Revelations of Death," of "In Job's Balances".
Geneva, April 13, 1921
"...And now on the subject of my article, it is a question here of the revelation of death. Tolstoy first wrote War and Peace, then "Master and Servant," "The Death of Ivan Ilich," and other short stories. This must not be forgotten. That is to say, it must not be thought that revelation proceeds solely from death. Death is the greatest mystery and the greatest enigma; not without reason has it inspired so many philosophers, artists, and saints. But no lesser are the mystery and enigma of life. And, basically, only he who has passed through life can understand or, more exactly, approach the mystery of death. If Tolstoy had not written War and Peace, he would not have written his last works either. Our reason is directed by nature towards "action," and it is not at all necessary to despise action. Only he who has previously been able to act can give himself over to an active inactivity. Also, it would be a great mistake to deduce from "revelations of death" rules of life. The essential thing, precisely, consists in not deducing, that is to say, in being able to grasp life in its totality with all its irreconcilable contradictions. Ivan Ilich, at the hour of death, judges his previous life severely, but his judgment does not mean that this life had absolutely no value.
When the infant grows up, he is no longer attracted by his mother's breast, but it would not be natural if, from the first day, he rejected it. When we ascend a staircase we leave behind the lower step in passing to the higher, but previously the lower one was before us. This must not be forgotten; otherwise, one will obtain exactly the opposite of what he would have wished to obtain - this is to say, in place of a complete, living knowledge, a truncated, abstract knowledge. This is what sometimes happened to Tolstoy when, in his so-called "philosophical" works, he attempted to show life as proceeding from a single principle that he called "the good." That is not right. That is, men cannot unify in their human language all that they live through and feel in such a way that it can be expressed by a single word or single concept. It is a great art, a difficult art, to be able to keep oneself from the exclusivism toward which we are unconsciously drawn by our language and even by our thought, which is educated by language.
That is why we cannot limit ourselves to a single writer. We must always keep our eyes opened. There is death and its horrors. There is life and its beauties. Remember what we saw in Athens. Remember the Mediterranean, what you saw during our excursions in the mountains, or again at the Louvre. Beauty is also a source of revelation. And even the revelation of death is finally only the search, beyond the apparent horrors of decomposition and the end, of the principles of a new beauty. It is true that often the writer is so profoundly immersed in the disquietude of being that he does not manage, even in his best works, to exhaust all that there is to say or to see. But in Tolstoy, just as in Plato and Plotinus, the thought of death is accompanied by a particular sentiment, by a kind of consciousness that, even while horror rose before them, wings were growing in their backs. Probably something similar happens with the chrysalis when it begins to gnaw at its cocoon. It gnaws because it is growing wings. Thus neither the works of Tolstoy nor those of Plato or Plotinus should be interpreted as a call to forget life. To be sure, anyone finding himself in the state of Ivan Ilich judges many things differently from others. But he does not turn away from life. I would say, rather, that he learns to appreciate many things that were formerly matters of indifference to him.
Previously, cards and comfort seemed to him to be the sum of what one could attain; advancement in his work and the possession of an apartment similar to that of everyone else appeared to be the ideal of his situation in the "world." He perceived neither the sun nor the sky; he saw nothing in life, although it was all there before his eyes. And when death came, he understood suddenly that he had seen nothing, as if nothing existed in life beyond cards, advancement, and comfort. All that he had been able to see of truth, he had seen during his childhood, his youth; then he had forgotten it, employing all his powers only in not being himself but in being like "everyone." So the revelation of death is not a negation of life but, on the contrary, an affirmation - an affirmation, however, of something other than the habitual "rat-race" by which men allow themselves to be taken."
Here we find again the same preoccupations as those expressed through all the work of Shestov, and especially in the first books and articles published in French: "The Conquest of the Self-Evident," an essay commissioned by "La Nouvelle Revue Francaise" in 1921, on the occasion of the centenary of Dostoevsky's birth; "Gethsemane Night" (a study of Pascal), "Revelations of Death" (a volume combining "The Conquest of the Self-Evident" and "The Last Judgment"), "Children and Stepchildren of Time" (Descartes and Spinoza), all of which figure in the present volume.
On this first contact, the French public found itself directly confronted with the chief problems of the Shestovian philosophy, with the moments of supreme tension of being, where the latter transcends its proper limits, when it feels "wings growing in its back," and - even if it be only for a brief moment - perceives, beyond appearances, the "revelations" of life and of death.