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Tolstoy's "Memoirs of a Madman"

Author(s): Leo Shestov and Camilla Coventry

Source: The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 7, No. 20 (Jan., 1929), pp. 465-472
Published by: the Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School of
Slavonic and East European Studies
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4202318 .
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(Two Chapters from The Revelations of Death.)

AMONG the posthumous works of Tolstoy, there is a short,

unfinished story, The Memoirs of a Madman. The subject
is very simple. Having learnt that a property is to be sold in
the government of Penza, a rich landowner goes to the place in
order to look at it and to buy it. He is feeling very pleased;
according to his calculations, he will be able to buy it at a ridic-
ulous price, almost for nothing. But suddenly, on the way,
during a night which he spends at a hotel, without any apparent
reason, he is seized by an agonisingand unbearablepain. Nothing
is changed in his surroundings, nothing new has happened, but
up till now everything has inspired him with confidence, every-
thing seemed to him to be natural, normal, necessary, well-
regulated and satisfying, he felt the solid earth beneath his feet,
and around him-reality. There were neither doubts nor ques-
tions! Nothing but answers. But behold everything is changed,
suddenly, instantaneously, as though a fairy had waved her
wand. The solution of problems, peace, the solid earth, the
knowledge of what was right and the feeling which arises from
it of lightness, simplicity and clearness-all this had disappeared.
He saw nothing around him but formidable questions with their
inevitable, importunate accompaniments of anxiety, doubt, and
unreasoning, gnawing and unconquerable terror. The ordinary
means employed to rid oneself of painful thoughts were completely
"I tried to think about what interested me: about the
acquisition of the property, about my wife. Not only was there
nothing amusing in these subjects, but they had ceased to hold
465 HH
any meaning for me. The horror of my lost existence hid all
these things from me. It was time to sleep. I tried to go to
bed; but hardly had I lain down, than my terror forced me to
rise again. And an anxiety came over me, an anxiety like that
which precedes sickness, but moral! Terror, fear! It seems
as though death were terrible, but when one recollects, when one
thinks of life, it is the agony of life which overwhelmsone. Death
and life seemed in a certain measure to be confounded. Some-
thing was tearing my existence into shreds, but did not succeed
in tearing it altogether. I went to look at the sleepers once
more, I tried again to sleep; but terror was still there, red, white
and square. Something was being torn, but yet it would not
give way."
Thus Tolstoy pitilessly exposes himself before our eyes. Few
writers reveal such truths. And if one desires, if one succeeds
in apprehending this truth-for truth laid bare is not easy to
perceive either-a whole series of problems come into being, out
of all proportion to our normal thoughts. How are we to receive
these terrors which have suddenly appeared, red, white and
square ? In the world which is common to all, there is not and
there cannot be a " suddenly," nor an action without a cause.
And the terrors there are neither white nor red nor square. That
which happened to Tolstoy constitutes a menace to normal,
human consciousness. To-day it is Tolstoy who has been seized
upon by anxiety, suddenly, and without any assignable motive;
to-morrow it will be another, then a third, and one fine day it
will be the whole race, all mankind, which will succumb. If we
seriously admit what we are told in the Memoirs, there is no
other issue: we must either give up Tolstoy, cut him off from
among his fellow-creatures, just as in the middle ages lepers
and those suffering from contagious diseases were sequestered,
or else, if we consider his experience to be legitimate, we must
expect others to undergo the same, and tremble lest the " world
common to all" should fall to pieces, and each individual begin
to live in his own world, not only in his dreams, but also in his
waking hours.
Common sense and the knowledge which has issued from it
cannot hesitate in making its choice. Tolstoy is wrong, with his
causeless anguish, his unreasonable terrors, his foolish restless-
ness. It is the " world which is common to all " which is right,
with its solid beliefs, its eternal truths, sharp and clear, satisfying
and accessible to all. If he had not been such a famous writer,
his fate would have been rapidly sealed: he would have been
banned by society, as a dangerous and unhealthy individual.
But Tolstoy is the pride and glory of Russia: it would be im-
possible to treat him like this; although his words appear to be
devoid of all meaning and quite inacceptable, he is still listened
to, and he even continues to be taken into account.
" To-day, he tells us, I was taken to the provincial council
and made to undergo a mental examination. Opinions were
divided. There was a discussion, but it was finally decided that
I was not mad. But this was because I forced myself not to
speak the truth throughout the doctor's visit. I was not honest
because I was afraid of the asylum, I was afraid that they would
prevent me from accomplishing my work as a madman. They
certified that I was subject to attacks and also other things, but
that I was of sound mind. They certifiedit, but I knowthat I am
It is beyond question that it is not they, but he who is right.
All his life Tolstoy had the feeling that something was forcing
him out of the world which is common to all. He tells us that
it had already happened to him, though only rarely, to undergo
experiences of the same kind as he underwent at Penza. From
childhood, he had felt himself, for the most trivial reasons,
suddenly overwhelmed by a hideous terror which abruptly drove
out all his natural happiness and the feeling of the balance of
existence. He is lying in his bed; he is warm, he is satisfied,
he is at peace, he believes that all men are good and that they
love one another. Suddenly he hears his nurse and the house-
keeper exchanging a few disagreeablewords and behold the charm
vanishes away immediately. " I am ill and I am afraid, I no
longer understand anything. Terror, cold terror takes hold of
me and I bury my head under the bed-clothes."
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 manifestation of my
The third attack occurredwhen his aunt told him the story of
the Passion of Christ. He wanted to know why they had made
Him suffer in that way. His aunt did not know what to answer.
" And again the same feeling took possession of me. I sobbed,
I beat my head against the wall." We have all been present on
the occasion of quarrels between our neighbours, we have seen
children ill-treated, we have read and we have heard the story of
the sufferings of Christ. Tolstoy was not alone in these experi-
ences. But no one, or hardly any one, reacted against these
things as tumultuously, as irresistibly as did Tolstoy. One
weeps and then one forgets; other impressions come which
submerge and dissolve the earlier ones. But it was not given
to Tolstoy to forget. The remembrances of childhood had
anchoredthemselves deeply in his soul; it even seemed as though
he wished to preserve them carefully, like a precious treasure,
like a sort of mysterious Platonic anamnesis, dim witness to
another inconceivable reality. And these impressions wait until
the wheel of time has revolved, to appear as masters and assert
their rights.
Pleasures, preoccupations, all the multifarious business of
existence made Tolstoy forget, it is true, and for many years
turned his attention from his strange visions. And then, as he
tells us himself, he had an instinctive fear of the mad-house,
and he was even more afraid of becoming mad, that is to say, of
having to live in his own particular world, and not in the world
which is common to all. Therefore he made desperate efforts to
live like everyone else, to see things which hold us to the common
The Memoirsof a Madman can be consideredin a certain sense
as Tolstoy's greatest work. If the Memoirshad not been written
by Tolstoy himself, we should certainly have regarded it as a
calumny against him; for we are accustomed to look upon great
men as the incarnation of all the civil, and even the military
virtues. And, moreover,he himself, if anyone had dared a year,
a week, before the outbreak of his " madness," to paint his
existence in the same light as that in which it appears in the
Memoirs,would have been profoundly indignant and would only
have looked upon it as a criminal attack upon his good name.
The most envenomed calumny could not, in fact, have borne
comparisonwith this truth which Tolstoy himself revealed to us.
He wanted to buy a property, he did not wish to pay the right
price for it. He was looking for an imbecile-those are his own
words-who would give him his property for next to nothing,
in order that by selling the timber he might obtain a sufficient
sum to reimbursehim for the purchase of the whole place, which,
by these means, he would have acquired for nothing. Such
" imbeciles " can undoubtedly be found; game will always come
in the way of a good shot. Tolstoy waited patiently: he read
the advertisements, collected information. If God should not
send him an imbecile, he determined to make up for it by exploit-
ing the peasants. He would buy a property in a district 'where
the peasants had not got enough land for their needs; so that he
would be able to get agricultural labour at starvation wages.
It is easy to prove that this story was not a mere fiction, and
that the landowner of whom it speaks is Tolstoy himself. One of
the letters addressed by Tolstoy to his wife, explains the matter
(I, 63); I will quote the whole of it:
"The day before yesterday, I spent the night at Arzamas,
and a most extraordinary thing happened to me. At two o'clock
in the morning, a strange anxiety, a fear, a terror, such as I have
never experienced before, took possession of me. I will tell you
the details later, but I have never known such painful sensations,
and may God preserve others from them. I hastily rose and
gave orders to have the horses put in. . While they were being
harnessed, I fell asleep, and woke'again in a normal state of mind.
Yesterday, the feelings came back, in the course of my journey,
but they were not nearly so strong; I was preparedand I resisted
them, the' more easily as they were weaker than before. To-day
I feel well, and as happy as it is possible to be when away from
you. While I have been on this journey, I have felt for the first
time the full extent of how dear you are to me, you and the
children. I can be alone when I am constantly occupied, as at
Moscow, but directly I have nothing to do, I feel how impossible
it is for me to be alone."
The letter and the Memoirsof a Madman agree down to the
smallest details: the purchase of a property, the journey, the
government of Penza, the town of Arzamas, the recollection of
his wife, the wild unreasoning terror.
It is an old-fashioned custom in literature to show only the
facade of the existence of great men to their readers. The basic
truths are of no use to us; what should we do with them ?
We are convinced that truths are necessary to us, not for their
own sakes, but in as much as they can be useful to us in our
actions. Strakhov adopted this point of view, for example, when
he wrote Dostoyevsky's biography; he acknowledged it himself
in a letter written to Tolstoy, and published in I9I3:
"All the time I was writing, I had to fight against a feeling
of disgust in myself, I tried to stifle my bad feelings. Help me
to get rid of them. I cannot look upon Dostoyevsky as a good
or happy man. He was bad, debauched, full of envy. All his
life he was a prey to passions which would have rendered him

ridiculous and miserable if he had been less intelligent or less

wicked. I was vividly reminded of these feelings, when I was
writing this biography. In Switzerland, in my presence, he
treated his servant so badly, that the man revolted and said to
him: ' But I too am a man ! ' I remember how much I was
struck by these words which reflected the ideas current in free
Switzerland, about the rights of man, and were addressed to one
who was always preaching sentiments of humanity to the rest of
mankind. Such scenes were of constant occurrence,he could not
control his temper. A thousand times I opposed silence to the
insults, with which he would attack me unexpectedly and some-
times indirectly like an old woman; but on one or two occasions
I gave him very disagreeableanswers. However,healways gotthe
better of ordinarypeople; and the worst of it was that he prided
himself on the fact and that he never really repented of his dirty
actions. Dirty actions attracted him, and he gloried in the fact.
Viskovatov (Professor of Yuryev University) told me how he
had boasted of having abused'a little girl, in the bath, who had
been brought to him by her governess. Of all his characters,
those which resemblehim most are the heroes of Notesfrom Under-
ground, Svidrigaylov and Stavrogin. Katkov refused to pub-
lish one of the Stavrogin scenes (rape, etc.), but Dostoiyevsky
read it here to a great number of people. With' all this, he
was given to a sort of mawkish sentimentality, to high-flown
humanitarian dreams, and it is these dreams, his literary message
and the tendency of his writings which endear him to us. In a
word, all these novels endeavour to exculpate their author;
they show that the most hideous villainies can exist in a man side
by side with the noblest sentiments. This is a little commentary
on my biography; I might describe that side of Dostoyevsky's
character; I can call to mind innumerable incidents which are
even more striking than the ones I have already mentioned; my
story would have been more truthful; but let this truthperish;
let us continue to show nothing but the beautifulside of life, as we
always do, on all occasions."

I do not know whether there are many documents of greater

value than this in the whole history of literature. I am not even
sure that Strakhov understood the true significance, the value of
what he acknowledged to Tolstoy. In modern times many
people have affirmedthat lies are better than truth; OscarWilde
and Nietzsche have told us this, and even Pushkin says: " The
lie which helps us to rise is dearer to us than a legion of low
truths!" But they all address themselves to the reader; they
teach. Strakhov makes his confessionvery simply and sincerely,
and this gives great and special meaning to his words. It is
probable that his letter made a great impression on Tolstoy, who
was just then finding the burden of conventional life very hard to
bear, and was consumed with the desire to cleanse himself by a
wholehearted confession. For Tolstoy too was one of the priests
of the magnificent life, and how beautiful and how seductive that
life could be ! Like Strakhov, Tolstoy taught us to show the
beautiful side of life and to hide the truth. He wrote War and
Peace, and Anna Karenina, in which he painted the lives of
country gentlemen in the most glowing colours, and himself
bought land at starvation prices from imbeciles, oppressed the
peasants who were without land, etc. But then all that was
a very different matter-that was reality. All that appeared
legitimate, even sacred, because it served to maintain the world
which is common to us all. If you turn away from that world,
you will be obliged to make a world of your own. This is just
what happened to the hero of the Memoirsof a Madman. He saw
that he had to choose: either his wife and his kindred were right
in attacking his new ideas, and he was really ill and in need of
treatment, or else all mankind were sick and tainted with madness.
This title, the Memoirsof a Madman, sums up, in fact, all that
Tolstoy wrote after he was fifty years of age. And it seems to me
that it was not merely by chance that Tolstoy borrowedthis title
from Gogol. A little girl to whom Gogol's story was read in my
presence, appearedmost surprisedby the fact that Gogol had been
able to describe so minutely the smallest details of the chaotic
state of an unbalanced mind. What, in fact, had this strange
subject, that could attract a young writer ? Why describe chaos
and madness ? How can it affect us that Poprishchin' should
fancy himself to be the king of Spain, that he should fall in love
with the daughter of his chief, etc. ?
It is obvious that the disordered imagination of a madman
did not appear to Gogol to be as absurd, as devoid of all meaning
as it appears to us, just as the world peculiar to this madman did
not appear as unreal to him as it does to us. Poprishchin and
Poprishchin's madness attracted him; the strange world and
the miserable life of his hero had in them something which
fascinated the future author of the Correspondence with his Friends.
Why should he otherwise have concerned himself with the pitiful
absurdity of Poprishchin'sfeelings ? Remember, too, that at this
1 The hero of Gogol's story, The Memoirs of a Madman.

time Gogolwasnot only attractedby the madnessof Poprishchin.

It was at this time that he also wrote Viy, The TerribleVengeance
and The Old-worldLandowners. And it would be wrong to think
that he shows himself as only an impartial observer of the habits
and lives of the people in these books.
The horrible death which wrested Afanassy Ivanovich and
Pulcheria Ivanovna so abruptly from the torpor of their exist-
ence, constantly troubled the imagination of the young Gogol.
It is evident that the mysterious horror of the popular tales and
myths intoxicated him too, that he himself lived in the realm of
the fantastic, as much as in the actual world which is recognised
by all men. The sorcerers, witches and demons, inimitably
painted by him, all the horrors, all the delights which unfold in
the human soul, when it touches the mysteries of another world,
irresistibly attracted Gogol. If one should wish to define Gogol's
secret nature, his essence, and that part of him which was a
stranger to the other, external nature, if, in other words, one
wanted to know where to find the true Gogol, whether in the place
which the history of culture has assigned to him, or in the realms
to which his capricious fancy took him, there would not be
sufficient data at one's command with which to answer these
questions, unless one made up one's mind to trust to one of those
modern theories of knowledge which, following in the footsteps
of Aristotle, have arrogated to themselves the right to define the
boundaries between waking and dreaming, between reality and
imagination. But if one is not of those who blindly believe in
ready-made theories, if one is able to free oneself sometimes, if
only for a moment, from the suggestion of modern ideas, then one
will be less categorical in valuing Gogol's endeavours to paint this
enigmatical reality, which, though inaccessible and held in dis-
repute by theory, is full of seduction. It will then perhaps be
admitted that in Dead Souls Gogol was not trying to reform
manners and customs, but was trying to arrive at a knowledge
of his own destiny and that of humanity. He himself has told
Us, moreover, that his apparent laughter covered unseen tears,
and that when we laugh at Chichikov or at Nozdrev, we are in
reality laughing at their creator.