Thursday, September 3, 2020

Tolstoy's A Confession

As a free thinker, I've hesitated to delve too deeply into Tolstoy's religious writing for fear of undermining my love of his novels.  However, the excellent novel, Resurrection, helped me to understand that his secular and religious writings are not so far apart as they first appear.  Tolstoy's short tract, A Confession, seems much less "religious" than one might expect it to be.  Instead, the long essay has a philosophical tone, and is relatively free of mysticism or theology or even religious fervor.  It's a biographical exploration that is not unlike the kind of exploration Tolstoy makes when analyzing his characters' complex, mercurial, and layered decisions.  A Confession also bears similarities to Tolstoy's What is Art? in that it often seems more of an intellectual exercise in rational analysis that any kind of investigation of a supernatural force.  When reading Tolstoy biographies, the two periods of his life seem sharply divided.  In the first part of his life, Tolstoy sins and then writes a series of brilliant novels.  In the second part of his life, he repents and pens a series of didactic and/or religious tracts.  However, A Confession seems to suggest that Tolstoy's signature and quasi-religious self-doubt is the source of his genius as a novelist, and his intellectualism and rationalism the source of his creative power as a religious thinker.  Tolstoy's plays also seem to suggest an absence of a divide between the two halves of Tolstoy's life, since even deeply religious themes turn into abstractly philosophical moral dilemmas.  Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised: I've always speculated that the best religious thinkers have much more in common with the best atheist thinkers than they do with the majority of men and women who lead the Church, Mosque, and Synagogue. 

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