Feb 16, 2013

Tolstoy and the End of Life

Tolstoy ultimately concluded that authenticity was impossible in life and that only in death could transcendent meaning be found.
Tolstoy with his wife in 1910
As his search for moral truth intensified, Tolstoy moved away from literature -- which, like all stories, was full of lies -- and instead took up moral activism. He wrote pamphlets advocating self-denial, pacifism, and vegetarianism, as well as readers for the peasant children attending a school he had established on his estate. Tolstoy even composed a version of the New Testament, purging it of miracles and retaining only the pure moral instruction. By the time of his death, he had developed a worldwide following, not only for his novels but also for his moral teachings.

As an aristocrat, Tolstoy enjoyed a great many privileges, but he often yearned for a simpler, more genuine existence. What he really wanted to be, especially in his later years, was a peasant, and so he eventually adopted the ways of a peasant, dressing simply and working in the fields. But strive as he might to live like one, the count was no peasant and could never authentically be one. This paradox ate away at Tolstoy and ultimately caused him to despair that he would never find truth in his lifetime. Instead, he came to hope for it in death.

Some of the most powerful moments in Tolstoy's writings concern the end of life. Memorable instances of characters confronting the beyond include a soldier having a final flash of consciousness before being shot down in one of the early Sevastopol stories, Anna Karenina's suicide, and the death of Andrey Bolkonsky in War and Peace. In one of his last works, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), Tolstoy revisits this theme, describing the mundane demise of an all-too-ordinary man, whose life has passed him by almost unnoticed. The process of dying, however, brings him into collision with the meaning of life, stripping away the trifles and practicalities that had busied him previously. Sadly for Ivan Ilych, he must endure his passing alone -- because, although relatives and doctors attend him, these people are largely indifferent to his plight.

In November 1910, Tolstoy set out secretly from his estate, intending never to return (in large part because of his tumultuous relationship with his wife). He didn't get very far, collapsing and dying at a nondescript local train station. He was subsequently buried on his estate in a simple, unmarked grave. (Adapted from ‘The Bedside Baccalaureate’, edited by David Rubel)