Leo Tolstoy and the Origins of Spiritual Memoir

Thomas Larson evaluates the spiritual and artistic innovation of “Confession” by Leo Tolstoy.

Leo Tolstoy and the Origins of Spiritual Memoir


TWO THINGS ARE TRUE about Leo Tolstoy in 1879. First, he had mostly given up on fiction, having published his two titanic novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The latter book exhausted him physically and morally: not long after its appearance, he termed his saga of adultery “an abomination.” He found novel writing to be a poor substitute for confronting religious issues and his existential lot. Second, because of his early literary acclaim and the immoral lifestyle it had spawned and enabled, he was miserable. He was so ashamed of himself that post-Karenina his ambivalent atheism collapsed and he sought a new relationship to the “truth.” He abdicated the throne of novelist and took up the mantle of religious critic — on the side of Christianity and against it.

Raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, Tolstoy lost his religion at 18. After a life of debauchery, in his early 50s, he wanted religion — or some source of intellectual security — back. In 1882, he published his Confession, a retrospective analysis of the previous five years in which his midlife crisis of faith unbalanced his literary and philosophical bearing. It is among the oddest of Christian tell-alls, a treatise searching for its own focal truth. Throughout, he hungers for spiritual fortitude: “Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?” Readers note that the title has no “a” or “the” attached. (There are no articles in Russian, but this particular absence in English is meaningful.) The singular noun by itself emphasizes its currency.

Early on in the book, he asserts, in defiance, that “Christian teaching plays no part in life; one never comes across it in one’s relations with others and one never has to deal with it in one’s own life.” He pegs believers as “stupid, cruel, and immoral people who think themselves very important.” He tags unbelievers as the finest people he knows: they have “[i]ntelligence, honesty, uprightness, goodness of heart, and morality.” He renounces religion in favor of “reading and thinking” — in essence, reason — and recalls that five years prior “my only real faith […] was a faith in self-perfection.”

Of course, reason means progress, and progress, for an egoist like Tolstoy, entails an unchecked liberality in one’s behaviors. At this, the young Tolstoy, an aristocrat and braggart, more than excelled. Here’s part of his resume:

I killed people in war, I challenged people to duels in order to kill them, I lost at cards, I consumed the labor of peasants, I punished them, I fornicated, I deceived. Lies, theft, adultery of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder. … There was no crime I did not commit, and for all this my contemporaries praised me and thought me a relatively moral man, as they still do.

But the hyper-observant and self-obsessed Tolstoy suffers, despite his ego, a debilitating paranoia. He believes that people ridicule him because of his alcoholic, adulterous, and arrogant excesses. He has often imagined he’s dying: the darkness is drawing close, and he must find a purpose, because soon, for him, “nothing will remain but stink and worms.” (The death-obsessed Russian lived another 30 years after Confession.) At times, despair clings to his words like a rose vine: “You can only live as long as you’re drunk with life; but when you sober up, you can’t help but see that all this is just a fraud, and a stupid fraud. Precisely that: there’s nothing even amusing or witty about it; it’s simply cruel and stupid.” He says he doesn’t know why the universe exists. He is tortured by the question. He wants it answered; he can’t bear living in an untended and unintended cosmos.

By mid-book, Tolstoy’s searching starts to change — not just his focus but his sensibility. To unburden his longing, he quotes Bible passages, an Indian sage, and nuggets from the saints and the martyrs, honoring what he said earlier were useless “teachings of faith.” He wonders if to feel secure all we need is the wisdom of the ancients. These teachings have, he argues, lasted this long. His disclosures work him into a lather, and he declares that a pure belief in reason, without room for God as ultimate mystery, leads to insanity and suicide. A worrywart, Tolstoy plunges on with the tone of a querulous depressive. Moreover, he shifts, as it suits his gain, the blame for who should tow his anguish: from pagan nihilists to scientific rationalists to Orthodox dogmatists to jurisprudent bureaucrats — these last, the Ivan Ilyiches of the world. The only blameless one, he decides, is he who lives as Jesus lived. And yet, he counters, who can? It’s impossible.

Tolstoy decides that no faith is truer than the Christian peasant’s, whose “irrational knowledge” paves the road to happiness. Irrational knowledge is faith, he posits. Peasants should know. They are (though he aspires to join up, Tolstoy is definitely not one of them) the “great mass of people, the whole of mankind” — the nonindividuated mass, whom he lauds but who also rise, in his characterization, no higher than type. Uniformly, he writes in Chapter VIII, they believe God is “one and three,” father, son, spirit, “creation in six days, devils and angels and everything I couldn’t accept as long as I didn’t go mad.” That odd admission, with its tortuous grammar and emphatic final clause — as long as I didn’t go mad — is a performative leap away from his natural inclinations. He needs to believe something that transcends his inherent, incessant self-questioning, and he decides to do so. For him, peasant certainty is true because he, the great literary arbiter of truth, has arrived at it, not because Christianity has told him to accept it.


Thus, with a thunderclap, Tolstoy’s short and intensely self-defensive polemic turns into a classic Christian conversion story, worthy of Augustine’s tale of tribulation. After weighing all the possibilities, mad or not, Tolstoy drapes the crucifix around his neck. As one of his best biographers, Martine de Courcel, writes, he has, rather Christianly, “admitted his sins and proclaimed his faith.” Saved, he declares that his actions from now on will embody his intentions — he will attend church, participate in sacraments, live frugally, leave his bourgeois habits, love God and peasant equally.

But wait. Opening faith’s creaking door hardly calms his restlessness. Though Tolstoy says he erred “not so much because I thought wrongly as because I lived badly,” the insight is not enough. He cannot settle his thoughts. Try as he might, Tolstoy, a self-cleansing fanatic, cannot rid himself of his deviant past or his disputatious nature. He can neither forgive himself nor stop analyzing the demands of Christian belief. As long as he keeps writing pages, he’s not sure about Christ as savior or about divine intervention. His belief demands more and more tuning.

The faith wedge splits him in two, before and after this, his so-called religious rebirth. Without God, Tolstoy has lived a life of pain and deceit. He declares he is now, with God, living a life free from such pain. But that’s too easy. Resolving each query brings another, and each time he squirms. De Courcel faults him. She writes that in “abandoning the dogmas of the Church, he thought he was freeing himself; in fact, he was about to become captive to the dogmas of his own making.” This is Tolstoy, the self-disappointment artist, his pattern, his personality. He confesses and converts — that is, he purifies religion down to what he finds valuable and cries, “Eureka!” But then he admits, often right away, that the conversion’s center cannot hold. Statement and counterstatement cancel each other out.

I think the critical point here is that “the dogmas of [our] own making” come to writers because personal writing is testimony — what I affirm or doubt can become as scriptural as a so-called sacred text. The problem with religious autobiography before Tolstoy is that it had to be based on Biblical reasoning (alas, not a clear field of study) and, apparently, required the author’s God-directed epiphany mid-confession. And yet almost all autobiographers of faith after Count Leo realize they are primarily writers of personal, not religious, revelation.

The final five chapters of Confession embroil us in his hemming-and-hawing conversion and deconversion. Tolstoy sides with Christianity only to oppose it, again and again, the combat all his, faith dispersing like a noble gas — free, loose, unbonded. What’s remarkable in Tolstoy is not his conversion but the way he evaluates his confession while he’s confessing.

Tolstoy’s energy comes from his questions, which often crowd out or undermine his answers. His telling has power, though it’s not the power we get from the dramatic narrative of a novel or a contemporary memoir. It’s something else. There’s little attempt in Confession to show action or deed, no scenes, no reportage, no exchanges with others, and few stories. Analysis trumps narrative. And yet it’s not all rhetoric. There is a dialectic — a reasoned discussion in which Tolstoy debates himself. What’s going on is a mélange of preaching virtues to the reader and arguing vices with himself, the self who can’t figure out what he should believe.


To illustrate his mastery of fictional drama, consider Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, written just after Confession. The character of Ilyich comes vividly to life via thought and action: we hear about the offstage pettiness of his family and the bureaucratic sycophants who eagerly await his death and we participate in moments of tenderness between him and a loyal, pure-hearted peasant during Ilyich’s final months. For the most intense scenes, we’re inside Ilyich’s head as he seethes and self-deludes, undone by his illness and repulsed by his approaching death. Nothing tempers his fervid anxiety:

He wept for his helplessness, for his horrible loneliness, for people’s cruelty, for God’s cruelty, for God’s absence.

“Why have you done all this? Why have you brought me here? Why, why do you torment me so horribly?”

He didn’t expect an answer, but he also wept because there wasn’t and couldn’t be an answer. The pain increased again but he didn’t move or call anyone. He said to himself, “More, go on, beat me! But why? What have I done to you, why?”

The message is that fiction like Ivan Ilyich possesses a verisimilitude to life we recognize and an actual character who breaks down and dies, slowly, through story-time, while the nonfiction Confession shapes the verisimilitude of thought, the analytical riding on didactic summary and blatant assertion. Both types of writing (they can be equally emotional and purgative) feel necessary from Tolstoy — while exhausting one form, he seems to invite the other.

Narrative is what I find missing in Confession, scenes and torments from Tolstoy’s life, which, of course, got into his fiction and which, for better or worse, I’ve grown accustomed to reading in the contemporary memoir. If only he had shown us the depth of his suicidal despair, the effect on himself and others when he cheated them in gambling, when he felt hollowed out by his adultery (“of every kind”), when he killed a man in a duel — in short, narrative drama might have been more persuasive than exposition. As a result, we might have sympathized with the moral disease he suffers in Confession — as we do with Ivan Ilyich. (And as we do with Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov.) I sympathize not with the meaning of Ilyich’s struggle; I sympathize with the felt struggle itself. For example, in a moment of physical pain (he doesn’t know he has cancer), he says:

It’s not a case of the appendix or of the kidney, but of life … and death. Yes, I had life and now it’s passing, passing, and I can’t hold it back. That’s it. Why deceive oneself. Isn’t it obvious to everyone but myself that I am dying, and it’s only a question of the number of weeks, days — maybe now.

I feel the fact of Ilyich’s dying terrorize him. And that terror expresses itself, in Tolstoy’s handling, as a contentious belief Ilyich cannot shake. As long as we are alive, death cannot transform us. There is no death, an idea Tolstoy or any of us want to believe. It doesn’t matter that we are deceiving ourselves; we need to avoid death’s psychic pain. But Ilyich is bursting with psychic pain. So, too, we feel, is Tolstoy himself. Religions say there’s no end, but we know there is. Despite our belief in a resurrected Christ and the immortality we are promised, the sight of death insists that death is final. Tolstoy refused to mute the existential turmoil of his literary character. And if Ilyich couldn’t settle that turmoil, neither could Tolstoy. His way forward was to shift forms and go deeper in his next venture, a play, The Power of Darkness.


The more I study Confession, the more apparent Tolstoy’s conflicts become. (He becomes less a religious author than a spiritual one — less dogmatic and more interesting to read as he interrogates his leaky faith.) On one hand, I could fault Tolstoy, in this book, for abandoning the drama of narrative propulsion. On the other hand, I recognize the book he has written represented a major risk: to argue for uncertainty and identify faith-based deception in oneself and in the state was apostasy.

Several examples nail this yes/but rhetoric of Tolstoy’s bristling hostility: “To comprehend the truth one must not stand apart, and in order not to stand apart one must love and accept what one may not agree with”; “In the Mass the most important words for me were: ‘Let us love one another of one mind …’ The following words, ‘We believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,’ I omitted because I could not understand them”; “How often I envied the peasants for their illiteracy and lack of education. The statements of faith, which for me produced nonsense, for them produced nothing false.” And,

[T]he more I began to be imbued with these truths [Christian dogma] I was studying and the more they became the foundation of my life, the more burdensome and painful these conflicts became and the sharper became the dividing line between what I didn’t understand and what couldn’t be understood except by lying to myself.

We hear an almost effortless aversion to faith in these quotations (truths are “conflicts”). We also hear (“except by lying to myself”) how much the Orthodox Church, whose religious audacities are “interwoven by the thinnest of threads with lies,” repulses him.

Indeed, in the final pages of Confession, Tolstoy states that those “teachings of faith,” which have enraged him and to which he has submitted, cannot be true. “But where did the falsehood come from,” he writes, “and where did the truth come from? Both falsehood and truth had been handed down by what is called the church. Both falsehood and truth are contained in tradition, in the so-called sacred tradition and holy writ.” The only alternative is to drop out of organized religion, which Tolstoy will do, while his anti-Orthodox screeds will mount up — another way was via the privately circulating book A Criticism of Dogmatic Theology — before the church excommunicates him in 1901.

In 2013, Peter Carson’s translations of Confession and The Death of Ivan Ilyich were published in one volume, from which I’ve been quoting. In her introduction, Mary Beard raises the problem any life-writer faces when her subject is turning personal faith into textual description. “[A]utobiography is never quite transparent,” Beard writes, “and […] first-person spiritual memoirs are always partly constructions — retrospective and simplifying fictions imposed on the confusing stream of memories and on intellectual doubts and dilemmas.” That’s true of any memoir: the writing subdues and revamps the rawness of life. Beard’s view, however, doesn’t capture the unique quality of Tolstoy’s work. With Tolstoy, the core story is his confusion, his grappling with what’s unresolved, his placing “doubts and dilemmas” at the center of his soul’s inquiry. He’s trying not to simplify or fictionalize his faith-crumbling point of view: he is confessing the trauma of his spiritual crisis. That’s why he’s writing. This is nothing like Augustine’s hang-ups with sin, which in the Confessions lead him shamefully and self-loathingly to accede to God’s plan. If anything, Tolstoy is contending with his own unexamined life in Christianity, and it’s that which is making him so ornery or, if you like, a nonfictional Tolstoyan character.

The real issue, I think, is rhetorical: how does one persuade others of what one believes without listing unevidenced expository statements, whether agnostic or affirmed, which end up sounding simplistic, though they may not be simplistic at all? I like Robert Jensen’s tack in Arguing for Our Lives: “[W]hile faith experiences can be described to others, and patterns in faith experiences can be evaluated, a faith experience is not evidence in the sense we use that term in intellectual life — it can’t be replicated or presented to others to examine.” Faith is opinion, not fact. It is wished for, not verified. Christ was born of a virgin, did not die, and was resurrected? Just believe it. Once you do, these feel like facts, making emotional sense. Imagine there’s a videotape of the resurrection, for instance. We see the body, soul on board, leave the tomb together; the soul’s separation comes in a later “Caught on Camera” moment. But there isn’t any videotape — which is the point. There is only the scriptural claim. It’s why there’s only a scriptural claim. If you accept it, you accept two things: one, that the Immaculate Conception “can’t be replicated or presented to others to examine,” and two, such a truth is wholly a province of text.

Which, again, is not fact. But a reader and writer like Tolstoy or like us is highly susceptible to believing it, because it is written down — and to disbelieving it or, at least, questioning it, by way of the very writing with which we interrogate the validity of beliefs in the first place.

Testaments of common faith, ritualized in human ceremony and endowed in textual statements, take on the strange actuality of a religious experience. Thus, one’s doctrine can be one’s experience. Muslims need only say, “There is only one God and Allah is his name,” and you’re in. Christians need to say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is my personal savior,” and you’re in. What are you “in”? You are in the secure club of the people who have asserted the creed. In fact, the most secure bond of the tribe is its reliance on religious language. In Confession, Tolstoy’s great insight is that when he himself had to assert Orthodox creeds, he couldn’t turn such statements into religious experience. He couldn’t suspend his disbelief. He had to speak out and write against any dogma he couldn’t practice. Exploring the enigma of religious language — that what you say is true because you assert it and you believe it — led Tolstoy to, in a sense, give up on literature, though not entirely. Fiction couldn’t assuage his spiritual dryness. But anti-religious and pro-spiritual polemics, his forte as a writer for the rest of his life, offered a tonic to the most vexatious questions about how to live.


Here’s the writerly difference between Augustine and Tolstoy, separated by more than 14 centuries: Augustine exsanguinates his body of sin until he aligns with Christian teaching, over-loathing himself to be overcompensated by God’s love. Tolstoy wrestles with Christian discourse and rejects much of it in favor of his own salvational plan. He will be a better man when he serves the poor, abnegates attachment, and adopts peasant deprivations, many abject, some unattainable — but so be it. These values culminate in one that he himself creates: spiritual self-reliance. Though he’s salvaged Christ’s call to social justice, Tolstoy is convinced that he is the originator of his post-Christian beliefs. If others follow suit, they often do so because of the writer’s textual prowess. It is an odd by-product of any religious confession — the idea that autobiographers are promulgating a reformed path for likeminded readers or adepts (think Gandhi or Deepak Chopra) because they themselves have refined the faith, made it more workable in the contemporary world.

For life-writers, Tolstoy offers existential scrutiny of religion; like Kierkegaard, he is a pioneer in this “field.” He rejects the package: a church, a religion, and the political system that underpins it. His is a writerly means to spiritual understanding: the author, ever-free, ever-seeking, ever-burdening himself, denies that any other source can change him. In effect, he spiritualizes himself. As such, Tolstoy births a primitive or nascent or proto-subgenre of the memoir, life-writing whose purpose is to lead the self away from its own and the world’s deceptions. The self on the page knows. Sometimes that self knows best. Not God. Not Jesus. Not the Bible. Not the clergy. The “I” I create via the writing.

Perhaps, you say, this skirts history and community and tradition, and thus is deeply flawed. But the authority of religious autobiography would need no Tolstoyan reformation had the form ensouled the values of the writer’s inner authority. Today, with the memoir explosion and its focus on narrative self-disclosure (mixing strategies of scenic fiction with those of nonfiction discourse), we have new ways for autobiographers to enact their religious and spiritual quandaries. There are more than just formal reasons for this change.

In one sense, Tolstoy’s imperative-driven form — listen to me confess — has had scant legacy, if any at all, in European and American literature. For the most part, literary writers have found religious confession irrelevant — because most writers and artists of the past century and a half have viewed Christian life, belief, and tradition as unrewarding, to say the least. Excepting the (very) Catholic Thomas Merton and the pan-religionist Alan Watts, in the United States we’ve had few writerly souls bent by the ferocity of a Leo Tolstoy. Indeed, some of the best writing on religion and spirituality has been unrelentingly critical or disestablishing of traditional faith. While beloved, C. S. Lewis’s many books on Christianity, including his religious autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955), are works of pious Christianity, which is, in many ways, a ship that has sailed into the sunset. Much to Lewis’s consternation, the foundational writers of the last two centuries — Paine, Whitman, Freud, Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, Twain, Russell, Camus — have been anti-religious or nonreligious in the extreme. Despite Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Marilynne Robinson, and Anne Lamott in the United States and Roger Scruton and Don Cupitt in England, Christian themes are moribund, like coal deposits in Wyoming. There but unexcavated.

In our time, spiritual and nonreligious memoirists embrace doubt and disbelief. For them, remaining in doubt is not a hostile act, but a way to unlock the numinous, parlay the transcendent, in the writing life of the author. This would not be incongruent to Tolstoy, who, for the most part, killed off the religious autobiography. For contemporary writers, the spiritual is that which wrestles itself free from religion to become an act of self-reclamation, and perhaps of cultural reclamation as well. Each body that comes into the world comes in with a soul, intact. An Edenic unity. Under no prior system. Despite the parents’ wishes or those of the state. What is the moral geography of this individual’s inner life? That’s the door in each of us Tolstoy pushed open.


Critic, memoirist, and essayist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. Larson teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.

LARB Contributor

Thomas Larson is a 20-year staff writer for the San Diego Reader, the author of four books (one on music: The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”), former music critic for The Santa Fe New Mexican, and the author of hundreds of essays, articles, and commentaries on literature, art, and music. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.


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