- "I felt very vividly," Tolstoy says in his last diaries (dated February 11, 1910, when he was in his eighties and within a few months of his death), "I felt very vividly how beneficial for life is the thought that death may occur every instant." Tolstoy's insight here sounds almost like a recollection of the meaning he had himself achieved some thirty-five years earlier in the fiction "Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich". In the midst of life, Tolstoy had the peculiar experience of feeling himself always in death, and that changed for him the very meaning of life itself.
- Life would be one thing were we not all going to die; then it might be indulging in parties, cards, and pleasure every night, or tastefully decorating an apartment, or lying in bed reading French romances and eating gingerbread and honey (a pleasure Tolstoy once, as a boy, pursued for three days when the certainty of death and the vanity of life were especially vivid and present to him).
- But life, in fact and meaning, is something very different from this for Tolstoy, and different solely because we all exist under more or less immediate sentence of that death which, according to Tolstoy, worked as a great reordering power over life. And, since his experience was so intensely felt, so overwhelmingly immediate, Tolstoy could never quite understand how it was that other men could blandly disregard, as they seemed to do, the imminence and terrible reality of death.
- This felt certainty of death gives the clue to the tone of exasperation and nervous urgency that one finds in Tolstoy, notably in his essays and moral writings. Men must be shown the folly of their ways and quickly, before it is too late; they must be made to feel how insane their concerns are, made to feel what is wrong and what is right in human life. The folly was only too pressingly alive to Tolstoy because he had participated in it, but other men — all men — must be made to feel what Tolstoy felt or his intuition, his insight, his vision would have come to nothing.
- And therein lay the joker: what Tolstoy would transmit or communicate or share was more a feeling than an idea, more a complex and subjective emotion than a rational and objective proposition. What he wanted to prove, and to prove on the pulse of his readers, had not come to Tolstoy only or primarily through rational processes but as the sum and result of his whole experience as a man, an experience which centered, as if hypnotized, around and around the conclusive fact of death.
- James Olney is professor of English at North Carolina Central University.
- His latest publication is Metaphors of Self (Princeton Univ. Press, 1972).
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