“Who, What Am I?”

“Who, What Am I?”: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self

Irina Paperno
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
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    “Who, What Am I?”
    Book Description:

    "God only knows how many diverse, captivating impressions and thoughts evoked by these impressions . . . pass in a single day. If it were only possible to render them in such a way that I could easily read myself and that others could read me as I do. . ." Such was the desire of the young Tolstoy. Although he knew that this narrative utopia-turning the totality of his life into a book-would remain unfulfilled, Tolstoy would spend the rest of his life attempting to achieve it."Who, What Am I?"is an account of Tolstoy's lifelong attempt to find adequate ways to represent the self, to probe its limits and, ultimately, to arrive at an identity not based on the bodily self and its accumulated life experience.

    This book guides readers through the voluminous, highly personal nonfiction writings that Tolstoy produced from the 1850s until his death in 1910. The variety of these texts is enormous, including diaries, religious tracts, personal confessions, letters, autobiographical fragments, and the meticulous accounts of dreams. For Tolstoy, inherent in the structure of the narrative form was a conception of life that accorded linear temporal order a predominant role, and this implied finitude. He refused to accept that human life stopped with death and that the self was limited to what could be remembered and told. In short, his was a philosophical and religious quest, and he followed in the footsteps of many, from Plato and Augustine to Rousseau and Schopenhauer. In reconstructing Tolstoy's struggles, this book reflects on the problems of self and narrative as well as provides an intellectual and psychological biography of the writer.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5496-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XII)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    “God only knows how many diverse, captivating impressions and thoughts evoked by these impressions . . . pass in a single day. If it were only possible to recount them all so that I could easily read myself and others could read me as I do, a most instructive and engaging book would result. . . .” (1:279).¹ Such was the dream of the young Tolstoy (expressed in his first, unfinished work, “A History of Yesterday,” 1851). Like Rousseau, he wanted to turn himself into an open book.

    From his early years, Tolstoy realized that his narrative utopia would remain...

  5. CHAPTER ONE “So That I Could Easily Read Myself”: Tolstoy’s Early Diaries
    (pp. 9-29)

    Tolstoy’s first diary, started on March 17, 1847, at the age of eighteen, began as a clinical investigation launched under laboratory conditions: in the isolation of a hospital ward, where he was being treated for a venereal disease. A student at Kazan University, he was about to drop out due to lack of academic progress. In the clinic, freed from external influences, the young man planned to “enter into himself ” for intense self-exploration (vzoiti sam v sebia; 46:3). On the first page, he wrote (then crossed out) that he was in complete agreement with Rousseau on the advantages of...

  6. Interlude: Between Personal Documents and Fiction
    (pp. 30-38)

    Several times in his life, Tolstoy found himself caught between different kind of writings: the kind with immediate reference to his own “I” (diary, letter, or essay) and fiction. This interlude will briefly outline these transitions, from available biographical information about Tolstoy.¹

    As scholars tend to agree, in 1851–52, Tolstoy, aged twenty-four, made a transition from intense reading and diary-writing to fiction and professional authorship, and this transition occurred in the writing ofChildhood.² He recorded his progress in his diary: “Read Hume, wrote Ch[ildhood], read Rousseau” (June 27, 1852; 46:127).

    Judging by his diary and letters, the transition...

  7. CHAPTER TWO “To Tell One’s Faith Is Impossible. . . . How to Tell That Which I Live By. I’ll Tell You, All the Same. . . .” Tolstoy in His Correspondence
    (pp. 39-59)

    Among Leo Tolstoy’s voluminous letters, his correspondence with Nikolai Strakhov in the years 1874–79 stands out for its intensity, intimacy, reciprocity, and confessional nature. As a literary critic and philosophical writer, Nikolai Nikolaevich Strakhov (1828–96) participated in the major intellectual debates and publishing ventures of his time. In his prodigious role as editor, private correspondent, and confidant, he served as a conveyor of diverse ideas and a mediator between disparate people. (He served as a link between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who never met.)¹ What Strakhov offered Tolstoy was his philosophical erudition (over the years he authored a number...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Tolstoy’s Confession: What Am I?
    (pp. 60-80)

    In late 1879, Tolstoy (as he wrote to his confidant Nikolai Strakhov) was intensely involved in a work that was not fiction and not for publication. More than two years later, in April 1882, Tolstoy read his work to an old acquaintance, Sergei Iur’ev, the editor of the journalRussian Thought(Russkaia mysl’), who told him that what he had heard had left an indelible impression on his soul as well as a strong desire to publish Tolstoy’s essay (23:520). Contrary to his original intention, Tolstoy submitted his work for publication. Yet, until the very last moment, he could not...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR “To Write My Life”: Tolstoy Tries, and Fails, to Produce a Memoir or Autobiography
    (pp. 81-102)

    Over the years, Tolstoy told his life in different forms. He did try, and more than once, to write his autobiography or memoirs but proved unable to complete any of these projects. How did he approach this task, and why did he fail?

    Let us start with the project that Tolstoy did bring to completion. In 1878, Nikolai Strakhov (the writer’s intimate friend, editor, and correspondent) prepared selections from Tolstoy’s fiction for the anthologyThe Russian Library(Russkaia biblioteka).¹ Acting on behalf of the publisher, Strakhov asked Tolstoy to provide biographical information. Tolstoy’s wife took this task upon herself, and...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE “What Should We Do Then?”: Tolstoy on Self and Other
    (pp. 103-127)

    In early 1882, Tolstoy started working on an “article” inspired by his experience of living in the city (against his best judgment, the family had moved from their country estate to Moscow). It was eventually published (in 1889), under the suggestive title “What Should We Do Then?” The article opens with a statement that situates the first-person speaker within his “whole life”: “I had spent my whole life away from the city, and when in 1881 I came to live in Moscow, the sight of city poverty surprised me. I knew country poverty, but city poverty was new and incomprehensible...

  11. CHAPTER SIX “I Felt a Completely New Liberation from Personality”: Tolstoy’s Late Diaries
    (pp. 128-158)

    In 1884, after several abortive attempts, Tolstoy resumed his diary, and he continued to write, with remarkable consistency, until his death in 1910.¹ For a long time, he had doubts: to write or not to write? how? for whom? One day, in 1889, he decided that he should “write with the idea of not showing his writings, including this diary, within one’s lifetime.” Then, he contemplated, with “horror,” not writing. He asked himself: “Would I have the strength to write for God?” (February 20, 1889; 50:39). It seems that, like Rousseau, Tolstoy imagined himself appearing before the Sovereign Judge with...

  12. Appendix: Russian Quotations
    (pp. 159-200)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 201-222)
  14. Index
    (pp. 223-229)