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Tolstoy’s Confession


By Robert Coles | May 1987

I remember reading Confession when I was in the second year of medical school, and immersed in the study of pathology and pharmacology. Neither of those two subjects was making much sense to me. I had yet to meet a patient, and the insistent factuality of everyday life, untethered to any human actuality, struck me as pointless, even perverse. My college advisor, Perry Miller, had pressed the essay on me repeatedly, but I had withstood his enthusiasm – perhaps because I sensed, from the way he talked, how scornful Tolstoy was, in that essay, of the intellectual life as so many of us (all too full of ourselves) end up living it.

The last thing I needed at that time was the encouragement I was tempted to take from Tolstoy – not necessarily the kind he intended to offer his readers. For me Confession threatened to be another reason to quit medical school and go find some work that might help me break out of the bonds egoism had put on my mind’s limbs – hence my lack of interest. But I had been sent the book by a friend of mine who was having similar trouble making sense of the education he was pursuing – in his case, the source of misery was law school. If he could claim exhilaration after exposure to Confession, I was ready to take the risk.

I started reading the book late at night, after I’d submitted my brain to the usual lists of organ parts, and, too, the nomenclature of disease and death. I’d intended a relaxed 15 minutes of Tolstoy, followed by the deep sleep I’d been having regularly at that time in my life – my mind’s way of saying it was more than happy to escape the educational reality that had prompted each evening’s total absorption. But suddenly I lacked interest in sleep; I read until Tolstoy’s Confession was ended; I put out the light and tried to doze; I tossed about; I decided to get up and go get a snack; I did; I carried the book I’d been reading with me – though when I met some medical school students getting their snacks (we had an exam the next morning) I slipped the book into my overcoat. When I got back to my room, I started reading the essay once again. The next morning I did poorly on the test, not the first time such an event took place. I recall thinking I’d have done a bit better if we’d been asked to write on Tolstoy’s Confession.

On the other hand, I might have had a good deal of trouble writing the kind of clever response many students like me learn to muster for our university examinations. It would have been hard to avoid being crippled by an awareness that my very essay was precisely what Tolstoy was scorning so strenuously in his essay – moral and spiritual issues turned into something “interesting,” smart, or ever so shrewdly stated. Not that Tolstoy, even in this essay, hesitates to write persuasively – with flashes of the gifted story teller’s inviting charm. But he is making a confession, and the result is a statement one finds hard to analyze – especially when, at a decisive moment, the author has this to say: “But as soon as I mixed with believers or picked up their books, a certain doubt, dissatisfaction, and bitterness over their arguments rose up within me, and I felt that the more I grasped their discourses, the further I strayed from the truth and the closer I came to the abyss.”

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