Tolstoj's Midlife Crisis in Life and Art

James L. Rice, University of Oregon

A "Midlife Crisis" is a soap-operatic clichÈ and truism of modern life, meant here to undercut and deflate somewhat, if at all possible, the ubiquitous, solemn, and misplaced faith in Tolstoj's "Religious Conversion." The aim is to discover in the Tolstoj of his last decades a more interesting person, a more intelligent and complex artist.

Tolstoj's midlife medical history includes well-documented classic symptoms of clinical depression: an initial panic attack with groundless fear of death (the "Arzamas horror" of 1869), inexplicable devaluation of his creative work (1873), and worsening bouts of debilitating depression (1875, 1881)-including an intermittent episode of obsession with suicide, shared with Konstantin Levin (1877). This history bears comparison with William Styron's Darkness Visible (1992).

In 1878 he began to recapitulate and revise that experience, futilely seeking to explain it, and reporting futile striving to allay it with religion: any religion. This work (Ispoved') was in turn revised (we do not know how elaborately) in four sets of galley proofs (April-May 1882), and concludes with a dream transcript added at that time, which coyly and totally obfuscates his position. (Rice, "Tolstoy's Dream Mechanism in Ispoved', Tolstoy Studies Journal, VII).

In 1883 (October 2) Tolstoj began the only manuscript in which he sought to make fiction of the Arzamas horror. In 1884 (April 27) he resolved to revise and complete a secular fiction: "Either 'Death of a Judge' [='Ivan Il'ich'] or 'Diary of a Madman'" (i.e., Arzamas). The focal creative work on "Death of Ivan Il'ich", thus intertwined with Arzamas, began at that time. Into it he incorporated a veritable sitcom of his dismal family life, and an allegory of his depressive devaluation of verbal art.(Rice, "Komicheskie priemy v rasskaze L. N. Tolstogo 'Smert Ivana Il'icha'," forthcoming in Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie. English version: Click: RESEARCH.)

These three autobiographical fictions (Ispoved', Zapiski sumasshedshego, "Ivan Il'ich"), revised or drafted in the years 1882-84, all seek a healing art for the great writer's midlife crisis. The narrator's wife in Zapiski at once diagnoses his self-healing religious fervor as a mental problem in need of psychiatric help--a bit of dark humor massively amplified in "II". This view was widely held at Jasnaja Poljana, although at times, rarely, Tolstoj still agreed with Sof'ja Andreevna that returning to secular fiction would be the best cure for what ailed him. "Ivan Il'ich" was in fact written with this in mind, that is, therapeutically, as the epistolary record and diaries attest. It was a rest, a "breather" (otdyx) from the other self-imposed cure: the moralistic tracts, 5700 pages of which were published between 1881 and 1886.

Finally, each of the texts under consideration is an artistic retelling and distortion of the author's life, requiring careful reevaluation in the light of documented biography, in pursuit of meaning in art and truth in life.