Does God Exist? Quasi-Theology and Mood Swings in Tolstoj's Confession

Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, University of California, Davis

As a child, Lev Tolstoj, like all the children of the Russian gentry, was taught the fundamentals of Russian Orthodox belief. By the time he was a grown man, however, he no longer consciously believed in God. But at an unconscious level he remained a believer, and it took the depressive crises of the late 1870s to bring this belief fully back into his consciousness. In his autobiographical Confession (1879) Tolstoj tries to tell us "what kind of God" it is that he now believes in. He utilizes a variety of metaphors. God is a cruel jokester, a father, a mother, and life itself. Although these metaphors are mixed in an aesthetically unsuccessful fashion, each of them is psychologically revealing. The maternal metaphor is particularly insistent (Gustafson), and corresponds to the psychoanalytic notion of God as an internal remnant of the experience of early maternal care (Rizzuto). Because of his anxious and depressed condition, the author of Confession moves desperately and haphazardly from one metaphor to another in his search for God. Some of the metaphors are extended, others are not. Tolstoj also consults models of how to live. When he is depressed he engages the philosophies of such fellow-depressives as Socrates, Buddha, and Schopenhauer. When he is manic (technically, hypomanic) he points to the life of the simple folk (ljudi iz naroda) as an example of how to be happy although he admits that folk happiness entails a welcome acceptance of suffering, death, and fate (sud'ba) generally. Both poles of the manic-depressive polarity thus retain a masochistic quality. If Tolstoj is not depressed and ready to commit suicide, he is joyful and ready to accept suffering and death without resistance.

At those points in the narration where Tolstoj seems to have "found" God, his depression vanishes. The search for God is a search for the perfect antidepressant. Joy ("radost&soft") washes over his soul when he is experiencing belief in God. But despair ("otchaianie") drags him down when he experiences nonbelief. These mood swings are frequent in the narration, and are even more frequent and more rapid in the psychical reality represented by the narration: "Not two or three, but tens, hundreds of times, my mood suddenly changed from joy and animation to despair and a consciousness of the impossibility of living." In other words, Confession is among other things an attempt by Tolstoj to represent his manic-depressive mood swings. Technically speaking, Tolstoj suffered from cyclothymic disorder, which is milder than full-blown bipolar disorder. As a creative writer, he parlayed this personal problem into a quasi-theological view of the world. Had he omitted the incessant narcissistic references to his personal problem, and had he focused on God himself/herself, he might have offered us a real theology. However, real autobiography is a valuable genre in its own right.