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SICK TO DEATH
To salve the pains of consciousness, some people anesthetize
themselves with sunny thoughts. But not everyone can follow
their lead, above all not those who sneer at the sun and everything upon which it beats down. Their only respite is in the
balm of bleakness. Disdainful of the solicitations of hope, they
:ook for sanctuary in desolate places-a scattering of ruins in a
barren locale or a rubble of words in a book where someone
whispers in a dry voice, "I, too, am here." However, downcast
readers must be on their guard. Phony retreats have lured many
who treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic,
nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence.
Too often they have settled into a book that begins as an oration on bleak experience but wraps up with the author slipping
out the back door and making his way down a shining path,
leaving downcast readers more rankled than they were before
entering what turned out to be only a fa€ade of ruins, a £7iompe
J'oei.J of bleakness. A Com/€ssjoro (1882) by Leo Tolstoy is the ar-
chetype of such a book.
Having basked in his status as the author of 14/cir and Pcczce
(1865-69) and A""¢ K¢rc"¢„¢ (1875-77), not to forget his station
as a wealthy landowner, Tolstoy was ripe for a devastating reversal of some kind. This came in the form of a crisis of consciousness during which he became mightily disenchanted with human
THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE
life. Naturally, he began casting about for something to ease
discomfiture. After turning to science for answers to the
questions that had lately begun to eat at him, he came up `
this: "In general, the relation of the experimental sciences to
questions may be expressed thus: Question: `Why do I live?
swer: `In infinite space, in infinite time, infinitely small pa
change their forms in infinite complexity, and when you
understood the laws of those mutations of form you will undr
stand why you live on the earth."
Those inclined to query the various sciences will for=
come upon the same answer. It is a useless answer to a us€i-_
question. But Tolstoy did not think the question useless, L-I_
the answer, so he kept on digging until he read Schopenha-i .Lwho only exasperated the Russian's crisis by answering, "Lifr-i
that which should not be-an evil; and the passage into I\'c\:.' ingness is the only good in life." Tolstoy was impressed \\ -.-..-
Schopenhauer as a thinker and tried to hold the plow stead}- I `
he made his way through the philosopher's daunting works.
At length, Tolstoy narrowed down the options that peo:.=
like himself had available to them depending on whether the..
wanted to keep believing that being alive was all right or \`'er€
ready to consider the alternative. (Please pardon the length c`:
this quotation, but Tolstoy's four principal strategies by whic:-.
his high-class circle managed the predicament of conscious exis-
tence deserve as much of a hearing as Zapffe's four principal
strategies by which everyone manages the same predicament.)
I found that for people of my circle there were four ways out of
the terrible position in which we are all placed.
The first was that of ignorance. It consists in not knowing, not
understanding, that life is an evil and an absurdity. People of this
sort . . . have not yet understood that question of life .... They see
neither the dragon that awaits them nor the mice gnawing the
shrub by which they are hanging, and they lick the drops of
honey. But they lick those drops of honey only for a while: Some-
Sieh to Death
tin.-.= ``'ill turn their attention to the dragon and the mice, and
mET€ ``'ill be an end to their licking. From them I had nothing to
ti+r=t-ne cannot cease to know what one does know.
The second way out is Epicureanism. It consists, while knowing
=€ :r`opelessness of life, in making use meanwhile of the advantages
:re has, disregarding the dragon and the mice, and licking the honey
r_ ::ne best way, especially if there is much of it within reach. Solo=`]n expresses this way out thus: "Then I commended mirth, be_ jse a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to
-ink, and to be merry: and that this should accompany him in his
_Tor the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.
--.erefore eat thy bread with joy and drink thy wine with a merry
- =]rt .... Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days
: :- the life of thy vanity . . . for this is thy portion in life and in thy
='Lr`ors which thou takest under the sun .... Whatsoever thy hand
-Tindeth to do, do it with thy might, for there is not work, nor de-
. ice, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest."
That is the way in which the majority of people of our circle
make life possible for themselves. Their circumstances furnish them
``-ith more of welfare than of hardship, and their moral dullness
makes it possible for them to forget that the advantage of their position is accidental, and that not everyone can have a thousand
\\'ives and palaces like Solomon, that for everyone who has a thousand wives there are a thousand without a wife, and that for each
palace there are a thousand people who have to build it in the
sweat of their brows; and that the accident that has today made me
a Solomon may tomorrow make me a Solomon's slave. The dullness
of these people's imagination enables them to forget the things that
gave Buddha no peace.-the inevitability of sickness, old age, and
death, which today or tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures.
So think and feel the majority of people of our day and our
manner of life. The fact that some of these people declare the
dullness of their thoughts and imaginations to be a philosophy,
which they call Positive, does not remove them, in my opinion,
from the ranks of those who, to avoid seeing the question, lick the
honey. I could not imitate these people; not having their dullness
of imagination I could not artificially produce it in myself. I could
not tear my eyes from the mice and the dragon, as no vital man
can after he has once seen them.
THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE
The third escape is that of strength and energy. It consists in
destroying life, when one has understood that it is an evil and an
absurdity. A few exceptionally strong and consistent people act
so. Having understood the stupidity of the joke that has been
played on them, and having understood that it is better to be dead
than to be alive, and that it is best of all not to exist, they act accordingly and promptly end this stupid joke, since there are
means: a rope round one's neck, water, a knife to stick into one's
heart, or the trains on the railways; and the number of those of
our circle who act in this way becomes greater and greater, and
for the most part they act so at the best time of their life, when
the strength of their mind is in full bloom and few habits degrading to the mind have as yet been acquired.
I saw that this was the worthiest way of escape and I wished
to adopt it.
The fourth way out is that of weakness. It consists in seeing
the truth of the situation and yet clinging to life, knowing in advance that nothing can come of it. People of this kind know that
death is better than life, but not having the strength to act ration-
ally-to end the deception quickly and kill themselves-they
seem to wait for something. This is the escape of weakness, for if I
know what is best and it is within my power, why not yield to
what is best? . . . I found myself in that category.
So people of my class evade the terrible contradiction in four
ways. Strain my attention as I would, I saw no way except those
four .... 1 (Trams. Aylmer Maude)
Earlier in his life, Tolstoy had fought intrepidly in the Crimean
War, and in War ci"cZ Pec]cc he used this experience for his rendition of Russian life during the reign of Napoleon. Courageous in
battle, tbe literary master also flourished his fortitude in writing
the words in the above quotation. Few men of such wealth and
accomplishment have had the mettle to express sentiments of
this nature within earshot of their peers and the general public.
Naturally, Tolstoy expressed these sentiments only after he had
moved to safer ground, which tuned his ``confession" into a
handbook for survival, a trip guide with directions for skating
Sick to Death
around the pitfalls of consciousness that Zapffe would later outline in "The Last Messiah."
Tolstoy's salvation came about when he hit upon a way to
disown coherence and sidle up to religion, even though it was
not religion of the common sort and led to his excommunication
from the Russian Orthodox Church. A titan of conceptual prestidigitation, he had rationalized his way into irrationality. Spending time with his serfs helped him to be fuddle his consciousness.
Like them-more nicely, like his perception of them-he began
living not by his brain but by his "gut." Then he started reasoning
with his gut, which showed him the way to recovery and spared
him the ordeal of becoming a suicide. Later, though, his mind
went to work again, and he was once more in crisis. He remained
preoccupied with life and death and meaning for the rest of his
days and as an author preached a brand of positive thought-as
in the bathetic "Death of Ivan llyich" (1886)-in an ongoing crusade against the bleakness that dogged him.
Having been betrayed by such works as Tolstoy's Co7]/cssjo",
connoisseurs of bleakness may become shrewd readers. If they
are mistrustful of a book, leery that the promise of its inaugural
pages will be broken by its conclusion, they turn first to the
ending. Many books promoted as vehicles of a "dark vision" finish up by lounging in a warm bath of affirmation, often doing a
traitorous turnabout in their closing pages or paragraphs.2 As
every author, publisher, and carnival owner knows, lurid billing
gets a patron in the door. And so we have innumerable books
and magazine articles with such inquiring titles as The Mis¢duenture of Consciousness: Are Hun.an Beings a M4stalee of Euoluf€on? or "Should We Stop Having Children?" The answer is
always "No," sometimes resounding in its declamation but more
often qualified, which is even more vile. Searchers after bleak-