Social Sciences

Social Sciences
Vol. 30, No. 2/June 1999

Dreams in Leo Tolstoy’s Spiritual Searchings
By Vladimir Perudominsky

The concepts of “sleep” and “awakening” were an extremely important allegory for Leo Tolstoy in his moral meditations from youth till deep old age. “There is a different man inside me, who sometimes sleeps”. 1 Or: “...I am extremely sleepy intellectually and even spiritually” [55; 173]*. In his diary for 1895 Tolstoy wrote: “I continue to be idle and bad. No thoughts, no feelings. Moral hibernation” [53; 22]. Here is an entry for 1896: “I have been struggling over my work for several days, but have made no progress. I am asleep. I thought I would finish the draft copy somehow, but have not been able to do so. A foul mood, intensified by the emptiness, the impoverished self-satisfied cold emptiness of the life around me” [53; 95]. In describing the “life around him”, the life of those who were beside with him, he draws again on the concepts of sleep and awakening: “It is no use speaking to such people until they have slept their fill. It’s fearful” [53; 117].

“To sleep” for Tolstoy meant to depart from the life which embraced those moral and religious principles which he felt in duty bound to follow. In Resurrection he writes about the need “to cleanse the soul”: a person has to be aware of the slowing-down and, sometimes a complete stoppage of his internal life, he must remove the litter which has cluttered his soul and caused this stoppage. By the “cleansing of soul” Tolstoy meant the awakening of one’s spiritual essence, bound up and suppressed by everyday temptations.

“Moral decline, readiness to yield to temptation, to fall, this is most often the state of somnambulism, that is, the condition in which the higher centers, the spiritual powers are inactive, asleep. In order not to succumb, it is not necessary to struggle, to invent remedies: all that is needed is to understand that you are asleep and to try and wake up. I remember how often, in such moments of temptation, I sort of shook myself physically in order to wake up. You must do what you do when suffering from a nightmare: ask yourself ‘Perhaps I am sleeping?’ And then you will awaken” [52; 31].

“Today I woke up. I feel good,” Tolstoy wrote in his diary [56; 37].

* * *

In the spring of 1851, when Tolstoy had just started work on Childhood, he conceived yet another idea: “to tell about the hidden inner life in the course of one day”. This was his first approach to probing the “boundlessness” of a person’s inner life, which, after Childhood, he will refer to as “dialectics of the soul”.

The Story of Yesterday was never completed. In the last pages the story-teller describes in detail how, coming home at night after a visit, he prepares for bed and finally falls asleep. “What a wonderful thing sleep is in all its phases: preparation, drowsiness and sleep proper”–this introductory chord opens up a chain of pictures, observations and judgements united by the author under the name “my theory of sleep”.

Tolstoy does not picture a person’s consciousness as an intergral whole. In his view, there are three consciousnesses, as there are three important parts of a man’s self: 1) mind, 2) feeling, 3) body. Correspondingly, there is consciousness of mind, consciousness of feeling and consciousness of body. “Sleep is that condition of a person when he loses all consciousness completely, but since he falls asleep gradually, he loses consciousness gradually as well.” The first to go is the higher “consciousness of mind”, then follows “consciousness of feeling” and the last is “consciousness of body”, which seldom falls into complete sleep. Later Tolstoy developed this theory, but made an important reservation: though consciousness which we perceive as such is lost during sleep, there remains something which is preserved during sleep and stays aware, but “what that something is I do not know and cannot know” [58; 16].

Tolstoy attempts to rationalize the mechanism of dreams: “I was falling asleep: at first I continued thinking, then could not think any more and began to imagine, but imagined coherent pictures, then imagination fell asleep, leaving only vague notions; then the body fell asleep too. A dream is composed of the first and the last impressions.”

In the course of the night, a person usually wakes up several times; the awakening mostly concerns only two types of consciousness–of body and feeling. The impressions captured by these two “consciousnesses” in the short period of wakefulness are added to the impressions composing the aggregate dream. But if, during the period of wakefulness, the higher “consciousness of mind” wakes up too, the dream “becomes divided into two parts” (that is, is affected by this awakened higher consciousness).

During awakening, which occurs as gradually as falling asleep, but proceeds from the “lower consciousness” (of body) to the higher form, “consciousness of mind”, when the latter is switched on, creates a recollection of the stretch of time a person has lived through in his dream and determines the duration and sequence of this time. The image of time in a dream, which emerges on awakening, is connected with the ability immediately and–thanks to the habit formed–without realizing it to group together the impressions of the dream.

Tolstoy pondered on this need “to explain the fact that you had had a long dream, which was concluded with the event that brought you awake”, that is, on the phenomenon of reverse course of time in a dream. His attempts to solve this problem in The Story of Yesterday are superficial and over-simplified, but Tolstoy will revert to this theme many more times (even fifty years later) to develop and deepen it. 2

The assertions barely outlined in The Story of Yesterday, are found in his diary entries for the beginning of 1850s.

“When the soul of a sleeping person has not been distracted by extraneous objects and is in the same condition as before (which happens when, broad awake, we imagine a certain fact to have occurred repeatedly before), it reproduces all objects which were reflected in it during sleep. This is one of the causes of dreams. Another is the external actions during sleep. And the third is the quick movement of thought, by which you join together integrally the recollections and condition of the soul during sleep and the external impressions during sleep and incomplete awakenings” [46; 278].

The “theory of sleep” suggested by Tolstoy in his early story is not a chance episode: rationalization of the phenomenon of sleep and dreams will always constitute an important part of Tolstoy’s ponderings on life generally, of his most complicated Weltanschauung searchings.

* * *

In 1856 Tolstoy wrote the short story The Snow Storm. in which his “theory of sleep” found a brilliant creative expression.

“...drowsiness overcame me...” Then comes the moment of falling asleep: “Recollections and pictures of the distant past superseded one another with increasing rapidity in my imagination...” (Nine Stories. 1855-66. London, 1934. P.44)

The rapid and vivid recollections which preceded the falling asleep appear under the impact of an external impression. The story-teller tries to imagine one of the drivers (several troikas are riding through the snow-storm keeping close to one another), a talkative man, whom he hears but does not see in the darkness and through the curtain of falling snow. “‘That advice-giver who is always calling out from the second sled–what sort of fellow can he be?’I thought. ‘Probably red-haired, thick-set, and with short legs, like Theodore Filipych, our old butler.’” (p.9) The recollection begins with a general, abstract, as yet wakeful thought about this type of person–about people always engrossed with their own necessity for the common good and therefore lavishing self-assured, convincing eloquence. Next, after the mind leaves reality for recollection, the entire world of images becomes transformed. A few moments ago all around was nothing but “white space”–uniformly light, uniformly white, colorless, monotonous–and then suddenly (as though summoned by the strong colorful word “red-haired”) a vision of a brilliant summer day appears before the story-teller and the reader, a day full of light, color and gay variety of the world of things. The stretch of time appearing in the dream begins with delightful idleness of a walk in the garden and suddenly ends with a search for a a chance passer-by, who got drowned in the pond on the estate.

This vision is not yet a dream. But neither is it quite a recollection. Tolstoy masterfully keeps the scene at the border of wakefulness and sleep. Everything seems to be like reality, but some subtle, barely detectable details (and the very rhythm of the narration) seem to shift the picture revived in the recollection onto some other space, seem to screen it from us by a thin veil, which we do not see but are aware of. This is in full correspondence to “the theory”: he thought while overcome by drowsiness, then he began to imagine, first coherently, in pictures, then imagination fell asleep too. Here we have the moment when imagination is on the brink of sleep, becomes sleepy, and the picture it has painted is transformed into that very “first impression” which, according to “the theory”, together with the last, on the brink of awakening, will constitute the dream.

Tolstoy captures and conveys in plastic images this moment of transformation of a recollection into a dream. “... as I crossed the dike I again heard the blows of the beetle reechoing over the lake. But that beetle sounds as if two beetles were beating together in thirds, and that sound torments and worries me, the more so because I know that this beetle is a bell, and that Theodore Filipych will not make it stop. Then that beetle, like an instrument of torture, presses my foot which is freezing, and I fall asleep.” (The Snow Storm, Nine Stories...p. 51.) The sound that in the recollection repeatedly echoes as blows of a beetle on wet washing, was set at the beginning of the story: it is the bells under the horses’ bows arranged to ring in third. “The ringing of that third and of the quivering fifth echoing in the air was extraordinarily effective and strangely beautiful in the silent and deserted steppe.” (p. 32). The transformation of an actual impression into an element of recollection confirms the sensation of dream, which invades the recollection, of drowsiness into which the story-teller “has plunged”. The beginning of full sleep is marked by the change from the real image of the recollection (the beating of a beetle), called forth by this impression, into an influx of fantastic images: “I slept soundly, but heard the ringing of the bells all the time. They appeared to me in my dream now in the guise of a dog that barked and attacked me, now of a organ in which I was one of the pipes, and now of some French verses I was composing. Sometimes those bells seemed to be an instrument of torture which kept squeezing my right heel.”(p.60) Imagination (again in full correspondence with “the theory”) gives place to “dark visions”.

These visions present transformed impressions of the ride and recollections which preceded sleep. The white space around, the walls of snow turn into a long white corridor along which the story-teller makes a vain attempt to run. The talkative rider (“advice-giver”) is transformed into the butler Theodore Filipych, but this does not prevent them from each acting on his own. The old rider from the third troika turns into a meaninful “old man”; this old man is now a driver, now a wizard, now a hare, now somebody whose hand the story-teller seizes and kisses “with inexpressible pleasure” (this hand-kissing episode also occurred in The Story of Yesterday), and now, finally. the drowned man from the recollection. 3

In the dream “...the little old man jumps astride a horse, fourishes his elbows and tries to gallop away, but cannot stir from the spot..." (p.58) The story-teller tries to run along the white corridor, but cannot make a single step (“someone is holding my legs”). In Tostoy’s diary we find: “That feeling, which one has in a dream, the consciousness of helplessness and at the same time of the possibility of strength, when, in a dream, you want to run away or to hit somebody, but your legs buckle down under you and your heart beats helplessly but mildly–that feeling of being captive (I cannot find a better word to describe it), that feeling never leaves the best of us in our wakeful moments either. In the strongest, happiest and most poetic moments, in the minutes of blissful satisfied love, you are even more aware of a lot missing, of having your legs buckle down under you and refusing to run, of your blows being soft and ineffective” [48; 106].

The story-teller manages to break away from his pursuers; but his clothes remain in their hands and he feels “cold and ashamed” ( these details also appear in The Story of Yesterday). He hears two church bells ringing ahead and knows that he will be saved when he reaches them (reversed time). At the last moment, the old man whose hand he again grasps and begins to kiss, “is no longer the little old man, he is the man who was drowned... This is too terrible.” (p.59) But at that moment the story-teller detects a brief awakening of “consciousness of mind” and manages to tell himself; “No, I had better wake up...”

“I open my eyes... my knee is uncovered, we are going over the bare frozen road. and the bells with their quivering third can be distinctly heard.” (p.59)

Nowhere in Tolstoy’s writings is his “theory of sleep” expressed so fully and in such detail as in “The Snow Storm”. But his constant ponderings on its basic principles are often reflected in his works which he designated “artistic”. And these episodes are not presented only as dreams of the characters, they are pictures and images vitally important for perceiving the idea of the work in question. They testify to Tolstoy’s attention to the “mechanisms” of sleep, to the processes of falling asleep and awakening.

In War and Peace, for instance, he paints an amazingly beautiful “fairyland” at the border between wakefulness and sleep in describing the last night of young Petya Rostov–at daybreak he is destined to be killed in battle. “The big patch of shadow might be a hut centainly, but it might be a cave leading down into the very depths of the earth. The red patch might be a fire, but it might be the eye of a huge monster...”(Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace. N.Y., 1965, p.982)

Color images give place to musical ones. The hissing of a sabre on the whetstone, the drip of the branches, the neighing of horses, the snoring of the sleeping hussars merge with harmonious music sounding in the young man’s soul; a melody is born, a fugue (about which Petya had no notion), voices are heard. “With the triumphant march of victory mingles the song of voices, and the drip of the branches and the zheeg, zheeg, zheeg of the sabre on the whetstone; and again the horses neighed and scuffled, not disturbing the harmony, but blending into it.”(p. 983)

Let us also recall, in Resurrection the falling asleep of Nekhlyudov, who has just arrived on his estate. Here Tolstoy boldly combines Nekhlydov’s impressions of the last few days, pictures born of imagination and, finally, both processed into the images of a dream. “Listening to the nightingales and the frogs, Nekhlyudov remembered the music of the inspector’s daughter and the inspector himself. That reminded him of Maslova, and how her lips trembled, like the croaking of the frogs, when she said, ‘You must just give it up altogether.’ Then the German steward began going down to the frogs, and had to be held back, but he not only went down but turned into Maslova, who began reproaching Nekhlyudov, saying, ‘You are a prince, and I am a convict.’ ‘No, I must not give in,’ thought Nekhlyudov and he roused himself and asked himself, ‘Well, am I acting rightly or wrongly? I don’t know and don’t care. It’s all the same: I must sleep.’ And he began himself to descend to where he had seen the steward and Maslova climbing down, and there it all ended.” (L.Tolstoy. Resurrection. Moscow, 1977, p. 267)

In The God’s and the Man’s the awakening of the revolutionary Svetlogub on the morning of his execution is connected with his last dream before waking up, and here, again, Tolstoy conveys precisely and subtly the reversal of time course in the dream. The dream was light and gay: “In his dream he was climbing with a little blond girl over spreading trees loaded with ripe cherries and gathering them into a big brass basin. [...] Some strange kind of animals, which looked like cats, caught the cherries, tossed them up, and then caught them again. And the girl, watching them, pealed with laughter, so infectious that Svetlogub laughed with her in his dream. [...] Suddenly the basin slipped out of the girl’s hands, [...] and with a brassy clang, knocking against the branches, fell to the ground. And Svetlogub awoke with a smile, still hearing the clangor. But in reality this was the clangor of opening iron locks of the prison. He heard steps in the corridor outside and the clanging of rifles. And suddenly remembered everything” [11; 470-471].

Then we have the almost school-book awakening of Pierre in an inn on the morning after the Battle of Borodino. He dreams of an old mason-friend, the meeting with whom had changed the course of his life, and hears him say the words which solved the problem which had been tormenting him:

“‘Yes, one must harness together; it’s time to harness...’”

“‘We want to harness the horses; it’s time to harness the horses, your excellency! Your exellency!’”

“It was the groom waking Pierre.”(Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace. N.Y., 1965, p.787)

* * *

The “mystic dreams” of Tolstoy’s characters, which through a hieroglyphic sign-image open a chink, as it were, give us a hint of the hidden implication and even the outcome, occur when the conscious connection between the dream and reality is lost. In one of Tolstoy’s early (the beginning of the 1850s) diary entries we find an attempt to explain this phenomenon, which, however, is broken off in mid-sentence. “Absurdities of a dream are due to the reason losing the ability to criticize relationships...” [46; 188].

Anna Karenina begins with recollections of the awakening Steve Oblonsky about a dream he had just had: a dinner-party, where they ate, for some reason, from glass tables, the glass tables tinkling a love song, “and then there were some kind of little decanters that were really women.” (Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina. N.Y., 1970, p.1) Despite sleep-induced distortions, the dream is not phantasmagorically “absurd”: after reading another page or two, we realize that it fully coincides with Steve’s everyday life. Actually Tolstoy states as much, connecting Steve’s sleep and wakefulness into a single cconcept of life of a person who is “perpetually asleep”. “He could no longer find forgetfulness in sleep, at any rate not before night, could not go back to the music and the songs of the little decanter-women, consequently he must seek forgetfulness in the dream of life.”(p.3) On the back side of one of the sheets of the future novel Tolstoy, in accordance with his system of concepts, writes a note about the character of his future hero: “One of them, Stepan Arkadyevich, does not try to perceive the meaning of life and is ever asleep...” 4

Anna’s horrible dream–about a little peasant rummaging in his bundle and muttering in French–is horrible exactly in our inability to perceive its connection with reality.

During the early stages of Anna’s relationship with Vronsky, she used to have another nightmare: “She dreamt that both at once were her husbands”. (p.136) While awake, she chased away all thoughts about the change that had occurred in her life. “But in her dreams, when she had no control over her thoughts, her position appeared to her in all its shocking nakedness.”(p.136) It was the same as Steve’s sleep, the “sleep of life”, that continued in a dream.

The dream about the little peasant seems to be filled with reversed course of time. The future Anna foresees in its strange (“absurd”) images, outstrips the present: “And in my horror I tried to wake, but I woke still in a dream.”(p.329)

We may try and decode the strange images of this dream. They are probably connected with Anna’s “railway” impressions: the guard run over by the train, who appears in the novel at the same time as Anna, and the nightmare which torments her on the way back from Moscow to Petersburg. The words about iron: “It must be beaten, the iron: pound it, knead it”, which are said in French by the peasant of her nightmare, find reflection in the details of her death: “She looked at the bottom of the trucks, at the bolts and chains and large iron wheels...” (p.694) The last image in her misty consciousness is the image of the horrible dream: “A little peasant muttering something was working at the rails.” (p.695)

This French-speaking peasant, who exercizes a strange power over Anna’s destiny, is somehow related to the dramatis personae of dreams in Tolstoy’s early stories, to the drivers, the butlers, whose hands the hero kisses, aware of a mysterious dependence of his destiny on these people... 5

The significance of the dream in Anna’s destiny, its horror is magnified when Anna, telling her dream to Vronsky, discovers that he has had a similar dream. He had just parted with a foreign prince, to whom he was attached as an aide and whom he was supposed to supply with “Russian pleasures”, and, before going back to Anna, lay down for a nap. “Five minutes later the memory of the disreputable scenes at which he had been present during the last few days became jumbled and connected with pictures of Anna and a peasant who had played an important part as a beater at the bear-hunting; and Vronsky fell asleep. He woke up in the dark trembling with fear... ‘What has happened? What horrors I dreamt! Yes. Yes, the peasant, the beater–I think he was small and dirty with a tangled beard–was stooping down and doing something or other, and suddenly began to say strange words in French...’ He vividly recalled the peasant and the incomprehensible words that the man had uttered, and a shudder of horror ran down his back.”(p.324)

Tolstoy needed that episode about a dream at the very beginning of his work on the novel, when he had but a vague idea about its plot.

Perhaps the most mysterious relations with dreams Tolstoy describes in his Childhood. The boy cries on awakening, unable to cope with the complicated feelings that have engulfed him, and, not knowing how to explain his tears to the kindly Karl Ivanovich, says that he dreamt that his maman is dead. Whatever is discussed in the novel, throughout we are aware of an apprehensive note that leads us to the finale. This is a story about a dream coming true, a dream that the boy invented...

* * *

All his life Tolstoy was preoccupied with sleep and dreams. His diary entries almost always begin with a notation about how long he slept and whether he slept well or badly.

Even in the Diary for Myself Alone, which he kept in the last months of his life alongside the usual diary, we find, besides revelations of his innermost secret thoughts and feelings, which were not supposed to be seen by anybody’s eyes, entries of the same nature: “I slept well...”, “I rose early...”, “I got up late...” This is the entry made on the eve of his departure from Yasnaya Poliana: “Got up very early. Had bad dreams all night.” ( Leo Tolstoy. Last Diaries. N.Y., 1960, p.214.) In the tense tragic description of his departure (28 October, 1910) he again notes: “Went to bed at 11;30. Slept until after two.” (p.215) Details referring to sleep also appear on the pages of the diary recording his last impetuous flight: “I am well, although I did not sleep.”(p.216) “Slept fitfully.”(p.217) “Very weak and sleepy, and this is a bad sign.”(p.218) This was witten already in Optina Pustin: Astapovo the railway station where he died was round the corner.

Sometimes Tolstoy recounted his dreams in the diary. In detail, or briefly. Some entries register only the emotional impact of the dream.

For instance, at the start of the discord with his wife, he wrote: “I dreamt that my wife loved me. How light and easy at heart I felt! Nothing like what happens in reality. And this blights my life...”[49; 90]. In the end of October 1910, before his flight from Yasnaya Poliana: “...the whole night my tormenting struggle with her haunted me. I would wake up; then doze off, and it would start all over...” [58; 143].

In the letter to Chertkov abroad Tolstoy tells him of a dream, reproducing its complicated plot. “But the main impressions is not the plot”, but “I am terribly sorry that I shall never see you again.” “I was awakened at this point, and I woke up with this regret and love for you” [88; 193].

But, as a rule, we find on the pages of the diary descriptions of those dreams which took part in Tolstoy’s mental work and helped him to arrive at some important truths.

He is fascinated and gladdened by “the particularly active work of the brain” [54; 199] even during slumber, with consciousness asleep.

Let us “peep” at some of Tolstoy’s dreams, in which his creative work as a writer went on.

24 March, 1891: “Dreamed of a character who typifies vagueness, weakness: he walks with his hands hanging limply and dangles them like tassels” [52; 22].

7 May, 1901: “Dreamed of a type of old man which Chekhov anticipated [...] For the first time I became aware of the power that types acquire from boldly painted shadows. I’ll do it in Hadji-Murat and Maria Dmitriyevna” [54;97]. 6

30 November, 1903: “The other night I dreamed of writing a story, comical in form, told by a peasant who has picked up a lot of words he does not understand. But the story was touching. I felt wonderful [...] I also imagined three other popular types: one is a strong man, a bogatyr, very slow, but prone to fits of fury, when he becomes a savage brute. The other is a tongue-wag, boaster, poet, at moments tender and selfless. The third is a selfish man, but refined, attractive, gifted and a skirt-chaser” [54; 199].

29 November, 1908: “Tonight I dreamed that I was partly writing verse, partly suffering over the drama of Christ. I was Christ and a warrior. I remember girdling a sword on. Very vividly” [56; 158].

A day before his departure, on 26 October, 1910, in the torment of his last hours in Yasnaya Poliana, Tolstoy dreamed of a novel, or a long story, whose hero resembled Nikolai Strakhov, and whose heroine had some features of Grushenka from The Brothers Karamazov. The dream fascinated him. "A delightful plot" [58; 123].

Tolstoy’s mental activity, that did not stop even during sleep, was stupendous. It powerfully confirms the conclusions of today’s science that sleep is by no means repose, a period of rest for thought and feelings. The most important, the most cherished moral, religious and philosophical searching, commenced, consciously or unconsciously, during the waking hours, flowed over into Tolstoy’s dreams, in order to be picked up again by the mind and the feelings on awakening.

The dramatic conflict in many of Tolstoy’ dreams consisted in the aspiration and, at the same time, impossibility for a person who has morally awakened, to be consistently loving in the company of people “who are still slumbering”. In his dispute with the sleeping the wakeful person is doomed: in order to convince them it is necessary to wake them up. The plots of his dreams which referred to his family reflected the discord of real life.

“I dreamed that I was turning out my son, a combination of Ilya, Andrei and Seryozha. He refused to go. I was ashamed because I had resorted to violence and because I had not brought it to its conclusion. [...] Suddenly this three-in-one son began to push me with his backside out of the chair on which I was sitting. I bore it for a long time, then jumped up and flourished the chair threateningly. He ran away. I felt more ashamed than ever. I knew he had not meant it. [...] Tanya came and told me in the entrance hall that I had been in the wrong. And added that she again suspected her husband of infidelity...” Tolstoy makes the following conclusion: “The psychology is remarkably sound, but there is no time, no space, no personality...” [55; 222].

This is the whole point–that the psychology is remarkably sound–but outside time, space and personality. Testimony to it is the “three-in-one” son. And the chair “on which I was sitting”, but which, when he was pushed off it, became an instrument of violence. And Tolstoy is ashamed–because he reacted violently to evil, and also because he had failed to conquer evil...

Several years later Tolstoy had the same dream, no longer allegorical but straightforward–in time, space and personality. Again he dreamed of a conversation with his son, not “three-in-one” but Sergei Lvovich, his eldest son. “Our life is a quest for gratification.” But there is physical gratification and spiritual gratification. Tolstoy cited three proofs of worthlessness of physical gratification, and three proofs of the advantage and true worth of spiritual gratification. “I did not dream it in just this way; it was shorter and better. And in my dream, when I finished, I said, ‘try to prove that this is not true... You cannot.’ Seryozha and all the rest became silent”[58; 75].

Two decades earlier Tolstoy dreamed of a conversation esentially very like this one. The conversation was quite ordinary for Tolstoy–he never tired of repeating his convictions both in a written form and orally. But it was strange as dreams go, for in form it was exactly a conversation, a dialogue. “Had a dream. Question. Do you admit that love is a joyful feeling? Answer. Yes. Question. Do yo admit that circumstances may enhance or diminish it? Answer. Yes. Question. How does preoccupation with oneself affect love? Answer. It diminishes it. Question. And self-denial? Answer. It enhances it.–Then let us behave accoprdingly” [50;90].

It is a very strange dream: external imagery is completely absent in it. Its content, its images are not a picture but a thought.

Judging by Tolstoy’s diary entries such dreams were not infrequent.

“Had an extraordinary dream–thoughts...” This was written as early as 1860. At that time Tolstoy did not often write down his dreams. This particular dream must have struck him by its unusualness: his dream consisted of thoughts.

The thoughts which Tolstoy had in his dream: “this strange religion of mine and the religion of our time, the religion of progress”–had an important place, in his reflexion, in his search for a road for himself and for the world. In Lucerne, which was printed several years earlier, we read: “Civilization is a boon; barbarianism is an evil; freedom is a boon; bondage is an evil. It is this imaginary knowledge that destroys the instinctive, most blessed need for goodness in human nature [...] There is only one infallible guide, the World Spirit, which imbues all of us together and every one of us singly [...] And this one infallible blessed voice drowns out the noisy, hasty development of civilization.” The thoughts which came to Tolstoy in the unusual guise of a dream concerned the same juxtaposition of faith versus “progress” and “civilization”. “Who said to a single man that progress is good? It is only lack of faith and need for conscious activity disguised as a belief,” wrote Tolstoy, describing the thought-images of the “extraordinary dream”. “Man needs an impulse, Spannung–that’s what” [48; 25].

The power and importance of some thoughts over which Tolstoy struggled constantly, often agonizingly, were so great that they did not turn into “absurdities” even in dreams, but lived on in him without adopting other forms, as pure matter of thought. These dreams were akin to that dream of Mendeleyev in which the scientist saw, in a completed form, his periodic table of the elements. The ponderings with which Tolstoy was overwhelmingly engrossed passed from wakefulness to sleep and from sleep back into wakefulness without undergoing any refraction in the prism of dream.

“I dreamed that the purpose of the life of any person is improvement of the world and of people: himself and others. So I thought in my dream, but it is wrong. The purpose of my, and any, life is improvement of life; and there is only one method of achieving it: self-improvement. (Can’t quite sort it out–later). And it is very important. Yes, that’s right, I went for a walk and arrived at a conclusion that satisfied me...” [50; 44].

These notes are clear evidence of uninterrupted spiritual work. The words in parentheses–he will sort out the essence of his dream later–seem to have been made on the spot–“while sleeping”. Thoughts and observations were first recorded in note-books, and then, with corrections and additions , transferred to the diary. The “day-time” notebook Tolstoy usually kept at hand in his wakeful hours, the “night-time notebook” lay on his lamp-stand. He wrote his thoughts into the “night-time notebook” in the evening, before going to bed, and in the morning–sometimes even in the middle of the night–on awakening. During his morning walk he checked and verified his night-time thoughts, including his thought-dreams.

“About immorality in dreams...” We find this unfinished phrase in his diary for 1910. We do not know how Tolstoy intended to continue it, but we know what had brought it on–he had long been preoccupied with this theme.

“I dreamed that I was perpetrating something morally outrageous. I was doing it and was not in the least worried. The difference between dream and reality for onself (subjectively) is that, while dreaming, you are unable to make the distinction between the moral and the immoral: you cannot summon the consciousness of your higher self” [55; 170].

In another entry, that is almost a repetition of the above, the reason for immorality in a dream is defined in more exact terms: “...The main task of life, moral effort, is impossible in a dream” [56; 73].

Tolstoy once dreamed that his son Lev Lvovich, who often took the stand of almost intolerant spiritual opposition to his father, was telling in his presence something that he knew his father would find disagreeable. Then somebody made a slightingly hostile reference to Tolstoy’s teaching. These words insulted and grieved Tolstoy, but in his dream he was unable to induce in himself that course of thought, that attitude to what was happening which would relieve him of the diagreeable feeling. “This impossibility of higher religious consciousness constitutes the difference between sleep and wakefulness” [55; 246].

Tolstoy was convinced that nothing revealed the secret of a person’s inner life as glaringly as dreams: “man is everything, all possibilities, he is a fluid substance” [53, 185]. It is hard to attain a full understanging of a person in his “fluidity” without studying his dreams. Dreams reveal the specific features and aspirations of a person, which are inherent in him, but which he prefers not to notice, which he carefully hides from others and from himself. For a person who had chosen the only effective way of improving life–through improving himself–it is worth while to give attention to his dreams. “...What you discover about yourself in a dream, [...] is much more truthful than what you think of yourself while awake. In a dream you see that you have weaknesses of which, in your waking hours, you imagine yourself free, and that you no longer have those weaknesses which you fear in your waking hours, and you see what you really aspire for. I often dream that I am a military man, I dream of being unfaithful to my wife and am horrified by it, I often dream that I write novels only for my own pleasure” [55; 18].

He dreams that somebody slapped his face and he did not challenge that man to a duel and is ashamed of it, but after a while it occurs to him that refusal from revenge is yet another proof of the consistency of his non-resistance to evil. The most terrible thing for Tolstoy is not cowardice manifested in his refusal from a duel, but his falsehood and hypocrisy in using his cherished teaching to justify a shameful action. “In a dream it is the mind that is at work but the reason, the common sense, and the strength of moral impulse are absent” [53; 59].

But is it quite hopelessly absent?

Another dream: “I have been recruited into soldiery and obey the rules: the clothes I have to wear, the early rising, etc., but I feel they will soon demand that I take the oath of allegiance and I shall refuse, and the next thought is that I must renounce my teaching. An internal struggle follows, and the moral obligation wins” [50; 85].

The dots which cut short his thought about immorality in a dream in the diary for the last year of Tolstoy’s life, 1910, most probably mean that the idea he had meant to record had not been thought out to the end. We know what his feelings on the subject were, but the last word had not been said, and man is “fluid”. Perhaps Tolstoy checked himself because another channel for this thought was suddenly revealed to him.

There is one dream that Tolstoy mentions in his diary twice: at first, briefly, and, three days later, in detail (see his entries for 7 and 10 March, 1904–[55; 18, 19-20]). He was apparently attracted by the complexity of the subject matter of the dream, in which the characteristic “absurdities” of dreams are clearly outlined–the loss of personality, time, space and causality. People who are long dead act as though alive, old men appear as young, while he himself knows the truth but is not amazed at these oddities. Some characters constitute an amalgamation of several real people, dead and alive. The conversations and events which take place in the dream affect Tolstoy, but the logic of the conversations and the events is strange and unexpected. In the concluding episode of the dream, the sleeper is aware of having committed some unfathomable crime, which will presently come into the open.

“The crime consists in my having been unable to stop something horrible. We go out into the hall, and there is a little soldier there.

“‘What do you want?’”

“‘There is a dead man for your excellency.’”

“I look and see a heap of rags in the corner, covering something, obviously a dead body.”

“[...] I had thought I would escape it. But they had brought him, and I wake up”.

The conclusion of the recorded dream goes far beyond the bounds of general meditations on the specific nature of dreams. “On awakening everything that seems consistent is reduced to performing in one moment. It is the same in life: the sequence of time and causality is our own doing–it does not exist.”

And suddenly Tolstoy adds–as a new paragraph: “I am afraid to peer into places that are not to be peered in” [55; 20].

These are not new thoughts for Tolstoy, but in 1904 they occur particularly often in his diary entries.

Ten years earlier, he wrote: “The concepts of space and time are, in actual fact, meaningless and go counter to the demands of the mind. Time is supposed to mark the boundaries of sequences, and space–the boundaries of the placement of things, but neither time nor space has any boundaries. I do not know a more precise definition of time and space than the one I produced while a boy of fifteen, to wit: time is the ability of a person to imagine many objects in one space, which is only possible through a sequence, while space is the ability of a person to imagine many objects at one and the same time, which is only possible if the objects are placed close together” [53; 55-56].

Aa a boy, Tolstoy was already peeping where it is fearful to peep. And then for six decades he honed the truth which had revealed itself to him in that distant time of adolescence and he never renounced it. In his old age he even chuckled when finding in the writings of his beloved Victor Hugo a terifying and grandiose picture of the Universe with its mammoth distances and time spans. He noted that these “horrors” had never puzzled or frightened him because he had never acknowledged their reality and seen only “misapprehension” in them. The world is eternal and boundless, therefore figures have no real meaning, since “there are no boundaries to the world in any direction, neither in time nor in space” [53; 215]. Man, a creature, separated from others, himself imagines the magnitude of space and time when comparing his own existence, that is, movement, with all that he sees around him. Tolstoy introduces the word “relation” into the formula: “The relation between man’s own movement to the movement around him appears to man as time; the relation of his own body to other bodies appears to him as space. So neither space nor time actually exist, they are but imagined relations of creatures among themselves” [54; 147].

In analyzing these postulates, Tolstoy makes a reference to the peculiarities of memory, which also needs space and time for its activity. A person’s “I” combines the child, the young man and the old man “and something else which existed before the child”. But only acceptance of the existence of time makes it possible for a person to see all of himself at once. Or, Tolstoy adds, the opportunity to see all of himself in parts. “I a moment ago and I at this moment–are two different objects and I cannot see and perceive them together, at once, and therefore I see them in time.” Recollection is exactly this ability to be aware of “a number of my I’s, as they continue in one another, that is, in time”. The concept of space in born in recollection because my I becomes aware of the existence of many obiects (creatures) at one and the same time, that is, it becomes aware of its boundaries [55; 71].

Life in dreams passes outside time and space, which, upon awakening, we imagine as real. A dream presents a kind of visual example, proof that man acquires time and space by an unconscious effort of his mind. In this Tolstoy sees the solution of the riddle of reversal of time in dreams, which puzzled and made him wonder even when very young.

“I arrive at my brother’s and meet him on the front-steps with a gun and a dog. He invites me to come hunting with him, and I say that I have no gun. He replies that instead of a gun I can take, for some reason, a clarinet. I am not surprised and accompany him on his expedition over familiar meadows and woods. But these familiar places bring us to the seashore (which does not surprise me either). Ships are sailing on the sea, and they are also swans. My brother says: shoot. I obey, take the clarinet into my mouth but for some reason cannot blow into it. Well, he says, then I’ll do it, and shoots from his gun. And the shot is so loud that I wake up in my bed and see that it has been no shot, but the noise of the fallen folding a screen that stood by the window and has been toppled by the wind. We all know such dreams and are surprised: how can the incident that has just happened and wakened me have been prepared by all that I dreamed of and that led to this instantaneous occurrence?”

This is one of the later entries–made on 15 September, 1909, a little more than a year before Tolstoy’s death. The conclusion is pithy, seems to have been thought out long ago and has assumed perfect form: “This deception of time has, in my opinion, a great importance. The conclusion is that there is no time, and we imagine everything happen in time only because such is the nature of our mind” [57; 139-140].

Pondering over dreams, in which Tolstoy sees testimony of the absence of time and space, he arrives at the realization of his own being outside time and space, at an awareness of a "window", of “breaking through” into the sphere where one should not peep–into eternal perfect life, which is changed only by the conditions of our earthly existence. “Life in dreams shows what real life ought to be–before and after death–not bound by space and time. A life in which I can be all, everywhere and always” [55; 64].

In a notebook for 1908 Tolstoy wrote down a prayer he has composed for himself: “Help me, O Lord, to live outside time in the present and outside space in other times” [56; 357]

One of the earliest records of a dream was made by Tolstoy on 11 April, 1858. The dream is very characteristic, typical, perhaps even archetypical. Few people have not have a dream like this at one time or another as far as the external development of events in it goes.

“I dreamed that in my dark room a door was opened fearsomely, then noiselessly closed again. I was frightened, but assured myself that it had been the work of the wind. Somebody said to me: ‘Go and shut it’, and I went towards the door meaning to open it first, but somebody was holding me from behind. I wanted to run, but my legs did not obey me and I was gripped with undescribable horror. And then I awoke and was happy at the awakening.”

The plot is interesting not so much in itself, as in the interpretation Tolstoy gave it.

“What made me happy?” Tolstoy continues. “I regained consciousness and lost what I had had in my dream. Perhaps a person feels the same happiness when he dies? They say he loses the awareness of himself. But don’t I lose it when I fall asleep, do I? And yet I go on living” [48; 75].

Ten years later this dream will be repeated, in a way, in the last volume of War and Peace, erecting an impassable boundary between the last days of the wounded Prince Andrey and all of his former life. At first he dreams of many people he met before, but then the moment comes when “the one thing left was the question of closing the door. "He got up and went towards the door to close it and bolt it. Everything depended on whether he were in time to shut it or not. He was going, he was hurrying, but his legs would not move, he was gripped with terror, and he knew that he would not have time to shut the door, but still he was painfully straining every effort to do so. But something horrible forced the door from outside. And anagonizing terror came upon him."

“His last supernatural efforts are vain, and both leaves of the door are noiselessly opened. It comes in, and it is death. And Prince Andrey died. But at the instant when in his dream he died, Prince Andrey recollected that he was asleep; and at the instant when he was dying, he made an effort and waked up.

“‘Yes, that was death. I died and I waked up. Yes, death is an awakening,’ flashed with sudden light into his soul, and the veil that had till then hidden the unknown was lifted before his spiritual vision... With his awakening from sleep that day began for Prince Andrey an awakening from life.” (Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace. N.Y., 1965, p.916)

As the years went by, Tolstoy more and more often returned to the thought which had been revealed to him in his youth, and this thought took an ever clearer shape. And if he sometimes wavered, wondering what awakening really was, life or death, his mind became ever more definitely and firmly inclined in favor of death. Conducive to it was his attitude towards time and space as relative concepts, the fruit of our consciousness. The eternity and endlessness of the world, the absence of boundaries (“in no directions”) signify the eternity and endlessness of a person’s I and make possible its repeatability–ever new “fallings asleep into life” that we live in.

The perception of life as a period of sleep with countless changes from wakefulness to sleep and vice versa, does not exclude moral “sleep” or “wakefulness” that mark our present existence. “There is complete awakening–death, and there are incomplete awakenings in life itself” [57; 141]. Moral awakening, which Tolstoy never tired of urging, is the desire “to live in the things that are outside time and space: reason and love, things that bring people closer together. Reason leads people to unity, Love urges arouses the desire to unite with All”. A person wakes up when he realizes that he is asleep. “And this is man’s main purpose. To understand that everything temporal or spatial is sleep, and that the only real things in this dream are what is outside space and time: reason and love” [55; 65].

In 1897, Tolstoy visited Chekhov, who was ill, in a clinic and shared his ideas with him. Chekhov did not accept his reasoning and conclusions, writing: :He [...] believes that all of us [...] will live in the principle (reason,love) whose essence and purpose will forever remain a mystery for us. To me this principle or power appear as a shapeless jelly-like mass; all of me, my individuality, my consciousness are to be engulfed by this mass–I don’t want such immortality, I don’t understand it, while Lev Nikolayevich is surprised that I don’t understand.” 8

This “principle” as a visual image took shape in Tolstoy’s mind long before the conversation of the two writers, even long before his first ponderings about it found their way into his diary.

He saw this juxtaposition of sleep and death as very precise and expressive. The disinclination to lose the individuality given once and for all, as it were, was not of course indisputable, yet (yet!)... “you wake up and fall asleep to the sight of this life, but when you are born, you don’t know from where you have come, and when you die, you don’t know in which direction you depart” [57; 10].

Tolstoy repeatedly tried to find a connection between our present and past (or future) life, to find traces of the past life in our present. But each time he checked in himself that natural human desire to peep into “the great maybe”, as Rabelais, on his deathbed, called the eternity which had opened up to him.

“As we draw material for dreams from our entire preceding life,” Tolstoy wrote once, “so we draw material for our whole life “from another,past life: our sympathies and hates” [55; 64]. Then he crossed this sentence out.

On another occasion he tackled the problem differently. Complete sleep without dreams is life in another world. The memory of it disappears, but the moral consequences remain. “Our next life will be like this too: there will be no memory left of it, but there will be moral consequences, that is, you will become slightly better” [52; 25]. He concludes with the words: “This has just occurred to me, but I don’t believe it. And it is too definite.”

This is too definite, does not reach out beyond the range of our concepts and is subjugated to the logic by which we connect these concepts. Unquestionably, we have no power to peep beyond the threshold of awakening into death–neither in thought, nor in imagination. “I would like to be able to say that life before birth was perhaps the same, that the character which I have brought with me into life is the fruit of former awakenings, and that future life will be the same as well–I would like to be able to say it, but I have no right to say it because I cannot think outside time[...] To say what was before life and what will be after death, would mean to accept the manner of thinking peculiar to this life only, to use it to explain other forms of life, unknown to me”[57; 142].

While severely ill in 1901 and preparing for death, Tolstoy wrote: “Future life, life beyond the grave is as clear and obvious to me as the present life. It is not only clear and obvious–it is the same, the one and only life” [54; 107]. Tolstoy explained to his family and friends, apparently in all seriousness, that in his age and position, the only decent thing one can do, if fallen ill, is to die. But when his wife once expressed her agreement with this sentiment: “It is dull to live in old age, I’d like to die as soon as possible”, he protested vehemently: “No, one must live, life is so wonderful!..” 9

In Tolstoy’s diary for the last, unhappiest year 1910 we find, among other entries telling about his wish to die and the approach of death, the following: “It is time I awakened, that is, died. I sometimes sense this awakening and another, more real reality” [58; 21]. But the wonderful though trying reality in which he remains does not let go of him, is still full of fascination. In his last year he particularly enjoyed long rides, admired nature, the beauty of the woods, he liked picking wild flowers.

“I saw Tolstoy this summer,” wrote the sculptor Paolo Trubetskoy, who visited Yasnaya Poliana in 1910. “He has not changed his manner of living in the least. He rode every day, all by himself, as before.[...] No, he did not look like a man who was destined to die soon. But he kept thinking of death. I remember once riding with him, as usual, through springtime flowering meadows. [...] Tolstoy looked for a long time at the swollen buds on the trees, the blue sky, the sparkling moisture on the grass. It seemed that his glance wanted to scoop up all this living freshness and drink it.

“‘I have never,’ he said to me, ‘been as aware of all this beauty as today. I feel more sharply this undying loveliness now, when I must soon lose all this!..’” 10

How hard it was for him to pass into the “more real reality” from time and space. How hard it was for him to part with time and space, which he created himself, convinced that this world was “not a vale of trials only and transition into a better, eternal world, but one of eternal worlds, which is beautiful and joyful and which we not only can but must make more beautiful and joyful still for those who live alongside us and for those who will live in it after us” [52; 121]. The very idea of repeated returns to this world contains the need for such a return. Without it, did he see “the great may” as “nothing”? In his early years, while writing down the dream that he later passed to Prince Andrey, he asked himself: can man feel happy when dying? And already then, not yet weighed down with doubts and arguments, full of youthful vigor, he instinctively gave the answer: of course he can, if, waking into death, he at the same time wakes into life again, if he believes that nothing dies in this world without being born anew in it. “Nothing will die, and I shall never die and will be growing happier and happier for ever...” [48; 75]

Translated by Raisa Bobrova



Note 1: L.N.Tolstoy. Complete Collected works: In 90 vols. Moscow-Leningrad, 1928-1959 (in Russian). Vol. 48, p. 342. Back.

Note 2: This phenomenon was to be explained later by Pavel Florensky. See; P.A.Florensky. Iconostasis. Moscow, 1955, pp. 43-45 (in Russian) Back.

Note 3: Later, in War and Peace, Pierre will dream of his “benefactor”, an old mason who helped him to achieve moral awakening. It is likely that here is concealed an important autobiographical detail. Back.

Note 4: N.N.Gusev. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy: Materials of Biography from 1870 to 1881. Moscow, 1963, p.273 (in Russian). Back.

Note 5: The “mechanism of transformation” of impressions, realized and unrealized, into dreams, and a method of exploring this mechanism was shown by Yuri Lotman on the example of Nikolenka’s dream in the epilogue to War and Peace. Lotman based his deductions on Boris Eichenbaum’s work “The Legend about a Green Stick”. (See Yu.M.Lotman. “About Concealed Depths of Artistic Conception: The Decoding of an Obscure Passage in Reminiscences about Blok”; Yu.M.Lotman. About Poets and Poetry. Leningrad, 1966, pp. 671-672, in Russian). Back.

Note 6: Most students of Tolstoy believe that this is a reference to constable Ilya Loshadin in Chekhov’s short story “In the Line of Duty”. See: A.P.Checkov. Complete Works and Letters. In 30 vols. Moscow, 1974-1983. Vol. 10, pp. 400-401 (in Russian).

Marya Dmitriyevna is a character in Tolstoy’s long story “Khaji Murat”. The entry was made in 1901, when Tolstoy resumed work on the long story started in 1896. Back.

Note 7: See: L.N. Tolstoy. Complete Collected Works, Vol. 56 (in Russian) P. VIII–N.N.Gusev’s foreword to the volume. Back.

Note 8: A.P.Chekhov. Complete Works and Letters. Vol.6. Letters. P.332. Chekhov wrote to Suvorin at that time: “If the individuality is destroyed after death, then there is no life. I cannot comfort myself with the idea that I shall blend with worms and flies in world life which has a purpose. I don’t even know that purpose.” (Ibid., p. 630). Back.

Note 9: S.A.Tolstaya. Diaries. In 2 vols. Moscow, 1978. Vol 2, p.25 (in Russian). Back.

Note 10: See: Literaturnoye Nasledstvo. Moscow, 1965. Vol. 75, Book 2, p.392 (in Russian). Back.