Meaningful Searches, Exits and Traps

Meaningful Searches, Exits and Traps

The (Post-)Modern Search for Meaning:

Tolstoy’s Escape from the Trap

A Reflection by Sean Howard

For the last few years, a close friend has been complaining, with light touch but increasingly heavy heart, of a deep-seated creative malaise, an impasse in his search for an authentic voice and message. Among other sources, his depression can be traced to his intense and academically accomplished engagement with Wittgenstein, whose humbling exposé of the ‘language game’ – and, therewith, what my friend calls “capital-P Philosophy” – leaves him both full of admiration and “with everything – and nothing – to say”. Or, rather, with a desire to say ‘something true’ thwarted by sensitivity to the unrealizable nature of any such (language-based) project. Behind this blockage, we both suspect, lurks the Nietzschean dissolution of, indisseverably, our union with God and God’s with the Word. ‘The Word is dead, long live words’; Nietzsche was trying to open a door to ourselves, roll the stone from the tomb we’re inside, yet for many of his ‘last men’ (and women), the desire for self-expression still rubs (itself out) against the paradoxically definitive absence of modernity.


The vital clues to my own solution of ‘The Problem’ (the challenge set so bravely to us all (and himself) by Nietzsche) were provided by Carl Jung, whose work posits an entirely different kind of Grand Source – The Self – for both personal and transpersonal meaning. At the core of Jung’s own life-work was a struggle to shape a new ‘myth for our time,’{{1}}the resurrection from the ‘God’-grave not of a Creator transcending humanity but the self-transcending creativity of the psyche. For Jung, Nietzsche’s error, the ominous turn from depression to inflation, was to search for the new hero in the sphere of the ego: ‘God is Dead, Long Live Superman.’ Yet, I would guess, for every ‘Jungian’ – everyone, that is, who sees in the psyche the implication of a guiding, healing power – there are many more ‘Nietzscheans,’ or ‘last-landers,’ dismissing such ideas merely as metaphysics revamped, new clothes for a dead emperor.


In 1879, when Jung was an infant, the 51-year-old Leo Tolstoy stood at the dizzy summit of his life: a prolific and world-famous writer, a happy husband and father, in excellent health, immensely wealthy. From which height he fell, almost overnight, into the Nietzschean pit. Everything he had hitherto believed, or assumed he did, he wrote, could be summed up in one word, the most pervasive and pernicious of his age, ‘Progress’: “Like any individual, I was tormented by questions of how to live better. I still had not understood that in answering that one must live according to progress, I was talking just like a person being carried along in a boat by the waves and the wind; without really answering, such a person replies to the only important question – ‘Where are we to steer?’ – by saying, ‘We are being carried somewhere.’”{{2}}


As a “literary teacher” suddenly without faith in his secular god, Tolstoy was confronted with an “insoluble problem”: “how to teach without knowing what I was teaching.”{{3}} Whether writing, reading, managing his estate, spending time with his family – “I had to know,” he said, “why I was doing these things,” and “I could find absolutely no reply” except the insufferable “truth…that life is meaningless.”{{4}} This truth he found confirmed in the profoundest philosophical and spiritual works he knew. For Socrates, meaning is something “we move closer to…only to the extent that we move further from life”: “The wise man seeks death all his life”. For Schopenhauer, “this universe of ours” which seems “so real, with all its suns and galaxies, is itself nothingness.” “Vanity of vanities,” the Book of Solomon cries, “all is vanity.” And the Buddha: “We must free ourselves from life and from all possibility of life.”{{5}} There have been ‘last men’ around for a very long time, it seems, and their worst and most ironic torment has always been the pointlessness of knowledge. We “cannot cease to know what we know,”{{6}} Tolstoy wrote – yet the one thing we need to know, how to live in meaning, can never be known. In art, too, irrespective of form or medium, only the unnecessary is expressible; and yet, like Tantalus, we can no more stop thirsting, wetting our lips to say more, than we can ever hope to find relief.


There are “for the people of my class,” Tolstoy noted, “four means of escaping” this “terrible situation”. The first is “ignorance,” mercifully “failing to…understand that life is evil and meaningless.” The second, “fully aware of the hopelessness of life,” is “epicureanism”, “enjoying for the present the blessings that we do have” – gifts provided, as Tolstoy concedes, by the hard labour and suffering of others. The third ‘escape’ is suicide, or “strength and energy” as Tolstoy calls it, “destroying life once one has realized…the stupidity of the joke that is being played on us.” And the fourth is “weakness,” “continuing to drag out a life,” knowing “beforehand that nothing can come of it.”{{7}}


From this tempting menu, Tolstoy ordered ‘No. 3’, suicide, only to be served, again and again, with what he took to be the perennial house-special, cowardice. In retrospect, however, he saw “that if I did not kill myself, it was because I had some vague notion that my ideas were all wrong. However convincing and unquestionable the train of my thoughts and the thoughts of the wise seemed to me, the ideas that had led us to affirm the meaninglessness of life, I still had some obscure doubt about the point of departure of my reflections.”{{8}} Sociologically, this ‘point of departure’ was his class, an utterly atypical and profoundly parasitic position of privilege and excess. And in reflecting on this artificial, constructed aspect of his crisis, Tolstoy began to meditate on its opposite, the still-natural (‘unprogressive’) ways of being human in the world:


I would not be speaking the truth if I were to say that it was through reason that I had arrived at this point without killing myself. Reason was at work, but there was something else at work too, something I can only call a consciousness of life… This force led me to focus my attention on the fact that like…others of my class I was not the whole of humanity, and that I still did not know what the life of humanity was.{{9}}


The question of meaning, recast in this way, invites an ethical – that is, a lived – response, a participatory mode of inquiry far broader than the compass of philosophic investigation. “My straying,” he now saw, “had resulted not so much from wrong thinking as from bad living. I realized that the truth had been hidden from me not so much because my thoughts were in error as because my life had been squandered in the satisfaction of lusts, spent under the exceptional conditions of epicureanism. I realized that in asking, ‘What is my life?’ and then answering, ‘An evil,’ I was entirely correct. The error lay in the fact that I had taken an answer that applied only to myself and applied it to life in general…”{{10}}


What, then, was this ‘hidden’ truth? For three years, Tolstoy sought it in the strict ritual observance of the Russian Orthodox faith, keeping any doubts he had even from himself. “At that time,” he wrote, “I found it so necessary to believe in order to live that I unconsciously hid from myself the contradictions and the obscurities in the religious teachings.”{{11}} It took a moral absurdity, the Church’s support for the Czarist state in the Russo-Turkish War, to break the spell and open the road to the radical political stance of the last thirty years of his life; an advocacy, in word and deed, of pacifist communalism, or ‘Christian anarchism,’ as it became known. The Church, he acknowledged, contained a real “knowledge of the truth”, but “in these teachings there was also a lie,” and even among the most devout believers this “lie was mixed with the truth.”{{12}} To see this blend, Tolstoy realized, to acknowledge both shadow and sun, the light of reason was required; just as the severe limits of reason require illumination from outside, the ‘other worlds’ of heart, faith, spirit and dream. Here is his conclusion:


I shall not seek an explanation of all things. I know that the explanation of all things, like the origin of all things, must remain hidden in infinity. But I do want to understand in order that I might be brought to the inevitably incomprehensible; I want all that is incomprehensible to be such not because the demands of the intellect are not sound (they are sound, and apart from them I understand nothing) but because I perceive the limits of the intellect. I want to understand, so that any instance of the incomprehensible occurs as a necessity of reason and not as an obligation to believe.{{13}}


This position, I think, resonates powerfully with Jung’s view of the conscious ego, the rational self, as a ‘storm lantern,’ the “little light”{{14}} of consciousness assisting human passage through a fiercely beautiful, far more than meaningful, world. It also accords with a defence of philosophy by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. We “are not enriched,” Borges said, by the “solutions” of philosophy, its metaphysical claims to truth, as “these solutions” are unavoidably “doubtful” and necessarily “arbitrary”: “But philosophy does enrich us by demonstrating that the world is more mysterious than we thought.” Philosophy as an interface between reason and mystery, the demonstrable and the ineffable; and is this not also the liminal ‘home’, the porous border, of poetry? Borges thinks it is, that philosophy “is exactly the same as poetry, although the syntax is from two distinct places,” and that “philosophy deserves a place in the order of aesthetics.”{{15}}


In exploring this comparative syntax, as he intends to, I hope and believe that my friend will trace his own way back to what Borges’ calls ‘The Sea’{{16}} – Jung’s ‘Self’, perhaps – that both answers and transcends our calling:


Before our human dream (or terror) wove

Mythologies, cosmogonies, and love,

Before time coined its substance into days,

The sea, the always sea, existed: was.

Who is the sea? Who is that violent being,

Violent and ancient, who gnaws the foundations

Of earth? He is both one and many oceans;

He is abyss and splendor, chance and wind.

Who looks on the sea, sees it the first time,

Every time, with the wonder distilled

From elementary things – from beautiful

Evenings, the moon, the leap of a bonfire.

Who is the sea, and who am I? The day

That follows my last agony shall say.



[[1]] The phrase is adapted from the title of Marie-Louise von Franz’s study, C.G. Jung: His Myth In Our Time, Inner City Books, 1998.[[1]]
[[2]] Tolstoy, Confession (1884), translated by David Patterson, W.W. Norton & Company, 1983, p. 22.[[2]]
[[3]] Ibid., p. 24.[[3]]
[[4]] Ibid., pp. 26-27.[[4]]
[[5]] Quoted in Part VI of Confession, op. cit., pp. 40-49.[[5]]
[[6]] Ibid., p. 49.[[6]]
[[7]] Ibid., pp. 49-52.[[7]]
[[8]] Ibid., p. 52.[[8]]
[[9]] Ibid., p. 55.[[9]]
[[10]] Ibid., p. 68.[[10]]
[[11]] Ibid., p. 80.[[11]]
[[12]] Ibid., p. 89.[[12]]
[[13]] Ibid., pp. 90-91.[[13]]
[[14]] Jung’s phrase, quoted by von Franz in C.G. Jung: His Myth In Our Time, op. cit., p. 46.[[14]]
[[15]] From ‘The Destiny of Borges,’ extracts from a 1984 interview with the author (conducted by three philosophy professors) featured in Harper’s Magazine, April 2008, pp. 21-22.[[15]]
[[16]] ‘The Sea,’ translated by John Updike, in Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems 1923-1967, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 235.[[16]]

Sean Howard moved to Nova Scotia from England in 1999. His poetry has been published in Canadian journals including Geist, Other Voices, Quills, Prairie Journal, The Antigonish Review, The Nashwaak Review and Prairie Fire as well as zafusy (UK) and 4AM Poetry Review (USA). Sean holds a Ph.D in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, UK, and is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University, pursuing research interests in nuclear disarmament and the philosophy of science. A recent paper – ‘Very Different Butterflies’: The Scope for Deep Complementarity Between Western and Native American Science’ – was published in ‘The Pari Dialogues: Essays in Science, Religion, Society and the Arts’ (Pari Publishing, 2007). To view some more of Sean’s poetry on-line, visit
Copyright ©2009 by Sean Howard. All Rights Reserved.

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