It is difficult for people of the present age not only to understand the cause of their miserable condition, but even to grasp the fact that their condition is miserable. This is chiefly due to the principal calamity of the age which is called progress and which manifests itself in a feverish anxiety, hurry, strenuous labour directed towards the production of useless, nay, manifestly harmful, things, in maintaining a state of constant intoxication by following up ever new senseless occupations which absorb their whole time, and, above all, in a boundless conceit. Life is buzzing with the Zeppelins, submarines, dreadnoughts, sky-scrapers fifty stories high, parliaments, theatres, wireless telegraphs, congresses, armies millions strong, navies, professors of all sorts of schools, milliards of books, newspapers, discussions, speeches and investigations. In this fit of restlessness, hurry, anxiety, in this strenuous labour invariably directed towards the production of unnecessary or plainly harmful things, people are so delighted towards the production of unnecessary or plainly harmful things, people are so delighted with themselves that they not only do not see, do not wish to see, and in fact cannot see their own insanity, but are proud of it, expect great things from it, and in anticipation of these great blessings subject themselves to ever greater and greater intoxication by means of all sorts of new senseless occupations with the sole object of dulling their conscience in order to take life easily. People are sinking deeper and deeper into hopeless and insoluble economic, political, scientific, æsthetical, and ethical contradictions.

On Insanity by Leo Tolstoy, tr. by Ludvig Perno, C.W. Daniel Co. Ltd., London, 1936. PDF (2MB).

UPDATE–February 17, 2013. This post was updated to take into account the official English translation by Ludvig Perno (1936) after a generous reader provided me with a copy.

Below is the recent (2012) French translation of the very same excerpt. :

Il est difficile aux hommes de notre monde non seulement de comprendre la cause de leur situation désastreuse, mais d’avoir conscience du caractère désastreux de cette situation, principale conséquence du désastre essentiel de notre temps qui s’appelle le progrès et qui se manifeste par une angoisse fébrile, une précipitation, une tension dans un travail ayant pour but ce qui est absolument inutile ou à l’évidence nuisible, par une ivresse permanente de soi-même dans des entreprises constamment renouvelées qui dévorent tout le temps dont on dispose et, surtout, par une fatuité sans borne. Il y a là des dirigeables, des sous-marins, des dreadnoughts, des immeubles de cinquante étages, des parlements, des théâtres, des télégraphes sans fil, des congrès de la paix, des armées de million d’hommes, des flottes de guerre, des professeurs d’écoles de toutes sortes, des milliards de livres, de journaux, de réflexions, de discours, de recherches. Et pris dans cette vaine agitation fébrile, dans cette précipitation, dans cette angoisse, dans cette tension provoquée par un travail ayant toujours comme but ce qui est absolument inutile et de toute évidence nuisible, se trouvant en outre dans une telle admiration immuable de soi-même, au point que non seulement les hommes ne voient pas, mais ne veulent pas, ne peuvent pas voir leur propre folie, et ils en sont fiers, les hommes en attendent toutes sortes de bienfaits sublimes, et dans cette espérance ils s’enivrent de plus en plus dans des entreprises constamment nouvelles qui n’ont qu’un seul et unique dessein ― s’oublier, et ils s’enlisent de plus en plus profondément dans une impasse, dans des contradictions aussi bien politiques et économiques que scientifiques, esthétiques et éthiques insolubles. (Du suicide by Leon Tolstoy, tr. by Bernard Kreise, Paris: L’Herne, [1910]2012, pp. 32-34.)

Tolstoy reads a draft of his article “On Madness” (1910). Retrieved from The Death of Tolstoy by William Nickell (2010, p. 23)
Original captions from William Nickell’s book The Death of Tolstoy (2010, p. 23): “Tolstoy reads a draft of his article “On Madness” to a circle of Tolstoyans. From left to right are F. A. Strakhov, Valentin Bulgakov, the physician A. S. Buturlin, the skopets A. Ya. Grigor’ev, Chertkov, M. P. Balakin, Dushan Makovitskii, Anna Chertkova, L. P. Sergeenko and the actor P. N. Orlenev.

This text –sometimes referred to as On Madness sometimes as On Insanity– started as a short article on suicide which was first published in Russkoe slovo on March 9, 19101. In the spring and summer of 1910, Tolstoy worked on a longer version that was supposed to be titled “O bezumii” (“On Madness” or “On Insanity”). In order to document his research, he visited two psychiatric hospitals in June and read numerous psychiatric books2. Unfortunately, the extended essay was never finished: Tolstoy died on November 20 of the same year (or November 7 in Old Style date). It was first published posthumously in 1936 in the 38th volume of his Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (see pages 395 through 418). It was translated into English the very same year by Ludvig Perno, the “british arm of Tolstoy’s publishing business” (for more information see sludgegulper’s photostream on Flickr). Used copies of the first edition are still sold online.

In his book The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910, William Nickell presents the context in which Tolstoy’s essay came to be. He writes about the “fin de siècle” attitude prevailing in Europe at the time and the consequences it was believed to be associated with:

At the turn of the century this disturbing notion appeared to be realizing itself in the growing trend toward suicide among the young throughout Europe, leading Freud to convene his 1910 conference and his Russian colleague Spielrein to formulate the notion of the death instinct. Tolstoy had also responded earlier in a short newspaper piece “On Suicide,” and he worked on a longer article throughout the spring and summer of 1910. He emphasized the unnaturalness of suicide, arguing that one could not destroy life. Instead, one could only pervert its form by artificially bringing it to end. As to the resilience of “real life” (the life of the spirit), he cited the example of a monk at Optina who had lived for thirty years in a state of almost complete paralysis but had served as a model of moral courage and spiritual resilience for thousands of visitors to the monastery. Reading this selection, which was also republished in an anthology on suicide and as a separate pamphlet, one sense that this is another chapter in Tolstoy’s long effort to rhetorically master his own “death instinct.” He himself had considered suicide on more than one occasion and explicitly connected his religious conversion to his own existential despair. His Confession is in many respect an effort to rationalize his failure to take what had appeared to him as the most logical step―suicide, which he acknowledge was the path of honor and strength by which to escape the horrifying knowledge of the ultimate emptiness of life. (The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910, by William Nickell, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010, p. 154)

Here are some complementary resources pertaining to the quote by Leon Tolstoy along with complementary resources pertaining to the theme of madness (or insanity) and to the idea that man’s futile existence is unbearable:

  • Of course there’s William Nickel’s book The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010). See Google Books, Amazon as well as Cornell University Press’s official website. Times Higher Education has a very positive review of the book: “Final photocall for Tolstoy” by Robin Feuer Miller, October 28, 2010. William Nickel also produced a companion website for his book: The Death of Tolstoy.
  • Featured here previously: Mark Twain’s quote on madness.
  • Also featured here: Michel Foucault on man’s insanity and on the madman’s relation to differences and analogies.
  • About the fact that we make up stories to cover the madness of life, Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5):

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

  • About the importance of futile activities to keep us numbed to our own insignificance, the very penetrating thoughts of Blaise Pascal on the function of diversion (in Brunschvicg, § 139: see complete edition in French / English):

    This is all that men have been able to discover to make themselves happy. And those who philosophise on the matter, and who think men unreasonable for spending a whole day in chasing a hare which they would not have bought, scarce know our nature. The hare in itself would not screen us from the sight of death and calamities; but the chase, which turns away our attention from these, does screen us.

  • On being incapable to recognize the situation for what it is because of our hopes: Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound (English translation by Herbert Weir Smyth, Ph. D. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 1926, lines 249-250):

    Chorus―Did you perhaps transgress even somewhat beyond this offence?
    Prometheus―Yes, I caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom [of death].
    Chorus―Of what sort was the cure that you found for this affliction?
    Prometheus―I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.
    Chorus–A great benefit was this you gave to mortals.

  • This entry is filed under the category “communication” for two reasons. From a very broad perspective, communication has to do with the condition of our coexistence, with the fact that we are trying for better or worse to live together and with the means we develop and use to solve this problem. However, the various means of communication we use in this effort are both helpful and destructive (hence the two reasons). This essential ambiguity of the communicative process is starting to be more widely recognized, although we still largely tend to give communication (and community for that matter) a positive value.

    On one hand, communication is destruction: this has been the case from the first use of a biface stone all the way to Georges Bataille. On the other hand, communication is helpful. This aspect appears in Tolstoy’s quote: together, we’re working very hard to forget our “own madness”. This property of the communication process is very clearly identify in this quote from Vilém Flusser:

    The purpose of human communication is to make us forget the meaningless context in which we are completely alone and incommunicado, that is, the world in which we are condemned to solitary confinement and death: the world of “nature.”

    Human communication is an artistic technique whose intention it is to make us forget the brutal meaninglessness of a life condemned to death. By “nature,” man is a solitary animal, because he knows that he will die and that his community will not matter in the hour of his death: everyone must die alone. Moreover, every hour is potentially the hour of death. Certainly, no one can live with the knowledge of this fundamental solitude and meaninglessness. Human communication spins a veil around us in the form of the codified world. This veil is made from science and art, philosophy and religion, and it is spun increasingly denser, so that we forget our solitude and death, including the deaths of others whom we love. In short, man communicates with others. He is a “political animal,” not because he is a social animal, but because he is a solitary animal who cannot live in solitude.3

  • Finally, Sabina Spielrein’s article quoted in the long excerpt from William Nickel’s book was first published in 1912 as “Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens”, Jb. psychoanal. psychopathol. Forsch, 4, pp. 465-503. It was republished in English as “Destruction as the cause of coming into being” in April 1994 in the Journal of Analytical Psychology, Volume 39, Issue 2, pages 155–186 (PDF).

    Lately, Sabina Spielrein was given a wider recognition as one of the main character in David Cronenberg’s movie A Dangerous Method (in which she’s played by English actress Keira Knightley).

    Sigmund Freud later developed Spielrein’s theory into his own theory of “death drive” (the correct translation for Todestrieb is “death drive”, not “death instinct”). It first appears in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle (first published in German as Jenseits des Lustprinzips in 1920).

• • •

1. This is according to William Nickell’s book The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910 (Cornell University Press, 2010, p. 200, note 43). In the introduction he wrote for L’Herne edition, Bernard Kreise suggests that Tolstoy started to work on his article on March 28. The difference between Old Style and New Style dates doesn’t account for this discrepancy. ↩︎︎

2. Bernard Kreise, Paris: L’Herne, [1910]2012, p. 14 ↩︎︎

3.See “What Is Communication?” in Writings by Vilém Flusser, ed. by Andreas Ströhl, tr. by Erik Eisel, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, p. 4 (Google books). This essay was written in 1973–74 and originally published as “Was ist Kommunikation?” in Kommunikologie, Schriften 4 (ed. Vera Eckstein and Stefan Bollmann, Mannheim: Bollmann, 1996). I first found out about this quote via Etherealisation. ↩︎︎


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