Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Discussion Question

Tolstoy's Dream

One of the most powerful (and eloquently short) spiritual autobiographies of modern times is Leo Tolstoy's A Confession. (It is the kind of book that people like to underline, so the book version is a lot better for that reason; but if you'd like to see it as an online text, you can click here or go to our Tolstoy homepage.)

The book is about Tolstoy's growing sense of meaninglessness as he grows into his middle years, despite his being a good person, his fame and wealth, and his being loved by many friends and all his family members. In this book, Tolstoy struggles ­much as Qoheleth (or Solomon?) in The Book of Ecclesiastes struggles ­ with questions about emptiness and meaninglessness that have been so common among spiritually alive persons in all ages.

(For some reviews of this book by current readers, see amazon.com reviews here.)

In any case, toward the end of that book Tolstoy reports the following dream, and it is about this dream that I would like to see your reflections.

Here are Tolstoy's words.

Tolstoy says:

The foregoing was written by me some three years ago, and will be printed.

Now a few days ago, when revising it and returning to the line of thought and to the feelings I had when I was living through it all, I had a dream. This dream expressed in condensed form all that I had experienced and described, and I think therefore that, for those who have understood me, a description of this dream will refresh and elucidate and unify what has been set forth at such length in the foregoing pages. The dream was this:

I saw that I was lying on a bed. I was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable: I was lying on my back. But I began to consider how, and on what, I was lying - a question which had not till then occurred to me. And observing my bed, I saw I was lying on plaited string supports attached to its sides: my feet were resting on one such support, by calves on another, and my legs felt uncomfortable. I seemed to know that those supports were movable, and with a movement of my foot I pushed away the furthest of them at my feet - it seemed to me that it would be more comfortable so. But I pushed it away too far and wished to reach it again with my foot, and that movement caused the next support under my calves to slip away also, so that my legs hung in the air. I made a movement with my whole body to adjust myself, fully convinced that I could do so at once; but the movement caused the other supports under me to slip and to become entangled, and I saw that matters were going quite wrong: the whole of the lower part of my body slipped and hung down, though my feet did not reach the ground. I was holding on only by the upper part of my back, and not only did it become uncomfortable but I was even frightened. And then only did I ask myself about something that had not before occurred to me. I asked myself: Where am I and what am I lying on? and I began to look around and first of all to look down in the direction which my body was hanging and whither I felt I must soon fall. I looked down and did not believe my eyes. I was not only at a height comparable to the height of the highest towers or mountains, but at a height such as I could never have imagined.

I could not even make out whether I saw anything there below, in that bottomless abyss over which I was hanging and whither I was being drawn. My heart contracted, and I experienced horror. To look thither was terrible. If I looked thither I felt that I should at once slip from the last support and perish. And I did not look. But not to look was still worse, for I thought of what would happen to me directly I fell from the last support. And I felt that from fear I was losing my last supports, and that my back was slowly slipping lower and lower. Another moment and I should drop off. And then it occurred to me that this cannot be real. It is a dream. Wake up! I try to arouse myself but cannot do so. What am I to do? What am I to do? I ask myself, and look upwards. Above, there is also an infinite space. I look into the immensity of sky and try to forget about the immensity below, and I really do forget it. The immensity below repels and frightens me; the immensity above attracts and strengthens me. I am still supported above the abyss by the last supports that have not yet slipped from under me; I know that I am hanging, but I look only upwards and my fear passes. As happens in dreams, a voice says: "Notice this, this is it!" And I look more and more into the infinite above me and feel that I am becoming calm. I remember all that has happened, and remember how it all happened; how I moved my legs, how I hung down, how frightened I was, and how I was saved from fear by looking upwards. And I ask myself: Well, and now am I not hanging just the same? And I do not so much look round as experience with my whole body the point of support on which I am held. I see that I no longer hang as if about to fall, but am firmly held. I ask myself how I am held: I feel about, look round, and see that under me, under the middle of my body, there is one support, and that when I look upwards I lie on it in the position of securest balance, and that it alone gave me support before. And then, as happens in dreams, I imagined the mechanism by means of which I was held; a very natural intelligible, and sure means, though to one awake that mechanism has no sense. I was even surprised in my dream that I had not understood it sooner. It appeared that at my head there was a pillar, and the security of that slender pillar was undoubted though there was nothing to support it. From the pillar a loop hung very ingeniously and yet simply, and if one lay with the middle of one's body in that loop and looked up, there could be no question of falling. This was all clear to me, and I was glad and tranquil. And it seemed as if someone said to me: "See that you remember."

And I awoke.


Discussion Questions

In The Book of Job, Elihu tells us that God speaks to man in two ways, one of which is in his dreams (this was one of your study questions for Job). Do you recall the other way?

What do you think is being communicated in this dream? In your mind, what does it seem to be saying? And what is it about the dream that leads you to think that?

Toward the end of this dream a voice says: "Mark this, this is it!" What exactly do think the voice is telling Tolstoy to pay special attention to?

The last line in the dream (and in the book) tells Tolstoy: "See that you remember." What exactly do you think he is to remember?