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A Confession

Part 3

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So I lived, abandoning myself to this insanity for another six
years, till my marriage.  During that time I went abroad.  Life in
Europe and my acquaintance with leading and learned Europeans
[Footnote:  Russians generally make a distinction between Europeans
and Russians. -- A.M.] confirmed me yet more in the faith of
striving after perfection in which I believed, for I found the same
faith among them.  That faith took with me the common form it
assumes with the majority of educated people of our day.  It was
expressed by the word 'progress'.  It then appeared to me that this
word meant something.  I did not as yet understand that, being
tormented (like every vital man) by the question how it is best for
me to live, in my answer, 'Live in conformity with progress', I was
like a man in a boat who when carried along by wind and waves
should reply to what for him is the chief and only question.
'whither to steer', by saying, 'We are being carried somewhere'.

I did not then notice this.  Only occasionally -- not by
reason but by instinct -- I revolted against this superstition so
common in our day, by which people hide from themselves their lack
of understanding of life....So, for instance, during my stay in
Paris, the sight of an execution revealed to me the instability of
my superstitious belief in progress.  When I saw the head part from
the body and how they thumped separately into the box, I
understood, not with my mind but with my whole being, that no
theory of the reasonableness of our present progress could justify
this deed; and that though everybody from the creation of the world
had held it to be necessary, on whatever theory, I knew it to be
unnecessary and bad; and therefore the arbiter of what is good and
evil is not what people say and do, nor is it progress, but it is
my heart and I.  Another instance of a realization that the
superstitious belief in progress is insufficient as a guide to
life, was my brother's death.  Wise, good, serious, he fell ill
while still a young man, suffered for more than a year, and died
painfully, not understanding why he had lived and still less why he
had to die.  No theories could give me, or him, any reply to these
questions during his slow and painful dying.  But these were only
rare instances of doubt, and I actually continued to live
professing a faith only in progress.  'Everything evolves and I
evolve with it:  and why it is that I evolve with all things will
be known some day.'  So I ought to have formulated my faith at that
time.

On returning from abroad I settled in the country and chanced
to occupy myself with peasant schools.  This work was particularly
to my taste because in it I had not to face the falsity which had
become obvious to me and stared me in the face when I tried to
teach people by literary means.  Here also I acted in the name of
progress, but I already regarded progress itself critically.  I
said to myself:  'In some of its developments progress has
proceeded wrongly, and with primitive peasant children one must
deal in a spirit of perfect freedom, letting them choose what path
of progress they please.'  In reality I was ever revolving round
one and the same insoluble problem, which was:  How to teach
without knowing what to teach.  In the higher spheres of literary
activity I had realized that one could not teach without knowing
what, for I saw that people all taught differently, and by
quarrelling among themselves only succeeded in hiding their
ignorance from one another.  But here, with peasant children, I
thought to evade this difficulty by letting them learn what they
liked.  It amuses me now when I remember how I shuffled in trying
to satisfy my desire to teach, while in the depth of my soul I knew
very well that I could not teach anything needful for I did not
know what was needful.  After spending a year at school work I went
abroad a second time to discover how to teach others while myself
knowing nothing.

And it seemed to me that I had learnt this aborad, and in the
year of the peasants' emancipation (1861) I returned to Russia
armed with all this wisdom, and having become an Arbiter [Footnote:
To keep peace between peasants and owners.--A.M.] I began to teach,
both the uneducated peasants in schools and the educated classes
through a magazine I published.  Things appeared to be going well,
but I felt I was not quite sound mentally and that matters could
not long continue in that way.  And I should perhaps then have come
to the state of despair I reached fifteen years later had there not
been one side of life still unexplored by me which promised me
happiness:  that was my marriage.

For a year I busied myself with arbitration work, the schools,
and the magazine; and I became so worn out -- as a result
especially of my mental confusion -- and so hard was my struggle as
Arbiter, so obscure the results of my activity in the schools, so
repulsive my shuffling in the magazine (which always amounted to
one and the same thing:  a desire to teach everybody and to hide
the fact that I did not know what to teach), that I fell ill,
mentally rather than physically, threw up everything, and went away
to the Bashkirs in the steppes, to breathe fresh air, drink kumys
[Footnote: A fermented drink prepared from mare's milk.--A. M.],
and live a merely animal life.

Returning from there I married.  The new conditions of happy
family life completely diverted me from all search for the general
meaning of life.  My whole life was centred at that time in my
family, wife and children, and therefore in care to increase our
means of livelihood.  My striving after self-perfection, for which
I had already substituted a striving for perfection in general,
i.e. progress, was now again replaced by the effort simply to
secure the best possible conditions for myself and my family.

So another fifteen years passed.

In spite of the fact that I now regarded authorship as of no
importance -- the temptation of immense monetary rewards and
applause for my insignificant work -- and I devoted myself to it as
a means of improving my material position and of stifling in my
soul all questions as to the meaning of my own life or life in
general.

I wrote:  teaching what was for me the only truth, namely,
that one should live so as to have the best for oneself and one's
family.

So I lived; but five years ago something very strange began to
happen to me.  At first I experienced moments of perplexity and
arrest of life, and though I did not know what to do or how to
live; and I felt lost and became dejected.  But this passed and I
went on living as before.  Then these moments of perplexity began
to recur oftener and oftener, and always in the same form.  They
were always expressed by the questions:  What is it for?  What does
it lead to?

At first it seemed to me that these were aimless and
irrelevant questions.  I thought that it was all well known, and
that if I should ever wish to deal with the solution it would not
cost me much effort; just at present I had no time for it, but when
I wanted to I should be able to find the answer.  The questions
however began to repeat themselves frequently, and to demand
replies more and more insistently; and like drops of ink always
falling on one place they ran together into one black blot.

Then occurred what happens to everyone sickening with a mortal
internal disease.  At first trivial signs of indisposition appear
to which the sick man pays no attention; then these signs reappear
more and more often and merge into one uninterrupted period of
suffering.  The suffering increases, and before the sick man can
look round, what he took for a mere indisposition has already
become more important to him than anything else in the world -- it
is death!

That is what happened to me.  I understood that it was no
casual indisposition but something very important, and that if
these questions constantly repeated themselves they would have to
be answered.  And I tried to answer them.  The questions seemed
such stupid, simple, childish ones; but as soon as I touched them
and tried to solve them I at once became convinced, first, that
they are not childish and stupid but the most important and
profound of life's questions; and secondly that, occupying myself
with my Samara estate, the education of my son, or the writing of
a book, I had to know *why* I was doing it.  As long as I did not
know why, I could do nothing and could not live.  Amid the thoughts
of estate management which greatly occupied me at that time, the
question would suddenly occur:  'Well, you will have 6,000
desyatinas [Footnote: The desyatina is about 2.75 acres.--A.M.] of
land in Samara Government and 300 horses, and what then?' ... And
I was quite disconcerted and did not know what to think.  Or when
considering plans for the education of my children, I would say to
myself:  'What for?'  Or when considering how the peasants might
become prosperous, I would suddenly say to myself:  'But what does
it matter to me?'  Or when thinking of the fame my works would
bring me, I would say to myself, 'Very well; you will be more
famous than Gogol or Pushkin or Shakespeare or Moliere, or than all
the writers in the world -- and what of it?'  And I could find no
reply at all.  The questions would not wait, they had to be
answered at once, and if I did not answer them it was impossible to
live.  But there was no answer.

I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that
I had nothing left under my feet.  What I had lived on no longer
existed, and there was nothing left.