Leo Tolstoy’s Masochistic Diary: I Am Guilty of “Sloth,” “Cowardice” & “Sissiness” (1851)


1850 was a tough year for Leo Tol­stoy. It was a time when his future suc­cess­es were impos­si­ble to see while his past fail­ures were all too obvi­ous. A few years pri­or, he had been thrown out of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Kazan. His teach­ers wrote him off as “both unable and unwill­ing to learn.” There­after, he went into a spi­ral of dis­so­lu­tion, first in St. Peters­burg and then in Moscow, where he drank, caroused and racked up some seri­ous gam­bling debts.

Yet Tol­stoy had ambi­tions beyond being just anoth­er debauched scion of the upper class. He strug­gled to improve him­self. So he start­ed a jour­nal in 1847 while recov­er­ing in a hos­pi­tal ward from vene­re­al dis­ease. Influ­enced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the future author of War and Peace sought to use the diary as a tool for self-explo­ration. For the first few years, he was an inter­mit­tent diarist. Then, in 1850, he took this tool to new lac­er­at­ing lev­els. Part psy­chother­a­py, part lit­er­ary explo­ration, part inquiry into the lim­its of nar­ra­tive and part straight up masochism, Tol­stoy set out to account for his every action dur­ing the day in what he called the “Jour­nal of Dai­ly Occu­pa­tions.”

He divid­ed his page into two columns. In “The Future” col­umn, he list­ed the things he planned to do the next day. In “The Past” col­umn, he judges him­self (harsh­ly) on how well he fol­lowed through on those plans, label­ing each one of his fail­ures with the appro­pri­ate sin – sloth, avarice etc. There was no col­umn for “The Present.”

You can see a selec­tion from his jour­nal, cour­tesy of schol­ar Iri­na Paper­no, who wrote a nice piece on Tol­stoy’s diary over at Salon. The diary entries below date from March, 1851:

24. Arose some­what late and read, but did not have time to write. Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cow­ardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cow­ardice). Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vod­ka, I did not escort him out (cow­ardice). At Ozerov’s argued about noth­ing (habit of argu­ing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cow­ardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weak­ness of ener­gy). Dur­ing gym­nas­tics did not walk the rope (cow­ardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness).—At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroit­sk tav­ern (lack of fierté). At home did not study Eng­lish (insuf­fi­cient firm­ness). At the Volkon­skys’ was unnat­ur­al and dis­tract­ed, and stayed until one in the morn­ing (dis­tract­ed­ness, desire to show off, and weak­ness of char­ac­ter).

25. [This is a plan for the next day, the 25th, writ­ten on the 24th—I.P.] From 10 to 11 yesterday’s diary and to read. From 11 to 12—gymnastics. From 12 to 1—English. Bek­lem­i­shev and Bey­er from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4—on horse­back. From 4 to 6—dinner. From 6 to 8—to read. From 8 to 10—to write.—To trans­late some­thing from a for­eign lan­guage into Russ­ian to devel­op mem­o­ry and style.—To write today with all the impres­sions and thoughts it gives rise to.—25. Awoke late out of sloth. Wrote my diary and did gym­nas­tics, hur­ry­ing. Did not study Eng­lish out of sloth. With Begichev and with Islavin was vain. At Beklemishev’s was cow­ard­ly and lack of fierté. On Tver Boule­vard want­ed to show off. I did not walk on foot to the Kaly­mazh­nyi Dvor (sissi­ness). Rode with a desire to show off. For the same rea­son rode to Ozerov’s.—Did not return to Kaly­mazh­nyi, thought­less­ness. At the Gor­chakovs’ dis­sem­bled and did not call things by their names, fool­ing myself. Went to L’vov’s out of insuf­fi­cient ener­gy and the habit of doing noth­ing. Sat around at home out of absent­mind­ed­ness and read Werther inat­ten­tive­ly, hur­ry­ing.

26 [This is a plan for the next day, the 26th, writ­ten on the 25th—I.P.] To get up at 5. Until 10—to write the his­to­ry of this day. From 10 to 12—fencing and to read. From 12 to 1—English, and if some­thing inter­feres, then in the evening. From 1 to 3—walking, until 4—gymnastics. From 4 to 6, dinner—to read and write.— (46:55).

Tolstoy’s regime of self-improve­ment wasn’t restrict­ed to this pun­ish­ing dai­ly account­ing of fail­ures. He also kept a “Jour­nal for Weak­ness­es,” which tal­lied up all of his moral fail­ures, arranged in columns for lazi­ness, inde­ci­sion, sen­su­al­i­ty etc., not to men­tion a series of note­books for rules: “Rules for life,” “Rules for devel­op­ing will,” and “Rules for play­ing cards in Moscow until Jan­u­ary 1.”

One gets the sense that there’s a real oppor­tu­ni­ty for a line of Tol­stoy­an self-help books. Six Pil­lars of Self-Fla­gel­la­tion, per­haps? 7 Habits of High­ly Effec­tive Moral Fail­ures? The Pow­er of Spir­i­tu­al Angst?

Read more about Tol­stoy’s jour­nal­ing over at Salon.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Find great works by Tol­stoy in our col­lec­tion, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

Rare Record­ing: Leo Tol­stoy Reads From His Last Major Work in Four Lan­guages, 1909

Vin­tage Footage of Leo Tol­stoy: Video Cap­tures the Great Nov­el­ist Dur­ing His Final Days

The Com­plete Works of Leo Tol­stoy Online: New Archive Will Present 90 Vol­umes for Free (in Russ­ian)

Leo Tolstoy’s Fam­i­ly Recipe for Mac­a­roni and Cheese

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of bad­gers and even more pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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  • Brooklynlou says:

    In ortho­dox the­ol­o­gy, these aren’t “sins” but “thoughts”. It may seem masochis­tic, but it looks like he is in effect doc­u­ment­ing how his con­scious­ness is dis­tort­ing real­i­ty on a day by day basis.

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