Monday, June 19, 2017

"The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and "The Death of Ivan Lvovich" TWO OF THE DEATHS IN TOLSTOY'S LIFE

In the 1980s I wrote a short story called "The Death of Ivan Lvovich," based on an actual event: the visit of the then young writer Ivan Bunin to Tolstoy's home in Moscow in 1895, shortly after the death of another Ivan (Vanya, Vanechka), the last beloved son of Tolstoy. The story has obvious parallels with "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."

First published in a Russian miscellany, Ostanovit'sja Nel'zja (Vypusk No. 11, Great Novgorod, 2014, p. 181-188), the story was republished in my collection of short stories called Googlegogol (2016). Here it is in full.

                                                       The Death of Ivan Lvovich
Why am I telling it? This is a story that he could not tell, and he was the Master. I, Ivan Alekseevich Bunin, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1933, am his humble epigone. I’m sitting idle here in France, waiting out the Second Great War. With all the years of my Collected Works moribund on the shelves behind me, in a time long removed from that frosty March evening when Lev Tolstoy put his arm around my shoulders. Thinking of a dead son. First my Kolya had scarlet fever; a month later it was measles. Nothing that serious. Then he got endocarditis. It was all over on Jan. 16, 1905. Four years old.
            But what I’m telling, the thing of the arm around the shoulders, happened in late winter of 1895. In Moscow. There was no “Soviet Union” yet, and Hitler, who was six, still had time to be an angel. I was a young writer, aged twenty-five, exulting in him, Tolstoy the Master. One day the ecstasies of youth summoned me up and transported me to that large white house in Khamovniki District, where the Tolstoy family spent its winters. I was writing bad poetry then, plus a few gushing, febrile stories. I hoped, somehow, that the mere presence of the Great One would rub off some glory on me.
            I had been there once before; they knew me. The old man respected the Bunin family, the ancient noble stock. He had met my father once, during the Crimean War, when they both were serving in the army. His butler, a doddering creature in faded livery, received me, took my coat and overshoes. He crept off to announce my arrival, returned, led me up the staircase. A stuffed bear, killed by the Master on a hunt, stood in a welcoming pose at the top of the steps, holding out a tray for calling cards. Since I had nothing for him, I just followed the butler on down the murky hallway. The poor bear looked aggrieved, and a sense of guilty unease passed over me, as if I had just snubbed a beggar on the street.
            The decrepit butler nodded toward a door on the right, bowed his bony shoulders, and hobbled away. My knuckles rapped softly, and that hoarse alto voice called out, “Come in.” When I entered the dimness of the cramped room, illumined by a candelabra, I saw a leather divan beside the table with two lit candles, and there he sat, white-bearded, old and small, a book in one hand: Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, the greatest writer in the history of the world.
            Looking embarrassed, he hastily arose to greet me. When he tossed the book to the far end of the divan, I fixed rapacious eyes on its cover. He was reading his own work, recently published, “Landlord and Peasant.” In my exalted love for his art, I had the tactlessness to blurt out my delight.
            His face flushed and he waved away the compliment.
            --No, please. It’s such a bad excuse for a story. I’m ashamed to show my face on the streets! But then, of course, everything I’ve written is dreck; at least all the fiction is. No, don’t say anything, fresh-faced and inspired young writer, Ivan Alekseevich! You’ll learn that truth some day. Please, please, take a seat.
            He was right, and he was wrong. I’ve learned it now, that truth. About my own writings, though. Of all that I’ve written how much will stand the test of time? As for Tolstoy, I can’t read his pamphleteering works any more, all the preachy moralizing. But no one has ever written better fiction.
            He paced around the room, stretching out his arms behind him, his torso swallowed up by the loose-fitting peasant blouse. As he spoke, tiny bits of spittle accumulated in the wisps of the long beard and scintillated in the candlelight. I sat and listened to him lecture me, watching the scintillations, enraptured.
            --So who are you reading then, Ivan Alekseevich? Pushkin, Lermontov?
            --Good, good. What about Gogol? Do you like Gogol?
            --Not so much.
          --Good. That’s right! Don’t read Gogol; he’s a dangerous writer. Gogol was a man who thought he was seeking God, but he was really in the clutches of the devil.
            He paused and glared at me, waiting for his words to take effect.
           --What does God want (he went on)? God wants the scribblers of the world, if write they must, to write something significant. So what do I do? I write about how some bland officer gets the urge to fornicate with a married woman, and she spreads her legs, loses her head, and later on her life. Then the whole world reads this drivel, and some say, ‘Ooo! Ahh! What grace! What profundity!’ And I say, ‘What banal horseshit!’
            Don’t look at me like that. Have I shocked you, starry-eyed great writer-to-be? I apologize. Must break myself of that habit, using crude expressions. No. My advice to you is forget writing. The only task in any person’s life is to increase the love within his own soul, and, by so doing, to infect others, thereby increasing the love within them. How obstinate we are! Why do we deny such a truth?
            Lev Nikolaevich paused again. After pacing back and forth a few more turns, he sat down. He stared beetle-browed into the light of the candles and said nothing.
            We sat…his grey peasant eyes glazed over, steeped in dreamy sadness. The candlelight swam in the gloom of those eyes. Still we sat….Finally, he turned that gaunt prophet’s face toward me and said
            --Have you heard of our recent sorrow, Ivan Alekseevich? We’ve lost Ivan, our Vanya, our Vanechka. He died of scarlet fever on February 23.
            I nodded but made no reply. Callow as I was, I realized that there’s nothing to be said when a child dies. And, of course, what did I know of Vanechka? Very little then. A lot more now. He was born on March 31, 1888, when the Master was in his sixtieth year. He was the last and most beloved of the children. For his mother, Sofya Andreevna Tolstoy, he was the meaning of life.
            --Yes, a dear little boy (the old man continued), full of love and charm. But what does that mean, when we say he died? He isn’t dead; there is no death. Not if we still love him and live our lives by the things he taught us.

The diaries, memoirs and letters of the Tolstoy family know nothing of the fate of Holy Rus, overwhelmed by the vicious war machine of Nazi Germany at the moment I write. Their pages sprawl indulgently, wallowing in nostalgia. I spread them out on my French escritoire, avert my gaze from the horrors of the twentieth century, and read about the Russia where I once lived. And about that beloved last son of Tolstoy: Ivan Lvovich.
            “Sasha and Vanechka have been down on the floor looking at a map of the world, searching for Patagonia” (from a family letter). That’s a nice cozy scene: two bright-eyed children rustling through an atlas, its latitudes and longitudes specked with the sun-mist that flows through birch-tree foliage and into the room. And then this, from Sofya Andreevna’s reminiscences.
            “Once, when I was combing his blonde curly hair in front of the mirror, little Vanechka turned to me and said, smiling: Mommy, I feel as if I really am just like my papa!
            “Later he said: Mommy, is Alyosha [dead brother] an angel now?
            ‘Yes. Children who die before age seven are said to become angels.’
            ‘Who says?’
            ‘Some people.’
            ‘Well, maybe I ought to die now. Pretty soon I’ll have a birthday, but right now I still have a chance to be an angel!’”
            And even this:
            “A few days before his death Vanya stuck labels on his toys and belongings: ‘To Masha from Vanya, to Sasha from Vanya; to our chef, Semyon Nikolaevich, from Vanya.’ He took down all the framed pictures from the walls of his room and put them up in the room of his brother Misha.”
            What is the problem with citing these passages? The problem is sentimentality. If you want to write with artistic effect, you have to keep the tears at bay, the pages dry. So said Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. But the Tolstoy memoirs are weeping and keening. Especially Sofya Andreevna’s. No. Better let the Master talk, as I recall him telling it to me in the dim candlelight of 1895.

--He was a harbinger swallow, bringing tidings of a warm spring. That’s what he was (said Lev Nikolaevich, in that same glazed tone). Then his voice abruptly came alive, his eyes flashed, and he added with no transition: I love this part of Moscow. Maybe you and I could take a little walk out in the snow. How does that sound? I like to wander the empty paths, down by the barracks of the Sumskoy Regiment, out through the Devichie Fields, to the river on the other side. Sometimes I’d take Vanechka with me on my rambles. A strange and marvelous mind. He could talk to you about the most serious things.
            The loss was painful for me, of course, but much worse for Sofya Andreevna. Because I had another life, a spiritual one. All Sonya had was that animal love for her last child; now she has nothing to fall back on. It’s a terrible, terrible loss, though. No, I can’t say that. It’s a wondrous spiritual event. I thank Thee for letting me have this in my life. I thank Thee, O Father.
            Why do children die? The way I look at it is that Nature tries to give forth her best, but when she sees that the world is not ready for them, she takes them back again. It’s an experiment. Well, they’re like migratory birds that fly home too early and die in the frost. But they must fly back home all the same. So it was with Vanechka.
            The old man suddenly jumped to his feet and turned upon his own words.
      --What nonsense I’m babbling! Migratory birds! Forget this entire conversation, Ivan Alekseevich. Posterity wants the brilliant insights of the ‘Great Artist’! When you write this scene some day be generous. Leave out the balderdash!
The Master has been dead for what? Thirty years? I’m an old man myself now. I’m in the South of France, it’s 1941. I’ve lost my country; the Soviets ran me out. I hate them, despise them, but now I find myself on their side, because they’re defending Russia against a German invasion. Here I sit, no homeland, no income. Have I nothing better to do than to quote Sofya Andreevna’s teary memoirs? Right. I have nothing better to do.
            “We had decided that he, the youngest son, would inherit the Yasnaya estate. One day we were strolling out near the old oak tree that was seared by lightning, the one Kitty and Levin so loved. I gazed across the rye fields and said, ‘Look there, Vanechka—all of this will be yours some day!’ And he replied in that earnest little boy’s voice, echoing his father’s teachings: ‘Oh, no! Don’t say that, Mommy. Everything is everyone’s!’”
            Again: “He was so slender, bodiless; he was all soul. On the days when my nerves were at their worst, he would turn his bright blue eyes upon me and say, ‘You’re not quite your real everyday self today, Mommy. Is something wrong?’”
            Or, worst of all, this mawkish detail, which simply cannot be used in a work of artistic prose: “The Christmas before Vanya died he finally got the wagon he had always wanted, but he gave it away that same day to little Igor, a five-year-old hunchback, son of a local peasant.”
Back in the Master’s study, he’s on his feet again, pacing. He goes on talking, talking, talking, while I sit mesmerized by the words, the dark lined face, the glistening moisture in the beard, the murky ripples of candlelight in the grey eyes.
            --You might even say it was a blessing for Sofya Andreevna, the pain of bereavement. In spite of herself she ascended into a spiritual realm, a new experience for her. But then the sordid pettiness, so typical of women, reasserted itself, and she went back to railing against the ways of the Lord.
            As for me, I’ve made my peace with the ephemeral nature of earthly existence, but even I was weak. At first I sat and wept, yes, despaired. But soon I came to comprehend that this was not a sad and painful thing. It was joyous. Vanechka was a restorer of souls; he did the work of God on earth, promoting the Kingdom of the Lord through the increase of love—more so than many who live for half a century or even longer. ‘Every man is mortal. Caius is a man. Therefore, Caius is mortal!’ How wonderfully and simply put! So why do people refuse to accept it?
            He fell silent for a moment, and once again the puerile ecstasy foamed up and ran out my mouth: It’s wonderful, you know, that story.
            --What story?
            --Where you use the quote about Caius, Julius Caesar. ‘The Death of Ivan Ilich.’ Nowhere in world literature is it better described: the horrible, slow process of dying. I mean… I’m sorry, excuse me for speaking of this now.
            --There’s nothing horrible about dying, young man! And as for that story, what a miserable piece of slop! Crude and useless! Why write about the death of a man who never lived? Ivan Ilich was dead all along! And then, the bit about how, in his final throes, he screamed for days and nights on end: ‘I don’t want to-oo-oo-oo-ooo!’ No dying man would have the strength to scream that long. You know how Vanechka died? He got ready for bed one evening, and they finished reading Dickens’ Great Expectations to him. His bedtime story. When Sofya Andreevna came in to kiss him good night he said, ‘It’s sad, Mommy. Just imagine. Estella didn’t marry Pip after all.’ When she touched his forehead with her lips and felt the fever, she burst into tears, and he said, ‘No, Mommy, don’t. It’s the will of God.’ Misha came in to him later, and Vanya said, ‘Yes, this time I know I’ll die.’ And in his calm and simple way that’s what he proceeded to do. That very night. There’s the story I’d like to write. But I know I can’t.
I know I can’t either. Corporal Schicklgruber and his storm troopers are invading my country, and I, the so-called Great Russian Writer, I’m stagnating in Grasse, France, subsisting on a few stunted potatoes and soup brewed out of weeds. What does the Nobel Prize mean now, Ivan Alekseevich Bunin? What is my shriveled glory compared to his, the Master’s? He never won the Nobel Prize. Now I’ve lost the inclination to slather more ink into useless fiction, so I amuse myself by reading diaries and reminiscing about the lost past. And, let’s face it, I’m wallowing in self-pity, senile sentimentality. Galya’s gone, left me, and, years later, I’m still grieving over my own lost son. That bitch of a wife, Anna. How could she expose him to the fever? Why didn’t she protect him? Lev Nikolaevich had thirteen children! I had only Kolya.
            And yet, for the way she told it, Sofya Andreevna might have had only Vanechka.
           “After they dressed him in his white jacket and combed his long blonde hair, we went back into the nursery, and I put an icon on his chest. Somebody else lit a candle and placed it near his head. . . .         
         “The day of the funeral was beautiful, full of bright sunshine and frost. We put the open coffin on the sledge and drove out to Nikolskoe Cemetery. I sat beside him, cradled his cold face and kissed him all the way there. It was a Sunday, and schoolboys were ambling about the grounds, radiant faces shining, admiring the wreaths and flowers.
            “As the coffin was lowered into the ground, next to Alyosha’s grave, I could hear the joyful cries of the peasant children, whom our nanny had given sweets and gingerbread biscuits. I turned and watched them as they raced after one another, laughing and shouting, dropping pieces of the biscuits, pausing to pick them up and put them in their mouths, then skipping off again.”
The old man’s eyes were misty in the candlelight, as if he had just read, as I am reading forty-six years later, Sofya Andreevna’s description of the burial. We sat, once more, in silence. For a long time. Then he breathed out that ineffable sadness over my young, exalted soul and said
            --He was a vegetarian; he wanted to do good on earth. He looked like me; he thought like me. I assumed that Vanechka would be the one to carry on my work.
            But there’s nothing sorrowful about it (he went on, with a vehemence in his voice). He’s with God now, and I had the joy of knowing him. I thank Thee, O Father, for that.
           I thank Thee, Father! (he suddenly screamed out the words), and the two dim candles flinched, blinking their eyes in amazement. Immediately he composed himself.
            --No, I’m not like my wife. She has no faith, she dares to repine against the Lord. On the night he died she went shrieking through the house: ‘No, he’s not dead; I won’t accept it!’ She banged her head against the walls, hysterical woman that she is; she raged around for hours on end, she tore out her own hair.
            The Master took my arm and squeezed it hard.
--Enough (he said)! Come then, Ivan Alekseevich, writer, future glory of Holy Russia. Let’s you and I go out for a stroll in the snow!
       The savage joy in his voice cut right through me. Recalling it now, I still feel the exhilaration of the wound. We stood up and walked out into the corridor. Now I know. I know why I’m writing this down. For the ending of the story. There are things in your life that you go back to and relive again and again. Why? Because the feeling is so marvelous that you want to savor it repeatedly. The taste of one glorious moment, in the mouth of your mind.
            We went downstairs, passing the bear. I turned and looked back at him as we descended. He stood there grinning his fixed obsequious grin, holding out his tray to beg eternal alms, walking, in my imagination, his eternally motionless plantigrade walk along the icy edges of nullity. Try as I might, my words on this page, and all the words on all pages are powerless to provide what those glassy ursine eyes pleaded for: a return to the grievous bliss of life in flesh and blood.
            We found our coats and galoshes in the anteroom; we put them on and stepped out together, into the brisk frost. It was twilight, grading into darkness, a somber March evening. The wind, smelling somehow of spring, was blowing in our faces, making the streetlights flicker. There were no stars. He put his arm, like a father, around my shoulders. I’ll never forget that; not to the end of my days on earth.
            There we stood, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, the greatest writer in the history of the world, and I, young and vacuous Vanya Bunin. Then we slowly walked, by a slippery footpath, out into the snow-laden Devichie Fields. I could just make out the frozen lake by the nunnery in the distance. We walked in silence. I breathed frosty mist, but my shoulders were warm in his grasp. As we approached the banks of the lake three swallows darted up from out of nowhere, made a few swoops above the ice, and disappeared in the gloaming.
            The Master took his arm from my shoulders and plunged, almost dived, off the path and into the high snowbanks. He broke into a run and went ploughing through the snow. Then he shouted back to me joyously: Come on! Follow me, Ivan, great hope of the Russian land!
            I dashed off after the old man, waded into the knee-deep snow, but I couldn’t overtake him. He was swinging his arms in a frenzy, churning his legs, leaping across ditches, and shouting out the same words, over and over, in a voice full of tears and rage: Smerti netu (Death is not)!

Смерти нету! Смерти нету! Смерти нету!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Notes on Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyich" The Aesthetics GREAT SCENES THREE: "If it's time to go, it's time to go."

The Aesthetics. Great Scenes Three: If it’s time to go it’s time to go.

On the way to the theater, Ivan Ilyich’s family drops by the sickbed of the dying man:

“After dinner, at seven o’clock, Praskovya Fyodorovna came into his room in evening dress, her full bosom drawn up tightly by her corset, and with traces of powder on her face. She had reminded him in the morning that they were going to the theater. Sarah Bernhardt had come to town, and at his insistence they had reserved a box. He had forgotten about this and was offended by the sight of her elaborate attire. But he concealed his indignation when he recalled that he himself had urged them to reserve a box and go . . .

[P.F. comes in looking “self-satisfied but somehow guilty.” Purely pro forma, she asks him how he is feeling, “not because she wanted to find out anything; she knew there was nothing to find out.” She explains that she has to go to the theater with the others, although “she would much prefer to sit at home with him.” Then she asks if the others can come in.

‘Oh, and Fyodor Petrovich (the fiancé) would like to come in. May he? And Liza?

‘All right.’

His daughter came in all decked out in a gown that left much of her young body exposed, the body, which was the cause of so much agony for him. And she was making a show of the flesh. Strong, healthy, and obviously in love, she was impatient with illness, suffering and death, which interfered with her happiness.

Fyodor Petrovich came in as well, in evening dress, his hair curled à la Capoul, a stiff white collar encircling his long, sinewy neck, an enormous white shirtfront over his chest, narrow black trousers hugging his strong thighs, a white glove drawn tightly over one hand, an opera hat clasped in the other.

Behind him the schoolboy son crept in unnoticed, wearing a new uniform, poor fellow, with gloves on and those awful dark circles under his eyes, whose meaning Ivan Ilyich understood. He had always felt sorry for his son. Now he found the boy’s frightened, pitying look terrible to behold. It seemed to Ivan Ilyich that, except for Gerasim, Vasya was the only one who understood and pitied him.

They all sat down and asked again how he was feeling. Next came silence. Liza asked her mother about the opera glasses. This led to an argument between mother and daughter over who had mislaid them. This made for unpleasantness.

Fyodor Petrovich asked Ivan Ilyich if he had ever seen Sarah Bernhardt. At first Ivan Ilyich did not understand the question, but then he said, ‘No. Have you seen her?’

‘Yes,  in Adrienne Lecouvreur.’

Praskovya Fyodorovna said she had been particularly good in something or other. Her daughter disagreed. They started a conversation about the charm and naturalness of her acting—the exact same conversation that people always have on that subject.

In the middle of the conversation Fyodor Petrovich glanced at Ivan Ilyich and stopped talking. The others also looked at him and stopped talking. Ivan Ilyich was staring straight ahead with glittering eyes, obviously indignant with them. The situation had to be rectified, but there was no way to rectify it. The silence somehow had to be broken. No one ventured to break it, and they all began fearing that the lie dictated by propriety would suddenly be exposed and the truth become clear to all. Liza was the first to speak. She broke the silence. She wanted to conceal what they all were feeling, but her tongue betrayed her.

‘Well, if it’s time to go, it’s time to go (Однако, если ехать, то пора),” she said, glancing at her watch, a present from her father. And smiling at her young man in a significant but barely perceptible way, about something between only the two of them, she stood up, rustling her dress.
They all got up, said goodbye, and left.”


This whole scene is typically wonderful Tolstoy writing about the social concourse of human beings. He has such a keen feel for the little unsaid things that go on between people, the hypocrisy, the pretending, the way people lie to each other on a daily basis. Here the main feeling is constraint. The relatives do not really want to be here, at the bedside of a dying man—even though that man is a very close relative. Nobody knows what to say in the face of death, and they all attempt to talk around the issue. Mother and daughter take refuge in bickering. The fiancé tries to ask a question relevant to his own life, but no longer relevant in the world of the dying.

Then suddenly they panic in the face of the dying man’s silence, even his indignation. Panic almost overwhelms them as they all look for a way to maintain the decorous lie. Nobody can think what to say, and then Liza, the daughter, commits what later has come to be known as a Freudian slip. Inadvertently, some neuron in her brain blurts out what is on the mind of them all. If Ivan Ilyich is going (dying), then it’s high time he be on his way.

The Russian has an impersonal expression here, with no subject expressed. A literal translation would be, “Well then, if to go, then it’s time.” This is especially appropriate, since no subject (we, or you) is expressed, but a double meaning comes through: (1) If it’s time for us to go to the theater, we better be off (2) If it’s time for you, Ivan Ilyich, to go, then get going. Most translators into English of the story have something like, “Well, if we’re going, we best be off,” which is not that bad but which does not encompass the issue the way an impersonal expression does.

Maybe the most strikingly creative thing about this whole scene is that Liza is not apparently aware of what she has blurted out. Neither, apparently, are any of the others. But we the readers are aware. We wonder if Ivan Ilyich is. When they all leave for the theater he feels a sense of relief: the lie isn’t there any more; it went out the door with them.

Notes on Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyich" The Aesthetics GREAT SCENES TWO: THE PERFIDIOUS POUF

The Aesthetics. Great Scene Two: The Perfidious Pouf

Pyotr Ivanovich, a kind of alter ego of Ivan Ilyich, attends the funeral. He has hopes of escaping before the ceremony, going off to play cards with another colleague of the deceased, the playful Shvartz, but does not get away in time. He is collared by the widow, Praskovya Fyodorovna.

“’I know that you were a true friend to Ivan Ilyich,’ she said, then looked at him, awaiting the proper response to such words.

Pyotr Ivanovich knew that just as back then [when viewing the corpse] he had to cross himself, now he had to press her hand, sigh, and say, ‘Believe me!’ So that is what he did. And having done that, he felt as if the desired result was achieved: he was touched and so was she.

'Come, before it begins in there, I must have a talk with you,’ said the widow. ‘Give me your arm.’
He gave her his arm and they proceeded toward the inner rooms, past Shvartz, who threw Pyotr Ivanovich a wink of regret. His playful look was saying, ‘So much for your card game. Don’t take offense if we find another player. Maybe you can make a fifth later, when you get away.’

Pyotr Ivanovich sighed even more deeply and plaintively, and Praskovya Fyodorovna squeezed his hand gratefully. On entering her drawing room, decorated in pink cretonne and lit with a dim lamp, they sat down beside a table: she on a sofa, P. I. on a low pouf with broken springs that shifted under his weight. P.F. wanted to warn him to take a seat on a different chair, but decided not to, feeling that such a warning was not in keeping with her present situation.

As he sat down on the pouf P.I. recalled how, in decorating the room, Ivan Ilyich had asked his advice about this pink cretonne with the green leaves. The entire room was crammed with furniture and knick-knacks, and as the widow stepped past the table to take her seat on the sofa, she entangled the black lace of her black shawl in a bit of carving. P.I. rose slightly to untangle it, and as he did so the springs of the pouf, freed of pressure, started lurching about and pushing up at him.

The widow began disentangling the lace herself and P.I. sat down again, suppressing the rebellious pouf beneath him. But the widow did not quite manage getting the lace untangled, and P.I. got up once more, and once again the pouf rose in rebellion, even emitted a twang. When all that was done she took out a clean cambric handkerchief and began to weep. The episode with the lace and the battle with the pouf had put a damper on P.I.’s spirits, and he now sat scowling.”

[It soon becomes apparent that the widow has financial matters on her mind, and wants the advice of P.I. on how to proceed—three paragraphs omitted here]

'But there is a matter I wish to discuss with you.’
P.I. bowed his head in response, taking care not to allow the springs of the pouf, which immediately grew restive, to have their way.

‘He suffered terribly the last few days.’
‘Really badly?’ asked P.I.
‘Oh, it was hideous! He screamed incessantly; not for minutes, but for hours on end. He screamed for three straight days without pausing for breath. It was unbearable. I don’t know how I bore up through it all. You could hear him three rooms away. Oh, what I’ve been through!’
  . . . . . . . . . . .

Despite a distasteful awareness of his own hypocrisy as well as hers, P.I. was overcome with horror as he thought of the sufferings of someone he had known so well, first as a carefree boy, then as a schoolmate, later as a grown man, his colleague. Once again he saw that forehead [of the corpse], that nose pressing down on the upper lip, and fear for himself took possession of him.

‘Three days of hideous suffering and death. Why, the same thing could happen to me at any time now,’ he thought and for a moment was panic-stricken. But at once, himself not knowing how, he was rescued by the customary reflection that all this had happened to Ivan Ilyich, and not to him, that it could not and should not happen to him. . .”


Most translators render the Russian word пуф as “ottoman,” but the puffy, insubstantial sound of the word is important here, so I insist on “pouf” in English. Just as the morality by which Pyotr Ivanovich lives, the morality of his class and society, has dubious foundations, so P.I. is in a shaky situation as he sits on the pouf. 

Every time he shifts his position the pouf—emblematic of the petty bourgeois respectability and materialism by which Ivan Ilyich lived his life (and by which P.I. does as well)—rebels, asserting its own identity. As if to say, “I may be an inanimate object, but I too have certain rights; after all, Ivan Ilyich thought things like me—chairs, curtains, pink cretonne décor with green leaves—were important, more important than human relationships or higher spiritual values.”

Each time P.I. moves the pouf gives him a tweak on the backside, and he is more and more perturbed with every tweak of the pouf. Of course, Tolstoy is using the pouf as his instrument for poking and prodding at the character, for suggesting to him that his life is based on trivial and shaky endeavors, but the character, of course, does not heed the message.

In line with Tolstoy’s blatant assertion that a life based on acquisition of material objects is wasted, certain objects, such as the pouf, play a major role in the action. Another such object is the window knob, which strikes Ivan Ilyich on the left side as he falls and wounds him fatally—that innocent bruise develops later into the cancer.

Related to this device of personification of inanimate objects, while not exactly the same, is the device personifying the inner organs of Ivan Ilyich, which, after his illness begins, he sees as rebelling against him. Constantly mentioned are his “floating kidney (блуждающая почка)” and his “blind gut (слепая кишка, or caecum),” the large blind pouch forming the beginning of the large intestine. 

These personified organs are out of Ivan Ilyich’s control, and at one point, in Chapter Five, he tries looking inwardly and commanding them to work the way they should. As if to say, “Stop wandering about in a blind daze, blind gut; stop all that illegal floating, floating kidney. Start behaving like healthy organs again, because if you don’t you’re going to kill me, and yourselves in the bargain.”

This is another of Tolstoy’s amazingly insightful looks into the way people react to illness, the way a sick person begins to feel that he is losing control of the one thing that really belongs to him, his body, composed of a plethora of organs, all working in concert to maintain his life.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Notes to Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyich" AESTHETICS OF THE STORY, GREAT SCENES ONE: The Doctor's Visit

The Aesthetic Beauty of “Ivan Ilyich” Great Scenes One: The Doctor’s Visit

“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is said to have been the last work of literature read by the French writer Guy de Maupassant, who supposedly remarked after reading it, “I realize now that all I have done was to no purpose and that my ten volumes of fiction are worthless.”

The famous art critic and historian V.V. Stasov (1824-1906) responded to the story in a letter to Tolstoy: “In my whole life I’ve never read anything to compare with it. Nowhere in any other national literature, nowhere on earth is there such a work of genius . . . . . And I said to myself, Here, at last, is real art, real life and truth.” Is “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” really that great? Yes. It is.

What makes for greatness in a work of art, what is the purpose of art? Great art brings you the kind of aesthetic pleasure that you get, say, near the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, when the soloist singers put something together in musical notes that sounds sublime. One of the great paradoxes about art is that at its best it can light up the aesthetic centers of your brain, make you feel, warm, elevated aesthetically even while presenting some rather unpleasant truths about life. Even in a story about wasting away and dying of cancer. Anthony Burgess once wrote of the great paradox of literary art, where “the denial of human joy is made through language that is itself a joy.”

There are several scenes in “Ivan Ilyich” that are my favorites, scenes that light up the aesthetic pleasure centers in my brain. One such scene is that presenting the Caius syllogism (already discussed in a previous blog posting). Another is the following:

“The same thing again and again. One moment a spark of hope gleams, the next a sea of despair rages; and always the pain, the pain, always the anguish, the same thing going on and on. . . . . . . One hour, then another pass this way. Then there is a ring in the entryway. Could it be the doctor? It is indeed the doctor—fresh, hearty, meaty, cheerful, and with a look on his face that seems to say, ‘Now, now, you’ve had yourself a little scare, but we’re going to fix everything up right away.’ The doctor knows that this expression is not appropriate here, but he has put it on his face once and for all and can’t take it off—like a man who has donned a frockcoat in the morning to make a round of social calls.

The doctor rubs his hands together briskly, reassuringly. ‘I’m chilled. There’s a good hard frost out there. Just give me a minute to warm up,’ he says in a tone implying that you need only wait a moment, for him to get warmed up, then he’ll set everything right.

‘Well, now, how are you?’

Ivan Ilyich senses that the doctor wants to say, ‘How goes it, then?’ but even he knows this won’t do, and so he says, ‘What kind of night did you have?’

Ivan Ilyich looks at the doctor in a questioning way, as if to ask, ‘Won’t you ever be ashamed of your lying?’ but the doctor does not wish to understand such a question.

So Ivan Ilyich says, ‘Terrible. Just like all the others. The pain never leaves me, never subsides. If only something could be done!’

‘Yes, you sick people do like to carry on that way. Well, now I seem to have warmed up. Even Praskovya Fyodorovna, exacting as she is, even she could not find fault with my temperature. Well, now I can say hello.’ And the doctor shakes his hand.

Then, dispensing with all the playfulness, the doctor assumes a serious air and begins to examine the patient; taking his pulse, his temperature; he starts all his tapping, his auscultations.

Ivan Ilyich knows for certain, beyond any doubt, that this is all nonsense, sheer deception, but when the doctor gets down on his knees, bends over him, placing his ear higher, then lower, and with the gravest expression on his face goes through all sorts of gymnastic contortions, Ivan Ilyich is taken in by it, just as he used to be taken in by the speeches of lawyers, even though he knew perfectly well that they were lying and why they were lying.

[At this point Praskovya Fyodorovna comes in, kisses her husband, then begins colluding with the doctor in the pretending]

Ivan Ilyich looks at her, taking her full measure, and resents her for the whiteness, plumpness, and cleanliness of her arms and neck, the luster of her hair, and the spark of vitality that gleams in her eyes. He hates her with every fiber of his soul and being. At her touch he is forced to suffer from an agonizing well of hatred that surges up in him.

Her attitude toward him and his illness is the same as ever. Just as the doctor had adopted a certain attitude toward his patients, which he could not change, so she had adopted an attitude toward him: that he was not doing as he should and was himself to blame, and she could only reproach him tenderly for this. She could no longer change his attitude.

‘He just doesn’t listen, you know. He doesn’t take his medicine on time. And worst of all, he lies in a position that is surely bad for him—with his legs up.’

And she told how he made Gerasim hold his legs.

The doctor smiled disdainfully, indulgently, as if to say, ‘What can you do? Patients sometimes get the silliest of notions into their heads, but we have to forgive them.’”


There is so much that is telling and good about this scene. The formal and condescending attitude that the doctor puts on for his patients, donning it like a frockcoat in the morning. The way that Ivan’s wife puts on the same front, ganging up with the doctor against the patient. That attitude, steeped in mendacity, is exactly the same one that Ivan himself once adapted for dealing with defendants in court.

In modern hospitals many nurses and doctors don the same attitude, putting on the vestments of condescension and jocularity when dealing with patients. These vestments shield them emotionally from the horrors of suffering and death, but, simultaneously, they dehumanize the patient, demean his dignity, and put him in the position of a child being scolded by adults.

Tolstoy is wonderful in the way he understands such human games, and the way he portrays them in his art.


Problems with the Preaching (2); The Triumph of Aesthetics

Readers adverse to being preached at have found the main character’s suffering progression to eventual moral enlightenment to be beside the point. Tolstoy appears to emphasize the excruciating and slow death of his main character almost as a kind of divine retribution, and that emphasis grates upon the aesthetics of the story.

Tolstoy never leaves any doubt that the aimless bourgeois existence of Ivan, together with all others in his social circles and class, is beyond reproach. Throughout the progression of his illness Ivan struggles to find an ethical justification for his life, refusing to admit to himself that his life has been worthless. When he finally comes to this admission, the author is ready to shrive him. In the last moments of his life he feels himself pushed down into a womb-like black sack, and at the bottom he sees a light. Here are the final lines.

“Suddenly it was clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all disappearing at once from two sides, from ten sides, from all sides. He was sorry for them [his relatives, his family], he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and release himself from these sufferings. 

‘How good and how simple!’ he thought. ‘And the pain?’ he asked himself. ‘What has become of it? Where are you, anyway, pain?’
He concentrated hard, seeking out the pain.
‘Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.
‘And death . . . where is death?’

He sought his former customary fear of death and did not find it. ‘Where is it? What death?’ There was no fear whatsoever because there was no death.
In place of death there was light.
‘So that’s what it is!’ he suddenly exclaimed aloud. ‘What joy!’

All of this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something gurgled in his chest, his enervated body twitched. Then the gurgling and wheezing became less and less frequent.

‘It’s finished!’ said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. ‘Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘Death is no more.’

He drew in a breath, stopped in the middle of a sigh, stretched out his limbs, and died.”

A powerful ending to an extremely powerful work of fiction. Tolstoy has often been criticized for showing Ivan Ilyich the light, presenting his character with that brief vision of what it’s all about (“So that’s what it is! What joy!”), because no one on this side of mortality can possibly see the other side. 

But a more just criticism involves the fact that Ivan Ilyich is allowed to die only after he acknowledges the lifelong error of his ways. Tolstoy puts this trial judge on trial for his life and has the universe pronounce him guilty. When he admits his own guilt he appears to have been saved. But what about innocent and upright people? They too die of cancer. The issue of death and suffering ultimately has little to do with how pure your soul is.

The writer Ivan Bunin, much influenced by Tolstoy, reacted to “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” as follows: “But in ‘Ivan Ilyich’ there’s a certain erroneous emphasis. Ivan Ilyich lies there thinking, I didn’t manage to do this, I forgot that, what a vile life I’ve lived. But the most important thing is not that at all . . . . . most important is the horror of death itself, the hideous fact of nonbeing, of departing from life.”

Bunin is right. Tolstoy the moralist demands that Ivan Ilyich search for some ethical justification for his life, but in the end it is the suffering, rather than the issue of moral corruption that is prominent. Perhaps Ivan Ilyich is guilty, perhaps he does deserve to pay for his vile life, but why do we sympathize with him? Because no one deserves to suffer that much and because Tolstoy’s description of the dying process is so artistically perfect that the mundane Ivan Ilyich comes to symbolize the torment of all suffering humanity.

There is where the real power of the story lies, not in its moral message. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is maybe the most powerful piece of fiction in world literature describing the progress of a slow wasting illness, and the reason people still read it with profit today is not because it makes your conscience hurt, but because it makes a spot near your kidney hurt—while, simultaneously, lighting up the aesthetic centers in your brain to make that brain gleam with the pleasure of reading great art.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Notes on Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyich" PROBLEMS WITH THE PREACHING (ONE)

Problems with the Preaching (1)

Over the 150 years that people have been reading “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” what probably has bothered most about the story is the morally edifying tone. As if Tolstoy were shouting out not only to those of the Russian upper classes of the 1880s—Ivan Ilyich, his colleagues, his family, all of aristocratic and bureaucratic Russia—but also to anyone else within listening distance, including a multitude of readers in countries all over the world: “Repent!”

Of course, nobody in the story hears the shouts, and one reason the story is effective is that no one in the story is listening. None of the characters stops and says, “Well, yes, I’m leading a dull bourgeois existence, just as Ivan Ilyich did, and if I don’t change my ways soon, when I’m dead and gone my life will count for nothing.” But what if we could take a survey of all readers of the story over the past 150 years. How many of them would have taken heed of the shouting? I suspect very few. Didactic writing, I suspect, only very infrequently brings about the changes in the moral fabric of humanity that the didactic writer hopes for.

Tolstoy is hoping for the impossible. Not only does he aim at making people transform their lives, become more moral; he also wants us to look our own death in the face, and practically no one wants to do that (see discussion in previous blog notes). One thing that this story does is make your side hurt. My side always hurts when I read about the pain in Ivan Ilyich’s floating kidney. Fortunately, the side stops hurting when I put down the book. But after countless readings of this story over the years, it still never makes me want to embrace rectitude and live a better life.

Then again, there is the degree of moral corruption in most of the characters. The people in “Ivan Ilyich” are bad, bad people, terrible hypocrites, totally selfish egotists. One of Tolstoy’s strong points as a writer is his ability to delve into mundane human acts of hypocrisy. We look at the way, say, that Ivan Ilyich’s wife, Praskovya Fyodorovna, behaves at the funeral, in her interactions with Pyotr Ivanovich. The way she weeps as if insincerely, the way she is largely concerned with financial matters that will play upon her future. We think, Yes, that is human nature. It’s despicable, of course, but people do behave like that. Even in the scene when she finds herself wishing her husband’s death, wishing herself rid of him, we think, Well, yes. Not many writers have the daring to speak of such things, but Tolstoy is right. People do have that kind of thoughts. The pure hatred that is exchanged between husband and wife at several points in the story, is that what marriage is like? Unfortunately, sometimes it is, and the creative artist in Tolstoy brilliantly portrays that sad truth.

But are people really as bad as they are shown to be in this story? On our deathbed is this what we have to look forward to on the part of our family and friends? Total abandonment? Maybe so, but, then again, maybe not. Praskovya Fyodorovna is a despicable person, is so portrayed throughout the whole story, but readers may hope to find a better, nicer wife. They must be out there somewhere, such wives. Seldom in life, one hopes, do we come upon characters as rebarbative as Praskovya Fyodorovna.

The only positive character in the story is the peasant servant Gerasim. Not only here, but also in many other works Tolstoy holds up peasant morality, the peasant’s simple, wholesome attitude toward life as exemplary. But in so doing he consistently downplays another aspect of the Russian peasant mentality—the propensity, throughout Russian history, to engage in merciless bloody violence. For that side of the peasant, read the stories of Isaak Babel.

For a better balance between good and bad characters, Tolstoy could have chosen to feature Ivan Ilyich’s schoolboy son in more scenes. The boy obviously loves his father, he could be another positive character, but he is featured in only two brief appearances. And each time he appears the moral preacher Tolstoy cannot resist throwing in a disapproving, and totally gratuitous insinuation about the evils of masturbation.

In a word, Tolstoy’s negative views of humanity sometimes verge on hyperbole. At times the writer, methinks, doth protest too much.

Notes to Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" THE DIDACTICISM AND THE STRUCTURE

The Didactic and the Structure

Lev Tolstoy is a didactic writer. His works often preach a moral message. By the time he wrote “Ivan Ilich” (1886) he had undergone a deep religious crisis that changed his attitude toward art and life. He condemned some of his best works out of hand. He considered his Anna Karenina—which many literary critics rate the best novel ever written in all of world literature—nothing but a piece of trash.

In the last third of his long life he became a kind of preacher, writing philosophical tracts and essays on how to live a morally upright life. He certainly intends “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” to deliver a message to his reader: “You are living useless immoral lives; change while you still have time.” The emphasis on didacticism does a bit of damage to the aesthetics of the work, and it is largely due to Tolstoy’s amazing literary talent that “Ivan Ilyich” remains a creative triumph.

The very structure of the story lends itself to the moral message. The title tells us upfront that the main character dies, so that we know how the story comes out even before we begin reading it. Then the action begins backwards chronologically: on the first page the death is reported. After the funeral, in a flashback technique, Ivan Ilyich is brought back to life, only to spend the rest of the story dying.

Only near the end do we realize the supreme irony of this story: that when Ivan dies on the final page his death is really a kind of birth, a spiritual rebirth. The long, agonizing death by cancer has been a preparation for this entry into a new spiritual life. On the other hand, practically his whole previous life, everything antecedent to his illness, was a kind of living death, no life at all, but just fakery, a pretend life.

This inside-out perspective, then, is reflected in the structure of the story. It begins with a death, returns to describe a useless life or living death, progresses to the climax of this living death—the scene where Ivan Ilyich, who is engaged in what Tolstoy sees as a frivolous bourgeois pursuit (hanging curtains and prettifying his new apartment) falls and bruises his kidney, the first step on his passage to death by (apparently) cancer of the kidney—then shows the gradual progression of painfully dying, which leads to new life.

Furthermore, this pattern seems to repeat itself in endless cycles. The early scenes, describing the reactions of Ivan Ilyich’s colleagues in the court of law to his death, are structured as if to show the ghost of the former, unredeemed Ivan Ilyich returning to live out the same vile life all over again. His colleagues are his alter egos, and their reaction to news of his death is exactly the same as his reaction would have been, had one of them died before him: concern with trivial court matters; thoughts of promotion and higher salaries (“Maybe my brother-in-law can get the vacated position.”); smug satisfaction in the death of another (“Ah, great; it was him and not me.”).

Pyotr Ivanovich is almost a twin of Ivan Ilyich—same education, same job, same aspirations, same attitudes toward life, and with the same favorite diversion: playing cards. When he attends the funeral in the early pages of the story it is as if a character were attending his own funeral in advance, and, of course, refusing to acknowledge that the corpse lying there with reproach on its dead face is almost exactly he himself.

The didactic point, of course, in all of this paralleling of characters, is obvious. Everyone in Ivan Ilyich’s society is living a morally stagnant life, a dead life, but the agonizing death of a colleague who had lived just the same life does not prompt them to reevaluate their morals. On the contrary, they avoid facing the issue and go off to play cards, Ivan Ilyich’s favorite pastime and favorite way of avoiding looking at life’s unpleasant facts. 

Like Shvartz—another double/colleague of Ivan Ilyich, who shows up to pay his respects but sneaks out to play cards, skipping the funeral service—they wink as if to say, “Ivan Ilyich has done a really dumb thing; but you and me, we’re not about to screw up the way he did.” The Russian here is “Глупо распорядился Иван Ильич; то ли дело мы с вами.”

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Notes on Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyich" "ANYBODY BUT ME" The Caius Syllogism

The Caius Syllogism

In Tolstoy’s story there is not a single character who conceives of his/her own individual death. Absolutely all of Ivan Ilyich’s family and all of his friends—except Gerasim the servant—go to great efforts to shield themselves from that dire possibility. In fact, Gerasim, practically the only positive character in the whole long story, most likely does not believe in his own death either. He simply is more willing to accept the fact that death does exist and that the dying should be comforted as little children are.

In Chapter Six Ivan Ilyich recalls a passage from a textbook of logic by J. G. Kiesewetter (1766-1819), widely used in Russian schools and seminaries. The passage citing the Kiesewetter syllogism and describing Ivan Ilyich’s attitude toward it is probably one of the best in world literature in regard to how an individual regards his/her own death.

“The syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s Logic: ‘Caius [Julius Caesar] is a man; men are mortal; therefore Caius is mortal,’ had for all his life seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius—man in the abstract—was mortal was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite apart from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mama and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with toys, a coachman and a nurse, then, afterwards, with Katenka and with all the joys, griefs and ecstasies of childhood, boyhood and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball that Vanya had so loved? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of pleats in her dress rustle that same way for Caius? Had he rioted like that at the School of Law when burnt pastry was served? Had Caius been in love the way he had? Could Caius preside at a judicial session the way he could? Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. And it just cannot be that I ought to die. That would be altogether too horrible.”

In voicing such thoughts, Ivan Ilyich speaks for the whole human race, then and now. A refusal to face one’s death appears to be built into the human psyche as a kind of instinct of self-preservation. Here is a quote from Sigmund Freud:
“It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. Hence the psychoanalytic school could venture on the assertion that at bottom no one believes in his own death, or, to put the same thing in another way, that in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality” (from “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”). 

But the matter more often is expressed not by “I cannot conceive of my death,” but by the words Ivan Ilyich screams out for three straight days at the end of the story: “Я не хочу (I don’t want to).”

Taking off on the Kiesewetter syllogism, other thinkers have come up with their own:

(1)    The Israeli writer Amos Oz, in a discussion of Tolstoy’s story: “Everyman [note that this is written as one word] is indeed mortal; but I am not everyman—I am me.”
(2)    The writer R. Beauvais: Everyone in the history of the world, so far, has ended up dying. But I’m still alive. Therefore I choose never to die.”
(3)    Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire (Canto 2): “A syllogism: other men die; but I//Am not another; therefore I’ll not die.”
(4)    The philosopher Arnold Arms, taking off on Oz: “Everyone who has ever died since the creation of the world has been someone else; I am not someone else, I am me: therefore, I do not consent to die.”

Eventually, Tolstoy forces his character Ivan Ilyich into the final realization that he is Caius, and, of course, all human beings are eventually forced down that same dead end. The critic Ronald Blythe writes that if we do not take the trouble to grow up and accept death, we’ll have to leave the world the same way we entered it: kicking and screaming. He quotes the symbolist Maeterlinck as amazed at the crudeness of Western man’s thought when it comes to the subject of his own death: “We deliver death into the dim hands of instinct, and we grant it not one hour of our intelligence.”

Perhaps true, but the instinct of self-preservation precludes our acceptance of individual death. What kind of life can you live if you have your own death ever on your mind? No kind of life. George Steiner has written that human beings could not survive without the future tense, which is a chimera. The future does not really exist, but we invent it and make our plans for years in advance. This “looking forward” to the future gives us a reason to live. Death, on the other hand, is a future event best ignored. At least if we hope to enjoy what little time we have here on earth.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Notes on Lev Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" TOLSTOY AND DEATH

Tolstoy, Moscow, 1885

Notes to “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”  TOLSTOY AND DEATH

“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” was completed on March 25, 1886, and published later that same year. in July, 1881, Tolstoy had learned of the death (by stomach cancer) of Ivan Ilyich Mechnikov, an acquaintance of his. Mechnikov, a public prosecutor in the Tula district judicial system, according to his widow, had undergone a deep spiritual change in his last months on earth and had come to regard his life as wasted.

Tolstoy died in 1910, twenty-nine years after the man who was the prototype for his fictional Ivan Ilyich. On his deathbed the old man was reported to have said, “I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do.” This is an interesting statement in regard to dying in general: exactly how is anyone supposed to behave on his/her deathbed? What are we supposed to do?

The question is especially relevant for Tolstoy, who was obsessed with death for practically the whole of his life, but still did not know what to do when the time came to face death. As Ronald Blythe suggests, in his introduction to the Bantam paperback translation, Tolstoy, the “lifelong death-watcher,” may have written this story, at least in part, for therapeutic purposes—in an attempt to better understand the process of death by airing the theme in his own art, and, consequently, to come to terms with his own future death.

But a case can be made for asserting that Tolstoy’s attitude in writing this story is somewhat like that of the characters—Ivan’s court colleagues and fellow card players—who react (see chapter one) to the death of Ivan Ilyich by pushing it out of their minds: “Glad it’s him and not me. Sure, he died, but me, I’ll never die; I’m indestructible.”

As Blythe writes, “the chief reason why we can tolerate death in others, even in those near to us, is that it pushes it away from ourselves.” If Tolstoy had really wanted to look squarely into the face of his own death, he could have written the story of a dying artist, of a man with the same spiritual concerns and preoccupations as he himself. Instead, he chose to write about the most ordinary of philistines, a man with practically no redeeming moral or spiritual values.

In so doing Tolstoy (probably subconsciously) was acting somewhat like Ivan’s friend and colleague Pyotr Ivanovich acted in the first chapter of the story. P.I. does his best at the funeral not to look closely at the corpse—with the implicit message on its dead brow: “Get right with the world before it’s too late.” He escapes the proceedings as soon as possible and goes off to play cards. For P.I. cards are the diversion that push the fact of approaching death out of his mind, keeping death at bay. Ironically, cards had also played an important role, as escape and diversion, in the life of Ivan Ilyich.

Tolstoy’s diversion is on a loftier level; it is literary art. But if the author’s fear of death motivated him, at least in part, to write this story, if something like self-therapy played a role, so what? The result is still great art. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is one of the greatest works in all of world literature on the subject of death and dying.

Notes on Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" RUSSIAN LITERATURE AND ESCHATOLOGY

Notes on “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

Russian Literature and Eschatology

Eschatology is the branch of theology dealing with the final things: death, judgment, immortality. In Tolstoy’s story Ivan Ilyich wears a medallion on his watch chain with a maxim that reads, in Latin, respice finem (look to the end). The maxim in full goes like this: Quidquid agis, prudenter agis et respice finem (Whatever you do, do it with care and look to the end [result]).

You might say that Russian literature is preeminently the literature that looks to the end, since Russian writers, especially the big two of the nineteenth century, Tolstoevsky—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—are intently preoccupied with eschatology. Russian literature teems with grandiose eschatological speculation.

As for Tolstoy’s character Ivan Ilyich, although he wears the motto on his person, he spends his whole life looking only to the present day and never to the final end. He pays no attention to the admonition, and his creator, Tolstoy, makes him pay dearly for his lack of acumen.