Sunday, June 18, 2017

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.

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