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.