16 November 2008

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych

There are echoes of Kafkaesque bafflement in the life of Ivan Ilych. Clearly, Tolstoy—and particularly this novella—was a great influence. But whereas Kafka would have his protagonists die without ever coming to any sort of insight into the enigma of their fate or the workings of their government, Tolstoy wants to be instructive. His method is irony. Though it is too late for poor Ivan Ilych to apply the insights he learns in his death-bed revelation and conversion, it is not too late for us.

Tolstoy treats his minor characters like props. In the first chapter the character of Pyor Ivanovich is promising in a Nick Carraway sort of way. But he fades into irrelevance thereafter. And Ivan Ilych is no Gatsby. The remainder of the characters, except for Gerasim, merely serve to highlight by contrast the experience Ivan Ilych suffers. They, the bourgeois with all their propriety and decorum, are the target of Tolstoy's scorn. Gerasim is useful, sympathetic, symbolic. None are developed. His main character, Ivan Ilych, he punishes mercilessly.

Tolstoy ventures into the mind of a dying man. This is bold, imaginative. Commendable. But, to our modern mind, he lets the man off too easily. The death-bed conversion changes nothing about the life he had led. It is as worthless as the sacraments his wife forces him to accept. It changes nothing about the man, other than his mind which, as we all know, is in the fits and spasms of excruciating pain. It merely allows him to die more or less at peace with himself, though impotent to aid and impart his hard-won insight to his grieving son.

The portrait of the thoughts and suffering of the dying man, Ivan Ilych, is unparalleled—certainly unprecedented—because it is from the inside! It surely took an enormous effort on the part of the writer. The process of creation and discovery for the artist must have been exhilirating, exhausting, excruciating—all at once. It is a supreme artistic achievement.

Tolstoy, likewise, succeeds in showing us how we ought to live—at least by his own lights. His message draws on Socratic and Buddhistic and Christian insights and he communicates it clearly, using among other things contrast, repetition, rhetoric, and plain old moralizing. We feel sympathy for the suffering, dying Ivan Ilych and, in identifying with his plight, we may profit from his revealed wisdom. Fine. But is this really the purpose of fiction? Are we supposed to learn a lesson from literature? Should the writer moralize?

I suspect there are any number of let us call them lesser works of fiction where a similar, even identical message, is presented, but less effectively or, more to our point, less aesthetically compelling. Didacticism for didacticism's sake doesn't work for me; it cheapens the artwork. Artistic preaching, on the other hand, presents a more complicated case, especially where the artistry is of such exemplary merit as in The Death of Ivan Ilych.

The critical response, it seems to me, is to set aside the so-called 'message'; bracket it. Identify it, accept it or refuse it, isolate it, and let it be. Then can begin an appreciation of the work qua work, not qua vessel for a message. That is the way I've tried to approach this reading.

In this vein let's see how Tolstoy's story fails. First, there are his social biases. From our post-modern mindset, Tolstoy's identity relations in this novella are readily apparent. He idealizes the peasant boy, Gerasim. Romanticizes his simplicity. This is echoed in his apparent sympathy for Ivan Ilych's son—his innocence, his pure grief, his pity for his father: note that it is only after he wakes to his son kissing his hand that Ivan Ilych realizes there is nothing more he can do and feels he must finally let go. Then, "there was no terror, because death was not either." In their simple pity the boy and the peasant are Tolstoy's chosen vehicles of instruction and wisdom. On the other hand it is clear Tolstoy has nothing but scorn for the aspiring middle class. They are all depicted as self-serving, calculating, hypocritical, false, unenlightened. Their cares are not genuine. Theirs are not the ultimate concerns (to borrow Paul Tillich's remarkable phrase). One suspects there were plenty of conniving peasants and even enlightened bourgeois in 19th Century Russia. Yet Tolstoy chooses to typify them—stereotypify them, if you will. This is a literary failure: dealing with types instead of specific characters acting in specific ways in specific situations. It is easy to generalize, especially when the author is trying to score points; indeed this is the armature of Tolstoy's message. In truth no one is true to type.

Second, though Tolstoy chooses a certain omniscient irony to drive home his point—Ivan Ilych's epiphany comes too late for him to rectify his own life or save his family from a similar fate—it seems there might have been an even greater poignancy had Ivan Ilych never come to such an insight. Had Tolstoy allowed II to die in let us call it an unrepentant state, without insight, the same way he lived, the novella would have felt less preachy.

Do we really need revelation, epiphany, insight in how to live? How important is it, after all, to live right? To find meaning and fulfillment? Wasted lives are a part of the human condition—perhaps the norm given Tolstoy's preachments. So what? Given this state of affairs, then, how does one make one's peace with extinction? Is there no nobility in just getting by? Surviving in the face of a hostile universe? Can the dying psyche not objectively assess the living being without resort to ethical or theological norms? Just as these questions take hold in the story, Tolstoy pulls out. He evades them with an easy moralizing out. Instead of trying to drive a point home, could Tolstoy not simply have given us a fuller portrait of the life and death of a complicated, complex man—good or evil—and allowed us to form our own value judgments about its worth. He gives us no credit. Yes it is realistic that a character such as Ivan Ilych would reassess his life in the face of impending death. But it is not enough. The Death of Ivan Ilych in this respect is ultimately unsatisfying.

Ivan Ilych is a shallow man who lives a shallow life. There is no real complexity to his character until, at the end in the midst of his great suffering, he achieves a remarkable insight into the meaning of death in and for life. There appears to have been no chance for him to reach this position of enlightenment during the course of his life—an opportunity he could have accepted or declined (either to great narrative effect). As with a sermon, we are called on to evaluate our own lives in the failure of his. Yet the picture of his life is too general. Tolstoy tells us through retrospection the story of his life in overly broad strokes. We are almost never 'in scene' with him except in his suffering, dying moments. How then are we to identify? Sure I went to law school, too. Thus Ivan Ilich represents me? Sure I have a wife and kids. Okay I get it! Sure I'm attempting to make a better life for me and my family. Ah-ha! Just as the minor characters are types, so is Ivan Ilych; only more fleshed out.

Ivan Ilych's response to the inbreaking of insight is simply to die. It has no consequence. The essence of fiction, the Ur-story, is in coming to grips with the consciousness of our sense of loss and grief at our own mortality. Those around us die and we come to realize that is ultimately our own fate as well. What we do in response to this is who we truly are. Do we embark on a quest for eternal life? Do we seek to revive lost ones? Do we try to bridge the void? Do we conceive ghosts? Do we concoct religions or succumb to delusions? Do we embark on murderous rages? Do we try to set things aright? Do we seek out love to assuage the pain? Do we laugh at the absurdity of it all? These are legitimate responses to this fundamental truth of human existence and they provide complex grounds for literary exploration.

The Death of Ivan Ilych does not deal with the consequences of this insight. Tolstoy merely presents his own version of the insight but gives none of his characters the opportunity to respond to it urgencies. At the end Ivan Ilych himself regrets not having lived right and in pity for the suffering of the others finally gives himself over to death. Regrets? Sure, I've had a few. But life is more complex than that. More wonderful. More beautiful. More mystifying. More profound.

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