15 November 2008

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych—Romancing the Peasant

Through his suffering Ivan Ilych has earned his solitude, his chance to come to terms with his own mortality. Tolstoy has systematically stripped him of the comforts of the middle-class life that stood between him and his authentic self. He has forced his protagonist to confront the emptiness of his life. It is a painful process: his life has left II with a bad taste in his mouth and an inchoate but persistent aching inside. Everyone, including II himself, is waiting for him to die, to "free the living from the constraint of his presence." Tolstoy tortures him with greater and greater pains, sleeplessness, and incontinence. Even the sop of opium Tolstoy allows II doesn't assuage this existential suffering.

Now comes Tolstoy to plague poor Ivan with his vision of populist authenticity in the person of Gerasim. One might compare it (uncharitably) in the idiom of present day politics to someone like a patrician Mitt Romney or George Bush feigning populism:
"Gerasim was a clean, fresh, young peasant, who had grown stout and hearty on the good fare in town. Always cheerful and bright. At first the sight of this lad, always cleanly dressed in the Russian style, engaged in this revolting task [cleaning the bedpans and soiled bedcloths], embarrassed Ivan Ilych.

One day, getting up from the night-stool, too weak to replace his clothes, he dropped on to a soft low chair and looked with horror at his bare, powerless thighs, with the muscles so sharply standing out on them.

Then there came in with light, strong steps Gerasim, in his thick boots, diffusing a pleasant smell of tar from his boots, and bringing in the freshness of the winter air. Wearing a clean hempen apron, and a clean cotton shirt, with his sleeves tucked up on his strong, bare young arms, without looking at Ivan Ilych, obviously trying to check the radiant happiness in his face so as not to hurt the sick man, he went up to the night-stool."
Notice the profusion of adjectives: clean, fresh, young, stout, hearty, cheerful, bright, cleanly dressed in the Russian style, light strong steps, pleasant, fresh (again), clean (again and again), strong bare (arms), radiant, happiness. We get the picture. Nothing subtle here. Gerasim is the idealized peasant, the noble workman, the authentic other. The name 'Gerasim' in Russian means 'elder' or 'older one', implying wisdom; Gerasim qua peasant is an old soul. Where Tolstoy seems to have nothing but contempt for the bourgeois who inhabit this novella, he seems to have nothing but adoration for this simple peasant boy who lives his life according to an exemplary morality.
"The terrible, awful act of his dying was, he saw, by all those about him, brought down to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and to some extent indecorous, incident (somewhat as they would behave with a person who should enter a drawing-room smelling unpleasant). It was brought down to this level by that very decorum to which he had been enslaved all his life. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one would even grasp his position. Gerasim was the only person who recognised the position, and felt sorry for him. And that was why Ivan Ilych was only at ease with Gerasim. He felt comforted when Gerasim sometimes supported his legs for whole nights at a stretch, and would not go away to bed, saying, 'Don't you worry yourself, Ivan Ilych, I'll get sleep enough yet,' or when suddenly dropping into the familiar peasant forms of speech, he added: 'If thou weren't sick, but as 'tis, 'twould be strange if I didn't wait on thee.' Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed clearly that he alone understood what it meant, and saw no necessity to disguise it, and simply felt sorry for his sick, wasting master. He even said this once straight out, when Ivan Ilych was sending him away.

'We shall all die. So what's a little trouble?' he said, meaning by this to express that he did not complain of the trouble just because he was taking this trouble for a dying man, and he hoped that for him too someone would be willing to take the same trouble when his time came."
Patrician moralizing or merely patronizing? You make the call.

Gerasim, the natural man, ministers to his master's neediness, babies him, satisfies the constant longing in his soul to be comforted from the oppressiveness of his emptiness and inauthenticity, brings the fundamental truth of one human touching another in his suffering. There is no question raised as to the propriety of the master-servant relationship or, more specifically, as to whether Gerasim is merely being kind out of a sense of duty and obligation (he'll lose his job if he doesn't accommodate his master's demands) or whether his is the sort of authentic fellow-feeling Tolstoy seems to want to portray here. This romanticizing of the peasant feels like a failure of imagination on Tolstoy's part. As a technical matter, though Gerasim is clearly meant to be symbolic if not emblematic, I don't believe Tolstoy's failure to confront the morality of an unequal power-relationship is a concession to the limited formula of the novella because this theme of comfort and pity is so central to the story.

Many accuse the later Tolstoy of preachiness, didacticism, moralizing. It is passages like this that lead them to bring that charge. Nabokov makes light of it in his Lectures on Russian Literature:
"this story was written in March 1886, at a time when Tolstoy was nearly sixty and had firmly established the Tolstoyan fact that writing masterpieces of fiction was a sin. He had firmly made up his mind that if he would write anything, after the great sins of his middle years, War and Peace and Anna Karenin, it would be only in the way of simple tales for the people, for peasants, for school children, pious educational fables, moralistic fairy tales, that kind of thing. Here and there in The Death of Ivan Ilych there is a half-hearted attempt to proceed with this trend, and we shall find samples of a pseudo-fable style here and there in the story. But on the whole it is the artist who takes over. This story is Tolstoy's most artistic, most perfect, and most sophisticated achievement."
The authentic, noble, wise response to the harsh, painful truth of human mortality (the Ur-story) is portrayed in Gerasim's kindly attitude when cleaning II's filth and cradling his legs, the simple pity for the suffering and grief of one who is finally having to come to terms with his ultimate aloneness.

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