14 November 2008

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych—The Condition My Condition Is In

We continue with our look at Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. Before we get too far it might pay to define our terms. What exactly is a novella? The glib answer is it is a work of fiction shorter than a novel (~80,000+ words) but longer than a short story (~5,000 - 10,000 words); but the quantitative answer doesn't really tell us much of anything except that publishing a novella in either a journal or in book form is not going to be a ready option in the American market. Taking TDoII as our model, we can assert an intriguingly substantive thesis: in a novella one character has the space to grow and/or experience some sort of motivated, significant change, physically and psychologically, though none of the others do. The novel has more space to develop parallel, modifying plots; explore multiple themes and styles and points of view; and allow other characters to have their own emotional arc etc. The short story does not allow for much back story or thematic development. It must address its main characters 'crisis' efficiently. Here I think it safe to say none of the other characters has an interesting story arc. They are the props, the furniture upon which Tolstoy develops his story of II. They feel relatively fixed, symbolic even (as we have seen). They are there mainly to provide color and contrast for the protagonist's story. Let's leave it at that, a provisional definition of the novella, and get back to our look at the story.

As we have seen there is no mystery here: II is fallen man and as such his fate is death. Tolstoy's lesson is obvious. The concerns of fallen man, here synonymous with those of the middle class—careerism, wealth, orderly lifestyle, and social climbing—are temporal, vanishing. They result in a life filled with hypocrisy, vanity, obsession. Fair enough, Count.

The bad taste in II's mouth, the discomfort in his side, his irritability all continue to worsen. Life goes on around the dying man and he steadily retreats from it—losing interest in his friends, his cards, his job, his family—and into himself. Doctors are consulted. Diagnoses are proffered and withdrawn. Medicaments prove to no avail. No cure is forthcoming. Nor any salvation. II languishes in his study. His family and servants come and go. No one seems to understand him or his predicament. And no one will tell II the truth of his condition. This is an important Tolstoyan point for he repeats it several times to make sure we get it (we are using the Constance Garnett translation):
"The doctor said: 'This and that proves that you have such-and-such a thing wrong inside you; but if that is not confirmed by analysis of this and that, then we must assume this and that. If we assume this—and so on. To Ivan Ilych there was only one question of consequence, Was his condition dangerous or not? But the doctor ignored that irrelevant inquiry." (Ch. IV)

"Suddenly he felt the familiar, old, dull, gnawing ache, persistent, quiet, in earnest. In his mouth the same familiar loathsome taste. His heart sank, his brain felt dim, misty. 'My God, my God!' he said, 'again, again, and it will never cease.' And suddenly the whole thing rose before him in quite a different aspect. 'Appendix! kidney!' he said to himself. 'It's not a question of the appendix, not a question of the kidney, but of life and ... death. Yes, life has been and now it's going, going away, and I cannot stop it. Yes. Why deceive myself? Isn't it obvious to every one, except me, that I'm dying, and it's only a question of weeks, of days—at once perhaps. There was light, and now there is darkness. I was here, and now I am going! Where?' A cold chill ran over him, his breath stopped. He heard nothing but the throbbing of his heart.

"'I shall be no more, then what will there be? There'll be nothing. Where then shall I be when I'm no more? Can this be dying? No; I don't want to!' He jumped up, tried to light the candle; and fumbling with trembling hands, he dropped the candle and the candlestick on the floor and fell back again on the pillow. 'Why trouble? it doesn't matter,' he said to himself, staring with open eyes into the darkness. 'Death. Yes, death. And they—all of them—don't understand, and don't want to understand, and feel no pity. They are playing." (Ch. V)
The accoutrements and amusements and diversions of the bourgeois life, II discovers, are merely defenses, forestalling acknowledgment of the terrifying thought of death's universality and inevitability. And they are impenetrable; that is why he is unable to connect with his friends, family, or even his doctors. As these defenses fall away, losing their power to shield II from this terrible truth, he has an epiphany. One day at work, in the middle of reciting the "familiar words that opened the proceedings" of business in the law court, the pain in II's side reasserted itself:
"It riveted Ivan Ilych's attention. He drove away the thought of it, but it still did its work, and then It came and stood confronting him and looked at him, and he felt turned to stone, and the light died away in his eyes, and he began to ask himself again, 'Can it be that It is the only truth?' And his colleagues and his subordinates saw with surprise and distress that he, the brilliant, subtle judge, was losing the thread of his speech, was making blunders. He shook himself, tried to regain his self-control, and got somehow to the end of the sitting, and went home with the painful sense that his judicial labours could not as of old hide from him what he wanted to hide; that he could not by means of his official work escape from It. And the worst of it was that It drew him to itself not for him to do anything in particular, but simply for him to look at It straight in the face, to look at It and, doing nothing, suffer unspeakably.

And to save himself from this, Ivan Ilych sought amusements, other screens, and these screens he found, and for a little while they did seem to save him; but soon again they were not so much broken down as let the light through, as though It pierced through everything, and there was nothing that could shut It off.

'And it's the fact that here, at that curtain, as if it had been storming a fort, I lost my life. Is it possible? How awful and how silly! It cannot be! It cannot be, and it is.'

He went into his own room, lay down, and was again alone with It. Face to face with It, and nothing to be done with It. Nothing but to look at It and shiver." (Ch. VI)
And thus, in this It, we are confronting the inbreak of the Ur-story, the essence of fiction, from the inside. The shiver of destiny. Note the motif of light and dark, the leitmotif of screens and curtains. Note the allusion to Kierkegaard's sickness unto death as a metaphor for the human condition, a predominant literary trope through at least Sontag. Notwithstanding, Ilych must now acknowledge his destiny, his defenses having fallen away, and he must confront his own mortality. Alone!

Tolstoy has brought us to this place as no one before him has. Others have danced around it, confronting it from the outside. Dealing with its effects upon the living: the inconvenience, the annoyance, the denial, the anger, the grief. But now we, with Ivan Ilych, are learning how to die.

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