Saturday, May 07, 2005

Ivan Illych, now and then

I know it's not a real cheerer-upper, but I recently read Tolstoi's The Death of Ivan Illych. Actually, you could say that I re-read it, since my first encounter with the novella was in a Russian literature course I took in my senior year of college.

You may remember from Part 4A of "A mind is a difficult thing to change" that this was the year my boyfriend was fighting in Vietnam. Consequently, it was very hard for me to concentrate on anything that year. But that Russian lit course, and a history course I also took that year entitled 'Russian Intellectual History," grabbed me and caught my attention with tremendous force.

Both courses focused on works from the 19th century, which at the time I considered to be more or less ancient history. That's why I was so amazed at the immediacy and relevance of both courses. Clearly, the Russians didn't mess around when they wrote; they went for the jugular, the Big Issues, and they didn't let go. The meaning of life, good vs. evil, that sort of thing. Perfect for a college student, and especially perfect for me at the time because I had no patience whatsoever with anything that didn't deal with those Big Issues, since I was dealing with quite a few of them myself.

The history course was sobering. It turns out that those old Russians (Bakunin, Herzen, the Slavophiles are the names that now come to mind, although the details have become very fuzzy) had been wrestling mightily with questions such as what sort of society would be best for humankind, and how best to create it. Hmmm. In the 60s, that's what we were doing, too.

So it seemed that we college students of the 60s were not nearly as unique as we thought we were, after all. Even I could see that, from reading these Russians. Their voices sounded suspiciously like those of the young firebrands who spoke at the local SDS meetings. Since I already knew the endpoint of the path those long-ago Russians had taken, often with great idealism and hope, this made me a lot more skeptical of the modern variety. This was actually the sort of thing that kept me a liberal rather than a leftist in those days.

But back to Ivan Ilych, which I also read that same year. Unlike the others, it's not about politics, although Tolstoi can't resist putting in a noble peasant (the only idealized character in the book), and mocking the bourgeousie. The story achieves greatness as a feat of psychological imagination, a relentless study of an "unexamined life."

Tolsoi himself was an incredibly complex and contradictory man, a titanic figure, and one of the first literary superstars. He could be supremely idealistic and maddeningly cruel all at the same time (read about his treatment of his long-suffering wife, if you want to get an idea of the latter). But boy, could that guy write! Much of his writing in Ivan Illych has an immediacy and an almost brutal honesty, as well as a dry humor, that seems startlingly original and quite modern.

Here's one of my favorite passages from the work; I recall it from college, and I noted it with a flash of appreciative recognition on my recent re-reading. Just as we students of the 60s had some trouble accepting that we resembled countless others who had come this way before us; so, also, does Ivan Illych have great difficulty giving up his belief in his own exceptionalism:

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it. The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter's Logic: "Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal," had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius -- man in the abstract -- was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and with all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother's hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? "Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it's altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible."

Such was his feeling.


At 1:41 PM, May 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No-one has made a comment here, so I figured SOMEONE had to so you don't think no-one is interested! I've never been much of a fan of Russian literature, I'm afraid, despite liking PARTS of Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, War and Peace and other miscellaneous pieces. But what fascinates me is how people in previous centuries "spoke" the same language as us. One feels, sometimes, that one's most understanding friends are from the past. And it is exhilarating to think that one's "friendships" are not just confined to the stage on which one is playing, but are also off-stage. I first felt this when, newly arrived in Australia, feeling rather lonely and miserable, and having had to reassess the "world view " that I was brought up with, I read Voltaire's "Candide." I found it hysterically funny, and, at the time, terribly profound. A lot of water under the bridge since then, but since then, I realize that the Ancient Greeks were far from devoid of the ability to write about feelings and attitudes which are distincly "modern". There really is nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes beautifully states, and describes. And no, sadly, I'm not religious: I think Omar has the truth of THAT!

At 3:47 PM, May 10, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks robert aldridge--I was indeed beginning to think that perhaps no one appreciated poor Ivan Illych (or this post!). I agree with you about voices from other times speaking to us in very immediate ways.

One other literary reference to this phenomenon is in this extraordinary poem by Walt Whitman, who address it directly:

Full of Life Now

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Full of life now, compact, visible,
I, forty years old the eighty- third year of the States,
To one a century hence or any number of centuries hence,
To you yet unborn these, seeking you.

When you read these I that was visible am become invisible,
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems, seeking me,
Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am now with you.)

At 12:10 PM, May 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked Kitty's husband, in Anna Karenina, when he came to grips with human death and put away his own atheism / doubt. And this was before Tolstoy was some would say 'spoiled' by his religious side (smile )


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