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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Posted by Adam Roberts on 02/25/09 at 07:32 AM

So I read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych, part of my ‘I’m in my forties now and these are classics of world literature I’ve really no excuse for not having read’ project. It’s really very good. (Both Nabokov and Gandhi, that celebrated double-act, thought it the single greatest story written). Ivan is dead, and Tolstoy picks out the petty little rituals, and banal responses, of his friends and family at the beginning.  Then the perspective shifts back to Ivan’s life, his frittering away of his existence, the onset of his illness and finally his prolonged, painful death. I read it and, of course, immediately thought of Woody Allen. Specifically, I thought of my favourite Allen film, Love and Death (1975) the funniest film ever made. The particular portion that The Death of Ivan Ilych brings to mind is the incomparable death scene of Voskovec the Herring Merchant.

Boris is in love with Sonja, but she is unhappily married to Voskovec the Herring Merchant (‘his mentality,’ she complains, ‘has reduced all the beauty of the world to a small pickled fish’). She takes lovers. (‘She takes uppers?’ Boris repeats, incredulous, when he hears this news). Voskovec, preparing his pistols to fight a duel in defence of his wife’s honour, accidentally shoots himself. Sonja goes to his deathbed in the company of a couple of doctors. In what is, I think, my favourite exchange in all film, Sonja talks to the expiring man: SONJA: ‘Leonid, I know I could have been a better wife to you. Kinder. I could have made love with you more often. Or once, even.’ VOSKOVEC (wistfully): ‘Once would have been nice.’ Here’s the tender deathbed scene:

SONJA: You were a kind and loving husband. Generous and always considerate. (To doctors) What’s he got? About eight minutes?

DOCTOR: (consulting his watch) I think I’m slow. He’s got about three.

VOSKOVEC: Swimming out! Swimming out to the open sea like the great … wild … herring! [Dies]

DOCTOR: I realise this must be a great blow to you, Sonja. But you must not allow yourself to be consumed with grief. The dead pass on, and life is for the living.

SONJA: (immediately) I guess you’re right. Where you wanna eat?

And off they go, Sonja and the two doctors, bickering over which restaurant to go to for lunch. Of course, this scene is a deliberate parody of The Death of Ivan Ilych, just as Love and Death as a whole is a confection of parody of all the classics of Russian literature. The point is, this little scene makes Tolstoy’s point better than Tolstoy does.

Here’s the thing: Tolstoy wants to start with the ludicrous anticlimax, the way other peoples’ death fails to impinge fully on our own existence, and wants to end with the intimations of mystic profundity. So he puts his comedy in the early sections: the way Peter Ivanovich is awkward at the Wake and doesn’t know what to say, so just says “Believe me . . . ”; or his mercenary little interview with the widow (‘Praskovya Fedorovna pressed his arm gratefully. When they reached the drawing-room, upholstered in pink cretonne and lighted by a dim lamp, they sat down at the table — she on a sofa and Peter Ivanovich on a low pouffe, the springs of which yielded spasmodically under his weight.’) It’s not hilarious, but it’s tonally light enough to make Tolstoy’s point. But then, as the story shifts to Ivan Ilych’s point of view, and he gets ill, and then gets worse, and then sinks into death-agony (several days of howling in pain), the tone gets all serious and Christian-metaphysical:

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave his was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. … There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

“It is finished!” said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”

This is the wrong way round. It is not death that is the Distinguished Thing (death, as the Heideggerians remind us, is not a thing at all); the fact that life carries on, indifferent, after individual death is the Distinguished Thing. The vital perspective is not that of our individual consciousness, alarming though its extinction may be from where we’re sitting. The crucial perspective involves the camera in a much much longer long-shot. Actual DNA, metaphorical DNA (art, say), not the itch of consciousness; the mundane business of getting from day to day, not transcendent epiphany. Allen’s instincts were truer; not only is his version mercifully briefer, and much funnier, it is also more profound. The end of life is not consummatum est, not “Death is finished … It is no more!” The end of life is very much somebody else saying ‘where you wanna eat?’


Tolstoy writing something that’s basically sentimental is almost cheating, like a famous singer who can’t help but make a child’s song sound good.  But these were the things that stayed with me:

1. Ivan gets the injury that results in his death from an accidental fall while hanging up curtains, if I remember rightly.  Tolstoy is properly scornful about this Queer Eye For the Upwardly Mobile Guy related fatality.  But to me it seemed a good deal more tragic.  Aren’t all human endeavors related to art not really so different from hanging up curtains?  Would it really have made a difference if Ivan had gotten a more dignified cause-of-death related to a working-class accident, say?

2.  Ivan has a particularly modern / contemporary form of death because the doctors seem to have a pretty good idea of what’s killing him, but they can’t do anything about it.  When doctors were frankly clueless, hope or faith seem like they would be more available.  But here they can tell him about his “blind gut”, and it’s literally sort of blind; he knows it’s there, wrong, but he can’t get at it to repair it.  He thus prefigures everyone whose doctor tells them authoritatively that they have an incurable disease.  He’s effectively forced into a “higher” form of faith because hope for his earthly existence has been so completely denied so far in advance.

3.  The whole bit about Gerasim the Magical Peasant seems really off in a way that people still don’t seem to pick up, perhaps because it’s a form of classism that isn’t in the usual anglo categories.  He rests his legs on this compassionate, simple peasant boy who teaches him by example what it is to live for others.  Has anyone re-written the story from Gerasim’s point of view, I wonder?  “I have to go back to that creepy Ivan Ilyich’s house and listen to him die for a while longer.  Well, it beats plowing the fields.” Or perhaps that’s too much.  But Gerasim is a youth with a youth’s belief in invulnerability.  Tolstoy really is putting a lot on his holy class status.

By on 02/25/09 at 10:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re spot-on about Gerasum the Magical Peasant.  But this is the key to all Tolstoy mythologies, though, isn’t it?  The wonderful ontological authenticity of the peasants, apprehended at second-hand.

By Adam Roberts on 02/25/09 at 11:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm.  That came out rather more sneery than I intended.

By Adam Roberts on 02/25/09 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Chekhov would have agreed with you, though.  Tolstoy told Chekhov, with a serf grandfather and with an active medical practice treating both peasants and not, that he didn’t understand the True Russian Peasant.

By on 02/25/09 at 09:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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