Monday, September 27, 2010

Basman v Nabakov on "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"

After we leave the lawyers’ chambers and see their self-concerned reactions to the news of Ilyich’s death, we are soon at the scene of his standing coffin at his home and then after that begin at the beginning and follow his path to his death, which ends as follows:

“’It is finished!’ someone said near him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. Death is finished, he said to himself. ‘It is no more.’ He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out and died.”

But at the novella’s beginning, proprieties are observed in Ilyich’s associates and colleagues visiting the bier while cadging a later bridge game. Their condolences cover their private calculations on the career possibilities his death my open for them. Ilyich’s widow is mostly concerned with whether she can augment the pension she’ll receive and so grills Peter Ivanovich about it. Once he tells her there’s nothing more for her, she immediately wants to extract herself from his company. So dismissed, Ivanovich surveys the morbid, mawkish scene—satirically rendered—and then gets off to his bridge game, right after the first rubber which makes it easy for him “to cut in.”

We are shown obeisance to form and convention as Tolstoy pillories Ilyich’s family life, his career, his conventional self regard, his social milieu. All are enmeshed in shallow conventionality, concerns with rank and standing, fashion, hierarchy and display the utter absence of interiority. Ilyich is shown in virtual ecstasy in lovingly furnishing his new home after he lucks into a fortuitous promotion and a higher salary, which inevitably won't be, could never be, enough. Also savaged are the absurd doctors Ilyich consults, refusing to answer his simple questions about how sick is he and can he recover, taking sophistic refuge in their seeming technical expertise. Ilyich similarly exults in his official power over others which increases as his legal career advances.

But as his illness progresses, all these preoccupations fall away. He increasingly sees through his home, his furniture, his family's concerns--except for his son--his petty power and vain professional self regard and finally sees all this as a mode of untruth, a mode of illusion. Against all of this, where is there some spark of human truth? The spark is in the figure of the servant Gerasim, who displays wisdom, good cheer, sympathetic insight,an ease with death's prospect and genuine compassion for Ilyich.

So, as the novella progresses, the tone deepens and darkens and the satire of, and jibing against, empty conventionality and bourgeois preoccupation ebbs. What flows into its place is a psychological and philosophical exploration of the meaning of a kind of Job like, arbitrary and inexplicable suffering unto death and of that suffering as a basis for judgment about the meaning of life and how one ought to live his life. Ilyich’s unconquerable pain, causing his suffering, predominates and intensifies and casts an ever larger shadow over the emptiness Ilyich celebrated, and his bourgeois compatriots celebrate, as meaningful. One is reminded of a quietest, detached Lear urging to Cordelia:

“No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.”

At last, as noted at the outset of this note, Tolstoy grants Ilyich surcease from pain in his life’s last moment as he ceases harbouring hatred for his wife and daughter and gains compassion for their lives of delusion, self obsession and unself-knowing. In that compassion Ilyich’s pain gives way to light, only light. He, in the end, wants to ask his family to forgive him but only manages to pronounce ‘Forego”. But “Forego”, has deep thematic resonance suggesting the foregoing of illusion and falsity in the obsession with things and status and the foregoing of hatreds in the capacity for pity and compassion.

Thus, more comprehensive than Nabkov’s religious interpretation of Ilyich, is Tolstoy’s thematic notion of suffering unto death as life’s overarching tragic condition, which ought to compel the virtues Gerasim embodies as fundamental, and thus ought to compel one to live a certain kind of life emodying those virtues.

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