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decadence

I’d love to teach a course centered on The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Tolstoy’s great novella cannot be studied in isolation from certain foundational texts standing at it were behind Ivan, and pushing him into the literary foreground. These are, but are by no means limited to, The Confessions of St Augustine and Rousseau, Tolstoy’s own tortured diaries, Paul’s Romans, Christ’s teachings on the world as opposed to the kingdom of God in the New Testament, and sundry Russian books and essays on the nature of the peasants, their aristocratic “fathers,” and this new dominant professional class to which Ivan belongs and which has neither loyalty to the land nor the simple faith of the peasant, and which has neither the refinement nor complicated decadence and aesthetic taste of the nobility. This “functionary class” is co-optive, incapable of originality, grafting onto its evil and mundane tree the native “shrewdness” and greed common to the worst peasants, and the pretentiousness and faux complexity/ haughtiness of the worst nobility. They are a class in love with Poshlost–forerunners of smart sets and hipsters. They are not merely middle class, but the Professional class. This is important to remember: They are the executors of the state and civil society–functionaries, masters of the machine of civil process. Tolstoy as a Christian anarchist can think of no more distasteful creatures. Their life is a form of death for him, and Nabokov is right to submit that, to Tolstoy’s mind, the characters who survive Ivan are the truly dead.

Through most of the text, Ivan fits the Biblical category of the lukewarm: “I would that thou were hot or cold, but being lukewarm I shall spit you forth from my mouth.” Being lukewarm, moderate, steady on the wheel is considered necessary to professional success. The motto might be mediocrity of the very best sort. He also enacts a narrative arc of two sayings attributed to Christ: First, the parable of the rich farmer who plots to build an extra barn for his abundant harvest and is told by God “thou fool! Does thou not know that your life is required of you this very night? Store up riches in heaven, and not on earth.” The second is more attributable to both Ivan and his so called “friends”: “And they were buying and selling, and giving and taking in marriage unto the last hour, and were caught unaware.” As for the surface of Ivan’s friends and family and world, we are reminded of the ruling citizens of Christ’s Israel (Pharisees and Sadducees) who were, according to, Jesus, like tombs: “all white on the outside, but on the inside, filled with all matter of decay and filth.” Finally, the question that goads Augustine into ontic crisis also lurks behind Ivan Illyich: “what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his only begotten soul?”

In addition, we must understand that Tolstoy himself was terrified of death–especially after his own brother’s horrible illness–and, at the same time, obsessed with death in its most clinical details, not only in its spiritual mysteries, but in terms of its pathology and sheer progression. Ivan’s death is very much a clinical as well as spiritual process and it is this long, drawn out, agony–in some ways as mundane as the false world it unravels, that is one of the marvels of the novel: the boredom of the dying, the tedium, the way it reduces a person to a corpse pending, the dying man’s exclusion from the living, his interminable otherness–this is all beautifully imagined in this masterpiece.

In the course, we would read subsidiary texts that go with some Tolstoy. Here are some possible examples that share common ground with the quotes from the text:

“He in his madness prays for storms, and dreams that storms will bring him peace”

“Blow, blow thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” Also, Elijah in the cave.

“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil.

“Morning or night, Friday or Sunday, made no difference, everything was the same: the gnawing, excruciating, incessant pain; that awareness of life irrevocably passing but not yet gone; that dreadful, loathsome death, the only reality, relentlessly closing in on him; and that same endless lie. What did days, weeks, or hours matter?”

Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job.

”The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.”
“But it seems to me that a man cannot and ought not to say that he loves, he said. Why not? I asked. Because it will always be a lie. As though it were a strange sort of discovery that someone is in love! Just as if, as soon as he said that, something went snap-bang – he loves. Just as if, when he utters that word, something extraordinary is bound to happen, with signs and portents, and all the cannons firing at once. It seems to me, he went on, that people who solemnly utter those words, ‘I love you,’ either deceive themselves, or what’s still worse, deceive others.”

“Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?”

“He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

Paul: death, where is my death, where is it’s victory?”

“In place of death there was light.”

“All who attempt to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall have eternal life.” and “All that is brought to light shall be made into light– John’s Gospel

“At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

Augustine Confessions, where the boys steal the fruit.

“But that what was for him the greatest and most cruel injustice appeared to others a quite ordinary occurrence.”

Auden’s “Beaux Arts”

“The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kieswetter’s logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.”
“Death is finished, he said to himself. It is no more!”

Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“Come, what did I say, repeat it? he would ask. But I could never repeat anything, so ludicrous it seemed that he should talk to me, not of himself or me, but of something else, as though it mattered what happened outside us. Only much later I began to have some slight understanding of his cares and to be interested in them.”
“He was much changed and grown even thinner since Pyotr Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as is always the case with the dead, his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than than when he was alive.” (zen saying: nothing is more valuable or dignified than a dead cat. Or the Native American tradition of praying over the killed game, or the religious injunction to witness to the dead, even in so far as witnessing to road kill.

Almost any Buddhist teaching.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
“When the examination was over, the doctor looked at his watch, and then Praskovya Fyodorovna informed Ivan Ilyich that it must of course be as he liked, but she had sent today for a celebrated doctor, and that he would examine him, and have a consultation with Mihail Danilovich (that was the name of his regular doctor). ‘Don’t oppose it now, please. This I’m doing entirely for my own sake,’ she said ironically, meaning it to be understood that she was doing it all for his sake, and was only saying this to give him no right to refuse her request. He lay silent, knitting his brows. He felt that he was hemmed in by such a tangle of falsity that it was hard to disentangle anything from it. Everything she did for him was entirely for her own sake, and she told him she was doing for her own sake what she actually was doing for her own sake as something so incredible that he would take it as meaning the opposite.”

“That is not what I mean/that is not it at all”–Prufrock.
Hopkins: Spring and Fall.
Also husband and wife relations in the Bible (Sara and Abraham, Job and his wife) as well as wives and husbands in Russian folk tales.

There are a couple subsidiary texts we would have to read in addition to Ivan, all having to do with the dying or the spiritually dead: King Lear, Issa’s memoir of his father’s death, and Chekhov’s “In the Ravine.” We would also look at Augustine’s Confessions and relate Tolstoy’s exaltation of the peasant to variations on the myth of the “Magic negro.” How does Tolstoy’s sometimes sentimental fondness and adoration for the peasant differ from Gunga Din? How does it differ from takes on the noble savage, or for that matter, from often sentimental tropes on the poor? How does his disdain for the middle class differ from Marxist views? How does it resemble the Marxist view? Why does Tolstoy attack simple and ordinary here, when in most works, and even in this text, he lauds the simplicity of the peasant. What sort of simplicity and ordinariness is he calling most terrible?

We would consider Kierkegaard’s teachings on despair: despair of not being oneself, despair of being one’s self, and the sickness unto death: a despair so deep and total, that one is not even aware of being in despair. And so in addition to King Lear, Issa memoir on his father’s death, and Chekov’s The Ravine, we will be reading The Sickness Unto Death.

For historical background, read up on Christian anarchy, the post-liberation/pre-revolution civil life of Russia, and various works on chronic illness and its pathology.

Is this the kind of class you’d take?

“The Waste Land” is most usually and most persuasively read as a satire. The argument for “The Waste Land” as a satire sounds something like this: Written in the wake of WWI, a time of immense cultural (and personal) confusion, Eliot’s waste is pure disharmony between body and mind; the triumph of industry over civility and of frivolity over responsibility; and the ultimately sallow consolation of restoration only in one’s own headspace. Poetry itself is implicit is this decay— Romanticism’s unearned novelties a reflection of hubris and Victorianism’s decadence only spit-shining a deeper blemish.  But of course, Eliot is a poet. This irony of “The Waste Land” is best represented by its only true emotional center, the second line of quoted material taken from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins/Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.” Here our “The Waste Land”’s speaker is channeling a father gone insane with the death of his son—the opposite of Hamlet—in which he (the father) will use the stage to draw out guilt from his son’s killers. In “The Waste Land” we see that poetry, for Eliot, only continues to be a possibility because of this father, this tradition, which can be reused and recycled at the given historical moment’s discretion.

So fragments are the order of the day. The text is divided between poem proper and footnotes, the poem proper is divided into sections, no narrative calcifies among these sections, even the allusions divide their ancestry between what is known as East and West. The speaker, of course, is worse for the wear (ie so nuts they’re still roasting him (yes, that‘s a Fire Sermon joke)). And the one solace, these ‘fragments shored against ruin’ (please note that this is a metafictive trope regarding “The Waste Land”’s own design, famously described as collage), beacons an effort to stave off despair, heralding a tradition that has simultaneously abandoned its decedents as its decedents have abandoned it, leaving a trail of empty gestures, an uncultivated culture, a poem breaking itself apart with the without of guidance, composure, and love and compassion. Thus, “The Waste Land” is a satire, finally, of western tradition and culture. It is not linear, it does not usher a transcendent meaning, it does not reason, it’s barely for the public—and yet its contents are: Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, etc. And so where the poem is at all comical it is so with a sort of hysterical laughter, high-brow, perhaps, but more especially high-pitched.

Given this assumption, I consider my counter to be self-evident. If “The Waste Land” is a satire by way of referencing and containing the diamonds of the West while simultaneously parodying the West’s finger-banging for an easily communicable Truth, then it is only a satire by way of its mode of reference. Were it not for “The Waste Land”‘s allusions it would be a fragmented poem. An experiment no more or less attention-grabbing than practically the entirety of Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations. A hybrid of Prufrock and Eliot’s collection titled Poems, it is the domineering use of allusion in conjunction with its teen-like angst at the lack of tangibility of the texts of which it is made that makes this poem in any way ironic.

Thus, first and foremost, “The Waste Land” is—in the tradition of Dante and Eliot’s later flag-bearer Thomas Pynchon—an encyclopedia. The notion of encyclopedic narratives comes from Ed Mendelson, and I’ll expand on this tradition in a moment, but my point here is that Eliot’s sense of responsibility is not to conjure a well-informed guffaw, bludgeoning the calamitous sexual needs of a brutish poor, but an attempt to save a few lines, a few poems, a few books for later use. I direct those who scoff to Eliot’s own “Hamlet and His Problems,”

Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know.

The work of poetry as a material. As something physical, like lumber. And, according to Eliot, interpretation is matter of facts. That’s a bewildering prescription. Also, the word “standards” is odd here, and we’ll return to these things. But as an encyclopedia, “The Waste Land” is not a satire at all; instead, it’s an earnest documentation of Eliot’s very profound and very personal experience with literature. The fragments, after all, are shored against my ruin.

Three asides (concluding with awesome segue):

1. In this context, the poem proper and the footnotes—together—make a cohesive whole that is “The Waste Land.” The footnotes are part of the body of the text, nothing less. Eliot’s flippant attitude toward we-the-reader’s interpretation, the dozens of allusions (aka suggested reading), even the notes that inject Eliot’s own understanding into the text, each are elements of the poem that enjoy an all-but-equal share in consideration.

2(a). In “Burial of the Dead” the speaker says “Come in under the shadow of this red rock/(There is shadow under this red rock),/And I will show you something different from either/your shadow at morning striding behind you/or your shadow at evening rising to meet you”—why does the speaker assume you are traveling eastward? Why does Eliot’s footnote for “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” go out of its way to mention that this is a formal closing of an Upanishad, much like “Amen” at the close of a prayer. Eliot wants one mythology to rule them all. And so he writes his western Upanishad.

2(b). For Eliot, form is not a matter of fitting the inspiration for a strait jacket. Eliot’s form creates a historical object, something with borders and boundaries. Form tempers the bleeding from one thing into another; but this is not to say that the boundaries are not, when at their best, porous.

3. What Whitman means to the epic is still becoming clear, which is nice because it means it’s a process in which we’re partaking, if we’re partaking. Speaking of process, it seems to be the hallmark of this tradition. The American epic is not as much the all-encompassing sweep of any particular poem, but is instead the motion—the before, during, and after—of each particular poet. Hence, Leaves of Grass is the becoming of Whitman. And Eliot is a full-fledged participant in this tradition. Much like Leaves of Grass, after 1925 Eliot put all of his poems, with exception of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a children’s book, into one book of Collected Poems. And if this is not enough to convince you that Eliot was invested in process, read his remarks on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which explicitly instructs readers to look at this as a one aspect of the totality of Joyce’s career.

True, Eliot’s speaker is more ornamented than our barbaric yawper. Eliot’s poems are built with closed doors, where Whitman wants the doors entirely removed. He (Eliot) prefers the ritual of technique to the ritual of intimacy. So although Eliot winces while he nods to Whitman, he nonetheless makes the nod. Remember, they are lilacs that breed from the dead land. The two are of the same lineage. Even the tension between the two is a classically American tension: Whitman, poet of action, newspapers, egalitarian even in his glances. Eliot, poet of inaction, journals, a representative from the creative elite.

Here we might again note that Eliot was a sickly child. He couldn’t play games. So he stayed inside, reading. The American stylizing of freedom is Whitman’s frontier as its absence is Eliot’s. Whitman participates, and Eliot envisions.

Encyclopedic narrative does not proceed as dramatic action. The narrative is not of people, places, and things but of words, ideas, and histories. It provides references. The processes of narrative only occur as an intellectual exercise in describing, categorizing, and reformulating. For the encyclopedia, events take place within ideas, not time. Take our dude Dante for instance. We’ll look at the Inferno.

In the Inferno Dante provides an intensely systematic description of sin. Notice that the dramatic action of Dante’s plot is decided from the beginning. There is no suspense here, no ‘what next’. The pilgrimage has been divined and it’s a comedy because it will end in Paradise. The characters are two dimensional. They’re representations of ideas—excuses for Dante and Virgil to have a chat.  The current of this story is not action. Instead it is the detail of the vision. Each punishment sheds more light on the nature of its corresponding sin by way of synecdoche (eg the lustful are blown around by the whims of the winds). His vision of Hell’s circles and their rigid hierarchies, the historical figures of his choosing, his own (Dante is a character is his own story) reactions to the punishment—all of these things lend to Dante’s classifying sin from least to most egregious.

Eliot’s encyclopedia is more . . . playful. I won’t say that it is pure play. Thomas Eliot is not Thomas Pynchon. But if Dante’s encyclopedia represents a well-ordered world and Pynchon’s encyclopedia represents a world ordered only by the patterns of one’s perception, then where is Eliot? In short, how do we read “The Waste Land” as reference? How do we use “The Waste Land”?

Eliot’s most obvious break from Dante occurs in the realm of aesthetics. To be clear, Dante’s preferred mode of operation is allegory. Eliot’s is symbolism. When I say symbolism, of course, I am referring to the aesthetic movement of which Eliot describes a variation as the definition of a poet in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The poet as a catalyst is the symbolist in motion: At the hands of the mind an emotion or feeling is processed and transformed into an entirely independent material. Like how lumber becomes a house. For Eliot, the poet is essentially a specialist. Everyone uses words but the poet designs words. The poem does not “convey” meaning. The poem is meaning.

With this in mind, that the poem’s presence is its meaning, we use “The Waste Land”’s “historical facts,” (eg the images of speech it performs, its allusions, even its lapses) like atheists in a friend’s church. We show up. We’re polite. We scoff. We’re confused. We’re offended. We like the way some things look, so we look more closely. We take what we need, we use what we can. We go Garbage Picking. We say thank you. Thank you.

It might be noted here that although the fragment was one of Eliot’s wild “inventions,” a necessary consequence and weakness of Eliot’s poetry are these fragments. For whatever reason, Eliot’s poetry is incapable of performing pattern perception. It may be that the specialist undergoes a certain occupational psychosis. The current trends toward reflexivity in nearly every discipline of study would suggest a closedness that  I sometimes assume hurts everything.

Or it may be that Eliot’s prioritization of entire realms of experience either above or below others. Exclusion of this sort, the kind that takes short cuts and calls them standards, is a mutilation. And the perpetrator is often first to be scarred.

But to be as plain as I can be, my goal here has been to define the terms and conditions for Eliot as an American. America faces some special conditions. We’re founded by slaves and idealists and—the combination of the two—entrepreneurs. The numerous paradoxes of American culture often find their home in the tension between an egalitarian proverb and the reality of the creative elite. Eliot’s poetry reflects a very specific reaction to the poet-as-a-person-who-must-get-up-and-work-everyday. For Eliot, poetry is a spiritualization of luxury. It’s the finest things, it’s the time to enjoy the finest things, it’s the burning that comes with acquiring the acquired taste. It’s the confusion thereafter, when possibilities for praxis need practice.

For choosing to write about Eliot, I have also noticed that many of my poets-in-arms borrow Eliot’s snobbery and use it against him. Yes, he is a big dumb white man. Yes, he was racist and sexist and anti-Semitic and a royalist if not a fascist. Still, it seems to me that one of the dangers of not engaging with a strand of thought is that it seeps into your own with you being able to detect its presence.

And the possible lesson from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is that we agree on a canon, not The Canon, or even a tradition with the same guiding principles. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot hands us his own canon. This idea, that what we read can be completely private and completely public might be useful. Or a canon with the potential for flux would be nice, one that changes as needed. Certainly a canon that would include all of the voices marginalized for centuries. But a canon is there for a reason: The Community. If we are talk about the same things, if we are to really talk at all, we must have some commons between us. Straight people should endeavor to understand other sexualities. Asians should read Hispanics. White people should read black writers. Men should read women. Women should read men. Black people should read white writers. Hispanics should read Asians. The queer community should endeavor to understand other sexualities. If democracy is to exist let all permutations therein dance around a bit. This is the lesson for democracy of T. S. Eliot, the fascist.