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?