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The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy | The Nation

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The Renunciation Artist: On Leo Tolstoy

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Yet neither acuity of observation nor transparency of style is enough to explain Tolstoy's secret. Reginald Farrer, in an essay on Jane Austen, said this: "The essence of conviction, in the game of make-believe, is to convince yourself first of all, finally and absolutely." More even than Austen, more than anyone, this Tolstoy did. In a way impossible to trace but immediately and everywhere felt, he communicates to us his utter belief in the world he presents. It is as real to him, we sense, as reality itself (one reason he could mingle historical and fictional characters, in War and Peace and elsewhere, without compunction). But that conviction evidently rested on another. Reality was simply much more real to Tolstoy than it is to the rest of us. He believed, as few people finally do, in the world. And this belief--though the secular mind, which sets the natural and supernatural at odds, may find the notion counterintuitive--was of a piece with his religious faith. He had his moments of doubt, like Father Sergius, but they were not the skepticism of a rationalist. Tolstoy believed in God even when he didn't: believed in the spiritual imperatives that God represents. The world was present to him as a material reality because it was present to him as a moral one, and it was this double conviction, carried over into his work, that gives his fiction its unsurpassed solidity.

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William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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The unflinching fiction of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

The task of a critic has to do with the nature of the knowledge we call art.

Nothing demonstrates this better than "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." The story gives us an almost unbearable description of the process of dying, elaborated with all of Tolstoy's narrative powers and agonizingly prolonged for some thirty pages, from the moment the title character notices "a strange taste in his mouth" until he meets his end in three days of incessant screaming. But Ivan Ilyich's greatest torments are spiritual. Can this really be all there is?, he asks himself. Death--and nothing more? Pain--and nothing more? "Can it be that life is so meaningless and vile?" This is a story about a man who avoids thinking about life--a man for whom the moral world is no more real than it is for most of us--until he is forced to think about death.

Like "The Prisoner of the Caucasus," though in a very different way, it is a story about perspective--the reversal of perspective inflicted by the prospect of extinction. It opens with its title character already gone, Pyotr Ivanovich and his colleague Schwartz, the dead man's fellow functionaries in the courts of law, going through their pantomime around the coffin. This is the outside view, death as a social fact, a temporary awkwardness in the lives of people who are no more inclined to take it seriously--"we'll do better, you and I"--than Ivan Ilyich was. But then the story doubles back, to narrate its protagonist's life from his own point of view, reversing the perspective in two senses. As for Pyotr Ivanovich and friends, though we expect to meet them again at story's end, we never do. In one of his boldest strokes here, Tolstoy doesn't even bother to close the frame. The story has created a retroactive dramatic irony that's already told us everything we need to know about these men, a single file of Ivan Ilyiches marching blindly toward the grave.

Ivan Ilyich's existence, before he fell ill, had been one of unswerving adherence to form. To live well, he believed, was to do precisely what was expected of him, what everyone did in his class:

It was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to resemble the rich, and for that reason only resemble each other: damasks, ebony, flowers, carpets, and bronzes, dark and gleaming--all that all people of a certain kind acquire in order to resemble all people of a certain kind.

His watchwords--we hear them again and again--are "pleasantness" and "decency," joined, as he starts to prosper in earnest, by "ease." Everything else, including the emptiness of his own marriage, including the human suffering he sees before him as a magistrate, he pushes out of consciousness. But of course, pleasantness, decency and ease are precisely what dying overturns. Here is yet another reversal, and the key word is "decency." Death is indecent in the physical sense--a servant must clean up his waste--but also in the social one. It just isn't the sort of thing polite people talk about:

 

His wife listened, but in the middle of his account his daughter came in with her hat on: she and her mother were going somewhere. She forced herself to sit down and listen to this boredom, but could not stand it for long, and the mother did not hear him out.

This is the greatest torment of all: the social lies that deprive Ivan Ilyich of the comfort, the simple companionship, that is what he really needs. He hears his wife entertaining in the next room, meets his daughter's fiancé as if it were business as usual. No one wants to see what's really going on. In the midst of life we are in death, the story says, but in the midst of death we are in denial.

And then, the final reversal. Dying seems, to Ivan Ilyich, like being pushed into "some narrow and deep black sack," and the worst of it is that he can't get all the way into it. "What kept him from getting into it was the claim that his had been a good life." He is stuck, as he has always been stuck. But finally, in his last hour, he falls through--which means, simply, that he surrenders the lie. "Yes," he thinks, "it was all not right." But even now, he sees, it is not too late to make it right--he only needs to do what's best for those around him. ("A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another.") He is the one who discovers, on the edge of death, that his life can still be rectified, and says aloud, "What joy!" Death dies: "Instead of death there was light." Revelation, repentance, salvation, bliss--but for all the Christian overtones, no priest, no creed, no promise of heaven, no explicit mention even of God. The truth sets Ivan Ilyich free, but it is not a mystical truth, it is the plain truth of his own life.

And yet, with what agonies won. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" was completed in 1886. Thirteen years later, another Slav composed a deathbed scene, perhaps with this in mind, that culminated not with "What joy!" but with a very different phrase: "The horror! The horror!" Yet finally, the two are not so very far apart. Ivan Ilyich escapes Kurtz's abyss, but by scarcely a page. The truth, for Tolstoy, may be simple, but it is not, it is never, easy.

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