Leo Tolstoy & Ilya Mechnikov. Source: Ogniok

After he had written Anna Karenina, Tolstoy reacted against literature. He wanted henceforth to be a moral philosopher, a prophet, a sage, and a saint, rather than an artist. (How often we mistake the nature of our own gifts!) And many people subsequently fell under his didactic spell, even—for a time—Chekhov, a man one normally thinks of as being peculiarly unsusceptible to the siren-call of sages and saints. Chekhov the disciple—it sounds strange in the light of our image of him, but such, for a time, he was.

In 1886, Tolstoy published his first substantial work of fiction for nearly twenty years, the novella The Death of Ivan Illych. He started to write it after he received Turgenev’s famous deathbed letter: “My friend,” wrote Turgenev, who was then very weak, in great pain and only a short time from death, “return to literature! … My friend, great writer of the Russian land, heed my request!”

Tolstoy wanted to be a moral philosopher, a prophet, a sage, and a saint, rather than an artist. (How often we mistake the nature of our own gifts!)

Three years after the publication of The Death of Ivan Illych, Chekhov, then twenty-nine, published a novella of very nearly the same length, on much the same theme, called A Dreary Story. The similarities between the two stories were marked and were noted at the time, but the differences were deep and ultimately very important.

Both stories concern dying men who become aware that their lives are nearly over. Both are members of liberal professions: Ivan Illych is a lawyer who has become a judge, Nikolai Stepanovitch is a doctor who has become a professor at the university. Both have grown apart from their wives, whose lives seem to be a round of vulgar domestic pettiness.

In The Death of Ivan Illych:

[Ivan Illych’s] wife, without any reason … began to disturb the pleasure and propriety of their life. She began to be jealous without any cause, expected him to devote his whole attention to her, found fault with everything, and made coarse and ill-mannered scenes.

In A Dreary Story:

I [Nikolai Stepanovitch] look with strained attention into the face of this flabby, spiritless, clumsy old woman… . It is painful for me to look at her, and … I let her say what she likes, and say nothing even when she passes unjust criticisms on other people or upbraids me for not having a private practice or not publishing textbooks.

Both protagonists have daughters who study music at the local conservatoire, which in both stories is taken to symbolize frivolity, pretension, and artificiality. Both daughters have fiancés whom the protagonists consider odious and insincere, mere schemers or fortune-seekers. Both Ivan Illych and Nikolai Stepanovitch grow weaker because of their fatal illnesses and reflect on their lives which, although outwardly successful and full of honors, have been fundamentally meaningless. Both wonder what it has all been for.

Tolstoy’s story starts with a description of the proceedings after Ivan Illych’s death. His colleagues at the law courts discuss his demise, and each thinks of how his disappearance from the legal scene will affect his own career. Each congratulates himself on still being alive, and considers that Ivan Illych, in dying prematurely, has behaved rather badly. Each of his friends, so called,

could not help thinking that they would now have to fulfil the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service.

This, it seems to me, is acutely realistic. I have myself felt mild irritation at having had, for the sake of propriety, to interrupt my routine and attend the funeral of a person for whom I cared as little as Ivan Illych’s friends cared for him. And, as it happens, I write this in my study overlooking a rather grand Victorian Gothic church, where funerals of local worthies sometimes take place. They always have the best hearses, so glossily black, and with such a smooth ride that they seem to glide frictionlessly over the road surface, that one almost envies the dead their final grand and comfortable journey, and can’t wait to experience it for oneself; the professional mourners are always the most lugubrious that money can hire, who are never caught in public with an expression on their faces that could give other than comfort to a recently bereaved widow, their long faces an irrefutable proof of the human worth of the departed.

As for the non-professionals, very few of them—the men at least—arrive without their cellphones, or fail to answer them when they ring. The death of their friend, relative, or business associate may be final as far as he is concerned, but the show must go on. One scene remains etched on my mind: a mourner, in his late fifties or early sixties, well-heeled and sleekly though (of course) soberly dressed, came out of the church after the service and immediately looked at his watch with an air of profound impatience. What a nuisance all this was! The deceased was clearly irresponsible: like Lady Macbeth, he should have died hereafter. Did he not know that the mourner had an important meeting to go to? Death ought to have no dominion.

There follows a scene in Tolstoy’s story in which a friend of Ivan Illych, Peter Ivanovich, visits the widow. Once again, Tolstoy’s observations are very acute. The two of them have difficulty in fixing their minds on the dead man, though they pretend to be deeply affected by his death. They become almost hyper-aware of trivial things:

The room was full of furniture and knick-knacks, and on the way to the sofa the lace of the widow’s black shawl caught on the carved edge of the table. Peter Ivanovich rose to detach it, and the springs of his pouffe, relieved of his weight, rose also and gave him a push. The widow began detaching the shawl herself, and Peter Ivanovich again sat down, suppressing the rebellious springs of the pouffe under him. But the widow had not quite freed herself and Peter Ivanovich got up again, and the pouffe rebelled and even creaked.

This ridiculous and embarrassing situation is brought to an end by the appearance in the room of the butler, bearing news of the price of Ivan Illych’s burial plot. In quick succession, the widow discusses this important question with him (in the meantime giving Peter Ivanovich permission “in a magnanimous yet crushed voice” to smoke, and passing him an ashtray in order that he should not damage the furniture), describes the terrible suffering of Ivan Illych in his last days, causing Peter Ivanovich to reflect that this could be his own fate before he reassures himself once more that “death was an accident natural to Ivan Illych, but certainly not to himself,” and brings up the question of whether Peter Ivanovich can help her to obtain an enhanced pension from the government. Finally, Peter Ivanovich escapes from the widow, thinking that perhaps it is still not too late to join a bridge session with his friends.

This is acute and accurate, no doubt, but cruel, and manipulative of the reader’s thoughts and emotions. We are intended to despise the widow and Peter Ivanovich for their lack of sincerity and real feeling, and for their emphasis on outward show. But is it desirable that outward show should always be completely consonant with real feeling, that we should express only what we truly feel, never uttering a decent but unfelt sentiment? If one feels nothing for the deceased, should one always display one’s indifference openly? Mutatis mutandis, should a truly grieving person be unable to think of anything but the deceased? I learned quite early how complex is the relation between grief, thought, and behavior. When my dog died (and like many unhappy children, I was passionately attached to my pet) I vowed inwardly never to forget him. But what did “never to forget him” mean? Did it mean that he should be in my mind all the time, at every waking moment? This was impossible, I soon enough found, but my discovery caused me agonies of guilt, as if in thinking of something else, or by doing mental arithmetic at school to the best of my ability and playing in the garden as usual, I was betraying him. I therefore imposed upon myself inconvenient rituals at night, for example, getting up to touch the ceiling light when I was nearly asleep, to prove (to him? to me?) that I had truly loved him.

Tolstoy simplifies, as ideologists always simplify: for neither inwardness nor outwardness is sufficient in itself. Civilization requires a balance, not a total hegemony of one or the other.

Tolstoy may be an ideologist, but unusually for an ideologist he has the greatest artistic mastery. This allows him to slip ideas past us that are either stupid or wicked or both. The reader is in the position of a child being given medicine dissolved in honey or jam. Tolstoy’s relentless indictment of Ivan Illych’s life includes his work as a judge. “Snide” is the best way to describe Tolstoy’s treatment of his protagonist. The fact that Ivan Illych never abuses his considerable power and is always polite is made to count against him, as is his complete uprightness and scrupulous consideration of cases strictly according to legal criteria and evidence. Like his daughter’s attendance at the conservatoire, this is inauthentic, mechanical, formalistic, lacking in Russian soul: although one might have supposed that, in the Russia of the 1880s, an upright judge would have been worthy of the highest praise rather than sarcasm. Would Tolstoy have preferred Ivan Illych to be tyrannical, dishonest, and arbitrary in his adjudications? It appears that he would. Such qualities would have had the supreme virtue in Tolstoy’s eyes of being authentic.

By the time he wrote The Death of Ivan Illych, Tolstoy was a monomaniacal puritanical prig, though one with the genius of a great writer. His protagonist’s main pleasure in life is playing bridge with his friends and colleagues, which Tolstoy tries to get us to condemn as vicious because, like music at the conservatoire, it is frivolous, artificial, and inauthentic. By all means let us recognize that playing bridge is not man’s highest spiritual or cultural accomplishment, but we should surely also recognize that it hardly registers on the scale of human wickedness. If it is not self-abnegatingly licking the sores of lepers, neither is its quiet sociability an expression of anything evil or even disreputable. What should Ivan Illych have been doing in his spare time other than playing bridge? Or are we all to devote ourselves exclusively, not to taking in each other’s washing, but to taking in each other’s suffering, and therefore never to enjoy ourselves?

In The Death of Ivan Illych there is one exemplary character: Ivan Illych’s young peasant servant, Gerasim. He is the only person in Ivan Illych’s bourgeois household who really understands or cares that Ivan Illych is dying, and who knows how to comfort him (a succession of famous doctors do not). Gerasim—whose virtue, being a peasant, is ex officio as it were—is kind, gentle, good-natured, tactful, and wise. As Tolstoy makes clear, he has not been tainted by the European civilization that has brought us such evils as bridge, conservatoires, and scientific medicine practiced by pompous doctors. Stalin believed in socialism in one country, Tolstoy in the noble savage in one country.

Tolstoy may be an ideologist, but unusually for an ideologist he has the greatest artistic mastery.

It is scarcely any wonder, indeed, that Lenin entitled his article about the great writer “Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution.” Of course, Lenin could hardly approve of Tolstoy’s specific recommendations for society, and is actually rather funny on that subject, calling Tolstoy an exemplar of

the jaded hysterical sniveller called the Russian intellectual, who publicly beats his breast and wails: “I am a bad wicked man, but I am practicing moral self-perfection; I don’t eat meat any more, I now eat rice cutlets.”

This recalls a passage from a letter written by Chekhov once he had got over his Tolstoyan phase (“Reason and justice tell me that there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam than in chastity and abstinence from meat”); but Lenin, another puritanical monomaniacal prig (which in his case manifested itself as a taste for mass murder of the many people of whom he disappproved), nevertheless appreciated in Tolstoy

his merciless criticism of capitalist exploitation, exposure of government outrages, the farcical courts and the state administration, and unmasking of the profound contradictions between the growth of wealth and achievements of civilization and the growth of poverty, degradation and misery among the working masses.

The farcical courts were, for Lenin as for Tolstoy, those in which judges applied rules impartially and were swayed by the evidence honestly considered. Lenin would therefore have recognized in Tolstoy what in Spanish-speaking countries is sometimes called the autor intelectual—the intellectual founder or progenitor—of his conception of justice: a bullet in the back of the neck because I say so.

Ivan Illych dies in agony, as much of soul as of body. He screams for three days, but finally stops when his son kisses his hand.

At that moment … it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified.

He tries then to apologize to his family:

With a look at his wife he indicated his son and said: “Take him away … sorry for him … sorry for you too.” He tried to add, “forgive me,” but said “forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

This passage is especially poignant for me, because the last words my father uttered to me before he died were “I’m sorry.” What was he sorry for, this man who had never in his life apologized to anyone, for whom apology was synonymous with humiliation? And to whom was he apologizing? Though he was brilliantly gifted, his life, too, “had not been what it should have been” (though whose is?). Was he sorry merely for the inconvenience that his death was putting me to, or was he sorry that he had so poorly controlled his impulses throughout his life that he had frequently brought unhappiness and torment to those around him? Or was he apologizing to the God in whose non-existence he had for so long militantly believed? I cannot say; nor, of course, can I say whether he had the kind of religious—or religiose—epiphany that Ivan Illych has in Tolstoy’s story. It is true, of course, that the very end of most people’s lives is peaceful, that Nature seems to have seen to it that we generally die in a state of tranquility, but whether we shall see the white light of universal illumination and transcendental understanding that Tolstoy, for doctrinal reasons, makes Ivan Illych see at the end of his life, or whether that light is illusory and merely a little trick of Nature to ease our passing—well, each of us still living awaits developments with interest.

Chekhov was so much under the influence of Tolstoy that his story—one of the most important that he had written until then—has, as we have seen, many parallels with Tolstoy’s.

Like Ivan Illych, Nikolai Stepanovitch realizes towards the end that his life has not been very meaningful, that he has blinded himself to its emptiness by his emphasis on his scientific career, as Ivan Illych blinded himself with legal work and bridge: “And now I examine myself: what do I want?” This question leads to the following bleak reflections:

however much I might think, and however far my thoughts might travel, it is clear to me that there is nothing vital, nothing of great importance in my desires … in all my criticisms of science, the theater, literature, my pupils, and in all the pictures my imagination draws, even the most skilful analyst could not find what is called a general idea, or the god of a living man.

And if there is not that, then there is nothing.

Like Ivan Illych’s life, Nikolai Stepanovitch’s has hitherto been full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. “All [a man’s] pessimism or optimism with his thoughts great and small have … significance only as symptoms and nothing more.”

Like Ivan Illych, Nikolai Stepanovich lives slightly beyond his means, leading to such financial embarrassment as difficulty in paying a gardener. Pretentiousness is the root cause of both men’s financial anxieties. Ivan Illych has a luxuriously furnished house that he cannot really afford, while Nikolai Stepanovitch finds that, once he has risen in the academic hierarchy and become a dignitary, even the food put on his table has changed:

Ever since I became … one of the Deans of the Faculty my family has for some reason found it necessary to make a complete change in our menu and dining habits. Instead of the simple dishes to which I was accustomed when I was a student and when I was in practice, now they feed me with a puree with little white things like circles floating about in it, and kidneys stewed in madeira. My rank … and my fame have robbed me for ever of cabbage soup and savory pies, and goose with apple sauce, and bream with boiled grain. They have robbed me of our maid-servant Agasha, a chatty and laughter-loving old woman, instead of whom Yegor, a dull-witted and conceited fellow with a white glove on his right hand, waits at dinner.

Simple, spontaneous Russian good; sophisticated, affected European bad: Chekhov appears to have taken over the whole Slavophile nonsense wholesale from Tolstoy.

But, as one might have expected of a man like Chekhov, he was not, even at the height of his discipleship, the perfect disciple. If there are striking similarities in the two stories, there are equally important differences.

In the first place, The Death of Ivan Illych is related in the third person, through an omniscient narrator. A Dreary Story, by contrast, is narrated in the first person, that of the protagonist. Thus, when medicine is ridiculed as being an inherently absurd activity and doctors as nothing but self-serving ignoramuses in Tolstoy’s story, it is Tolstoy expressing his own opinions; in Chekhov, the strictures on practitioners of medicine are those of his character, not of himself. Not all that Nikolai Stepanovich says can be taken straightforwardly as representing Chekhov’s ideas, even if he might at the time have endorsed at least some of his character’s thoughts; but the commentary of the omniscient author of The Death of Ivan Illych can be taken as a direct reflection of Tolstoy’s views and philosophy. Indeed, we know that Chekhov soon came to reject Tolstoy’s philosophy, in part because of the sage’s invincible arrogance and ignorance with regard to medicine, and his radical denial of the possibility that increased knowledge could reduce avoidable suffering. A year after the publication of A Dreary Story, Chekhov wrote to his publisher, Suvorin:

[Tolstoy’s] opinions about syphilis … are not merely disreputable but they unmask an ignorant man who hasn’t taken the trouble in the course of his long life to read two or three books written by specialists.

Or again to Suvorin, later the same year:

Tolstoy calls doctors scoundrels and flaunts his ignorance of important matters because he is a second Diogenes whom no one will report to the police or denounce to the newspapers. So to hell with the philosophy of the great men of the world.

Furthermore, and more importantly, A Dreary Story offers no epiphany, no suggestion—as Tolstoy’s story does—that if only men would learn to live in such and such a way, and not to chase after false gods, then their lives would be entirely satisfactory, without anxiety or a nagging sense of incompleteness.

Nikolai Stepanovitch has a ward called Katya—the daughter of a colleague who died prematurely—who has a passion for the theater and runs away to be an actress. Some years later, she returns, and spends her time listlessly, bored and unsatisfied. “What am I to do?” she asks Nikolai Stepanovitch. He suggests that she returns to the stage. “I cannot,” she says, but he insists until he wrings out of her one of the most painful confessions in all literature:

“Nikolai Stepanovich, this is cruel!” she cries, flushing all over. “You want me to tell you the truth? Very well, if … if you want! I have no talent! No talent.”

She is no good at the only thing she ever wanted to do: of how many people is this the inexpressible tragedy?

At the very end of the story, Katya comes to Nikolai Stepanovitch again, in a desperate condition, to ask his guidance as to how she—and, by implication, mankind in general—should live.

“There is nothing I can tell you, Katya,” I say.

“Help me!” she sobs, cluching at my hand and kissing it. “You are my father, my only friend! You are clever, educated; you have lived so long; you have been a teacher! Tell me, what am I to do?”

“Upon my word, Katya, I don’t know …”

I am utterly at a loss and confused, touched by her sobs, and hardly able to stand.

“Let us have lunch, Katya,” I say.

Lunch, as the answer to how we should live! Katya grows cold, gathers up her things to go. “Then you won’t be at my funeral?” thinks Nikolai Stepanovitch, and after she has disappeared from sight, knowing that he will never see her again, exclaims with the bleakest of black irony, in the very last words of the story, “Farewell, my treasure!” The disciple has turned into the heretic.

If we can in this instance identify the author with his character (for Chekhov never in his life gave any hint of personal religious belief), A Dreary Story tells us that intelligence, education, and experience are powerless to confer transcendent meaning on human life. The Death of Ivan Illych tells us that a belief in a loving God alone can give human life that meaning. But neither author was consistent. Chekhov was an inveterate activist, an optimistic believer in progress, but he also yearned for transcendent meaning whose absence left him prey to existential pessimism. Tolstoy yearned for love but was a first-class hater—one who proclaimed God while having difficulty accepting the authority of anything other than his own ego, thereby becoming the object of Lenin’s justified mockery.

Between these the two stories, then, we see encapsulated the tragic predicament of modern man: the existential thinness of the Enlightenment on the one hand, and the impossibility of un-self-conscious, which is to say, genuine religious belief on the other. Tell me, what am I to do?

In fact, I am going to have lunch.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 8, on page 31
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