Count me as one of those amused by the self-congratulation inherent in just about every American news story about how primitive Sochi is. In the weeks leading up to the 2014 Olympics, my favorite media outrage was the one about stray dogs being rounded up and put down before Olympic visitors arrived in town. Never mind the 8000 strays euthanized in New York City every year, or the 3 million strays put down yearly in the US, what happened to the Sochi strays seemed little worse than murder by Daily Mail standards. Several months ago, the New York Times ran a massive story about primitive Russia, replete with photographs of poor old farmers looking toothless. Gray skies, broken concrete. And yet, just a week ago, no small mob of US media outlets decided to preach jeremiads about old districts in Sochi getting mowed down to make room for the Olympic village. That venerable, traditional, primitive way of life was being destroyed by Vladimir Putin, who was somehow guilty of both wanting to bulldoze the old ways for privileged progress and keep his country in the Stone Age.
In the weeks leading up to the Sochi Olympics, the need to evaluate the whole of Russian society proved great in stateside papers. Light was thrown on Russian drinking habits, which seem to rival and even shame pre-Prohibition rates in the US. Most Russians have dashboard cameras in their cars, apparently because traffic stop and traffic accident corruption is rampant. Russia maintains some of the most lax standard on pornography in all the world. At the same time, abortion rates are falling dramatically in Russia; in the 1980s, over 4 million abortions were performed every year, but that number has fallen to just under a million, probably due to the tens of thousands of churches which have opened or reopened in Russia during the last several decades. Advertising for abortion clinics is now proscribed by law. So what’s the real Russia? Is she virtuous, albeit with a few staggering cultural vices? Or is she vicious, while God’s mercy yet unreasonably, unnaturally still lights up a few corners of her darkness?
These same kind of questions are always on the line when reading great literature. Several years ago, I taught a brief course on Russian short fiction, glossing Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Gogol. While I would take Dostoyevsky as the better theologian, Chekov as the greatest anthropologist and Gogol as the mystagogue, yet “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is the one that comes to eat my liver every morning. Ivan Ilyich is a man who wastes his life climbing a social ladder. He cares only for pleasant things, and finally dies of an absurd disease acquired through a small accident he suffered while once hanging some drapes. The story is only sixty pages long, but delivers a kind of medicine who suffuses the heart gradually and eternally.
As we progressed through “Ivan Ilyich,” I continually asked my students if the judgments Tolstoy, the narrator, was making against Ivan were fair. In truth, Ivan often seems less than human. He is so wholly given over to seeking pleasant things, self-reflection and genuine virtue seem to evade him— and not like the fruit of Tantalus, as though Ivan were actually reaching for something good. The earliest chapters of the story detail Ivan’s ascendancy through the ranks of government service, and his decision to get married because it seemed “pleasing… and at the same time his superiors thought [it] the right thing to do.” How was marriage pleasant? “…the beginning of married life—with its marital caresses, new furniture, new crockery, new linen—passed very happily until his wife’s pregnancy.” Ivan married because he thought a wife would “intensify” his “light, pleasant, gay manner” of living, and he is shocked to find a pregnant wife “demanded his attention.” He seeks refuge in work, passing long hours in the office, because life at home was a chore. When the child is born, and “the real and imagined illnesses of mother and child” constantly call for his attention, “Ivan Ilyich’s need to create his own space outside the family became even more imperative.” If you are the kind of person who can bring yourself to genuinely loathe a fictitious character, Ivan Ilyich certainly passes that bar. He is not like Iago, whom I find hard to hate because he is so cartoonishly demonic, neither is he like, say, American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman or any of de Sade’s torturers, who don’t seem human, but merely nightmarish clay figurines malformed by angry authors out to prove political agendas. Ivan’s wickedness is not in murder or rape or mutilation, but in a kind of otherworldly and ceilingless capacity for preening selfishness. At the same time, Ivan judges himself a champion of justice, a brilliant wit who aptly dismisses the sticky human aspects of a situation, reducing a series of subjective testimonies to pure data. Tolstoy never lets up. The mirror-seducing and self-justification carries on in every line and every page of the story. Nabokov defended the story against the charge of redundancy, arguing that Tolstoy was simply exact. Tolstoy’s sentences did not create the Ivan Ilyich character, rather, each sentence precisely cut away misconceptions of Ivan. What was left in the reader’s mind was something incredibly small, but entirely precise.
“Is this realistic?” I asked my students. “Does Ivan never do anything good? Does he never have some moment of self-reflection where he contemplates his life, the meaninglessness of his life? Does he never walk by a Church and wonder if he is living rightly? Is he not racked by doubt? Does he never realize that all his things and his pleasantries don’t satisfy him? Does he never—not even once—look in a mirror and wonder ‘Who am I? Am I a good person?’ Has he no second thoughts? Does he ever do anything good? Give alms to the poor? Help a sick man find a hospital? Does he think nothing of the good and holy feeling he receives from this goodness?” If Tolstoy the narrator is to be trusted, then no, none of this ever happens. Or rather, Tolstoy does not record it. Ivan is a vicious person, and while his soul might briefly venture out on virtuous soil every now and again, such trespasses need not be recorded. Tolstoy had included what was pertinent, what was essential. I asked the students if this was fair. It was. Scenes from Ivan’s life had been left on the cutting room floor, but were those scenes spliced back in the film, they would merely serve to confirm what we knew from the original edit of the film. Tolstoy had been just to Ivan. They answered instinctively.
After we finished “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” I passed out Paul Johnson’s biography of Tolstoy from Johnson’s book Intellectuals, a collection of short bios on a dozen or so persons whom the author passionately despises. “No one who ever lived, perhaps, was less suited to [marriage]” than Tolstoy, by Johnson’s account. The biographer surveys Tolstoy’s life and finds it a series of ignorant ventures into social justice and education of the poor, all of which were ultimately self-serving and insincere. When Turgenev died, Tolstoy said, “I think of Turgenev continually. I love him terribly, I pity him, I read him, I live with him.” Of this expression of grief, Johnson writes, “It has the ring of an actor, playing the public role expected of him.” Of Tolstoy’s decision to no longer take the title “Count,” Johnson writes, “The class transvestism suited Tolstoy’s love of drama and costume.” Once Tolstoy took a class on cobbling shoes, made some shoes for a friend, “but it is not recorded whether [the friend] found them satisfactory. Tolstoy’s own sons refused to wear the shoes he made for them… soon the urge to cobble wore off… Tolstoy was not a man for the long haul. He lacked patience, persistence and staying power in the face of difficulty,” writes Johnson. Tolstoy briefly made a hobby of fixing shoes? But he did not devote his entire life to fixing shoes? What a reprobate! What a pig! Johnson judges Tolstoy in much the same way Tolstoy judges Ivan. So who is right? If Johnson is right about Tolstoy, and Tolstoy is a creep, can Tolstoy’s judgment of Ivan be accurate? How could a rascal and rogue make a sound judgment of another human being? Isn’t Tolstoy’s judgment of Ivan proven to be self-serving? Has Tolstoy not cut out Ivan’s redemptive qualities as a vindictive, wrathful divergence from his own lack of redemptive qualities? Paul Johnson is especially interested in Tolstoy’s sexual deviances, which were numerous and morose when Tolstoy was young, and yet Johnson continually refers to the sins of Tolstoy’s youth while glossing latter years in Tolstoy’s life.
But then I passed out an (severely edited) article Christopher Hitchens wrote for Salon several years ago after it was publically revealed that Johnson carried on an eleven year affair with one Gloria Stewart. By the numbers, it seems Johnson was likely writing his invective against the lecherous Tolstoy while he was involved in an adulterous relationship of his own; after sitting down at his desk to condemn Tolstoy for his foibles, he departed for the bed of another woman to find some foibles of his own. Hitchens has a field day with the fact. Johnson, the most notorious and scolding moralist in all of Great Britain, is proven the very food of his own blood feasts. Hitchens reduces Johnson to a pathetic, finger-wagging hypocrite, but then Johnson reduces Tolstoy to a self-aggrandizing hypocrite, and Tolstoy gives us Ivan as a narcissistic hypocrite. So that gin-soaked hypocrite Hitchens is the problem, or so says I, although you could probably phone an old girlfriend of mine and she would tell you my own ability to judge was skewed, too. So now how do we feel about Johnson’s assessment of Tolstoy? Is it possible Ivan is actually a saint, condemned by Tolstoy, the satanic accuser of his soul?
An author might claim to have an absolute and certain control of his characters, although I doubt the public has felt much need to celebrate such an author. A holy author can mimic the Divine creative act, speaking lively characters into existence in the earliest chapters and then setting them free as the story unfurls. Few disciplines allow for a glimpse of the uncanny miracle of human agency and human freedom quite like the life of a fiction writer. Only a tyrant writer claims to have written every word he has written.
Fiction also allows a man to look at the heart of another man, to adopt the divine perspective, and not merely to judge by outward appearances. The author knows the secret motivations of his characters’ hearts, if he cares enough to peer in, although getting young writers to truly investigate the inner lives of their creations is supremely difficult. They want to describe clothes and appearances, work and leisure, tastes… and granted, the well-crafted photograph can sometimes delve below the skin (the first four paragraphs of Joyce’s “A Painful Case,” for instance), but a camera alone will never lay open the soul. Adopting the divine perspective allows the author to enter into a synergistic relationship with the character; the author cedes control of his work to the impulses of the character, even while the author continues to type, to debate, to edit, to curse. The trembling, sublime quality of fiction is its accuracy, its absoluteness, its certainty. Here is a certainty not found in history books, in science books, in math books.
Years later, Johnson’s merciless account of Tolstoy lingers with me, and Hitchen’s gibbeting of Johnson seems an essential part of remaining skeptical of any condemnation, but Tolstoy’s account of Ivan alone gnaws away with its unsolvable truths.