11 Jun Very well; you will be more famous than all the writers in the world – and what of it? (De Botton)
The hero of Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) has long ago fallen out of love with his wife, his children are a mystery to him and he has no friends other than those who can advance him in his career and whose elevated positions will reflect gloriously upon him. Ivan Ilyich is a man overwhelmingly concerned with status. He lives in St Petersburg in a large apartment, decorated according to the fashionable taste of the day, and there gives frequent, soulless dinner parties where nothing of warmth or sincerity is said. He works as a high court judge, enjoying the post chiefly because of the respect it brings him. Sometimes, late at night, Ivan Ilyich reads a book that is ‘the talk of the town’ and learns from magazines what the correct line to take on it is. Tolstoy sums up the judge’s life: ‘The pleasures Ivan Ilyich derived from his work were those of pride; the pleasures he derived from society were those of vanity; but it was genuine pleasure that he derived from playing whist.’
Then, at the age of forty-five, Ivan develops a pain in his side which gradually extends across his body. His doctors are at a loss to work out what is wrong. They talk vaguely and pretentiously of floating livers and inharmonious salt levels, and prescribe him a range of ever more expensive and ineffective medicines. He becomes too tired to work, his intestines feel as if they are on fire, he loses his appetite for food and, more significantly, for whist. It slowly dawns upon the judge and on all those around him that he will soon be dead.
This isn’t an unpleasant thought for many of Ivan’s colleagues in the judiciary. Fyodor Vasilyevich foresees that, with Ivan gone, he will probably get Shtabel’s post or Vinnikov’s – and that the promotion will mean an increase of 800 roubles plus an allowance for office expenses. Another colleague, Pyotr Ivanovich, works out that there will now be an opportunity to have his brother-in-law transferred from Kaluga, which will please his wife and ease his domestic situation. The news is a little tougher on Ivan’s family. His wife, while not directly regretting the death, nevertheless worries about the size of her pension, while his socialite daughter fears that her father’s funeral may play havoc with her wedding plans.
For his part, Ivan, with only a few weeks to live, recognizes that he has wasted his time on earth, that he has led an outwardly respectable, but inwardly barren, existence. He looks back at his upbringing, education and career and finds that everything he did was motivated by the desire to appear important in the eyes of others; his own interests and sensitivities were sacrificed for the sake of impressing people who, he sees only now, do not care a jot for him. One night, in the early hours, tormented by pain, ‘it occurred to him that those scarcely perceptible impulses of his to protest at what people of high status considered good, vague impulses which he had always suppressed, might have been precisely what mattered, and all the rest had not been the real thing. His official duties, his manner of life, his family, the values adhered to by people in society and in his profession – all these might not have been the real thing.’ The sense of having wasted his short life is compounded by the recognition that it was only his status that those around him loved, not his true, vulnerable self. He was respected for being a judge, for being a wealthy father and head of household, but with these assets about to disappear, in agony and afraid, he cannot count on anyone’s love: ‘What tormented Ivan Ilyich most was that no one gave him the kind of compassion he craved. There were moments after long suffering when what he wanted most of all (shameful as it might be for him to admit) was to be pitied like a sick child. He wanted to be caressed, kissed, cried over, as sick children are caressed and comforted. He knew that he was an important functionary with a greying beard, and so this was impossible; yet all the same he longed for it.’
After Ivan has breathed his last, his so-called friends come to pay their respects, but regret all the while the disruption that the death has caused to their whist-playing schedule. Looking at Ivan’s waxy, hollow face in its coffin, his colleague Pyotr Ivanovich starts to reflect that death may one day claim him too – and that this could have stern implications, especially for the logic of spending most of his energies on card games. ‘ “Why, the same thing could happen to me at any time now,” thought Pyotr Ivanovich and for a moment he felt panic-stricken. But at once, he himself did not know how, he was rescued by the customary reflection that all this had happened to Ivan Ilyich, not to him, that it could not and should not happen to him; and that if he were to grant such a possibility, he would succumb to depression.’
If Tolstoy understood so well the power of death to change our sense of what we should concern ourselves with, it was because he had himself, only a few years before writing the novella, questioned his own life in the context of a new-found awareness of his mortality. In A Confession (1882), a record of his death-inspired interrogations, he explained that, at the age of fifty-one, with War and Peace and Anna Karenina behind him, world-famous and rich, he had recognized how, from an early age, he had lived not according to his own
values, or to those of God, but to those of ‘society’ and how this had inspired in him a restless desire to be stronger than others; to be more famous, more important and richer than they. In his social circle, ‘ambition, love of power, covetousness, lasciviousness, pride, anger and revenge were all respected’. But now, with death in mind, he doubted the validity of his previous ambitions. ‘ “Well, you will have 6,000 desyatinas of land in Samara Government and 300 horses, and what then? … Very well; you will be more famous than Gogol or Pushkin or Shakespeare or Molière, or than all the writers in the world – and what of it?”
Alain de Botton