Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Quotations from an introduction to *The Death of Ivan Ilyich* by Leo Tolstoy, 3 of 3
Ronald Blythe
1922- English

It was an experiment that was eventually to lead him to excommunication as well as to the meaning of death, pain, and the conflict between loving life and having to accept that it was temporal.
Ronald Blythe, an introduction to The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

Below him lies a spinning darkness. Agony is created by those above accepting the situation, by even being rational about it. A nonidentifying process has moved across their usual view of him like a filter, and already, with the breath still in him, he is outside their comprehension. One of Tolstoy’s themes is about the inability of the dying to communicate and of the sick to remain inside the old circles of relationships. The very first hint that Ivan Ilyich is poorly begins the pushing-out business, as wife, children, and colleagues prepare to live in a world that will no longer contain him. Self-interest reigns. Gain runs parallel with loss. It is a busy period for everyone and there really isn’t much time for being sad. Afterward, when he has slipped from the ledge and out of sight, empty words are politely muttered in the empty space he has left. There is coarse honesty when the dead man’s friend takes the opportunity to set up a game of whist while viewing the corpse. The widow acts out the grief she is supposed to feel and receives the condolences of those who are not sorry. It is finished—a life that proved to have no meaning for anyone except he who possessed it and who parted with it with fear and incredulity.

Ivan Ilyich is the climax of Tolstoy’s death writing. It also acted as the purgative to his own extreme death fears which reached their crescendo during a visit he made to the town of Arzamas. The incident is crucial to Tolstoy’s obsessional fascination with death in all its variety. Shortly after the publication of War and Peace, when his body had never felt more vigorous or his mind more active, with praise and success ringing in his ears, and when his life should have been bursting with a sense of well-being, he fell into a deep despair that took the form of being irreconcilably opposed to the inevitability of his own death.
Ronald Blythe, an introduction to The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

The trip began happily enough, then the frightfulness started to return, dogging his footsteps, catching up with him just when Sergey’s cheerfulness and goodness promised protection. Saying nothing to the boy, Tolstoy took a room at the inn at Arzamas, and there the classic existentialist nightmare overwhelmed him. The room was death and he was in it. “I was particularly disturbed by the fact that it was square,” he wrote. It was full of torment and the torment was irrevocable. What was in the room with him had to be—this was the delirium of it. There was no escape, no way out—or in, if it came to that. He was. Death was.
Ronald Blythe, an introduction to The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

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