Leo Tolstoy: Ivan Ilych

(Leo Tolstoy: Aug. 28/Sept. 9, 1828-Nov. 7/20, 1910)

I saw that today is the anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s death–but only if one ignores the fact that in Tolstoy’s Russia time was calculated on a different calender than we use today. There is a thirteen day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calenders, so while Nov. 7th is the number assigned to his death, the actual day would be the 20th. Confused yet? The Russian Orthodox Church (and some other Orthodox churches) still use the old calendar for ecclesiastic purposes–if you really want to see the fur fly, get one Old Calenderist and one New Calenderist together in a room and let ’em go at it. Jesus, people, it’s just an arbitrary number assigned to the passing of days! Anyway . . . I love this passage from Tolstoy’s short story, “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” It has nothing to do with calender issues, but everything to do with the passing of time.

Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair. 

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it. 

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiezewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius–man in the abstract–was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and with all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”

Such was his feeling.

                   –Leo Tolstoy, from “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” trans. Aylmer Maude and J. D. Duff

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