Trapped in an Isolated Present: The First Chapter of Ivan Ilych

March 27, 2019 by Essay Writer

Poor Ivan Ilych is plagued by not one, but two diseases. While his “floating kidney” ends his life, it is a temporal disease – which is actually healed as his kidney disease progresses – that ruins his life. Ivan spends his life in a small temporal space – he managed to “dismiss his past” (51) and instead spend his life focused on his physical trappings and social standing. In his writing Tolstoy made a large effort to fight this condition, “the prejudice of . . . [temporal] closure” (8), which he saw as pervasive in Russian society. But intriguingly, in addition to the characters in the story who have this closed view, the narrative of the first chapter – and the first chapter alone – shares this diseased sense of time in so far as a narrative can be assumed to convey some attitude about time. This singularly diseased chapter works to involve the reader in the attitude that the book then goes forth to destruct Ivan’s temporal disease is first recognized in the opening line of the 2nd chapter, when the narrator tells us that Ivan’s life had been “simple and commonplace – and most horrifying” (49). Where does the horror lie, if not in the simple commonplace events of Ivan’s life? It seems to lie in Ivan’s approach to life, which the narrator indicts Ivan’s approach to life when, in censorious terms, he tells us that Ivan “had succumbed to sensuality and vanity” (50). Sensuality suggests much more than an erotic approach to life – and we know from the text that eros was no driving force in Ivan’s life. Instead sensuality points to a worldview that is focused on sensual or empirical information rather than thought or emotions. Ivan’s concern for those things empirical, and thus immediate, involves a temporal narrowing. When Ivan recognizes his temporal disease in the weeks before his death, he understands that what he gave up for his sensuality, was the “friendship and hope” of the his youngest days (119). Friendship, one thing he had abandoned, is a condition that ties one to the social relations of the past. Hope is a condition that ties one to the future. He dropped his concern with the past and future so that he could devote himself to the empirical. When he leaves one job his so-called friends “had a group photograph taken and presented him with a silver cigarette case, and he set off to assume his new position” (52). No mention is made of Ivan’s emotional history with these people; the only concern here is physical objects. Contributing to this temporal narrowing is the vane sense of social standing that is disconnected from moral ideas about social relations and instead concerned with the immediate impact of these social relations. Among those temporal diseases that Morson catalogues, Ivan’s obsession is closest to the “Isolated Present,” where “the present may grow so intense that it almost banishes both memory and anticipation” (201). Unlike the diseased whom Morson categorizes – George Mead or even Aleksey Ivanovich in Dostoevsky’s The Gambler – Ivan never thinks to justify his approach. Instead he seems to have a blasé faith that the past has no significance and the future holds little worth thinking about. This laissez-faire attitude toward time is indicted, in the end, as “senseless and disgusting ” (120). For most of the novel, the attitude of the narrator stands in stark contrast to the attitude of Ivan and his comrades. In the first line of the second chapter, the narrative calls Ivan’s life “horrifying,” an immediate criticism of Ivan’s capitulation to sensuality and vanity. The narrator’s explicit disagreement with the vanity of Ivan’s life emerges when, soon after calling Ivan’s life horrifying, he calls Ivan’s father a “superfluous member of various superfluous institutions” (49); obviously not a view shared by Ivan’s father, or Ivan, who followed in his father’s footsteps. Throughout Ivan’s story, the narrator reminds us of his disagreement with the sensual, vain attitude of the characters; when Ivan is in the afterglow of building his beautiful house, the narrator reminds us that: “In actuality, it was like the homes of all people who are not really rich but who want to look rich, and therefore end up looking like one another” (66).But the essence of the narrator’s attitude lies not in how the narrator disagrees with Ivan’s view of life, but rather what the narrator affirms through the temporally open structure he creates. If we assume that the moment of narration is just after Ivan’s death, the entire novel, after the first chapter, is a completing analepses. The first moments of the second chapter, where there are a number of prolepses of different reach, is particularly temporally autonomous. Beginning with the near-reachable analepses that Ivan “died at the age of forty-five,” the narrator quickly jumps back to Ivan’s father, his superfluous positions already mentioned, and his three sons. This far-reaching analepses allows us to understand the family and childhood out of which Ivan emerged – forces us to see Ivan as emerging from a past. Immediately after this far-reaching analepses, and before entering Ivan’s young adulthood, the narrator provides a very short reaching analepses, where he discusses what Ivan became in his later life; “one strict to carry out whatever he considered his duty,” along with the more scathing criticism of his “sensuality and vanity” (50). Before entering an analepses of intermediate-reach – the bulk of Ivan’s life – the narrator provides an analepses on either side, to make the reader aware of what Ivan came from, and what he is heading toward. The structure of this second chapter points to a different conception of time than Ivan’s – one in which the past and future do matter. The narrator does not allow us to see Ivan as a temporally isolated figure, as Ivan himself does. For most of the rest of the novel, the narrator follows Ivan’s life from young adulthood, and the narrative supplies its own past. We see events leading to other events, in a very clumsy sort of duration – not the type of duration that Bergson would have wanted, but better than viewing events as entirely isolated. In providing these past and future events the narrator does not express a deterministic view of time, but he does provide a sense of consequence for Ivan’s actions, that Ivan himself is missing. Like almost all the peripheral characters in the novel, those in the first chapter – actually an epilogue to the rest of the story – share Ivan’s diseased view of time – banishing emotion to focus on vain, immediate concerns. When Ivan’s colleagues hear about Ivan’s death, the first response to the news, by Vasilyevich is, “Now I’m sure to get Shtabel’s post” (36). The word “now” points to the temporal position of the thoughts of these characters. But unlike in the rest of the novel, in this first chapter the narrator shares the diseased view of time. This is first apparent through the lack of dissent in the wake of the comments of Vasilevich and other like-minded men. In the entire chapter the narrator provides nary a word of criticism of these characters. While the narrator never explicitly affirms their ideas about time, in the micronarrative the narrator does adopt the characters closed view of time, by almost never referring to the past or future. Though he does delve into the past for a moment early in the chapter, when he relates that “Ilyich had been a colleague of the gentlemen assembled here . . . He had been ill for some weeks” (35), this is really only said as a preface for understanding the job vacancy that is open for the other men in the law courts. There is also one prolepses, where the narrator asserts his grasp on time outside of the immediate present, when predicting that “Pyotr Ivanovich was not destined to play cards that evening” (40). But this anomalous prolepses (not least of all because it is wrong – he does end up playing cards that night – a curious fact that I will leave alone), only opens up a moment immediately after the present one – that could be considered part of the extended present. These brief references to the past and future that the narrator does make serve as important signals that the narrator does have the power to refer to moments outside of the present, but has decided not to.As in Ivan’s own life, the abandonment of past and future leads to a narrative focus on the empirical and immediate. The narrator follows Pyotr Ivanovich, and we learn that “Pyotr Ivanovich stepped aside to let the ladies pass and slowly followed them up the stairs,” and “Pyotr Ivanovich went in bewildered, as people invariably are, about what he was expected to do there,” and sees “an old woman was standing motionless,” and smells the “faint odor of decomposition” (38-9). The narrator tells us nothing about Pyotr’s past experience at funerals, or the past experience of anyone Pyotr encounters. Only the immediate empirical facts are given.This leads to a shared conception of Ivan in the narrative and the story in strictly present terms: an abandoned post and a dead corpse. There are a few isolated moments where the characters themselves consider Ivan’s past – Ivan’s wife recalls his suffering – but even these details are given “strictly in terms of their unnerving effect upon Praskovya” (45). As a result Ivan is transformed into a set of empirical datum, a stinking corpse with “rigid limbs” a “yellow waxen forehead,” and “protruding nose” (39). This dead man, lying in his coffin, becomes the representative figure of the chapter – he has no past and no future (there is reference to a “church reader”, but none of the familiar talk about the deceased going to a better place) – he is a static form.The macronarrative too, is complicit in presenting an isolated view of time. Four small scenes are covered in the chapter: the revelation of Ivan’s death in the Law Courts; Pyotr at home with his wife, Pyotr at the funeral, and Pyotr at the card game. These are the events of a completely isolated afternoon and evening. Neither the character nor the narrator makes reference to a substantial time outside of this afternoon, except the few references to Ivan’s suffering, considered only for their relevance in the present. The single prolepses already mentioned – the only example of the narrator inserting a time outside of the immediate moment of narration – refers temporally, from the funeral to the card game, merely a reference to another part of the isolated day under consideration. The chapter thus isolates the reader in a single day, becoming a structural representation of the “Isolated Present.” Nearly all of the evidence for the narrator’s attitude in this first chapter is negative evidence – what the narrator did not do. But almost as soon as the narrator uses the word “horrifying” at the beginning of the second chapter, the closed attitude of the narrator in the first chapter is visible by contrast. The congruency between the narrative and the story in the first chapter is anomalous in more than just this novel. Morson noted that in Tolstoy’s novels, the author frequently exploited a “character who believes in closed time,” like Ivan, by setting him “in a novel based on open time” (10). This is exactly what Tolstoy does in the latter chapters by setting Ivan’s life (a character who believes in closed time) against the open attitude of the narrative (roughly what Morson refers to as the “novel”). Morson implies that Tolstoy creates this juxtaposition between story and narrative in all of his novels. But this juxtaposition is, of course, absent in the first chapter of Ivan Ilyich, where the narrative shows the same despised attitude toward time as the character. This anomalous first chapter is best explained by Tolstoy’s desire to not only tell, but show this diseased view of time – as the Jamesians distinguished between these two narrative acts (Genette 161). It’s easy for Tolstoy’s narrator to tell us about Ivan’s laissez-faire attitude toward time – about Ivan’s sensuality, and abandonment of friendship – and the narrator can do something that is almost shows this attitude by describing Ivan’s actions. But this later act would be, at best illusional. As Genette says, it is impossible to really show something, all one can do is “tell it in a manner which is detailed, precise, Œalive,’ and in that way give more or less the illusion of mimesis” (164). Genette is right about objects – no amount of words will ever recreate an object–and similarly Tolstoy could not truly show or recreate Ivan, with or without attitude. But, to reconsider Genette’s statement, when the thing you are trying to show is an attitude – something that is constructed of words – than the narrative does have the potential to truly show this, by assuming the attitude itself. In the rest of the book, when the narrator is “telling” us about Ivan’s problem, it is easy for the reader to use his distant stance to toss of Ivan’s problem as an easily identifiable one. But before we are allowed to enter this simple condemnation of Ivan, Tolstoy forces us, unwittingly, to view the world through a similarly closed mindset. This allows the reader to feel the visceral results of this mindset. We enter the chapter confronted by the specter of a dead man, but never have to confront the idea of death because the deluge of empirical details numbs our emotions. We are like Pyotr Ivanovich whose emotions are “chilled” at the funeral by the quotidian task of fixing a broken ottoman (42). But we are also allowed to see how apparently innocuous this attitude is from the inside – there is no immediately apparent harm done by the narrator’s perspective in the first chapter. By allowing the reader to feel this, Tolstoy shows the reader that this is frequently an unidentified problem that we all fall into, and not one that we should easily ignore in ourselves.

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