"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 28, 2022

The Death Of Ivan Ilyich–Tolstoy And The Final Irrelevance Of The Past

Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a story about an arrogant man who keeps life at a distance.  He is proper, punctual, and dutifully responsible at work, but is indifferent to his colleagues.  He is an equally dutiful husband, but one without love or affection.  Life is an intrusion, he feels, a nuisance, an unpredictable mess best kept simple and uninvolved.  Since he has ordered his life so completely, the prospect of intrusion, sickness or death are only possibilities. 

Image result for images death of ivan ilyich

He learns that he has cancer, and after going through four of the five Kubler-Ross stages of dying – denial, anger, bargaining, depression – he cannot face the fifth, acceptance.  How can he possibly accept nothingness, the meaningless of the past, and the desperately frightening, unknown future?  As he becomes more ill and necessarily withdraws from his old, familiar life, he finds that he is not missed.  His colleagues discuss the disposition of his office and affairs.  His wife plans a happier, more independent life.  The world he has so carefully constructed is not only of no use whatsoever, but it is a house of cards.  Whatever bonhomie, good will, and friendship he was shown was nothing but a sham, a shameless disregard.

Acceptance of death for Ivan Ilyich is particularly difficult because of the nature of his past.  It is not one of fond memories, happy reminiscences, and nostalgia.  It is one without feeling and substance.  In his desire to keep bothersome people, events, and happenstance at bay, he has created a soulless existence and now turned into meaningless past.

An acquaintance commenting on the slow death of a friend, remarked, “Well, he had a good life”.  Memories of what he accomplished, whom he had loved, where he had travelled will sustain him in his last moments, suggested the acquaintance.  Tolstoy disagrees.  Not only do we face death entirely alone, but the successes, failures, loves, misfortunes, and adventures of the past have no relevance whatsoever.  Looking into the dark, unknowable abyss no memory – as meanspirited and hard-bitten as it might be – can pull Ivan Ilyich back from the dark hole of non-being.

He eventually, but only in his last minutes of life, is suddenly unafraid.  He was afraid of the act of dying, he thinks, not death itself.

“And death…where is it?”

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

In his final moments, he is able both to let go of the past and embrace his unknowable future.  In those final moments he – like all of those near death - is totally, completely, inexorably alone.

What dying man – like the remembered friend suffering from advanced Parkinson’s - thinks of his law partnership and court cases he has won, lucrative Wall Street investments, winters in Gstaad and summers in St. Tropez? Or lost loves? Or awards, children’s marriages, or his own long marital partnership? 

No, he thinks of his failing body, his mental disability, his paralysis, his incontinence, and his death.  His wealth, fabulous Victorian apartment in the 7th, the finest examples of Art Nouveau, modernism, and Renaissance painting on his walls, his exquisite Persian silk carpets, his Italian sconces, Louis XIV chandeliers – none can distract him from the inevitable.  He does not look on his Francis Bacon triptych with pleasure or memories of his success at the Sotheby auction where he successfully bid for it, nor the Roman reproduction of a Greek Aphrodite in his hall.  Even if he were still in his apartment and not in a nursing home attached to tubes and electrodes, he would not pay attention to his acquisitions or his memories. 

Death not only extinguishes life but extinguishes the past.  The final lines of The Death of Ivan Ilyich are these:

“It is finished!” said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

Death is finished, he says.  His constant, frightful companion of the last months is no more.  He has settled his accounts with death, not with life.  He does not murmur prayers of contrition for his sins, does not beg forgiveness, nor beseech his family to think of him kindly.   There is no point in reconciliation with the past, no benefit, no salvation; for it has no relevance to nothingness to come.

Despite the fact that Tolstoy wrote the line, “It is finished” in what many critics see as an unmistakable reference to Christ’s last words on the cross, Tolstoy expresses no particularly Christian sentiments – that repentance is the key to the door of Paradise, that a dying man will only be welcomed by the Almighty if he confesses his earthly sins.  It is only with death itself that Ivan Ilyich deals.  Death is the only final, ultimate reality; and at the moment of death he neither thinks of the past nor of eternity.  He will soon simply be dead.

Image result for images renaissance christ on cross

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is neither a nihilistic tale – Tolstoy is rightly thought of as a nihilist – nor a Christian one, nor a dramatic one.  Death, he writes, comes in no recognizable package, it is an end in and of itself.  It is in fact the only important moment of life, the one truly existential moment when one finally ceases to imagine eternity and actually sees it.

Tolstoy struggled with such existential questions for most of his adult life.  For decades he sought meaning and purpose.  How ironic and cruel, Konstantin Levin says in Anna Karenina, that God made us brilliant, creative, astute, and generous; gave us but a few decades of life, and then consigned us for all eternity in the cold, hard grounds of the steppes.   

In his A Confession Tolstoy writes of his philosophical struggle and of his failed conviction that answers can be found in art, science, mathematics, and history.  Finally, exhausted and unsatisfied he realizes that tens of millions of people believe in God and that billions before him have had profound faith.  Maybe, he reckons, there is something to it. He backs into faith like Levin who admits that he has no answers but that doing good is the closest he can come to them. If so many people believe in God, Tolstoy reflects, why shouldn't he?

Image result for images tolstoy a confession

Tolstoy wrote A Confession in 1880 and Ivan Ilyich six years later in 1886.  His long-sought philosophical equanimity expressed in his memoir had been sorely tested, and in his short story he returned to his native intellectual roots. Death just is.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Yale Has A New Happiness Course–And The Value Of An Ivy League Education Has Unhappily Gone Way, Way Down

Ellicott Hall moaned when he heard that his daughter, Emily, was enrolled in Yale’s Happiness Course, officially entitled ‘Psychology and the Good Life’, but known on campus by its more popular name.  Ellicott, who had graduated from Yale a number of years before his daughter was born, had been a student of Paul Weiss, Harold Bloom, and Vincent Scully, a triad of thinkers unmatched in the Ivy League.

Image result for images harold bloom

Bloom’s course in Romantic Poetry was one of the university’s best – two weeks to parse and deconstruct the meaning of Blake’s spare, elegant poem, The Tyger, and by so doing encouraged epiphanies of meaning not only of the poem, Blake, and Romantic poetry, but all poetry.  Bloom understood that every word, every line, each stanza of the epigrammatic poem had a reference to the Old Testament, Norse myth, and Freud.  The Romantic poets, Blake being primus inter pares, had all mastered allegory, metaphor, and symbolism and synthesized them in a few lines.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art, 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 
And when thy heart began to beat, 
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,  
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears 
And water'd heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Image result for images william blake

What was that fearful symmetry? Bloom asked.  What dread grasp and what deadly terrors? No student left Bloom’s course without Tyger permanently recorded and without a vision of Mosaic Harold Bloom, looking up and out the window to the bird on whose wings the Tyger – all of us? the sage, the prophet? – aspired.

No student who witnessed Scully’s exuberance, his vitality, and his insights into ancient architecture and the natural world which inspired them ever forgot him. The horned mountains of Crete had immanent power that overwhelmed the individual, gave birth to the myth of the Minotaur, and inspired the monumental works of the period.  Only in Scully’s class were art, mythology, environment, and architecture so convincingly unified.

Image result for images cretan minotaur

Paul Weiss in his course on metaphysics asked students to consider meaning – not the facile search for answers to common questions -  why are we here and where are we going? - but serious meaning.  Meaning extracted from texts, equations, and physical conundrums.

So it was no wonder that Ellicott moaned when he heard of his daughter’s choice of curricula.  He had already become somewhat used to Yale’s new courses – ‘Queer Wagons – The Chronicles Of Gay Pioneer Women’; ‘Which End Is Up? The Nature of Transgender Reality’; and ‘Washington, Jefferson, and Madison – America’s Racist Past’ – and knew that employers would look only at the Summa Cum Laude degree and not what courses contributed to it.  Yet America was so awash in conversations about race, gender, and ethnicity, that a university course beating a dead horse made no intellectual sense and certainly no economic one. There would be no discussion about Keat’s To Autumn on CNN and MSNBC; and so if it were gone from Yale, it would be gone forever.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run…

Image result for images poet keats

“It’s not like I’m going to major in Happiness, Dad”, Emily was quick to point out, seeing her father’s shoulders sag; but the damage had been done.  A NYT article reviewing the course and summarizing its central themes only made matters worse.

“So what’s the answer?”, the journalist wrote. “What’s the purpose of life? It’s smelling your coffee in the morning, loving your kids, having sex and daisies and springtime.  It’s all the good things in life.  That’s what it is.”

When Ellicott was at Yale, he had taken a course on Early Medieval French poetry, and moved by Francois Villon’s ‘La Ballade des Pendus’, he went to New Haven’s historic Grove Street Cemetery, sat among the graves where he could hear the carillon ringing from Harkness Tower, and read it there.

Human brothers who live while we are no more,

do not harden your hearts against us,

for if you have mercy on us

God will likewise have mercy on you.

You see us tied here by five of six,

as for the flesh we served too much

it is now eaten away and rotten

and we are but bones turning to ash and dust.

Image result for new haven grove street cemetery images

Ah, those were the days, Ellicott thought; but Francois Villon, Keats, and Blake were now unknown poets, casually removed from the curriculum in favor of more ‘relevant’ courses, their poetry digitally recorded and their original volumes stored in controlled atmosphere, hermetically sealed vaults in the  Beinecke Rare Book Library.  They were as good as gone.

The Happiness Course and other curricular adjustments made to focus on the here-and-now, personal identity, and ‘doctrinal integrity’ were only parts of the university’s clean sweep.  The names of the residential colleges were being cancelled to remove any traces of slave-holding, racism, and white privilege; and replaced by others of less stature and historical importance but with more acceptable racial and gender credentials.  New rules of classroom behavior were to be instituted to ensure that sexist pronouns and references were replaced by gender neutral terms.  ‘His’ and ‘Her’ were to be replaced by these terms:

HE/SHE zie, sie, ey, ve, tey

HIM/HER zim, sie, em, ver, ter, em

HIS/HER zir, hir, eir, vis tem, eir

Me/Too Movement campus activists were instrumental in changing procedures for addressing alleged sexual abuse; and, because of women’s long history of suffering at the hands of male patriarchy and the need to redress this persistent wrong, they said, women’s word was taken as fact, and men were forced to admit wrongdoing, take censure, punishment, and dismissal without the tedious process of a trial.

Speech in all forms – in the classroom, in term papers, on the campus, and on Yale-oriented social media sites – was to be monitored for correctness; that is, conforming to the newly instituted policies of what Yale called ‘An Inclusive University’. 

As much as Ellicott was dismayed by the revelations of university policy, curriculum, and procedure, Yale was one of the more moderate schools.  Some of the smaller, less well-known liberal arts schools of the Northeast became virtual gulags of censure.  They were academic dens of thieves – cabals of older, tenured, unreconstructed Sixties liberals, feminist firebrands, transgender activists, and Black Lives Matter racial overseers.

Emily Hall did well at Yale – summa cum laude like her father; but since she, her colleagues, and the university had dumbed down the elite degree, how could anyone take today’s Yale pedigree seriously? And new professors, schooled in post-modern, deconstructionist, theories of race and gender, were a dime a dozen – cheap by Ivy League standards, but what the market would bear. A win-win for Yale.

Ellicott went back to Yale for his 50th Reunion and was once again impressed with the university.  Yale was not just any university, and he felt proud that he had gone there.  But when he looked around and strolled past the classrooms where ‘relevant’ teachers rattled on about racial injustice and the gender spectrum, his spirits sank.  Not only had the intellectual integrity of the university been compromised, he had lost all connection with it.  It was not his university.  It was someone else’s.

Image result for images yale university