Wednesday, 5 May 2010


Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich shows how it is that death is killed by life. Between talk of who is to succeed him at work, and worry over the fate of his children at home, between plans for his wake and the card game that might be had after, between talk of his illness and news of his end, the death of Ivan Ilyich falls into a strange non-existence, even for Ivan himself, who struggles, towards the end, not with the inevitability of his death but with its impossibility: Ivan Ilyich cannot die, for death is that which is ever displaced by the force of its representations.

It is a grand story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, with its "It" and its final struggle and its great moment of revelation. But a related effect is wrought more modestly by Dickinson's having heard a Fly buzz - when I died. For Dickinson, death is displaced, not agonisingly as Tolstoy would have it, not in such a way that death retains Its full force, to circle Its representations about It so tightly and still have Its subject in anguish, but amusingly, anonymously, diminutively, by a Fly, whose uncertain stumbling Buzz - interposed between the light and me - functions at once as high comic precis of the nothings that weave round the dying Ivan and as dead-pan deflation of the event to which Tolstoy would still give the full centre stage; for this Fly is uncertain and stumbling, dying too it would seem, so that Death is displaced by small deaths, and our speaker is not simply blocked from seeing but unable to see to see. Dickinson's modest episode reveals what Tolstoy's grand spectacle would continue to hide: that the events which we tend to efface in our headlong pursuit of life's purposes, are not royal affairs - when the King be witnessed in the room - but tiny, uncertain, stumbling, and like many many others before and after. Ivan Ilyich cannot die, not because humanity is unable to confront the great Truth of its Death but because it will not accept the hum drum of its deaths. That is the It we displace with our endless representations of it: we are born, we labour, and we die, and the ways that we do so are homely and unoriginal.

But if, to this extent, Tolstoy was overambitious, he also went not far enough. He follows the trend of Western philosophical thought in staking all claims on the fact of our death, but forgets in so doing that fact of our life, and all of the ways - more troubling, perhaps, than our wont for neglecting demise - in which we signify ourselves out of it. Dickinson is our instructor here, for these ways are most often forged from as grand a conception of Life as Tolstoy's conception of Death: Life, as punctuated by great moments of celebration, by birthdays, anniversaries, mothers' days and holidays; Life, as captured by some lens or other so that it is no longer mortal; Life, as reported so that it's gone Public, on networking sites that are always switched on; Life, as acknowledged by cards of appropriate theme, carefully sought out and written in and sent off in a task that acquires greater substance than the event to which it would give expression.

To this frenzied party for Life, there is somebody left uninvited and increasingly likely to decamp elsewhere so empty has grown his social calendar. Dressed in clothes too ordinary, blessed with features too undistinguished, with manners more heartfelt than fashionable and tastes too concrete for company, with spirits too temperate and temper too even, life is left out in the cold, and Life, jaunty Life, so sure to arrive in fine style, to say the right thing and to leave just on time, is invited to dine in his stead.

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