Thursday, October 1, 2009

Death Scenes

I recently went to a friend's funeral and beforehand I was thinking about Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It was my first funeral in many years and I expected to experience something like what Tolstoy describes: the mourners go through the motions of grieving but feel a secret sense of satisfaction that it is not they who have died. They are blithely ignorant of the proximity of their own deaths and seek any distraction--in this case cardplaying--to avoid its reality.


This isn't what I felt at all though. The significance of mortality struck me like it never has before. This had something to do with a series of gruesome accounts related by acquiantances of my friend's illness and death. Of course, this made me consider that there is something uniquely Russian about a truly horrifying end, whether in fiction, on the battlefield, or in czarist or soviet prisons.

So I'm wondering what incidents in Russian life and literature best communicate this morbid ability to portray the betrayal of our flesh? Dostoevsky has to be considered the master. But there is a great death scene in The Oblomovs by Saltykov-Schedrin; Tolstoy's own death was fascinating; the death of Dostoevsky's father at the hands of his own peasants was awful; and obviously there are scenes in The Gulag Archipelago that defy all description.

By contrast English and American literature have little to offer: the pathetic death of Little Nell is characteristic of the Anglo-American discomfort with the topic. Does their familiarity with death mean that the Russians are more attuned to the full range of the life cycle, or is it merely the product of an unhinged social system that has produced far too many meaningless deaths? By contrast does our optimistic preoccupation with the future help our democracy function more or less smoothly, or is it a symptom of a deeper inability to engage with life?

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