"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Redemption of Ivan Ilych

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy is not an enjoyable story to read. The novella, however, does contain a powerful message. It is a message of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. A theme that every Christian is familiar with.

Tolstoy's narrative opens with the observation that “Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (102). His middle-class existence is not just terribly plain and boring in its outward forms but, more significantly, terrible in its spiritual dullness and oblivion. Ivan Ilych, a middle-aged man with a high paying government job, a wife and two children is incredibly selfish and thinks of no one but himself. What makes the story even more depressing is that every other character is utterly selfish. (With the possible exception of the young man Gerasim who tends Ivan when he gets sick. But even Gerasim the peasant servant has a cold and dutiful pity as if he is above the troubles of others and can therefore consent to look down upon their affliction.)

Ivan Ilych develops an illness that he is unwilling in his pride of life to admit has control over him. As his pain worsens, however, the life-threatening nature of the sickness becomes impossible to deny. His response to approaching death is to accost God angrily. To Ivan's surprise, immediately he hears an inward voice that asks him what he wants (143). “Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly” (144). But with the reply Ivan begins to realize that his life had not been well and pleasant. Of course, he always had the luxuries of money and a fashionable wife but... He sees that the only really pleasant times in his life were far back in childhood on the verge of memory (144). He had made his own life into a miserable and terrible thing.

Ivan is coming around to the fact that his life is empty of all but the sins that he has contentedly filled his life with. Only two hours before his death does he grasp that he could have lived better. More importantly, he understands there is still time to treat others better. When his wife and son come into his room he attempts to speak in his weakness and ask forgiveness. He is unable to speak but he rests content, “knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand” (152).

In this novella of Leo Tolstoy's, with all its unpleasant characterization of a lone man's life, can be seen the universal need of all men. Ivan Ilych is a sinner condemned to death for his fruitlessness, but who recognizes this, repents, and is snatched from a spiritual death.

'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!'” (152)

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories. Trans. Alymer Maude and J.D. Duff. New York, Signet Classics-Penguin Putnam Inc. 2003

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tolstoy's Rehabilitation

I've had a change of heart about Leo Tolstoy. The change has come with the reading of a little book of Tolstoy's short stories with the innovative title of Twenty-Three Tales. A few years ago I tried reading The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories and made up my mind that I did not like Tolstoy. For some reason, when this old book moved in with the rest of my Grandma's stuff I decided to give it a second chance. It turns out I'm glad I did.

I don't know whether these stories are still in print under the title of Twenty-Three Tales. My edition is part of the Oxford World's Classics series from the 1940s. Most of the stories have a supernatural element, many are fanciful, a great number have the theme of forgiveness, and all have a clear moral. In fact, they can be downright preachy at times."> But—whether I just like didactic stories and parables or Tolstoy handles them well—I never felt like wincing when a story was wrapped up with a tidy little lesson. The story Two Old Men from my last post is characteristic of most of the tales in the volume.

One of my favorites was a fairytale: Ivan the Fool. Like all the stories it too has an overt moral. Ivan has two brothers: a soldier and a merchant. Both of these fall into the traps of their profession. The soldier conquers a kingdom and becomes a dictator; The merchant greedily buys up a kingdom and enslaves the people to his gold. Ivan also gets a kingdom by marrying a princess, but because he is a fool all the “wise” men and merchants and soldiers leave his land till only farmers are left. Finally, the Devil comes and fights the kingdom of the soldier brother, conquering him. He then buys up all the food in the kingdom of the merchant brother, leaving him starving among treasuries of gold. When the Devil comes to ruin Ivan's kingdom, however, he meets a snag. Armies tire of invading because the people freely give them what little food they have till they make friends with the invaders. The people also refuse to sell their goods and food for money because they do not see what is so special about gold. Rather they feel sorry for the rich Devil and offer him charity “in Christ's name” (which of course, he can't take) and work (which he is unwilling to do). Hungry and humiliated, the Devil finally gives up and leaves the kingdom of fools.

Altogether it was an enjoyable book of short stories. Lest you get the wrong impression about Tolstoy, however, (and before you rush out and indiscriminately buy his works) I will call up from the past something I wrote on the novella The Death of Ivan Ilych in my next post. Since I have no desire to reread The Death of Ivan Ilych, I will assume that I still agree with what I wrote about it a few years ago.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Spur One Another On Toward Love and Good Deeds

I was shocked and humbled a few nights ago while reading a short story by Leo Tolstoy. It got me thinking about one of the purposes of reading literature. The story (called Two Old Men) commences with old Effim and Elisha setting off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A few weeks into their trek, Elisha, feeling thirsty, approaches a hut to ask for water, assuring Effim that he will catch up on the road later. When there is no response to his knock, Elisha decides to open the door and go in. He finds a family on the point of death due to a famine and sickness. Instead of getting water from them, he must get water for them as they are too weak to draw any themselves. He then goes on to feed them, buy back the lease on their field, and get them a horse and cart.

The thing that came as such an unpleasant surprise to me was my initial reaction to the story: I did not want Elisha to help them and spend all his time and pilgrimage money on them. (How callused is that?) My thoughts mirrored those of Elisha on the fourth evening of his stay with the family. He,

“was in two minds... On the one hand he felt he ought to be going, for he had spent too much time and money as it was; on the other hand he felt sorry for the people.

'There seems to be no end to it,' he said. 'first I only meant to bring them a little water and give them each a slice of bread, and just see where it has landed me. It's a case of redeeming the meadow and the cornfield. And when I have done that I shall have to buy a cow for them, and a horse for the man to cart his sheaves'” (Tolstoy 114).

Such a course seems worse than foolhardy for a poor man in the midst of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to honor God. In the end, all his money is used up and his fellow pilgrim, Effim, is weeks ahead in his journey to Jerusalem. Elisha has no choice but to admit he must turn back home.

“I'm afraid I shall never fulfill my vow [to go to Jerusalem] in this life. I must be thankful it was made to a merciful Master and to one who pardons sinners” (117).

What Elisha doesn't know is that his shining bald head had been seen in Jerusalem at the holiest shrines. His friend Effim is amazed that his lost companion had made it to Jerusalem ahead of him (124). The moral of the story, and the one that I was finally forced to accept after my initial stubbornness, was the one Effim saw months later when he got home and learned: “that the best way to keep one's vows to God and to do His will, is for each man while he lives to show love and do good to others” (130). “Or else while I go to seek the Lord beyond the sea I may lose Him in myself”(115).

I mentioned that this story got me thinking about one of the purposes of literature. I was reluctant to let Elisha do the right thing in the story. Because our wills and desires are so often contrary to doing the right thing, we need all the help we can get in the quest to develop a mindset of godliness. Our lives and imaginations need to be saturated with examples of saintly action. The pragmatic and utilitarian “walk by on the other side of the road” mentality often seems to make sense but it is not the right response. We need examples of godly action to spur us on. These role-models can, hopefully, be found in real life but reading the right literature is also a good way to find heroes who will stir up an enthusiasm for virtue. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: "Encourage one another daily . . . so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness" (Hebrews 3:13). And again: “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.... let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:24).

We need the encouragement of right-acting role-models, real or fictional, that capture our imagination. Allen Bloom points out the need for heroic role-models who practice the classical and Christian virtues when he insightfully observes that: “The moral education that is today supposed to be the great responsibility of the family cannot exist if it cannot present to the imagination of the young a vision of a moral cosmos and of the rewards and punishments for good and evil, sublime speeches that accompany and interpret deeds, protagonists and antagonists in the drama of moral choice” (Bloom 60). A daily dose of stories like Tolstoy's Two Old Men may be the spur that the imagination needs for “love and good deeds” to be eagerly pursued.

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, New York. A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster inc. 1988

Leo Tolstoy, Twenty-Three Tales. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. The World's Classics, London, Oxford University Press. 1947.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Scrabble Update

Scrabble records are amazing. Guess what score a guy got with the word "quixotry?" Okay, okay, I'll tell you: 365. During the same game the carpenter who set this record also set the 830 point game record

Check out this article for a harrowing blow by blow of the game and the controversy around the amateur competitor who set these records in 2006 with a couple lucky "triple-triples" and a 239 point word like "flatfish."

The Fine Art of Making Up Scrabble Words

In the cut-throat world of Scrabble competition, having an edge on the competition can be the difference between spelling success and spelling failure. This edge can be gained one of two ways (not both):

1. By acquiring a large vocabulary.

2. By making up words and their definitions so adroitly that the other players accept them without protest.

Now I prefer the second method. The reasons are these: Acquiring a large vocabulary can take years of study; a typical Scrabble game does not. Also, the letters available may simply not fit the pattern of any known word. This is where the advantages of the second method may be seen: whatever letters are available can be used to create the words ex nihilo. (if you don't know what ex nihilo means just make up a definition that makes sense with the rest of the sentence, that's what I do when I see Latin phrases.) The few tips that follow on how to validate newly minted words can help you when your word is challenged by another player.

First, when challenged it is often good to ask the challenging player, with just a hint of shocked surprise in one's voice, if they have really never heard the word before. This will put them on the defensive and leave them wondering how they could have missed learning this word in 5th grade vocabulary class. Then it is best to use the word in a sentence since using a word in a sentence immediately lends credibility to it. Sometimes this example is enough to quiet dissent since many people don't like to show their ignorance about something so seemingly self-evident.

Take, for example, one of my favorite Scrabble words: pinaforte (pronounced: pin-a-for-TAY). “You've never heard of a person's pinaforte bursting amid a multi-colored cloud of feathers?” If they continue to assert that they haven't, you should begin patiently explaining that a pinaforte is a large purse or handbag used by nobility during the Renaissance as a symbol of status. They were made by sewing together the feathers of brightly-colored birds, but sometimes the threads would break and the feathers separate from one another with an effect somewhat similar to a pillow bursting during a pillow-fight. Of course, you can make the description as elaborate as time and your audience allows by adding details of how the purses were lined with burlap so the feather ends wouldn't poke through or how the popularity of these bags contributed to feather mites infesting humans and the subsequent practice of both men and women of shaving their legs in an effort to get rid of the little bugs. This explains all those paintings of an effeminate king Louis with shaved legs. All of these little details make the word sound more authentic and usually your work is done.

If, however, your fellow players still resist the idea, and demand to see it in the dictionary you should be quick to lay hold of the dictionary before them. This will give you the chance of, first, complaining that the dictionary is a highly abridged American version that could hardly be expected to contain obsolete words of European origin; and second, you can begin looking up the word's “roots.” Looking up a word's “roots” can be one of the most difficult parts of the whole affair and could make or break it. The worst problem to be encountered is if your word has no likely “roots” in the dictionary and you must simply claim that, like the word “Google,” it just came into being around the year __A.D. when it was first recorded in the anonymous Medieval “Codex Deceivius.”

Luckily, with a word like “pinaforte” there are two easily imagined “roots:” “pina” and “forte.” “Pina” conjures up images of pineapples which are colorful and so could easily be compared to colorful South American bird feathers like those used to decorate the pinaforte bags. However, since South America wasn't discovered till after the Renaissance setting of the earlier definition you gave, it is best to dig a little deeper for a more convincing “root.” Quickly scanning the dictionary you notice that a “pinnacle” is part of a fortress or battlement. People put valuable things in a fortress; people also put valuable things in a purse. But better yet, you notice that the Latin root “pinna” actually means a feather. The word is bomb-proof now. All that is required is to show how “forte” (meaning strong or powerful) can apply to either the strong influence a person with a big purse can have or the metaphorical sense in which having a lot of money makes one feel safer as if one were protected by a “strong battlement,” the literal meaning of the two roots “pinna” and “forte.”

Of course, having made these “discoveries” you could go on ad nauseam (yep, means just what it sounds like) about the word's earlier meanings in ancient architecture dealing with castle fortifications, etc. But the case is made sufficiently for the other players to accept the word “pinaforte” as legitimate and return to the game. Any newly minted word can be handled in this way and such a lengthy argument as above may not always be necessary. Another favorite word of mine, “streth,” may need no more than to be used in a sentence to validate it. To “streth oneself with worry” is literally to “wear oneself ragged” with worry. Or again, to “streth one's mouth” is literally to wear it dry and hoarse with an overabundance of talk.

Well, I've almost strethed my fingertips to the bone from all this typing, so I think I'll leave the rest up to you. Next time you pack up your pinaforte bag for the trip over to a Scrabble tournament, be sure to carry with you these important tips about getting that winning edge. Let your next Scrabble game spell success.