IN HELEN GARNER’S short novel The Spare Room, Nicola, a woman dying of cancer, goes to stay with her friend Helen while undergoing dubious alternative treatment in Melbourne. This treatment, which involves strong doses of vitamin C, repeatedly makes Nicola so sick that she can barely move or sleep, and has little effect on the cancer. But Nicola, mired in a state of chirpy denial, is unfazed, whereas Helen is exhausted from both the smiling and the sleeplessness. “Death will not be denied,” she thinks; “It drives madness into the soul.” When Helen finally does break through to Nicola and forces her to recognize that she is dying, Garner suggests that the denial of death is akin to a denial of the self. “You wear us out, when you keep on being stoic,” Helen tells Nicola. “It’s like a horrible mask. We want to smash it. We want to find you.”
Freud thought we were all unconsciously convinced of our own immortality. In attempting to imagine our death, he wrote, we always “survive ourselves as spectators.” In other words, our imagination fails us at the crucial moment because our experience is stubbornly one-sided: we know only what it is like to be alive. And this, of course, is exactly the reason why we fear death. Everything about it is unknowable: how, why, when. Montaigne, somewhat alarmingly, thought we should be thinking about death constantly, thereby depriving it of its strangeness. In The Spare Room, Nicola does the opposite — she never thinks about death, even as it draws ever closer to her — but in the end I don’t think the difference between the two strategies is all that great. Only by denying the brutality of death could one possibly write, as Montaigne did, that “we do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.” (Even Ernest Becker, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1973 treatise The Denial of Death, thought that total awareness of one’s death would lead only to madness.)
I mention these two examples because they seem so reflective of the pervasive denial of death that characterizes our time. We are all Montaignes, facing up to the fact of death constantly (in the news, in movies, in video games), but also Nicolas, hiding behind a wealth of distractions and technologies designed, it sometimes seems, to keep our mortality at bay. We surround ourselves with death and yet we are somehow blind to it, a peculiar absurdity that prevents us from engaging with the questions our mortality demands of us: Why is life so short, so transient, so devoid of significance? How do we live meaningfully with the knowledge that someday we will die?
Victor Brombert, professor of romance and comparative literatures at Princeton, explores these questions in an affecting new book, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi, based on the premise that “all art and the love of art allow us, according to André Malraux’s famous pronouncement, to negate our nothingness.” Brombert, a renowned literary scholar and a World War II veteran (as a soldier he landed on the beaches in Normandy), pursues his morbid theme through a stately gallery of writers, from Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf to Albert Camus and Primo Levi, keeping a sensitive eye out for the various ways in which they try to defy and elude death. Brombert repeatedly invokes John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” — with its famous taunt that death, too, shall die — in the conviction that it is above all in art and the appreciation of art that our mortality can be both engaged with and, mysteriously, defied.
In his chapter on Woolf, for instance, Brombert argues that writing was her way of tempering her terror of death (“enough of death,” she wrote in her essay on Montaigne, “it is life that matters”), and he sees evidence of this struggle in all of her major work. In his reading of To the Lighthouse, he joins Lily Briscoe in viewing Mrs. Ramsay as “almost” an artist in her own right, forever defying death: “She is perceived as a harmonizer capable of subduing dissension and chaos. Even the most trivial daily activity seems to be an act of creation.” Brombert points to Mrs. Ramsay’s awareness of the evanescence of these daily activities, her consciousness of the inhospitable, temporary nature of life, and clearly admires her defiant spirit, her image of herself as someone “brandishing her sword at life.”
Yet Brombert is keenly aware of the converse of this defiance. Like Lily Briscoe, he is conscious of the chasm that separates “the fluidity of life” from the fixed, lifeless canvas of art. Lily’s final words — “I have had my vision” — are uttered in the pluperfect tense, as though spoken from a beyond. The art that supposedly defies death is also the complacent companion of death: “It means seeing reality in terms of abstract texture and structure. It immobilizes the vitally changeable and thereby projects an already posthumous view.”
The struggle to hold these two opposing views in mind — the view that art is a defiance of death and the eventual acceptance that art, alas, is no refuge at all — gives Musings on Mortality a personal slant. Reading it, we are never far from the impression that it as much a document of Brombert’s own struggle with mortality as it is a portrait of his subjects. Like them, he eventually comes round to the realization that “not even writing about death decreases the fear of it.” He, too, must resign himself to the closing lines of Andrew Marvell’s “Upon the Death of Lord Hastings”: “For man (alas) is but the heaven’s sport; / And art indeed is long, but life is short.”
Fiction, however, need not only speak to us from the beyond. A novel is not a canvas; with its narrative and its ambiguity, its heroic multifacetedness, it is the form of art that comes closest to representing the “fluidity of life.” The great Hungarian Marxist critic Georg Lukács called the novel “the epic of a world abandoned by God”; not coincidentally, it is in the late 19th-century, with the departure of God and the fracturing of traditional values, that the novel emerges as a form uniquely placed to reflect our struggles with mortality and meaning. It is therefore fitting that Victor Brombert opens Musing on Mortality with a reading of Tolstoy’s little masterpiece The Death of Ivan Ilyich (made newly available by Liveright in a superb translation by the late Peter Conrad). This bleak tale, published in 1886 when Tolstoy was otherwise religiously occupied, has lost none of its power to disturb and unsettle. It remains a haunting story that reads us as much as we read it.
Ivan Ilyich is a member of the St. Petersburg Court of Justice, a man without qualities who does “everything that all people of a certain type do to be like all people of a certain type”: goes to school, gets a job, gets married, has children, is promoted, etc. His only defining quality seems to be a marked complacency. When he thinks of the highlights of the early years of his marriage, for instance, “conjugal caresses” are listed dutifully alongside “new furniture, new china, and new linen.” Even the dramas of his life are trivial: at one point he has “a big quarrel with his wife over the cakes and sweets.”
This is the trajectory of Ivan’s conventional bourgeois life that Tolstoy sketches for us. There are ups and downs, of course, but they are mostly minor and fleeting. Only once does a tremor of doubt about the value of the life he is living register for Ivan. When he goes with his wife to stay in the country for a summer, he feels “not just boredom but unbearable depression.” Away from his work, his routine, and his bridge games, Ivan has little to distract himself with. Victor Brombert calls this “tedium vitae: a weariness of life, a profound feeling of futility and disgust, leading to depression.” It is the only time in his life that self-revelation has ever beckoned to Ivan.
In the end, of course, it is his prolonged terminal illness that makes Ivan conscious of the great lie of his life and surroundings, of the pretense in the faces of everyone around him:
Ivan Ilyich’s chief torment was the lie — the lie, for some reason recognized by everyone, that he was only ill but not dying, and that he only needed rest and treatment and then there would be some very good outcome. But he knew that whatever they did, there would be no outcome except even more painful suffering and death. And he was tormented by this lie; he was tormented by their unwillingness to acknowledge what everyone knew and he knew, by their wanting to lie to him about his terrible situation, by their wanting to and making him take part in that lie himself. The lie, this lie being perpetrated above him on the eve of his death […] to the level of all their visits and curtains and sturgeon for dinner … was horribly painful for Ivan Ilyich.
Of course, as Ivan Ilyich realizes, the lie extends beyond the mere fact of his impending death. It is a lie perpetrated against life itself: what Becker, almost a century later, would call a denial of death. Faced with the hostility and indifference of his wife and colleagues, Ivan thinks to himself, “They don’t care but they too will die. Fools. It’ll come to me first, to them later; they too will have the same.”
As he lies dying, Ivan’s loneliness is compounded by the negligence and indifference of his family and friends, to whom he becomes a greater burden every day he lingers among the living. Abandoned by the world, he fears that he has also been abandoned by God: “He wept for his helplessness, for his horrible loneliness, for people’s cruelty, for God’s cruelty, for God’s absence.” One night he cries out to the Lord, imploring of him: “Why have you done this? Why have you brought me here?” As a variation on the Psalms’ “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” this is so much more appalling because Ivan is not crying out against God’s abandonment; he is crying out against God’s decision to bring him into this world in the first place. He is despairing of God’s action, in other words, not his inaction.
Ivan does not receive an answer, and doesn’t really expect one either. Instead, he reflects on his life and finds that what once gave him pleasure now disgusts him. For weeks he writhes in agony and torment, appalled by the meaninglessness of life, until one day a revelation dawns: “Everything by which you have lived and are living is a lie, a fraud, concealing life and death from you.” In his final hours Ivan sees the light and dies without fear. “Death is finished,” he says to himself, “it is no more.” Like Lily Briscoe, has had his vision, and it is truly spoken from the beyond: when the story begins, he is already dead.
In this way, The Death of Ivan Ilyich reads like a parable of the hubris of modern life. Ivan’s deathbed vision is straight out of Ecclesiastes: “all is vexation and vanity.” When his colleagues first learn of his death, they are on break between court hearings, and in a sense that is all Ivan’s illness and death amounts to: something that interrupts the flow of everyday decorum, from which death is far removed and always uninvited. Their first thoughts are of the significance of Ivan’s death on the transfers or promotions of themselves and their colleagues. When they do discuss Ivan, their conversation moves quickly from his death to “distances in the city.” Then they return to the courts and their card games, and everything is as it was. Only one colleague, who goes to pay his respects to Ivan Ilyich’s widow, recognizes that Ivan’s suffering is not unique. “That can happen to me too, now, any minute,” he thinks, which is, more or less, the point of the entire story. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a narrative dramatization of the syllogism Ivan repeats to himself: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.” Ivan Ilyich is a man, men are mortal, therefore Ivan Ilyich is mortal. And so are we.
Of course, the cry Ivan Ilyich addresses to God is not a uniquely religious one. “Why have you brought me here?” is simply another way of asking ourselves why we live. Tolstoy, at the time of writing The Death of Ivan Ilyich, might have replied that we live for God. “I only have to know of God and I live,” he writes in 1879’s “A Confession.” “To know God and to live are one and the same. God is life.”
As Tolstoy wrote those words, the Danish novelist Jens Peter Jacobsen was finishing his second, and final, novel Niels Lyhne. (Jacobsen died in 1885, aged 38, from tuberculosis; though little-read today, he was cherished by Rilke, Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Robert Musil, among many others). Jacobsen’s Niels is a fervent atheist and sometime poet whose life is a string of disappointments and deaths. As a young boy, Niels’s aunt dies despite his desperate prayers for God to spare her life. As a result, he commits to a life of atheism: “If God had no ears, then Niels would have no voice; if God had no mercy, then Niels have no adoration, and he defied God and turned Him out of his heart.”
Yet at the end of the novel, when his wife has died and his infant son, too, lies dying, Niels succumbs and prays helplessly to God. Jacobsen describes this as a lapse of faith — “He had been tempted and he had fallen; it was a fall from grace, a fall away from himself and from the Idea” — thereby revealing the paradox of Niels’s atheism, which only ever articulates itself in defiance against a God it supposedly doesn’t recognize.
This inversion of the fall-from-grace narrative leaves Niels, and by extension the reader, utterly deprived of hope. It is a cruel inversion because it is a lapse of non-faith, the negation of a negation, as James Wood has observed. After his son’s death, Niels “lost his faith in the power of humanity to bear the life it must live.” Alone, he is adrift in a godless universe whose void he cannot fill even with atheism. Eventually he is shot in the chest during the war of 1864 and dies “that difficult death,” leaving the reader to grapple with the questions Jacobsen leaves unanswered in the wake of his hero’s passing.
Jacobsen spent the day of his own “difficult death” shuffling between a lounge chair and a chaise longue in his childhood home in Thisted, in the care of his mother and younger brother. He consumed only a little soda water and two glasses of port. Two details in particular about that day stand out to me. The first is that, while resting his head against his mother’s in the sofa, he suddenly pointed to a catalog of French paintings and asked to flip through it. The second is that he suddenly demanded a window opened because a light rain was softly falling. (Jacobsen, a botanist who translated Darwin into Danish, had spent much of his youth exploring the flora and fauna of Denmark.)
These are details that seem to cry out, “enough of death, it is life that matters!” And perhaps this is what literature affirms. “Ah, literature is death!” Thomas Mann wrote in a letter to his brother Heinrich in 1901. “I shall never understand how anyone can be dominated by it without bitterly hating it.” But then he added: “Its ultimate best lesson is this: to see death as a way of achieving its antithesis, life.”
For a denial of death is, paradoxically, also a denial of life, and by affirming death we affirm life. You cannot have one without the other, as the annals of literature, with their great narratives of human joy, folly, grief and love continue to remind us. We survive their protagonists, as Freud said we imagine we survive ourselves, as spectators. But in so doing, we ought to look a little more closely. In Ivan Turgenev’s short story “Death,” a peasant lays dying while “in one corner, by a table under the icons, a five-year-old girl was hiding, eating bread.” Later, in the same story, a consumptive student dies while “the frost-bound earth perspired and thawed in the sunlight” and in the garden “the voices of workmen had a clear, sharp resonance.” When the narrator recalls talking to the student about Hegel moments before his death, the student assumes a “child-like curiosity” that moves the narrator to the point of tears. In the last gasp of death is the breath of life.