In Job's Balances \ I \ The Last Judgment


     There was nothing to be done! Only to look this strange, mysterious reality straight in the eyes. It had come one knew not how or whence. And not only can no one help Ivan Ilych, no one can even listen to his complaints. It is in this absolute solitude, which could not have been more complete in the depths of the sea or in the bowels of the earth than in this great town, in the midst of his friends and family, and in the impossibility of "doing" anything at all, that lay the new, absurd, fantastic improbability which had revealed itself to Ivan Ilych. Not only men, but his faith and the principles which he had formed in the course of his long life, appeared to him false and unreal. But he no longer has any criterion by which he can distinguish reality from illusion, the waking from the dreaming state. He tries to recall the past, in the hope of finding some support there, but this past seems to be in league with his innumerable invisible enemies who want to deprive him of all support; the past refuses to come to his help. Once so peaceful, so gentle, so agreeable, it has now taken on the aspect of a terrible monster, which overwhelms him with reproaches and accusations.
"From the beginning of that existence which had for its last result the actual Ivan Ilych, all the joys which he had known now dissolved and melted away before his eyes, appearing mean and even vile... His marriage which had been so unexpectedly concluded, then his disappointment, the bad smell of his wife's breath, the sensuality, the hypocrisy, his dreary life in the courts, his preoccupation with money. So a year had gone by, two years, ten years, twenty years - and still he was the same. And as his existence flowed past, so it had become dry and withered. 'It was as though I were descending a mountain step by step, when I imagined myself to be climbing up it. And it is true that according to public opinion I was climbing just in exactly the same proportion in which I was losing all my living strength. And now it is all finished - die."
This is how a man thinks who can "do" nothing; the truths of the "common world", the laws of good and evil, of reality and illusion - all these truths are only diabolical witchcraft, even as the "common world" itself, in which these realities are adored.

     The Death of Ivan Ilych is, it is true, only the history of a modest civil servant, and some might think that his thoughts are so painful and unhappy just because he was an ordinary, commonplace sort of man. But it is not a question of the commonplace quality of Ivan Ilych, but of the world in general, which not only he but all the greatest representatives of human thought look upon as the only reality. Father Sergius is a colossal figure, an ascetic saint, but Tolstoy condemned him to the same suffering which Ivan Ilych had to endure before he died. He knew the same solitude which could not have been more absolute even at the bottom of the sea; the same terrors, the same impossible situation without issue, the same inability to "do" anything at all for his own salvation.

     Tolstoy was not at all addicted to the worship of great men. The two men, Father Sergius who has "done" so much, and Ivan Ilych the commonplace little official, are equally impotent when they arrive at the borders of earthly existence. In the face of this new reality, and in the thick darkness in which Tolstoy engulfs his heroes, the distinctions which are so apparent in the light of day become quite unnoticeable. And more, Tolstoy himself would not have been able to recognize by day all that had been revealed to him in the darkness. Did he not declare his antagonism to St. Paul and the doctrine of salvation by faith? We know how angry he was with Nietzsche for his formula "beyond good and evil", which had resuscitated the forgotten teaching of the old apostle. And, indeed, in the "world common to all" men cannot live by faith; in this world works are esteemed, and necessary; in it men are justified, not by faith, but by works. But Ivan Ilych will never return again into the "world common to all". And his thoughts, the thoughts of a man who only looks at IT but can "do" nothing, are quite different.
What is it? Why? This cannot be. Life could not be so purposeless and vile. And if it really had been so absurd and miserable, why die now, and die with all this suffering? Something is wrong here. Perhaps, he suddenly says to himself, perhaps I have not lived as I ought to have lived. But how can that be, when I have lived quite correctly? And he immediately repudiates this only possible solution to the riddle of life and death. Then what does he want now? To live? But to live how? To live as you used to when the ushers called out in court: "The court, gentlemen!" The court, he repeats. This is the verdict. But I am not guilty, he cries bitterly. Why then? He stopped weeping, and turning to the wall he began to ask himself again what he had done! Why this horror? But for all his efforts he could find no answer. And when, as often happened, he found himself saying that all this had occurred because he had not lived as he should, he immediately remembered the perfect regularity of his existence and put the terrible thought far from him.
The court! The court! Ivan Ilych had himself been a judge all his life. He knew that the object of justice was to separate the just from the unjust according to principles established once and for all, and to reward each according to his deserts. But this new, fantastic justice has nothing in common with earthly justice. It knows no rule, no law; for it there is no innocent man; all are guilty, and especially those who obeyed the laws and made a virtue of this voluntary submission.

     This was more than Ivan Ilych could endure. His conscience as an old judge revolted against such a suggestion, for this new Last Judgment abolished all distinctions between good and evil. Not only Ivan Ilych, but all men are guilty. "It is impossible to fight against death. If you could only understand why this is so! But even that is impossible. It might be explicable if I had not lived as I ought; but really it is impossible to admit that," said he to himself, remembering how law-abiding his life had always been, how regular and respectable. "No, I could not admit that," he declared, smiling as though some one could have seen that smile and been deceived by it. "There is no explanation... suffering, death... why?"

     Ivan Ilych is right to invoke the regularity of his existence; he is not alone; he is supported by the whole of the common existence to which he used to belong and which is maintained by this order and regularity. If a clever doctor had been able to cure him, he would have gone back to the court to defend once again the law and order which he had always served. I do not mean to say that Ivan Ilych's life had realized the maximum of human aspirations, but according to the Last Judgment, as revealed to Tolstoy (whether this was anamnesis or atavism I leave to the modern theories of knowledge to decide), our most admirable works can have no effect on the Invisible Judge. It appears, in fact, that we know nothing of what can move Him to pity, and we have every reason to believe that He is pitiless and inexorable in His decisions. "Why all these sufferings?" And the voice replied: 'For no reason at all.' And there was nothing else." If the severe accuser shows any signs of mercy, he always does so quite suddenly, from sheer caprice, without any motive at all. We must give up all legality, all regularity, all the supreme social and moral ideals, abandon them without question; they are left for moth and rust to corrupt.

     But there are some things in Ivan Ilych's existence which can endure the test of eternity. In his youth he had known one or two really happy moments; if he could only recall these it might still be possible to live. When he was studying he had been happy too, he had known joy, friendship and hope. Then there were the early days of his apprenticeship with the governor; the love of a woman. But how unlike the good which Tolstoy has discovered is the good of the seekers after eternal salvation; how unlike it is, in fact, to any idea of good! But just for this reason, because it is not like "good", it may escape the judgment, may slip through the needle's eye, through which these camels, the legality and regularity admired of the common world, cannot pass. At the Last Judgment legality and regularity, like all the conventions, will be condemned as mortal sins. They will be condemned for their autonomy because, though created by man, they have had the impertinence to pretend to eternity. These essentially "ideal" conceptions, that have become the basis of our earthly existence, are what Ivan Ilych must now give up; death cuts all these threads which unite us to our fellows. The first condition, the beginning of the regeneration of the human soul, is solitude, a solitude which could not have been more complete in the bowels of the earth or in the depths of the sea, in which all legality, all reality, all the ideal substratum of everyday life will wither away. His honest, drab, mediocre civil-servant's existence will not save Ivan Ilych, any more than Father Sergius's virtuous and ascetic life can save him before the supreme tribunal. On the contrary, it is their virtues which make the situation of them both even more painful. They will both have to give up their merits and put all their trust, not in their past or future activity, but in that happy creative chance which common reason so scornfully rejects.

     "It came into Ivan Ilych's mind that what he had hitherto looked upon as quite impossible might after all be true; that he had not lived as he should. It came to him that the timid efforts to fight against what the highest of men had looked upon as good (meaning by this not only his immediate superiors, but the wise men of the world), hardly perceptible efforts, which he himself had - as often as not repressed; it was these efforts which had been real while all the rest had been false. His occupations, his family and his interests, all that might have been false. He tried to defend all that to himself, and suddenly he understood the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend. 'If it is like this,' he said to himself, 'and if I leave living men with the consciousness of losing everything which has been given to me, and if there is no help for this, what then?' He stretched himself on his back and began to go over his life again from a new point of view. When next morning he saw his servant again, then his wife, his daughter and next the doctor, every one of their gestures, of their words, confirmed the hideous truth which he had seen in the night. In them he discovered himself, he saw what had made up his life, and he saw clearly that it was not at all what he wanted, it was a monstrous lie which hid both life and death from him. This vision augmented his physical sufferings tenfold. He groaned, he tossed to and fro and tore his clothes. It seemed to him that they were stifling him."

     The description of the Last Judgment does not end even here. Ivan Ilych has given up a great deal, but not yet all. He has not given up the most important thing. His past existence still attracts him. Although he sees that return has been forbidden to him, that it is the end, really the end, although he is now convinced that his past life has been a continual lie, which hid the real truth, yet he is still afraid to give it up: the unknown future seems even more terrible than the past, which was bad indeed, but familiar to him. He persisted in admitting, though with limitations, that his life had been good. And it was this justification of his existence which stopped him and prevented him from advancing, and chiefly tormented him. "Suddenly he felt as it were a shock in his chest, in his side, his breath was arrested, he was plunged into a black abyss, and there something lit up before him." This last leap into the unknown, this bold leap which Ivan Ilych had not dared to take by himself, was accomplished thanks to the action of an unknown force. It was not Ivan Ilych's merit, nor his will, it was not his clear-sighted reason which had torn him out of the world common to all, once so comfortable, so agreeable, and now so intolerable. Even as our passage from non-existence into being is accomplished without our participation and supposes the imperious, perhaps even violent, intervention of some mysterious fiat, so too the passage from life to death cannot be accomplished naturally; it is an inconceivable and therefore so frightful a fortuitous rupture of the established order of our existence. Solitude, complete obscurity, chaos, the impossibility of foretelling, and complete ignorance; can man accept all these? Can he still hope and go forward when he has seen with his own eyes what Ivan Ilych suffered?

Orphus system

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