Friday, November 20, 2015

Let's dig up that little green stick

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist (War and Peace), died on this day in 1910. Near the end of his life he wrote:

"The meaningless absurdity of life is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man."

Tolstoy believed that what was not accessible – to most people except him – was the "life force," which is perfectly rational and good. His notion, developed later in life after he'd written his great novels, was that the life of every human being is inextricably bound up with the life of the rest of the universe and is a manifestation of the life force. This truth is hidden from us, however – inaccessible.

Death, Tolstoy said, is a necessary part of life, for one's own good and the good of others. In his later masterpiece, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novelette rather than a novel, he tells the harrowing story of the slow, and then rapid, decline of Ivan Ilyich, a high court judge who has never before given death a second thought. Ilyich the materialist, forced to confront the stark truth of his inevitable passing, turns metaphysical: Will his death be his destruction?

"Death is over; there is no more death," are Ivan Ilyich's last words.

Tolstoy himself, as he neared death, resolved to find a more spiritual life on earth – at the age of 82, he ran away from home. "My position in this house has become intolerable," he wrote to his wife. "Along with everything else, I can no longer abide these luxurious conditions. What I am now doing is what old people have commonly done - leave their worldly life behind to spend their last days in peace and solitude."

He contracted a chill on the train, forcing him to disembark at a station along the way. The chill turned to pneumonia, and he died in the stationmaster's room, surrounded by journalists, who recorded his last words:

"But the peasants – how do they die?"

As he had requested, Tolstoy was buried on his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, at a spot where his brother, Nikolai, once claimed to have buried a little green stick on which was written the secret of universal love and understanding.

For a Perverse Verse on this subject, visit