Tolstoy-related synchronicity while moving apartments
Dear readers! I write to you from the emotional and physical turmoil of moving apartments! I had a different post planned for today, but it was displaced by an episode of Tolstoy-related synchronicity that I experienced yesterday. So yesterday I had rushed off to the new apartment in the pouring rain, so I could meet a guy I had hired from the internet to carry a disassembled standing desk up three flights of stairs.
(I had ordered the desk online and it came early, and I didn’t want it to sit in the hallway until move-in day, potentially enraging the new neighbors.) I was scared of missing the guy so I got there almost an hour early, cleverly bringing some student papers to read while I waited—except that, once I got there, I realized I’d brought the wrong folder, and there was nothing in it but some old Japanese homework. So instead I went to the corner store, and bought hand soap and garbage bags and bananas, and then I came back and washed my hands and sat on the floor and ate a banana and put the peel in the garbage bag and looked out the widow at the rain. At that point, I started to feel somehow melancholy, which I ascribed, perhaps incorrectly, to the curtains left by the previous residents—heavy pull-up curtains made of a kind of heavy dull beige satin-like, yet lint-prone fabric—which I decided to take down.
I had a screwdriver with me, so it wasn’t that hard—the only issue was that there wasn’t anything to stand on, so I climbed onto the edge of the windowsill—in socks, because I had left my wet boots at the door—but it was worth it because without the curtains, the room did indeed looked less depressing—until I noticed that one of the windows looked directly into a neighboring apartment, which also didn’t have curtains, enabling me to see through to a sad light fixture and an unmade bed, giving me a creepy and intrusive feeling that was way more depressing than the curtain had been, so, I climbed back on the windowsill to reattach it. But this turned out to be more complicated than taking it down, because of making sure that everything faced the right way, and also holding up the bar, and the big old droopy beige curtain… and then, once it was back up there, I realized the cord was caught between the curtain bar and the top of the window, in a huge tangle that was preventing the curtain from hanging normally. I didn’t want to take the bar out completely, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to lift it up again… so I just unscrewed one end of it and was trying to sort of swing it out and drag the cord over the end… and then suddenly I was like This is how Ivan Ilyich died. Because the one thing burned into my memory about “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” which I had read only once, many years ago, was was that first he fell while installing some curtains and then he died a slow and painful death.
So, I gave up detangling the cord. Then I saw it was already 2:55, and the guy had said he would come at 3… except that, at just that moment, the guy texted: “running a lil late, should be there 3:30.” Something about that “should be,” especially in conjunction with “lil,” made it so clear he wasn’t going to get there before 4—and that was annoying, because if he had only told me that he wanted to come at 4, then I could have left home later, and maybe I wouldn’t have forgotten the student papers, and what was I going to do now for another hour, and wouldn’t it have been great if I could have carried the desk upstairs by myself, except that the whole reason I had ordered a 110-lb standing desk in the first place was because of back pain.
Then I looked at the botched curtain again, and wondered whether to try to fix it after all, and then I thought some more about Ivan Ilyich, and was sort of weighing the calculation in my mind (functioning pull-cord? But Ivan Ilyich). Then I thought, “I wonder if I should just reread ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ now, because Lord knows I’ll probably have time to finish it before that man gets here”—and just then I checked my phone, and found an email from a colleague with whom I had been corresponding some weeks earlier, about a potential job opportunity, where I would help train an AI to impersonate me answering questions about Anna Karenina. After a couple of emails, I had realized that I didn’t have time to tell an AI everything I thought about Anna Karenina, so I declined. Weeks passed—and now the colleague had sent another email, to tell me about some other writers who had agreed to train AI’s to impersonate them answering questions about great classical texts, and at the end he was like, “Maybe you’d like to do ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ next year” (because it’s shorter)!
OK, so as I mentioned earlier, I have become addicted to the podcast “This Jungian Life,” especially for falling asleep when I’m anxious (every night lately), so I have thus been thinking/ hearing a lot about the Jungian concept of synchronicity: an “acausal connecting principle” that involves meaningful coincidences. (I still need to read about it but it seems like Jung viewed it as an alternate way to structure experience, instead of causality lolol.) And I thought: what are the odds that someone would propose that I train an AI to answer questions about “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” moments after a precarious curtain-installing situation and an unforeseen delay had made me think of rereading that very text?
So I started rereading “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and it made me remember so many things, including how impatient and frustrated I had felt reading it for the first time, when I was 18, to the extent that I really went out of my way not to read it again—or at most maybe I skimmed it and was like “Yeah, I remember, the curtains.”
At 18, I think I thought the story felt somehow irrelevant to my life, and thinking “Why didn’t Tolstoy just write about something else?”; which feels comical now, since it’s about death. But it’s also about middle age—Ivan Ilyich is 45, which in those days felt to me like some sort of a non-age, but now it feels like life itself!—and careerism, and obsession with money and status and real estate. (Now I’m thinking about the “Arzamas horror” (a famous horror that Tolstoy experienced in in 1869 and that informed “Ivan Ilyich”), because wasn’t Arzamas a real-estate-related trip?)
So then I was sort of lapsing into the easy-thinking groove of, “Wow, I know so much more now than I did when I was 18”; and then I got to the line, “In its details the life of Ivan Ilych was the most simple and the most ordinary and the most horrible”—and I experienced, or re-experienced, an additional insight into how I felt when I was 18—which was something like: “Why do I have to read ANOTHER story about an old guy who has to be taught a hard lesson in how not to waste life chasing money and power?” Like, “I already read ‘A Christmas Carol’”—another text that didn’t become meaningful to me until I reread it as an adult—“so why do I have to hear about another cartoonish guy who looooves money, and then has a scary encounter where he realizes money can’t protect him from a terrible death, so he should have been a better person. I already know money and power can’t protect you against death, and I know I’m going to die, and I don’t have any money anyway, I don’t have any power, so why do I have to read a horrible cautionary tale about it? I already know not to be like that. Tolstoy himself wasn’t like that.” Ivan Ilyich was a magistrate who made defendants cower, and Scrooge was a banker(?) who was obsessed with debt collection, and neither of those guys produced anything of value; whereas Tolstoy and Dickens produced so many hilarious and meaningful books. “And I’m not going to be a lawyer or a banker, like Ivan Ilyich or Scrooge, I’m going to be a writer like Tolstoy and Dickens, so stop trying to educate me.”
Now that I am Ivan Ilyich’s age, it’s so clear that of course Scrooge was Dickens, and Ivan Ilyich was Tolstoy; they’re externalizations of the psychic Dark Side of being a writer. Scrooge has a writer’s workaholism, loneliness, obsession with productivity, loss of connection with childhood and with “normal” people, etc. Ivan Ilyich is motivated by a kind of professional insecurity and ambition that I find very familiar from my own darker moments—where he’s comparing himself to others, and is convinced he’s fallen behind, and can’t stop thinking about moving to a better house or having better curtains.
This made me think of how, for a lot of writers, writing is something you set out to do when you’re in your teens or 20s; then it takes so long to accumulate enough capital—the material capital to write, the social capital to get published, the life-experience capital to interpret events, and the time-capital to like physically grasp the mechanics of writing, because just think of the 20+ years I have been at it and I am still writing sentences like this one—and that’s why most prose classics are written by people who aren’t young anymore. Then they’re assigned to young people, who have a totally different worldview. (I feel very aware of this now because I’m teaching undergrads and trying to not assign texts that would have made me want to jump out a window when I was 20.) And maybe the frustration of reading texts by old people is part of what makes young people think, “God, I have to write a book”?
This made me wonder: is it possible to write from a middle-aged perspective in a way that feels true to young people? More precisely—is there a way I can write about aging, and about what, for lack of a better word, I’m going to call disappointment, that younger-me wouldn’t have found sadistic? Also, is Tolstoy sadistic towards Ivan Ilyich? Why did he make Ivan Ilyich more limited than he was? Why do great writers create characters who are more limited versions of them, and then punish them (Madame Bovary)?
Dear readers, I have so much more to say but the moving van is coming in 36 hours, and I have to teach tomorrow (which means I have to do all the excessive, hopefully-youth-compatible reading I assigned last week when I was overexcited after class), and the next few weeks are B-O-N-K-E-R-S, and if you’re reading this and I owe you a personal email, thank you for your patience! If it makes any geographic sense at all, please say “hi” at the University of Missouri or the Lviv BookForum!
Dear Paid Subscribers: thank you so much for your contributions to the Paid Subscribers’ Memorial Standing Desk! Special extra thanks to everyone who sent questions to the QA post. I answered some questions in the comments thread, and plan to answer more in separate posts soon. In the meantime, some bonus material just for you. Coming up, after the paywall:
1. The dark literary place I ended up the last time I moved apartments
2. A page from a 19th-century classic novel with annotations I made in my first year of college (found while packing)
3. The “curtains” quote from “Ivan Ilyich” (is that where the phrase “It’s curtains” comes from), PLUS my attempt to determine Ivan Ilyich’s cause of death
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