Heidegger on Tolstoy (1)

Fuckin’ the Servants

Tolstoy on Sex and Death

Never trust a desperate man.

On p. 254 of Sein und Zeit Heidegger inserts a footnote to the effect that in The Death of Ivan Ilyich Tolstoy depicts the disruption (Erschütterung) and collapse (Zusammenbruch) of the phrase (or phenomenon), “‘one dies’ (‘People die,’ ‘Somebody is dying,’ ‘man stirbt’)” What does he mean?

“One dies” is an expression Heidegger associates with an approach to death that he clearly dislikes (or at least he piles on qualifications that I would consider disapproving). The expression can be unpacked in several different ways. It can mean, “Somebody is dying,” such as you might say to a telemarketer who called just as your Uncle Billy was in the last stages of his pneumonia. Or else it can mean, “People die” in the sense of a non-emotionally charged statement of fact on the order of “Horses have four legs.” But you can also say “People die” with a shrug the shoulders and a resigned glance off camera.

The attitude exemplified by the expression “People die” in some combination of the last two senses is what Heidegger finds a despicable albeit essential part of the structure of that aspect of human existence (Dasein) he calls “They” (das Man). The footnote implies that Tolstoy’s short story depicts the disruption or undoing of this attitude. Something in the story confirms Heidegger’s disapproving description of the everyday (usual, common or garden, alltäglich) approach to death.

I feel fairly certain, based on the overtones of what Heidegger says and the overtones of Tolstoy’s narrative attitude, that the exemplars of the everyday attitude include the following persons and events – even though Heidegger does not confirm my fair degree of certainty by citing specific passages:

When Ivan’s colleagues are informed of the news of his death, their thoughts immediately turn to who will fill his post and to their own careers and concerns. Ivan’s death is viewed as an event in the world of the living followed by succeeding events some of which are causally influenced by the fact of his death.
So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilyich’s death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.
‘I shall be sure to get Shtabel’s place or Vinnikov’s,’ thought Fëdor Vasilievich. ‘I was promised that long ago, and the promotion means an extra eight hundred rubles a year for me besides the allowance.’
‘Now I must apply for my brother-in-law’s transfer from Kaluga,’ thought Peter Ivanovich. ‘My wife will be very glad, and then she won’t be able to say that I never do anything for her relations.’ (p. 96)

These characters do feel a pang of the fear of death, expressed as a happiness that someone else died. That pang is quickly replaced by concerns about attending the funeral.

Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilyich’s death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard it the complacent feeling that, ‘it is he who is dead and not I.’
Each one thought or felt, ‘Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!’ But the more intimate of Ivan Ilyich’s acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow. (pp. 96-97)

Peter Ivanovich is the only one among the aforementioned colleagues to attend Ivan Ilyich’s wake. His encounter with a mutual acquaintance in the house is described as follows:

His colleague Schwartz was just coming downstairs, but on seeing Peter Ivanovich enter he stopped and winked at him as if to say: ‘Ivan Ilyich has made a mess of things – not like you and me.’
Peter Ivanovich allowed the ladies to precede him and slowly followed them upstairs. Schwartz did not come down but remained where he was, and Peter Ivanovich understood that he wanted to arrange where they should play bridge that evening. (p. 97)

(This by the way sounds much like, and may be the source of Heidegger’s comment that, as far as “most people” (das Man) are concerned, a person who dies is simply being bothersome (Unannehmlichkeit) and tactless (Taktlosigkeit). Tolstoy reinforces that point a bit later when he describes the angry offended expressions on the faces of Ivan Ilyich’s daughter and her fiancé.) Schwartz’s real concerns are elaborated a few paragraphs later when he tries to invite the apparently exiting Peter Ivanovich to that bridge game.

His very look said that this incidence of a church service for Ivan Ilyich could not be a sufficient reason for infringing the order of the session – in other words, that it would certainly not prevent his unwrapping a new pack of cards and shuffling them that evening….there was no reason for supposing that this incident would hinder their spending the evening agreeably. (p. 99)

Peter Ivanovich closes Tolstoy’s circle of irony (at the same time making clear that, though the opening passages are depicted through his eyes, his is not the moral perspective of the narrator) by leaving the funeral to join the bridge game. Along the way, he proves unhelpful to Ivan’s wife, Praskovya Fëdorovna, in her search for an enhanced death benefit from the government. The comic scene between the two that begins with a less than flattering description of her looks and ends with her abrupt dismissal of Peter Ivanovich, places her squarely among the Alltäglichkeit crowd.

As for Peter Ivanovich, he does have a momentary brush with Tolstoy’s point of view, but he manages to pull himself together and get back with the program (which Tolstoy qualifies as a “customary reflection”).

The thought of the sufferings of this man he had known so intimately, first as a merry little boy, then as a school-mate, and later as a grown-up colleague, suddenly struck Peter Ivanovich with horror, despite an unpleasant consciousness of his own and this woman’s dissimulation. He again saw that brow, and that nose, pressing down on the lip, and felt afraid for himself.
‘Three days of frightful suffering and then death! Why, that might suddenly, at any time, happen to me,’ he thought, and for a moment he felt terrified. But – he did not himself know how – the customary reflection at once occurred to him that this had happened to Ivan Ilyich and not to him, and that it should not and could not happen to him, and that to think that it could would be yielding to depression which he ought not to do, as Schwartz’s expression plainly showed. After which reflection Peter Ivanovich felt reassured, and began to ask with interest about the details of Ivan Ilyich’s death, as though death was an accident natural to Ivan Ilyich but certainly not to himself. (pp. 101-102)

A few phrases used to describe Ivan Ilyich’s life point up that, though Tolstoy’s disapproval might be general, it is also aimed at a specific class of Russian society. The story of his life is described as “most simple, most ordinary” (All quotes pp. 104 ff.) and adjectives like “easy and agreeable,” “correct,” “good breeding” are sprinkled though the text. He does his work comme il faut (There is an interesting comparison between Tolstoy’s use of comme il faut and Balzac’s. By living a life comme il faut, Tolsoy means doing everything by the rules, not making waves and getting ahead in a comfortable sort of way. By une femme comme il faut, Balzac means any non-working class or peasant woman who was not a kept woman or given to serial lovers, basically a faithful bourgeoise or aristocrat) and in fulfillment of his duty as defined by “those in authority.” His marriage was “considered the right thing” and his wife “thoroughly correct.” Ivan strives for “a decorous life approved by society.” Indeed Ivan is presented as having a lot of the traits saliently highlighted about Oblonsky and also Vronsky in Anna Karenina.

Ivan Ilyich’s life plan consists in wholehearted participation in the social framework of das Man. Ivan regards his duty in marriage as leading “a decorous life approved by society”. (p. 110) He decorates his new home with “all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class”. (p. 116) Indeed, his house ends up looking like “…what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves….” (Ibid) And, “…just as his drawing-room resembled all other drawing-rooms so did his enjoyable little parties resemble all other such parties.” (p. 118)

Even Ivan’s attitude toward death before his accident had been just like the attitudes of those friends and family from whom he is now so alienated.

The syllogism he had learned from Kiezewetter’s Logic: ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,’ had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others….I and all my friends felt that our case was quite different from that of Caius. (pp. 131-132)

As Ivan grows closer to death, Tolstoy’s descriptions of the indifference and self-concern of others begins to focus on Ivan’s family. “…the whole interest he had for other people was whether he would soon vacate his place, and at last release the living from the discomfort caused by his presence….” (pp. 134-135) But the family scenes also serve as a thematic transition. No longer is the narrative focus solely on the indifference of others, the unpleasantness of which reaches a kind of climax on the night the family attends the theatre without him. Rather, Tolstoy shifts his attention from an external description to a deeper penetration of the contents of Ivan’s mind. The indifference of other people brings Ivan to an understanding of and a sort of meditation about his solitude in his death.

After a description of how his wife and friends react to his pain and irritability without sympathy: “And he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him.” (p. 127) And later, Ivan ruminating: “ ‘And none of them know or wish to know it, and they have no pity for me….It’s all the same to them, but they will die too! Fools, I first and they later, but it will be the same for them.’” (p. 130) (Note the implication that we are all the same in our uniqueness in dying.) When his wife comes to his room, “ ‘She won’t understand,’ he thought….And in truth she did not understand.” (p. 131)

Ivan’s solitude is the reflection of the inability of his associates to understand the experience of his death (The misunderstanding according to Heidegger’s analysis consists in treating death as an inner-worldly event instead of the world-ending limit that death in fact is). Heidegger would develop his phenomenological description of other people’s attitudes toward a dying man by asserting that a person’s being towards death is his alone. It cannot be related to anything else. (Der Tod als Ende des Daseins ist die eigenste, unbezügliche….” p. 258) Tolstoy’s summation draws a similar conclusion:

…that loneliness in which he found himself as he lay facing the back of the sofa, a loneliness in the midst of a populous town and surrounded by numerous acquaintances and relations but that yet could not have been more complete anywhere – either at the bottom of the sea or under the earth….(p. 149)

There is much more, as we shall see, to Tolstoy’s death narrative than the depiction of the incomprehension of other people and the subsequent isolation of the dying individual. But it is worthwhile to take a closer look at this point at what Heidegger says and Tolstoy depicts.

The common or garden attitude to death is bad news as far as both Heidegger and Tolstoy are concerned. Tolstoy says hardly a word of disapprobation regarding these reactions to a colleague’s death (One might make a case for the use of “so-called”). The only rhetorical device Tolstoy employs to even hint that there may be a problem is that he does take the trouble to point out these reactions, and indeed to give them pride of place in the limited space of his short narrative. But, unless my intuitions are wrong, we are meant to regard them as unseemly. The reader is encouraged to view these men’s thoughts as inappropriate and indeed to view his own past actions in the same way if he ever behaved or thought in a like manner. Understood as straight social criticism, Tolstoy’s attitude avoids paradox. If his intent were to criticize a certain sort of person, a certain stratum of society or even everyone to the extent that everyone tends to react in the same way as Ivan’s colleagues, then an inner-worldly solution would suggest itself, i.e. some sort of death sensitivity training. But his criticism, as long as it is not explicitly stated, requires that we already understand what the appropriate reaction to someone else’s death should be, that we know beforehand that sympathy is better than self-interest. If Tolstoy meant something that we did not already understand, he would have had to have stated out loud that he disapproved. If, for example, Tolstoy thought it was unseemly that these men did not pat their heads and rub their stomachs when they heard of Ivan’s death, he would have had to actually say, “I think it is horrible that his colleagues did not pat their heads and rub their stomachs as soon as they heard the news.” Otherwise, the thought would never have occurred to us. As it is, Tolstoy must assume a general knowledge, or at least a knowledge on the part of any reader who wishes to understand his story, that the behavior he describes is inappropriate, and also a knowledge that there are alternative, more appropriate forms of behavior. Still the unsympathetic reactions of Ivan’s colleagues are not bad because they are universal. They are bad and they also happen to be universal. If, as a result of Tolstoy’s art, good attitudes were to become universal, there would be no paradox and no room for disapproval.

As long as Tolstoy sticks to a polemic against certain sorts of people or against certain inclinations in all or most people, he does not involve himself in philosophical difficulties - even though the actual description of Ivan’s aloneness as his death approaches may have been novel and not necessarily analogous to any generally held feeling or idea about death. It is meant to give us a new way of conceptualizing our instinctive fear of death and to give additional content to the appropriate sympathy we feel for the dying man. Still, sympathy and aloneness do not cohabit peacefully. Only Gerasim and Ivan’s son manage to pierce the titanium bound solitude of the individual.

Heidegger (who, like Tolstoy, does not come right out and say Alltäglichkeit is something he doesn’t like, but uses descriptive terms that are part of our thesaurus of disapproval) does involve himself in philosophical conundrums, however, and not much in Tolstoy’s novella can help him out of them. For his point is that the inappropriate behavior is constitutive of a structure of commonly held beliefs and attitudes. When “they” say, feel or do something, that something is bad because it is universal (viz. performed or felt in common) and it is universal because it is bad. You can’t have one without the other. But the very fact that we can understand that a certain type of behavior is inappropriate, the fact that we can understand that those Russian gentlemen’s Gerede abut Ivan’s death is unseemly, assumes that our appropriate sympathetic understanding is also commonly held. If we understand that Heidegger’s description of Alltäglichkeit implies disapproval, without his explicitly stating that it should, then, since our understanding arises from some thesaurus of commonly held beliefs and attitudes, our understanding is also part of Alltäglichkeit and so to be despised etc. Our intuitive knowledge that das Man is a real stinker is itself part of das Man. So I guess we’re all doomed to mediocrity any way you look at it.

The problems start if we accept that “anyone” would disapprove of Praskovya Fëderovna’s behavior, given Tolstoy’s description or Heidegger’s comment. If everybody disapproves of Praskovya Fëderovna (including, if she read the story, Praskovya herself), then isn’t this disapproval a phenomenon of das Man, since it is in fact a feeling that anyone would have? Isn’t it Gerede and a symptom of Alltäglichkeit? We need at the very least a clarifying disavowal of the connection if Gerede is what “one” believes. Indeed if Heidegger wants his philosophical description to be accepted by his reader, and if an essential characteristic of das Man is that he holds universally accepted opinions, then isn’t Heidegger actively promoting that his conclusions become a part of Gerede?

Tolstoy is in a similar position by writing his story, but he doesn’t get entangled in the paradoxes that bedevil Heidegger. For one surmises that Tolstoy is preaching and not philosophizing. He is looking for converts. It wouldn’t bother him at all if everybody (or at least every Russian) viewed Praskovya Fëderovna’s behavior in the same way he does and resolved to change their behavior accordingly. There is a sense in Tolstoy that those evils can be corrected by a sort of love for one’s fellow man (See below). But the concept of unassailable isolation in the experience of death is distinct from our disapproval of those who just cannot understand the dying man. The problem of communicating that isolation is not overcome by the reader simply subscribing to Tolstoy’s views. The novelist’s very omniscience that he communicates to the reader by symbolic and stylistic empathy, seems to belie what he is asserting in the descriptions of Ivan’s aloneness.

Heidegger is making a philosophical statement (i.e. a phenomenologically valid descriptive statement) apparently to the effect that something is wrong with a commonly held attitude, any commonly held attitude, even if that commonly held attitude results from an acceptance of his philosophical description of commonly held attitudes. There are two aspects to this. First, it is operationally self-defeating. If a claim is made that something believed by “everyone” is therefore despicable, then the more people who agree with that claim the closer it comes to being a despicable claim. If you substitute “false” for “despicable” you end up with something like an Eleatic paradox. Secondly, it is philosophical. That is, Heidegger aspires to a more stringent degree of provability than if he were, say, preaching to us from a street corner. So the philosophical, or even phenomenological demonstration of his analysis of the alltäglich attitude towards death requires more than our just nodding our heads in sage agreement. Some sort of proof is necessary to distinguish Heidegger’s writing from edifying discourse, though whatever proof he offers need not conform to existing models. (In later passages, Heidegger argues that the world-ending possibility of death cannot be grasped by normal conceptual thinking. He does avoid or try to avoid a different universalizing paradox with that assertion, but he does not address the operationally self-defeating paradox I just outlined. It does not do to defend oneself against the paradoxes that arise with universalizing assertions by just rejecting “logical thinking,” a temptation against which Heidegger was not entirely immune. For what goes under the label “logical thinking” is often no more than “making sense.” To simply reject out of hand without an answer valid objections to one’s philosophical position, is to risk turning one’s claims into something that nobody else can understand. If one were to aspire to some sort of different mode of communication, some sort of symbolic language, then perhaps one is not a philosopher at all, but a prophet (Interestingly, no less a univocalist than Locke falls into this position when we realize that the theory of ideas itself is the result of personal revelation).)

There are two aspects to Tolstoy’s story that are not covered in Heidegger’s note or in the analysis to which the note is appended. The first is that Ivan has a sort of revelation after his understanding of his death-bound solitude, and that revelation largely mitigates the anguish of dying and isolation. The revelation that occurs when Ivan touches his son’s head is religious in nature. He understands that he had not lived his life correctly, but that he can now rectify past wrongs by bringing no more pain to other people (He obviously doesn’t have a lot of time left to act on this resolve). Terms like “revelation” and “He whose understanding mattered” are borrowed from the vocabulary of religion. When he comes to his realization, Ivan sees a light at the end of the tunnel and he ceases to feel both his fear of death and the physical pains from his illness. “…there was no death,” Tolstoy asserts (p. 155) presumably because Ivan would soon be up in heaven playing his harp (To be fair, Tolstoy did not believe in an afterlife, nor in the historical truth of the Bible. The religious experience he depicts seems to be a revelation of the moral truths expressed in certain passages of the New Testament. Nevertheless the experience is a religious experience or very much like a religious experience.).

This sort of deathbed revelation was a specialty of Tolstoy’s. Vasili Andreeivich in Master and Man experiences the same sort of thing and moreover he is in a position to do something about it by saving the life of his retainer, Nikita. And, of course, Levin in Anna Karenina reaches conclusions similar to Ivan’s revelation through a sort of semi-rational meditation at least partly motivated by Anna’s suicide.

Heidegger did not propose any prescriptive solutions to the isolation attendant upon dying (at least in Sein und Zeit), which he in fact describes as an incontrovertible constitutive category of human existence (If isolation and anguish are constitutive, then one could conclude that there wasn’t much Ivan could have done about it). He doesn’t say, “Just be nice to other people and everything will be all right.” But he does borrow extensively from religious sources like Tolstoy and Kierkegaard, which leads many to believe that he would at least have been sympathetic to religious prescriptions.

An understanding of the second aspect requires some preparation. Elements from Freud’s conceptual scheme might help us. Freud argued that certain types of experience and behavior occurred or were performed for the purpose of inducing pleasure in the person having the experience or performing the behavior. The type of pleasure had to do with realizing some goal or indulging in some distinct experience whose realization or indulgence had at some time been denied to that person. These phenomena realize that person’s wish. Dreams, unintentional bits of waking behavior and witticisms and humor are or are related to wish fulfillment. Freud tends to exempt literature (Gradiva) but not visual art (Leonardo) from those activities motivated by wish fulfillment or symptomatic of a wish denied. However, certain works of literature exhibit characteristics that are notably similar to the wish fulfillment character of dreams, for example. In some genres such as the lyric and the ode, the mechanism of the wish fulfillment and the identity of the wish are so overt that the criterion Freud applies to dreams etc. is not met – the criterion that the wish be repressed and therefore not consciously expressed. But some works, especially from the late 19th century, do meet this criterion and so could be called an exercise in wish fulfillment analogous to the dreaming of the dreamer.

Based on an inductive generalization from observations of his patients, Freud maintained that all dreams had a common element, viz. that the core wish was sexual in nature and that it related to the attainment of some pleasure forbidden since childhood. However, Freud may not have made the same generalization about witticisms and dirty jokes in which the forbidden pleasure was much more contemporaneous to the participants. So, on this basis, it is possible to employ elements of the mechanism of wish fulfillment in analyzing a work of literature without thereby necessarily asserting (or denying) that all literature is wish fulfillment or that the hidden wish behind every work of literature involves a childhood sexual fantasy.

Writers whose work functioned at least partly as wish fulfillment seemed to place in their work a quasi-anagrammatic code of symbols, allusions and equivocal scenes and events as if to challenge the reader to tease out their meaning. Tolstoy employed this technique, particularly in his later stories. The wish he felt but would not express was a homosexual fantasy. To see this, we need to locate and translate the elements of the anagram.

The key scene in Tolstoy’s homosexual subtext is the relief Ivan obtains from placing his ankles on the shoulders of the young servant, Gerasim, and the central symbol in the fantasy is the image of Ivan feeling pleasure in this otherwise awkward position. The scene begins (pp. 136 ff.) with Ivan asking Gerasim to raise his legs and place them on a chair because “It is easier for me when my feet are raised.” But it turns out that no inanimate support can lift Ivan’s legs high enough. In fact the crucial factor in providing Ivan comfort is not how high his legs are raised but the fact that Gerasim is supporting the ankles. “It seemed to Ivan Ilyich that he felt better while Gerasim was holding up his legs…. in that position he did not feel any pain at all.” The leg holding ritual became habitual. “After that Ivan Ilyich would sometimes call Gerasim and get him to hold his legs on his shoulders, and he liked talking to him.” Gerasim’s support turns into an emotional relationship and it lasts the entire night. “He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position. Only Gerasim recognized it and pitied him. And so Ivan Ilyich felt at ease with him. He felt comforted when Gerasim supported his legs (sometimes all night long) and refused to go to bed….” It is interesting that Gerasim is an exception to the general inability of other people to understand the experience of Ivan’s dying. His role in the story parallels that of Ivan’s son. The two characters might be a split rendition of a single fantasy character in a sort of centrifugal version of Galton-style merging. The leg lifting sequence concludes with a scene where Ivan sends his wife away so that he can remain alone with Gerasim.

The arrangement of an individual lying on his back while his legs are supported on the shoulders of another is awkward in itself (One would think some sort of inanimate contraption could have been devised to maintain Ivan’s ankles at the proper height. Obviously Gerasim’s presence is at least partially responsible for Ivan’s comfort) and awkward in its narrative function. The situation is clarified when we understand that the two men are in a coital position. Gerasim is playing the male role and Ivan, on his back, the female role. The sexual nature of the arrangement is such that the following cartoon would be incomprehensible without our understanding that the position is indeed coital:

tolstoy0001 (1)

Perhaps the position is also conducive to anal penetration such as might be favored in male-male fucking. Tolstoy associates the arrangement with anal satisfaction by introducing the leg-lifting scene with a description of how Gerasim helps Ivan defacate (p. 135. Tolstoy calls Ivan’s shit “the things”).

The central symbol in Tolstoy’s underlying fantasy is an anal erotic coupling. Tolstoy leaves a trail of hints that this is undoubtedly homosexual eroticism. The first is the sexual enthusiasm with which he describes Gerasim’s face and physique. He is described as a  “Clean fresh peasant lad” with  “strong bare young arms,” the “first downy signs of a beard” and “glistening white teeth.” Compare this with the descriptions of Praskovya Fëderova, Ivan’s official love partner, that go from that go from “…a sweet, pretty and thoroughly correct young woman….” (p. 109) and “…the most attractive, clever and brilliant girl of the set in which he moves….” (p. 108) to “…a short, fat woman who despite all efforts to the contrary had continued to broaden steadily from the shoulders downwards….” (p. 99) “His marriage, a mere accident, then the disenchantment that followed it, his wife’s bad breath and sensuality and hypocrisy….” (p.148)

Indeed Tolstoy’s misogyny, which gets pretty much out of control in later works such as The Kreutzer Sonata, and burbles along as a subtext as early as Anna Karenina, where Tolstoy appears to take sadistic pleasure in the breakdown and eventual physical destruction of Anna, as well as his autobiographical hostility toward his wife, is also a displacement of the underlying homosexual desire (Misogyny, as had already been popularized by Schopenhauer and Strindberg, was not always associated with homosexual wish fulfillment. Tolstoy put the popular theme to that use). The bad behavior and physical repulsiveness of women contrasts with yearning though offhand remarks about handsome men (Tolstoy demonstrates a high degree of enthusiasm for the buttocks of Vronsky and his comrades in their tight uniforms). Just as Levin’s conversion mirrors Ivan’s revelation, so the hostility to Anna mirrors the hostility to Praskovya Fëderovna. The significant difference between the early and the later works is the presence in early texts of positive female figures like Kitty. But even these women represent a conscious wish fulfillment for a successful spouse and marriage (Masha in Family Happiness may also symbolize a fantasy of sexual relations with a daughter.)

Another occasion Tolstoy uses to transfer his perhaps unconscious homosexual fantasy into a substitute image is the narrative surrounding Ivan’s decoration of the family’s new house. Ivan assumes the female role in appropriating a task normally undertaken by the wife. His wife and daughter are reduced to the role of admiring spectators once the decorating has been finished. Moreover, the critical scene of Ivan’s fatal accident while decorating now assumes additional meaning when viewed as a symbol of sexual penetration. And, because it occurs during the female activity of decorating, it can be regarded as homosexual penetration. (One could go a step further and opine that the “queer taste” in Ivan’s mouth after the accident has overtones of fellatio.) The significance of the accident with the window knob as both the physical cause of Ivan’s death and a symbol or substitute of homosexual penetration provides a point of contact between the explicit (isolation in death) and latent (homosexual fantasy) content of Tolstoy’s story. Freud quite often points out that neurotics exhibit a surprising intensity in their symptoms, which on the surface are occasioned by trivial occurrences. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, however, such a disproportionate reaction is unnecessary. The strength of the emotions surrounding death are more than a match for the very powerful sexual drive and the repressed fantasies occasioned by the sexual drive. The intensity of Ivan’s emotions could only be credible with a credible motive, and of course the fear of death is a credible motive. But the fear of death is at the same time a substitute “symptom” masking a perhaps equally powerful sexual impulse.

Once the homosexual subtext in The Death of Ivan Ilyich is recognized, an otherwise mysterious passage in Tolstoy’s description of Ivan’s school days is perfectly clear:

At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them. (p. 105)

Tolstoy takes trouble to establish that the horrid things were not extramarital heterosexual sex or sex with prostitutes because he records Ivan’s engagement in that kind of sex without circumlocution (p. 106). The alternative that suggests itself most directly is homosexual sex.

Another scene with notable homosexual symbolism occurs in Master and Man. Just as in The Death of Ivan Ilyich the hero of the story assumes a fantasy coital position with another man. This time Tolstoy depicts an easily recognizable missionary position, lingering over the description of the contact of the two bodies.

…he hurriedly undid his girdle, opened out his fur coat, and having pushed Nikita down, lay down on top of him, covering him not only with his fur coat but with the whole of his body, which glowed with warmth. After pushing the skirts of his coat between Nikita and the sides of the sledge, and holding down its hem with his knees, Vasili Andreevich lay like that face down, with his head pressed against the front of the sledge. Here he no longer heard the horse’s movements or the whistling of the wind, but only Nikita’s breathing.
…tears came to his eyes and his lower jaw began to quiver rapidly….(His) weakness was not only not unpleasant, but gave him a peculiar joy such as he had never felt before….He remained silent and lay like that for a long time….he could not bring himself to leave Nikita and disturb even for a moment the joyous condition he was in. (pp. 288-289)


As with Ivan Ilyich, the sexual imagery merges with religious imagery, and, as with the other story, the identification of the two sorts of experience follows a pattern Freud diagnosed in his treatment of neurosis and his analysis of dreams. The religious tone is an overlay and a disguise for Tolstoy’s repressed and inadmissible homoerotic fantasy. But equally the association of sexual desire and activity with the fear and experience of death overdetermines the significance of the scene. Vasili Andreevich’s act embodies both sexuality and, to use a Heideggerian phrase, Sein zum Tode, and it is a phenomenon not unworthy of examination that these two equally strong states of mind could so merge as to be expressed by one image:

Then suddenly his joy was completed. He whom he was expecting came….it was he whom he had been waiting for. He came and called him; and it was he who had called him and told him to lie down on Nikita. And Vasili Andreevich was glad that one had come for him. ‘I’m coming!’ he cried joyfully, and that cry awoke him, but woke him up not at all the same person he had been when he fell asleep. He tried to get up but could not, tried to move his arm and could not, to move his leg and also could not, to turn his head and could not….He understood that this was death….and it seemed to him that he was Nikita and Nikita was he, and that his life was not in himself but in Nikita….And again he heard the voice of the one who had called him before. ‘I’m coming! Coming!’ he responded gladly, and his whole being was filled with joyful emotion….After that Vasili Andreevich neither saw, heard, nor felt anything more in this world. (pp. 290-291)

It is worth noting that the conclusion of Master and Man echoes the rather bizarre conclusion of Flaubert’s La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier, published nine years earlier and which Tolstoy had very likely read. While clearly homoerotic, Flaubert’s tale does not exhibit the same kind of overt fulfillment of a repressed wish as Tolstoy’s. While Tolstoy adapts Flaubert’s brilliant synthesis of physical revulsion (the drunken peasant is a somewhat milder version of Flaubert’s scrofulous vagrant) and sexual/religious ecstasy, his concerns are different. Julien’s taste for unrestrained bloodletting is punished in the accidental murder of his parents that leads to his attempt at expiation as a ferryman. This story has the indeterminacy of a genuine fairy tale and it is capped by the joyful blasphemy of Julien’s sex scene with Jesus. And both tales stir distant recollections of the hilarious lesbian seduction scene from Diderot’s La Religieuse.

It is the overdetermination in Tolstoy’s literary imagery that provides a point of contact between Heidegger’s philosophy, wherein no mention is made of sexual matters or of anything relating to the pleasure principle, and the findings of Freud (and indeed the mechanistic, pleasure-based psychology of Descartes). In spite of their temporal and geographical proximity both Freud and Heidegger wrote as if the other didn’t exist. Indeed Heidegger’s entire conceptual structure is remarkably sexless. But Freud’s complex psychology does admit that the drives relating to sexuality and the drives and emotions relating to dying somehow work in tandem. Where you find the one the other is somewhere lurking. Freudian concepts such as overdetermination and Verdichtung help us understand how contrasting emotions can interact. Since Heidegger was more directly inspired by Tolstoy (and writers with similar concerns, like Kierkegaard), the sexual element in Tolstoy’s work might help a bit in understanding whether sexuality plays any role in Heidegger’s existential phenomenology.

The basic idea we can pick up from Freud is that works of literature can function analogously to the symptoms of hysteria. That is they create a means of acting out through symbolic representation a disturbance, which, in the hysteric’s case, is the cause of his illness. Viewed this way, at least some works of literature are symptoms and not the original fantasy. The important difference is that they show signs of the original fantasy having been repressed and so turn to techniques of disguise and displacement to allow the individual to relive his fantasy without trauma. In an essay entitled Hysterische Phantasien und Ihre Beziehung zur Bisexualität that is relevant not only because of its reference to bisexuality but also because it appeared at a time (1908) when he was beginning to focus on literature as a sort of fantasy, Freud proposes a number of formulas for the identification of symptoms of hysteria. The Death of Ivan Ilyich exemplifies at the very least three of those formulas (The others mostly have to do with childhood experiences not expressed in the story). Formula 4 states that the hysterical symptom is the realization of one of the unconscious fantasies that serve to fulfill a wish. Formula 7 states that the hysterical symptom functions as a compromise between the drive to express and the opposing drive to repress a sexual fantasy. Formula 9 states that a significant number if not all underlying fantasies are combinations of heterosexual and homosexual desires.

Conformity to these formulas suggests that Tolstoy at some point in his life began to experience homoerotic desires (Nothing, or almost nothing, in Tolstoy’s biography betrays much interest in actual homosexual encounters. A little anecdotal evidence can be found in Wilson, pp.86, 87, 89, 91, 131, 197, 345, 353 and 494. At a conscious level Tolstoy defended his infatuations as Platonic and asserted that they were unrelated to “coitus.”). Because those desires were forbidden both in Tolstoy’s mind and by the society he lived in, he repressed them. Repressed desires do not just go away, however, and literature became a means of surreptitiously reliving a homosexual fantasy. Fantasies of fucking male servants were sufficiently distorted such that they appeared to arise from other causes. Likewise the physical contact with the male was innocently generated by events in a way that gave it a sort of natural necessity and made it incidental to the overt action. Ivan needed Gerasim between his legs to relieve his pain, but in the narrative he obviously did not become ill so that he could touch Gerasim’s penis with his butt hole. Vasili Andreevich needed to save Nikita’s life and that was why in the story he embraced the servant.

There are three other elements that Tolstoy brings together in these stories with the theme of homoerotic coupling. They are religion or religious experience, death or the fear of death, and the isolation of the individual. Freud deals with the first two and also obviously with sexuality. Heidegger deals extensively in Sein und Zeit with the latter two and does not mention sexuality of any kind.

During the same period around 1908 that Freud began to turn to literature, he also saw associations between strong religious experiences and strong sexual feelings. Ultimately he found them to be the same emotion. An entertaining example of the identity appears in his essay on Jensen’s Gradiva (Der Wahn und die Träume in W. Jensen’s ‘Gradiva’), where he describes an etching by Félicien Rops that depicts a monk in ecstasy before a crucifixion image replacing Jesus with a sexy nude woman:

Freud Rops 2 (1)

Cf. also:

Freud Rops 1 (1)

(I might add that Spanish truck drivers to this day display nude pinups alongside pictures of the Virgin Mary in their cabs.)

Religious behavior is in fact a manifestation of the same psychological complex that exhibits itself as compulsion neurosis. So our overall conceptual scheme includes the following: Repression of sexual feelings is the originating event. Fantasy, sometimes allied with other neurotic symptoms is a manifestation of this sexual feeling trying to break through. Literature acts as a kind of fantasy; religious behavior is a form of neurosis. Thus it is no surprise that Tolstoy should choose to disguise his homosexual fantasy as a religious revelation. The sexual element also contributes to the intensity of the feeling of Tolstoy’s characters when they experience their spiritual conversion. The spirituality is a veil; the substance is the homoeroticism.

Just as religious emotions have their source in sexual emotions (They are a perversion of the original sexual feeling), so repressed homoerotic desires are a source of neurosis. They can also be sublimated and find expression in “higher” cultural products, such as works of literature. Freud said it best:

Die für die Kulturarbeit verwertbaren Kräfte werden so zum grossen Teile durch die Unterdrückung der sogenannt perversen Anteile der Sexualerregung gewonnen….Die Konstitution der von der Inversion Betroffenen, der Homosexuellen, zeichnet sich sogar häufig durch eine besondere Eignung des Sexualtriebes zu kulturellen Sublimieurung aus. (Die kulturelle Sexualmoral und die moderne Nervosität, VII pp. 151 and 152-153)

The final element in Tolstoy’s story is death, the fear of death and the individual’s isolation as made evident to him when he dies. Heidegger relates that fear to the isolation constitutive (in Heidegger’s view) of human existence.  Fear of death is a powerful and genuine emotion on its own, perhaps one of the few emotions strong enough to serve as a disguise for the turbulent emotions surrounding the re-emergence of a shame-filled and repressed sexual drive. It is obviously not the only emotion Tolstoy used as an ersatz. Misogyny in The Kreutzer Sonata and obsessive greed in Master and Man may have played a similar substitutive role. But the peculiar appropriateness of Ivan’s fear of death as an ersatz seems to show something more about both emotions. We feel that there is a sexual element in our fear of death. Equally there seems to be an intimation of death in sexual desire or the repression of sexual desire. The intimation of involvement between sexuality and death is manifested in the term frequently used by both Freud and Heidegger, not “fear” or “Furcht,” but “Angst” or “anxiety,” a term both define as objectless fear or fear of nothing. It is not entirely appropriate to observe that Freud and Heidegger might not mean the same thing by “anxiety,” since both (Heidegger rather more than Freud) are given to personalized definitions of the terms they use. For not only do they use the same term, they define it in the same way (Note that Freud, VII pp. 261 ff., defines anxiety as objectless fear, which, without the logical sleight of hand, is tantamount to Heidegger’s fear of nothing. This shouldn’t be a surprise since objectless fear is pretty much the common language meaning of anxiety.). Moreover, the choice of a term from common usage implies that the way the term is commonly understood has some bearing on what they mean, however specialized their uses may be. If not, he would have to invent a complete neologism. When Heidegger chooses a common language term for specialized use, he must intend to anchor our understanding of his use in our understanding of the common language term. The philosophical use he makes of “anxiety” must be related to what we recognize as personal feelings of anxiety or as symptoms of anxiety in others.

Heidegger’s philosophical treatment gives anxiety a sort of categorical status. Just as human existence is at least partly defined as completely particularized, utterly divorced from commonality with others, so anxiety is an emotional understanding on the part of the isolated individual of this sort of isolation, which makes him human. An individual’s death is also related to his isolation because no one can die someone else’s death. Using a kind of metaphysical wordplay, Heidegger makes anxiety the link between isolation and death. The anxiety the individual feels and which is a manifestation of his individuality, is in fact a fear of his death. The wordplay enters in because his death is the nothingness of the individual. So when he fears death he fears his non-existence. Since the world outside the individual has a sort of relation of dependence on the individual, the non-existence of the individual implies a generalized kind of nothingness. For this reason the fear of death is the fear of nothing or anxiety. So anxiety is equally a manifestation of the insurmountable particularity of the individual. The justification of Heidegger’s categorical description is not an issue here, although his citation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich is meant to work as a kind of argument in its favor. If you understand (emotionally) Ivan’s feelings about death, you also understand on a more conceptual level Heidegger’s categorical scheme.

That anxiety should in fact and perhaps also categorically express sexual feelings is an idea Heidegger never discusses, although Freud’s theories were practically part of the intellectual canon by the time (1928) of the publication of Sein und Zeit. (A perverse imp might opine that Heidegger tried to “rescue” anxiety from the clutches of sexuality; if so, he failed miserably.)  But Freud’s findings about anxiety, and particularly about anxiety dreams or fantasies, fills in the psychological  (if not categorical) picture of this emotion. In his essay on Gradiva Freud asserts the lineage between anxiety and sexual feelings in anxiety dreams:

Die Angst des Angsttraumes entspreche einem sexuelle Affekt, einer libidinösen Empfindung, wie überhaupt jede nervöse Angst, und sei durch den Prozess der Verdrängung aus der Libido hervorgegangen. (VII, p.87)

Anxiety in a dream and in a neurosis is the emotional manifestation of repressed erotic feelings. Freud makes this point in numerous loci; the particular value of this passage is that it comes in the context of the interpretation of a novella, a work of literature. In this case Freud concentrates on the anxiety dreams of a character within the story, treating, interestingly enough, the story itself not as a work of fantasy and so symptomatic of Jensen’s psyche, but as something more equivalent to a psychoanalytic case study, where another character, Zoe, plays the role of the psychoanalyst. But in several other passages he views literary works as often on the same footing as day dreams, dreams and other fantasies in that they all involve wish fulfillment on the part of the creator of the fantasy. Equally one might opine that, just as there are anxiety dreams, much literature could also be viewed as anxiety fantasy.

The anxiety in an anxiety dream, according to Freud, is not the real emotion. Rather it is the substitute manifestation of another negative emotion felt at the resurgence of a strongly felt sexual desire. This throws light on The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan’s (and Tolstoy’s) explicit symptom is anxiety over the imminence of Ivan’s death. However, for Tolstoy the author this story is a fantasy and his anxiety masks his revulsion against the re-emergence of his homoerotic feelings. Clues as to the presence of those feelings are strewn throughout the story, as I showed earlier. The death anxiety serves to lead the reader (and the author) astray and at least partially distort the true nature of his strong emotions.

Die so entstandene Angst übe nun – nicht regelmässig aber häufig – einen auswählenden Einfluss au den Trauminhalt aus and bringe Vorstellungselemente in den Traum, welche für die bewusste und misverständliche Auffassung des Traumes zum Angstaffekt passend ercheinen. (VII, p. 88)

The subjunctivity of the passage marks a caution that Freud does not really feel. Fantasy anxiety is not real anxiety but a distortion of other equally powerful negative feelings like shame and disgust. The value of the overt understanding of Tolstoy’s story, such as Heidegger prizes, puts some breaks on a strong Freudian analysis of Tolstoy’s fantasy. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is most likely multivalent. It is about death anxiety and it is about anxiety in the face of sexual repression. But the resolution of Ivan’s death anxiety in a religious vision is at the same time a resolution of Tolstoy’s sexual repression in the symbolic fucking of Gerasim.

One other point should be made about the fear of death and its relation to religious belief. That fear is so strong that it can compel us to assert an obvious untruth, namely that we do not really die. Religion is an imaginary product of the fear of death. Freud would eventually develop that theme at length and he already had notions along these lines in his early psychoanalytic writings:

Ja selbst der nüchtern und ungläubig Gewordene mag mit Beschämung wahrnehmen, wie leicht er sich für einen Moment zum Geister glauben zurückwendet, wenn Ergriffenheit und Ratlosigkeit bei ihm zusammentreffen. (VII, p. 99)

It is amusing to note that, in arguing that religion is one of the (unsatisfactory because we are obliged to sacrifice our desires to various Gods) cultural constructs that results from a sublimation of repressed sexual desires, Freud quotes exactly the same Biblical passage that Tolstoy makes the epigraph of Anna Karenina: Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. (VII p. 139)

By illustrating or exemplifying so many of the issues raised by Freud and Heidegger, Tolstoy’s story provides a point of contact between the two most important psychological theories of the last century. Behaviorism and physicalism are not, strictly speaking, theories, but rather frameworks for theories or conditions on theories. There are, of course, psychological theories that satisfy behaviorist or physicalist conditions. Likewise, Heidegger considers his concepts in Sein und Zeit not as constitutive of a psychological theory, but rather as a categorical, or rather category-like (existential) structure for the phenomenon of human existence. He may be justified in that he proposes his existentials in the context of a conceptualization of human existence that is decidedly not physicalist, but his claim is ambitious to say the least. In order to demonstrate that the existentials and ancillary concepts proposed in Sein und Zeit are indeed similar to what we have come to recognize as categories, one would think that he would have to show some sort of conceptual or concept-like dependence of psychological theories, like Freud’s, on the existentials. This would have to be shown as long as a theory like Freud’s were a properly psychological theory even if it turned out to be invalid. The relations commonly accepted between physical concepts and, for example, Aristotelian categories are subsumption or presupposition. It is, nevertheless, interesting that the same imaginary cum real event (Ivan’s death and Tolstoy’s fantasy about Ivan’s death) can illustrate both Freud’s psychological theory and Heidegger’s philosophical categorization. Heidegger might regard the sexual valence of Tolstoy’s fantasy as a matter of fact (faktisch) and not on a level of metaphysical universality (Unlike isolation without which there is no human existence; take away the sexual valence, Heidegger might argue, and there is still human existence). However, one element of the appeal of Sein und Zeit is how it ties together apparent matters of fact with concepts similar to logical concepts in that they aspire to the same sort of universality as the Aristotelian categories. In this respect Gerede is quite similar to sexual repression in that neither is endowed with the sort of universality claimed for the existentials (Although Heidegger tries to tie the sort of Gerede exhibited by Ivan’s friends to the ostensible philosophical misinterpretation of human existence as exhaustively describable as extended matter).

The final point has to do with the status of Freud’s interpretations. Of course, they provide a degree of illumination about the psychological mechanism involved in much art and literature. In one sense, however, his is not really an understanding coming from the outside towards the literature of his time. Rather, he and his contemporaries seem to be saying the same thing. Freud does not so much understand Tolstoy’s story (metalinguistically, so to speak) as assert in his scientific language precisely what Tolstoy, consciously or unconsciously, was expressing symbolically. Jensen was not a patient, but a co-researcher; and, if Freud had produced the above analysis of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the same could be said about Tolstoy. At least as far as his contemporaries are concerned there is no distinction of levels. Perhaps Freud was expressing as objective psychoanalytic theory, insights about the self and about family history that many writers at his time also came to understand. One might suggest that Freud’s theories do not really constitute an understanding from an external standpoint of literary works so close to him in time and culture. Rather his literary peers were in a way making the same point as he was, as is evidenced by the obviousness of their symbolism (Melville much more explicitly than Tolstoy; but Melville had fewer qualms about his homosexuality). Thus Freud wrote within a cultural period that understood at some semi-conscious level the workings of fantasy symbolism and the sexual element in fantasy almost as well as he did (Significantly, this type of self-symbolism enters into Western literature at about the time the author assumes a role as a kind of character in the work). In fact one might opine that his insights were sparked partly by the revelation of this literature (It is an error to deny that at least some literary works can intentionally make assertions and arguments (in their own way, usually by the techniques of illustration, exemplification and sympathetic understanding) just like non-fiction). It is an open question whether the neurotic symptoms Freud diagnoses are specific to a certain cultural period, and, more profoundly, whether the structure and system of the mind is changed by the very fact of understanding Freud’s discoveries. It may be that the structure of the repression of sexual desires and the mechanism by which those desires were expressed symbolically in literature, dreams and daily life, changed once the culture became explicitly aware of Freud’s theories.

These observations may help explain why psychoanalytic analyses of literary works can have a flattening effect (“Is that all that it’s about”). Once the moment of insight has passed and the mind has absorbed Freud’s analysis, that mind changes. At the same time one cannot help feeling that writers contemporaneous to Freud had semi intentionally inserted the meaningful symbols in their work. Indeed psychoanalytic interpretations do not work nearly so well for artists and writers more distant in time, such as Leonardo and Shakespeare, simply because a different structure of the mind at those times makes all psychologizing interpretations inappropriate.

One consequence is that Freud does not enjoy the position of external observer in the same way that a physicist, on a macro level at least, is the external observer of physical phenomena. Or it may be that psychoanalytic theory, like Newtonian and even relativistic mechanics with respect to the physical world, might mistakenly view the psychic universe as static, where mechanisms like repression do not have ongoing phylogenetic histories. This is worth reflecting on; it might help us understand how there can be such a thing as an objective psychological theory.

There is another Tolstoyan theme, highlighted in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, that was much shared by writers and artists of his time, namely the theme of the isolated individual. Although a version of this idea was developed during the Renaissance, it reappeared with special profundity and concern in the culture largely indebted to Rousseau. The concept that the individual was an object of unique concern led not only to a revival of confessional literature but turned almost all literature at the time into disguised confession or autobiographical obsession. Examples include not only Tolstoy, but Wordsworth, Whitman, Rimbaud, Melville and even on occasion Flaubert and Dickens. The list could go on and on. Nietzsche’s (Renaissance inspired) confessional grandiosity is a much more complex case; it is in fact a parody of self-obsession in literature. The moral and political implications of the unique position of the isolated individual were drawn by, among others, Emerson, Kierkegaard and Stirner. The exemplary insanities of the 19th century (Van Gogh, Hölderlin, Nietzsche) represented an acting out of the theme of isolation that in literature was represented on a level of fantasy. This list also could go on and on. What should be remarked is not that Tolstoy’s contemporaries and predecessors mined this artistic theme or mental perspective, but that it is not a concern of all art or philosophy. The 19th century, so to speak, invented it.

One of the conclusions drawn from the special status of the isolated individual was that there was something wrong with established nations and their cultures. Many felt the need for different sorts of communities. At an extreme, one could conclude that there was no such thing as an acceptable society. Unlike the theme of the isolated individual, utopian communitarianism was not novel to the 19th century; it dates back at least to the Reformation (Hill). But its association with artists and writers was, on the whole, novel. It is worth remarking that radical individualism can be subject to a sort of operational self-contradiction reflected in the self-contradictory statement, “All men are unique.” Insistence on this operational self-contradiction was to be a center piece of Sartre’s philosophy (unsatisfactorily resolved in the commitment to some sort of engagement, presumably in the Communist party). The dialectic of uniqueness observes that the artist in revolt is just like all the other artists in revolt. But not all artists in revolt did so because they believed themselves to be or aspired to be completely unlike everyone else, including other artists in revolt. In a way the constitution of a Bohemia does not fall prey to this dialectic because the aim of the Bohemian is not to be unique but to establish a different form of society as an alternative to bourgeois society. At one level Heidegger may also not fall into this dialectic, the level where his concept of uniqueness permits sameness in virtue of uniqueness. This is similar to the problem of numerical identity. Every point in space is the same as every other point in that it is a point. Still it is numerically and geometrically distinct from other points, so the identity is not complete. In the same way the identity of unique individuals is not total, it is only partial in that they all possess the quality of uniqueness.

The unique individual is, of course, the Heideggerian theme. Freud largely ignores this concept, understandably so since it does not fit well with his ambition to provide an objective theory of the mind, a theory whose very universality asserts that in the relevant respects all people are the same and not subject to any sort unqualified uniqueness. Freud, of course, subscribed to the other pole of 19th century culture, roughly speaking the positivistic pole, the view that all phenomena, including mental phenomena, could be treated in the same way that physics had successfully treated force and mass and associated physical phenomena, namely through measurement and the discovery of lawlike regularities. No matter that Freud did not subscribe to the physicalist reduction of mental activities and dispositions. Psychoanalysis is based on the ambition to devise an objective model for the structure of mind and its thoughts, actions and dispositions. Since Freud ignored his contemporaries’ assertion of individual uniqueness (while clearly recognizing their other theme of distorted symbolic representation of repressed sexual wishes), did he miss something? Does that mean there is something lacking or just wrong in the psychoanalytic theory of mind? In a wider sense, are we forced to choose between accepting the radical uniqueness of the individual and the possibility of an objective science of the human mind? Very possibly this last question may be an irresolvable antinomy. What is significant may be that there emerged in the 19th century a conceptual structure that was defined by the two poles of individualism and positivism. The interest may lie in understanding that conceptual structure rather than deciding between the two “camps.”

Looking at this story from a somewhat different angle, however, we find that Tolstoy is expressing an important sentiment beyond the apparent and superficial misogyny and the description of a somewhat belated revelation of irreducible human individuality on the occasion of dying. For Ivan is thrown (to use a Heideggerian turn of phrase) into a situation not of his own making and, on the occasion of his fatal illness, he saw in its true colors as an ugly and largely arbitrary affair, namely the bourgeois family, or, to be fair to the bourgeoisie, any family since all family structures represent repulsive and primitive practices. The family was not an inevitable or even particularly beneficial life choice for Ivan. Rather he looks up one day and finds himself saddled with this group of uninspiring strangers, all other opportunities for a different life closed off and all he illusions of some sort of special communion between family members shorn away. Tolstoy chronicles in his history of Ivan’s early life how he happened to get thrown into his particular mess by the creeping and insidious effect of social expectations that Ivan had unbeknownst fully internalized (He did after all decide on his own that it would be something of a lark to get married and that Praskovya Fëderovna seemed as good a candidate as any for a breeding partner). Tolstoy was not alone in his insight. Samuel Butler, for one, engaged in a searching examination of the harm done to the child by the family institution – a situation into which his hero was thrown with little opportunity for personal choice. And Gauguin’s exemplary rejection of his family and embrace of the opprobrium that rejection entailed was at least as important a moral exemplar as the various exemplary insanities that have done so much to entertain us. Nor was Ivan in any way special or particularly gifted. He was certainly not artistically inclined. His defining quality seemed to be an easygoing ability to get along and to perform his duties without causing a ruckus - a personality perfectly suited for achieving the young Ivan’s superego driven goal of financial comfort within his own class. The other members of Ivan’s family could very well have come to the same realization abut their respective situations, even the cow-like Praskovya Fëderovna, in which case Ivan himself would assume the role of horrible exemplar of das Man. What Tolstoy and Heidegger have observed is that there is something particularly effective about the experience of dying that shows the unfortunate and arbitrary institution of the family for what it is.

Tolstoy’s capacity for insight is not unrelated to his homosexuality. Homosexuals seem to enjoy a privileged perspective from which to observe the evil effects of primitive institutions like the family. We need only think of Genet, Rimbaud, Burroughs, not to mention many of the 17th century libertins, to identify superlative examples of homosexual socially critical literature. I think there is a plausible explanation for this. Proponents of practices like family formation almost without exception condemn homosexual sex (and indeed any sex not solely for the purpose of breeding). That part of the homosexual’s personality that feels itself under attack is empowered to regard objectively and from the outside the institution in the name of which his natural inclinations are condemned. He no longer regards the family as natural and appropriate. He recognizes it as arbitrary and so he can identify its faults, which are obviously legion. As a consequence it is not surprising that Tolstoy’s bleak picture of the family group should be intertwined with the expression of his homosexual longings. By way of aside, I think there is also a plausible explanation for the apparent pre-eminence of homosexuals in the arts and sciences. It is not, for one thing, entirely clear that homosexuals do show prominence in the arts and sciences in greater numbers than their actual percentage of the population as a whole. And the idea that homosexuality might somehow be tied to greater intelligence or creative powers, while not obviously wrong, lacks a clear causal narrative and so causes us to favor alternative explanations. Until biological reasons are discovered that favor homosexuals’ mental capacities, simple common sense explanations will continue to appear much more likely. For example, homosexuals are not burdened by the emotional and time demands of breeding and so they can devote more time to the pursuit of cultural and other activities. Those non-homosexuals who rejected family participation (Descartes and Mondrian come to mind) also profited from their greater amount of free time. It would be interesting to see what the effects would be if some homosexuals were granted their wish and allowed to form pseudo families.

Note: I don’t read Russian and I’ll be the first to admit that some of what I have to say above depends on the meaning of an English word or phrase. If the Russian has been misrepresented, then my essay is not about Tolstoy at all but about Aylmer Maude et al.