28 April 2010

Gerasims & Lions: Tolstoy & the Prologue


A recent comment by the Ochlophobist on this post at Ora et Labora suggested the idea of a few of us Orthodox bloggers concurrently reading the new rendition of War & Peace by my favourite translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Incidentally, I would like to invite any interested readers to join us. The plan is to begin reading the book the first week of May. We’ll work on ideas for how to go about facilitating discussion soon.)

As a first step in actually carrying out the plan, I went last week to Oklahoma City’s only locally owned new bookstore, Full Circle, to purchase the volume. Well, sitting right next to it was a hardcover volume in a beautiful dust-jacket of the same translators’ rendition of The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other [late] Stories. Naturally, I could not resist the temptation, and particularly since I was due to reread ‘Death of Ivan Ilyich’ in time for my tutoring session last Friday.

Which brings me to the main subject of this post. In the middle of my tutorial on Friday, I was discussing a passage of ‘Ivan Ilyich’ with my pupil that makes reference to Ivan Ilyich’s servant, Gerasim. Ivan is, of course, in terrible pain from an ultimately fatal illness, and Gerasim seems to be the only person who understands and wants to help alleviate his pain. Ivan often asks him to sit where he can place his feet on Gerasim’s shoulders, which affords him a little relief. Ultimately, it is his exposure to Gerasim that convinces Ivan that he has lived his life all wrong:

His moral sufferings consisted in the fact that, looking at Gerasim's sleepy, good-natured, high-cheekboned face that night, it had suddenly occurred to him: And what if my whole life, my conscious life, has indeed been ‘not right’? [1]

While discussing this passage, I realised incidentally that my pupil might not be aware of Russian naming conventions, and I began to explain that in the Orthodox Church, the first names are always those of Saints. I even noted in a general way that occasionally, Russian writers will deliberately choose for their charactres the names of Saints that have some relevance or symbolic significance. Then it dawned on me—we had a perfect example right before us!

According to his own testimony, ‘the Martyrology and the Prologues’ were for a time Tolstoy’s ‘favorite reading’ which ‘revealed to me the meaning of life’. [2] The main ‘St Gerasim’ on the Church’s calendar is St Gerasimus of the Jordan, whom Tolstoy would have read about in these sources, and the most famous story about St Gerasimus concerns his compassion to a certain lion. Here is the brief account in the Prologue from Ochrid:

He once saw a great lion which was roaring with pain, having a thorn in its paw. Gerasim came near to it, crossed himself and pulled the thorn out. The lion was so tame that it followed the elder to the monastery and remained there until the latter’s death. When the elder died, the lion also succumbed to illness after him and died. [3]

It seems to me that there is a clear parallel between Gerasim’s act of mercy in alleviating the suffering of Ivan Ilyich, and that of St Gerasimus in alleviating the suffering of the lion. Furthermore, while the biographical details of Ivan Ilyich’s life are very different from those of his creator, his consciousness of death and existential angst over his mortality remind one of Tolstoy’s Confession. It may have been a further inducement to choose the name ‘Gerasim’ for the servant since Tolstoy’s own Christian name means ‘lion’. [4]

I have posted the account of St Gerasimus and the lion in full from the primary source—St John Moschus’s Spiritual Meadow—in this post of last year for the Saint. Western pilgrims of course confused the name ‘Gerasimos’ with ‘Ieronymos’, who had also lived in Palestine for a time, and thus in the West the lion is associated with St Jerome. [5]


[1] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Knopf, 2009), p. 88.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, Confession, tr. David Patterson (NY: Norton, 1996), p. 83.

[3] St Nicholas (Velimirovi), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, tr. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 245.

[4] I suppose one could also make a case for some sort of connection between the lion’s wailing on the death of St Gerasimus and Ivan’s wailing before his own death, but it would take some real working out.

[5] See Derwas Chitty, The Desert a City (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995), p. 90.

11 comments:

Ariston said...

I think I'm going to be reading Hegel with some other people in a private forum, but I'm unemployed, I could add Tolstoy to the list…

aaronandbrighid said...

Great! I'm unemployed too. Maybe I should add Hegel to my list!

orrologion said...

It seems to me that there is a clear parallel between Gerasim’s act of mercy in alleviating the suffering of Ivan Ilyich, and that of St Gerasimus in alleviating the suffering of the lion.

Especially so if Ivan Ilyich is taken as a cipher for Leo ("lion") Tolstoy himself.

I wish I could join you in reading War & Peace, but I'm not sure I could commit to a schedule. I've also been barred from purchasing any other books and I have a $50 late fee at the library (due to them losing a book I returned, honestly). Besides, I'm reading my own door stopper: The Gulag Archipelago. I'm only halfway through volume one (620 pages) of the three volume work.

I read some cheap version of W&P the summer after high school. I remember no one being impressed when I mentioned it my first semester in college - but they were actors, so they may not have even known what I was talking about.

Ariston said...

It could very well keep me sane to have another Orthodox person be reading "Phenomenology of Spirit" over the coming months…

aaronandbrighid said...

Okay, I can't promise I'll be much help with it, but I've got a copy and I can give it a shot. Is there a reading plan already devised?

Ariston said...

Apparently the person organizing it is supposed to get it up after his classes tonight. We're reading the A.V. Miller translation, but I'm sure whatever you have will do. I'll let you know as soon as I'm certain how I'll be reading it.

Likely, I'll end up cross-posting my long-form contributions (such as they may be) both to the group and to my blog.

Xeneteia said...

What a lovely post, Aaron! Thank you. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is one of my favorite stories and it tickles me to have this context added. I need to go back and read it again . . .

Rebecca

aaronandbrighid said...

Ariston> Yes, I have the Miller too, so no problem there. Btw, I found a nice reading schedule for it on the St John's College website.

Rebecca> Thank you for your kind words! You really ought to try to get Pevear's & Volokhonsky's translation. It's such a beautiful volume, and it has a wonderful introduction. Besides, the translators are Orthodox, so one can feel good about supporting them.

Xeneteia said...

I have already purchased P and V's translation and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. Excuses and persuasions are lost on me, I buy books without compunction :). I didn't know they were Orthodox, though, neat!

Andrea Elizabeth said...

I bought me copy at B&N yesterday as I was in the neighborhood and had 20 minutes before Vespers. I hope I can finish Crime and Punishment before yall start!

aaronandbrighid said...

Excellent, ladies! This should be fun!