Being-Toward-Death in Tolstoj’s The Death of Ivan Il′ič

The impetus of the paper is Heidegger’s “Tolstoj footnote” in Being and Time which, in spite of its brevity, seems to amount to Heidegger’s recognition of Tolstoj’s successful comprehension of the question of death. The Tolstoj-Heidegger connection has remained insufficiently addressed in both Slavic study and philosophy, unexpectedly against the immense significance of the two authors. As a result, the grounds of Heidegger’s recognition of Tolstoj have remained unclarified. The present paper tries to address this lacuna by mounting an endeavor to unpack the Tolstoj footnote of Heidegger and thereby speak to the Tolstoj-Heidegger connection.

What the paper proposes in this regard is a reading of Tolstoj’s The Death of Ivan Il′ič from the standpoint of the concept of death, the central problematique of the work, while the point of reference in the process is Heideggerian. The paper is organized in three parts. Part one is an analysis of Tolstoj’s implied conception of death. The centerpiece of this conception is what might be considered as Tolstoj’s main discovery: the incompatibility of the logic of everyday life and the logic of death-aware life. It is this irreconcilable discrepancy that motivates and fuels Tolstoj’s critique of everydayness. As a result, two undelineated, yet well discernible, models of existence emerge, which may be adequately captured by Heidegger’s vocabulary of inauthentic and authentic existence. Part two of the paper presents a brief clarification of Heidegger’s concept of inauthentic and authentic understanding of death, as well as inauthentic and authentic existence. And finally, part three brings together Tolstoj’s and Heidegger’s perspectives, with the main purpose of highlighting their similarities and differences, already prepared by, and touched upon in, the two preceding parts of the paper.

The result of the entire analysis is that Tolstoj, in The Death of Ivan Il′ič, has succeeded in anticipating the main features of what Heidegger calls the authentic understanding of death, even if Heidegger himself would not and did not go as far as granting to Tolstoj this much. And while it would be indeed problematic, on a variety of counts, to claim that Tolstoj constitutes a precedence to Heidegger’s existential analytic, the comparison should underscore, however, and make conspicuous Tolstoj’s merits as regards his subtle, highly original, and in many ways precocious fashion of relating to the question of death. The entire analysis of the paper warrants the conclusion that it is Tolstoj’s highly sophisticated understanding of death that maintains readers’ interest to this particular work as important today even on philosophical, not only on artistic grounds. To that effect, Heidegger’s interpretation of death mediates and accommodates Tolstoj’s philosophical relevance, for it may be viewed as both an inadvertent elucidation of it and an incentive to its re-appropriation. Now, this is a possible version of what could be retrieved from the reticence of Heidegger’s footnote.