Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich and the Meaning of Card Playing

Back to the booksI’ve written here before about a couple of my favorite Russian writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov probably wouldn’t care all that much for me coupling the two of them together in a sentence like that. Of Dostoevsky, Nabokov said he was “not a great writer, but rather a mediocre one -- with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.” He especially disliked Dostoevsky’s penchant for pathos, and I can’t say I completely disagree with him there. Of course, those of us with an interest in existentialism nevertheless tend to appreciate the various little (and large) puzzles Dostoevsky presents. (We poker players tend to like him, too, if only for The Gambler.)

Nabokov preferred Leo Tolstoy, whom he ranked as the greatest of all Russian novelists. I like Tolstoy, though I have to admit I’m probably more attracted to the manic unpredictability of some of Dostoevsky’s characters and plots. I also tend not to go for the more obvious sorts of “messages” and “morals” in some of Tolstoy’s works (esp. the later stuff), but can’t deny how compelling his stories and novels can be.

'The Death of Ivan Ilyich' by Leo TolstoyThe other day I happened to be reading back through Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (one of his later works). Not the happiest of tales, that. There Tolstoy provides a fairly comprehensive criticism of modern materialism and self-interest, having Ivan pay a (literally) painful price for having wasted his life pursuing some false idea of what he thought he was supposed to be. Actually more than a little pathos here, too.

I bring it up because I’d forgotten about a few references to card playing that come up early in the story. The opening chapter shows Ivan’s colleagues discussing his death and fretting over having to miss that night’s card game in order to attend the ceremony. Then we go back to read about Ivan’s life, illness, and eventual death, and we discover he, too, was a card player.

Soon after Ivan gets his first job as an Examining Magistrate, we are told “he began to play vint, which he found added not a little to the pleasure of life, for he had a capacity for cards, played good-humouredly, and calculated rapidly and astutely, so that he usually won.”

Vint, by the way, is a variant of bridge, although there’s no “dummy” like in bridge. (Sometimes the translator refers to the game as bridge, actually.) Was big in Russia in the 19th century, and I suppose Tolstoy is presenting card playing as yet another meaningless time-waster illustrating how empty the lives of modern men really are.

Still, playing cards does have meaning for Ivan. After he becomes ill, and then eventually comes to realize his illness is quite serious, cards become a way for Ivan to escape having to confront the idea of his own mortality. We learn that “as soon as he had any unpleasantness with his wife, any lack of success in his official work, or held bad cards at bridge, he was at once acutely sensible of his disease.”

A key moment occurs later on when we find out even playing cards doesn’t have the meaning it once did for Ivan. One evening he and some friends “sat down to cards. They dealt, bending the new cards to soften them, and he sorted the diamonds in his hand and found he had seven. His partner said ‘No trumps’ and supported him with two diamonds. What more could be wished for? It ought to be jolly and lively. They would make a grand slam.”

His joy is short-lived, however, as “suddenly Ivan was conscious of that gnawing pain, that taste in his mouth, and it seemed ridiculous that in such circumstances he should be pleased to make a grand slam.” The idea of doing well at a card game no longer means very much to Ivan -- one of several realizations he is going to have before the end of the short novel that help add up to a deathbed realization that his whole life has been “a terrible and huge deception.” He ends up misplaying his hand, and notices that his partner is upset. But he also realizes how unmoved he is by his partner’s frustration. “And it was dreadful to realize why he did not care.”

I know Tolstoy is saying something here about the relative worthlessness of card playing, but clearly the value of the activity is connected to the place it holds in a person’s life. For Ivan, it is an escape from what really matters -- i.e., his soul-crushing job, his loveless marriage, his illness. But for a lot of us, playing cards isn’t always an escape from life or the “real world” -- it is life, reality, a source of meaning and significance.

Probably wouldn’t be so good if it were the sole source of such meaning. But it ain’t so hot, either, if card playing only exists as an activity that allows us to evade the question of what our lives mean.

(For more on the topic, check out this interesting post by an online player who says he has decided to quit poker precisely because he no longer finds the game "meaningful" -- just saw this one thanks to a link from Foucault.)

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Blogger Julius_Goat said...

Complaining about pathos in 19th century Russian literature is like complaining about bad beats in poker.

That said, Dostoevsky pwns, even if I have to look up the spelling of his name every single time I write it.

But don't let's forget Chekhov

4/16/2008 11:46 AM  
Blogger Waldo's Wild Kingdom said...

That is pretty deep and niche specific for 10am...though, damn, another good post.

4/16/2008 1:05 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

Probably wouldn’t be so good if it were the sole source of such meaning. But it ain’t so hot, either, if card playing only exists as an activity that allows us to evade the question of what our lives mean.

Consider for a moment that for some people, poker is not an evasion of questioning the meaning of life. For some folks, poker gives meaning to an otherwise empty, unfulfilling life.

One of the things that has really turned me off to playing as much poker as I used to is the number of people I've run into at the virtual tables who tie their self-worth to how well they do at poker. The game's not fun for me when I'm surrounded by that kind of person, and I see a lot more of them today than I used to.

4/17/2008 4:30 PM  

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