“The Diary Of A Madman,” from The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy
This is an intriguing story – unfinished, by all accounts, and begging in Tolstoy’s way for lengthy elaboration. Still there’s enough her to understand what the writer intended for the story.
Tolstoy begins the story in the form of a diary – as the title implies – by having his first-person protagonist both relieved and upset by a decision just rendered by a provincial board of examiners. The subject of the decision, Fedenka, has apparently been judged sane by the examining board. He admits he’s terrified of being condemned to a madhouse, but he realizes that his assumed mental problems aren’t going to go away. He then takes the reader into backstory to flesh out his mental agitation, and Fedenka’s idea of what’s behind it.
Fedenka is apparently manic-depressive – bipolar in contemporary language, and Fedenka clearly recognizes in retrospect that this condition loomed during his early childhood. He begs his nanny, Evpraxia, to tell him her stories of Jesus Christ. Fedenka reacts to an extreme degree to the story of Jesus’ demise, the violence of it, the horror of being unfairly tortured and put to death.
Fedenka hurries through his early years, then an unhappy marriage. He and his wife have saved some money and decide to buy an estate, clearly a good buy with prospects for great dividends. As he travels to see the property, he’s hit by a state of “anguish.” A city man, he’s not previously been exposed to the life of the serfs, or Muzhiks, their hard work and comparative poverty. Once again at home, and after explaining his decision not to buy the estate to his wife, he has an epiphany.
We’re all brothers, Fedenka muses, so it would be all but evil to put himself above the Muzhiks on the estate he will not now buy. But, Fedenka also thinks, this epiphany is the beginning of his madness. He has come to some sort of spiritual state in which he realizes that the estate, the Muzhiks, even his mental condition – these things don’t exist. And so he begins to share what he has with the poor.
And so: my take follows on ethics as depicted, but in a secular way, or as much as Tolstoy might allow.
From the standpoint of Tolstoy and his era and culture, Fedenka has sought a way out of his mental agitation by realizing the inherent equality of all persons – a socio-political ethos just beginning to rear its head in Russia toward the end of the nineteenth century. That he couched his understanding in terms of faith and Christianity is also a trait of the time. This then (once again in the zeitgeist of the time) depicts literature’s ability to take a personal problem and expand it, without much in the way of distortion, to the whole of humanity. As one writing teacher once remarked to our class about such stories, “That’s huge!”
The ability of literature to take on something of a scriptural role in the secular world goes beyond a cascade of simple ethical statements. In reading this story in the context of the twenty-first century, one understands that Fedenka may be suffering a bipolar experience, but may understand (and Fedenka does, tacitly) that its basis is healable, in that it has a social basis. He’s hyper-sensitized to the imbalances in his society, and he does what one person can do regarding such imbalances – he acts with compassion toward the poor.
Too, we now understand that such sensitivity can alienate a person from the world if that person fails to understand its cause. Through proper counseling, or possibly through introspection, Fedenka can not only act with compassion toward others, he can rid himself of a typically Russian psychological trait: self-loathing.
Reading this story from two historical perspectives allows the reader to see a truth that more or less transcends culture and time, one that has the potential to further the human condition. The effect of this doesn’t have to stop with human society’s state; it can reach deeper into the consciousness at the basis of humanity. Religion and spirituality offer this, too, but their observances and practices seek absolutes – they seek to sweep people up from their human roots and take them away into assumed spiritual abstractions. But as we’ve seen over many millennia, this can often do a disservice to human nature and humanity’ evolving state of affairs.