Friday, March 19, 2010

Decorating and the Death of Ivan Ilych

While flipping through Pottery Barn Home the other day, I was suddenly reminded of Leo Tolstoy's short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It was one of those tales I read back in University that had a lasting impact on me for some reason, though perhaps not for the reasons my Professor might have hoped.

You may recall (spoiler alert!) that Ivan Ilyich dies while trying to install some new curtains in his home. You see, Ivan has a desirable, bourgeois home he has filled with the sort of objects that the upwardly mobile fantasize about. Ironically, Ivan is completely unaware that the design choices he thinks make his home unique actually render it quite common. Worse yet, these decorating decisions ultimately lead directly to his untimely death (weekend warriors: you have been warned!).

Now, when I read Ivan Ilyich back in University, it made the sort of impression on me that such stories generally have on the young (I saw Fight Club the same year and came to the same conclusion): middle-class tastes are bad, if not downright dangerous. Perhaps this is what Tolstoy was saying, perhaps not. At any rate, these days I'm a little more hesitant about passing out judgements. I said nasty things about Ikea for years after watching Fight Club; today I'm a big fan.  I might not be fully in love with Pottery Barn, but their styles are quite pleasant, and as long as your life doesn't revolve around having the latest and greatest end tables, I don't see how it's harmful.

It could be that I'm a little older and wiser, or it could be that I've simply become a little more cynical. At any rate, these days, I can't help but think that Mr. Ilyich could have died just as easily while protesting globalization, and it wouldn't have necessarily made him a better person (thought it would have rendered him a more romantic character, to be sure).

My personal theory is that Tolstoy was tired of watching decorating shows on HGTV (or whatever the 19th century Russian equivalent) with his wife, and decided to exact his revenge by penning a scathing novella.

Now, back to Pottery Barn Home: it's a beautiful book. Yes, the interiors are the sort of thing you see everywhere. They are ubiquitous, tasteful and relaxing. I was definitely inspired by the lovely photographs. As I sat picturing the changes I would like to make to my humble abode, I was reminded of our friend Ivan:
Looking at the yet unfinished drawing room he could see the fireplace, the screen, the what-not, the little chairs dotted here and there, the dishes and plates on the walls, and the bronzes, as they would be when everything was in place.--The Death of Ivan Ilyich
 We all have a little Ivan in us, don't we?


Hermes said...

Gardening catalogues have the same effect on me!

Thorsprincess said...

And Pottery Barn is sort of an imprimatur of haute bourgeois respectability--not too cutesy, kitschy--a teensy bit zen (albeit morderately upholstered). It positively reeks of respectability, and I loved sitting in its comfortable, sparingly designed leather armchairs, surveying the orderly appointments of the PB showroom, thinking how tacky my collected accretions of time and sentiment were in comparison. Alas, I am doomed to cling to memories, not possessing the requisite fortune to replace my past with carefully-chosen articles to display my quiet good taste. I may die of my decorating foibles, but I will smother in clutter or dust before I pitch headlong into a tangle of new drapery.

lotusgreen said...

i think i only have intermittent short-lived episodes of ivan-ing.

and i am reminded of all the ribbing of the ikea catalogue during the days of the aesthetic movement, with oscar wilde saying "Every day I find it harder and harder to live up to my blue china"

followed (i assume) by the cartoon here, which reads:

(aesthetic bridegroom: "it is quite consummate, is it not?"
intense bride: "it is, indeed! oh, algernon, let us live up to it!")

i can still remember feeling actual dismay at the fact that an old friend of mine had polished cotton pillows in 'earth-tones'-- this was the 70s!

and i never understand why it is that, on hgtv's 'house hunters,' everyone LOVES granite countertops, and LOVES stainless steel appliances. this confuses me.

great post.