A big moment occurs as the fiftieth page turns in Ivan Goncharov’s novel Oblomov: The main character moves from his bed to a bedside chair. That’s about the extent of the action he takes during the whole book. He is a man, applying that term’s most liberal, perhaps even strictly biological meaning, who has been ruined by a life of luxurious comfort and lack of discipline. His idle nature and tragic end would serve as a cautionary tale for today’s prime-age, nonworking male if only that population preferred nineteenth century Russian literature to video games and opioid addiction. As it happens Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, the novel’s indolent anti-hero, dies in his bed just as he lived in it. His life, bereft of industry and absent of vocation, is exactly the opposite of the Russians generals we’ve met recently in our reading.
Yesterday we spoke of Dokhturov, a little cogwheel in the Russian war machine. We left him as he dispatched an officer, Bolkhovitinov, to inform the General Staff that the French army had been located. Today Bolkhovitinov arrives at the General Staff headquarters in the dead of night. He announces himself and his charge. Konovnitsyn, the intended recipient of Dokhturov’s information, is asleep and with fever. Despite this he rises upon hearing the news. He sets to work immediately.
Konovnitsyn had understood at once that the news brought was of great importance and that no time must be lost. He did not consider or ask himself whether the news was good or bad. That did not interest him. He regarded the whole business of the war not with his intelligence or his reason but by something else. There was within him a deep unexpressed conviction that all would be well, but that one must not trust to this and still less speak about it, but must only attend to one’s own work. And he did his work, giving his whole strength to the task.
Clearly Konovnitsyn suffers from no Oblomovitis. He understands his role and fulfills it no matter the hour or his state of health. Such are the values and practices that have silently turned the tide of the war against the French. They can work for you too.
Do you exist then to take your pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Do you not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their separate parts of the universe? And are you unwilling to do the work of a human being, and do you not make haste to do that which is according to your nature?
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations