Meaning and death.

The Death of Ivan Ilych seems like the right book to start the new year off discussing – filled as it is with meaning of life questions – the main character discovering (almost) too late that the good things in life are not measured in accolades, incomes and titles. Like Camus’ The Stranger, I found Death an impeccably written novella – the plot inwardly rather than externally motivated and yet compelling all this same. This is some very fine writing.

For the plot in brief, see the Wikipedia entry here.

What is so fine about this work, written during a period when Tolstoy had all but given up fiction and was only putting forth spiritual tracts, is how perfectly the writer encapsulates the human antipathy towards death. That is, we all know that death happens for everyone, and yet in our lifetimes we distance ourselves from the prospect of our own death, realizing too late that in refusing to consider death as an actual event we have left our lives unexamined as well. And an unexamined life? Well that’s a life likely misspent in the pursuit of things that aren’t so important.

So this is the fate of Ivan Ilych, to lie in the loneliness of death and wonder why – what is it all for, the suffering, the fact of death, the waste of so much of life’s work to end up on a couch in terrible agony awaiting the end of the pain. And only in his son does he catch a glimpse of what he hasn’t understood for most of his mortal days – that life’s meaning is in much smaller things than he has imagined. But it is only a glimpse and Tolstoy doesn’t offer anything more to Ilych before he dies.

In his own life, Tolstoy shared Ivan’s struggle with bourgeois confinement, coming to the conclusion near the end of his life that the only path to finding the meaning of life was to shrug off family and home in an attempt to live his last days in search of peace. This choice was documented a couple years ago in the film The Last Station which pulls no punches about the resultant cruelty of that decision. And it begs the question in light of all the new age encouragement to “live true to oneself”, is it possible to do this and still be responsible to our commitments like marriage and family? Is it reasonable to encourage this in a society where cash is required for survival and a failure to make one’s economic way makes them eternally reliant on family and friends? In short – what is the balance between following a path closer to the heart’s desire, the path to our own personal meaning – while still remaining in connection with family and society? And if we do figure that balance out even a little – how do we go about changing our relationships and encouraging the same in those around us?

For Tolstoy and for Ilych, this question was not answered – nor do I hear the answer in any of the modern philosophic writings which tackles these questions. Tolstoy eschews his family only to die without his long-suffering (and melodramatic) wife by his side who ultimately he cried for in his final moments. Ilych doesn’t even have the chance to make any decision except to die and leave his family in peace.

The Death of Ivan Ilych was published in 1996 and Leo Tolstoy died in 1910. It is certainly arguable that the modern social human is even further from the path of meaning and connection than those of Tolstoy’s time – with generations growing up in front of screens and the cheap gratification of empty consumerism replacing real contact with nature and community. I often wonder about this, as someone who does search for meaning and connection, what it would feel like to get to the end of a life spent mainly working and watching television, doing the occasional shopping at the mall as a highlight. I mean, would you know any better? Wouldn’t it seem like a big waste to have spent so much time in the shopping mall? Because there are people living like this. Right now.

Until Ivan Ilych is on death’s door, he doesn’t even consider there is another way to live. He lives as his society tells him he should – striving for pay raises and greater titles – keeping his family at arm’s length without really seeing them as the individuals they are, but incorporating them as props. He is focused on acquisition generally, taking the most pleasure in outfitting a new home (this possibly linked to his death as he has an accident while redecorating – banging his side, which eventually gives him great pain suggesting some internal organ damage), and rising to anger over his need for pay raises to support the lifestyle he feels he deserves. It is apparent that Ilych doesn’t give a moment’s thought to pursuing some other kind of life, so full up he is with himself and his possessions.

But we don’t blame Ilych for his short-sightedness because Tolstoy demonstrates that this is all Ilych could know of life. His closest work peers notice his death for a moment before re-focusing themselves on who is going to be promoted into the vacant position, his wife is most concerned with how to get double the pension in the wake of his death; here is Tolstoy’s condemnation – not for the individual man Ivan Ilych, but for his society as a whole. Rather than assisting each other in the pursuit of meaning, we (society) prop up each other’s delusions and empty pursuits. And thus Ilych is better off in his realization before death than the others are in the empty lives they continue on after the story ends.

Ivan Ilych echoes many tragic protaganists, but mostly I was reminded of the Book of Job in his lament – prevailing upon God for the meaning behind his suffering, questioning existence if it is to come to nothing in the end. But unlike Job, Ivan does not universalize his suffering, nor are the false friends around him shown their errors through his example.

As we head into 2012, Ivan Ilych is worth thinking about, both on a personal and a global level. What kind of life is meaningful and how do we get their? What is our suffering for if we have no impact? How do we balance personal growth with social responsibility? Is it possible to live differently not only as individuals but in community with one another. I don’t want to get to the end of my days and wonder what it was for, which is what I suspect happens to those who remain disconnected with real life. Because the days slip away quicker than we think, and it’s up to us to make the meaning in them.


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