Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy


The Death of Ivan Ilych is a complicated conglomeration of personal images, especially when one has insight into the author's life. It seems to me that the main argument Tolstoy is making is that the normal, comfortable, "respectable" urban life to which so many aspire can be a very hollow one, unless the individual is being "assertively conscious" of how he or she is living and proactive with regard to making meaningful and life affirming choices whenever possible.

"Having it all" is not really that, unless one is concerned with more than appearances, income, and the respect of his or her peers. One can collect things, respectable acquaintances, a nice home, a good job, and can still be empty. One can live an entire lifetime without ever really living. The dichotomy is that sometimes, those who are the most in the moment, may live in a state of relative misery, experiencing true need and a sense of lack, without ever gaining the respect, or even the notice of others in their community. 

The only real hero in this story, if there is one, is Gerasim. He is the only one of whom we can say, "what you see is what you get." He is sincere, he is unassuming, and he is sympathetic. He does not act kindly out of a merely altruistic selflessness, he is helpful and friendly because he realizes that he too is mortal, and he has the hope that when he is dying, he will be shown the same kindness. Gerasim is the most human character in the story, and he is also, arguably, the "lowest" character in the eyes of urban society.

There is a sadness related to this reality: that in order to attain comfort and to warrant respect, some may find that they have to sacrifice their souls on the altar of the status-quo. But if one were able to stand outside the microcosm of their daily reality, and look into the snow-globe from the outside, one might see that living simply, and being true to basic human instincts, emotions, and sympathies is the finest example of success that nature affords us, regardless of what our business-minded society says with regard to rank, status, and material wealth.

We're all in the same boat in many ways, or perhaps in many boats on the same river. I think that what Tolstoy is saying in The Death of Ivan Ilych is, "be aware of the river; if you choose to go with the flow, don't do so absentmindedly." Look around! See! Act! We all die. Live now. Be ready.