Monday, April 14, 2014

The Death of Ivan IlychThe Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (1880s) is one of the most horrifying works of world fiction. It is a brutal, clinically precise, explicit book about the process of dying. I read it as a teenager and it shook me hard. Today, after almost 50 years, it has affected me even more, because I am now so much closer to the end. Tolstoy does a better job in describing the progression of Ivan Ilyich's mental states as the illness ravages his body than Ms. Kubler-Ross in her "On Death and Dying" (the "five-stage model of grief"). While we know that all other people die, Tolstoy shows his mastery in making the novella not about someone else's death but about me dying. And you.

The terror of dying has many facets. The first, obviously, is that with death we cease to exist. Today we are, and tomorrow we are not any more. It is perhaps the easiest aspect to bear. After all, we did not exist before our birth and somehow it was OK. All our plans, dreams, knowledge, feelings, and secrets are suddenly gone, but luckily we are not there to miss them.

Then, there is physical pain. Ivan Ilyich's illness causes him horrible pain. He screams for days on end, even on opium and morphine. But then not everybody draws the short straw; we can hope for an instantaneous death, through heart attack or being run over by a car.

Next, there is the deception. Ivan Ilyich, few weeks before his death, "saw clearly that all this was not the real thing but a dreadful deception that shut out both life and death". The doctors deceive him. His wife and children deceive him, pretending they believe he will be cured. His work colleagues pretend he is just sick and not dying.

But the most horrifying aspect of dying is how inconsequential our existence or non-existence is to other people, how irrelevant every one of us is in the big picture, and how replaceable we are. Ivan Ilyich has died, so we need to find someone else for our weekly bridge game that will proceed as if nothing has happened. While Ivan's wife talks to his friend, Pyotr Ivanovich, about her husband's agony and screams of pain, he thinks about the nasty spring in the sofa on which he sits.

Tolstoy is an extremely sharp observer of human psychology and behavior. Just one example: Ivan sees that "the awesome, terrifying act of his dying had been degraded by those about him to the level of a chance unpleasantness, a bit of unseemly behavior (they reacted to him as they would to a man who emitted a foul odor on entering a drawing room)".

This 19th century masterpiece is totally up-to-date in the 21st century. We are still in the business of dying.

Five stars.

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