Friday, July 15, 2011


Excerpts from Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych
"It's not a question of my appendix or my kidney, but of life and...death. Yes, life was there and now it is going, going and I cannot stop it. Yes. Why deceive myself? Isn't it obvious to everyone but me that I'm dying, and that it's only a question of weeks, may happen any moment. There was light and now there's darkness. I was here and now I'm going there! Where?" A chill came over him, his breathing ceased, and he felt only the throbbing of his heart.

"When I'm not, what will there be? There'll be nothing. Then where will I be when I'm no more? Can this by dying? No, I don't want to! ...What's the use? It makes no difference. Death. Yes, death. And none of them knows or wishes to know it, and they have no pity for me. Now they are singing and playing. It's all the same to them, but they'll die too! Fools! First me, and later them, but it'll be the same for them. And now they're merry...the beasts!"

Anger choked him and he was agonizingly, unbearably miserable. "It's impossible that all men have been doomed to suffer this awful horror!"

Breathless and in despair he fell on his back, expecting death to come immediately.

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he unaccustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.

Life, a series of increasing sufferings, flies further and further towards its end - the most terrible suffering. "I'm flying..." He shuddered, shifted himself, and tried to resist, but was already aware that resistance was impossible, and again with eyes tired of gazing but unable to cease seeing before them, he stared at the back of the sofa and waited - awaiting the dreadful fall and shock and destruction.

"Resistance is impossible!" he said to himself. "If only I could understand what it's all for! But that too is impossible. An explanation would be possible if it could be said that I've not lived as I ought to. "There's no explanation! Agony, death...what for?"

The question suddenly occurred to him: "What if my whole life has been wrong?"

It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might be true after all. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which  he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. His professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and his family, all his social and official interests, might all have been false...

There was nothing to defend.

In the morning when he first saw his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor,  their every word and movement confirmed the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself - all that for which he had lived - and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.

All revealed the same thing. "This is wrong, it's not as it should be. All you've lived for and still live for is falsehood and deception, hiding life and death from you."

Prosti   Propusti

There was no fear because there was no death.

-Leo Tolstoy

I really love this short story...

To people who haven't read the whole thing, first off, I suggest you do. It's a super-short read, it's funny, it's somber, and it's interesting.

Essentially, Ivan Ilych is a guy who's sick, but he's not sure what he has, and he teeters between hope and despair as he lies on his death bed. From the excerpts above, you can tell Ivan Ilych begins to call into question the purpose of life and what it means to live a good life...

I imagine you can read about death and the afterlife in the bible and other places...but Tolstoy's version is so much more...terrifying? Satisfactory? Real? What I mean to say is that I'm not a big "pearly gates" guy, or "God is bearded dude" I found this to be a kickass piece of literature. And I don't say that often about literature.

Near the end of the story, Ivan Ilych concludes that life is an illusion. Essentially everything we do in our everyday lives simply masks the reality that one day, we're all gonna die. It could be in a couple years, months, or days, but the true, underlying reality always awaits for us.

That's what I love about this short story. Your entire life you prepare for dances, look for a better job, worry about what kind of food you're eating...but it's pretty much an illusion. It's almost as though we're all playing pretend...we're all pretending the terrible inevitable won't happen to us.

Every adult, and even most teenagers, know that at a certain point or another, we will simply cease to exist. And yet, death doesn't bother us that much. Death bothers sick people. Death bothers old people. Death bothers people who are grieving a lost life. But for most of us, death is an afterthought. We're all aware death is there, but we do everything we can to bury that reality. It's bizarre. I sometimes wonder if as a society we're all too eager to avoid thinking about death. Certainly it can't be a bad idea to prepare for our confrontations with death...after all, death is the only thing that you really get in life.

Think about it. What do you have right now that you'll have forever? Nothing. But death...death lasts a lifetime. Longer, actually.

Maybe if we were more comfortable with the idea of death, we'd able to kindly grant others the right to die. You know? That way they could go out with a little dignity, instead of being unable to move, doped up on meds, in constant pain, and crapping their pants? (By that same token, 'Death of Ivan Ilych' could be viewed as a piece which argues strongly against giving people the right to die...)

But I guess the only way to "live life" is to not think about death. Yet the only difference between you (alive) and a dead guy (adead) is that your heart is still beating, and his ain't. On a universal scale, that's not a huge difference.

Meeting Death

When Ivan finally meets death, he discovers that death is actually nothing.

It's a weird thought. We all meet death and yet none of us really meet death. In fact, you die before you meet death. The only thing you know is existence, and death is simply the absence of that existence. Death is nothingness.

I suppose it makes sense then that we're afraid of death. Death is something we don't know. In fact, death is everything we don't know. Death is the complete absence of knowledge and being... Death is the absence of knowing, feeling, thinking, and being anything at all.

What's even weirder though, is that from a theoretical standpoint, existence is actually more death than life. Time and space (the universe) are infinite. You and I, we're finite. So let's do some quick math:

Let's say you're fortunate enough to live to the ripe old age of 92 (you're looking good by the way, are you using a new moisturizer?)

The universe/time/space is infinite.

So... 92 years, divide by infinity...equals...let me see...


Life is actually the closest thing to nothingness there is! It's practically nothing. Life is essentially nothing. And death? Death actually is nothing! Or everything...depending on how you look at it.

So not only is there no death, there's actually no life! No wonder life is so scary. Life is practically nothing!

Anyway, now that that's all cleared up, I'm gonna go back to eating this bagel with cream cheese. Good night.


PS - Of course, I'm talking in macrocosms...and most people don't live, or think, on that kind of scale...but that doesn't mean it's not real. Simply because we live our day to day lives in blissful ignorance, it doesn't exclude us from the larger universal truths. The good news is though, because life is so close to being nothing, it doesn't really matter whether it has meaning or not. Life just is. is more isn't than is, but you get the idea.

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